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Colts-Bengals preview: AFC playoff race continues to be defined by backup quarterbacks, from Gardner Minshew II to Jake Browning

Jake Browning lit up the Jacksonville Jaguars' defense in Week 13, vaulting the Cincinnati Bengals to 6-6 – one game behind the 7-5 Colts, who've cemented themselves in the AFC playoff picture with Gardner Minshew II behind center. 


Assigning wins and losses to one of 22 starters is, realistically, a sub-optimal way to look at a single player's impact on a team.

Quarterbacks are the most important position in football, sure, but there's so much that goes into a win or a loss beyond the guy who's behind center.

But in an AFC wild card race that's been turned upside-down by an avalanche of QB1 injuries, maybe there's something to a team's ability to win with its backup quarterback. After all, when half of the conference's teams have had a backup start at least one game, it seems like a relevant statistic.

Just look at the state of the AFC wild card picture in relation to backup quarterback usage:

Table inside Article
Team Current record (conference seed) Week 1 starter Record w/Week 1 starter Backup QB(s) Record w/backup QB(s)
Cleveland Browns 7-5 (5) Deshaun Watson 5-1 P.J. Walker, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Joe Flacco 2-4
Indianapolis Colts 7-5 (6) Anthony Richardson 2-2 Gardner Minshew II 5-3
Houston Texans 7-5 (7) C.J. Stroud 7-5 n/a n/a
Pittsburgh Steelers 7-6 (8) Kenny Pickett 7-5 Mitch Trubisky 0-1
Denver Broncos 6-6 (9) Russell Wilson 6-6 n/a n/a
Cincinnati Bengals 6-6 (10) Joe Burrow 5-5 Jake Browning 1-1
Buffalo Bills 6-6 (11) Josh Allen 6-6 n/a n/a
Los Angeles Chargers 5-7 (12) Justin Herbert 5-7 n/a n/a
Las Vegas Raiders 5-7 (13) Jimmy Garoppolo 3-3 Brian Hoyer, Aidan O'Connell 2-4
New York Jets 4-8 (14) Aaron Rodgers n/a Zach Wilson, Tim Boyle 4-8
Tennessee Titans 4-8 (15) Ryan Tannehill 2-4 Will Levis 2-4
New England Patriots 3-10 Mac Jones 2-9 Bailey Zappe 1-1

So that's four of 12 teams – the Texans, Broncos, Bills and Chargers – in the wild card race that have had their Week 1 starting quarterback in every game this season. All four current division leaders – the Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars – haven't needed a backup to start, though the Jaguars may need C.J. Beathard on Sunday against the Browns with Trevor Lawrence recovering from an ankle injury. 

This isn't a perfect measurement – Gardner Minshew II played the majority of the Colts' wins over the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans in Weeks 2 and 5, respectively, while Aaron Rodgers started Week 1 before sustaining a (potentially?) season-ending Achilles injury a few plays later. The Browns' win over the Colts in Week 7 is credited to Deshaun Watson, though P.J. Walker played most of that game.

But among teams who've had to start a backup quarterback in at least six games, the Colts have clearly had the most success. They're the only team better than .500 in those games, and the play of Minshew has been a key reason why the Colts enter Week 14 sixth in the AFC standings. 

Against the Titans in Week 13, Minshew earned an overtime with with a deep ball to Alec Pierce and a walk-off touchdown to Michael Pittman Jr., making the kind of big plays the Colts have come to expect – but are not a given for a backup quarterback to make. 

"I know it wasn't pretty the whole time – I'm saying the whole game, right," head coach Shane Steichen said. "It was back-and-forth with all that stuff. But to have that game winning drive right there, that says a lot about him, his preparation that he puts into it, his character, and the way he goes out competes. To get that game-winning drive was big by Gardner." 

And speaking of big-time performances by a backup quarterback:

Table inside Article
Quarterback Week Passing Yards Passer Rating
Jake Browning 13 354 115.5
Gardner Minshew II 6 329 60.3
Gardner Minshew II 13 312 100.5
Gardner Minshew II 7 305 119.4
Aidan O'Connell 11 271 56.0

The Bengals lost Joe Burrow during a Thursday night Week 11 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, which dropped them to 5-5 and thrust Jake Browning – the 2019 undrafted free agent – into a starting role. Browning was sacked four times and threw an interception in a 16-10 Week 12 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, pushing the Bengals to the brink in the AFC playoff race. 

Then Browning torched the AFC South-leading Jacksonville Jaguars on Monday Night Football in north Florida, completing a remarkable 32 of 37 passes for 354 yards and breathing life into Cincinnati's playoff hopes with a 34-31 overtime win. 

Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley – who coached with Joe Burrow's dad at North Dakota State and considers the Burrows family friends – said he saw plenty of the Bengals' QB1 in their QB2 on Monday night. 

"You know what Joe is like and what he brings to the table, his demeanor," Bradley said. "So now looking at it, I can see that Joe maybe had an impact (vs. Jacksonville). Just the demeanor, the poise, the confidence. I'm not saying that (Browning) didn't have it before, but you can see that run over and I think he even mentioned it last night.

"I think it's like, 'Here's a newer quarterback. He's had one start. Now what? Oh boy. They are going to be committed to the run game, take a little bit off his plate and go from there.' I didn't see that the last two games, especially last night. I think they're saying, 'This is our offense and he knows it so well. Let's go execute and it's as it was when Joe was in there.' I think you can see that the coaches have great confidence in him."

And all of a sudden the Bengals enter Week 14 in the thick of the playoff hunt, and with their backup quarterback coming off the best game a backup's had this season. 

"He's definitely playing really well," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "Obviously, they trust him getting the ball downfield as well, especially with some of the passes he had down the field to Ja'Marr Chase and things like that. So, we just gotta continue to do what we do. It's about us and putting pressure on the quarterback."

(The Colts enter Week 14 second in the NFL with 42 sacks, and will get run-mauling defensive tackle Grover Stewart back on Sunday.)

After Week 14, the Colts may face another backup quarterback, with the status of Pittsburgh Steelers signal-caller Kenny Pickett (ankle) unknown for Week 15. If he can't play, 2017 No. 2 overall pick Mitch Trubisky would start – and the Steelers lost with Trubisky behind center to the 10-loss New England Patriots Thursday night. 

But that's looking too far ahead. More importantly, on Sunday, the most established AFC backup quarterback (Minshew) will face a backup quarterback coming off an all-time heater (Browning). 

Which team can win with, or because of, their backup quarterback will go a long way toward sorting out the jumbled AFC playoff picture. 

"It's a team game, every aspect of the team is battling against that other aspect of the other team and you hope the big picture ends with your team having a few more points than the other team," offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. "We did that Sunday. It wasn't the prettiest of all time but gosh, we got it done. Our guys are fighting and scrapping and we keep finding a way. Like I said, the challenge will continue to get bigger as the games get bigger and that's what happens late in the year, which it is an exciting challenge. That's what we're in this thing for, so looking forward to it."

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