4. Joe Flacco, Denver Broncos
Speaking of Flacco, we’ve arrived at the starters and the distance between No. 3 and 4 in the division isn’t that far at all, despite what you might think. Flacco has never been to a Pro Bowl, but he has won a Super Bowl (and was the MVP of that Super Bowl) and comes with a steady stream of decent production. Just last year, he was putting up the best numbers overall since 2014 before he suffered a hip injury and the Ravens turned to Lamar Jackson.
Flacco has become a bit of a punchline among quarterbacks, a man who has never quite received his due because his stats fail to measure up to the gaudier numbers of others. It is true that he needs the right pieces in place around him to win, and he’s unlikely to carry a team riddled with question marks or roster concerns to victory the way others on this list might. But the Denver Broncos still have a lot of pieces in place from a championship defense along with playmakers like Phillip Lindsay, Emmanuel Sanders, Courtland Sutton and more. If Denver can figure out their offensive line, Flacco could be more successful than expected.
3. Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
In 2015, Derek Carr was being mentioned in conversations about the NFL’s best young quarterbacks. He’d led the NFL that season with 4 game-winning drives and made the first of his three Pro Bowl appearances. He’d led the Raiders to seven wins and had the momentum felt by Baker Mayfield this past season as a bright young signal caller on a basement dwelling team. The Raiders believed they had found their savior, and it was only a matter of time until they were ready to dominate the AFC once again.
The following year, Carr made the Pro Bowl again and went 12-3 as a starter. He threw 28 touchdowns against only 6 interceptions and set highs in yards and average yards/attempt. He was also only sacked 16 times behind Oakland’s heralded line. It was a dream season and Carr was truly coming into his own.
Then he got paid.
Ever since the Raiders ponied up $125 million just before the 2017 season, Carr has been a shell of his former self. The Raiders have won a total of 10 games in that time and are now midway through the Jon Gruden reinvention. In just two years, Carr went from MVP candidate to the subject of trade rumors. It was even questioned as to whether or not the Raiders would use one of their three first-round picks in 2019 on a new franchise quarterback.
If that sounds silly, it should, at least on paper. But anyone watching the Raiders these days knows that Carr is unlikely to win the big game for Gruden and company. Even as he set a career high with 69% completion percentage this past year and made the Pro Bowl in 2017 (we’re not sure how), Carr came up short again and again when it matters most. He’s 1-7 against the Chiefs and Chargers over the last two seasons and both teams look even more difficult to beat in 2019. If he can’t somehow find his form with Antonio Brown and Josh Jacobs added to the offense, the Raiders might actually turn the page next offseason.
2. Philip Rivers, L.A. Chargers
Until Patrick Mahomes arrived on the scene, Rivers has been the class of the AFC West without question. He’s the reason the Chargers continue to be competitive year after year no matter how talented (or not) the rest of the roster is from year to year.
Fortunately in Rivers’ twilight years—at least we assume—Tom Telesco has the cupboards loaded for a Super Bowl run. Rivers has to be thrilled with the state of the roster compared to previous years with the team, but Telesco also has to be just as glad that he has such a strong pillar around whom he can build this offense.
Rivers has thrown 374 touchdowns against only 178 interceptions in 15-year career. In that time, he’s put together an overall record of 118-90 as a starter and has been named to eight Pro Bowls. He won the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award in 2013 and ranks among the NFL’s career leaders in a number of categories including touchdowns (6th), yards (8th), passer rating (8th), and game-winning drives (17th). He’s also looking as good as ever with three straight Pro Bowl seasons coming since he turned 35 back in 2016.
1. Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
Was this ever really in question? Yes, Philip Rivers deserves to be a future Hall of Famer. (Don’t argue.) One thing Rivers has never been for even a single season, however, is the best quarterback in the NFL. Mahomes was crowned as such in his first full season as a starter.
At this point, Mahomes isn’t just the best quarterback in the West. He’s the face of the NFL. He’s a Madden cover, an MVP, an ESPY winner, an instantly recognizable face anywhere he goes. He’s also a talented enough quarterback to take a team to the brink of a Super Bowl appearance against Tom Brady and the Patriots despite being saddled with a league-worst defense and numerous questionable calls from the officials. From offsides to roughing the passer to the Edelman non-touch, the Chiefs were still just a coin flip from going all the way.
Mahomes is the very definition of special and the Chiefs are lucky to have him. Unfortunately for the rest of the division, Brett Veach is soon to make sure he’s going to stay right where he is for a very, very long time.