Skip to main content

5 for Friday: Young guns are in the AFC

The young guns are all in the AFC. We already knew that, but it was driven home even more so when the playoff fields in both conferences were set last Sunday.

The average age of the starting quarterbacks – including Miami's Skylar Thompson, a 25-year-old rookie – in the AFC playoffs is 25.3, with Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes being the oldest quarterback in the AFC field at 27. He'll turn 28 in September.

Over in the NFC, the average age of the starters in the postseason is 30.2 – even with San Francisco rookie Brock Purdy being just 23 years old. Certainly Tampa Bay's Tom Brady, who turns 46 in August, skews that. But Minnesota's Kirk Cousins turns 35 in August, while Seattle's Geno Smith is 32. The Cowboys' Dak Prescott turns 30 in July.

With all of that youth in the AFC, you'd think there wouldn't be a lot of playoff experience among that group. But if Brady and his NFL-record 47 career playoff appearances – is taken out of the equation, the playoff experience factor favors the AFC.

Mahomes has played in 11 career playoff games, while Buffalo's Josh Allen has six. Cincinnati's Joe Burrow and Baltimore's Lamar Jackson have four appearances each. Jackson, however, isn't going to play this weekend for the Ravens. The rest of the field has one playoff start or fewer.

In the NFC, Prescott has four career playoff starts under his belt, while Cousins has three. Everyone else outside of Brady is at 1 or fewer.

Only three of the quarterbacks in this year's field have a winning postseason record, Brady, Mahomes and Burrow. The others are all .500 or less.

It's hard to win playoff games.

That's why it would have been a big deal had the Steelers gotten into the postseason this year and gotten Kenny Pickett that playoff experience. Two other rookies, Brock Purdy in San Francisco and Thompson with the Dolphins, will start playoff games for their respective teams. But neither is considered a long-term solution for their teams as Pickett is for the Steelers. Both are essentially emergency starters.

And a rookie quarterback hasn't won a playoff game since Russell Wilson did it with the Seahawks in 2012.

While it's not impossible for quarterbacks to have strong performances in their maiden trip into the postseason, it takes one variable out of the equation when he's had that experience.

It would have been one more box to check off for Pickett in his rookie season. And who knows? In a one-game elimination tournament, a team that went 7-2 in the second half of the season would have been a tough out.

• The Steelers went 3-5 this season against teams that qualified for the postseason.

That doesn't sound all that great until you consider that is more wins against playoff teams than six of the 14 teams that qualified for the playoffs this season and equals the number of playoff wins by two other postseason qualifiers.

In the AFC, the Chargers (1-5), Dolphins and Ravens (both 2-5), had worse records against teams that qualified for the postseason than the Steelers. In the NFC, the Giants (2-6), Bucs and Seahawks (both 2-4) had fewer wins against playoff teams than the Steelers.

The kicker is that the Steelers' eight games against playoff teams was matched by just two teams that qualified for the postseason, the Chiefs, who went 6-2 in such matchups, and the Giants.

The Steelers wound up playing the NFL's second-toughest schedule in 2022 according to Football Outsiders. Only the Jets, who played nine playoff teams, going 2-7 in those games, had a more difficult schedule.

Of next season's opponents for the Steelers, seven qualified for the playoffs this season. But that only includes five actual teams since both the Bengals and Ravens qualified and the Steelers obviously play each of them twice.

Of their other three returning playoff opponents, they face two of them at home (the 49ers and Jaguars) and one on the road (Seahawks).

But as we know, there will be a lot of turnover when it comes to the postseason in 2023. Of this year's field, six were not in the postseason in 2021.

• Mike Tomlin has always said in the past that one season does not carry over to the next for obvious reasons.

The roster is decidedly different. Typically, there are between 15 to 20 new players on a roster from one year to the next.

But the Steelers to a man are pointing to the team's 7-2 finish to this season and looking to carry that over into 2023.

"I think it's so important to carry that momentum to next year. We've got a core group of young guys," said outside linebacker Alex Highsmith. "I love seeing how Kenny and the offense started to gel towards the end of the year. Just seeing his growth and what type of leader he is, I'm excited for him to be our quarterback going into the future. He's such a competitor. I could tell that from training camp what type of competitor he was, and just week by week he kept going and getting better. 

"So, I know that we'll continue to get better overall, and I think us as a defense, we were playing some of our best ball at the end of the year, creating more turnovers and getting more sacks and stuff, so I think we'll be able to build on it next year."

That was a common theme for Steelers players this week in the aftermath of just missing the postseason.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

• When people try to discount Tomlin now having 16 consecutive non-losing seasons, realize that Brady just suffered through his first non-winning season as Tampa Bay went 8-9 this year despite winning the NFC South.

Also, Bill Belichick's record since Brady went to Tampa Bay is a pedestrian 25-25 with two losing seasons sandwiched around a season in which he went 10-7 and got trounced, 47-17, by the Bills in the team's only playoff game.

Even the best of coaches and quarterbacks, and nobody would argue that Belichick is not a good coach or that Brady is not a winner, can have a tough stretch.

• The Steelers finished 14th overall in Football Outsiders' team DVOA rankings. Considering they were 29th after Week 8, that's a pretty dramatic improvement.

At that point in the season, only Arizona, Indianapolis and Houston had a worse team DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value over Average) than the Steelers.

Football Outsiders' DVOA takes into account not just how a team has played, but who it has played as part of its formula.

Over the final nine weeks of the season, the Steelers had the league's seventh-best DVOA, including 10th on offense and fourth on defense.

That was a stark improvement from the pre-bye rankings of 25th for the offense and 28th for the defense.

As for the Steelers' overall season DVOA rankings, their finish placed them ahead of the Buccaneers (17th), Chargers (18th), Giants (21st) and Vikings (27th), all of whom made the playoffs.