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Ranking the 14 playoff quarterbacks based on NGS' new Passing Score metric

The Next Gen Stats team is proud to introduce our new Passing Score, which evaluates a quarterback's execution on every targeted pass attempt and translates it to a palatable score between 50 to 99. We joined forces with the AWS Proserve data science group to create this comprehensive metric powered by an ensemble of seven different machine-learning models. Our goal was to improve upon the lack of context surrounding the division of credit in traditional box-score-derived metrics.

The result is a scalable metric that allows us to compare a passer's performance across any aggregation of attempts -- whether that be at the game-level, the season-level, or in football-specific splits. The Passing Score reduces a complex model into a simple score that is easy to understand across any split.

This season, 13 of the top 15 quarterbacks by NGS Passing Score made the playoffs, with Justin Herbert (89, 5th) and Matt Ryan (83, 13th) as the odd men out.

In advance of Super Wild Card Weekend, we've used the NGS Passing Score to rank the 14 passers leading their teams into the postseason. Without further ado, let's break down the profiles of each QB1 who did make the playoffs.

Aaron Rodgers
Green Bay Packers · Year 17

Passing Score: 92 

  • Rank among 31 qualified QBs: 1st
  • Last 3 seasons: 2020: 99 (1st) | 2019: 88 (13th) | 2018: 85 (19th)
  • Total pass EPA on attempts: +171.5 (3rd)
  • EPA/attempt: +0.34 (1st)
  • Best game: Week 2 vs. Lions (91)

It is no coincidence that Rodgers led the NFL in our new Next Gen Stats Passing Score for the second consecutive season and the Packers are the first team to repeat as the No. 1 seed in the NFC since the 2013-14 Seahawks. The reigning MVP is likely to become the first player to win the award in back-to-back seasons in more than a decade. While Rodgers did not quite reach the heights of his 2020 campaign (his 99 score in 2020 ranks as the highest single-season score over the last four seasons), his elite passing efficiency positions him well for his second MVP trophy in as many seasons.

The key to Rodgers’ success? Avoiding negative plays. By embracing Matt LaFleur’s quick-passing game (2.63-second average time to throw, 4th-fastest among QBs), Rodgers has been able to avoid pressure (20.1% pressure rate, 3rd-lowest), and make smart, low-risk decisions (2.7% average interception probability, 3rd-lowest). His 95 passing score on quick passes this season (i.e., when time to throw is less than 2.5 seconds) is the second-highest quick-passing score of any qualified quarterback over the last four seasons.

Key scores by situation:

  • Quick passes: 95 (1st)
  • Inside the tackle box: 93 (1st)
  • Vs. no blitz: 93 (1st)

Joe Burrow
Cincinnati Bengals · Year 2

Passing Score: 91

  • Rank among 31 qualified QBs: 2nd
  • Last Season: 2020: 87 (16th)
  • Total Pass EPA on Attempts: +167.6 (4th)
  • EPA/Attempt: +0.33 (2nd)
  • Best Game: Week 16 vs. Ravens (91)

Two words appropriately describe Burrow’s second season in the NFL: consistent and aggressive. Burrow earned the second-highest NGS Passing Score among quarterbacks this season (91) after finishing 14 of his 16 games with a game score of at least 81, tied for the most such games in the NFL this season (with Justin Herbert). The former No. 1 overall pick is also getting hot at the right time: Three of his best performances of the season (by the NGS Passing Score) came over his last four games.

The emergence of rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase has certainly benefited the young signal-caller’s development, especially in the vertical passing game. Burrow leads the NFL with 12 TD passes targeting go routes this season (seven of which have gone to Chase), after throwing only one touchdown pass targeting a go route as a rookie. It is clear Burrow trusts his receivers to win 50-50 balls (or 60-40 in the case of Chase and Tee Higgins) as is evident from his high tight-window throw rate (19.2%, second-highest among QB) and high average interception probability (3.9%, also second-highest).

Key Scores by Situation:

  • Under pressure: 88 (3rd)
  • Vertical routes: 99 (T-1st)
  • Third down: 99 (T-1st)

Matthew Stafford
Los Angeles Rams · Year 13

Passing Score: 91

  • Rank among 31 qualified QBs: 3rd
  • Last 3 Seasons: 2020: 89 (13th) | 2019: 93 (5th) | 2018: 81 (27th)
  • Total Pass EPA on Attempts: +175.4 (2nd)
  • EPA/Attempt: +0.29 (3rd)
  • Best Game: Week 13 vs. Jaguars (89)

Stafford has put together one of the best campaigns of his career in his first season under head coach Sean McVay. Stafford’s talent as a passer has allowed McVay to take the training wheels off his offense and evolve. The results speak for themselves: Stafford led the NFL in total passing EPA on all dropbacks this season (+111.4), and the high-powered offense helped the Rams claim their first division title since 2018 despite defensive regression.

