On Sunday, I had the kind of epiphany that comes only after watching NFL RedZone for six straight hours without a bathroom break. If quarterbacks threw grenades rather than footballs, I realized, the following things would explode before any Broncos wide receiver: everything in the vicinity of the Denver backfield, down to the Earth’s upper mantle; all players on the opposing team; all players, team personnel, and sports drink containers on both sidelines; the Broncos’ equine mascots, both the actual horse and the anthropomorphic one; the fans in the first and second rows; Skycam; Tim Tebow.
When Drew Brees plays quarterback, by contrast, there are little craters all over the field. The day after Christmas, I went to the Superdome to watch the Saints pummel the Falcons. By ditching television’s zoomed-in perspective for a view from above, I hoped to figure out the secret to the record-setting quarterback’s success. But in watching Brees from the stands, I had the same problem as the NFL defenses that can’t slow him down: I didn’t know where to focus. When you look left, he throws right. When you look short, he throws deep. When you watch the receivers split wide, he goes to the man in the slot.
The Saints are so tough to stop because there’s nobody in particular to stop: Seven Saints have more than 30 catches this season and five have more than 50. And while running back Darren Sproles (first year in New Orleans) and tight end Jimmy Graham (second year) haven’t been with the team for long, the Saints’ other top pass catchers—Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Lance Moore, and Pierre Thomas—have all been on the roster with Brees since at least 2007. Drew Brees is the most-accurate quarterback in NFL history, and he’s been practicing with the same guys for five years. No wonder the Saints can score at will.
Brees, who threw for five touchdowns and 389 yards against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, wasn’t the NFL’s best quarterback in Week 17. That would be Green Bay backup Matt Flynn, who threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns in place of a temporarily mothballed Aaron Rodgers. I’ve never been as sure of anything as I’m sure of this: Flynn, a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent who has thrown 132 career passes, will get a huge contract offer from the Washington Redskins. I am only slightly less sure of this: Flynn will pass on the Redskins’ money and go to Seattle, leaving Dan Snyder to spend $100 million on a heretofore unknown McCown sibling.
Will Flynn’s new team be getting the next Aaron Rodgers or the next Matt Cassel? If an unproven pitcher throws a no-hitter, we don’t assume he’s going to the Hall of Fame. But there don’t seem to be any such doubts about Flynn. “Matt Flynn just made himself a lot of money,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, that reliable barometer of NFL conventional wisdom. Maybe it’s not so crazy to believe that one great game is evidence of football stardom—that Matt Flynn is Christy Mathewson rather than Bud Smith. According to Football Outsiders’ Vince Verhei, every modern quarterback who’s had a game like Flynn did on Sunday made it to the Pro Bowl at least once in his career. (OK, everyone except Scott Mitchell, and he had the third-most touchdown passes in the league in 1995.) Flynn hasn’t done much in his career, but an NFL quarterback can’t luck into an all-time great performance.
Considering that Tim Tebow has thrown six touchdown passes in his last eight games combined, I’m guessing that the Broncos would happily trade for Flynn at any point in the next four days. Denver actually has a shot to beat the Steelers this weekend: Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall is out with a torn knee ligament, and safety Ryan Clark could die if he plays in high altitude. Even so, can we stop for a second and ponder whether Denver truly deserves to keep playing?
Given that the Chargers had already been eliminated from playoff contention going into Week 17, nobody noticed that 8-8 San Diego is now co-champion of the AFC West. The Chargers are clearly the division’s best team—San Diego has outscored its opponents by 29 points, while the 8-8 Raiders and the 8-8 Broncos have been outscored by 74 and 81 respectively. Nevertheless, the Broncos are in the playoffs, as they won the third divisional tiebreaker: record against common opponents.
The NFL didn’t always invest these common games with such importance. Prior to 2002, a team’s record against conference opponents took precedence in the league’s tiebreaking procedures.* If that were still the case, San Diego would be hosting Pittsburgh on Sunday. Instead, the Broncos will try to snap their three-game losing streak in the first round of the playoffs. Given Tebow’s status as a ratings juggernaut, next year’s tiebreakers will surely include a few new categories: winning percentage in games in which a starting quarterback completes two or fewer passes, best net points in games in which a quarterback takes a knee while not in victory formation, and strength of piety.
*Correction, Jan. 3, 2012: This piece originally misstated the year the NFL changed its divisional tiebreaker procedure. It was 2002, not 2008.