NFL1000: Doug Farrar's Week 13 QB Rankings
Some quarterbacks have one or two good games in them per season, or perhaps a stretch of good games that lasts a month or so. But as the season stretches on, players reveal themselves in both good and bad ways, and quarterbacks are no different.
With Week 12 in the books for the 2017 NFL season, we're starting to see just which quarterbacks have the consistency needed for championship runs, and which signal-callers will have to be hidden to a greater or lesser degree if their teams have any hope in the postseason.
Surely, there are no questions left about the Philadelphia Eagles' Carson Wentz. The second-year man, who should be at or near the top of everybody's MVP ballot, had another strong game, this time against a Chicago Bears defense that had been solid all season. Wentz threw three touchdown passes and again showed that with his combination of velocity, accuracy and mobility, he may well be the most dangerous quarterback in the league.
If Wentz isn't, Russell Wilson might be. The 7-4 Seattle Seahawks might be 9-2 if they had a half-decent kicker, but is there any doubt that with their substandard offensive line and injury-plagued defense, they'd be under .500 if it weren't for Wilson and his unconventional, yet ridiculously effective style? Wilson is not only Seattle's entire passing game, he's also responsible for most of the big running plays.
Jared Goff of the Los Angeles Rams has shown what a talented quarterback can do when he has an actual coaching staff, offensive line and receivers.
And of course, no quarterback conversation is complete without Tom Brady, who may be playing better than ever in his 40s. The Miami Dolphins were the latest victims of Brady's ruthless efficiency.
Other quarterbacks such as Blake Bortles and Dak Prescott must be amplified by systems and schemes—nothing wrong with that, but it's good for teams to know as their quarterbacks reveal their limitations.
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 13.
34. Paxton Lynch, Denver Broncos
Last Week: N/A (Did Not Play)
The Denver Broncos' quarterback situation has been an embarrassment for all involved all season, and never more so than when general manager John Elway and head coach Vance Joseph dumped second-year man Paxton Lynch on the field to replace the performance-benched Brock Osweiler, who himself had replaced the performance-benched Trevor Siemian.
Lynch, who has spent this season waiting his turn and rehabbing his injured shoulder, performed miserably, completing nine of 14 passes for 41 yards, no touchdowns and an interception in a 21-14 loss to the Oakland Raiders.
The pick was the first the Raiders defense had come up with all season, and it was instructive—at the start of the second quarter, Lynch rolled left and threw into the end zone as the Raiders converged their triple coverage around tight end Virgil Green. Lynch threw the ball late and off his center, the Raiders had a little tip drill, and veteran linebacker NaVorro Bowman came up with the ball. Lynch had a touchdown to Green if he had only thrown the ball on time after Green released from the formation, but that didn't happen.
Nineteen of Lynch's 41 passing yards came two plays before the pick when he hit running back Devontae Booker on a 19-yard pass to the 1-yard line on a wheel route. The play was originally called a touchdown, then reversed on replay. It was the closest Lynch would get to the end zone on a ball thrown in the vicinity of a teammate.
When Lynch injured his ankle in the third quarter on a rollout and then sat in tears on the bench, his opportunity given back to Siemian for the moment, it was an adequate metaphor for what the 3-8 Broncos have done this year with the most important position in the game: a series of bad decisions ending in tears.
33. Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: N/A (Did Not Play)
On Sunday afternoon, San Francisco 49ers fans finally got to see recently acquired quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in action. The former New England Patriot came on in the closing minutes after starter C.J. Beathard left the game with a lower-body injury.
In his short time on the field, Garoppolo completed both of his passing attempts for 18 yards and a touchdown. The first throw was a well-placed out route for a short gain, but that pass came under duress, and Garoppolo did a good job of both looking off the receiver and then delivering the throw under pressure. On his touchdown to Louis Murphy to close out the game, Garoppolo was able to roll left and extend the play, showing great mechanics in rolling away from his dominant hand but squaring his shoulders to make the throw.
It was not an ideal situation for Garoppolo to see his first action in Red and Gold, but he performed well in his brief stint in the game. With Beathard's status in question for Week 13, perhaps it is time for head coach Kyle Shanahan and company to truly find out what they have in their new signal-caller.
32. C.J. Beathard, San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: N/A (Did Not Play)
C.J. Beathard was under siege in the pocket Sunday against the Seahawks, and his afternoon ended on one final play facing pressure when he endured a low hit from Michael Bennett that knocked him out of the game. The Seahawks only blitzed Beathard three times but were still able to pressure him on nearly 46.5 percent of his passing attempts, per Pro Football Focus' Jeff Deeney.
Despite facing this constant barrage, Beathard hung in the pocket well and made a number of impressive throws. He finished the day by completing 22 of 38 passes for 201 yards and an interception. That pick really cannot be put on him, as Bobby Wagner made an incredible play to rip the ball away from Trent Taylor on a quick option route. Even there, Beathard looked off the defender, did not stare down the route and made a well-placed throw. Wagner was just better.
Some other notable throws from Beathard include the vertical route to Marquise Goodwin late in the second quarter, where the quarterback put the throw in a perfect spot despite having a defender in his face. Beathard also hit Taylor on a slant route late in the second quarter on a drive that enabled San Francisco to notch a field goal before halftime. There were also some drops, most notably from running back Carlos Hyde, that negated good throws and/or reads from Beathard.
Something else that stands out watching Beathard on Sunday was his vision in the pocket. As a rookie, he is slow to get through reads at times, and facing a defense like Seattle and being under constant pressure did not help him. But Beathard was generally good at working his eyes, moving from one side of the field to the other, going through progressions and finding the right read. He could still speed up his process in the pocket, but that is a good sign for his development.
With the knee injury, it is unclear whether Beathard will be able to go Sunday. However, he has shown signs of development this season, and while his relatively early selection this past draft stunned many evaluators, Beathard's play to this point has shown that he was worth the pick.
31. Jacoby Brissett, Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: N/A (Bye)
It's not entirely Jacoby Brissett's fault that the Indianapolis Colts are circling the drain at 3-8 and are losers of five of their last six games. Everything from a porous offensive line to an underperforming defense to a barely existent running game to some highly questionable coaching decisions has come up as a core issue this season.
And Brissett has played well enough at times to merit developmental starting consideration for a team that doesn't have a healthy Andrew Luck. Of course, there's a chance the Colts will have to wait a very long time for a healthy Luck at this point, so Brissett may get his developmental starting shot where he's already playing.
Brissett completed 17 of 29 passes for 196 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions in a 20-16 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, but the stat to pay attention to is the eight sacks. On several of these quarterback takedowns, Brissett seemed uncomfortable if his first read was closed, and running around until he was tackled seemed to be the default mechanism after that.
The sack he took with 6:36 left in the second quarter was particularly weird. Brissett rolled out of the pocket, didn't see his read open to that side and had a few choices. He could throw a quick outlet pass to tight end Jack Doyle, who had just released from blocking safety Johnathan Cyprien. He could run up the right sideline for a considerable gain. Or he could turn back to the formation and let defensive end DaQuan Jones take him down. Sadly, he chose the third option.