When Stafford has been on his game this season, the Rams have been almost unstoppable. He has recorded a passing score above 87 in eight games, three more than any other QB, and the Rams have won those games by an average margin of two touchdowns. The flip side to that coin, however, is when Stafford has struggled, so have the Rams. Stafford has had five games this season where he earned a passing score below 80, three more than each of the other quarterbacks in the top 3. The Rams have lost four of those five games, with an average margin of -10 points.

Key Scores by Situation:

  • Vs. blitz: 99 (T-1st)
  • In-rhythm: 99 (1st)
  • Red zone: 95 (1st)

Ryan Tannehill
Tennessee Titans · Year 10

Passing Score: 89

  • Rank among 31 qualified QBs: 4th
  • Last 3 seasons: 2020: 92 (9th) | 2019: 98 (1st) | 2018: 76 (31st)
  • Total pass EPA on attempts: +92.2 (14th)
  • EPA/attempt: +0.19 (12th)
  • Best game: Week 7 vs. Chiefs (90)

Tannehill and the Tennessee Titans weathered a season full of injuries to key players to earn the AFC’s top overall seed. In fact, the Titans became the first team since the 2017 Eagles to earn a No. 1 seed despite having no player with 1,000 rushing or receiving yards in a season. Tannehill and his fourth-ranked 89 NGS Passing Score undoubtedly was key to the Titans' ability to survive their injuries. Tannehill turned in his best performance of the season in Tennessee's win over Kansas City in Week 7, which gave the Titans the head-to-head tie-breaker that clinched them a first-round bye this weekend. 

While Tannehill ranks inside the top five, the passing score does not factor in sacks, an area where Tannehill has struggled this season. Only Joe Burrow took more sacks than Tannehill this season, as the Titans QB was taken down on 8.1 percent of his dropbacks (sixth-highest rate in the league). Regardless, Tannehill was an above-average passer in almost every key NGS category. The only split he scored in the bottom 10 of qualifying QBs, deep passing, was likely related to the aforementioned injuries. 

Tannehill remained productive this season despite playing behind a porous offensive line that ranked second-worst in Next Gen Stats pressure probability. Both his third-ranked quick-passing score and his 10th-ranked under pressure score demonstrate his elite ability to survive without strong pass blocking. With the return of All-Pro Derrick Henry on the horizon, opposing defenses should be wary of a full-strength Titans offense in the playoffs.

Key scores by situation:

  • Quick passes: 88 (3rd)
  • Inside the tackle box: 89 (4th)
  • Play-action: 91 (7th)
Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs · Year 5

Passing Score: 89

  • Ranking among 31 qualified QBs: 6th
  • Last 3 seasons: 2020: 94 (6th) | 2019: 91 (10th) | 2018: 96 (1st)
  • Total pass EPA on attempts: +179.6 (1st)
  • EPA/attempt: +0.29 (4th)
  • Best game: Week 14 vs. Raiders (91)

For the fourth straight season since being named the Chiefs' starter, Mahomes will begin the playoffs with a home game. However, because of the team's slow start, he'll be making his first wild-card appearance of his career this weekend.

While still among the elite, Mahomes' performance dipped this season compared with his incredible standards, as it marked the first season he did not receive a 91 or higher passing score. Even in a "down" year, Mahomes scored inside the top 10 in 13 key NGS passing splits. While he threw a career-high 13 interceptions this season, six were tipped by a Chiefs receiver before being intercepted. In reality, Mahomes rarely put the ball in harm’s way; his passes averaged a 2.3 percent interception probability this season, the lowest in the NFL. Mahomes was the only QB to throw into tight windows on less than 10 percent of his throws this season (8.7%) and he had the highest open throw rate (54%).

Defenses are beginning to defend Mahomes differently than his counterparts, blitzing him on just 12 percent of dropbacks -- the lowest for any QB in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016). It's a sound strategy considering Mahomes has a 99 score against the blitz (T-1st in the NFL), compared with an 85 rating against non-blitzes (11th best). His ability to dominate when blitzed is likely the result of his quick-passing prowess, as he holds three of the top five NGS season passing scores on quick passes.

