NFL1000: Doug Farrar's Week 7 QB Rankings

Doug Farrar@@BR_DougFarrar NFL Lead ScoutOctober 17, 2017

NFL1000: Doug Farrar's Week 7 QB Rankings

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    In an NFL where franchises do whatever they possibly can to define success around their quarterbacks, the biggest stories in Week 6 were the quarterbacks who were replaced in-gameleading, of course, with Aaron Rodgers' injury. When Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr deposited Rodgers on the field in a way that caused Rodgers' broken collarbone, the pecking order in the NFC North—and throughout the NFL—changed immediately. Backup Brett Hundley has a mammoth job ahead of him if that's to be reversed.

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost Jameis Winston early in their eventual 38-33 loss to the Arizona Cardinals to a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder. Though backup Ryan Fitzpatrick played well enough to keep his team competitive for the most part, leading the Bucs to a bunch of second-half points, the Cardinals pulled out the win.

    Finally, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer left his team's game against the Washington Redskins, though that was not because of injury. Rookie C.J. Beathard came in and moved the offense in ways Hoyer simply couldn't, and he'll be the starter going forward—at least, in the near term.

    The top of this week's quarterback rankings haven't changed too much, except for the obvious absence of Rodgers—he's on our "Notable Omissions" page—and the continued ascent of Houston Texans rookie Deshaun Watson—a young man who's giving his team the ability to dream that its long quarterback drought is finally over.

    Our weekly quarterback rankings are decided and written by NFL1000 lead scout Doug Farrar and quarterbacks scout Mark Schofield. Doug evaluates all NFC quarterbacks, and Mark does the same with the AFC quarterbacks.

    Doug and Mark combine tape analysis and advanced metrics to give you a sense of which quarterbacks are trending up, which are trending down and which are better or worse than their reputations might imply.

    The rankings are based on recent performance, of course, but they're also adjusted for opponent, factoring in the talent around the quarterback and considering the player's history over the last few years.

    Good news for some, bad news for others. Here are the NFL1000 quarterback rankings ahead of Week 7.

Notable Omissions

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills (bye)

    Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals (bye)

    Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys (bye)

    Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (bye)

    The bye-week quarterbacks will return to the rankings next week, but as we're ranking based on performance, they're excluded during their byes.

    Because Rodgers and Winston played limited snaps before they were injured in Week 6, we took them out of this week's rankings—Rodgers was the second-ranked quarterback last week, while Winston was ranked 13th.

         

    Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (injury)

    With 7:04 left in the first quarter of Green Bay's eventual 23-10 loss to the Vikings, Barr took Rodgers to the ground in a way that caused Rodgers to break his collarbone for the second time in his career. Rodgers is likely out for the remainder of the season—a late-season return seems the most optimistic possibility—a fact that radically alters Green Bay's season and the overall outlook of the NFC.

    Rodgers didn't get to do much before he was hurt. On the day, he completed two of four passes for 18 yards—two quick passes to get the offense into a rhythm, and then the injury. The Packers will continue their season with Hundley as the starter for the time being. Losing the quarterback who ranked at or near the top of our rankings every week is an obvious problem, and it will be up to head coach and play-caller Mike McCarthy to help Hundley as much as he can.

         

    Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (injury)

    Winston managed just five completions in 10 attempts against the Cardinals on Sunday before he left the game with a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder and was replaced by Fitzpatrick. Winston didn't complete a deep pass—he overthrew Mike Evans early and had a deep throwaway to DeSean Jackson—and it appeared before he was hurt the plan was to get Winston in a rhythm with shorter stuff. That would be a good plan after Winston's 20-incompletion game against the New England Patriots in which he missed his connection on several deep throws.

    It's unknown at this time whether Winston will be available for Tampa Bay's Week 7 matchup against the Bills; head coach Dirk Koetter has said his quarterback is day-to-day at this point.

29. Kevin Hogan, Cleveland Browns

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    Last Week: 29

    Head coach Hue Jackson named DeShone Kizer the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns at the close of training camp after a strong preseason. But subpar play from the rookie these past few weeks forced Jackson to turn to his Plan B, Kevin Hogan, for Week 6 against the Houston Texans.

    It might be time for Plan C.

    Hogan struggled in Houston, throwing three interceptions in Cleveland's 33-17 loss. The first turnover, which was returned for a touchdown, was simply a poor throw. Hogan was trying to hit running back Duke Johnson on the right side of the field on a simple flat route, but the pass sailed well over the running back's head and right to Johnathan Joseph, who returned it for the score.

    Hogan's second interception was again intended for Johnson, but this was just a great play by linebacker Dylan Cole. Hogan had Johnson on a vertical route along the right sideline, but Cole was able to get his right arm extended and intercept the pass, preventing a big play.

    Joseph got Hogan one more time in this game, near the end of the second quarter. This throw highlighted some of the predraft concerns surrounding Hogan two years ago. With the football on the right hash mark, Hogan tried to hit Sammie Coates on a route along the boundary. But the throw came late—due in part to Hogan's slow delivery and his average arm strength—and Joseph was able to jump the route for the turnover.

    There was also an intentional grounding in the end zone, a situational-awareness breakdown from the young quarterback that resulted in a safety.

    After the game, a Pro Football Talk report surfaced that the Browns organization was sending out feelers about changes in the front office. In addition, Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot reported that Jackson was considering Kizer to start in Week 7. It's probably the smartest course of action for Cleveland at this point. While Kizer has made mistakes, he is a more talented quarterback than Hogan and should be given a chance to learn, make mistakes and grow on the field.

28. Brian Hoyer, San Francisco 49ers

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    Last Week: 22

    Throughout the 2017 season, Brian Hoyer had mostly made coach Kyle Shanahan look foolish for supporting him as the team's starter. Hoyer has struggled mightily with the intermediate and deep passing game, and he has made even easier throws more of an adventure than they need to be. It's why he's hung around the bottom of our quarterback rankings all season.

    After Hoyer started with four of 11 completions for 34 yards, Shanahan finally had enough, pulling him for third-round rookie C.J. Beathard. And there's no other way to parse it—Hoyer was awful. He nearly threw Pierre Garcon into an interception on his second pass of the day, threw ahead of Aldrick Robinson on a receiver screen, overthrew Garcon by a good five yards on his first deep pass of the day, missed the timing on a deep pass to Goodwin and sailed the ball over Garcon's head on a cross-body sideline throw.