Perhaps most disturbingly, there didn't seem to be any adjustments to give Brissett an easy hot route even after he kept getting hit. That's where the Colts coaching staff is at fault—Brissett is a limited quarterback at this point, but it's up to his coaches to scheme around those limitations, the limitations of the offensive line and the limitations of the offense in general. Designing empty formations with vertical routes when your line has trouble blocking and your quarterback can't handle a blitz is a recipe for disaster.
The Colts need to find out what they have in Brissett, and Brissett needs to see what his potential can bring. Sunday's loss was a backslide in both directions.
30. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars
Last Week: 22
The real surprise in Jacksonville's 27-24 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday was that the Jaguars' top defense allowed that many points to an offense led by former starter and current Cardinals backup Blaine Gabbert. Not so surprising was the fact that, against an aggressive and multiple Arizona defense, current Jags quarterback Blake Bortles had some issues in the passing game.
The good news was that Bortles was Jacksonville's most effective running back on the day, with 62 yards and two rushing touchdowns on six carries. As a passer, though...19-of-33 for 160 yards and an interception won't get the job done. His one-yard scoring run came when he couldn't find an open receiver in the red zone; his 17-yard scamper appeared to be a designed run in a run-pass option.
When Bortles is on his game, he's a perfectly acceptable quarterback. When he's not, things get weird. Against the Cardinals, Bortles showed the signs of regression we've seen from him before—he predetermined his throws and failed to adjust to route changes, which led to more than one exasperating incompletion on simple screens and boot rollouts where the whole idea is to get the quarterback in free space and for the receiver to follow, creating openings outside of structure.
Structure is something Bortles still struggles with, and playing outside of it can lead to disaster at times. His interception late in the fourth quarter was one example. The Jaguars ran a flood concept to the right side, and Bortles locked on to rookie receiver Dede Westbrook from the start. Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu read Bortles' telegraphing all the way and made a brilliant play to fake an inside blitz look and then tear out to the numbers to jump the route. It's likely that Bortles never saw Mathieu coming.
The Jaguars have wrestled with the Bortles problem all season long: How do you hide your quarterback when the rest of your team is good enough for a deep playoff run? On Sunday, we saw what happens when the defense is fooled and the rest of the running game doesn't work. At that point, the Jaguars become quite average, because their quarterback isn't able to lift the rest of the team out of its occasional limitations.
29. Blaine Gabbert, Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: 24
For the second week in a row, Blaine Gabbert's play down the stretch made a comeback nearly impossible. Only this week, Gabbert was able to make the big plays late, overcome his mistakes and lead his team to a thrilling victory.
Last week, Gabbert threw two interceptions late, both because of poor ball placement, and the Houston Texans were able to pull out the win. Against the Jaguars Sunday, Gabbert started extremely well yet again committed two costly turnovers in the fourth quarter.
The first was a strip-sack that was returned for a touchdown. The quarterback tried to climb the pocket late but failed to secure the football during the process, and the Jaguars were able to exploit the error for a score. Then Gabbert threw an interception on a Mills concept where he stared down the underneath dig route, allowing free safety Barry Church to read the QB's eyes, break on the throw and secure the pick. Had Gabbert used his eyes better, he could have hit the post route over the top for a big play.
But Gabbert did make some big plays on this afternoon. Sandwiched between the fumble and the Church interception was a beautiful deep ball to Jaron Brown on a post route for a touchdown. Gabbert also hit Ricky Seals-Jones with a seam route earlier in the game for a score, on a well-read play against the coverage.
On Arizona's final drive, Gabbert made the final two plays the Cardinals needed to get into field-goal position for Phil Dawson. He found Kerwynn Williams along the left sideline for a 10-yard gain and then hit D.J. Foster along the same sideline after scrambling to evade pressure, setting up Dawson to attempt the game-winner.
For the second straight week, Gabbert was strong in the early part of the game but made some mistakes late that put his team in position to lose the game. However, Gabbert against Jacksonville redeemed himself, making some even better plays in the closing act to help his team pull out the victory. The organization has some question marks at the quarterback spot going forward, but Gabbert might be doing enough to keep his name at least in the mix as the team ponders its future at the position.
28. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: 18
We are fast approaching lost-season territory for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After they started with an HBO special, so much promise and so many offensive weapons, the Bucs have cratered. Sunday they lost their first game under backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and dropped to 4-7, a full four games out of first place in the NFC South. The recent play has many wondering about the futures of head coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht.
Fitzpatrick finished the day having completed 27 of 44 passes for 283 yards, but his slow start helped put Tampa Bay behind in the beginning of the game. Fitzpatrick's ball placement was erratic in the early going, and he missed on a few opportunities to make big plays to both Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. On play action early in the second quarter, Fitzpatrick had Jackson open on a crossing route, but the throw was high and could not be caught. On a 3rd-and-14, he looked to Jacquizz Rodgers in the flat with room to run, but the pass was high and fell incomplete.
Fitzpatrick then settled down and made some good throws, most notably a slant route to rookie tight end O.J. Howard that went for a big gain, a seam route to Howard late in the third quarter that was placed perfectly and a slant route to Evans on the same drive that was put in a perfect position. These throws helped Tampa Bay claw back and make it a one-score game in the fourth quarter. Then, facing a 4th-and-1 midway through the final quarter, the Buccaneers elected to go for it rather than kick a field goal. While I agreed with the decision, the play call was rather suspect. Tampa Bay used a more downfield passing concept, and Fitzpatrick's throw on a dig route to Cameron Brate was broken up.
At this point, decisions have to be made about the future of the organization. Something that Tampa Bay might consider was floated by Trevor Sikkema from Pewter Report. The Buccaneers might decide to give third-string quarterback Ryan Griffin some playing time. Winston remains hurt, and there is really no need to rush him back into action. Fitzpatrick was signed on a one-year deal and is likely not the long-term answer at the position, even as a backup. It might be time to see what the Buccaneers have in Griffin as a potential backup.
27. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: 17
With 12:26 left in the first half of Monday Night Football, Baltimore Ravens punter Sam Koch took the ball and threw it to receiver Chris Moore for a 22-yard gain. The fake punt converted 4th-and-6 and set up Buck Allen's touchdown run two plays later.
Ravens fans would be forgiven for thinking it was the best deep pass they'd seen all season. Joe Flacco, once one of the NFL's best deep throwers, has become a player who struggles mightily with the long ball, and defenses know enough to adjust. In Monday night's 23-16 win over the Houston Texans, Flacco completed 20 of 32 passes for just 141 yards, and it wasn't because he didn't throw deep. He simply can't connect with his receivers on throws over 10-15 yards for the most part.
As has been the case all season, Flacco's mechanical issues cause overthrows and needless throwaways. He doesn't use his lower body to drive the ball with accurate power, and as a result his passes tend to fly all over the place. Yes, he was victimized by a couple of drops, but Flacco's play this season wouldn't lead you to blame the receivers more than the quarterback on close incompletions.