Key scores by situation:

  • On the run: 92 (1st)
  • Third down: 99 (T-1st)
  • Quick passes: 94 (2nd)
Josh Allen
Buffalo Bills · Year 4

Passing Score: 88

  • Ranking among 31 qualified QBs: 7th
  • Last 3 seasons: 2020: 95 (4th) | 2019: 83 (22nd) | 2018: 75 (32nd)
  • Total pass EPA on attempts: +107.0 (12th)
  • EPA/attempt: +0.17 (14th)
  • Best game: Week 3 vs. Washington (92)

Following his breakout campaign in 2020, Allen led the Bills to their second straight AFC East title this season. Drafted as a raw prospect, the fourth-year pro continues to develop as a passer, seeing his score increase steadily from 2018 to 2020 before taking a slight step back this season. Overall, the former first-rounder has grown into one of the most dangerous passers in the league, scoring in the top five in a whopping 10 different key NGS passing splits.

Allen’s primary strength remains his cannon-like arm, which made him such a tantalizing prospect coming out of Wyoming. He demonstrated that arm ability this season, scoring a 99 on intermediate (10-19 air yards), deep (20+ air yards) and vertical route passes this season (all tied for 1st). On the other hand, the concerns over Allen’s unrefined quarterbacking did reveal itself with his 79 score versus the blitz this season. 

For the fourth straight season, Allen rushed for more than 400 yards. Key to Allen’s evolution as an NFL quarterback has been the marriage between his mobility and his passing ability. This season, Allen wielded that mobility to great success, scoring within the top three in passing on the run, outside the tackle box and with extended dropbacks. 

Key scores by situation:

  • Intermediate: 99 (T-1st)
  • Extended passes: 99 (1st)
  • Vs. no blitz: 91 (3rd)
Tom Brady
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · Year 22

Passing Score: 88

  • Ranking among 31 qualified QB: 8th
  • Last 3 seasons: 2020: 93 (7th) | 2019: 85 (17th) | 2018: 91 (8th)
  • Total pass EPA on attempts: +148.4 (7th)
  • EPA/attempt: +0.21 (11th)
  • Best game: Week 5 vs. Dolphins (92)

At 44 years old, Brady begins his pursuit of his record eighth Super Bowl ring. While Brady will make his 46th playoff start this weekend, the other 11 starting QBs have started a combined 44 playoff games. Leading the league in pass attempts, Brady ranked first in completions, yards (5,316) and touchdowns (43). From an efficiency standpoint, Brady did not have a standout season by his lofty standards. He checks in as the eighth-best passer this season with an 88 NGS Passing Score -- a slight decline from his 93 passing score last season. 

It is important to note that the passing score does not factor in sacks -- possibly the area where Brady shines brightest. Brady took just 22 sacks this season, tied for the second-fewest among qualified quarterbacks, despite leading the NFL in total dropbacks this season (3.0% sack rate). Regardless, his position near the top of the sport as a passer remains intact, ranking in the top 10 in 14 key NGS passing splits in 2021, including six splits inside the top five. 

Brady’s mastery of his own offense and opposing defensive tendencies has fueled his Hall of Fame career. So, it is unsurprising Brady finished as the fourth-best passer on third downs, with a 96 passing score. Brady’s investment in his health has also paid dividends, with his right arm yet to show signs of decline. Thus, despite his advanced age, Brady clearly fits in the Bruce Arians offensive scheme that runs vertical routes at the highest rate in the league since 2019 (33%). Brady achieved a max passing score (99) targeting vertical routes this season. Adding to defensive coordinators’ headaches when game planning for the Buccaneers offense this season, Brady also owned the second-best score on passes under 10 air yards. 

Key scores by situation:

  • Inside the tackle box: 88 (5th)
  • Under 10 air yards: 87 (2nd)
  • Deep passes: 91 (10th)
Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · Year 6

Passing Score: 87

  • Ranking among 31 qualified QBs: 9th
  • Last 3 seasons: 2020: 83 (DNQ) | 2019: 93 (7th) | 2018: 87 (14th)
  • Total pass EPA on attempts: +153.8 (6th)
  • EPA/attempt: +0.26 (7th)
  • Best game: Week 18 vs. Eagles (97)

Prescott has had the most up-and-down season of any quarterback in the league. At his best, he recorded a passing score above 88 in a league-leading five games this season. This includes his Week 18 performance against the Eagles, when he earned the highest single-game passing score of any quarterback over the past four seasons (97). If the Cowboys are going to make a Super Bowl run, Prescott will have to avoid games like he had during his midseason "slump." Prescott put up a passing score below 77 in five of six games from Weeks 9 through 14. The only other playoff quarterback to have even four such games this season is Ben Roethlisberger (8).