    Not that Beathard is ready for prime time, but Hoyer has shown what he is—and what he isn't. He's a perfectly serviceable backup who simply lacks the tools to be an NFL starter. It took the 49ers long enough to figure that out, but they seem to have done that.

27. C.J. Beathard, San Francisco 49ers

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    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

    Last Week: N/A

    On Monday, Shanahan said that Beathard will be the team's starting quarterback going forward after the former starter, Hoyer, was benched in the game against the Redskins because of poor performance. Shanahan's 0-6 team has lost each of its last five games by three points or less, so it's understandable Shanahan is thinking that with a mildly gifted quarterback, this team might be competitive at some point this season.

    The question is whether Beathard can become that guy or is merely a placeholder until the 49ers can make a splash quarterback move in free agency or the draft. Results were mixed for Beathard against Washington, which is to be expected for a first-year quarterback against a fine defense.

    Perhaps surprisingly, Shanahan let the rookie throw the ball downfield, and Beathard wasn't bad, completing three of seven passes of 20 air yards or more for 98 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The touchdown was a nice 45-yarder to Robinson in which Beathard escaped pressure, rolled to his right and spotted the coverage breakdown leading to his receiver being wide open. The pick came on Beathard's last throw of the game when the Redskins were playing everyone back and he was just trying to get something going.

    Overall, Beathard looked jittery at times, but when asked to make a big play, he showed the ability to find receivers in coverage spaces. That's a good start to build on, and more than Hoyer had shown.

26. Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears

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    Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

    Last Week: 21

    It was clear that the Chicago Bears' plan against the Baltimore Ravens and their reductive offense was to put the minimum amount of pressure on rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, making his second start in the NFL. And given the complex, frequently disguised coverages the Ravens bring on defense, that was probably a good idea. Trubisky completed eight passes in just 16 attempts for 113 yards and a touchdown. Running back Tarik Cohen added a touchdown pass of his own off a halfback option, and Jordan Howard decimated Baltimore's defense with 167 yards on 36 carries for a 27-24 win.

    When Trubisky did throw the ball, the results were mixed. His second attempt was a deep throwaway to the right sideline in which he missed receiver Tanner Gentry open on a drag route. The window closed before Trubisky could react. He pushed a ball over the head of tight end Dion Sims. When he saw a coverage he didn't recognize, he simply threw the ball away, which was most likely a response drilled into him by his coaches. That risk-averse plan worked in that Trubisky didn't throw a ton of picks against a Ravens defense that is known for its advanced and disguised coverage concepts, but in this game, the rookie missed too many options when he had a clean pocket and time to scan the field.

    Trubisky did hit receiver Kendall Wright for an 18-yard gain on a busted coverage in the third quarter, which led to his 27-yard touchdown pass to Sims out of a bunch-right formation. Here, Trubisky threw a great ball on a rollout to the right, putting the ball right into Sims' hands over the head of safety Tony Jefferson.

    The Bears are bringing Trubisky along slowly, and that's wise, but as his field vision advances, they'll do well to let him take a few more chances.

25. Brett Hundley, Green Bay Packers

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Last Week: N/A

    Hundley came onto the field with 1:42 left in the first quarter in relief of the injured Rodgers, and after two handoffs to running back Ty Montgomery, he threw his first pass of the day—a pass he'd like to have back.

    The Packers were running a quick pick route to the left side of the formation against Minnesota's man coverage, and Hundley tried to get the ball to receiver Geronimo Allison on an out route. But cornerback Mackensie Alexander deflected the ball into the hands of cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and that was the first of Hundley's three interceptions. Hundley also missed safety Harrison Smith dropping into coverage for his second pick, and then he overthrew Jordy Nelson into the hands of cornerback Trae Waynes as a result of pressure to his front side from defensive end Brian Robison.

    Hundley's only touchdown—he completed 18 of 33 passes for 157 yards, one touchdown and three picks—came in the second quarter when he stepped up in the pocket and got the ball to Davante Adams, who moved to the left side of the field on a crossing route. Adams and Hundley worked together to beat Barr on the underneath coverage.

    Other than that, Hundley had some nice throws to the sideline, and he clearly has a good deep arm. The game plan against the Vikings was Rodgers', and Hundley has completed 3 of 11 passes for 17 yards and one interception in the regular season before Sunday.

    Coach McCarthy, long an advocate of the simple passing structure that calls for receivers to get open using their physical gifts and quarterbacks to throw into tight windows, must change his preferences if Hundley is to have any success. An offense in which short passes with easy open reads lead to a quarterback in rhythm would be the order of the day here.

    The Packers next face the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, and this isn't the Saints defense that opened up the season looking awful—there's been a lot of improvement over the last month. Until further notice, these challenges are now Hundley's to face.

24. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week: 15

    Coming into Sunday, Ravens' head coach John Harbaugh was a perfect 11-0 at home against rookie quarterbacks.

    After Sunday, he is 11-1 due in part to the play of his veteran quarterback.

    Joe Flacco completed 24 of 41 passes for 180 yards and a pair of interceptions in Baltimore's overtime loss to Trubisky and the Bears. Baltimore trailed 17-3 midway through the third quarter, but a Bobby Rainey kickoff return and a Michael Campanaro punt return helped the Ravens get back into the game and force overtime.

    But the story of the afternoon was Flacco and Baltimore's inability to come away with touchdowns after getting into Bears territory. The Ravens took over possession after the two-minute warning in the second quarter and drove down inside the Chicago 10-yard line. But facing a 1st-and-goal at the Chicago 9-yard line, Flacco threw three straight incompletions and the Ravens settled for three.

    Early in the fourth quarter, Flacco and the Ravens again faced a 1st-and-goal at the Chicago 9-yard line. This time Flacco threw a short completion, had a running back screen play tipped by the edge-defender and threw a pass beyond the line of scrimmage that took a touchdown off the scoreboard. Once more, Baltimore settled for three.

    Late in the fourth quarter, the Ravens defense set up their offense for the go-ahead score in Chicago territory after a strip-sack of Trubisky. But Flacco tried to throw a deep out pattern and the pass came out late, was intercepted and returned for a 90-yard touchdown by Chicago. Only the heroics from Campanaro allowed the Ravens even to get the game to overtime.

