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Armando Salguero: The NFL Formula For Winning A Division Title Is Becoming Clear

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Perhaps despite the coaching and the quarterback play of Jalen Hurts, the Philadelphia Eagles somehow made a game of it Thursday night — cutting a comfortable Tampa Bay Buccaneers lead to merely 28-22 with 5:54 to play.

And then Tom Brady casually choked out any Eagles hope of victory.

The most successful quarterback in NFL history completed a 10-yard pass for a first down. Then fired a 27-yard completion. Then another 10-yarder. Then he ran one of his famous quarterback sneaks for another first down.

The Eagles, helpless to stop the bleeding, never saw the football again as Brady and the Tampa Bay offense drained every remaining second off the clock.

“We made plays there at the end like we needed to,” Brady said afterward. “We got to get better, that’s what we got to do. We’re not even half way through the season, so that’s what we have to do.”

Tampa Bay is 5-1 and continues to extend its lead in the NFC South.

But this isn’t an account of another Buccaneers victory. This is a testimony of the current state of the NFL.

(Well, the game’s state on the field. Off the field and in league and club offices, it’s another matter.)

Look at the NFL’s top quarterbacks right now and then look at the league’s divisional standings. Now do a Beautiful Mind thing and bring those together in your head.

Here’s what you should get: The teams leading their divisions have the best quarterbacks in their division.

This is an undisputable fact.

The AFC East’s best quarterback is Josh Allen, and it’s not even close. And the Buffalo Bills lead the division, and it’s not really close right now.

The AFC North’s best quarterback is Lamar Jackson. This is a fact, and if you’re not convinced, consider that Jackson has more passing yards than 26 NFL teams. So, it’s not a shock the Baltimore Ravens lead the division.

The AFC South’s best quarterback right now is Ryan Tannehill. I get it, the guy is not elite compared to the best in the league. But in the division? Tannehill is the biggest fish in that small pond.

And the Titans lead their division.

The AFC West is interesting because Patrick Mahomes has not only been its dominant quarterback but has arguably been the league’s best player the past three seasons. Except now Mahomes isn’t playing as well as he did in past years.

And Justin Herbert has rocketed to stardom — which includes him throwing for the most passing yards and owning the highest rating of any QB in his division. And guess what?

The Los Angeles Chargers lead the AFC West.

Shall we do the NFC?

The best quarterback in the NFC East is Dak Prescott. This is also indisputable.

And the Cowboys have a strong grasp of the division lead.

The best quarterback in the NFC South is, um, thinking…

Yes, Brady. Remember that last year he joined a team that went 7-9 in 2019 and helped them win the Super Bowl in 2020. And so far this season, the defending champions and their elite quarterback remain atop their division.

Aaron Rodgers, despite his lukewarm feelings about Green Bay Packers management and wishes to be elsewhere, is the NFC North’s best QB. And the Packers lead the division.

This is not a coincidence, folks.

Matt Stafford was playing better than anyone in the NFC West the first month of the season, and the Rams looked like the division’s team to beat. Then Arizona’s Kyler Murray out-dueled Stafford when the Cardinals and Rams played.

And the Cardinals lead the division with Murray playing slightly better than Stafford so far.

The ongoing matchup between Murray and Stafford could be as interesting or more interesting than the one between Herbert and Mahomes, but be certain that Murray belongs in the conversation.

He leads the NFL with a 75.2 completion percentage.

So what does this all mean?

Two things:

Teams with designs on competing for premium playoff spots, which always come dressed as division championships first, must bring a better quarterback to the season than their rivals.

And teams that have those quarterbacks must do everything necessary to keep them healthy.

The Seattle Seahawks, for example, seem pretty much done in their chase for an NFC West title because Russell Wilson is out for anywhere between 4-to-8 weeks, depending on whom you believe, with a finger injury that required surgery.

Make no mistake: The Seahawks cannot compete in the NFC West without their outstanding starting quarterback, no matter how good a backup Geno Smith might turn out to be. So their season is basically toast.

And what about all those teams that have a playoff-worthy roster but their quarterback’s play is inconsistent and sometimes even lacking? We’re looking at you Las Vegas Raiders, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns.

These teams are still hoping for a January playoff berth. But the possibility of them beating teams with superior quarterbacks to win their division seems increasingly unlikely.

Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

Written by Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990 for the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and ESPN. He was a 2016 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 columnist. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and AP All-Pro team voter.

4 Comments

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  1. Excellent post. In the last 20 years the QB has become more and more important. This year is a case in point.
    But please note that a few of the best QB in the division were not thought to be the best five weeks ago.
    Very few people thought that Murray was better than Wilson. Most thought Stafford would take the Rams to the SB.
    In the AFC West Mahomes was considered to be head and shoulders over any other AFC QB. But he was beaten by Jackson, Herbert and Allen in a four week period.
    Some of the others were expected.

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