NFL1000: Doug Farrar's Week 17 QB Rankings
Perhaps it was the holiday hangover, or maybe a set of NFL signal-callers spent too much time navigating their local shopping malls trying to get those perfect gifts, but Week 16 of the 2017 season was one of the least impressive when it came to quarterbacks.
Of the 32 starters, 12 quarterbacks with 15 or more passing attempts threw for under 200 yards. Just two quarterbacks—Jared Goff and Kirk Cousins—threw for more than two touchdowns, while seven quarterbacks threw two or more interceptions. Six quarterbacks had completion percentages of 50 percent or less, and five quarterbacks totaled fewer than five yards per attempt.
Which makes what Jimmy Garoppolo did to the top-ranked Jacksonville Jaguars defense all the more impressive. Armed with head coach Kyle Shanahan's next-level game plans, Garoppolo continued his 2017 hot streak by completing 21 of 30 passes for 242 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
The 5-10 San Francisco 49ers turned to Garoppolo far too late in the season—the trade with the New England Patriots for his services only came after they'd exhausted the mediocrities of Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard—but Garoppolo, whether he plays on the franchise tag or with a new long-term contract, certainly makes San Francisco an interesting team in 2018.
More evidence of a changing of the guard in the NFC West was Goff's performance against the Tennessee Titans in a 27-23 win that clinched the division for head coach Sean McVay's 11-4 Los Angeles Rams. Goff threw for four touchdowns and looked impeccable against Tennessee's strong defense.
The success stories of Garoppolo and Goff tell the rest of the NFL one thing—without imaginative game-planners, young quarterbacks are sunk. With them, those same young quarterbacks can thrive.
Our weekly quarterback rankings are decided and written by myself, NFL1000 lead scout Doug Farrar, and quarterbacks scout Mark Schofield. I evaluate all AFC quarterbacks, and Schofield does the same with the NFC quarterbacks.
We combine tape analysis and advanced metrics to give you a sense of which quarterbacks are trending up, down and which are better or worse than their reputations might imply.
The rankings are based on recent performance, but they are also adjusted for opponent, talent around the quarterback and 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 17.
32. Bryce Petty, New York Jets
Last Week: 32
Colin Kaepernick's name might not be running through the front offices of several teams that just missed their chances to be competitive, but it should, like so much spooky music.
The New York Jets had an outside shot to be atypically competitive when veteran Josh McCown was on the field. When McCown suffered a broken hand on December 10 against the Denver Broncos, not only did any chance the Jets have of fielding a productive offense go out the window—this team was left with two choices at quarterback to finish out the rest of the season.
There was Baylor alum Bryce Petty, who's used Madden video games to help himself read defenses, and Christian Hackenberg, the former second-round pick who may actually never see action in a regular-season game because of his inability to play the position.
Petty was the lesser of two evils, which really makes you wonder about Hackenberg. In a 14-7 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, Petty completed just 15 of 28 passes for 119 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. This season, he's completed 47.4 percent of his passes for 4.11 yards per attempt, one touchdown and three picks. Petty has a live arm and some mobility, but he's underwater against NFL defenses, and it showed once again here.
The interception came on 3rd-and-14 at the end of the first half; it was more a desperate Hail Mary heave into the air that was caught by Chargers receiver Keenan Allen, who was on the "hands team" for what was basically an arm punt.
More devastating to the Jets' chances was Petty's wayward end-zone throw to receiver Robby Anderson with 3:11 left in the game. A touchdown and an extra point would have tied the game, and the Jets were on their last chance with 4th-and-7. Anderson ran a route to cornerback Casey Hayward's back side, reading correctly that Hayward was playing bail coverage with his head turned to the middle of the field. Petty appeared to have a predetermined read to Hayward's front side and threw the ball where his receiver couldn't pick it up.
It's possible that Petty can be a decent backup at some point, but the extent to which he looks overwhelmed at this point in his career is an embarrassment for the player and the team. The Jets, like many teams, could have fortified their most important position with more talent than they have.
31. T.J. Yates, Houston Texans
Last Week: 25
The Houston Texans were 3-3 in Deshaun Watson's six full starts before the rookie was lost for the season to a torn ACL in early November, and everything since then, especially the 4-11 mark the team fell to after its 34-6 Monday loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, has revolved around the Texans' inability to put a credible quarterback on the field in Watson's stead.
Tom Savage was ineffective, and the team was even less effective in handling the concussion that put him on injured reserve. And when Yates appeared to suffer a concussion near the end of the first half in the Steelers game, Houston rolled out Taylor Heinicke, an alum of Old Dominion who had bounced around the league as a preseason prospect and had never thrown a regular-season pass before the one completion he had to Will Fuller with 13:36 left in the third quarter.
Yates came back in the game on the next drive and finished things out, but the difference between the Texans' third-string quarterback and their fourth-string quarterback is a wash.
Yates completed seven of 16 passes for 83 yards, one touchdown and one interception as Houston remained offensively irrelevant without Watson as its quarterback. When Yates was sacked and injured late in the second half, the Texans had amassed a grand total of minus-10 passing yards. According to NextGen Stats' quarterback charts, Yates had three completions behind the line of scrimmage and four beyond it, with none coming near deep-ball status.
Perhaps more than any other NFL team, the Texans scuttled their 2017 season with their inability and unwillingness to sign Kaepernick. A lost season will be their punishment for refusing to compete as hard as they possibly can at the game's most important position. They're not the only team about which this can be said, but their mistakes at the position rival Denver's as the most willfully egregious.
30. Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
Last Week: 21
How bad was the Oakland Raiders' offense in their 19-10 Monday loss to the Philadelphia Eagles? According to Sportradar US (h/t Josh Dubow of the Associated Press), Oakland became the first team in the last 16 seasons to start six drives at their own 40-yard line or better and not score a single point. Dubow pointed out it last happened to the Minnesota Vikings in their regular-season finale against the Baltimore Ravens in 2001—with the legendary Spergon Wynn at quarterback.
When your franchise quarterback finds himself in Spergon Wynn country, it's a real problem. Sadly, that is the state of the Raiders these days—a simplistic, reductive passing offense in which receiver drops and weird route combinations conspire with Derek Carr's own bad play to present something that's pretty hard to watch.
Carr completed just 15 of 29 passes for 140 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions against the Eagles, and 63 of those yards came on a deep touchdown pass to Amari Cooper in which Cooper took advantage of cornerback Jalen Mills' iffy footwork and sailed into the end zone.
Perhaps most disconcerting about this play was that it was the last time Carr or the Raiders really tested Philly deep. "Once we hit the first one [to Cooper]," Carr said, per Vic Tafur of The Athletic, "[the Eagles] weren't going to let us have another one."
Not what you want to hear from your quarterback, and the Raiders played afraid on offense from there on out. Carr attempted two more passes of 20 yards or more in the air, and neither was complete, per NextGen Stats. His interceptions were both on intermediate passes in which Philly's defenders had Oakland's routes more defined than Oakland's receivers did.