    The Ravens are 3-3 and only a game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers right now, but Flacco is not playing well. There is obviously a lot of time for him and the Baltimore offense to get on track. Their offense is 31st in the league in passing yards per game, and Flacco is 31st in the league in adjusted net yards per attempt with a woeful 3.26. Simply put, the Ravens need their quarterback to play better if they hope to overtake Pittsburgh in the AFC North.

23. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

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    Blake Bortles' afternoon can probably best be summed up in one sequence of plays near the start of the fourth quarter. Facing a 2nd-and-9 on the Los Angeles 48-yard line, Bortles did a great job of climbing the pocket, sliding away from pressure and finding Marquise Lee downfield with a good throw to move Jacksonville deeper into Rams territory.

    Two plays later, the quarterback tried to climb the pocket again, but the football was punched out of his hands by Morgan Fox. Thankfully for Bortles, rookie offensive tackle Cam Robinson jumped on the football and the Jaguars retained possession.

    There would be no last-second reprieve for Bortles on the next play. Facing 3rd-and-13, Bortles' passing attempt is too far in front of his receiver, deflected into the air and intercepted.

    Promise and potential ultimately unfulfilled.

    Bortles finished the afternoon 23-of-35 for 241 yards with a touchdown to go with the previously described interception. The scoring toss came on a screen play to running back Chris Ivory, but Bortles did a solid job of keeping that play alive in the pocket in the face of pressure before dumping the ball off to let Ivory take care of the rest.

    This game, however, gives us a window into how the Jags might fare if the score gets away from them. They've got a great defense and the emerging force that is running back Leonard Fournette, so if their offense can stay on script, they can play with anyone in the league. But if the game starts to get away from them—as it did thanks to some special teams breakdowns—and they are forced to put more on Bortles, they might run into some stiff headwinds.

22. Jacoby Brissett, Indianapolis Colts

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    James Kenney/Associated Press

    Last Week: 19

    There were two signs in Week 6 that Jacoby Brissett is growing as a quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts. In the fourth quarter with the game on the line, Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden surmised that the Colts would need to put the game in the quarterback's hands. The coaches did just that. Where in weeks past the Colts tried to close out tight contests with the running game, this week they put the game in Brissett's hands down the stretch, often emptying the backfield and letting the second-year QB sling it. On the game's critical play, a 4th-and-1 just outside the two-minute warning deep in Tennessee territory, they called on Brissett to execute a naked bootleg.

    He was stopped short.

    Indianapolis could not pull out the victory, but you can't point the finger at Brissett. He completed 21 of 37 passes for 212 yards and a touchdown to Jack Doyle. Brissett was also very effective against the blitz, completing six of 14 passes for 63 yards and a touchdown in those situations, according to NFL's Next Gen Stats.

    If you watched the telecast on ESPN, you likely heard Gruden talking about how Brissett was adjusting to the terminology differences between New England and Indianapolis. But if you look at some of the passing concepts the Colts are running with their backup quarterback, you might notice some similar concepts between New England and Indianapolis. For example, on a hitch route to Frank Gore on the Colts' opening drive, they ran a HOSS concept, which is a two-receiver combination consisting of a seam route and a hitch route on the outside. So he might be adjusting to the different terminology, but the route concepts are familiar for him.

    Brissett also made a number of big throws Monday night, such as the out route he threw to Kamar Aiken late in the second quarter that displayed impressive velocity and ball placement. Another out route to Donte Moncrief on that same drive again showed high-level velocity and accuracy. Brissett also showed the toughness to stay in the pocket and take a shot after delivering a well-placed throw under duress. His fourth-quarter throw to Moncrief along the left sideline came under heavy pressure, but the young QB stood tall in the pocket and put a perfect throw on his target. Finally, his touchdown pass to Jack Doyle illustrated his quick processing speed, as the play came on a run/pass option design and served as yet another example of how RPO designs are effective—and here to stay in today's NFL.

21. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Last Week: N/A

    After Jameis Winston exited the Buccaneers game against the Arizona Cardinals due to a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder, Fitzpatrick came in and played well enough for the Bucs to win—except that newly acquired running back Adrian Peterson gashed Tampa Bay's defense, and Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer was at his efficient best. Fitzpatrick completed 22 of 32 passes for 290 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, proving to head coach Dirk Koetter that, at the very least, he has a good backup quarterback when needed.

    As has been the case throughout his career, Fitzpatrick is much better when managing the offense with shorter passes; his deep throws don't have the velocity to time to receivers against better coverages. His first pick of the day came early in the second half when he tried to hit DeSean Jackson on a go route to the left side down the numbers, and Cardinals safety Antoine Bethea jumped the route. At that point, the Bucs were down 24-0, and things looked pretty hopeless.

    But Fitzpatrick rebounded nicely in the second half, throwing short touchdowns to Jackson and tight end Cameron Brate, and hitting Mike Evans with a nicely timed 37-yard touchdown with 2:02 left in the game. Fitzpatrick had about 40 air yards on that one, and though the ball was a hair underthrown, Evans used his physical gifts to beat cornerback Justin Bethel for the catch.

    It's not yet known whether Winston will be able to go against the Bills next Sunday, but Fitzpatrick provides a decent second option if he's not.

20. Jay Cutler, Miami Dolphins

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Last Week: 25

    Move aside, Tom Brady, and make room for Jay Cutler.

    The Miami Dolphins quarterback joins Brady as quarterbacks who have led double-digit comebacks against the Atlanta Falcons in the past few months. Sure, Brady pulled off his comeback for the ages in the Super Bowl. But Miami's win on the road this Sunday was a statement victory for the Dolphins and enabled them to keep pace with Brady and the idle Buffalo Bills in the AFC East.

    Cutler and the offense struggled early as Atlanta raced out to the 17-point lead. Some of his throws were off-target, such as his early interception in the direction of Leonte Carroo. Cutler did a good job of climbing the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield, but his pass for Carroo on a crossing route was well behind the wide receiver and intercepted by Deion Jones. Some passes were catchable but dropped, such as a flat route to running back Jay Ajayi or a slant route to Jarvis Landry.

    But the offense got rolling in the second half. It opened the third quarter with a touchdown drive where Cutler completed seven of eight passes, capped off by a scoring strike to Kenny Stills where the quarterback again climbed the pocket, kept his eyes downfield and drilled in a strike to his receiver along the back line of the end zone.

