Top 100 NFL Quarterbacks of the 21st Century: Part III (71-51)

Including the playoffs, there are 100 NFL quarterbacks who have started at least 30 games in the last 20 seasons (2001-20). In part I, I began to rank these quarterbacks from No. 100 to No. 87, looking at the worst of the bunch. In part II, I looked at some more serviceable players ranked from No. 86 to No. 72 who may have had one special season in their career.

Part I (#100-87)

Part II (#86-72)

Now we are getting into more players who may have been multi-season starters, but they were usually just average or decent quarterbacks.

71. Jason Campbell

When it comes to first-round picks, someone has to be that line between a success and a bust. Jason Campbell is a great example of what an average first-round quarterback would look like. On this list of 100 quarterbacks, he ranks 62nd in passer rating (81.6) and 73rd in YPA (6.69). With Washington (2005-09) and Oakland (2010-11), he was never a top 10 quarterback, but he was probably never a bottom 10 quarterback either.

He led the NFL in lowest interception rate in 2008, which is not as impressive as it sounds. He threw a career-high 20 touchdowns in 2009, but Washington finished 4-12 that year. He actually had a winning record (11-7) as Oakland’s starter, but the team still moved forward with a Carson Palmer trade in 2011 after Campbell broke his collarbone. Health was never really on his side. Washington made the playoffs in 2007 after Todd Collins took over for an injured Campbell (knee) in December.

Campbell is on a short list of quarterbacks who had a losing record when he threw multiple touchdown passes in a game. He was 10-13, and I certainly remember when he should have beaten the undefeated 2009 Saints before his kicker missed a chipshot, and the 2013 Patriots when he was with Cleveland was another blown opportunity after the Patriots recovered an onside kick. Campbell was 1-3 when he threw three touchdown passes and those were two of the losses. He made 79 starts but those are really the games that I think about.

70. Brian Griese

Since this is looking back to 2001, it just misses his peak season in 2000 with the Broncos when he threw 19 touchdowns to four picks. He would be a little higher if I included that, but it really was an outlier for him since Griese threw 100 touchdowns to 95 picks in the rest of his career combined. He never stayed healthy enough to finish a 16-game season and never played in the postseason.

69. Byron Leftwich

He had a nice quote in 2012. “I’m not a slow quarterback. I’m just the slowest black quarterback.” Yep, the way I remember Leftwich now is that he was just never as good as David Garrard, his more mobile backup and eventual replacement in Jacksonville. Leftwich had some fun comebacks in those 2004-05 seasons and gave the Colts hell a few times, but he never passed for 3,000 yards or more than 15 touchdowns in a season. He also peaked in 2005 and never recovered as a starter after Garrard took his job.

68. Jay Fiedler

Imagine if the Dolphins could have given Dan Marino the defenses that Fiedler had. He went 25-12 as a starter in 2001-03 and Miami somehow turned that into a single wild card loss, missing the playoffs in the other two years. Fielder needed his share of coddling as a limited passer, but he was 5-10 (.333) as a starter when his teams allowed more than 21 points. That is better than the records I usually post with that stat.

67. Vince Young

If Vince Young had Lamar Jackson’s passing skills, he could have been that kind of quarterback in his day. If Jackson had Young’s killer instinct, then he would be damn near unstoppable. In many ways, Young was a precursor to Tim Tebow. They were highly successful college quarterbacks who were struggling passers in the NFL, but if you managed the game and kept it close for them, they can put a team on their back and pull out the win. The fact that Young had a 99-yard game-winning drive against a Matt Leinart-led team in 2009 is just football poetry. That was definitely the most impressive of Young’s 13 game-winning drives in just 61 games.

Young put on a show in the greatest college football game I’ve ever seen, but I was never really buying him as an NFL player. Again, had he come out now in a league where Jackson has rushed for 1,200 yards, then maybe a team could have used him differently. But as a passer, he was never a big threat. Young got to two Pro Bowls before Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers did. It would be hard to name a quarterback with two Pro Bowls he was less deserving of than Young, who threw for a combined 4,078 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2006 and 2009.

But with Michael Vick in prison for dogfighting, Daunte Culpepper shredding his knee, and Donovan McNabb bulking up in Philly, Young filled that late 2000s void of a dynamic rushing quarterback. While the “Dream Team” (2011 Eagles) is a good representation of how things surrounding Young never lived up to the hype, you cannot say he was a bust. He just helped pave the way for better passers who can run to come along.

66. Mitchell Trubisky

Oof, if you are reading this chronologically, then that Vince Young line is not the segue I would have wanted for this Son of a Mitch. Trubisky is a tough case, but is he really that out of place when we recently had Blake Bortles and Mark Sanchez? This is his tier.

Trubisky made the Pro Bowl in 2018 with a season that seemed like he was on the right path. Was it pretty from a passing accuracy standpoint? Not necessarily, but he had some decent numbers, decent games, and he was a fun scrambler, which really boosted his QBR. He also should have won a playoff game, but we know what Chicago kickers do. He is 29-23 as a starter with two playoff appearances, but last year’s was a gift as a No. 7 seed with an 8-8 record. Trubisky padded his stats on play-action against lousy defenses late in the year before leading the most irrelevant 99-yard touchdown drive in playoff history in a loss to the Saints.