First-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing will take the majority of the blame for the Raiders' offensive downturn this season, and given what is shown on the field, that's as it should be. Carr is playing spooked, receivers aren't getting open consistently, and the chunk plays that were a staple of this offense in 2016 are just about gone.
29. Brett Hundley, Green Bay Packers
Last Week: N/A (Did Not Play)
As the Green Bay Packers face this offseason, perhaps it is time to address the quarterback position for a number of reasons. First, the Packers struggled without Aaron Rodgers in the lineup, and as NFL teams are learning, fortunes can change in an instant when a QB1 goes down. Second, now that we have seen a body of work from Brett Hundley, perhaps he is not the answer at that QB2 spot.
Hundley struggled yet again on Saturday night in Green Bay's shutout loss to Minnesota, completing only 17 of 40 passes for 130 yards and a pair of interceptions. As we have seen in previous weeks, his decision-making and poor processing speed doomed him on both of his interceptions.
The first mistake came late in the second quarter, with the Packers facing a 3rd-and-3 in the red zone. The Vikings showed a Cover 1 look in the secondary, and Hundley tried to hit Lance Kendricks on a slant route coming over the middle. But safety Harrison Smith was in perfect position underneath the route—knowing he had safety help over the top—and the throw went right to him for the turnover. On that play, Hundley would have been better served by looking outside to the slot fade route, given that the safety was breaking on the slant route.
His second interception came late in the game, with the Packers facing a 4th-and-1 with just over two minutes remaining near midfield. Green Bay ran a mirrored slant/flat combination, and Hundley opened to his left and looked at the slant route. That was covered, but rather than throw the open flat route to that side, he worked to the other side of the field and threw to Kendricks in the flat along the right sideline and very late in the play. Smith again was in perfect position for the interception and made a very easy play for the turnover.
Who knows, maybe Hundley had Kendricks on his fantasy team this week.
These mistakes have been consistent with Hundley this season, and we saw them again on Saturday night.
28. DeShone Kizer, Cleveland Browns
Last Week: 31
The Cleveland Browns are on the verge of tying a record nobody wants. With a loss to the Steelers on New Year's Eve, they'll become the second team in NFL history to lose all their games in a 16-game season, matching a 2008 Detroit Lions squad that responded to that feat by firing everybody it could and going with a major reset. We don't yet know how many bells toll for the Browns coaching staff, though new general manager John Dorsey will likely want his own coaches and players as much as possible.
Of course, that leaves rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer in a bind, but Kizer's used to being in a bind, between his own inability to play at the NFL level at this point, an offense bereft of consistent playmakers and head coach Hue Jackson's tepid support of his efforts. Against the Chicago Bears' underrated defense in a 20-3 loss on Sunday, Kizer completed exactly 50 percent of his passes—18 of 36—for 182 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
The first pick came with 2:04 left in the first half, as Kizer double-pumped to his right while receiver Josh Gordon executed a messy double move on Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller on a vertical route. The slick field affected the timing of Gordon's route, and Kizer didn't adjust—he threw the ball five yards past Gordon into the end zone, right into Fuller's arms.
The second pick, with 4:21 left in the game, was a throw in the vicinity of receiver Rashard Higgins that should have never been attempted. Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski broke through clean on an interior blitz, and Kizer tried to throw the ball with Kwiatkoski and edge-rusher Sam Acho ready to take him down. The errant duck was an easy interception for slot cornerback Bryce Callahan.
Cleveland's offense is fundamentally broken, and it's not as if a better quarterback would do much more. But if Kizer is going to be a starter in this league in 2018 and beyond, he must drastically improve his situational awareness and ability to read and respond to what defenses are doing against his offense.
27. Brock Osweiler, Denver Broncos
Last Week: 18
That Brock Osweiler is the Broncos' most appealing quarterback option after 16 weeks of the 2017 season is far less a testimony to Osweiler's abilities and far more an indictment of what general manager John Elway thought his quarterback situation would be.
The injured Trevor Siemian was not going to be a stopgap starter at a league-average level, and second-year man Paxton Lynch was going to need a lot of development time before he was going to be able to deal with NFL defenses. Osweiler has been the lesser of all evils for the most part in what is the NFL's most ridiculous quarterback situation.
Sunday's 27-11 loss to the Washington Redskins, a defeat that put the team at 5-10 on the season, was more of what we've seen all season from the Broncos with very few exceptions—a stilted offense asking too much of a defense that isn't quite what it was. Osweiler completed 22 of 38 passes for 193 yards, no touchdowns and an interception, putting to rest any thoughts that his atypically strong performance against a subpar Indianapolis Colts defense 10 days before was anything more that.
Osweiler's interception to safety D.J. Swearinger late in the second quarter was a perfect example of his inability to handle defenses unless every opening is clearly defined. The Broncos had a 3x1 set, and Osweiler tried to hit Demaryius Thomas on a quick in-cut from the left slot. Osweiler and Thomas didn't connect—the ball was thrown a few yards ahead of Thomas' route, leading to the easy pick—but the fact that Osweiler made this his one read was clear. He had tight end Austin Traylor wide open as the right-side iso receiver; Traylor was sitting in the zone after running an intermediate comeback, and Osweiler clearly never saw him.
When you watch a quarterback who's been in the NFL a few years continue to try to make throws that are far too difficult when easier completions are there for the taking, you know you're dealing with a quarterback who doesn't read and process the progressions of his receivers. And there's no way for a quarterback like that to be successful at this level. The Broncos have collected three such quarterbacks and have called each of them starters this season. If Elway wasn't a legend in the Mile High City, this might be a fireable offense.
26. Jacoby Brissett, Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: 29
In a season where he hasn't been able to do a lot and has been stunted by his own development curve, Jacoby Brissett almost had this one. Down 23-16 with 1:43 left in the game against the Ravens on Saturday, Brissett had the ball on 4th-and-10 at the Baltimore 17-yard line. He tried to hit receiver T.Y. Hilton on an intermediate comeback near the end zone, but cornerback Maurice Canady had Hilton wrapped up in man coverage, and the pass was deflected.
The Ravens ran out the clock, and the Colts moved to 3-12 in what has been an inconsequential and frustrating season for all involved.
Brissett wasn't epically horrible in this game—he completed 16 of 33 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown—but the things that have bedeviled him since he became the Colts' starter continue to do so. At this point in his professional development, Brissett isn't a quarterback who's going to read his progressions and make decisions quickly. The touchdown was a second-quarter screen to ageless running back Frank Gore in which Gore did most of the work, pinballing his way past several Ravens defenders behind surprisingly good downfield blocking.
What you want to see from a young quarterback is a decent percentage of on-point throws against good defenses, and given Baltimore's excellence in locking up with receivers in man coverage and confusing some signal-callers with disguised coverages, this was an estimable test for Brissett. And for the most part, he didn't show those types of throws.
Moreover, he was off-rhythm with his receivers on the kinds of throws that simply sustain drives—slants, comebacks and dump-offs that are supposed to be fairly automatic. He hit Hilton on a downfield pass out of busted coverage when his target was wide open, but there weren't many contested deep throws.
