The best quarterback divisions in NFL history

With an aim to pinpoint when top talent crossed paths and when new arrivals created considerable depth, here are the Super Bowl era’s best quarterback divisions. 


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Bonus: 2020 NFC South

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More of a legacy pick than one based on top-tier production, this division featured two all-time greats and a former MVP just past his prime. No one on Drew Brees or Matt Ryan’s levels had come through the AFC East during Tom Brady’s reign in over a decade, and the Saints held off the new Buccaneers starter for a year with a regular-season sweep. Brees was in decline at 41 but still boasted a 24-6 TD-INT ratio without much Michael Thomas help, while Brady’s late-season surge ended with 40 TD throws — up from 24 in a down 2019 — and Super Bowl win No. 7. Teddy Bridgewater’s Carolina cameo also went much better than Sam Darnold’s.


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20. Mid-1970s NFC East

Mid-1970s NFC East

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This period crests on St. Louis’ Don Coryell-Jim Hart partnership, which ran from 1973-77. The longtime Cardinals QB made four straight Pro Bowls during this period, elevating a division that saw the Eagles deploy the NFL’s touchdown pass leader (Roman Gabriel) in 1973 after an offseason trade. The Cowboys also kept Roger Staubach in the lineup full-time beginning in 1973. His backup — two-time Super Bowl starter Craig Morton — resurfaced on bad Giants teams after an in-season trade. Super Bowl VII Washington starter Billy Kilmer also ranked in the top 10 in passer rating in three of these years, despite moving into his late 30s. 


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19. 1997 AFC Central

1997 AFC Central

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For a season, this five-Pro Bowler division boasted historic QB depth. The Steelers’ first Kordell Stewart starter year coincided with Vinny Testaverde’s final Ravens slate and Steve McNair’s first full-fledged starter campaign. These three synced up with Mark Brunell (Jaguars) and Jeff Blake (Bengals). No team lost double-digit games, and the Steelers and Jaguars punched playoff tickets. “Slash” led the Steelers to a home AFC championship game, while Brunell made the Pro Bowl. Testaverde had the Jets in the ’98 AFC title game, and McNair later started in a Super Bowl and won an MVP. A rare talent intersection here. 


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18. Late-1980s NFC West

Late-1980s NFC West

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This division’s aerial capabilities were enhanced as Jim Everett rose to the Pro Bowl level by 1988 when the young QB teamed with Henry Ellard and Flipper Anderson to redefine what was a run-oriented Rams offense. Ex-USFLer Bobby Hebert came along at this point, too, ranking in the top quartile in passer rating by 1989 and lifting a moribund franchise. Falcons QB Chris Miller ensured all four NFC West passers were top-12 in rating in ’89. Five QBs in this division (counting Steve Young) eventually led teams to the playoffs. Of course, Joe Montana towered over his peers, both with and without Bill Walsh, crafting a second peak that included two more Super Bowl wins. The second of which came after a 49ers-Rams NFC championship tilt.


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17. Late-1990s AFC East

Late-1990s AFC East

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The timing did not align here, but for two seasons, this division housed two all-century-teamers at quarterback. Dan Marino was declining by the time Peyton Manning arrived, though the two did put on a show in a 1999 Colts-Dolphins matchup. But this division sent four teams to the playoffs in 1998, with Vinny Testaverde lifting the Jets with a 29-touchdown pass year and Doug Flutie’s comeback transforming the Bills. This all came as Drew Bledsoe remained an upper-echelon QB. Manning’s rapid 1999 growth changed the division’s complexion, as Marino’s descent and Testaverde’s ACL tear lowered its ceiling. 


