Heading into the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, there were eight teams alive and they could have easily been broken up into two groups of four.
The first group would comprise the teams with great quarterbacks; this group includes the Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, and New Orleans Saints. Four of the top six quarterbacks in passing yards over the last five seasons come from these teams, and if you believe that quarterback play is the most important factor in deciding playoff games, then you would have thought that these teams would win and move on to their respective conference title games (none of these four teams played each other).
The other group consists of the Philadelphia Eagles, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Minnesota Vikings. These teams are playing less-heralded signal-callers, and all of them ranked in the top half of the league in total defense this year. The Vikings, though, were the only team to get legitimately excellent play from their quarterback position, as unlikely starter Case Keenum finished second in the league in QBR this year (71.3); that figure comes in first among all quarterbacks who have started in the playoffs this season (bet you didn’t predict that going into the season).
Speaking of “bet you didn’t predict that”, guess which group is sending three of its teams to the AFC and NFC Championship games? If you went with the one with the great quarterbacks, you would be awarded no points, and may God have mercy on your soul. If you went with the latter group, however, you would be correct. The second group’s success this weekend is also part of a larger trend this season, one that tells us that you don’t need elite quarterback play to be successful, whether that is in October or January.
Consider this: out of the top ten passers in the league this season, only one (Tom Brady) is still alive in the playoffs. However, out of the top four defenses in the league in 2017, three of them are still alive (the Denver Broncos are the only top-four defense to miss the playoffs). Brady led the league in passing this season with 4,577 yards, a figure that would have put him in fourth in the same category last season and wouldn’t have even landed him in the top five in 2015. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, prior to mangling his knee in Week 14 against the Rams, led the NFL in QBR at 74.4. Similarly, that figure would come in sixth in 2016 and fourth in 2015. The theme is simple enough; quarterback play has gone downhill this season.
But, in addition to quarterback play, the NFL’s offenses have generally declined in 2017 as opposed to the past four years. This year, every team combined to score 11,110 points, for an average of just under 22 points per game. Both figures are the lowest in this decade and both figures are most similar to the 2002 season, one that ended with quarterback Brad Johnson and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeat quarterback Rich Gannon and the Oakland Raiders. You may know where I’m going with this.
That season, Johnson finished just 17th in the league in passing but came in third in passer rating, then the most sophisticated statistic for evaluating quarterback play. Tampa Bay also had the league’s best scoring defense and are still the most recent team to concede less than 200 total points in a season. The team that had the best scoring defense in the league in 2017? The Minnesota Vikings. And their quarterback, Case Keenum, is eerily similar to Johnson:
For what it’s worth, I nearly fell to the floor when I figured this out. And, if you’ll recall, the Buccaneers beat the Eagles in the NFC Championship game that season. And the week before that, the Eagles beat the sixth-seeded, wait for it, Atlanta Falcons, while the second-seeded Buccaneers beat the fourth-seeded San Francisco 49ers. The Vikings were the two seed in this year’s NFL playoffs and beat the fourth-seeded Saints yesterday in one of the most shocking finishes in the history of the sport. I’m not saying that the Vikings are necessarily going to win the Super Bowl, but the precedent is there.
If you also look at the final four teams in the ’02 postseason and their quarterbacks, there are similarities abound to this year’s proceedings:
- Tennessee Titans
- Quarterback: Steve McNair; a mobile quarterback with a turnover problem (comparison: Blake Bortles. NOTE: please know that McNair is one of my favorite quarterbacks ever, and though I hate to make this comparison, their numbers are very similar)
- Philadelphia Eagles
- Quarterback: Donovan McNabb; a quarterback played just ten games but managed the game effectively when he did play; also had the second-ranked scoring defense in the league (comparison: Nick Foles; another comparison I’m not wild about, but it sort of fits)
- Oakland Raiders
- Quarterback: Rich Gannon; a 38-year-old gunslinger who led the league in passing that season and took home MVP honors when it was over; spearheaded the league’s second-ranked scoring offense (comparison: Tom Brady)
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Quarterback: Brad Johnson; a journeyman starter who played for three different teams before winning his first Super Bowl; Johnson ranked near the top of the league in efficiency and managed the game well enough to allow his defense to carry the team (comparison: Case Keenum)
The Patriots currently own the league’s second-best scoring offense, just like the Raiders did. This has gotten very bizarre in a very short period of time.
The precedent is there. It sounds crazy, and part of it probably is, but we’ve seen this before in the NFL playoffs. Of course, all of this would have been for naught had the Saints not completely blown their coverage in the last ten seconds of yesterday’s game, but they did, and we have one of the most fascinating final fours in the recent history of the NFL because of it.
Of course, there are marked differences between 2002 and 2017. If you want the most stark and noticeable difference, remember that 2002 was the only year in this millennium that the Browns made the playoffs. The Jets were also in the playoffs that season and beat the living daylights out of Peyton Manning. Neither of those things are happening this year, but there is a lesson to be learned here; expect the unexpected. And the unexpected is what we’ve gotten in this year’s NFL playoffs.
Upon further examination, the final four teams in the NFL playoffs all bear comparisons to teams of yesteryear. Thanks to a miraculous finish, we can see this legitimate resemblance, and if the Vikings beat the Patriots in this year’s Super Bowl, you can thank me later.