Ranking the four remaining quarterbacks in the NFL playoffs: Garoppolo, Rodgers, Tannehill all trail Mahomes

And then there were four. With that, after an especially wild Wild-Card Weekend that featured four one-score games and a divisional round that included an iconic upset by the Titans and a historic come-from-behind win by the Chiefs, the final four has been set. The Chiefs will host the Titans on the AFC side of the playoff bracket, leaving the 49ers and Packers to duke it out for supremacy in the NFC. 

The final four has provided us with an intriguing blend of quarterbacks. There's the reigning MVP and undoubtedly the best remaining quarterback in Patrick Mahomes, a two-time MVP and future first ballot Hall of Famer in Aaron Rodgers, the analytics darling in Ryan Tannehill, and Jimmy Garoppolo. That's not supposed to be a shot at Garoppolo, who just wrapped up his best season as a starting quarterback by finishing just outside the top-10 in most advanced metrics. It's just that, well, I guess we should save it for Garoppolo's section below.

Before the playoffs started, I ranked all 12 quarterbacks. Now that the field has been trimmed from 12 to four, we figured this would be a good time to re-rank the remaining quarterbacks. But first, in the name of transparency, here's how I ranked the 12 quarterbacks entering the postseason (with the four remaining quarterbacks bolded):

12. Josh Allen
11. Carson Wentz
10. Aaron Rodgers
9. Tom Brady
8. Jimmy Garoppolo
7. Deshaun Watson
6. Kirk Cousins
5. Ryan Tannehill
4. Russell Wilson
3. Drew Brees
2. Patrick Mahomes
1. Lamar Jackson

The full rankings are below, but it's worth noting that I kept the order mostly the same -- except one change involving Garoppolo and Rodgers. It's also worth noting that the criteria I'm using to rank the quarterback is as follows: This list is not a list of how these quarterbacks stack up on the all-time leaderboard. This is a list of the best quarterbacks RIGHT NOW.

We begin in San Francisco.

4. Jimmy Garoppolo

It's not that Garoppolo is a bad starting quarterback. He finished the regular season fourth in completion percentage, seventh in touchdown rate, third in yards per attempt, eighth in passer rating, 12th in DYAR, 11th in DVOA, and 12th in total QBR. Those are mostly good numbers. For the most part, Garoppolo was good in 2019. Most importantly, he's repeatedly proven to be good enough for an otherwise great 49ers team that only needs good quarterback play to get where they want to go.

That's the good. The bad is that Garoppolo has a tendency to turn the ball over, which could be the one thing that derails the 49ers' championship aspirations. Garoppolo threw 13 interceptions in the regular season. He posted an interception rate of 2.7 percent -- the seventh-highest interception rate in football. For the sake of comparison, Jets quarterback Sam Darnold ranked sixth at 2.9 percent. Garoppolo also racked up 10 fumbles, which tied for the eighth-most among all players.

We witnessed his propensity for giveaways this past weekend, when he was lucky to escape with only one interception against a good Vikings defense. There was what should've been an interception by Eric Kendricks late in the first quarter.

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And there was his actual interception to Kendricks late in the second quarter.

Garoppolo's performance against the Vikings -- 11 of 19 for 131 yards, one touchdown, one pick, and a 74.7 passer rating -- is the primary reason why I moved him below Rodgers after ranking him above Rodgers when the playoffs began. 

What Garoppolo has going for him is Kyle Shanahan, who has consistently schemed open easy throws for his quarterback. Garoppolo averages only 6.5 intended air yards per throw. Only Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr averaged less, according to Next Gen Stats. Shanahan and a matchup with a Packers defense that ranks 15th by DVOA gives Garoppolo a tremendous opportunity to rebound with a strong performance. Even though he's positioned below Rodgers, don't be surprised if he walks off the field a winner against Rodgers' team on Sunday.

The rest of the team matters. And Garoppolo has the better overall team around him.

3. Aaron Rodgers

Similarly, Rodgers moves above Garoppolo because of how he performed in the Packers' win over the Seahawks. Against a bad Seahawks defense, Rodgers submitted his best outing in over a month with 243 yards, 9.0 yards per attempt, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 113.7 passer rating. On passes thrown 15-plus yards downfield, he went 4 of 4 with two touchdowns.

After a disappointing regular season, he looked more like vintage Rodgers.

But it's worth noting just how pedestrian Rodgers' regular season was. One game can't erase what happened over the course of 17 weeks.