Now he’s in Buffalo, so he has gone from “Mobile Rex Grossman” to “Josh Allen’s Inferior Cousin.” But no matter where he goes, he will always be the guy who was drafted ahead of Patrick Mahomes.

65. Kyle Orton

If you combined Trubisky’s legs with Kyle Orton’s neck beard, then we might have a quarterback worth something. Orton had that laughably bad rookie season when Chicago’s defense carried him to 10 wins, but he actually developed into a decent passer and got to showcase that in Denver under Josh McDaniels of all people. Who can forget the 6-0 start in 2009 before the shit hit the fan? But Orton was solid throughout and he even helped the lowly Chiefs beat the 13-0 Packers in 2011. He also beat the 2014 Packers with Buffalo, though that was about the defense that day.

If he had that Buffalo defense in Denver, we would be saying the Broncos clearly won that trade involving Jay Cutler.

64. Josh Freeman

Maybe let this be a lesson for declaring victory too soon on young quarterbacks, because after the 2010 season, it sure looked like Josh Freeman, the third quarterback off the board in the 2009 class after Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez, was the best choice. Sanchez had the benefit of a great defense while Stafford was always getting hurt early on in Detroit. Freeman made so many of the improvements you’d like to see in that second season, even leading Tampa Bay to 10-6, a win total the team would not see again for a decade. Freeman finished No. 7 in QBR that year, right between the two Super Bowl quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger.

But Freeman regressed in 2011 and by his fourth season, the defense was too ineffective for this to be a winning team. Greg Schiano was also a poor hire as head coach in 2012. By 2013, things soured in the locker room with rumors of Freeman being a coke addict and the week he lost his captainship. The Buccaneers simply cut him. We ended up watching Freeman complete 20-of-53 passes on Monday Night Football with a Vikings team he just joined in a strange game against the Giants. That could have been one of the weirdest final starts to a career, but he ended up starting one late-season game for the Colts in 2015.

Was it a substance abuse problem that ruined his career? Maybe, but we’ll let his career serve as a cautionary tale.

63. Kordell Stewart

The Steelers suffered through three rough, non-playoff years by Stewart before he rebounded in 2001 with a 13-3 season and second AFC Championship Game appearance. It seemed like he finally got on track as a passer, hitting 60% completions and 7.0 YPA for the first time in his career. He was the AFC Offensive Player of the Month in December. He cut his interceptions down to a career-low rate and he even earned an MVP vote.

Then the playoffs came, and it was like 1997 all over again. A so-so performance was covered up by a strong defensive outing against Baltimore. But against the Patriots, Stewart threw three picks at home just like he did against Denver in that title game loss. The Steelers lost 24-17, setting the NFL on a much different path.

In 2002, Stewart struggled for three games before losing his job to Tommy Maddox. That ended his time in Pittsburgh. He had a forgettable stint with the Bears and soon retired. “Slash” brought a lot of excitement to the Steelers in 1997 and 2001, but he was one of the last guys you would ever want to start a playoff game.

62. Drew Bledsoe

Speaking of terrible playoff performers, it’s Drew Bledsoe, everybody. He was the quarterback who just managed the game in that 2001 AFC Championship Game after Tom Brady left injured. Of course, it was Bledsoe’s injury earlier that season that gave way to Brady, a good argument for it being the most consequential player injury in NFL history, if not all of sports.

Bledsoe peaked in the 90s. In this period of 2001-06, he was 35-37 as a starter, had good initial years with Buffalo (2002) and Dallas (2005), but neither resulted in a playoff berth nor ended on good terms. He had that embarrassing loss to Pittsburgh’s backups in Week 17 with the playoffs on the line in his final game in Buffalo. He lost his job to someone named Tony Romo in 2006, and just like that, the rest is history.

People thought Bledsoe could play for more years and challenge some of the passing records since he was such a volume passer, but he had enough and was done after his age-34 season. Let’s just say I was never a fan.

61. Aaron Brooks

There was a time when Brett Favre’s backups in Green Bay went on to be good starters around the league. Ty Detmer was not necessarily good, but he did leave Green Bay for a playoff season with the Eagles. Mark Brunell had good success in Jacksonville, Matt Hasselbeck later had a great run with the Seahawks, but there was also Aaron Brooks, a fourth-round pick in 1999.

Brooks took over late in the season as New Orleans’ starting quarterback. He posted what would be the best efficiency numbers of his career in a small sample size and led the Saints to their first playoff win in franchise history by throwing four touchdowns against the Rams.

Unfortunately, that was the peak for Brooks. Over the next four seasons, he threw for over 3,500 yards and 21-to-27 touchdowns with decent passer ratings for the era. But he had his share of meltdowns and usually threw 15-plus picks too. The Saints were always a game within .500 and never made the playoffs again. Then Hurricane Katrina happened in 2005 and the team was displaced from its home for the season, and Brooks played terribly. He was even worse in Oakland, going 0-8 as a starter in 2006 before retiring.

His backwards pass against the 2004 Chargers will live in infamy.

60. Matt Cassel

The one I call the “High School QB.” It is a wonder that the Patriots ever drafted Cassel in the seventh round in 2005 seeing as how he threw just 33 passes with USC after sitting behind Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. Granted, that explains why he did not play in those years, but it makes you wonder how such a backup ever got on a team’s draft board. He could have easily just been an undrafted free agent.