The third-quarter throw to Hilton for 24 yards showed good anticipation, as he hit Hilton out of a crosser as two Ravens defenders were converging, but between Brissett's own inexperience and the general inability to scheme stuff downfield that he can read and react to, this offense lacks the potential for explosive plays.
If he's going to be a credible starter down the road, Brissett will have to speed up his internal clock in so many ways.
25. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars
Last Week: 2
All good things must come to an end. Unfortunately for the Jaguars, Blake Bortles' month-long stint as an above-average starting quarterback at the NFL level came to a relative end in a 44-33 loss to San Francisco on Sunday. While 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo rode Jacksonville's top-ranked defense with precision passes and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan undressed that same defense with his next-level route concepts, Bortles threw three picks as part of a day that saw a lot of regression from the efficient quarterback we'd become used to over a short period of time.
Not all the picks were entirely his fault—had receiver Keelan Cole been more aggressive about his crossing route with 11:03 left in the first half, Bortles' pass to him may have hit its mark. As it was, Cole appeared uninterested in going where the ball was thrown, as safety Eric Reid was ready to light him up like a proverbial Christmas tree. Cornerback Dontae Johnson took that one back for a touchdown.
Bortles' second interception, with 8:41 left in the third quarter, was a teaching tool for any quarterback who chooses to telegraph his reads and ignores how zone defenders sit. Here, cornerback K'Waun Williams sat underneath Jacksonville's deep crossing route, Bortles tried to fit the ball into Cole, and Williams easily jumped the route. This was an easy defensive assignment that Bortles should have seen and reacted to.
The third pick, early in the fourth quarter, was an example of Bortles' trying to use touch and arc he really doesn't have on an intermediate sideline pass to Cole. Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon had outside position on Cole here, and while Cole kept running downfield, Witherspoon stuck with the depth of the pass and had the interception.
It's problematic when a quarterback is exposed by three different coverage men on a defense whose defensive backs are still learning their trades and putting things together. Bortles' day was a worrisome thing for those Jaguars faithful who had themselves believing that if their quarterback could turn around his mostly messy play throughout his career, this team might be in line for a long playoff run.
24. Eli Manning, New York Giants
Last Week: 7
The story of the 2017 New York Giants' offense can be told in a sequence of plays late in the first quarter. Trailing 3-0, the Giants lined up for a 3rd-and-13 on their own 37-yard line. Quarterback Eli Manning hit Sterling Shepard for a 10-yard gain, but the Arizona Cardinals had 12 men on the field. The accepted penalty gave the Giants another shot, this time on a 3rd-and-8. Then Manning hit running back Wayne Gallman for a four-yard gain, but Haason Reddick was offsides, giving the Giants a third shot at converting the first down, now on a 3rd-and-3.
Manning tried to hit Evan Engram on a fade route out of the slot but did not do enough to influence free safety Antoine Bethea, who intercepted the pass and gave the Cardinals possession.
In the 23-0 shutout loss, Manning completed 27 of 45 passes for 263 yards and a pair of interceptions. Bethea had both of them, and the second came late in the first half. On a 2nd-and-11 play just inside Cardinals territory, Manning had some pressure on him from the left side and attempted a back-footed throw on a corner route to Roger Lewis. The pass was off target, and Bethea rotated over from his safety spot for the pick. Plays like these and that ugly sequence earlier in the game tell the tale of New York's 2017 campaign.
With one game remaining, it is unclear if Manning will be under center as the Giants close out their 2017 season. Perhaps the team takes the opportunity to get Davis Webb some playing experience. But if Manning does play, it is unlikely anything he does in the season's final game can erase the memories of a disastrous year.
23. Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 4
What a difference a week makes.
After an impressive debut in his return to the starting lineup as the quarterback for the Eagles, Nick Foles came back to earth a bit on Monday night. They secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs in an ugly 19-10 victory over the visiting Raiders that had more to do with mistakes from Carr and their defense taking advantage of them than play from Foles at the QB spot.
Foles completed 19 of 38 passes for 163 yards and one touchdown, as well as an interception, in the win. Luckily for Foles, it was only one interception, as he threw another pass that Reggie Nelson should have returned for a touchdown. On that snap, the Eagles put tight end Zach Ertz alone in a Y-Iso formation on the left side of the field, and he ran an out pattern. Foles looked at Ertz the entire way, and his throw was slightly behind the tight end. Nelson was in perfect position for the interception with nothing but grass in front of him. But he couldn't catch the ball.
The play that did go down for an interception was another throw to Ertz. This time Foles was rolling out to his left and the pass was high, going through Ertz's hands for the turnover.
On the touchdown pass, which went to Jay Ajayi, perhaps more credit should go to other players rather than Foles. The play was a red-zone screen pass to the running back, and Ajayi showed both a quick burst and the ability to quickly change direction in the open field en route to the end zone. He also had some escorts in front of him, in the forms of Jason Kelce and Chance Warmack, paving the road.
Despite the win, the Eagles now have some work to do to get their offense ready for the postseason.
22. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 30
The Cincinnati Bengals eliminated the Lions from playoff contention on Sunday with a 26-17 win; sadly for head coach Marvin Lewis' 6-9 squad, spoiler status is the most this group can hope for at this point. The reports of Lewis' possible exit after this season may have been the reason the Bengals looked totally overwhelmed by the Vikings in Week 15—this was a pretty decent comeback into the realm of Half-Decent NFL Team status after that 34-7 debacle.
As for Andy Dalton, he did what he's been doing for most of the season—alternating between the kind of safe passing game that makes us use "game manager" as a pejorative for quarterbacks and random streaks of time in which he appears to have no idea what he's doing.
Dalton completed 27 of 41 passes for 238 yards, one touchdown and one interception. His 5.8 yards per attempt would lead you to believe that Dalton didn't sling it downfield—actually, he did quite a bit; it just didn't work out the way he intended. Per NextGen Stats, Dalton attempted four passes of 20 or more air yards, completing one to his own receiver and completing another to Lions cornerback Quandre Diggs.
Not that all the big-play incompletions were Dalton's fault—his "attempt" to rookie receiver Josh Malone early in the first quarter was an obvious example of quarterback-receiver miscommunication, as Malone was nowhere near where the ball was thrown. Later in the first quarter, Dalton threw a very nice ball to receiver A.J. Green over cornerback Darius Slay, but the ball bounced off Green's facemask and then his hands.
The interception, which came on the first play of the second quarter, saw Dalton overthrow Green by a good five yards and put the ball right in Diggs' hands. The hidden wrinkle here was the discombobulated nature of Cincinnati's passing offense. Green was trying to run a deep over route from the left side, but he ran into fellow receiver Brandon LaFell, who was trying to get upfield on a deep seam route. That slowed Green's timing, and Dalton wasn't able to adjust.
There are many things about Cincinnati's offense that need to be evaluated hard in the offseason. Dalton's regression is perhaps the most pressing issue, but the overall lack of synergy needs to stop.
