By: Tom Di Benedetto
As we reach the final weeks of the NFL season, each game becomes a more intense challenge for the playoff hopefuls and this pressure is felt most heavily at the quarterback position. By the time the playoffs roll around, a QB’s ability to maintain or up his level of play in the face of such pressure is often the most crucial determining factor in a team’s success. Here are some thoughts on several playoff-hopeful signal callers whose notable poise in recent weeks has made them much-watch commodities down the stretch:
The Packers are indeed undefeated (4-0) since Aaron Rodgers expressed his belief that the team could run the table and he has put his money where his mouth is with his play. In the last four weeks, Rodgers has completed 70.7% of his passes with 7 touchdowns and no interceptions while averaging 255 yards per game. His recent hot streak culminated in a stunning performance at a frigid Soldier Field capped by a breathtaking and outrageously clutch bomb to Jordy Nelson in the final moments to seal a victory that his defense did its best to squander.
The eye test backs up the numbers, as Rodgers has looked at the top of his game despite being bugged by multiple lower body ailments. His zip and famous accuracy are back after being mysteriously inconsistent for much of the last two seasons, as is his swagger. He may be the most physically gifted QB in the game, but his competitiveness made him a champion. Those that have watched his career closely can see that he has had ‘that look’ in his eye again over the last month.
I have immense faith in Aaron Rodgers, something I made clear several times this season in the QB Corner despite mass hysteria about his performances from both local and national media. Even I am surprised though that Rodgers now finds himself a darkhorse MVP candidate. His recent play is the central reason why many pundits (including Brett Favre himself) believe the Packers are Super Bowl-bound. With the top teams as close as they currently are, I have to agree that this is as good a reason as any to pick the Packers to advance out of the NFC.
You have to hand it to this guy. Cowboy country has been whipped into a senseless fervor over the team’s downright shocking performances this year and the rookie QB has continually kept his composure with the entire country watching. But his biggest challenge as a professional came last week after his UGLY (17/37, 165 yd, 1 TD, 2 INTs) game in Dallas’ second loss of the season to the Giants prompted a large chunk of the Cowboys fanbase to call for Tony Romo’s return.
Prescott didn’t flinch in delivering a huge 32/36, 279 yard night against a red-hot Bucs defense in prime time on Sunday, putting to rest any QB controversy. His play also reconfirmed what Dak has been showing us all year: he can handle the heat. I will be the first to admit that I had it all wrong on Mr. Prescott coming out of Mississippi State, and I have maintained for most of the season that he will ultimately fall flat in the playoffs. But his play on Sunday night definitely has me wondering if there is a moment that’s too big for Dak. He’s played his best games this season on some of the biggest stages (at Green Bay, at Pittsburgh, vs Baltimore, on Thanksgiving vs Washington and on Sunday night), and there are increasingly fewer reasons to doubt his ability to maintain and even up his play on the playoff stage.
It’s been a strange season for Andrew Luck and the Colts where inconsistency on both sides of the ball, including the QB position, has been the main takeaway. Things got desperate for Indianapolis after a pathetic home loss to the Texans in Week 14 and Luck responded with a great game in Minnesota. The numbers were impressive enough (21/28, 250 yds, 2 TDs) but the film uncovered some absolutely terrifying downfield throws that are sure indicators of Luck at the top of his game.
Luck’s ability to accurately attack downfield was his most impressive and promising trait coming out of Stanford. But due to poor protection, lack of a consistent run game and an uninspiring batch of receiving targets, these types of throws have been surprisingly rare so far in his career. For Luck to find his top form on the road against a solid defense with the pressure of the season on his shoulders is an incredibly encouraging sign for the Colts.
Andrew Luck is an A+ competitor and leader, arguably the best in the world in these categories, which always makes him a scary out in the playoffs no matter how bad his defense or ineffective his running game is. He will just keep coming at you until the clock hits zeroes. Unfortunately, Indianapolis is a long shot to make it in even if they win out. Needless to say, their Week 16 game in Oakland is a must-win, and we will find out exactly how hot Luck is against the stout Raiders on Saturday. If he can pull out a win, the Colts have the Jags in Week 17 and will be in position to capitalize on any help they might get from the Texans, Titans, Dolphins and Ravens.
Joe Flacco could have easily made the list as he is currently playing his best football in quite a while and has only looked more impressive as the pressure has ratcheted up in recent weeks. As for Matthew Stafford and Derek Carr, injuries have made it very difficult to tell where exactly they are at and where they will be when the playoffs begin. I am certainly not ready to give up on either of them after MVP-contending seasons to this point. But I also can’t say either one is playing his best football here in the waning weeks of the season.
To Brock or Not to Brock
Braggadocio and a blatantly inflated contract have caused local and national football fans and analysts alike to frolic in the benching of Brock Osweiler this week. He had it coming and I applaud Bill O’Brien for having the guts to make a decisive move and yank him during his latest flat performance against the Jaguars on Sunday. Houston pulled a must-win game out of the flames and a clear message was sent to Osweiler about his play this season.
That said, I would be going right back to Brock this week. Their home matchup with the Bengals on Saturday is a favorable one and you have to imagine the Week 15 ordeal was a real wake-up call for Osweiler. I would give a still-developing QB (21 career starts) a chance to earn his contract and face down the adversity that has defined his career to this point. Also Tom Savage?
It’s too soon in my opinion to give up on Brock as the franchise guy (for both football and financial reasons) and I just think you have to see it through this season before bailing on him. Bill O’Brien clearly doesn’t agree at the moment, but I’m also very suspicious that we will see Osweiler return in relief of Savage at some point in these last two weeks.
- Tom Brady
- Matt Ryan (my MVP through Week 15)
- Derek Carr
- Matthew Stafford
- Aaron Rodgers (!!!)
- Ben Roethlisberger
- Dak Prescott
Knocking on 7’s Door: Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins, Marcus Mariota