From September through December, Rodgers compiled yet another impressive touchdown-to-interception ratio (he's a very risk-averse quarterback) but was unimpressive from an efficiency and advanced metrics standpoint.

It's not like this was Rodgers' first meh season. He's been playing at this kind of level for a few years now. Over the past three seasons, Rodgers is completing 62.6 percent of his passes, averaging 7.2 yards per attempt, and has posted a 96.6 passer rating. I'm not saying Rodgers is a bad quarterback. I'm just saying he's no longer the great quarterback he once was. 

But Rodgers is only one game away from reaching his second Super Bowl. He just played well in a win over the Seahawks. Nobody should discount the possibility of him turning it on for two more games, even if he's going to be significantly more challenged against a 49ers defense that is second in DVOA.

If Palpatine can be resurrected, so can Rodgers. But I'd still wager his season is more likely to end in disappointment than success.

2. Ryan Tannehill

Seeing Tannehill ranked this high will surely inspire the following responses:

  • Tannehill over Rodgers? Really?
  • But he threw for only 160 yards and completed only 15 passes in two playoff games.
  • It's Derrick Henry who's carrying the Titans.

None of that is necessarily incorrect. 

If you would've said before the season that Tannehill was a better quarterback than Rodgers, I would've called you crazy. But Tannehill has been better than Rodgers this season and it wasn't particularly close. 

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Tannehill led the league in completion percentage above expectation by a significant margin. He was top-five in DVOA and top-10 in total QBR. Only two quarterbacks, Jameis Winston and Matthew Stafford, averaged more air yards per attempt than Tannehill. Meanwhile, 19.6 percent of his passes were thrown into tight windows, which was the sixth-highest rate. In other words, the degree of difficulty wasn't low; Tannehill threw the ball downfield frequently to well-covered receivers and he still completed 70.3 percent of his passes.

Perhaps most importantly, the Titans are now 9-3 with Tannehill as the starter.

While it's true that Henry has done the heavy lifting in the playoffs with 377 yards across two games and Tannehill has mostly just turned around and handed him the ball, that doesn't mean Tannehill has played poorly. It just means the Titans haven't asked him to do much. But when Tannehill has been asked to contribute, he's done well -- outside of one bad interception in Foxborough.

Tannehill attempted only 14 passes in the win over the Ravens, but two of them went for touchdowns -- one came on third down and another was a 45-yard bomb. He also scored a touchdown on the ground on yet another third down.

But yes, obviously Henry has made Tannehill's job considerably easier. That said, it's Tannehill who's had the bigger effect on Henry.

Since these rankings are current and not based on the past decade, having Tannehill above Rodgers is a no-brainer. He's been better than Rodgers for all of this season. Just because he hasn't been asked to carry the Titans to victory so far this January doesn't mean he's played poorly. 

That said, there's a wide chasm between Tannehill and our top-ranked quarterback.

1. Patrick Mahomes

Nobody should have any qualms with Mahomes leading the pack. He's the best quarterback in football from both a statistical and film standpoint. He's undeniable. If Rodgers is Palpatine resurrected, then Mahomes is Rey rising up to thwart him.

Let's run through the numbers first. In a 14-game regular season (that was more like 13 games), he threw for 4,031 yards, 26 touchdowns, five interceptions, and a 105.3 passer rating. He ranked third in both DYAR and DVOA, and second in total QBR. Even though his touchdown rate dropped by 3.2 percent after a 50-touchdown season in 2018, he completed nearly the same percentage of passes, cut his interception rate in half, and averaged only half a yard less per attempt than he did during his record-breaking MVP season. In his playoff opener against the Texans, he threw for 321 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 134.6 passer rating in addition to leading the Chiefs in rushing with 53 yards. He erased a 24-0 deficit in a single quarter and led the Chiefs to touchdowns on seven straight series.

Let's run through the film now. What he did on Sunday was pure wizardry. A sample of his work:

What more is there to say about him that hasn't been said already? It's only his second year as a starting quarterback and he's taken the Chiefs to two AFC Championship games. 

This time around, after coming up an overtime coin toss short of reaching last season's Super Bowl, now that he's armed with a significantly improved defense and has continued his process of development as he learns the nuances of the game, he should take them a step further. The team with the best quarterback by a wide margin should be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy come February. That quarterback is Mahomes. And that team is the Chiefs.

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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