Come 2008, Cassel got his chance after Tom Brady tore his ACL early in Week 1. The Patriots won with Cassel and started him the rest of the season, his first starts since high school. By season’s end, he led the offense to 400 points, the most first downs in the league, he finished ninth in QBR, and New England won 11 games, which were not enough for the playoffs for only the second time in the wild card era.

My favorite Cassel stat is that he had back-to-back 400-yard passing games that season. Brady had just one 400-yard game in his first 11 seasons combined. Pretty good for a high school system QB.

When Cassel went to Kansas City in 2009, he fell flat on his face in a terrible year. But he did rebound in 2010 and made a Pro Bowl after Todd Haley brought in former Brady coordinator Charlie Weis to call the offense. Then when Weis took a college coaching job late in the season, Cassel faceplanted again and lost 30-7 to the Ravens in his only playoff start. He continued to play his way out of Kansas City before having a mediocre season with the Vikings in 2013.

Not a bad career at all for a seventh-round pick, but definitely a system player. As his career also shows, some systems are better than others.

59. Robert Griffin III

This is a tricky one since I spent much of the 2012 season and offseason writing how Griffin was not the best rookie quarterback that year despite winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. I was much higher on Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson since I thought their success was more impressive and sustainable. However, I must acknowledge that Griffin had one of the better rookie years ever, and he won a division title for a dysfunctional Washington franchise that has been the most joyless, soul-sucking NFL team in the salary cap era.

That team also probably ruined his career. I think he could have had a better career if Mike Shanahan and his staff did not commit coaching malpractice and played him on an injured knee in the playoffs against Seattle, which he re-injured and was clearly ineffective on during the game. Griffin tried again in 2013 and 2014, but he was never the same quarterback as that rookie year.

Again, like with Vince Young, Griffin may have arrived a few years too early before the league has moved towards more RPOs and letting quarterbacks run college-style offenses and use their athleticism to make plays. Maybe Griffin was never going to live up to the draft hype, but I think this is one of those rare cases where you can cite injuries as a rookie as the main cause for a disappointing career.

58. Tyrod Taylor

As a sixth-round pick by the Ravens, Taylor was a Mr. August in the preseason who waited patiently for his shot at a starting job. He took on the task of getting Buffalo back to the playoffs in 2015 and had three solid years there, ultimately reaching the playoffs in that final season despite his coach’s attempt to replace him with Nathan Peterman. That playoff game went poorly, a 10-3 loss against Jacksonville’s tough defense.

Taylor certainly protects the ball well, having never thrown more than six picks in a season. But there were diminishing returns in Buffalo as his QBR decreased each season. The team rightfully moved on with Josh Allen in 2018. Taylor was supposed to be a stopgap for Baker Mayfield in Cleveland and Justin Herbert in Los Angeles, but his stints were short-lived for health reasons, including that ridiculous scene last year when his team doctor punctured his lung with an injection shot before the Week 2 game with the Chiefs.

I honestly believe Taylor could lead a stacked team to a Super Bowl. Before you call me crazy, did you forget that three-year run in the NFC where Nick Foles (Eagles), Jared Goff (Rams), and Jimmy Garoppolo (49ers) got there on stacked teams? Unfortunately, Taylor could now be stepping in to replace this Deshaun Watson mess in Houston, a terribly dysfunctional franchise.

57. Kyler Murray

It is still a bit early for me to know exactly how I feel about Murray in Arizona, so this high placement is probably a hedge on future success. I am encouraged, but I am not feeling overly confident about him being a franchise player.

He just had an impressive dual-threat season, but I still want to see more improvement before I go all in on him.

56. Marcus Mariota

Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota? That was the question of the 2015 draft, but all I remember saying is that you really hope a quarterback who threw 105 touchdowns to 14 picks with 9.3 YPA in college turns out great in the pros. Mariota’s very first game in the NFL was against Winston’s Buccaneers too, and he had a perfect passer rating with four touchdowns on 13-of-15 passing, the best start you can ask for.

It would be a lie to say it was all downhill from there, but it never got to the point you wanted to see from the No. 2 pick in the draft. Mariota showed a lot of promise with 26 touchdowns in his second season, but he ended up throwing more picks (15) than touchdowns (13) in his third season. The Titans still made the playoffs as they were stuck on their 9-7 run, and they even beat the Chiefs in what I call the Forward Progress Game where the Titans got multiple favorable whistles. But Mariota was only 30-33 as a starter and lost his job to Ryan Tannehill in 2019, who took the team to new heights.

Starting in 2018, Mariota was turning into a sack machine with a sack rate of 12.0%. He could pad some stats with dink-and-dunk throws, but the offense was just not working out. He was impressive in his lone game with the Raiders last year, coming off the bench for an injured Derek Carr and taking the Chargers to overtime. We likely have not seen the last of Mariota as a starter, but when it comes to who won the 2015 draft, the answer really is neither team.

55. Jameis Winston

I almost had the gall to sandwich Matt Cassel in between Mariota and Winston but decided against it at the last minute. Replacing Drew Brees in New Orleans is a huge opportunity for Winston to show what he’s made of, especially with his LASIK-improved vision in a Sean Payton offense. But right now, we just have his five years with Tampa Bay where he was 28-42 as a starter to go on.

