In the first edition of this series, I wondered when the rising crop of stars at quarterback would take over for the QBs who created a golden age for the position, maintaining a standard of excellence that never seemed to end. That was five and a half years ago. It's a theme I've revisited again and again, slow to realize that players like Tom Brady and Drew Brees were in the midst of rewriting expectations about athletic primes, not unlike other athletes throughout the sports world. Just as Brady has created a career arc never seen before in the NFL, LeBron James, Roger Federer and many others are creating new barriers for future generations to reach.
Which brings us to this weekend's conference championship games. It is too simple, too easy, to position the weekend as the young guns, Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff (combined age: 47) against two G.O.A.T.s, Brady and Brees, refusing to go out to pasture. So many other factors besides the quarterbacks will determine who wins on Sunday, yet there's no denying how differentSuper Bowl week could feel depending on the winners. It could be two veteran quarterbacks who are locks for the Hall of Fame battling for another shot at glory, possibly their last. Or it could be something totally fresh, like when Kurt Warner first brought the Rams or Brady first brought the Patriots. If the last six seasons have taught us anything, it's that the old guard will not exit the stage without a fight.
For this week's QB Index, I asked one big question of each of the four remaining passers.
Can the Chiefs interrupt Tom Brady's zen-like state?
The most untold story of Tom Brady's 2018 season was how many open receivers he never saw. Greg Bedard of the Boston Sports Journal, who has been charting Brady for years, detailed weekly the times where Brady didn't see the field clearly. Brady's arm and accuracy have been fine overall. His pocket presence and movement declined, especially after suffering a knee injury in Week 10, but the lack of clarity in reading defenses was the most uncharacteristic flaw in an uneven campaign.
That intermittent fogginess was cleared away in the brisk Foxborough air during the Divisional Round. Perhaps it was the week off for Brady's knee to improve. Perhaps it was a matchup against a zone-based Gus Bradley defense that Brady knows inside and out. Maybe it takes the playoffs for Brady to truly feel alive inside again, like some spoiled Patriots fans that view the regular season as an extended warm-up.
Whatever the reason, Brady attacked the Chargers' defense with a zen-like calm of a master craftsman doing what he knows best. He knew which receivers would be open before the play started and got rid of the ball exceptionally fast. On the rare plays where his offensive line struggled, like when Joey Bosa beat Trent Brown to the inside on the game's first drive, Brady calmly hopped inside the pocket before finding his checkdown receiver. It was a test where Brady had all the answers.
If Brady's confidence ever flagged this season, it should be sky high now. His tag-team partner, Julian Edelman, has rounded into peak form. The offensive line and running game are among the better groups the Patriots have had this decade. Brady also played superb football in Week 17 against the Jets and his best game of the season, based on my grading system, came against the Chiefs in Week 6. Kansas City plays a high amount of man coverage, which traditionally has given the Patriots' offenses more problems. Dee Ford, Justin Houston and Chris Jones all figure to make Brady less comfortable than he looked against the Chargers, yet cold-weather January football is where he's done so much of his best work.
There has been a lot of attention paid this week to Brady's postgame comments playing up disrespect, but I'm more interested in the mindset he's displayed during his midweek press conferences.
"It's just naturally a level of intensity you can't really emulate at any other point in the season and really, for us, any other point in our life," Brady said about the playoffs earlier this month. "We all work hard to get to this point. To have an opportunity like we have, I don't think you take it for granted."
These are the weeks Brady lives for. The clear-headed calm and evident joy he took while doing his job last week should give Chiefs fans pause.
What'll Patrick Mahomes do after moving past Andy Reid's scripted plays?
Andy Reid's teams start fast. This is true when looking at the NFL season as a whole, as his Chiefs squads of the last couple years have raced off to early undefeated records while the rest of the league studies, copies and tries to slow down what MasterChef Reid has cooked up. However, unlike in past years, Kansas City never really hit an extended cold streak this season, ranking as one of the great units of the last decade.
