Rising to the Mark: QB Quality Defines Championship Weekend
By Jamie Garwood
Being a quarterback in the NFL is the most pressurised and yet estimable position of the sporting world. So often the focal point of the team, the most important and valuable member of any 53 man squad lives and dies by their accuracy. They are paid the most of any position and can play for nearly twenty years as standard if the quality of the individual lives up to expectation.
Yet, a few bad games can lead to huge media and public scrutiny. Any chink in the armour of these illustrious knights is exposed and dissected by the masses; a fanbase that gave you acclaim will switch to rancour as quickly as the seasons change.
As we head to the Conference Championships of the NFL season in 2020, we have four teams left. Fittingly, they are all amongst the five best teams in OVOA, with the New Orleans Saints the other – eliminated from proceedings having succumbed to Tampa Bay in the SuperDome on Sunday.
All four teams are led by MVP calibre quarterbacks. We have two certain hall of famers at the tailend of their career going head to head in the frozen tundra of American Hoth, and two young guns going head to head to represent the AFC in the show of shows.
The NFC championship is being decided by the #1 seed Green Bay Packers hosting the #5 seed Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs are facing their third consecutive road game in as many weeks as under the leadership of six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady. They aim to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2002 under Jon Gruden, when they won their first and only Lombardi Trophy. They are travelling to cold Lambeau Field to fave the Packers, who having completed a second consecutive 13-3 season are one game away from returning to the big game for the first time since 2009.
Aaron Rodgers has had an MVP type season, but one that started with an abundance of doubt and uncertainty following the draft in April 2020. The Packers in the first round drafted Oregon QB Jordan Love, a decision that many found perplexing and unbelievable as Rodgers was hardly past it nor tailed off in his output. Yet Rodgers’ play has risen to an other-worldly level, and in partnership with his star wide receiver Davante Adams they have become a force of nature in the NFC. Entering the season Rodgers had questions about his longevity, but at the age of 37 he shows no sign of slowing down.
Much like his counterpart on Sunday. On Sunday in New Orleans, at the age of 43, Tom Brady played his 43rd playoff game. Sunday will be his 44th. That is a postseason record and a legacy of sustainability and excellence that is unlikely to be broken nor bettered. 41 of those postseason games came when wearing the blue and white of the New England Patriots in Boston.
In April of last year, Brady sent shockwaves after much expectation in becoming a free agent and leaving Foxboro for pastures new. His body as healthy as possible, he left for the sunnier climes of Tampa Bay where he found an abundance of offensive weaponry and even coaxed Rob Gronkowski out of retirement for one last ride.
Questions though remained if it was Brady or Belichick that called the shots. Did Brady always elevate the options around him, or was it the scheme employed? The performance of Brady in 40 passing touchdowns and 4,633 yards means that – unlike Drew Brees – father time has not come for a refund at the gun show just yet, and he shows no sign of letting up. Brady wanted a challenge of winning in a different conference and with the weapons he has had at his disposal all year – Mike Evans and Chris Godwin we knew about, but he has made names out of Scotty Miller and Cameron Brate.
Gunslinger Finds Accuracy
In Buffalo, Josh Allen was entering the third year of his burgeoning NFL career. Drafted 7th overall by the Bills in 2018, Allen was considered a risky pick as he had the arm strength but not necessarily the accuracy and composure required for the elite level. His rookie year was a quandry, and a free pass of letting the team see what they had. They knew they had a deep passer and a capable runner out of the pocket but he was prone to errors in the 12 games he started – 2078 yards, 10 TDs, 12INTs and a 52.3% pass completion percentage attests to it.
Last year, he took a step up as the Bills made the playoffs but too often he was having to make things happen by himself with his legs, whilst also relying on a stellar defence to create turnovers and short field possessions. Yet his numbers took a leap in the 16 game regular season – 3,089 yards, 20TDs, 9INTs yet still a 58.8% pass percentage. The lack of an offensive weapon showed as he made errors only an inexperienced player would do. Questions remained if Allen was the man to take the Bills further.
The Bills knew he could be that man, and so traded to get Stefon Diggs from Minnesota. Supplying Allen with that air-raid weapon he and the team craved, as well as keeping Cole Beasley, John Brown and Dawson Knox, and even drafting UCF’s Gabriel Davis, has all paid off. And it has spoken volumes, as Allen’s numbers have seen a ridiculous jump in productivity and efficiency – in 16 regular season games – 4,544 yards, 37 TDs, only 10 interceptions and a pass % of 69.2. Those are Drew Brees type numbers, never mind the 8 rushing touchdowns he added on the ground. Allen has answered the call and become the man; if not for Rodgers in Green Bay he would be the MVP. He is a validation of a player wanting to be trained and coached up, compared to some when they reach the elite level who are reluctant to work on their weaknesses, thinking talent will out.
Will Mahomes Be Fit?
Which leaves us oddly with one more quarterback to talk about ahead of Sunday, and he is the one who coming into the 2020 season had already cemented his legacy and a place of stability in only his fourth season in the league. An MVP and a Super Bowl winner before the age of 25, Patrick Mahomes set off like a train as he and the Kansas City Chiefs aimed to repeat as Lombardi Trophy winners following their fourth quarter comeback over San Francisco in February.
And by all accounts and statistics he has not had a bad season. He was neck and neck with Rodgers for MVP votes until the last month of the season when Rodgers skyrocketed and Mahomes plateaued. Mahomes has gaudy numbers; 4740 yards, 38 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions, yet we are in the situation where he is the one quarterback with the pressure and uncertainty leading into Sunday.
Following a tackle by Cleveland Browns defender Mack Wilson Mahomes was forced to leave the game. Visually unsteady on his feet, he is in the concussion protocol. Due to the full week between games The Chiefs are hopeful that he will be cleared to play in their third consecutive AFC Championship game.
Yet there were questions hanging over Mahomes. He went into the game without action for 21 days owing to the Chiefs bye into the playoff as top seed, yet it looked like he did not miss a beat as the Chiefs accumulated close to 300 yards in the first half. All this before the hit which left him visibly shaken and having to give up the QB role to Chad Henne, who guided the Chiefs to a five point victory.
Mahomes was already worse for wear and hobbling due to a toe injury. So as well as a concussion protocol to follow and conquer, he has to cope with an injury that he cannot put weight on. Never mind maintaining focus on his preparation for a tense encounter forthcoming. It will be interesting to see what sort of Mahomes we see in the game, this is the second concussion of his career – he suffered one at college for Texas Tech in 2014. The Bills are preparing for two quarterbacks to face them.
It is interesting that as we reach this stage of a strange, uncertain season, we have been granted four quarterbacks – three of whom had huge question marks over this season heading into it, and the one who had nothing to left to prove, now has the most questions hanging over him come crunch time.
Jamie is a freelance writer of original NFL content on all matters ranging from fantasy football to bold predictions, and is an avid New England Patriots fan. Follow him @JamieGarwood For NFL takes.