    Cutler threw his second touchdown pass of the afternoon on a beautifully designed swing route to Landry. The receiver came in Orbit Motion before the play deep into the backfield from left to right, then reversed course and swung back toward the left sideline. That combined with play action drew the attention of Atlanta's coverage away from Landry and enabled the touchdown.

    After much consternation about the state of its offense, particularly after its trip to London to take on the New Orleans Saints, Miami has won two straight and are right in the thick of things in the AFC East. If Adam Gase and company are starting to figure out how to get this offense moving, the Dolphins could make some serious noise in that division.

19. Case Keenum, Minnesota Vikings

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    Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

    Last Week: 17

    With Sam Bradford nursing a balky knee and Teddy Bridgewater only now returning to practice after last year's knee injury, it's been Keenum as the Vikings' unlikely rescuer, playing efficiently and occasionally explosively as the Vikings take the pole position in the NFC North with a 4-2 record. Most importantly, Keenum has given the Vikings the room needed to wait on Bradford's status—last week's hurry job against the Bears notwithstanding—and Bridgewater the time to rehabilitate himself and get back into optimal condition.

    Keenum wasn't spectacular against the Packers on Sunday—24 completions in 38 attempts for 239 yards, one touchdown and one interception—but he was good enough once again on a team with a great defense and a newly effective running game. Keenum was erratic with the deep ball early, missing throws to Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph, and he clearly missed Stefon Diggs, who is out with a groin injury. He also underthrew Thielen in the second quarter, but he was bailed out by a pass-interference penalty.

    But he did connect with Thielen on a deep sideline route later in the second quarter and hit his best deep receiver again in the third quarter, this time in stride on a deep over route.

    Keenum isn't a natural deep-ball thrower. But he is a positive version of the generally pejorative "game manager" who can do just enough to keep his team in the action as long as he doesn't play outside himself. For the Vikings at this point, that's good enough.

18. Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams

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    Logan Bowles/Getty Images

    Last Week: 16

    The Rams' 27-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars was a statement game in a lot of ways—this is the kind of team the Jeff Fisher Rams would have fought to a draw or a close loss in recent years, but the Sean McVay version of this franchise has the same defense and special teams, with just enough on the ball on offense to put it over the top.

    Make no mistake, though—second-year quarterback Jared Goff struggled as expected against Jacksonville's stellar defense, completing 11 of 21 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown. More wasn't needed because the Rams' special teams scored two touchdowns and Todd Gurley ran like a man possessed, but the stat line looked a lot like the old Fisher games in which the quarterback was hidden at all costs.

    Goff aired it out more than you might know, though—he attempted four passes of 20 or more air yards, completing none. He overthrew tight end Tyler Higbee on a right sideline route, sailed a ball past double coverage to Sammy Watkins, nearly had another deep pass to Watkins picked off by cornerback A.J. Bouye, and underthrew Robert Woods on a post.

    In his last two games against the Seahawks and Jaguars, Goff has been tested to throw balls into tighter windows against outstanding defenses with aggressive, athletic coverage. That the Rams went 1-1 in those games and were close to beating Seattle says a lot for the team. But Goff is still very much a product of an offense that defines his reads for him and makes things easy schematically, and if the Rams are to capitalize on their talent and coaching, he's going to have to take a step forward as a pure passer at some point.

17. Trevor Siemian, Denver Broncos

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    Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    Last Week: N/A (Bye)

    Four weeks ago, Trevor Siemian threw two disastrous interceptions on the road in a loss to the Buffalo Bills. In the wake of that game, I posited that his performance illustrated that the Denver Broncos might face a ceiling with Siemian as their starting quarterback. As one might expect, I got some pushback on that point from Broncos fans.

    After Sunday night, it is time to revisit that issue.

    Coming off a bye week and facing a winless New York Giants team, you would expect the Broncos to be in strong position for a victory. But they struggled to get their offense going early and were turned into a one-dimensional team before ultimately falling 23-10. Siemian finished the night completing 29 of 50 passes for 376 yards but again threw a pair of interceptions, the second of which was returned for a touchdown by Janoris Jenkins. The Broncos ran a Smash Concept to the left against a Cover 2 look, and Jenkins stayed on the route in the flat. That gave Siemian a chance to hit the deeper route along the sideline, but he forced a throw to the shorter option and Jenkins jumped the route.

    The first interception came when Siemian simply overthrew a vertical route earlier in the game. That ended a scoring threat from Denver that might have changed the flow of the contest.

    Siemian had a strong fourth quarter, finding Jeff Heuermann for a touchdown pass and throwing for 154 yards in the final frame. But that all came when the Broncos were down by multiple scores and turned into a pass-only offense. That might be the biggest lesson from the night. Siemian thrives on play action, and on an evening when the Giants stifled the Broncos' running attack, Denver was unable to pull out a victory. That might just be the blueprint for defenses to erect that ceiling above Denver's offense as this season progresses. 

16. Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Last Week: N/A (Bye)

    It took too much for the Redskins to beat the winless 49ers on Sunday—they blew a 17-point lead at one point, and have to feel lucky to get out of FedEx Field with a 26-24 win. Cousins, playing against the team he's often targeted to join as a free agent in the upcoming offseason, struggled at times, completing 25 of 37 passes for 330 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, adding another touchdown as a rusher.

    The interception came on a deep second-quarter pass to tight end Vernon Davis on 3rd-and-12 with 6:40 left in the second half—Cousins overthrew Vernon Davis against San Francisco's deep coverage, and cornerback Rashard Robinson had an easy pick. Overall, Cousins was not good at all with the deep ball, completing none of the five passes he attempted of 20 air yards or more, and throwing that interception. The 49ers were confident in their ability to get pressure with their defensive line, and they often hung their linebackers back into coverage. This minimized Cousins' ability to get easy reads downfield, which is something he needs to be accurate at when throwing more than a short pass.

    So, most of what Cousins did on this day was short stuff underneath a defense primed to prevent the big play. In that, he adhered to the old adage that you take what the defense gives you, but he proved unable to do more than that.

15. Eli Manning, New York Giants

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    Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    Last Week: 20

    Head coach Ben McAdoo's decision to turn the play-calling over to offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan before the Giants' Sunday night game against the Denver Broncos proved to be a very wise one. Against a great Denver defense, Sullivan dialed up many more plays in "12" personnel (one back, two tight ends), which gave the Giants' overwhelmed offensive line much-needed help. And with Eli Manning's top four receivers out due to injury, Sullivan schemed his receivers open far more than McAdoo ever did—or, in fact, than Sullivan is known to do.