He was certainly a prolific yardage machine there. He is the first QB ever to throw for 450 yards in consecutive games. Throwing 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the same season is something I did not think I would see in this game. It speaks to the good and the bad of Winston, which has yet to really balance out for a great season by him, but he also does not have what I’d call a poor season on his resume.

Winston’s 7.72 YPA is the ninth highest on this list. There have always been interesting stats to find on him.

I am excited to see what happens this year as Winston could be the wild card of the 2021 season, but I hope this guy eats some more W’s.

54. Mark Brunell

Amusing stat: Mark Brunell had a nine-year streak of seasons where his passer rating ranged from 82.0 to 92.0. No other QB in NFL history had such a streak longer than four seasons (min. 50 attempts). That is some applaudable above-average consistency. Unfortunately, most of that streak came prior to 2001. After that time, Brunell had a couple decent seasons with Jacksonville that did not reach his 90s peak, so the team replaced him with Byron Leftwich.

But in 2005, Santana Moss joined Brunell in Washington and the duo had a very impressive season together, including one of the greatest comebacks I’ve ever seen. That led to the playoffs where Brunell had one of the worst playoff wins I’ve ever seen, and I’ll never forget it since I was sitting in a frozen room in a hoody because the furnace broke that weekend.

Brunell never achieved anything after that 2005 season but doing anything that makes Washington notable is a big plus in my book.

53. Kerry Collins

I stand by the belief that Kerry Collins is the worst 40,000-yard passer in NFL history. But the truth is you still have to be somewhat decent to even play long enough to hit that mark. Collins had some fine moments in his career, and his only 4,000-yard season in 2002 with the Giants should have led to a playoff win in San Francisco before his defense and special teams botched that one.

It still blows my mind that a team with Collins at quarterback and Jeff Fisher as head coach was 10-0 and finished as the No. 1 seed in 2008, but that happened. Collins was also not that bad in the one-and-done playoff loss to a tough Baltimore defense. His skill players lost multiple fumbles.

The standards at the position have changed so much that I do not think Collins would last long in the league if he played today at his level. He also had some immaturity and locker room issues early on that would not fly in today’s social climate. I feel like this ranking is pretty generous, though we are still about 20 quarterbacks away from the tier where I start considering these players to be good and reliable.

52. Teddy Bridgewater

I was definitely Team Teddy in that 2014 draft. I thought he should have been a higher pick and I liked him over Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, and Derek Carr. The football gods were less supportive. Bridgewater lost his only playoff game to the 2015 Seahawks after Blair Walsh choked on a short field goal, then he suffered a gruesome knee injury prior to the 2016 season.

It is impressive to see him resume his playing career, and he did some good things for the Saints (2019) and Panthers (2020). But it feels like there has always been this ceiling on his game that prevents him from ever taking the next step. He plays way too safe for my liking. Bridgewater has three seasons where he threw at least 400 passes, and he threw 14 or 15 touchdowns in all of them. That’s not enough in this era.

After updating my stats, I am curious to see if this is the year where Teddy falters badly against the spread with Denver seeing as how he has covered over 70% of the time as a starter. You know the drill. That is a signal to bet the other way as the regression is coming. Going to Denver did not work out well for our last quarterback in part III.

51. Case Keenum

If you have followed me religiously on Twitter for years, then you may recall that there was a user in 2016 who I dubbed “White Dude with Dreads” and he was in love with Case Keenum. This was a season where Keenum finished last in QBR, though teammate rookie Jared Goff would have been even worse if he qualified after taking over for Keenum. But this dude would bash Jeff Fisher and everyone with the Rams while praising Keenum for everything. It was all very amusing to me.

Back when I used to actually watch college football on a weekly basis, I liked catching Keenum games with Houston. He was one of those system quarterbacks in the run-and-shoot offense that put up such prolific numbers, but he looked different than a Timmy Chang or Colt Brennan or Graham Harrell. Like you could actually see this guy releasing the ball quickly and having success in the pros. Keenum had six 500-yard games and even threw nine touchdowns in one game before.

He got to stay in Houston after joining the Texans as an undrafted free agent. He even started the back half of the 2013 season after Matt Schaub’s career imploded there. Keenum finished 0-8 as a starter but definitely played winning football in a few of those games. I was happy to see him have some success after getting an opportunity in the NFL. But with the Rams, I was not seeing much to like from Keenum anymore. He threw four picks in London against the Giants, and that started a three-game streak where he failed to lead the team to more than 10 points, which gave way to the Goff era.

Keenum went to Minnesota to back up often-injured starter Sam Bradford. Sure enough, Bradford’s knee was an issue after just one game, thrusting Keenum into the starting job against Pittsburgh in Week 2. The Steelers won that game 26-9 and I was not impressed with Keenum. A few weeks later, Keenum replaced Bradford for good after Sam’s knee made it impossible for him to play. Little did I expect Keenum to go on one of the greatest outlier, one-year-wonder, flash-in-the-pan, call it what you will seasons in NFL history.

The Vikings finished 11-1 in the last dozen regular season games with Keenum completing 69.3% of his passes with a 99.3 passer rating. It was an awful year for quarterbacks getting injured (Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer, Ryan Tannehill, Carson Wentz, etc.), and that certainly helped Keenum in the rankings, but he still finished No. 1 in DVOA and No. 2 in QBR. The White Dude with Dreads had already moved on to politics and fighting the good fight against MAGA, but he had to be ecstatic about this unexpected development.