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16. 1969 AFL West

1969 AFL West

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The Bengals began in a division featuring a Hall of Famer, a two-time MVP, and a perennial Pro Bowler. Separating this season’s Len Dawson-Daryle Lamonica-John Hadl division: Cincinnati rookie Greg Cook, a top-five pick and budding star. Paul Brown’s QB led the AFL in yards per attempt (9.4) and showed flashes of greatness during his lone healthy season. Dawson and Lamonica, who combined to play in three of the first four Super Bowls, had the Chiefs-Raiders rivalry at its height. The teams vied for the final AFL crown, a Chiefs road win. Hadl played 16 seasons, mostly with the Chargers, and was a six-time AFL All-Star or Pro Bowler.


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15. 2021 NFC West

2021 NFC West

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The Wilson-Matthew Stafford-Kyler Murray-Jimmy Garoppolo quartet lasted one year, capping its historical standing, but this division presented a high floor. Stafford elevated the Rams, proving his talent with a 50-TD, 6,000-yard (in 21 games) season that ended with the ex-Lion and Garoppolo deciding NFC supremacy. Just off the franchise-QB level, Garoppolo helped the 49ers to two NFC title games and led a do-or-die Week 18 drive in L.A. to move the 49ers into the playoffs. Wilson’s hand injury ended his Seattle run meekly, and Murray was brutal in his playoff debut. But one is a future Hall of Famer and the other 2-for-3 in legit Pro Bowl invites. Quite the QB one-off in 2021.


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14. Early-2010s NFC West

Early-2010s NFC West

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Ground Zero for a new wave of offense, this period’s NFC West featured the Russell Wilson-Colin Kaepernick battles to decide the Super Bowl entrant in back-to-back years. Both mobile QBs operated zone-read-based attacks capitalizing on their athleticism; defenses did not catch on from 2012-13. Though Wilson was not yet a great passer, he and Marshawn Lynch kept the Seahawks’ dual-threat attack on top through 2014. Adding to this division’s appeal: the Cardinals’ 2013 trade for Carson Palmer. The rejuvenated 30-something turned around a struggling team post-Kurt Warner. Sam Bradford spent this period as the division’s other QB. Lacking receiving help, the injury-prone Ram had moments.


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13. 2022 AFC North

2022 AFC North

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The AFC West has received more attention, but this division packs considerable upward mobility. With the Browns winning the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes, three-star passers play here. Watson’s contract ensures he will be challenging Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow long-term, assuming the Ravens and Jackson work out a deal. Watson matches Jackson’s three Pro Bowls, though he has not reached the run-oriented Raven’s output just yet. This applies significant pressure to the Steelers. After having this division’s top QB for over a decade, their Mitchell Trubisky-centered plan is well off the pace.


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12. Late-2000s NFC East

Late-2000s NFC East

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Eli Manning, Tony Romo, and Donovan McNabb combined for 14 Pro Bowls; the Eagles passer earned his sixth in this span. This tri-rivalry began when Romo usurped Drew Bledsoe in 2006. The Giants, Eagles, and Cowboys combined for six playoff berths from 2006-09; each of these teams beat a division rival in one of those brackets. Though McNabb was injured for Philly’s 2006 wild-card walk-off, he kept the team on a playoff plane post-Terrell Owens and led a run to the Super Bowl XLIII precipice. Romo’s 20s involved three Pro Bowls and a 2007 No. 1 seed. Manning spoiled that, piecing together a career-defining Super Bowl charge. Washington and first-rounder Jason Campbell could not keep up.


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11. Early-1980s NFC East

Early-1980s NFC East

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The 1980 and ’82 NFC title games were all-NFC East affairs, each involving Roger Staubach’s successor. Danny White did not approach Staubachian heights, but he kept the Cowboys on the championship tier in the early ’80s. Joe Theismann headlined this division, leading Washington to the Super Bowl XVII title and winning MVP acclaim as conductor of a record-setting offense a year later. Fellow early-30s passer and future ESPN colleague Ron Jaworski did his best work in the early ’80s, piloting the Eagles to Super Bowl XV in his lone Pro Bowl season. Further bolstering this group: the Cardinals’ transition to Neil Lomax, who dropped a 4,600-yard season in 1984, and Phil Simms’ belated rise.


