Pardon simple numbers, but let me paint a picture of the NFC with the broadest of strokes.
In 2018, 11 of the top 17 quarterbacks ranked by passer rating played in the NFC. The top six QBs in the AFC, by passer rating, were Patrick Mahomes, Philip Rivers, Deshaun Watson, Andrew Luck, Tom Brady, and Ben Roethlisberger. With Rivers, Brady, and Ben, it seemed obvious that the AFC would be falling even farther behind the NFC’s counterparts, then out of nowhere, it was Luck who retired before any of them.
But even despite Rivers also calling it a career and Brady leaving behind the comforts of the AFC East for the NFC South, it seems as though football’s most important position has swung back in favor of the AFC. And that pendulum could come down hard in the coming seasons.
Though Aaron Rodgers is the probable MVP of 2020, the four highest-rated passers after him all play in the AFC: Deshaun Watson, Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Ryan Tannehill. Even accounting for a possible Watson trade, the AFC seems set to be well ahead of the NFC in that regard next season.
Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, and Tua Tagovailoa all went to the AFC in the draft last year, with the former two playing like the young stars those franchises hoped for. The 2021 draft figures to do no less than put Trevor Lawrence in Jacksonville as the top pick of the Jaguars, but could also potentially give the New York Jets (picking second) and Denver Broncos (ninth) hope at the position moving forward also.
Even the Miami Dolphins could end up doing the “Arizona Special” and dip into deep end of the QB pool for a second consecutive draft.
Adding Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield into the mix, which AFC teams would seem to be worst off at quarterback in the near future?
The Pittsburgh Steelers have plenty to work through, but Ben Roethlisberger is yet retire and the team started 11-0 with him last season. The Las Vegas Raiders may or may not trudge through another season with Derek Carr, but weren’t as aggressive as the Rams in replacing a starter with decent production but significant limitations.
The Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots will likely keep us in suspense and both missed out on Matthew Stafford, with the latter reportedly being the one team that Stafford wouldn’t go to; but it would be surprising if neither were aggressive in making a change that could get them back to the postseason in 2021.
If we assume that the Texans hold firm on their stance that they won’t trade Watson, the AFC has an even more obvious advantage at quarterback next year.
But that also means that having a top-three NFC quarterback next season will not be as challenging for those franchises and LA’s acquisition of Stafford on Saturday immediately puts them in that conversation.
The top three quarterbacks in the NFC this season were probably Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady. There has not been an update on retirement rumors that surrounded Brees before New Orleans’ playoff exit, but if he returns it will be for his age-42 season. If Brady returns, it will be to continue play at age 44. If Rodgers isn’t traded to an AFC team, he might be the NFC’s best quarterback, but he’s only those two retirements away from being its oldest too.
Rodgers will turn 38 in December.
Setting aside those three, the next most obvious successor to Rodgers would be Russell Wilson, who is only nine months younger than Stafford. Those two, plus Kirk Cousins, are all essentially the same age and the most established, highly-regard quarterbacks in the NFC after Brady, Brees, Rodgers, and Matt Ryan, who is turning 36 in May.
Now look at how the NFC quarterback picture could look in 2021 or 2022:
NFC East: Dak Prescott (unsigned), Daniel Jones, Carson Wentz/Jalen Hurts, unknown
NFC North: Rodgers, Cousins, Jared Goff, unknown
NFC South: Brady (retire?), Brees (retire?), Ryan, Teddy Bridgewater (?)
NFC West: Wilson, Stafford, Kyler Murray, Jimmy Garoppolo (?)
The Washington Football Team and Chicago Bears must start from scratch at quarterback; The Carolina Panthers fell into the trap of thinking they needed a game manager for $63 million; The San Francisco 49ers are only doing a better job than the Rams of pretending that they like the quarterback who “took them” to a Super Bowl; The New Orleans Saints can’t actually believe that Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill will succeed Brees, then succeed like Brees; Daniel Jones, Carson Wentz, and Jared Goff ... the names say it all.
It’s the reason that the Dallas Cowboys can’t let Dak leave, unless they have someone better than Dak on the way in.
Let us have different opinions on these players (Murray is a phenomenal playmaker, but I’ve yet to see him perform like a phenomenal passer) but seriously how short is that walk from “Matthew Stafford” to “Best quarterback in the NFC”? How much shorter will it get over the next two years?
How long is the bridge from Jared Goff to that same destination for the Lions? Don’t try to tell me that a late first round pick in 2022 is a guaranteed shortcut.
Though we’ve seen how quickly these dynamics can change, we’ve also seen each conference have its moment of dominance over the other, especially as it pertains to quality of quarterback. Having Stafford in the AFC may not have as big of an impact as it will have for the Rams. Imagine what any team in the NFC East could have done with Watson or Herbert. But Stafford isn’t in that conference, he’s in the NFC.
And that could turn out to be a huge advantage for LA over their opponents.