Then the playoffs happened. The Minneapolis Miracle to Stefon Diggs was a fortunate missed tackle that gave Keenum his first and only playoff win, but that happened. It seemed like the Vikings were destined to host the Super Bowl in their home stadium, but maybe I forgot the history of the Vikings that year. In the NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia, Keenum threw a pick-six early that changed the complexion of the game and set off a 38-7 rout.

Even the Vikings had to suspect there was some fool’s gold hidden in that 2017 season, so Keenum was not re-signed and went to Denver while Minnesota made a move for Kirk Cousins. Keenum threw for a career-high 3,890 yards in 2018 with the Broncos, but the team finished 6-10. He was also 1-7 as Washington’s starter in 2019. Now he is Baker Mayfield’s backup in Cleveland.

So, now you know my favorite “One-year Wonder/Crazy Unexpected Peak Year” in the 21st century. We are not quite done with the one-year wonders, but I need another break before getting into this top 50. I already managed to go over 11,000 words with the first 50, so this is taking on more of a time commitment than I expected, but I hope you are enjoying these trips down memory lane.

Part I (#100-87)

Part II (#86-72)

NFL 2020 Wild Card Sunday Previews

If one triple-header of NFL playoff action is not enough, we get two this year with Ravens-Titans looking like the highlight of the weekend on paper. All three games on Sunday are rematches from earlier this season, including two games that went to overtime.

That led me to a little digging. What happens in a playoff rematch from a game that went to overtime? I found all 17 examples since 1990. The team that won in overtime is 11-6 in the playoff rematch, so maybe that is good news for the Titans and Saints this weekend despite the Titans being an underdog again.

Click here for my three previews of Saturday’s games.

Ravens at Titans (+3)

BAL OFFENSE VS. TEN DEFENSE

I think this is a great, almost necessary matchup for the Ravens to get over the hump in the postseason. Last year, I wrote a rather prescient preview for how the Titans could pull off the upset in Baltimore, noting some potential rust for the rested Ravens, dropped passes on key downs, maybe a tipped interception, and Ryan Tannehill hitting a deep ball to open an early lead. All of those things happened, and the Ravens were down 14-0 quickly before losing 28-12. Lamar Jackson set an NFL record with 83 total plays (passes/sacks/runs) in that game, but it only led to a career-low 12 points for his Ravens.

In fact, Jackson has led the Ravens to at least 20 points in 36 of his 39 career starts, but only 17 and 12 points in his two home playoff losses. If the Bills and Steelers win this week, Jackson could be starting this postseason run against Tennessee and Kansas City, two teams he is 0-5 against so far.

So if this is going to be a revenge tour, then it sets up nicely. Baltimore is 5-0 since Jackson returned from his COVID-19 diagnosis. The competition has not been strong, but Jackson is back to efficient passing (8.09 YPA, 11 TD, 3 INT) and he’s rushing for 86 yards a game at 7.68 YPC. Baltimore has been lighting up the scoreboard and finished a second straight season with the highest scoring differential (+165) in the league. The 2020 Ravens are the 10th team since the merger to win at least nine games by 14+ points. The ninth team to do it was Baltimore a year ago.

You cannot be in this historic company and go one-and-done to Mike Vrabel two years in a row. Drawing the Tennessee defense is a dream for Jackson. Here is where the Titans rank in 2020 (asterisk denotes worst among playoff teams this year):

  • 27th in points per drive allowed*
  • 30th in yards per drive allowed*
  • 30th in touchdowns per drive allowed*
  • 29th in forcing three-and-out drives*
  • 25th in yards per play allowed*
  • 30th in first downs allowed*
  • 22nd in net yards per pass attempt*
  • 32nd in sack rate*
  • 31st in pressure rate*
  • 32nd in third down conversion rate* (worst since 1991)
  • 7th in takeaways per drive
  • 30th in red zone touchdown rate

Tennessee is the worst defense in the playoffs, and yes, that third down conversion rate of 51.9% is the worst season mark since the stat started being tracked in 1991. They’re the only team over 50%.

Turnovers are about the only way the Titans can do well on defense in this matchup, but Baltimore’s offense has only turned it over multiple times in three games this season, and two of those were against the Steelers.

In the Week 11 meeting, won 30-24 in overtime by Tennessee, the Ravens were 9/15 on third down with one interception on 10 drives. The problem was in the red zone where the Ravens were 1-for-4 at scoring touchdowns, including a late field goal to force overtime where a touchdown likely would have won the game. What happened in the playoff upset a year ago? Again, the Ravens were 1-for-4 in the red zone. They have to do better down there, but lately the Ravens have been scoring at will on teams.

Baltimore is coming off only the second 400-yard rushing game in the NFL in the last 60 years. We know the Ravens are going to run the ball well in this game, but to fully take advantage of this poor Tennessee defense, Jackson will have to throw well too.

I think he can do it this time. If not, then the Ravens will have taken two seasons where they outscored opponents by 414 points and turned it into zero playoff wins.