At 6-5, the Ravens have a decent shot at a postseason berth, but until and unless Flacco can work this stuff out, he'll continue to be a liability on a team that has learned to win with defense and special teams.
26. Tom Savage, Houston Texans
Last Week: 23
Last Sunday in a 31-21 win over the Arizona Cardinals, Tom Savage rebounded nicely from his debacle against the Los Angeles Rams the week before and really showed the first inklings of starting-caliber play in his NFL career. In Monday night's loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Savage's performance revealed that he's still a player with a few major limitations. He completed 22 of 37 passes for 252 yards and fell short on a few potential touchdown drives, but it was his interceptions that showed where he still needs to develop.
Savage was the beneficiary of Baltimore's inexplicable decision to cover DeAndre Hopkins one-on-one with cornerback Jimmy Smith. Smith is an excellent cornerback, but Hopkins is too fast, physical and route-savvy for repeated single coverage, and Savage was smart enough to understand that throwing to Hopkins as much as possible was where the money could be made. Hopkins caught seven passes for 125 yards and single-handedly saved his QB from imploding several times.
Savage still makes throws you wouldn't expect from a rookie, let alone a second-year player. His second-quarter interception was a poorly conceived throw into double coverage in the direction of receiver Bruce Ellington, and Ravens safety Tony Jefferson had one of the easiest picks he'll ever have in his life. Savage missed Jefferson and linebacker C.J. Mosley converging, and, worse, he completely missed receiver Braxton Miller wide open on a shallow cross.
As the game was winding down, Savage made a similar mistake that resulted in an interception by cornerback Anthony Levine Sr. It's clear Savage can't diagnose and react quickly to coverage changes late in the down, and nobody plays late and disguised coverage better than the Ravens.
Savage has a good arm and can get the ball out when he has time in the pocket. He has the capacity to make throws under pressure at times. But he's got a ton of work to do before he's ready to be anybody's starter, and this loss proved that all over again.
25. Eli Manning, New York Giants
Last Week: 19
Thanksgiving night the Washington Redskins hosted the New York Giants in a professional football game. Eli Manning was one of the two quarterbacks in that game.
Can I stop now?
Manning and the rest of the Giants offense were inept Thursday night, managing only a field goal in the 20-10 loss to their NFC East rivals. The veteran signal-caller completed only 13 of 27 passes for a mere 113 yards and was sacked four times for a loss of 27 total yards. That's...not good, kids.
To be fair, there were times his teammates let him down. Evan Engram, the rookie tight end drafted to be an offensive weapon, continued to have issues at the catch point. Manning looked to him early on a stick route on New York's opening drive, but the pass was dropped and the Giants were forced to punt. Later on a seam route, Manning went back to Engram, and while it would have required a tough adjustment, he again could not come down with the catch.
But Manning made mistakes as well. An attempted tunnel screen in the first quarter was airmailed. Shane Vereen was wide open in the flat later in the game for a potential big play near the red zone but Manning's pass was well off target under duress. There were bright spots, such as the vertical route to Roger Lewis against a Tampa 2 defense that Manning placed perfectly, but there were not enough brights spots to make up for the woeful production.
Now the Giants sit at 2-9, and the talk in New York City is focusing upon Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Baker Mayfield, per ESPN (h/t CBS Sports). Regardless of how the Giants approach the future at quarterback, the present is not a pretty picture. A season that began with playoff aspirations and expectations has come crashing back to earth, and changes are certainly coming. Right now, it sure seems like Manning will—and shouldbe among them.
24. Trevor Siemian, Denver Broncos
Last Week: N/A (Did Not Play)
Siemian hadn't played since Week 8, when his radically bad performance against the Chiefs got him benched in favor of Brock Osweiler, but when Paxton Lynch (who replaced Brock Osweiler, who had been benched for performance reasons after replacing Siemian, who had been benched for performance reas… oh, you get it) injured his ankle in the third quarter, it was Siemian's job… for the moment.
Siemian responded well, throwing two touchdown passes in the waning minutes of the Denver Broncos' 21-14 loss to the Oakland Raiders. His first score was a nice throw to receiver Cody Latimer over the head of Raiders defensive back T.J. Carrie. Latimer was the one receiver who released deep up the numbers on a trips right concept, and it was a well-designed and well-executed play—a rare thing for the Broncos these days.
Siemian then hit receiver Bennie Fowler III late in the fourth quarter with a deep vertical touchdown; the throw was well-placed to the target just before Oakland safeties Reggie Nelson and Karl Joseph could converge.
Siemian completed 11 of 21 passes for 149 yards and those two touchdowns against quite possibly the worst pass defense in the NFL; given Lynch's performance and injury, it will likely be Siemian in the barrel against the Miami Dolphins next Sunday. The Broncos' quarterback carousel, the primary reason for the team's 3-8 record and lost season, continues unabated.
23. DeShone Kizer, Cleveland Browns
Last Week: 27
It isn't showing in the win column just yet, but over the last few weeks, DeShone Kizer has appeared more comfortable in his role as the Browns' starting quarterback, giving the team something to build on if they so choose. Against the Cincinnati Bengals in a 30-16 loss Sunday, Kizer completed 18 of 31 passes for 268 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. No explosive plays, but no glaring mistakes. It was a step forward for a rookie quarterback whose field vision and comfort in the pocket had rightfully come under question at times.
Kizer's most impressive throw of the day, and the one that best speaks to his potential, came with 3:25 left in the first quarter. He faced a blitz look in which safety George Iloka dropped into curl/flat coverage after the snap. Receiver Corey Coleman juked cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick on a deep vertical route to the front side, and Kizer calmly waited for Coleman to get downfield despite pressure in his face, and threw the ball where Coleman could catch it and run. Kirkpatrick caught up to Coleman to prevent the touchdown, but that 44-yard play was as good as we've seen from Kizer. In the fourth quarter, he had another nice deep pass to Kenny Britt as the Bengals dropped into zone coverage.
Kizer still needs finishing work, but you can see him getting the hang of the offense more and more on a week-to-week basis. The return of long-suspended receiver Josh Gordon to the lineup next week against San Diego's excellent defense could be a big boost. In the interim, Kizer is proving that he can play in the NFL under difficult circumstances and without a win on the horizon.
22. Matt Moore, Miami Dolphins
Last Week: 16
Two Sundays ago, Matt Moore looked good enough against the Buccaneers defense to make a case he, and not the injured Jay Cutler, should be the starter. Moore completed several deep passes in Miami's 30-20 loss and seemed to have a feel for Adam Gase's game plan that Cutler did not. Against the New England Patriots this last Sunday, we relearned that Moore is simply a more than acceptable backup and spot starter whose limitations come up against more fundamentally sound defenses like New England's has become in the last month.