Prescott returns to the playoffs after a two-year absence, including a 2020 season that was cut short by a gruesome ankle injury. Despite that injury, Prescott’s mobility has come back strong. He ranks second across multiple efficiency and production metrics that measure throwing on the run (8+ mph) this season, including Passing Score.

The Cowboys will face a 49ers team in the Super Wild Card Round that has been adept at disrupting the pocket with their front four this season. The 49ers' defense generated the fifth-highest pressure rate this season despite blitzing at the eighth-lowest rate. Prescott led the NFL this season with 23 TD passes against the blitz (seven more than any other QB), but he has been more efficient on a throw-by-throw basis when defenses drop 7+ defenders in coverage. Prescott’s league-leading 72.9 completion percentage against non-blitzes helped him have the sixth-highest passing score in these situations (15th vs. the blitz).

Key scores by situation:

  • Vs. no blitz: 88 (6th)
  • Quick passes: 86 (6th)
  • On the run: 91 (2nd)
Kyler Murray
Arizona Cardinals · Year 3

Passing Score: 87 

  • Ranking among 31 qualified QBs: 10th
  • Last 2 seasons: 2020: 86 (18th) | 2019: 83 (21st)
  • Total pass EPA on attempts: +121.4 (9th)
  • EPA/attempt: +0.26 (6th)
  • Best game: Week 4 vs. Rams (89)

This year has been a tale of two seasons for Murray. An early MVP favorite, Murray started off the season with seven straight games recording at least an 83 passing grade, leading the Cardinals to be the only undefeated team through Week 7. However, Murray suffered an injury in the Cardinals' Week 8 loss to the Packers and was forced to miss three games. Murray hasn’t been able to reach the same level of performance since returning from injury in Week 13, earning a passing grade below 82 in each of his final six games. Part of his struggles can be attributed to the absence of his go-to receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, who has missed the past four games and will not play on Monday night.

With all that being said, there are still plenty of reasons to be excited about Murray’s future as the cornerstone of the Cardinals franchise. He has shown improvement in each season as a pro, especially from an accuracy perspective. Murray completed +3.9 percent of his passes over expected this season, trailing only Joe Burrow. His elite mobility has always allowed him to avoid pressure; Murray’s been pressured at a bottom-two rate in each of his three seasons. However, Murray’s turned a corner in his performance under pressure this season, with the 2nd-highest passing score in the league.

Key scores by situation: 

  • Under pressure: 89 (2nd)
  • In-rhythm: 94 (4th)
  • Outside the tackle box: 91 (5th)
Jimmy Garoppolo
San Francisco 49ers · Year 8

Passing Score: 87

  • Ranking among 31 qualified QBs: 11th
  • Last 3 seasons: 2020: 84 (DNQ) | 2019: 97 (3rd) | 2018: 81 (DNQ)
  • Total pass EPA on attempts: +117.6 (10th)
  • EPA/attempt: +0.28 (5th)
  • Best game: Week 1 vs. Lions (91)

Garoppolo took full advantage of 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan’s scheme this season. Delivering the ball on time to his explosive teammates in space was a key factor in the 49ers earning a playoff berth. Garoppolo was the only quarterback to average more than 10 yards per attempt on play-action passes (10.5), helping him earn the top play-action passing score (97). His high passing score on quick passes (less than 2.5 seconds) was similarly driven by a league-leading 8.3 yards per attempt.

The 49ers were able to create plenty of explosive plays in the passing game without the threat of the deep pass. Garoppolo threw deep on just 6 percent of his attempts this season, the second-lowest rate in the NFL. Instead, he targeted the intermediate area (10-19 air yards) with in-breaking routes, which he led the NFL by a comfortable rate (48 percent, 10 percentage points higher than any other QB). Garoppolo hit his receivers in stride and let them do the work, with the 49ers as a team gaining a league-leading +782 yards after the catch over expected this season. Breakout receiver Deebo Samuel accounted for more than half of that (+403 YAC over expected), leading all receivers.


Key scores by situation:

  • Play-action: 97 (1st)
  • Quick passes: 88 (4th)
  • Vs. the blitz: 97 (4th)
Jalen Hurts
Philadelphia Eagles · Year 2

Passing Score: 84

  • Ranking among 31 qualified QBs: 12th
  • Last season: 73 in 2020 (did not qualify)
  • Total pass EPA on attempts: +63.4 (17th)
  • EPA/attempt: +0.16 (17th)
  • Best game: Week 15 vs. Washington (90)

Hurts will make his playoff debut this weekend in his promising first season as a full-time starter. The second-year pro had a productive year through the air, finishing in the top five in six key NGS passing splits en route to the 12th-best passing score in the league. Hurts used his mobility to enhance the Eagles' aerial attack, scoring top five in outside-the-tackle-box passing (99, T-1st) and on-the-run passes (89, 4th).