TEN OFFENSE VS. BAL DEFENSE

Given my takedown of the Tennessee defense, I better give a lot of credit to the offense for this 11-5 record. That’s easy to do. Ryan Tannehill proved 2019 was not just a fluke as he finished with the best full season of his career in leading one of the league’s top offenses. Derrick Henry rushed for 2,027 yards as he is practically on a one-man mission to prove that running backs matter, or at least they do in Tennessee. I think I would vote for him as the Offensive Player of the Year. Corey Davis even had a career year and A.J. Brown is still very good.

Tennessee’s excellent 6-1 record in close games is almost due entirely to the offense this year. Tannehill led the league in comebacks (five) and game-winning drives (six) with Henry scoring two game-winning touchdown runs in overtime games. The only failed comeback was against Pittsburgh after Stephen Gostkowski missed a makeable field goal that would have forced overtime.

In the Week 11 meeting in Baltimore, both teams looked offensively challenged at the half. Jackson had 54 yards passing, Tannehill had 42 yards passing, and Henry only had 13 carries for 37 yards. But the Titans are so committed to sticking with their formula of a play-action attack and feeding Henry that they turned things around and won that game with 30 points. Tannehill finished with 259 yards and Henry rushed for 133 yards, saving his 29-yard burst for overtime to win the game.

The Titans have to be thinking at least 30 points in this one again to win it, which isn’t out of question when the team has scored as much in 10 of the 16 games this season. The Titans are 2-4 when they don’t score 30 points this season.

Baltimore actually finished the season No. 2 in points allowed, but that involved a lot of feasting on putrid offenses this year, including six points in two games against the Bengals. We’ve seen the Ravens allow 30 to Tennessee, 34 to Kansas City, and the Browns lost that 47-42 game on a Monday night that I would deem the Game of the Year.

I think a top offense can score well on the Ravens this year.

I like both offenses in this game and apparently so does Vegas as the game has a total of 54.5 points. What it comes down to for me is that the Tennessee defense is so bad, and there is also a big gap in special teams as well between these teams. The Ravens are No. 2 in DVOA while the Titans are 28th. We have already seen special teams almost cost the Titans a win on opening night against Denver, Gostkowski screwed them over against the Steelers, and they had the worst game (aside from Chargers-Patriots) on special teams this season against the Colts in a loss at home.

FiveThirtyEight sees this as the most even game of the weekend with the Ravens at 57% to win and an Elo point spread of -2. I can buy that given Baltimore’s past struggles in big games and against a team that can score in bunches.

The whole “Ravens are the team no one wants to play” thing is usually just hype, but I actually believe it this time for Baltimore. I wouldn’t want to play this team right now even if I was Buffalo, Pittsburgh, or Kansas City. That doesn’t necessarily mean I am picking the Ravens to go all the way this year, but the way they can run the ball is just something you don’t have to deal with when you play other teams. Henry is great and will probably go for over 100 again, but chances are the Ravens as a team will outrush him and win this game. So that is where I am going with this one.

Final: Ravens 31, Titans 24

Bears at Saints (-10)

So in the very first year of the new playoff format, we had a Chicago team back into the No. 7 seed with an 8-8 record (thanks, Kliff), and a 12-4 Saints team that had a very nice season has to play them instead of enjoying a bye as they would have in the past. Cool.

My new playoff contempt aside, I guess it’s not the worst matchup in the world, and the 10-point spread is interesting. I’ll just say it would be a damn shame if the final game of Drew Brees’ career was a home playoff loss to Mitchell Trubisky and an 8-8 No. 7 seed. FiveThirtyEight sees this as the blowout of the week with the Saints at 85% win probability and Elo spread of -12. I think it could be closer than that. The Saints are not exactly known for easy playoff wins.

I watched a lot of the Week 8 meeting in Chicago live. The Saints were down 13-3 early, didn’t have their wideouts (not even Emmanuel Sanders), Brees ended up throwing a touchdown pass to Taysom Hill that put the Saints up 10 in the fourth quarter, but Nick Foles still forced overtime and even had a chance to win the game. But the Saints pulled through with a 26-23 win. It was probably the best game Foles had this year for the Bears, and as good as any game offensively for the team through 10 weeks before the bye.

Now the Bears are here with Trubisky, who has started the last six games. The Bears started this run by scoring at least 25 points in each game, a streak this team had not seen since the 1995 season with Erik Kramer. Was Trubisky great in this stretch? No, but it is clear he was better than what Foles was giving Matt Nagy and what Trubisky was doing at the start of the season. Running back David Montgomery has especially blown up with 99.7 rushing yards per game and 5.16 YPC over the last six games. That is quite the change for a guy who averaged 54.4 yards and 3.65 YPC in his first 25 games. Then Allen Robinson is still excellent, Jimmy Graham has started catching touchdowns again, and Darnell Mooney can get open. It is not an offense without talent. The results were just terrible for most of this season.

Then Sunday against Green Bay happened. The Bears moved the ball somewhat well, but only finished with 16 points after going 1-for-5 in the red zone. The offense also had two turnovers that set up the Packers for touchdown drives inside the 26-yard line. That was a bummer performance to end the regular season, but thanks to Arizona’s late-season collapse, the Bears are still in this tournament.