    Manning didn't attempt a single deep pass in the entire game, but with his defense shutting down Denver's run game, Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian making his share of mistakes and Orleans Darkwa rushing 21 times for 117 yards, Manning didn't need more than the 11 completions he had in 19 attempts for 128 yards and a touchdown.

    Rookie tight end Evan Engram was Manning's primary target, catching five passes for 82 yards and a touchdown—a five-yard score in which Manning rolled to his right and hit Engram in front of safety Justin Simmons.

    Most of Manning's passing yardage was picked up on quick angular routes and dump-off passes, but given the week-to-week inconsistency of McAdoo's boom-or-bust offense, this 23-10 win—the first of the Giants' season—has to be a major relief. The question now is whether Manning can cut it loose with more blockers and fewer targets on the field, and with so much receiver talent off the field.

14. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers

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    Last Week: 5

    The Philadelphia Eagles had what seemed like a foolproof plan to beat the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night—shut down the run and force Cam Newton to overcome that defense with his arm. The Panthers ran the ball 25 times for just 80 yards against the Eagles' stellar front, and Newton led all Panthers rushers with 71 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries. Yes, the rest of Carolina's vaunted ground game gained just nine yards on 14 carries. That's why Newton attempted a career-high 52 passes, completing just 28 of them for 239 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.

    To be fair, not all the interceptons were Newton's fault.

    The pick to Patrick Robinson early in the third quarter was the result of Jonathan Stewart allowing the ball to bounce off his hands on a quick pass after Stewart had flared out of the backfield to wide left.

    But the pick thrown to cornerback Rasul Douglas with 6:34 left in the first half came when Eagles defensive lineman Fletcher Cox bulled right guard Trai Turner back into Newton, who threw up a flailing goat of a ball to Devin Funchess. Newton had running back Christian McCaffrey as an outlet underneath but didn't look in that direction.

    With 3:16 left in the game, Newton tried to get the ball downfield to receiver Russell Shepard with a front-side overload blitz in his face. The result was an errant pass that proved to be an easy pick for cornerback Jalen Mills.

    And there was one awful throw to receiver Curtis Samuel that was intercepted by safety Rodney McLeod and negated by a pass-interference call on Mills. Here, Newton tried to sail the ball to Samuel on a deep post, but he underthrew it, and the converging coverage of McLeod and Mills put up a wall between Samuel and the ball. Had Mills not overcompensated for the fact that he got turned around on Samuel's route stem, that would have been the worst throw of Newton's day.

    The absence of a running game, and the Eagles' ability to bring pressure with their four down linemen and the occasional well-designed blitz, put too much on Newton's shoulders as a passer, and exacerbated his tendency to be careless and situationally unaware with the big play as a trade-off. The result was a rough game for Newton after two good performances against the Patriots and Lions.

13. Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Last Week: N/A (Injury)

    That Derek Carr was even able to start for the Oakland Raiders on Sunday is a testament to his pain tolerance and his willingness to lead his team no matter what. Any evaluation of his play on Sunday needs to consider the context: He was playing with a broken back.

    Statistically, it was an up-and-down afternoon for the Raiders quarterback. He completed 70 percent of his passes on the afternoon for only 171 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. It would be hard to charge him with both interceptions. The first came on what looked like a route miscommunication between him and Michael Crabtree, and the pass sailed off the mark and into the belly of the safety over the top. The second turnover came on a pass just too far in front of Marshawn Lynch, which the running back deflected into the defender's hands.

    The bigger concern for Carr and the offense going forward can be illustrated through this chart. That is the passing breakdown for Carr on Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers from NextGen Stats, and as you can see, only five passing attempts traveled more than 10 yards downfield. The focus on quick passing concepts and getting the football out of Carr's hands fast worked for Oakland early in the year, but that success has fallen off over the past few weeks.

    If you look at the touchdown pass, a deep out route to Crabtree, you can see how Carr can be effective in a more downfield passing attack. That touchdown pass came on a Flood Concept, and Carr demonstrated incredible anticipation, with the football coming out of his hands well before Crabtree broke to the outside.

    Todd Downing might believe that the quick passing game is the best way to keep his quarterback upright, but given the offense's struggles of late, he would be wise to mix in more downfield throws for Carr. As he showed on the touchdown to Crabtree, he can excel in that aspect of the game. Doing so would stretch the defense more as well, which opens up the underneath stuff for the offense yet again.  

12. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Last Week: 11

    In what was likely the wildest game of the 2017 season to date, the New Orleans Saints put up a 45-10 third quarter lead on the Detroit Lions, only to watch the Lions turn it into a one-score game when defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson intercepted Drew Brees for a touchdown with 6:41 left in the contest. However, the Saints got their own back when Saints defensive lineman Cameron Jordan picked quarterback Matthew Stafford off with 5:04 left in the game, leading to the 52-38 final.

    It was that sort of day for Stafford, who was swimming upstream the whole time. He completed just 25 of 52 passes for 312 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. The Jordan pick was a weird play: Stafford was throwing from the end zone as the Lions were stuck at their own 1-yard line, Jordan deflected the ball at the line of scrimmage and caught the deflection. With 4:46 left in the game, Stafford threw a short pass to running back Theo Riddick, who couldn't hold onto it. The ball deflected off of Jordan into the hands of safety Kenny Vaccaro.

    The interception to cornerback Marshon Lattimore in the third quarter was the only one I would classify as Stafford's fault—he threw short to Marvin Jones, and Lattimore simply jumped the route. The Saints have improved tremendously in their pattern-reading and overall coverage concepts in the last month, and Stafford's occasionally random style played right into that. Stafford also fumbled on a first-quarter sack, and the ball was recovered by Vaccaro for a score. That was one of two fumbles Stafford lost on the day.

    Stafford had a few impressive deep throws, and his best probably came with 8:06 left in the third quarter when he moved to his left out of pressure and threw a great ball with arc and touch downfield to Jones, past safety Marcus Williams. He also had a nice fade touchdown that Jones brought in with one hand against tight man coverage.