Moore certainly shouldn't be matching wits and throws with Tom Brady when Brady is ripping a defense to bits and putting up 35 points. Moore completed 23 of 34 passes for 215 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in his team's 35-17, and the deep balls we saw against the Bucs were in short supply here. It wasn't until well into the second quarter before Moore tried anything that wasn't short, and that was a flea-flicker with a late deep throw to Kenny Stills that only "worked" because Malcolm Butler was flagged for pass interference.
A deep pass to DeVante Parker at the end of the first half resulted in Moore's first pick—he tried to hit Parker on an end-zone fade out of an empty formation, and cornerback Stephon Gilmore had far too much time to adjust to the route and pick off the pass. Late in the fourth quarter, Moore hurled an underthrown pass in the general direction of Parker, and by the time the ball arrived, Parker was flanked by double coverage. Safety Duron Harmon had the easy interception there.
Moore performed adequately enough considering he was playing an improving defense and was saddled with a highly regressive passing strategy early in the game. That Miami's run game wasn't working didn't help either, and the simple fact is that Moore needs his big-play opportunities schemed up to have them succeed. That didn't happen, and the Patriots took advantage.
21. Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears
Last Week: 12
Last week I made the argument that Mitchell Trubisky was showing signs of growth and development and slowly morphing into the QB the Chicago Bears felt was worth 2017's second overall pick.
Again, development is not linear, as we saw this past Sunday with Trubisky.
Trubisky completed 17 of 33 passes against the Philadelphia Eagles for just 147 yards and a pair of interceptions. However, that interception number could easily have been higher. On one of his final passing attempts, Rasul Douglas undercut the route but had his initial interception overturned after a replay.
The two turnovers that did stand in the scorebook were both a product of faulty ball placement. On the first, Trubisky looked to hit Dontrelle Inman on a curl route, but the off-target pass allowed Malcolm Jenkins to win at the catch point and secure the interception. The second interception came on a similar throw, where Trubisky looked to Tre McBride on a curl route but the pass was too far toward the boundary, allowing the Corey Graham to make the interception.
There were some good moments, such as a dig route to Inman against a soft zone coverage look that was drilled into the receiver with velocity and good placement. On back-to-back 3rd-and-longs in the third quarter, Trubisky made good throws on an out route to Inman and McBride on a curl route. He was also hurt by some drops. One came on a run/pass option where the QB made the right read to pull the ball and looked to Inman on a slant. He also tried to find Inman on an out pattern late in the game and made the throw with solid anticipation, but his receiver failed to make the catch.
Rookie quarterbacks will have down weeks. This is what Doug Pederson was talking about last week when he opined that Trubisky could be the next Wentz: You have to live through the growing pains. It was a down week for Trubisky, but the overall growth arc is solid, and that should give Bears fans reason to believe as they look ahead to 2018.
20. Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
Last Week: 25
The Tennessee Titans beat the Indianapolis Colts 20-16 on Sunday to move to 7-4 and maintain their first-place status in the AFC South, but all is not well with this team. Marcus Mariota has thrown just five touchdowns to eight interceptions in November, including six picks in his last two games. There was the four-interception disaster against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week, and Mariota threw two more in the second quarter against the Colts.
He completed 17 of 25 passes for 184 yards and a two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Delanie Walker in the third quarter. However, one of those two picks added to the overall concerns about Mariota's accuracy, pocket awareness and understanding of the velocity he needs to place on his throws to link up with the timing of his receivers' routes.
The first pick, with 8:32 left in the first half, came as Mariota tried to hit receiver Harry Douglas on a deep crosser from left to right and cornerback Rashaan Melvin jumped the route. Had Mariota thrown the ball with a bit more urgency, Douglas could have come up with the reception.
The second interception came near the two-minute warning, and this was less Mariota's fault than the responsibility of rookie receiver Taywan Taylor, who fell down near the end of his over route. Safety Darius Butler tipped the ball to cornerback Nate Hairston on that one.
More than just the picks, there seems to be something wrong with Mariota's mechanics right now. He's not comfortable throwing the ball, and this manifests itself in all sorts of ways: From the early screen pass in which he overthrew halfback DeMarco Murray to the deep underthrow to Walker in the fourth quarter, Mariota isn't a passer who's getting his feet under him for optimal accuracy and velocity. He has happy feet at times under pressure, and he doesn't consistently set his feet on deep throws. If the Titans are to make any noise in the playoffs—or get there in the first place—Mariota must correct these issues. He has the potential to be much better than this.
19. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Last Week: N/A (Bye)
In today's NFL, teams often need a complete performance in all three phases to win games, but there are other times when a unit can pick up the slack for a lackluster performance from one side of the ball. It was more of the latter Sunday when the Carolina Panthers went into MetLife Stadium and pulled out a 35-27 win on the road. Both the defense and the special teams units chipped in with touchdowns to help the visitors seal the victory.
Offensively, the Panthers struggled. Cam Newton completed only 11 of 28 passes for 168 yards and was held without a scoring pass. He did notch a touchdown run on a naked bootleg, when he fought off a defender with his right arm on his way into the end zone. But in the passing game, Newton was spotty. There were chances, such as a pair of corner routes to tight end Greg Olsen on two different smash concepts. However, Newton missed both throws, one of which was open in the end zone, and the Panthers failed to capitalize on those chances.
Newton was able to deliver on a few impressive throws, thanks in part to the torque he can generate in his upper body highlighted in a previous edition of this piece. One example came on a boundary route to Devin Funchess midway through the first quarter. Facing 2nd-and-18, Newton looked to Funchess after subtly climbing the pocket, and his receiver was able to win at the catch point.
Newton seems to be developing a good relationship with Funchess, who finished the day with over 100 yards receiving. On the drive that Newton capped off with the touchdown run, he looked to Funchess on two plays where the quarterback showed great timing, anticipation and feel for the route. As the Panthers look to refine their offense in the wake of trading Kelvin Benjamin, the relationship between Funchess and Newton is a pivotal one to watch.
In the end, a win is a win, and with the New Orleans Saints losing out to the Los Angeles Rams, the Panthers now find themselves tied for the NFC South division lead. And what do you know, those teams face off this Sunday down in New Orleans. If Newton and Funchess continue their growing relationship on the field, the Panthers might just leave the Big Easy with the W.
18. Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills
Last Week: 21
The Buffalo Bills have underserved Tyrod Taylor this season. Rick Dennison, their new offensive coordinator, has removed most of the option runs and run-pass option plays that made Taylor's game more dynamic in previous seasons. And new head coach Sean McDermott (or team ownership, depending on which story you believe) couldn't wait to bench Taylor after his sub-optimal performance against the Saints two weeks ago. That, of course, led to rookie Nathan Peterman's five-pick disaster against the San Diego Chargers last week and Taylor's merciful re-insertion in the second half.
Taylor had another starting opportunity against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. He did pretty well with it, completing 19 of 29 passes for 183 yards and a touchdown and adding 27 rushing yards on nine carries. Not amazing stats by any means, but good enough against Kansas City and its broken offense.