I am naturally skeptical of Trubisky given his full history. I thought he played terrible in the first Green Bay game and padded his stats in garbage time. He was much better against Detroit and Houston, but those are two of the most horrific defenses in a season filled with bad defenses. Minnesota and Jacksonville were not much better this year. Then it was Green Bay again and I noticed Trubisky had a really high completion percentage deep into the game, but not a lot of yards or points from it. Then I realized he completed 70.1% of his passes during these last six games and almost 74% over the last five games, which is uncharacteristic for him.

When I also noticed the Bears tried to convert six fourth downs against the Packers (they got five of them but not the crucial one in fourth quarter), that made me think about failed completions. Those are the plays where you complete a pass, but it doesn’t gain at least 45% of the needed yards for a first down on first down, 60% on second down, or 100% on third and fourth down. What if Trubisky was just dinking and dunking for hollow completions to pad his completion percentage, but not actually helping the offense? He finished 20th in QBR and 24th in DVOA after all.

To my surprise, Trubisky’s failed completion rate in 2020 was 15.6%, the lowest in the NFL, beating out No. 2 Patrick Mahomes (15.9%) and No. 3 Josh Allen (16.4%). Aaron Rodgers (21.5%) was only 11th and Brees is 23rd (24.7%). Furthermore, Trubisky did much better than Foles in this metric. Alex Smith (32.7%) and Dwayne Haskins (35.1%) were last in the league playing in the same Washington offense, but just ahead of them was Foles at 32.2%.

That is interesting to me because there are plenty of other metrics that show the impact of Chicago’s offensive system and supporting cast on the quarterback’s passing numbers.

  • Trubisky’s average pass was thrown 7.9 yards compared to 7.8 for Foles.
  • Trubisky’s average completed air yards was 5.1 to 5.3 for Foles.
  • Trubisky had 3.1% of his passes dropped compared to 3.0% for Foles – only Kyler Murray (2.5%) was lower [source: Pro Football Reference].
  • Trubisky ranked fourth in the league by throwing 21.2% of his passes into tight windows while Foles was ranked right behind him at 20.8% according to Next Gen Stats’ aggressiveness rate.

Suddenly, I was feeling better about Trubisky after seeing this, then I saw one more stat on Pro Football Reference. Trubisky finished 15th this year with 5.4 YAC/completion; Foles finished 35th (dead last) at 3.5 YAC/completion. Basically, the big YAC plays that existed in Chicago’s offense only seemed to happen for Trubisky. Of Chicago’s 20 completions with at least 15 YAC, Trubisky threw 14 of them compared to six for Foles. Trubisky had seven passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage that gained 15+ YAC; Foles had two.

Oh, and there is also this on play-action passing:

Foles used play-action on 18.6% of his passes this season, ranked 24th in the league. His play-action YPA was 8.07. Trubisky used it more often than anyone but Ryan Tannehill and his YPA was 8.31.

Now things started to make more sense. Trubisky was taking advantage of play-action looks, superior rushing help from Montgomery, and better YAC plays from his receivers during a four-game surge against trash defenses that finished 28th, 29th, 30th, and 32nd in points per drive allowed. Wow, better pay this man $140M over four years if he beats the Saints this weekend.

Okay, so there is no denying that Trubisky can move better than Foles. He can scramble and pick up some first downs that way. He had a lower pressure rate and almost identical sack rate to Foles, who looked like a statue more than ever this year. Maybe some of those YAC plays could be credited to Trubisky’s skills as well while someone like Foles throws a lot of hero balls that may not lend themselves well to YAC. It is a little easier for Nagy to run an offense with a quarterback who can actually move.

But am I sold on Trubisky’s “rebirth” here or his prospects in even just this game? No, I am not. The Saints just intercepted the Carolina quarterbacks five times on Sunday and won 33-7 with a running back room they signed off the streets this weekend. Ty Montgomery still rushed for over 100 yards. The New Orleans defense notched five sacks of Foles in Week 8 too, so the pass rush could be good again for the Saints in this one.

Basically, the Chicago path to victory is the same as it always is: defense/special teams kick ass, the run game works, and the quarterback doesn’t screw things up. The Saints will be lucky to get Alvin Kamara back in time after his COVID-19 infection. He was huge as a receiver in the last meeting with the wideouts not available. At least Sanders is back now, but Michael Thomas’ status is still iffy as it has been most of this year. The Saints have learned to play without him.

This is not your classic, dominant Saints offense because of the injuries and Brees’ age taking even more off the deep ball, but this offense still scores. In fact, the 2020 Saints are the sixth team in NFL history to score at least 21 points in all 16 regular season games. The first five teams to do that all reached the Conference Championship Game and three advanced to the Super Bowl. Now none of them had to play a No. 7 seed on Wild Card Weekend, but here we are.

I guess I could pick the Saints to cover with a 27-16 win, but I’m just going to add a touchdown to Chicago’s total to make it sound more interesting. Will it actually be that close? Eh, you probably didn’t think the last meeting would have two double-digit leads blown and go to overtime. Besides, wouldn’t it just be so fitting for the Bears (and Rams) to win so Tom Brady can get a home playoff game as a No. 5 seed and not have to worry about the New Orleans team that spanked him twice this year?

It sure would be nice for the Saints to send Brees off with a second Super Bowl. The defense showing up big against one of the worst offenses in this postseason would be a good start.