    Most of Stafford's incomplete passes came from pressure forcing errant passes and tipped balls at the line. Given the nature of the game—the Lions were down 31-10 at the half, Detroit's preferred strategy of integrating Stafford in a more conservative game plan went out the window, and the Lions' offensive line wasn't able to handle that kind of pressure. Stafford's day was slightly better than the stats might show, but he'll want to forget this one as soon as possible.

11. Josh McCown, New York Jets

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Last Week: 12

    After one quarter of play against Tom Brady, Josh McCown was the better quarterback on the field Sunday.

    Then the New England Patriots defense started to generate pressure, and the balance of the game shifted into the Patriots' favor. McCown started the game in fine form Sunday and gave Patriots fans some early heartburn. He threw a short touchdown pass to Austin Seferian-Jenkins to give the Jets an early lead, and followed that up with a deep crossing route to Jeremy Kerley to stake New York to a 14-0 margin in the second quarter.

    But as the game wore on, the Patriots began to blitz McCown more. They only sacked McCown four times, but pressure impacted his throws on a number of instances. His second interception came on a fourth-down throw, and while the corner blitz did not get home, McCown's pass was well off target and intercepted by Devin McCourty.

    On New York's final play of the game, the Patriots again went after McCown, and a late throw was again off-target and fell incomplete, ending a last-second threat from the home team.

    McCown finished the day completing 31 of 47 passes for 354 yards with a pair of interceptions to go with the two touchdowns. He did get off to the quick start, but he and the offense cooled down over the final two-thirds of the contest. Jets fans will angrily point to the review decision that took a touchdown pass to Seferian-Jenkins off the board and gave the football back to New England as a turning point in the contest. While the game might have taken a different path had the call stood, New York had two more chances to come away with points and could only manage a field goal. On their penultimate drive of the game, the Jets faced a 1st-and10 at the New England 11-yard line and could only gain one more yard before the field-goal try. To close out a divisional rival, teams need to do better in that situation.

10. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    Last Week: 18

    Sometimes it might be better to be lucky than good.

    After a tumultuous week off the field, due in large part to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger questioning whether he "still had it" after a five-interception performance against Jacksonville, the Pittsburgh Steelers made a statement on the road Sunday. Pittsburgh went into Kansas City and knocked the Chiefs from the unbeaten ranks with a 19-13 win.

    The win came in traditional Steelers fashion: defense and running the football. Entering the game, Pittsburgh had given up the fifth-most rushing yards per game (136.6), but it stifled the Kansas City ground attack on Sunday, holding rookie running back Kareem Hunt to 21 yards on nine rushing attempts. Le'Veon Bell turned in his second 100+ yard rushing performance of 2017, carrying the ball 32 times for 179 yards and a touchdown.

    For his part, Roethlisberger rebounded from the Jacksonville game as well. He completed 17 of 25 passes for 252 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The interception could not be laid at the quarterback's feet, however. Roethlisberger looked to hit Antonio Brown on a slant route early in the third quarter, but the receiver hesitated for a step, and the pass went directly to defensive back Marcus Peters.

    The touchdown pass was one that Roethlisberger likely got away with. After the Chiefs scored their first touchdown of the contest to cut the Pittsburgh lead to 12-10, Roethlisberger dropped to pass on a 3rd-and-2 near midfield. Pittsburgh ran a Switch Verticals concept with Brown starting in the slot then bending outside to run a vertical route along the sideline. Brown gets a step on Phillip Gaines on the route and Roethlisberger tries to fit in a throw in a narrow throwing window. Gaines is in good position to break up the play and tips the ball into the air, but the receiver stays with the ball, avoids the hit from safety Daniel Sorensen and secures the football before racing the distance for the game-deciding play.

    As we said with Brady: Survive and advance. The win keeps Pittsburgh atop the AFC North and puts the rest of the conference on notice. If their defense rounds into form and Bell continues to churn out yardage on the ground, the Steelers will be a tough matchup for most teams down the stretch.

9. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Last Week: N/A (Bye)

    Going into next Sunday night's Super Bowl rematch against the Patriots, the last thing the Falcons wanted to have to do was to answer a bunch of questions about a collapse in a game after putting up a big lead. But when you lose after putting up a 17-point advantage against the Miami Dolphins, as the Falcons did on Sunday, that's going to happen.

    Atlanta's offense started out hot and regressed down the stretch. Ryan has just one game this season in which he's thrown more than one touchdown pass. He completed 24 of 35 passes for 248 yards, one touchdown and one interception against the Dolphins in a 20-17 loss, and the interception was deadly. The Falcons were in Miami territory with 47 seconds left in the game, and Ryan tried to hit tight end Austin Hooper as the iso receiver on the right side with trips left and running back Devonta Freeman flaring out to the right. This was a 1st-and-10 play, so there was no desperation to complete a shot play—this was Ryan throwing into double-coverage from safety Reshad Jones and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, and Jones taking the ball after Tankersley did a great job of batting the ball out of Hooper's hands just as he caught it.

    This play was one in which offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian gave Ryan schemed-open receivers, and it was on the quarterback to make the play. He had a curl-flat combination to the left side, and Freeman as an option to the right sideline, but the need to make the big play overcame Ryan. Miami's two-deep coverage, where the iso receiver was bracketed, told Ryan he had several underneath options.

    And Ryan's taste for the deep ball was a problem in this game—he did connect with Marvin Hall on a 40-yard touchdown pass off of play action and sweep motion with 2:00 minutes left in the first quarter, but the other three deep passes he threw fell incomplete.

    Ryan is a quarterback who relies on schematic versatility and pre-snap motion to isolate and exploit defensive mismatches, and Sarkisian isn't doing that at the level Kyle Shanahan was last season. As a result, Atlanta's passing offense is stuck in a malaise, and it will likely take a more advanced playbook to snap him out of it.

8. Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    Last Week: N/A (Injury)

    After a week off to rest an ailing hamstring, Marcus Mariota returned to the starting lineup for the Tennessee Titans. Similar to Derek Carr, who also missed last week, Mariota's performance needs to be judged with the context of the injury.

    It was clear that Mariota was not himself, and if you needed more evidence of that fact you could look at Tennessee's second play of the fourth quarter. Coming out of a play-action fake, the quarterback looked to take a downfield shot, but his options were covered. Mariota then escaped the pocket to his left, and rather than try to pick up yardage by evading a defender in the open field, Mariota simply slid down at the line of scrimmage. That is not the type of play we are used to seeing from the young quarterback.