21. Jay Cutler, Miami Dolphins
Last Week: 28
When the year-long Jay Cutler Experience comes to an end next week for the 6-9 Miami Dolphins, we will likely reflect on the fact that, as a quarterback, Cutler is what we thought he was—a tremendously gifted arm talent with horribly inconsistent mechanics and a bucking bronco's resistance to any mechanical rehabilitation. It's unclear what he's provided that Ryan Tannehill backup Matt Moore couldn't have, and the thought that Cutler would somehow turn into a model of efficiency under Miami head coach Adam Gase seems like hubris in retrospect.
Against the Kansas City Chiefs in a 29-13 loss, Cutler completed 19 of 38 passes for 286 yards and a touchdown. It was his seventh game of the season with one or fewer passing touchdowns, and though he didn't light up the sky with interceptable passes like he did in Week 15 against the Buffalo Bills, Cutler's performance against Kansas City's struggling defense was marked in a positive sense by one play—a slip screen to receiver Jakeem Grant in which Grant followed his blocks and blew through the second level of the Chiefs defense for a 65-yard touchdown.
When it was on Cutler to make deep completions, he was off the mark more often than not. He short-armed a pass to Kenny Stills late in the game when Stills was wide open in Kansas City's prevent coverage and overthrew DeVante Parker to the right sideline as time was running out.
Cutler's best fit in the NFL is in the broadcast booth at this point—the place he was headed before the Dolphins asked him to take his skills out of the attic following his retirement.
20. Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
Last Week: 16
The Titans would be the AFC's sixth seed in the playoffs were the regular season to end Wednesday, and if head coach Mike Mularkey's team does get into the tournament, there's a lot to be done about the passing offense. Marcus Mariota completed 22 of 39 passes for 275 yards against the Rams' impressive defense in Week 16, but he threw no touchdown passes and gave up an interception in the 27-23 loss.
The red-zone frustrations are common in an offense where Mariota has thrown for just 12 touchdowns to 15 interceptions this season, and the lack of a deep passing attack to take safeties over the top is an ongoing concern. Mariota attempted just four passes that went 20 or more yards in the air against the Rams and completed none of them, per NextGen Stats. His final throw of the day was a real embarrassment—with 1:45 left in the game, Mariota had 4th-and-4 at the Los Angeles 43-yard line.
Tight end Delanie Walker motioned from right to left pre-snap and had a favorable matchup to the sideline against linebacker Cory Littleton on an out route. Mariota first looked to Walker's side and inexplicably missed the opening. Instead, he scrambled to his right and threw up a wounded duck of a pass that was nearly intercepted by a bevy of Rams defenders.
Not that it mattered because that was a drive-ending and game-ending mistake, but Mariota and the Titans must find ways to rip up chunks of field on passing plays sooner than later. The miscommunications and lack of imagination in the passing game have to flip around if Mariota's team is to be anything but an easy one-and-done in the playoffs.
19. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: 23
All is not well in Dallas.
The Cowboys' path to the playoffs ended on Sunday evening in their loss at home to the Seattle Seahawks. Despite the return of Ezekiel Elliott from suspension, and the fact that Seattle lost more yardage in penalties than it gained in total offense, Dallas lost and saw its postseason hopes erased. In defeat, Dak Prescott completed 21 of 34 passes for 182 yards, but two interceptions that led to points for the Seahawks.
Prescott's mistakes highlighted two areas he'll need to improve upon in his third NFL season: ball placement and processing speed. Both were noticeable on the interceptions.
The first came in the third quarter, on a 2nd-and-7 at the 11:29 mark. Prescott opened to his left and looked for Dez Bryant on a hitch route, but after seeing that was covered, he then looked to Cole Beasley in the right flat on a pivot route. That was covered as well, and Prescott moved his eyes back to the left side and tried to check the ball down to Elliott. However, the throw was off the mark and sailed over the running back, right to Justin Coleman, who returned it for a touchdown.
In addition to the poor placement, Prescott missed tight end Jason Witten, who was wide open on a curl route in the middle of the field.
The second interception was more an issue of ball placement. Bryant ran a sit route over the middle, and the pass was behind the receiver, who deflected it to a defender for the interception. Perhaps it should have been caught, but the throw could have been put in a better spot. This touched off a rather interesting remark the quarterback made to David Moore of the Dallas Morning News after the game, stating the ball needed to be "put on his face mask" so it doesn't "give him a chance to drop it."
Whether that is a sign of frustration—or something deeper in the Dallas locker room - is a debate for another time. But as the Cowboys face an offseason at home and with questions aplenty, Prescott will need to improve in some areas if Dallas is to rebound from a disappointing 2017 season.
18. Drew Stanton, Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: N/A (Did Not Play)
The Arizona Cardinals face uncertainty at a number of key spots as the offseason looms. Hub Arkush of Pro Football Weekly reported on Tuesday that head coach Bruce Arians would be leaving the team.
That might lead to some dominoes falling throughout the organization, including a change in offensive coaching structure and scheme, and perhaps starting quarterback Carson Palmer deciding to retire. With all of this swirling, backup quarterback Drew Stanton returned to the starting lineup after missing a few games due to an injury, and his performance was mixed. He completed 20 of 34 passes for 209 yards in the 23-0 victory over the visiting New York Giants, with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
The touchdowns showed Stanton at his absolute best. The first scoring play came on a Bang 8 post route to Larry Fitzgerald in the red zone, and the pass was delivered with great accuracy, timing and placement. A seam route from the tight end cleared out the middle of the field, and Fitzgerald established inside leverage on the cornerback to get open. Stanton's pass was on time and in the perfect spot for the score.
The second touchdown was a more difficult red-zone post/out combination. Stanton initially double-clutched on the throw, but he then delivered a strike right to John Brown on the post, again with high velocity, for the score.
But one of the interceptions highlighted an area of concern with Stanton: the decision-making process. Facing 1st-and-10 at the Giants' 25-yard line and holding a 16-point lead, Stanton was pressured and forced a throw into a Cover 4 look to Fitzgerald on a corner route. Both the cornerback and the safety were in position to make a play on the ball, and it was CB Ross Cockrell who came down with the interception.
As the Cardinals look to the future, perhaps Stanton remains in the mix for the organization as its backup quarterback. But a decision like that can keep a player on the sideline.
17. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: 12
The Atlanta Falcons missed on a golden opportunity Sunday to improve their playoff odds with a road loss to the New Orleans Saints. In the 23-13 defeat, Matt Ryan joined an illustrious club with only one other member: Mark Sanchez. Those are the two quarterbacks who suffered turnovers at the hands...err...posteriors of opposing defenders.
Ryan completed 22 of 36 passes for 288 yards, one touchdown and an interception in the loss. The touchdown came late in the game with the Saints enjoying a 23-6 lead. New Orleans came on a blitz on a 3rd-and-3 in the red zone, and Ryan identified it quickly and hit Tevin Coleman on a swing route out of the backfield for the score.
The Saints had the game largely in hand at that point due to some missed opportunities by the Falcons. Following a Deion Jones interception early in the second half, Atlanta began a possession with a 1st-and-goal on the Saints' 2-yard line. But on 2nd-and-goal with just a yard needed, Devonta Freeman was stopped for a loss and lost the football. The Saints recovered to end the threat and preserve a 13-0 lead.