Final: Saints 27, Bears 23

Browns at Steelers (-6)

The last time the Browns were in the playoffs, they went to Heinz Field and blew a 17-point lead to the 2002 Steelers. The last time the Browns were an 11-5 playoff team and opened as a 3.5-point underdog, they lost 29-9 in the divisional round in Pittsburgh to the 1994 Steelers.

So here we are again. The Browns are 11-5 and finally back in the playoffs, but they have to beat a Pittsburgh team they just squeezed by on Sunday, 24-22, despite the Steelers resting several of their best players. The Browns opened as a 3.5-point underdog, but the spread has only been going up since a COVID outbreak has jacked up the team’s preparation this week. They have not been practicing in person, multiple players are on the COVID list, and head coach Kevin Stefanski is out with COVID.

I think the Stefanski news is rather significant. He should be the favorite for the Coach of the Year award and he was the play-caller for his team. This literally has stacked the odds against the Browns, who are trying to end a 17-game losing streak in Pittsburgh, which includes a 38-7 loss in Week 6. The Browns have not won in Pittsburgh since 2003, the season before Ben Roethlisberger was drafted.

Trying to compare the first two meetings this season is not easy. When the Steelers won 38-7 in Week 6, it was arguably the worst game of Baker Mayfield’s NFL career. He was rattled by this defense early. On Sunday, he played better, but a unit largely comprised of backups still got four sacks and held him under 200 passing yards. Mayfield compensated by rushing for a career-high 44 yards.

In five games against the Steelers, Mayfield is 2-3, has never passed for 200 yards, and Sunday was the first time he scored 24 points. I like to think a Pittsburgh defense that gets back T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward will be in better shape to defend him this week. Watt has been dominant this year and Heyward is the third key component of the pass rush along with Stephon Tuitt. The Steelers will be without cornerback Joe Haden (COVID) again, but the Browns have not had any receiver break 60 yards on Pittsburgh this year. They’re not a high-volume passing team and without Odell Beckham Jr. available, it’s not really a matchup that Haden is desperately needed for. That comes potentially down the road with Stefon Diggs and the Bills.

Obviously, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt make for a great rushing duo, but the Steelers usually defend the run well. Chubb had a 47-yard touchdown run on Sunday after some poor tackling attempts by the Steelers, but his other 13 carries produced 61 yards. The Steelers can live with that as long as they don’t give up the huge play again. Mayfield’s rushing is usually not a problem, but it was Sunday. We’ll see if that’s part of the game plan again in his first playoff game where you do have to leave it all on the field really.

But I feel pretty confident about the Browns not being able to score more than the 24 points they had on Sunday, and it should be even less than that if we’re adding Watt and Heyward to the game.

As for the Pittsburgh offense, it’s a bit of a wild card even though we know what they’ll try to do in this one. It’s what they’ve done all year: tons of quick, short passes from the shotgun, virtually no play-action, great at not taking sacks, but a miniscule running game. The question is will they produce like the offense that started 10-0 and had a 28-24 comeback win on the Colts in Week 15, or will it look like the terrible month of offense where they couldn’t score 20 points? Will they add to their league-high 39 dropped passes?

Roethlisberger ended up having the greatest dink-and-dunk season in NFL history, as strange as that sounds.

I think I would trust the larger sample of games, but you never know how Pittsburgh will look on Sunday night. The week of rest should do Roethlisberger’s body well. He’ll return with Maurkice Pouncey at center and Eric Ebron at tight end, two more absences in Sunday’s game. The encouraging part is that Mason Rudolph just threw for 315 yards on this Cleveland defense on Sunday. Rudolph’s previous career high was 251 yards. Rudolph led two late touchdown drives, but failed on a two-point conversion pass to tie the game.

Rudolph attacked Cleveland deep multiple times and had three passes gain 40+ yards. Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson played well. That should give Cleveland plenty to think about with how to defend this offense. Maybe they won’t just sit on the short routes like teams have been doing. The Steelers also seem to have figured out better routes and plays for JuJu Smith-Schuster in the last two games. While the Browns could get Denzel Ward back at corner, there is no one receiver to take away in this offense. Roethlisberger could throw to any of four wideouts or Ebron at any time. Trust me, I’ve been doing SGP every week since October on this team and you never know if it’s going to be a JuJu week, a Claypool week, a Diontae week, or an Ebron week.

We also know the Steelers cannot run the ball, becoming the first team in NFL history to win four games in a season without rushing for 50 yards. I am actually in favor of the idea of letting Josh Dobbs play backup quarterback and have a few packaged plays to run like he did on Sunday when he gained 20 yards on two plays. The Steelers didn’t do a whole lot more on the ground, but it is worth noting that James Conner’s last 100-yard rushing game was against Cleveland in Week 6.

The Browns beating the Steelers in an important game goes against all the football logic that I have learned over decades, so I cannot bring myself to make that pick for various reasons. Sure, I think the Steelers are vulnerable to losing to anyone at this point, but I also think if this team can combine the defense it has played most of the season with the productive scoring offense it had on the way to 10-0, then they could beat anyone this postseason, including on the road in Buffalo or Kansas City.

Final: Steelers 27, Browns 20

Next week we’ll talk about the record-setting offensive numbers in 2020, the first-round bye teams, and my picks for the rest of the playoffs.