    Another play we usually don't see was the interception he threw to start the second half. This came on a simple curl/flat concept where the quarterback tried to hit his tight end in the flat. But linebacker John Simon read the play well, got himself in the throwing lane and made a leaping catch before returning the interception for a touchdown.

    But even with the injury limiting his mobility and keeping him in the pocket, and the one mistake, Mariota was still impressive on the whole. On Tennessee's fourth-quarter touchdown drive that gave it the lead, he drilled a long throw to Rishard Matthews along the right sideline on a 3rd-and-long to extend the drive. Earlier in the night he delivered on another long out pattern to Eric Decker for a big play. Then when the Titans needed another scoring drive, Mariota delivered with two straight big throws to Decker and then a deep shot to Taywan Taylor for the score. That throw to Taylor came a split-second before he absorbed a shot from Jonathan Hankins that was flagged for a roughing-the-passer penalty.

    Mariota was limited on Monday night, and even with his physical struggles and the big mistake he made, the Titans were able to pull out the victory. If Tennessee can get Mariota back to 100 percent, it has a very good shot to pull out this division and get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

7. Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Last Week: 7

    For the fifth time this season, the Los Angeles Chargers found themselves in a one-score game. But for the second straight week, the Chargers were able to pull out the victory in the final minutes. On his final passing attempt of the game, Philip Rivers dropped in a perfect throw to tight end Hunter Henry on a Flood Concept for a gain of 23 yards to get the Chargers on the cusp of field-goal range for Nick Novak. After some Melvin Gordon runs to get the ball inside the red zone, Novak split the uprights for the win.

    Rivers was very effective on the afternoon, competing 25 of 36 passes for 268 yards and a touchdown. The scoring play came on a well-designed screen pass to Gordon in the red zone with center Spencer Pulley getting in front of the running back to help pave the way.

    What really stood out was Rivers' ability to extend plays by moving in the pocket on Sunday. He is not often confused with the Mariotas and the Watsons in terms of mobility, but Rivers did a great job sliding in the pocket—often to his left—before making throws downfield. Against a defense featuring Khalil Mack off the edge, this ability from Rivers allowed him to keep plays alive, find receivers downfield and keep the offense on track.

    A prime example of this came on his second passing attempt of the fourth quarter. On a 1st-and-10 play, Rivers faced pressure off the right edge in the form of Shilique Calhoun, who was collapsing the pocket. But the quarterback slid to his left and found Tyrell Williams on a curl route past the sticks for a first down.

    It might be too late for the Chargers to catch the Kansas City Chiefs at the top of the AFC West, but with a big group of teams clustered with three and two victories, there is a chance at a playoff spot. Sure, the odds might be very long for the Chargers, but if Rivers keeps playing well, who knows what can happen.

6. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week: N/A (Bye)

    When the Saints score 52 points, as they did against the Lions on Sunday, you expect Brees' stat line to be better than this: 21-of-31 for 186 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. But it was surprisingly the Saints defense that scored three touchdowns, carrying Brees on what was not one of his better days. And that is a sentence nobody may have ever typed before.

    Brees' only deep completion of the day was a 20-yarder to Ted Ginn; other than that, he threw mostly short-to-intermediate passes with a couple of deep misses. His interception to cornerback Darius Slay came under serious pressure, and Brees let go of the ball as he was going to the ground. Slay won a battle for the ball with receiver Michael Thomas, and Brees should have taken the sack with the Saints up 31-10 with 13:23 left in the third quarter. The pick-six to Lions lineman A'Shawn Robinson was a freaky example of coverage by the big man—Robinson dropped out of the rush and intercepted Brees' short slant attempt to receiver Brandon Coleman.

    Even Brees' touchdowns reflected a desire by the Saints offense to go underneath with the ball as much as possible, which seems a worthy sign of respect to Detroit's intermediate and deep coverage. The 20-yard touchdown to Ginn was mostly a yards-after-catch creation, and the second touchdown was a two-yarder in which Brees spotted tight end Michael Hoomanawanui open in the end zone.

    That the Saints can win even when Brees doesn't shoot out all the lights is actually a very encouraging sign for a defense that appears to be improving by leaps and bounds every week, especially in coverage. It's been far too rare an instance when Brees doesn't have to carry the entire franchise on his back.

5. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Last Week: 14

    Before Arizona's 38-33 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 6, Palmer's 2017 season was a frustrating mishmash of deep passes that didn't sustain drives and protection issues that came from frequent deep drops to make those throws.

    Against the Bucs, Palmer attempted just one pass over 20 yards in the air, and that was a mistake. With 7:56 left in the third quarter, Palmer was pressured from both sides of the pocket on a blitz, didn't have the room to step up and floated a ball in the general direction of receiver J.J. Nelson. Nelson was double-covered, the ball was short of the mark, and cornerback Brent Grimes had an easy pick.

    Other than that—and with the newly acquired Adrian Peterson in the backfield—Palmer was as efficient as he's ever been. He completed 18 of 22 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns against one interception. His first pass in the second half was an underthrown 17-yard fade to receiver John Brown, but Brown was able to catch it easily and walk into the end zone because safety Justin Evans overplayed the route and hurried past Brown.

    Palmer's deeper throws in Week 6 were generally of the 12- to 15-yard variety and based on quick angle routes and easy openings. This was a good balance of head coach Bruce Arians' desire for explosive plays and the realities of Arizona's offensive line.

    Palmer also benefitted from a number of ghastly coverage mishaps from Tampa Bay's secondary. His performance, however, was about more than Peterson, who brings a balance that's been missing from the Cardinals offense since David Johnson's injury in Week 1. When Arians puts a game plan together that allows Palmer to get the ball out quickly, success usually follows.

4. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Last Week: 9

    Over the last month, the Eagles have finally done what they wanted to do ever since they took Carson Wentz with the second overall pick in the 2016 draft—use the running game as an adjunct to Wentz's passing game and have an offensive line that could support a balanced offense.

    Wentz has responded wonderfully this season, showing the kind of poise under pressure and ability to read his options you'd expect from much more experienced quarterbacks.

    In Philly's 28-23 Thursday night road win over the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium, Wentz threw three touchdown passes, and he had to deal with different defensive concepts for each one.

    He hit tight end Zach Ertz on a one-yard slant touchdown late in the second quarter after running back LeGarrette Blount motioned wide left to stretch the defense.