Taylor's first-quarter touchdown pass to rookie receiver Zay Jones showed what the quarterback can do with extra time in the pocket and the freedom to extend the play outside of it. The Bills were at the Chiefs' 11-yard line, and Jones ran a drag route from right to left with cornerback Marcus Peters on his heels. Taylor kept his read on Jones as he rolled to his left on boot action, waited for the route to clear and threw the pass with good timing.
Taylor struggled with his timing and the Chiefs' tight coverage on short and intermediate passes. He'll have to work those kinks out if he's ever to be more than a functional starter in the NFL. But the first-quarter incompletion to Jones was a drop, and that play saw Taylor eluding two Chiefs defenders to get clear and make the throw. Those are the kinds of plays he can make in a system that uses his athleticism as a feature, not a bug. It remains to be seen if this Bills staff will ever see it as such.
17. Brett Hundley, Green Bay Packers
Last Week: 28
As with Trubisky, development is not linear, particularly when it comes to the quarterback position. Sometimes things click into place later than you might expect, sometimes players regress, sometimes there is a sudden jump in the ability to play the position.
Brett Hundley has played out all of those scenarios over the past week.
After a brutal outing against the Baltimore Ravens last week, Hundley rebounded with an impressive performance on the road Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite the 31-28 loss, Hundley completed 17 of 26 passes for 245 yards and three touchdowns. He seemed to be growing before our very eyes.
The first touchdown came on a post-wheel route combination where Hundley was able to take advantage of a breakdown in the secondary. Cornerback Artie Burns stayed on the post route coming from the outside receiver, opening up the boundary for Randall Cobb on his wheel route. Hundley identified the mistake and capitalized for a long score. His second touchdown pass came on a screen to running back Jamaal Williams for another long scoring play. His third TD pass came on a vertical route to Davante Adams after the receiver got big separation on a stutter-and-go route.
What stood out more than the scoring plays was how Hundley seems to be speeding up his mental process and his reads. On their late drive that tied the game, Hundley made a few very good reads. He saw off coverage over Jordy Nelson and made the quick adjustment to throw him the smoke route, which was a good decision. On a run/pass option, he made the quick decision to pull the ball and hit Nelson. The drive started with a blitz from the slot, which he identified and quickly replaced with the throw. Finally, on a pivotal 4th-and-6, he showed good identification, timing and placement to hit Adams on an out route to move the chains.
It was just one game, but it showed a big developmental jump for the young quarterback. Whether it can be sustained remains to be seen, but on this night, Hundley showed he belongs in the league.
16. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: 15
Alex Smith threw 16 touchdowns and no interceptions in September and October as the Chiefs' multi-dimensional offense became the toast of the league. His numbers in November, which ended with a 16-10 loss at the hands of the Buffalo Bills? 75 completions in 110 attempts for 692 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions. It isn't even that Smith has regressed to his old, no-risk paradigm of game management and short passes: He's now a clear liability to an offense that has fallen all over itself in multiple weeks on a team that has lost five of its last six games after a 4-0 start.
Against the Bills, Smith completed 23 of 36 passes for 199 yards, one touchdown and a back-breaking interception to Buffalo rookie cornerback Tre'Davious White late in the game. As the stats indicate, Smith didn't try much downfield after a bad overthrow to Tyreek Hill despite being one of the league's more prolific deep passers early in the season.
The interception was emblematic of Smith and Kansas City's troubles these days. For whatever reason, head coach Andy Reid has removed many of the option concepts that had this offense rolling, and what we're left with is a static pre-snap endeavor in which receivers struggle with route concepts and getting open once they're released from the formation. With 1:25 left in the game and the Chiefs driving for a possible game-winning touchdown, Smith tried to force the ball to Hill despite White having position on the ball. Tight end Travis Kelce was also open to Smith's front side on a quick inside seam route, but Smith didn't even look for any other openings. It was a mistake one would expect from an overwhelmed rookie quarterback, not a veteran known for his smart play.
That this game follows Smith's two-interception performance against the woeful New York Giants amplifies the calls for rookie Patrick Mahomes. If the Chiefs are going to do away with the offensive concepts that worked so well before and have a vertical offense requiring a quarterback who can make stick throws downfield, they might as well go ahead and make the switch and deal with Mahomes' growing pains. Because one thing is for sure—this reductive offense with the need for big plays in desperation doesn't fit Smith's skill set at all.
15. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: 13
The most dangerous place on the planet Thursday might have been between me and the dessert table. The second? Dallas Cowboys Twitter. Dallas fans are in full-blown panic mode in the wake of their team's Thanksgiving Day loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, which dropped it to 5-6 and on the cusp of being eliminated from contention in the NFC East.
The Dallas offense was largely ineffective in the first half against the Chargers, managing only five first downs and losing the time of possession battle. In the first two quarters, Dak Prescott completed nine of his 10 passing attempts, but for a mere 46 yards. He finished the game 20 of 27 for 179 yards, which looks okay at first blush, but he threw two interceptions in the second half as the Cowboys managed only a pair of field goals on the afternoon.
Prescott's ball placement was an issue again on Thursday. On the first interception, he looked to hit Cole Beasley after moving to extend the play with his feet. But the throw was just off target, allowing Desmond King to make the interception and return it 90 yards for the score. That the mistake came in the fourth quarter as the Cowboys were in the red zone just put the icing on a horrible-tasting cake (again with the desserts).
The second interception saw Prescott baited into a mistake. The Chargers used a Cover 2 look in the secondary, and cornerback Casey Hayward—who is playing the position at a very high level for the second straight year—was in the flat and peeled off late to get under the curl route and into the throwing lane for the interception.
Prescott did have some moments in this game, but they were largely for naught. For example, a touchdown run on a perfectly executed run/pass option was called back due to a holding penalty. He did have some good reads and throws in the second half, often on double slant concepts in the direction of Beasley, but it was not enough to get the win.
Dallas faces in essence an elimination game on Thursday night against Washington. It will need Prescott to be largely mistake-free to keep its postseason hopes alive. He remains a talented quarterback, but this has been a tough stretch. If there is one thing Dallas fans can point to, it's Prescott's competitive toughness. It's what helped mold him into the quarterback we saw last season, and he will need to draw from that to help pull the Cowboys out of this stretch of losses.
14. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 14
Andy Dalton hasn't thrown an interception since he threw two of them in a 29-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 22. In that five-game stretch, he hasn't thrown for more than 265 yards. He also tallied more than two touchdowns in a game just once—against the Denver Broncos in Week 11. The Bengals are 3-2 in those games and have a half-decent shot at the playoffs with a 5-6 record. The plan seems to be for Dalton to Alex Smith his way through the rest of the season, which isn't much different than Andy Daltoning your way through the season, minus the historical postseason blunders of years past.
Dalton completed 18 of 28 passes for 214 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-16 win over the Browns on Sunday in a perfectly adequate performance with little over the bar. He missed on a deep over route to A.J. Green with a late throw into coverage early in the second quarter, and Dalton then overthrew a deep boundary route to Brandon LaFell in the third quarter when a well-timed pass would have beaten single coverage, but he didn't get too adventurous beyond that.