To end the third quarter, the Falcons faced a 3rd-and-goal on the Saints' 6-yard line, trailing 20-3. Ryan rolled to his right and hit Julio Jones along the right sideline, but the play was ruled down at the 1. On 4th-and-goal, Freeman was stopped for no gain, and the Saints took over.
However, the play most will remember was the Buttception. On a 3rd-and-10 late in the first half, Ryan looked to Marvin Hall on a deep in cut in Saints' territory. But the pass went through Hall's fingers, resting on the backside of Lattimore, who was face-down on the turf. The rookie CB had the awareness to secure the interception, and Drew Brees hit Ted Ginn two plays later for a 54-yard strike.
16. Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills
Last Week: 17
The most controversial play of the New England Patriots' 37-16 Sunday win over the Buffalo Bills probably wouldn't have made a difference in the final result. But it did take a touchdown pass away from Tyrod Taylor, who seemed to deserve it.
With six seconds left in the first half and the score 13-10 in favor of the Patriots, Taylor threw an end-zone fade to the right side with nice arc, and Kelvin Benjamin appeared to bring it in for what would have been a go-ahead touchdown. Of course, the NFL's arcane catch rules intervened, and Buffalo had to settle for a game-tying field goal. So it goes for the hard-luck Bills, who are trying to sneak into the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
Taylor helped as much as he could with these efforts, completing 21 of 38 passes for 281 yards, no touchdowns (with an asterisk) and no interceptions against a vastly improved Patriots defense. Taylor was less than spectacular with the deep ball, completing two of eight passes of 20 or more air yards, per NextGen Stats.
His 46-yard pass to Deonte Thompson at the start of the second quarter came off the kind of play design you'd like to see more from offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. Thompson motioned from right to left to discern that the Pats were playing man coverage; then he ran an arcing route from the left seam to the numbers, shooting past cornerback Malcolm Butler.
Many of the deep and red-zone incompletions—the big plays any team needs to have a hope of defeating New England—came about because the Patriots defense could play man coverage with impunity; Dennison and his staff don't dial up enough man-beaters (crossing combinations etc.) to make defenses pay.
The Bills now stand at 8-7, tied with the Los Angeles Chargers and pushing for a final playoff spot in Week 17. Of course, the tiebreaker in the Chargers' favor is Buffalo's 54-24 loss to Los Angeles earlier this season, when the decision was made to bench Taylor in favor of rookie backup Nathan Peterman, who threw five interceptions.
If the Bills miss the playoffs over that one decision, it would be an appropriate penalty for dismissing a pretty good quarterback they've been mis-scheming and undervaluing all season long.
15. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Last Week: 19
In an elimination game late Sunday afternoon, the Seattle Seahawks kept their playoff hopes alive with a 21-12 victory on the road against the Dallas Cowboys. The win was not the most...aesthetically pleasing. The Seahawks gained only 136 yards of total offense (and were penalized for 142), but they can still get into the postseason with a victory over the Arizona Cardinals and an Atlanta Falcons loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Wilson completed 14 of 21 passes for a mere 93 yards and two touchdowns while adding nine rushing attempts for 29 yards.
The first touchdown came late in the first half, after a Dez Bryant fumble gave the visitors favorable field position. The Seahawks used a Y-iso formation and put Jimmy Graham alone on the left side against rookie cornerback Jourdan Lewis. This was a mismatch the Seahawks were able to exploit, as Graham simply posted up against the defender, and Wilson put a throw on him for six.
The second touchdown pass came as a result of a great route from Doug Baldwin and a perfect throw from Wilson. On a 2nd-and-goal at the 6-yard line, Baldwin lined up in the slot against another rookie, Chidobe Awuzie. His stutter release off the line of scrimmage got the rookie to commit inside on a slant route, and Baldwin then broke to the back corner of the end zone. Wilson dropped in a perfect touch pass for the score.
Wilson still gave his detractors ammunition on some plays, such as the 22-yard sack he took on a 3rd-and-5 late in the second quarter. Wilson had a double-slant concept on the left side, and wide receiver Tyler Lockett was open on the outside slant against off coverage. Wilson did not pull the trigger and started to scramble and lose yardage along the way. Rather than throwing it away late in the play, he tried to reverse field one time too many and was dragged down for the huge loss.
In the end, however, a win is a win. With one more—and a little help—Wilson will get a chance to display his wizardry for one more week and with a lot more on the line.
14. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
Last Week: 6
To keep their playoff hopes alive, the Detroit Lions needed to go into Cincinnati and beat the Bengals. Cincinnati had been outscored 80-14 in its last nine quarters, and against the Minnesota Vikings last week, the secondary looked lost at times.
But the Lions fell 26-17 and saw their postseason hopes ended just before Dasher and company made their trek across the globe.
In the loss, Matthew Stafford completed 19 of 35 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown, but he threw an interception late in the second quarter and could not lead the Lions to yet another fourth-quarter comeback.
The pick came on a 1st-and-10 just inside Cincinnati territory, with just over one minute remaining in the first half. The Lions held a 7-3 lead, and Stafford aligned in the shotgun with running back Theo Riddick standing to his right.
At the snap, Stafford turned to his left to execute a run fake with no one standing there. Meanwhile, linebacker Vontaze Burfict was blitzing from the left side of the offense, and that was Riddick's responsibility to pick up. But given his starting point in the formation, he could not come across and handle the linebacker, who got to Stafford as the quarterback was starting to throw, with the resulting flutter-ball intercepted by Vincent Rey.
Perhaps Riddick was lined up in the wrong spot on the play, making his blocking attempt that much more difficult, but you judge quarterbacks from the huddle to the whistle, and Stafford needs to make sure his guys are where they are supposed to be before the snap.
The touchdown, which came on a beautiful vertical route to Eric Ebron, was a great play from Stafford. He manipulated the free safety in the middle of the field before dropping in a perfect touch pass to Ebron, who had beaten rookie linebacker Jordan Evans. The play was Stafford at his best.
In the loss, Stafford surpassed 4,000 yards passing for the seventh straight year, joining quarterback Drew Brees as the only quarterbacks to accomplish that feat. It has been an impressive individual season from Stafford, but it probably is little consolation with the Lions facing a January at home.
13. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Last Week: 1
The Carolina Panthers clinched a playoff spot and kept their hopes for an NFC South crown alive with a 22-19 victory over the Tampa Buccaneers Sunday. In the last-minute win, Cam Newton delivered in the clutch.
It was not a clean statistical performance from Newton. He completed 16 of 25 passes for 160 yards and an interception. However, as we have argued this year, Newton's contributions to this offense cannot be measured by sheer numbers alone.
Trailing late in the game, the Panthers needed a touchdown to pull out the win. Newton started their final drive with impressive throws for big gains to Brenton Bersin, on a deep crossing route, and Kaelin Clay, on a backside in route. Both throws were delivered with good velocity and ball placement.
The drive ended on a 4th-and-1 from Tampa Bay's 2-yard line. Newton initially fumbled the shotgun snap, but he managed to pick up the ball and fight his way into the end zone for the game-winner.