The Chiefs also start games like Tyreek Hill hitting the open field. They outscored opponents 147-56 in the opening 15 minutes this year, a ridiculous spread that shows how comfortable they are playing with the lead. They did it again in the Divisional Round, popping out to a 14-0 advantage in the first quarter on the strength of Reid's play calls before the Colts caught their breath. Patrick Mahomes didn't have to do that much to jump out to the lead, which was typical of how the Chiefs rolled all year. Reid won the first quarter. Mahomes did the rest, often with the skills you can't coach, including throwing passes that arrived at their destination so fast that defenders found themselves out of position to make tackles.
The Chiefs mostly survived their offensive lulls during the season because of their big leads. They had a stretch against the Colts where they didn't score for five straight possessions, but it hardly mattered. The Patriots' offense figures to give Mahomes less of a margin for error once they make defensive adjustments. While the expected frigid weather could hurt the passing game of both teams, it should hurt the Chiefs more because they are so reliant on the deep pass.
One overlooked aspect of Mahomes' performance against the Colts was his inaccuracy. He missed a number of midrange-to-deep throws after the first two drives that were uncharacteristic of his season. A number of passes came out of his hand off target. Whether that was just an example of a slightly off day or Mahomes' struggles with the weather is hard to say. But it's a safe assumption Bill Belichick will be happy if the Patriots survive the Chiefs' opening blitz with a lead or a tie game because it's a position Mahomes hasn't had to deal with often, especially at home.
Will Drew Brees complete some passes he shouldn't?
Brees blasted past his own all-time completion percentage record this season, finishing at 74.4. A number that preposterous conjures images of bubble screens and dump-offs, but what set Brees' season apart were all his completions that should have hit the ground. Brees created as many plays on his own as Patrick Mahomes during the first three-quarters of the season, often throwing passes through holes in coverage that evaporated on sight. Whether it was Brees escaping pressure to beat the perfect blitz call in Baltimore or threading the needle on a number of third-and-long completions against the Rams, everything Brees did was extra. Until December.
Four of Brees' lowest five grades of the season have come in the previous five games. That includes a solid performance in the Divisional Round that started with a few throws that were uncharacteristically late and a few deep passes that came up short.
Buoyed by a strong running game and excellent protection overall, Brees righted the ship. He moved Eagles defenders with his eyes in some key long-yardage situations and got the Saints' offense back to efficient when it mattered most. But the sizzle plays weren't there. The receivers outside of Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn were quiet. It was a workmanlike performance in a season that inspired more Brees appreciation, thinkpieces and fireworks than any in his career. The sought-after MVP award isn't going to happen. But if Brees can show the form on Sunday at 40 years old that he showed for so much of his age-39 season, he won't mind at all.
Can Jared Goff carry his offense?
Criticism surrounding Goff's last three games is misplaced. After a rough stretch of play from Weeks 13-15, Rams coach Sean McVay notably took some responsibilities off of Goff's plate and centered the Rams' attack around their suddenly bruising running game. It played to the Rams' strengths and was a quiet, subtle way to reset Goff's confidence after a slump. The strategy has worked like a charm and Goff has done his part, making smart decisions and pinpoint throws when called upon. His performance against the Cowboys was nearly flawless, including a few third-down strikes where he hit his receivers in such perfect stride that Bill Walsh would approve.
Goff should be throwing strikes when his protection is flawless. He faced pressure from Dallas on only one of 28 dropbacks, according to Next Gen Stats, which is the second-lowest rate of pressure any quarterback faced in a single game this season with a minimum of 20 attempts. He was similarly unbothered in Week 17.
Goff has done his job well over the last three weeks, yet he's only been asked to attempt 26 passes per game. It's hard to imagine him throwing the ball so infrequently in New Orleans when the Saints have such a strong run defense and the game figures to be a shootout. It appeared early this season that Goff had made the leap to the type of top-five quarterback who can carry a team with dazzling throws. That's probably what it will require for the Rams to pull off a road upset because running for 273 yards, like they did against Dallas, is unlikely to happen this week.