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5 quarterbacks with something big to prove as NFL playoffs approach

Julian Catalfo / theScore

Five weeks remain in the NFL regular season. These five quarterbacks lead surefire or potential playoff teams and will be compelling to watch down the stretch for various reasons.

Dak Prescott

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Out to prove: He's the MVP, and this Cowboys team is special.

Piping hot right now, Prescott recently became the first quarterback since 2020 to pass for 20 touchdowns in a six-week span, per Stathead. The display invigorated his MVP candidacy after a slow start - Prescott threw six TDs in his first six games - and created the expectation that Dallas won't disappoint in the playoffs again.

The Cowboys last reached the NFC Championship Game in 1995. They failed to score 20 points in eight of 12 ensuing postseason defeats. Prescott's four playoff losses to date were all decided by one possession. Going 0-2 against the 49ers and Eagles so far this season highlighted the franchise's tendency to come up short in big games.

This team has the potential to be different. Prescott's elite big-time throw rate (6.6%) and turnover-worthy play rate (1.4%) are huge personal bests, per PFF. The Cowboys are 9-3 and rank in the top five in yards on both sides of the ball. They demolish weak opponents, but beating Philadelphia on Sunday would help convince people this is their year.

Trevor Lawrence

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Out to prove: The Jaguars are a genuine Super Bowl contender.

The high ankle sprain that felled Lawrence last Monday night threatened to ruin Jacksonville's promising season. The 8-4 Jaguars still have work to do to seal the AFC South title and record 10 wins for the fourth time this century.

The Jags' plus-26 point differential - the AFC's sixth-best mark - reflects that they're a championship long shot. Six teams with a lesser differential have gone on to reach the Super Bowl, per Stathead. Lawrence's presence keeps that possibility intact. He hasn't passed for three touchdowns in any matchup this season, but he only trails Prescott in big-time throws (27) and games with a 100-plus passer rating (seven).

Jacksonville's next two opponents, the Browns and Ravens, field phenomenal defenses. The end of the schedule (Buccaneers, Panthers, Titans) provides a soft landing. Rather than coast to the finish, Lawrence will be counted on to raise his game despite wideout Christian Kirk's absence with a core muscle injury. That won't be easy if the ankle sprain nags him throughout December.

Jared Goff

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Out to prove: He can offset Detroit's defensive flaws.

The 9-3 Lions remain unbeaten when they allow no more than 28 points. That's a testament to the offense's explosiveness. Detroit ranks third in touchdowns from scrimmage (39) behind the Dolphins and 49ers. Only those squads and the Cowboys have produced more 30-point performances than the Lions' six.

They'll probably have to win shootouts to advance in the playoffs. The Lions have given up 31 touchdowns on defense, the league's eighth-worst total. They're porous in the red zone, surrendering TDs on 71.8% of visits. The Ravens gained the third-most yards per play (9.15) in any NFL game this season when they drilled Detroit 38-6.

Goff is sixth in the NFL in adjusted net yards per pass attempt. He ranks second behind Tua Tagovailoa in yards gained on play-action throws, per PFF. He tends to accomplish what's asked of him but has been sloppier than usual lately, committing three turnovers apiece against the Bears and Packers in November. Blunders have to be minimized to clinch the Lions' first playoff win since 1991.

Jordan Love

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Out to prove: His future's extremely bright.

Love attempted only 83 passes over the 2020, 2021, and 2022 seasons as Aaron Rodgers won MVP trophies, then detonated his relationship with the Packers. Entrusted to start this year, Love initially struggled to handle the load, tossing more picks (10) than touchdowns (eight) in an adverse stretch between Weeks 3-10.

The last few weeks were encouraging. Love produced an 8-0 TD-INT split in increasingly impressive wins over the Chargers, the Lions on Thanksgiving, and the Chiefs in prime time last Sunday. He ranked fifth in the span in expected points added per play, per Ben Baldwin's database. Love's pocket composure against Kansas City enabled him to fire this fourth-down dime to Romeo Doubs and find Christian Watson for multiple scores.

The 6-6 Packers possess the NFC's fifth-best playoff odds (69%, per The New York Times' simulator) and easiest remaining schedule (the Giants, Buccaneers, Panthers, Vikings, and Bears are a combined 20-40). Love's challenge for the stretch run is to be consistent. Continuing to shine would affirm that his ceiling is high.

C.J. Stroud

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Out to prove: There's never been a better rookie QB.

Houston's brilliant 22-year-old quarterback, the NFL passing yards leader, has a shot to do the following things by Week 18, according to Stathead:

  • Shatter Andrew Luck's rookie record of 4,374 passing yards (Stroud is on pace to amass 5,015).

  • Emulate Justin Herbert by throwing for at least 30 touchdowns as a rookie (Stroud needs 10 across upcoming clashes with the Jets, Titans, Browns, Titans again, and Colts).

  • Challenge Prescott's rookie benchmarks for interception rate (0.9%, Stroud's at 1.2%), adjusted net yards per pass attempt (7.86, Stroud's at 7.69), and passer rating (104.9, Stroud's at 101.2).

  • Become the 10th rookie QB to win 10 or more games (the Texans are 7-5 and sit seventh in the AFC standings).

Tank Dell's fibula fracture increases the degree of difficulty. The rookie wideout, Stroud's No. 2 target after Nico Collins, scored in four straight games before he was lost for the year. Stroud has to keep delivering catchable balls to the rest of the receiving corps - his three most accurate outings came in November - to propel Houston to the wild-card round.

5 others to watch

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Lamar Jackson was ill this week, but isn't injured for the first time in a few years as the stretch run dawns. Considering how many quarterbacks are sidelined right now - including every fellow AFC North starter - that's enormous for Baltimore. Leading the 9-3 Ravens to the AFC's top playoff seed would enhance Jackson's MVP case.

Patrick Mahomes needs to revive Kansas City's passing game to win a repeat championship. The 8-4 Chiefs have three losses since Week 8 and rank 21st since then in EPA/dropback, per Baldwin's data. Luckily, the rest of their schedule is weak (.410 opposing win percentage, toughest opponents are the 6-6 Bills and Bengals).

Gardner Minshew has a shot to spark the 7-5 Colts to the playoffs, then start elsewhere in 2024. A pending free agent, Minshew owns a winning record as Anthony Richardson's injury replacement and is the 19th-ranked QB by EPA/play. Michael Pittman Jr.'s receiving averages in Minshew starts (8.1 catches for 83.6 yards) are superb.

Joe Flacco appears better equipped than Dorian Thompson-Robinson to uplift the 7-5 Browns. Flacco's creaky at 38 but pushed the ball downfield for 254 yards in his Cleveland debut. Backups have delivered mixed results for the rival Bengals (Jake Browning is the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week) and Steelers (Mitchell Trubisky just lost to New England).

Tommy DeVito's 4-8 Giants face the Packers, Rams, and Saints, plus the Eagles twice, to conclude the schedule. The first three teams are pursuing playoff berths. Philadelphia covets the NFC bye. Losing to Big Blue's undrafted rookie QB, a budding New Jersey folk hero, could spoil any of those efforts.

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

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