The one interception likely should have been caught by Bersin. On a 3rd-and-8 early in the third quarter, Newton came to the line of scrimmage and saw the defense in a Cover 2 look pre-snap. He made an adjustment at the line, and Bersin ran a deep dig route against this coverage.
But at the snap, Tampa Bay rolled into a combination coverage, playing man on the weak side against Greg Olsen and a Cover 3 Robber look to the strong side. Still, Newton had a chance to hit Bersin on the deep dig and put the football on his back arm. It was catchable but not secured, and the ball was taken away from Bersin for an interception.
Now the Panthers are in the postseason, but their final seeding remains undetermined. With a win Sunday over the Falcons and a New Orleans Saints loss to the Bucs, the Panthers would win the division. Getting the Newton the Panthers saw on their final drive would be a great boost.
12. Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears
Last Week: 24
On a snowy Chicago afternoon, rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky capped off a steady performance against the Cleveland Browns with a touchdown run and a snow angel-making celebration with his teammates.
Trubisky completed 14 of 23 passes for 193 yards, with another 44 yards on seven carries, in the victory over his hometown team. This was another step in the right direction for his development, as Trubisky showed good pocket movement on a number of plays, such as a 1st-and-10 early in the second quarter.
Trubisky dropped to throw and opened to his left to start the play, and he then slid around in the pocket, away from pressure, and worked to a backside dig route to Josh Bellamy. He drilled in a good throw to move the chains.
Another solid throw came midway through the first quarter on play action rolling to his right. The safety bit on the underneath crossing route, and Trubisky hit his tight end on a deep corner route for a good gain.
Trubisky's athleticism, as well as his play strength, were on display on some of his runs. On back-to-back plays in the first quarter, Trubisky was able to identify coverage, spot a crease up front and exploit it for yardage, turning a 2nd-and-14 situation into a first down with two straight runs. The touchdown came on a designed quarterback draw that was actually stopped short of the goal-line, but he fought his way into the end zone for the score.
The organization faces an uncertain coaching future, as John Fox has one more year left on his deal and may not be retained. That might mean changes in the offensive coaching staff, but Trubisky's growth this season is at least one positive Chicago can take away from the down campaign.
11. Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers
Last Week: 26
Whether they make the playoffs or not, the 8-7 Los Angeles Chargers must be feeling a great deal of remorse over their first four weeks of the season. They went 0-4 and looked like a team in sight of a top draft pick in 2018.
Since that time, the defense has clamped down, and Philip Rivers has played like an MVP candidate for the most part. His three-interception debacle against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 15 aside, Rivers has played as well as we've ever seen him play through a great deal of the 2017 season, and though he wasn't at his very best against the New York Jets in a 14-7 win, he was good enough to keep his team in the postseason hunt.
The Chargers' offensive line found it tough to hold up against New York's base pass rush, so Rivers didn't complete much downfield—in fact, he nearly had a pass picked off on a deep attempt to Travis Benjamin with 13:09 left in the first half. Benjamin was running an over route, and Rivers threw the ball desperately off his back foot with two linemen in his face. The ball came up short, and deep safety Jamal Adams just missed the pick.
Adams had another near-miss later in the second quarter, when Rivers threw his lone touchdown pass of the day (a three-yarder to tight Antonio Gates). This was less about Rivers' throw and more about the ageless Gates moving through the middle of the end zone just ahead of Adams and winning the physical battle.
The Chargers will need to win their final regular-season game against the Oakland Raiders and get some help from other AFC teams if they're to back into the postseason. Most likely, they'll need a more score-heavy effort from Rivers if they're to control what they can at this point.
10. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Last Week: 14
If a quarterback had completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 1,013 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions over his last four games and that team was trying to wrap up the No. 1 seed in its conference, you might say the QB needs to improve his performance.
That statement is no less true if the quarterback's name is Tom Brady.
Over the last month, defenses have aligned to present Brady with problems he's not used to over multiple games. The inefficiency of New England's interior line has allowed far too much pressure between the tackles, and that's Brady's Kryptonite. If he can't step up in the pocket to avoid pressure, he's not mobile enough to take it outside and make things happen.
Brady may be the best quarterback in NFL history at navigating the inside of the pocket, but take him off his spot and you can beat him. In addition, teams are manning up their defensive backs against the Patriots' receivers and winning more battles than you might expect. That the Patriots are 3-1 in those four games, including Sunday's 37-16 win over the Bills, doesn't lessen the sense of concern among those who have watched Brady's tape closely through that time.
Brady completed 21 of 28 passes for 224 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Not exactly world-beating numbers, and if Buffalo wasn't completely incapable of dealing with New England's running game, this game would have been a lot closer.
The interception to Bills safety Jordan Poyer came about through an amazing effort by the defender. Brady was trying to hit new receiver Kenny Britt with 10:37 left in the first half. Britt ran a crosser underneath—the kind of play the Patriots use all the time to get easy short completions—but Poyer read the route and jumped it from linebacker depth.
Brady's first touchdown pass of the day was a 17-yarder halfway through the second quarter, and the score was more on Gronk's ability to beat single coverage and bring the sideline pass in with one hand over flailing safety Micah Hyde.
His second touchdown pass, with 9:32 left in the fourth quarter, was a simple screen to running back Dion Lewis that was perfectly blocked downfield. Brady didn't challenge Buffalo's defense successfully with a lot of downfield stuff; mostly, he stayed within himself and made short and a few intermediate completions.
This may not seem like a big deal—all the Pats have to do to take the No. 1 seed in the AFC is to beat the Jets next Sunday. But four games is a trend, even with the best quarterback in NFL history, and the Jets may challenge Brady in the same ways that have been successful in recent weeks. We'll see how he and his team responds.
9. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: 15
Joe Flacco's inconsistency has been a major story this season, as has the reductive passing offense in which he plays.
Over the last few seasons, Flacco's mechanics on deep and intermediate passes have prevented him from making those plays on a consistent basis. The good news for a Ravens team trying to find its juice as the postseason draws nearer is that, while the defense and running game have been far more reliable, Flacco has turned things around.
He has seven touchdown passes and just one interception in December, completing 64.9 percent of his passes for 1,063 yards and 7.04 yards per attempt. It's a big deal for this 9-6 team as it tries to set things up beyond a wild-card berth and a one-and-done in the postseason.
Against the Colts on Saturday, Flacco completed 29 of 38 passes for 237 yards and two touchdowns. He didn't contribute much in the way of explosive plays, completing five of seven passes of 10 yards or more, per Pro Football Focus. And when he did throw deep, Flacco exploited Indianapolis' zone defenses, as he did on his first throw of the day: a 23-yard pass to Mike Wallace with 13:34 left in the first quarter. Wallace sat in the zone past linebacker depth, and Flacco had enough time to find him.
Both of Flacco's touchdowns were short passes. The first, to receiver Michael Campanaro with 12:19 left in the first half, came out of a nice play design in which the Ravens ran three quick in-cuts out of trips right. It was the perfect route combination to exploit Indy's reactive red-zone defense. Campanaro flew by linebacker Antonio Morrison, who was tasked to cover the middle of the end zone.