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10. Late-1980s AFC Central

Late-1980s AFC Central

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Each AFC Central team qualified for the divisional playoffs from 1987-89 — a competitive span when a Hall of Famer (Warren Moon), an MVP (Boomer Esiason), and a hometown star (Bernie Kosar) tussled. Moon started to click in 1987, when the Oilers’ run of seven straight playoff berths began, and the future passing champion led Houston to two close playoff wins. Kosar had the Browns in back-to-back AFC title games — “The”-game losses, but still — the first after a high-octane comeback over the Jets. Esiason’s 1988 represented the best work when the southpaw powered Cincinnati’s no-huddle offense to Super Bowl XXIII. A flawed Bubby Brister-led Steelers team also pushed the AFC champion Broncos in the 1989 playoffs.


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9. Late-1970s AFC West

Late-1970s AFC West

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Encompassing the 1977-79 period, when the Broncos acquired Craig Morton to end a near-two-decade playoff drought, the AFC West carried two Canton-bound passers and two other capable cogs. Ken Stabler ruled this division for most of the 1970s and remained elite into his early 30s, making the 1977 Pro Bowl and throwing 26 TD passes in 1979. Fouts’ career took off when Don Coryell arrived during the 1978 season; the Chargers star’s four-year run as the NFL passing leader began in 1979. Posting a top-five passer rating in 1977, Morton piloted Denver to wins over ’70s powers Pittsburgh and Oakland en route to Super Bowl XII. Seattle’s Jim Zorn-Steve Largent connection was must-see as well. 


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8. 2009-10 NFC North

2009-10 NFC North

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Three NFC North franchises booked NFC title game berths during this period. While the Jay Cutler-led Bears’ 2010 work helps this division’s cause, the Brett Favre-v.-Aaron Rodgers duels are why it resides here. The Jets released Favre’s rights after retirement No. 2, leading to his 2009 Minnesota arrival. At 40, Favre submitted a throwback season: a 33-7 TD-INT ratio, a Packers sweep, and the Vikings reaching the Super Bowl XLIV cusp. Rodgers grew into his A-plus version a year later, sweeping Favre and lighting up opposition en route to Super Bowl XLV MVP honors. Matthew Stafford displayed his talent early but battled injuries in his first two seasons. The future Super Bowl winner still adds to this division’s mystique.


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7. Late-1970s AFC Central

Late-1970s AFC Central

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Three MVPs — Terry Bradshaw, Brian Sipe, and Ken Anderson — populated this division for nearly a decade, but its placement here stems from the Oilers also having a capable QB in Dan Pastorini. Taking advantage of rules the Steel Curtain’s dominance induced, Bradshaw trended upward in the late ’70s, winning the 1978 MVP and turning in two more strong Super Bowl showings. Sipe and Anderson showed their capabilities with MVPs in 1980 and ’81, respectively, but were in their primes at this point and led intermittently competitive Browns and Bengals teams. The Oilers stood as the Steelers’ top challenger, however. That period ended when Houston traded Pastorini to Oakland in 1980.


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6. NFL Coastal Division

NFL Coastal Division

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Concluding the NFL’s pre-merger era, the geographically unusual Coastal Division existed from 1967-69. The league moved from its long-running East-West setup and created a division housing the Colts, 49ers, Rams, and Falcons. In their infancy, the Falcons were a non-factor. But Johnny Unitas, Roman Gabriel, and John Brodie were here. Unitas and Gabriel won MVPs during this stretch, Unitas in 1967 and Gabriel in ’69. Brodie won MVP acclaim in 1970. Gabriel guided the Rams to a 32-7-3 record from 1967-69, helping keep an 11-1-2 Unitas-led Baltimore team out of the playoffs in 1967. The Colts were better in ’68, and emergency trade get Earl Morrall made the Coastal Division 3-for-3 in MVPs en route to Super Bowl III.


