Playoff pressure: QBs with most on the line

NFL

Quarterbacks always get an outsized share of credit — and blame. That’s especially true in the playoffs. It’s why, heading into the NFL’s wild-card weekend, there is so much focus on the 14 starting QBs, 12 of whom will play this round.

It’s a crew that comes in all shapes, sizes and accomplishments.

There’s 44-year-old Tom Brady of Tampa Bay, starting his 46th playoff game. There are two 23-year-olds making their debuts (Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts and New England’s Mac Jones).

Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger is set to retire. Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow seems like he’s just getting started. Thirty-three-year-old Matthew Stafford is seeking his first playoff victory while 26-year-old Patrick Mahomes is looking for his third consecutive Super Bowl.

Fates and fortunes vary, but it’s the playoffs where stars are made, Hall of Fames are earned and championships are won.

So heading into this weekend, what’s the pressure level for each of the dozen who will take the field? (Top seeds Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay and Ryan Tannehill of Tennessee will sit this exercise out.)

Here’s our ranking, from the least amount of pressure and expectation to the most.

12. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh

Big Ben is 39, has already won two Super Bowls and is almost certain to retire after the Steelers’ next loss — or Super Bowl victory if we’re being optimistic. He’s a sure-bet Hall of Famer. He already had a tearful, emotional sendoff at Heinz Field. If not for a late-season rally — and Indianapolis fade — the season and his career would be over.

Basically, Roethlisberger and the Steelers have nothing to lose against Kansas City on Sunday night. “We probably are not a very good football team,” Roethlisberger said. “Out of 14 teams that are in, we’re probably at No. 14.”

An upset would be legendary, but a loss would be quickly forgotten. The accomplishment was getting here.

In other words, zero pressure.

11. Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia

The quarterback of the NFC’s seventh seed is also leading a team that’s pleased to still be playing. The Eagles started 2-5. Hurts established himself as a viable NFL starter this season and while a playoff victory at Tampa Bay would cement that status and his presence in Philly, it also isn’t required or even expected.

Hurts also benefits from who he isn’t — namely former starter Carson Wentz whom the Eagles traded to Indianapolis (and received a first-round draft pick) only to bumble the Colts’ season. That’s a good place to be.

10. Mac Jones, New England

The Patriots found their post-Brady franchise quarterback with the 15th overall selection of the 2021 draft. Jones has shown poise, improvement and potential. That alone is a great rookie season.

About the only thing applying pressure to his playoff debut in Buffalo is that Pats fans are so high on him they sort of expect a TB12 appearance to immediately reappear. Also, New England has a chance to make some kind of playoff run here in a mostly wide-open AFC. So beating the Bills would be sweet for Jones, but this is the start of something, not the defining moment (at least in a negative way).

9. Derek Carr, Las Vegas

After a season full of scandal and tragedy that saw head coach Jon Gruden fired and wide receiver Henry Ruggs III charged with DUI resulting in death, the Raiders managed to reach the playoffs. Much of that is because of Carr’s play and leadership.

After eight seasons, this is Carr’s first playoff game. He was emotional upon qualifying and hasn’t shied away from how much it matters to him. It should. But the pressure to perform and defeat Cincinnati is mostly internal. In Vegas terms, this playoff appearance is like playing with house money.

8. Joe Burrow, Cincinnati

In his second season in the NFL, Burrow has emerged as a star and led the woebegone Bengals to the playoffs. He’s everything you could want out of a No. 1 overall draft pick. He’s easily the most popular athlete in Cincinnati. The future is bright.

A loss to the Raiders would represent disappointment, but hardly some calamity. Cincy is a 5.5-point favorite by BetMGM and has the look of a dangerous team in the AFC. About the only thing hanging over this game is Cincinnati’s history of playoff futility — winless in seven appearances since the 1990 season, including five consecutive from 2011-15. That weighs on the fans, but not on a young quarterback. Or it shouldn’t.

7. Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City

Mahomes could throw 10 interceptions against Pittsburgh on Sunday and it wouldn’t impact his stature as arguably the biggest star in the NFL, let alone a legend in K.C. After three consecutive AFC championship game appearances, and two Super Bowls (with one victory) his status is secure.

The only pressure is that losing would waste an excellent chance at another Super Bowl appearance with a very good team and the current core of the club. Mahomes is still just 26. He’s untouchable, and even if this went all bad, he’ll be back in contention for many years to come.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) waves to fans after the team's win against the Denver Broncos during an NFL football game Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Patrick Mahomes is 6-2 as a starter in the playoffs. Those two postseason defeats came against Tom Brady-led teams. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

6. Tom Brady, Tampa Bay

Speaking of having his legacy secure. Brady is looking for his eighth Vince Lombardi Trophy and second since leaving behind Bill Belichick. Nothing can impact Brady’s legacy at this point and Tampa fans will always be thankful for the title he delivered them last year. Besides, with the injury to Chris Godwin and the departure of Antonio Brown, this team enters the playoffs with major questions.