The second touchdown was thrown to tight end Maxx Williams with 8:43 left in the game. This was another good play design, in which Williams started out in the backfield as an offset fullback and ran to the right side of the end zone uncontested.
It's good for the Ravens that Flacco has turned things around, but if they are to make any noise in the postseason, they'll need more explosive plays in the passing game.
8. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: 11
The Kansas City Chiefs' 29-13 win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday gave the franchise back-to-back AFC West titles for the first time. Moreover, it continued a positive trend over the last few weeks that started when head coach Andy Reid handed play-calling duties over to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy.
Since that happened, Kansas City's offense has been far more diverse and effective, as it was in the first five weeks of the season before unexpectedly becoming predictable and regressing.
Smith had an efficient enough game against Miami's defense, with 25 completions in 39 attempts for 304 yards. And though he threw for just one touchdown, he was able to create several explosive passing plays with air yards, which is something we really haven't seen from Smith throughout his career until the 2017 season.
Smith's 52-yard pass to Tyreek Hill at the start of the second quarter showed not only Smith's ability to throw accurate deep balls, but also the near-impossible task opposing cornerbacks and safeties have covering Hill's straight-line speed. Hill motioned from twins outside to the right slot and just took off at the snap. Slot cornerback Bobby McCain was left flat-footed, deep safety Reshad Jones couldn't recover to Hill's side of the field in time, and Smith threw an absolute dime in time and on rhythm for the completion.
Smith's 35-yard completion to tight end Orson Charles came more out of a brilliant play design. The Chiefs had Travis Kelce and Demarcus Robinson on the left side, and at the snap, Robinson ran a deep seam route, with Kelce on an intermediate crosser. While this was happening, Charles ran a drag route from right to left, straight into the vacated part of Miami's defense, with linebacker Kiko Alonso struggling to keep up with him.
It's no sure thing that the 9-6 Chiefs will make major noise in the playoffs; they'll need to fix some things on the defensive side of the ball before that happens. But with Nagy in charge of a fully defined offense, this team is appointment viewing once again.
7. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 13
The New Orleans Saints clinched a playoff berth Sunday with a 23-13 victory over the visiting Atlanta Falcons. In the victory, we saw both how Drew Brees can trigger this offense to strike quickly as well as how the addition of Alvin Kamara is going to make New Orleans a difficult team to defend in the playoffs.
Brees completed 21 of 28 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown in the win, along with one interception. The touchdown strike to Ted Ginn Jr. came shortly after rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore pulled off one of the more improbable interceptions you will ever see. Late in the second half, Brees found Ginn on a deep crossing route and threw a perfect pass for the score. Ginn worked himself free from Desmond Trufant in man coverage and raced to the end zone to extend New Orleans' lead before the break.
Brees' one mistake—his interception to start the third quarter—came on a curl route over the middle to Ginn. He put the pass in a good spot, but rather than make the catch, Ginn tipped it to Deion Jones for the interception.
From a schematic perspective, Saints head coach Sean Payton again showed the many ways he can use Kamara in the passing game, and it burned the Falcons a few times. On one of their first plays of the game, Kamara aligned in a slot to the right and ran a switch verticals concept with tight end Josh Hill. Kamara found himself open as the switch created some traffic, and Brees hit him with a good throw for a decent gain.
Later in the game, Kamara lined up outside on a play and showed the defense a simple smoke screen route. Two defenders broke on the potential quick throw to the running back, leaving wide receiver Michael Thomas free on a deep curl route. Brees saw this and immediately looked to his wide receiver for a nice vain.
With Brees playing well and Kamara becoming an offensive force, the Saints continue to be one of the NFL's toughest teams to defend. That will serve them well in the postseason.
6. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: 10
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have lost their past two games, but third-year quarterback Jameis Winston has turned in back-to-back impressive performances.
In Tampa Bay's narrow loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, Winston completed 21 of 27 passes for 367 yards and a touchdown. Based on quarterback rating, this was the second-best game of his NFL tenure, with his Week 15 outing against the Atlanta Falcons serving as the third. In terms of yards per attempt, Winston played the best game of his career Sunday.
Winston's lone touchdown came as a result of great athleticism and pocket movement. Facing a 1st-and-10 on the Panthers' 18-yard line in the third quarter, Winston faced pressure after dropping back to throw. He did a great job of moving and sliding in the pocket, and he started to head back toward the line of scrimmage. On the outside, Jesus Wilson had run a stutter-and-go route, but when he saw Winston in trouble, he cut over the middle in the end zone. While climbing the pocket, Winston spotted Wilson and delivered a well-placed throw with great velocity for the score.
In the end, mistakes and missed opportunities doomed Tampa Bay. Winston lost two fumbles in the game, including one on the Bucs' opening possession when he was hit while trying to throw on 2nd-and-15. On Tampa Bay's final offensive play, Kawann Short stripped Winston in the pocket and Julius Peppers recovered it, ending the threat and touching off a sideline outburst from Winston. The Buccaneers also missed on a chance for a TD when Winston tried to hit Chris Godwin on a curl concept in the red zone late in the second quarter, and the visitors had to settle for a field goal.
Pyrrhic victories do not count for much in the NFL, but in terms of Winston's development, the past two weeks have been a sight for sore eyes in an otherwise lost 2017 season.
5. Case Keenum, Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: 3
On a frigid night in Green Bay, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum turned in another solid performance in a 16-0 victory over the Packers. The quarterback completed 14 of 25 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown as the visitors improved to 12-3 on the season and kept their hopes alive for the top overall seed in the conference for a few more hours.
The touchdown throw came on a Yankee concept in the red zone. While this is usually a play you see in more of a downfield passing setting, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur dialed it up in this situation to great effect. On a crossing route from right to left, Diggs ran away from a defender in man coverage, and Keenum dropped in a touch pass in the back left corner of the end zone.
Keenum also delivered on some other impressive throws in the game, including a back-shoulder toss to Diggs along the right sideline in the second quarter. On that throw, the placement from Keenum was top-notch, and the receiver made a perfect adjustment. Early in the third quarter, facing 2nd-and-8, Keenum dropped into the pocket after a play-action fake and was pressured. As we have seen on many occasions this year, Keenum manipulated the pressure well and found Adam Thielen late in the play along the left sideline for a big gain.
If there is something to watch as the playoffs loom, it is the tendency for Keenum to force a throw or two into coverage during the course of games. It does not always bite him, and Saturday night provided one example, but better defenses might take advantage in these situations. On 3rd-and-7 midway through the first quarter, Keenum tried to hit Thielen on a corner route in a switch smash concept. It was technically the right read, as the cornerback seemed to play the route in the flat, but the throw came against a Cover 2 man under scheme. Both the cornerback and the safety were in good position, and the corner almost secured an interception. Keenum needs to reduce these types of plays as the calendar turns to 2018.
4. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: 8
When teams prepare for the playoffs, having the hot hand seems important. After a second half of the 2016 season and a first half of the 2017 season in which he looked positively pedestrian, Ben Roethlisberger is heating up just in time for the Steelers to be a formidable opponent for any postseason foe. Over the last five weeks, Big Ben has completed 68.1 percent of his passes for a league-leading 1,654 yards and 12 touchdowns with just four interceptions. He was on point once again against Houston's struggling pass defense in a 34-6 win, completing 20 of 29 passes for 226 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He didn't need to do much more against the Texans and their revolving door of awful quarterbacks.
There were big plays besides the touchdowns, as Roethlisberger continued to use his array of receivers to exploit coverage issues. He had a gorgeous throw to Martavis Bryant down the right sideline with 7:48 left in the first quarter—he simply trusted Bryant to beat cornerback Johnathan Joseph, and that's exactly what Bryant did, but it was up to the quarterback to throw a ball that allowed Bryant to break away and catch it in stride. Regardless of the receiver, this is a Roethlisberger specialty.
The touchdowns were less explosive in nature, but they showed how in tune Roethlisberger and his receivers are. The five-yard scoring pass to Justin Hunter halfway through the first quarter had Hunter running an inside route and adjusting to the boundary to beat Kevin Johnson's tight coverage, and Roethlisberger hit him after he'd progressed through his reads and stepped up in the pocket. And the fourth-quarter touchdown to rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was a case in which all Smith-Schuster had to do was fill the void created by Houston's cornerback blitz and wait for the ball.
The Steelers will be the AFC's second seed in the playoffs unless they beat the Browns and the Patriots lose to the Jets, but no matter where they stand in that regard, this is a passing game no defense wants to deal with. Sometimes, a hot hand is all it takes.
3. Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins
Last Week: 20
It is an open secret that the Denver Broncos need to address the quarterback position this offseason, and in the buildup to Sunday's meeting with Washington, Von Miller waxed poetic about free agent-to-be Kirk Cousins. If the game provided a chance for the defender to scout Cousins firsthand, he probably walked away excited about the possibility of Cousins joining his squad.
Cousins completed 19 of 37 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns to go with one interception in Washington's 27-11 victory over the visiting Broncos. We can address the interception first, which came early in the third quarter. The Redskins held a 10-3 lead and were looking to add to that, facing 2nd-and-goal. Cousins, however, locked on to Josh Doctson on a dig route coming from the left and double clutched at one point. That allowed Will Parks to read the quarterback's eyes and break on the throw.
Cousins was much better on his other throws. The first touchdown came late in the second quarter and provided an example of a quarterback using his eyes to influence a second-level defender. Jamison Crowder was aligned to the right and ran a slant route against a Cover 1 coverage scheme, and the wide receiver easily beat his defender and established inside leverage. But Cousins still needed to influence the underneath hole linebacker away from the route, and he did just that by opening up to the left side. That moved the linebacker and created a perfect throwing lane. Cousins then hit Crowder in stride for six.
The other two scores came on deeper passes, first on a vertical route to Doctson when a bunch formation confused the Broncos secondary. Two defenders collapsed on a flat route, and the TCU product was left alone on a vertical route for an easy score. The Redskins closed their scoring late in the fourth quarter when Cousins was rolling to his left and threw to Vernon Davis on a corner route. The quarterback was under pressure from Shaquil Barrett but still dropped in a perfect touch pass.
Miller might not have been the only member of the Broncos who was scouting Cousins. Fresh off a trip to Boise, Idaho, to scout Wyoming's Josh Allen, Denver general manager John Elway was in attendance as well. We'll have to wait to see whether Cousins and the Broncos meet at the altar this offseason, but such a marriage might just be what Denver needs.
2. Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: 5
In perhaps the most anticipated matchup of Week 16, the Jacksonville Jaguars and their top-ranked defense traveled west to take on the red-hot San Francisco 49ers and "Jimmy GQ." The game and the matchup did not disappoint. Garoppolo completed 21 of 30 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns with one interception as the 49ers won their fourth straight game, 44-33.
Garoppolo's place in the rankings this week is due in part to the fact his performance came against a historically good pass defense. But as he has in the past few weeks, Garoppolo combined a mix of accuracy, velocity and toughness in the pocket to overcome that talented group. His velocity was on display early in the game, as he hit Marquise Goodwin on an in cut on 3rd-and-7 to move the chains, and the throw was delivered in the face of pressure from the Jaguars' pass rush. Late in the first quarter, he also drilled a slant route to Kendrick Bourne between two defenders, including linebacker Telvin Smith, who read the play and must have believed a pick-six was in his future. But despite breaking on the route, Smith was left grasping for air as Garoppolo's slant found its target.
The touchdowns showed two sides to the quarterback: raw talent and awareness. On his first passing touchdown, a short curl route to tight end George Kittle, the tight end sat down in a soft spot against underneath zone coverage. Garoppolo read the play perfectly and found his target open against the coverage. But the second touchdown was the type of play we expect to see from Aaron Rodgers. Garoppolo was flushed to his left and spotted rookie wide receiver Trent Taylor working open in the end zone. The quarterback dropped his arm angle and side-armed a throw around an approaching defender right to the wide receiver for the score.
More than anything, it is the little things that are impressive. In a comeback win against the Titans in Week 15, the NFL had the quarterback mic'd up, and fans were treated to his calm demeanor during the 49ers' final drive. Little things were again on display Sunday against Jacksonville. On a play that might not draw a lot of attention—a short crossing route to Kittle off a play-action fake—Garoppolo was rolling to his left but had time to pivot and set his feet before delivering a perfect throw. A minor detail, but sometimes minor details add up to big things.
1. Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams
Last Week: 9
The Los Angeles Rams entered Sunday afternoon with a golden opportunity before them. A victory on the road against the Tennessee Titans would secure not only a playoff berth but also their first division title in 14 years. Led by late-season MVP candidate Todd Gurley II and a near-perfect performance from quarterback Jared Goff, the Rams crossed this item off their to-do list.
Goff completed 22 of 38 passes for 301 yards and four touchdowns and took advantage of Tennessee's seasonlong difficulties in covering running backs in the passing game for two of his scores. (Heading into Week 16, the Titans ranked 31st in DVOA against running backs in the passing game, per Football Outsiders). The first touchdown came on a quick flat route to Gurley in the red zone. Out of a bunch formation, the Rams sent their running back toward the right flat, and the compressed formation and field position allowed Gurley to run free from man coverage before Goff delivered an easy touchdown toss.
The other scoring play to Gurley came on an 80-yard screen, as Sean McVay caught the Titans in a blitz—the perfect time to dial up such a play. For his part, Goff sold the play well and waited to deliver the throw, drawing in the defender and dropping in a good throw under pressure.
Goff's other two scoring plays came in the second half to wide receivers. First, he drilled in a slant route to Sammy Watkins for a touchdown, as the receiver established inside leverage against Adoree' Jackson and Goff put the throw right on target. But Goff's best throw of the day came on his final scoring play. Trailing by three early in the fourth quarter, the Rams faced 3rd-and-6 in the red zone. Goff was pressured but dropped in a perfect throw on a corner route to Cooper Kupp. It was a throw reminiscent of Goff's days at California.