Dalton's touchdown passes were short: an eight-yarder to receiver Tyler Boyd in the first quarter off play action and a one-yarder to tight end Tyler Kroft in the third quarter when Kroft was wide open out of a tight formation after he released from his block.
This version of the Andy Dalton Experience is perfectly adequate in the regular season. If the Bengals do make the playoffs, however, they will have to ask more of their quarterback at some point.
13. Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
Last Week: 20
Chaos was the order of the day in Oakland's 21-14 win over Denver last Sunday. Raiders receiver Michael Crabtree and Denver cornerback Aqib Talib squared off at one point, leading to multiple player ejections. Crabtree and Talib have both since been suspended for two games each. The Raiders can ill afford that with fellow top receiver Amari Cooper dealing with a concussion and asprained ankle suffered in the same game.
Carr did alright in the face of such adversity, completing 18 of 24 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns. Cooper was the target on a nice nine-yard fade over Broncos cornerback Brendan Langley, and running back Jalen Richard caught a six-yard pass for the second score.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Oakland passing game in this contest was the insertion of Cordarrelle Patterson as a deep receiver. Patterson has been an afterthought most of 2017 but turned up as Carr's leading receiver in this game with three receptions for 72 yards. Carr's 54-yard completion to Patterson late in the fourth quarter was a prayer thrown under pressure, but Patterson used his speed to beat cornerback Chris Harris on an over route and then wrestled free from two defenders to advance the ball. If Crabtree, Cooper, Jared Cook and Patterson are ever seen as viable options in the passing game at the same time, Oakland may have something to really threaten defenses with.
Carr also hit receiver Johnny Holton with a really nice deep ball off a pump fake halfway through the third quarter. As Holton ran his route, Carr had time to wait for it to develop and delivered a nice strike.
Carr showed his value to the team in the way he was able to stay calm and make big plays even when wild things were happening. That's what franchise quarterbacks do.
12. Josh McCown, New York Jets
Last Week: N/A (Bye)
The New York Jets and Josh McCown certainly started out hot in Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers and their excellent defense. McCown hit receiver Robby Anderson in both the second and third quarters with outstanding deep passes for touchdowns. The first, with 1:12 left in the first half, saw McCown throw a perfect deep ball over Carolina's double coverage of Anderson to the iso side for a 33-yard score.
Then, with 5:41 left in the third quarter, he connected with Anderson again on a deep sideline route down the right side while McCown ran to the right out of pressure. Anderson beat safety Kurt Coleman for the score, and at that point, the Jets had a 17-12 lead.
McCown thought he wasn't done making plays, but a one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins early in the fourth quarter was overruled on review, though it certainly looked good from multiple angles. The QB couldn't connect with Matt Forte on the next play, and the Jets had to settle for a field goal. With six minutes left in the game and the Panthers up 32-20, McCown connected with Jermaine Kearse in tight coverage for another touchdown.
In truth, McCown did enough to help his team beat a superior opponent. He completed 19 of 36 passes for 307 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. But the inability to recover from the Seferian-Jenkins call upended the offense, as did McCown's sack/fumble in the third quarter that Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly returned for a fourth-quarter touchdown.
At 38, McCown is having a career year, rising above his journeyman status to establish himself as a legit starter with the guts, intelligence, arm and mobility to succeed. That he wasn't able to hold off the Panthers' comeback in a 35-27 loss doesn't reduce any of that.
11. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
Last Week: 5
Thursday's Thanksgiving tilt against the Minnesota Vikings was a pivotal game for the Detroit Lions, a chance to tighten the Vikings' hold on the division and turn the NFC North into a true race down the stretch. But the Lions started slowly, missed some opportunities in the passing game and failed to capitalize on their chances, falling to Minnesota 30-23.
Matthew Stafford finished his holiday completing 20 of 35 passes for 250 yards and a pair of touchdowns to go with an interception. In a vacuum, the numbers are fairly decent, but some mistakes early cost Detroit. On a red-zone 2nd-and-10 early in the second quarter, Stafford faced a blitz and had running back Theo Riddick wide open. A decent pass in the situation would have likely resulted in a touchdown, but Stafford failed to put the ball on his RB. There were also some slow reads, such as a sack when Stafford was looking at a go/flat concept along the right side. He was slow to move his eyes down to the flat route and was sacked on the play. In the third quarter, he had Golden Tate open on a quick hitch but failed to pull the trigger and was sacked again.
There were also some missed opportunities where Stafford held up his end of the bargain. Early in the third quarter, the Lions faced a 3rd-and-10, and Stafford did a great job of manipulating the safety with his eyes before finding Darren Fells on a skinny post for what looked like a touchdown. The pass was ruled incomplete on review, though, and the Lions settled for a field goal. In a game decided by one score, these missed opportunities came back to haunt Detroit.
Stafford's touchdowns both went to Marvin Jones Jr. The first came late in the second quarter when he hit the receiver with a well-thrown slant route for the score, and Jones did a great job of fighting his way into the end zone after the catch. Jones was even better on the second TD, as he won on a vertical route at the catch point against multiple defenders and then cut into the end zone for the score.
But missed opportunities were the flavor of the day for Detroit, both on the field and in the bigger picture. It is still in the playoff hunt but will need some luck to make the postseason.
10. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 1
For the second straight week, the New Orleans Saints faced a double-digit lead late in the game. While they were able to pull out the comeback victory last week against the Washington Redskins, the Los Angeles Rams took this one, 26-20.
The Saints offense started slowly, and at halftime Brees had completed eight of only 10 passes for 79 yards, and the visitors trailed 17-10. As noted by Herbie Teope of NOLA.com, this continued in the third quarter: the Saints managed only 23 yards on 13 offensive plays, which enabled the Rams to take a 10-point lead into the final frame. They managed to score twice in the fourth quarter, as Wil Lutz drilled a field goal and Brees hit the dynamic Alvin Kamara for a touchdown, but it was not enough.
Brees was pressured early and often by the Rams defensive front. It took him down three times and forced a strip-sack early in the game when Robert Quinn got to Brees a second before he could get the pass out of his hands. The quarterback was elusive at times, such as on a second-quarter crossing route when he evaded Connor Barwin in the backfield before finding Ted Ginn Jr., but Quinn, Barwin and Aaron Donald put him under duress throughout the afternoon.
There were missed opportunities as well. In the early part of the fourth quarter, Brees had a chance for a big play to Ginn on a vertical route. Cornerback Kayvon Webster seemed to be running a Cover 2 scheme and expecting safety help on the play, but assistance never arrived and Ginn was open on the vertical route. But the throw forced Ginn to slow up, allowing Webster to recover and prevent the big play.
After the game, head coach Sean Payton mentioned that the team had an "average" week of practice, and perhaps that played a part in the loss. New Orleans will need to right the ship quickly to stave off the Panthers and the surging Falcons in the NFC South.
9. Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins
Last Week: 4
Thanksgiving's slate of games ended with the NFC East tilt between the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants. It was not the best way to wind down from your Thanksgiving meal, but in the end, those who watched saw Kirk Cousins do enough yet again to lead his team to a victory. Cousins was sacked six times in the 20-10 win but completed 19 of 31 passes for 242 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in the victory.
We can start with the interception, which should rightfully be charged to the surface at FedEx Field. Cousins looked to throw a simple hitch route along the left sideline, but his lead foot got caught in the turf, throwing his mechanics off and causing the pass to sail. What should have been an easy completion turned into an interception and six points the other way. Seriously, Dan Snyder, fix the playing surface. It cost Robert Griffin III his health and is now the subject of scrutiny yet again.
Aside from the turnover and the playing surface, Cousins made some big throws on the night that propelled Washington to the win. After a slow start for both teams, Cousins got going early in the third quarter. Facing a slot blitz off the right side, Cousins was quick to replace the blitz with the ball, finding Jamison Crowder out of the slot for a big gain. That drive was capped off with his first touchdown. He extended the play by rolling to his right before finding Crowder in the end zone late for the score.
The second touchdown came late in the fourth quarter, when he found Josh Doctson on an out pattern off a play-action fake. Cousins showed great ball skills with a run fake that would make Boomer Esiason proud.
Washington is fighting for its playoff life right now and will need both wins and help to fight into a wildcard spot. Thursday night is basically an elimination game for them and the Dallas Cowboys, but with Cousins' play, you might give the visitors the edge in this game.
But seriously, Mr. Snyder. Fix the field.
8. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: 8
Over the last full season, it's been very difficult to know which Ben Roethlisberger you're going to see on any given gameday. You might get the Big Ben of old, who makes perfect 40-yard stick throws and abuses defenses with brilliant deep seam passes with three defenders hanging off of him. Or, you might get the guy who makes weird, random throws and can't seem to keep a passing game together on a consistent basis.
In Pittsburgh's 31-28 win over the Green Bay Packers, you saw a bit of both. Roethlisberger was tough to stop when he was on, completing 33 of 45 passes for 351 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. His first-quarter pick by Packers cornerback Damarious Randall came off a questionable decision: The ball was meant for receiver Eli Rogers on a quick crosser, but Randall had position on the ball, and Roethlisberger threw off-balance. Randall returned that pick for a 55-yard touchdown that was overturned on a down by contract ruling. He was also picked off by linebacker Blake Martinez on a pass intended for Le'Veon Bell when the ball was tipped by linebacker Ahmad Brooks, with Roethlisberger a bit too nonchalant about his delivery.
Things were better when Roethlisberger threw to the seemingly uncoverable Antonio Brown, who caught 10 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns. Big Ben's fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Brown may have been his best throw of the day. Brown was the iso receiver to the right side, and cornerback Davon House had the unenviable task of covering Bryant one-on-one downfield. Brown embarrassed House by rubbing right by him and blasting off from there, and Roethlisberger threw a well-timed pass before coverage could converge.
When the schemes are optimized for Roethlisberger to use his arm on deep stuff, the results are usually good. He's not the passer he once was under pressure and in traffic, but there are few better at slinging the deep ball with anticipation to a receiver working his way open. The 9-2 Steelers will take that all the way to the bank.
7. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Last Week: 7
I played football for 13 years of my life, including four years in college. I have been watching the game for over 30 years. I have been covering it professionally for the past four years.
In all that time, I have never seen an opening to a game quite like the one between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. The opening kickoff was redone because the ball blew off the tee. The ensuing kickoff attempt sailed out of bounds, giving the Seahawks great field position.
On their first offensive play, Russell Wilson threw an interception.
Tim Kurkjian likes to say that every time you watch a baseball game you see something new. Well, that's how I felt breaking down this game.
After the interception, which came when Wilson underthrew Jimmy Graham on a route along the boundary and Eric Reid made a great play on the football, the quarterback settled into the game and turned in a decent performance. He completed 20 of 34 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns to go with the interception. As you might expect, the game included another dizzying display of Houdini-like escapes from Wilson, most notably on a play where both Elvis Dumervil and DeForest Buckner had shots at him in the backfield but No. 3 was able to fold, contort and elude the pressure.
In addition to his passing yardage, Wilson added 25 rushing yards, including a short touchdown run that came on a run/pass concept when he picked up a key block from tight end Nick Vannett en route to the end zone.
Wilson's first touchdown pass came on a smash concept, when he was able to find Vannett on the corner route for an easy completion for the score. He returned to the tight end position for his other touchdown, which came on a Y-iso design with Graham split to the outside. The TE ran a quick slant route, and Wilson put the throw on him for the score.
Detractors will continue to point at his play style and argue that Wilson is often putting himself into trouble, bailing from clean pockets and that he is a one-read passer. But Wilson makes all of this work almost every week. It is unorthodox and more resembles games played at recess, but it is turning Wilson into an MVP candidate. He'll need to play like an MVP candidate over the next three weeks, as Seattle faces playoff contenders in Philadelphia, Jacksonville and the Los Angeles Rams.
6. Case Keenum, Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: 9
The old adage goes: "If you have three quarterbacks, you really don't have one."
But the 2017 Minnesota Vikings have turned that expression on its head this year. After beginning the year with a victory over the New Orleans Saints with Sam Bradford at the helm, the team turned to Case Keenum, who has guided the Vikings to the top of the NFC North. And of course, Teddy Bridgewater remains waiting in the wings.
Keenum was strong yet again, completing 21 of 30 passes for 282 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The first scoring strike came on the Vikings' opening drive. On 2nd-and-goal, he hit tight end Kyle Rudolph on a weak-side corner route coming off of a play-action fake for the score.
Later in the game he found Rudolph again on a corner route, but this touchdown was more impressive. Keenum had some trash at his feet and could not step into the throw, but he was able to find Rudolph and get enough on the pass for the touchdown. That play came just after perhaps Keenum's best throw of the day: a long out pattern to Rudolph on a flood concept that was dropped in perfectly, just over the outstretched fingertips of the defender in underneath trail coverage.
Once again, Keenum looked to Adam Thielen often, and particularly when under pressure. A prime example came in the fourth quarter on a pivotal 3rd-and-4, when the Detroit Lions had cut the score to 27-23 and needed a stop. Rookie defensive back Teez Tabor blitzed off the edge, and Keenum was able to duck and evade the blitz before finding Thielen on a hot route to move the sticks.
The Vikings have a favorable schedule the final three weeks of the season, with games against the Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. Before that, however, they face trips to Atlanta and Carolina. These next two weeks are crucial to their hopes for the playoffs and beyond.
5. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: 6
Matt Ryan was nearly perfect in Atlanta's 34-20 victory over the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He completed 26 of 35 passes for 317 yards and a touchdown. A number of his incompletions came on drops, throwaways and even a spike too. It was a very good performance.
But it was not perfect. Now, Mohamed Sanu? He was perfect, completing his one throw for a touchdown to Julio Jones to keep his perfect career passer rating intact.