The pressure here centers solely on time. Brady doesn’t have the luxury of years to come such as, say, Mahomes. Who knows if there will be a next year, especially with some older stars around him (Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette). Brady doesn’t want to waste any opportunity, so every game is a big game.

5. Kyler Murray, Arizona

In 2019, the Arizona Cardinals turned their franchise over to a former college coach with a losing record and a 5-foot-11 quarterback who nearly played professional baseball. Let’s just say there were skeptics. Nearly three years later, here they are, and that coach, Kliff Kingsbury, hasn’t shied away from using the chance to prove everyone wrong as a rallying cry.

This was the season that began to change … began being the operative word. The Cardinals won their first seven games but skidded home on a 1-4 streak to finish 11-6. Murray has been really good, but also prone to mistakes. He knows that until he wins in the playoffs, there will always be critics who see him as an exciting player but too small and a bit unorthodox to be a real threat for a Super Bowl.

Outdueling the Rams in Los Angeles on Monday night would be a big statement about who he is and what he can become. A loss won’t doom him, but opportunities like this don’t come easily either.

4. Dak Prescott, Dallas

First off, these are the Cowboys. Everything is bigger and more pressurized when it comes to the Cowboys. Second, Prescott wanted a big-money contract that paid him like the game’s elite quarterbacks. Despite a leg injury in 2020, and a 1-2 record in the playoffs, he got one — a $126 million guaranteed deal.

With so many weapons around him, it’s time to make a run and that means beating San Francisco on Sunday. If Prescott is the quarterback he has shown he can be, and both he and Jerry Jones certainly believe he is, then he needs to deliver January success the way Rodgers, Mahomes, Brady and others have.

This may not be a Super Bowl-or-bust season in Dallas, but it would be one long offseason if it ends in a wild-card upset.

3. Jimmy Garappolo, San Francisco

Does Garappolo even play for the 49ers next season if he doesn’t win this game? Who knows, but that’s the definition of pressure. Two years ago he held a fourth-quarter lead in the Super Bowl over Mahomes and the Chiefs. Now he’s again proving his worth, all while his heir apparent has already been drafted and given a year to develop as his backup.

If Sunday in Dallas doesn’t go well (or even if it does), Garappolo may have to find a new place to play and it probably won’t be with a roster as dangerous as the Niners. Tack in the historic rivalry between these two franchises, and this is a career-defining game.

2. Josh Allen, Buffalo

Allen isn’t in any danger of losing his job. He does however need to earn his $150 million guaranteed contract – and a deal like that isn’t about what you do in October.

Still, he’s the future in Buffalo and coming off an AFC championship game appearance, even in a season of great promise, a loss wouldn’t derail his career. He’s 25 years old and a very good player. He and the Bills should be playoff fixtures for years to come.

This ranking is more about the opponent than anything else. For two decades New England owned the Bills; Bill Belichick’s teams went 34-4 against Buffalo from 2001-2019 and one of those Bills victories (2014) came when the Pats rested many of their starters.

Then Tom Brady headed to Tampa and Allen emerged. The Bills have won three of four since. This is the one that matters. A wild-card loss would be hugely disappointing to anyone, but if New England marches into western New York with a rookie quarterback and reasserts control of the rivalry … it’ll be beyond painful. For the fans, Allen and everyone else.

1. Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams

Stafford famously never won a playoff game during his 12 seasons in Detroit. The frustration of futility prompted the former No. 1 overall draft pick to ask for a trade last offseason so he wouldn’t have to endure another rebuild during his prime. The Lions obliged and sent him to the Rams, a ready-built contender two seasons removed from the Super Bowl. L.A. gave up two first-round picks, a third-rounder and Jared Goff.

The entire Rams season, Stafford’s career and a whole lot of NFL narrative is based on the quarterback proving that postseason problems (an 0-3 record) were left behind in Michigan. Namely, he of the huge arm and huge talent, was dragged down by a bad franchise and an often lacking roster.

Well, here you go. Stafford led the Rams to a division title (which he never did in Detroit) and now gets Arizona on Monday night at home. There are no excuses now. No reasons not to deliver a first playoff win, en route to more.

Stafford’s 17 interceptions this season (including four returned for touchdowns) have been alarming. He has been very good. He hasn’t been great. Yet all of that can be forgotten with his play over the next few seasons.

The chance Stafford wanted is here. And so is the pressure.

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