    Early in the third quarter, Carolina faked a blitz look and dropped linebacker Thomas Davis into coverage after the snap. Wentz didn't adjust his primary target. He had Ertz on an intermediate post to the end zone from the Panthers 17-yard line, and he simply waited until the tight end had cleared the area Davis occupied and threw the ball between Davis and safety Mike Adams.

    Wentz knew this was a mismatch, but he also passed with anticipation to the stem in Ertz's route. The tight end boxed Adams out, and that was an easy touchdown.

    The third TD—a 24-yard dart to slot receiver Nelson Agholor—came with 14:55 left in the game. Wentz has developed an excellent chemistry with Agholor since the third-year receiver replaced Jordan Matthews as the primary inside target, and on this play, Wentz countered a backside blitz against a 3x1 receiver set by hitting Agholor on a quick slant where linebacker David Mayo had been before he stepped up to blitz from the edge.

    The route combination helped, with Ertz taking Adams upfield, and linebacker Shaq Thompson was left to cover Agholor. The receiver lost his defender on the slant angle, and that was that.

    Wentz has faith in his coaches, his protection, his running game and his receivers. He's playing calmly in the pocket, and though he has the physical abilities to create plays when pressured, the structure is working well enough for him to thrive in it.

3. Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Last Week: 4

    Deshaun Watson's day began with him entering NRG Stadium in a vintage Warren Moon Houston Oilers jersey.

    It ended with the rookie quarterback atop the NFL in touchdown passes (15).

    In between, Watson turned in a third straight strong performance, completing 17 of 29 passes for 225 yards and three touchdowns against one interception in a 33-17 victory. While one of the touchdown passes came on a Fly Sweep ripped out of Bob Stitt's playbook from his days at the Colorado School of Mines, the other two showed Watson's continued development as a passer.

    First, Watson hit Will Fuller V on a deep corner route. He took the snap, froze the safety in the middle of the field with his eyes and then turned to his right for a bucket throw to a wide-open Fuller for the score.

    His final touchdown pass of the day might have been more impressive.

    That throw to DeAndre Hopkins came on a run/pass option design in the red zone. Watson needed to show patience in the pocket and let Hopkins clear two underneath defenders. The 2017 No. 12 overall pick did not panic or rush the pass but waited until the throwing lane was clear before delivering a perfect toss.

    Watson did make some errors, most notably an interception that cornerback Jason McCourty returned for a touchdown. On that play, Watson was flushed to his left and tried a cross-body throw that sailed well off the mark and into the waiting arms of the defender.

    While a team likes to see an aggressive decision from its quarterback, as he cannot play the position scared, Watson needs to be smarter going forward. That throw came on a 2nd-and-5 play with a 33-3 lead in the fourth quarter. Rather than risk a throw like that, Watson perhaps should have thrown away the ball and settled for third down.

    Despite the blemishes, Watson continues to impress. But his biggest test of the season may be around the corner as the Texans come off their Week 7 bye and travel to Seattle to take on the Seahawks defense in a difficult environment. How Watson fares at CenturyLink Field will tell us a lot about his rookie year, but given his play to date, it's not likely many will bet against him.

2. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Last Week: 1

    Sunday gave us the first glimpse of what the Kansas City Chiefs offense looks like when the ground game is not cranking. After five straight games in which the Chiefs rushing attack gained over 110 yards, the Steelers held the Chiefs to only 28 yards on the ground at Arrowhead Stadium. Turned into a one-dimensional team, Kansas City slowly crawled back but could not complete the comeback, falling at home 19-13.

    Smith struggled early, and as the game wore on and it was apparent the Chiefs could not be effective on the ground, the Steelers were able to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. They put pressure on Smith throughout the game and sacked him three times.

    And there were some moments you could see the pressure impacting his play.

    For example, on a third-quarter play, Smith dropped to pass and bailed from a clean pocket, missing a wide-open Demarcus Robinson down the seam. The Steelers only rushed three defenders, but Smith felt the ghosts in the pocket and pulled the football down.

    The Chiefs signal-caller finished 19 of 34 passes for 246 yards and a touchdown. His scoring play was one more example this season of how Smith has bought time in the pocket but kept his eyes downfield. This time, he spotted De'Anthony Thomas along the left sideline on an adjusted route in the scramble drill and dropped in a great throw while moving to his left. From there, Thomas broke a tackle attempt on the sideline and raced into the end zone for the 57-yard score.

    Despite the loss, the Chiefs remain atop the AFC West. They face a divisional game on a short week at Oakland's O.co Coliseum before hosting the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football to close out October. Getting their running game back on track might be a good way to move to 6-1. Smith can be effective with his feet and buy time in the pocket in scramble-drill situations, but this team is at its best when it pairs a strong ground game with Smith and his weapons in the passing game.

1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots

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    Abbie Parr/Getty Images

    Last Week: 3

    Survive and advance. You can easily apply the mantra that college basketball coaches espouse in March to the New England Patriots the past two weeks. After surviving the Buccaneers 19-14 in Week 5's Thursday night showdown at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, Tom Brady and the Patriots escaped MetLife Stadium with a hard-fought 24-17 victory over the New York Jets in Week 6.

    Brady was by no means perfect. He completed just over 50 percent of his passes and threw an interception in the first half on a Yankee Concept where he had Brandin Cooks open underneath, but he forced the deep post route in the direction of Phillip Dorsett and into coverage.

    As he has done many times before, however, Brady made big throws when his team needed him in a comeback victory. His deep shot to Cooks just before halftime was a thing of beauty, and give credit to the wide receiver as well for tracking the ball over his shoulder and getting both feet down in bounds. That play set up Brady's first touchdown of the afternoon—a short strike to tight end Rob Gronkowski on a route to the flat that he also perfectly placed.

    Brady's second touchdown throw came on a deep crossing route to his tight end in the third quarter, and it highlighted one aspect of Brady's play that will be important going forward given some of the protection struggles in New England this season. The signal-caller deftly slid away from pressure and bought just enough time to find his 6'6", 265-pound tight end and delivered an on-target throw that led to the 33-yard touchdown.

    Thanks to the Pats' victory and the stumble by Kansas City against the Steelers, Brady slides up this week. Again, it was not pretty, but in a season where parity might be the star sometimes, surviving and advancing is the mantra to live by.