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5. 2010s NFC South, before Cam’s injuries

2010s NFC South, before Cam's injuries

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This division included back-to-back MVP winners, neither being the coalition’s best quarterback. Drew Brees’ prolific New Orleans career remained in high gear as Cam Newton (2015) and Matt Ryan (2016) quarterbacked stratospheric Super Bowl-bound offenses. Kyle Shanahan’s 2016 Atlanta offense’s 33.8 points per game remains eighth all-time, while Newton accounted for 45 TDs in a historic dual-threat season a year prior. Super Bowl 50 represented Newton’s cliff, with an injury-accelerated decline following. The Buccaneers struggled during these years but did land a high-variance maestro (Jameis Winston) in 2015.


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4. AFC West feat. Joe Montana

AFC West feat. Joe Montana

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The football gods offered a gift in 1993, when the Chiefs traded for Montana. The 49ers legend joined another all-century-teamer in John Elway, who had never lost to the Chiefs in Denver at that point. The Raiders also upgraded at QB in ’93, signing ex-Super Bowl winner Jeff Hostetler and voyaging past Elway’s Broncos in the playoffs. In 1994, Stan Humphries’ Chargers bested the Chiefs in Montana’s finale to secure the AFC crown. Montana’s injuries piled up, but he led Chiefs comebacks over the Steelers and Oilers in the ’93 playoffs. This period’s unquestioned zenith came when Elway and Montana dueled on an October 1994 Monday night — Kansas City’s elusive win in Denver. 


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3. Mid-1990s AFC East

Mid-1990s AFC East

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The longstanding Dan Marino-Jim Kelly rivalry saw interesting competition join the Hall of Famers in 1993. The Patriots drafted Drew Bledsoe No. 1 overall, and the Jets traded for Boomer Esiason. The ex-Bengals MVP showed he still had gas in the tank by making the 1993 Pro Bowl; Bledsoe notched his first Hawaii trip a year later. The Colts advanced to the 1995 AFC title round behind free agency addition Jim Harbaugh, whose efficient season produced his only Pro Bowl. Kelly capped the Bills’ fourth straight Super Bowl berth in 1993, while Marino bounced back from an Achilles tear in ’94 to resume his prime, leading to a Week 1 duel with Bledsoe and the “Fake Spike” game against Esiason.


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2. 2022 AFC West

2022 AFC West

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This could be the runaway No. 1 soon. Russell Wilson’s Denver fit, after an injury-induced step-back last season, is the only roadblock. Two future Hall of Famers play here, in Wilson and Patrick Mahomes, and Justin Herbert is moving toward that road. The Chargers phenom became the first QB since 1989 to be a Pro Bowl starter without having made the playoffs. It would surprise me if Herbert did not one day snare an MVP. Derek Carr’s situation may be significantly better, thanks to Josh McDaniels and Davante Adams’ arrivals. Wilson’s relocation will be lucrative for the NFL, which can slot all 12 intra-AFC West games in primetime or late-afternoon windows.


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1. Early-1990s NFC East

Early-1990s NFC East

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Four straight Super Bowl champs came from this division, which included three Super Bowl MVP QBs, five Super Bowl starters, and six Pro Bowlers. Taking back the baton from Bo Jackson as the NFL’s most electric player, Randall Cunningham delivered an MVP-worthy 1990 season and bounced back from injury in ’92. Troy Aikman’s Hall of Fame ascent began in earnest in 1991, a year in which Mark Rypien’s Super Bowl XXVI MVP surge lacks the credit it deserves. Rypien led Washington to three straight playoff fields. The Giants toggled between Phil Simms and Jeff Hostetler during much of this time; Simms re-emerged with a strong 1993 finale. Even the doormat Cardinals employed future Super Bowl XXXIII starter Chris Chandler for three seasons. Depth-wise, this group reigns.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.

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