While Hurts flexed his skill set in many of the on-the-move passing metrics, he showed he still has room to grow when operating within the pocket, scoring near the bottom as a passer inside the tackle box. He only generated a 69 score on quick passes, which ranks 30th in the league. However, when he was in-rhythm and extending plays, his score -- and thus, his ranking -- rocketed up the charts. It's no wonder, then, that Hurts held the ball before passing on average longer than any other qualified QB this season.

Key scores by situation:

  • Play-action: 92 (5th)
  • Extended dropbacks: 94 (2nd)
  • Outside the tackle box: 99 (T-1st)
Derek Carr
Las Vegas Raiders · Year 8

Passing Score: 83

  • Ranking among 31 qualified QBs: 14th
  • Last 3 seasons: 2020: 90 (10th) | 2019: 96 (4th) | 2018: 86 (17th)
  • Total pass EPA on attempts: +108.0 (11th)
  • EPA/attempt: +0.18 (13th)
  • Best game: Week 2 vs. Steelers (88)

In his eighth NFL season, Carr will finally make his playoff debut after missing the Raiders' last playoff game in 2016 due to injury.

Although he didn't stand out from his counterparts in many areas, he also didn't score in the bottom-five in any of the key NGS passing splits. Carr’s best attribute has been his accuracy, completing more passes than expected at the fifth-highest rate this season. His accuracy shined on downfield passes, leading to excellent scores on intermediate (99) and deep (92) passes. That type of consistency surely played a part in the veteran setting Vegas' single-season passing yards record this year.

The Raiders, who rode a four-game win streak to a postseason berth, needed plenty of late-game magic to stay alive. Unsurprisingly, Carr drove the Raiders' various comebacks this season, adding the third-most win probability on his pass attempts of any qualified QB.

Key scores by situation:

  • Quick passes: 84 (10th)
  • In-rhythm: 80 (25th)
  • Extended dropbacks: 88 (5th)
Mac Jones
New England Patriots · Rookie

Passing Score: 83

  • Ranking among 31 qualified QBs: 15th
  • Total pass EPA on attempts: +79.1 (16th)
  • EPA/attempt: +0.16 (16th)
  • Best game: Week 10 vs. Browns (91)

Jones was the only rookie to finish with the season with a top-25 Passing Score, a positive CPOE and a positive passing EPA. Jack-of-all, master-of-none (statistically speaking), Jones did not have a single score that ranked in the top five or bottom five of 20 different passing splits.

He enters Saturday's matchup with the Bills as the first rookie QB to start a playoff game since Lamar Jackson in the 2018 Wild Card Round.

Key scores by situation:

  • Third down: 92 (10th)
  • Vs. blitz: 86 (13th)
  • Under 10 air yards: 80 (10th)

Ben Roethlisberger
Pittsburgh Steelers · Year 18

Passing Score: 70

  • Ranking among 31 qualified QBs: 31st
  • Last 3 seasons: 2020: 83 (24th) | 2019: 76 (DNQ) | 2018: 85 (21st)
  • Total Pass EPA on Attempts: +10.0 (26th)
  • EPA/attempt: +0.02 (28th)
  • Best game: Week 9 vs. Bears (86)

Heading into the final week of the regular season, the Steelers needed three outcomes to go their way to clinch a wild-card spot:

  1. They needed to beat the Ravens.
  2. The Jaguars to upset the Colts.
  3. Chargers-Raiders not to end in a tie.

The odds were not in their favor. Yet, last Sunday we saw Roethlisberger lead the Steelers to his career-high seventh game-winning drive of the season; the Jags blew out the Colts; and the Raiders opted for a game-winning field goal, propelling the 9-7-1 Steelers into the playoffs. Not bad if this truly is Big Ben's final NFL season.

Despite his late-game heroics this year, Roethlisberger was the only postseason quarterback who did not rank among the top 15 by our new metric. Only one other quarterback started at least eight games, led his team to the playoffs and scored below an 82 in the NGS Passing Score: Lamar Jackson, who entered the postseason with a 78 passing score during his rookie season in 2018.

Key scores by situation:

  • Fourth quarter: 84 (11th)
  • Vs. blitz: 81 (20th)
  • Extended dropbacks: 73 (28th)

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