So while Sanu may have bragging rights in Atlanta's locker room, it has been Ryan's play over the past two weeks that has Atlanta back in the playoff mix. On Sunday, he displayed a mix of timing, anticipation, ball placement and velocity to keep Tampa Bay defenders on their heels for most of the game.
Ryan was very good in the pocket, exemplified by a 2nd-and-1 throw shortly before halftime, when he subtly climbed the pocket and worked his progression reads before finding Sanu on a crossing route over the middle. His touchdown pass to Jones came on a flawless out pattern, and Ryan laced a perfect throw with timing and anticipation for the score.
It is also worth noting that offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian seems to have this offense clicking right now. The boots and waggles that were such a big element last season are working in a big way right now. Not only is Ryan finding the tight ends on these designs, but they are working Julio into the mix as well. A great example came early in the fourth quarter, when Ryan executed a fake to his left before rolling out to his right. Jones ran a crossing route working from right to left, away from the flow of the play rather than with it. Ryan hit his receiver on this throwback design for a solid gain.
While the Falcons raced out to an early lead, they needed one more big play late in the game to seal the win. On 3rd-and-8 with under four minutes to go, Ryan again looked to Jones on a comeback route, and they moved the chains thanks to a great route and perfect anticipation from the quarterback. With the way Atlanta is playing right now, and with two games remaining against the New Orleans Saints and one against the Carolina Panthers, they can certainly end up atop the division come January.
4. Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers
Last Week: 10
The Chargers, who started their season with four straight losses and looked like all they would be playing for was a top draft pick, have really turned their season around. They've won five of their last seven games, and at 5-6 in an increasingly muddled AFC West, could back into the playoffs via a division win. Rivers is one of the main reasons for the turnaround, and his performance against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day was perhaps his best of the season.
Rivers was near-perfect against Dallas' backsliding defense in a 28-6 win, completing 27 of 33 passes for 434 yards and three touchdowns. Everything went right for him, even when it shouldn't have: He underthrew receiver Travis Benjamin into what should have been coverage early in the first quarter, but Benjamin had sprinted past the back end of Dallas' defense and made the 46-yard play on a deep post.
A better throw came in the third quarter, when the Chargers flared running back Austin Ekeler wide left, leading to a matchup issue for the Cowboys. Linebacker Justin Durant was expected to follow Ekeler downfield but couldn't, and Ekeler had an easy 38-yard catch.
Rivers' prettiest pass of the day may have come late in the third quarter, when he hit Tyrell Williams in the end zone while safety Xavier Woods and cornerback Anthony Brown were busy bumping into each other. Williams got outside position on Brown from the start of the play and zoomed by him in perfect position for Rivers' accurate throw.
Right now, the Chargers are in a good spot. Their defense is improving seemingly by the week, and their offense is a multi-dimensional effort that exploits defensive liabilities. Oh, and their quarterback is on fire. With an interesting cadre of receivers, led by perhaps the NFL's best route-runner in Keenan Allen, this is a team to watch on both sides of the ball.
3. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Last Week: 3
In this week's NFL1000 Notebook, I made the case Tom Brady is having perhaps his best season overall, given the offensive line and receivers he's been given. Brandin Cooks is really good, but he's no prime Randy Moss. Rex Burkhead is okay, but he's no Julian Edelman or Wes Welker. Yes, the advantage of a healthy Rob Gronkowski is severe, but when you consider what Brady has had to work with through most of the season—not to mention the need to play catch-up through the first half of the 2017 campaign while the Patriots defense found itself—Brady's efforts at 40 years old are singularly impressive.
Or several other gushing adjectives.
Brady has been flat-out illegal in November, completing 73.7 percent of his passes for 833 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception. That lone pick came against the Miami Dolphins last Sunday in New England's 35-17 win, and it hardly mattered. Brady also threw four touchdown passes to three different receivers, connecting with eight different targets and continuing what looks like a march to yet another Super Bowl if his defense can hold up.
There was also a fumbled snap early in the second quarter. Brady looked surprised the ball had been snapped, and safety Reshad Jones scooped it up and returned it for a touchdown. The interception same when Brady tried to get a little too fine with a crossing route by Danny Amendola, and cornerback Bobby McCain had excellent coverage. Other than that, it was Brady as usual.
His touchdown pass to Burkhead came off a nice move by the RB, who flared out of the backfield into the left slot and beat linebacker Chase Allen. Brady also connected with Gronkowski for two touchdowns in which the concept was the same: Align Gronk with the formation on the left side and let him create his own physical mismatches with simple out routes.
There weren't as many deep throws in this game as we've seen this season. It was more of a return to the three-step quick passing game of recent seasons. It really doesn't matter what scheme you give Brady, nor has it ever; odds are, he'll chew up your defense, notch another win and go home.
2. Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams
Last Week: 11
In perhaps the biggest game of the week, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff turned in the type of performance few expected from him after his rookie season. While the visiting New Orleans Saints were missing some of their defensive standouts—most notably rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore—Goff was very impressive in the Rams' win, completing 28 of 43 passes for 354 yards, a pair of touchdowns and one interception.
Watching Goff on Sunday, one of my takeaways was his pocket presence. This was something I really loved about Goff coming out of college, and we saw it a lot against the Saints.
On Goff's second touchdown pass of the game, a red-zone throw to rookie Josh Reynolds, the quarterback was masterfully worked through his reads. He slid around in the pocket but kept his feet in position to throw and found Reynolds late in the play for the score. This was something pointed out by Tony Romo on the broadcast, as well. Goff is very adept at keeping his feet in position to throw, which helps him get the ball out quickly and on time given the route concept and the pressure around him.
Something that stood out as well was a decision he made on their opening drive. Often, the decision not to pull the trigger can tell you about a quarterback's mindset. Facing a 3rd-and-5, Goff looked to throw a stick route to his tight end. But a defender jumped the route late, and Goff pulled the ball down and quickly hit running back Todd Gurley on a checkdown route instead. It was a small play, but something that is very significant for a quarterback's developmental process.
After losing last week, this was a victory the Rams truly needed to stay atop the NFC West and get the course corrected. They'll get a chance to at least guarantee a winning record this week when they take on the Arizona Cardinals. After that? "Goff versus Carson Wentz I" the following week. And who knows, it might not be the last time those two quarterbacks meet this season…
1. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 2
The Philadelphia Eagles are 10-1, players are playing tic-tac-toe on the sidelines, the defense is doing the Electric Slide after turnovers and second-year quarterback Carson Wentz is masterful in the red zone this year. It is a good time to be an Eagles fan.
Wentz was impressive yet again in Philadelphia's 31-3 pasting of the visiting Chicago Bears. He completed 23 of 36 passes for 227 yards and three touchdowns. On the first touchdown, a short post route to tight end Zach Ertz, he used his eyes well, opening to his left before turning back to Ertz on the right late in the play before delivering a strike for the score. The second came on a short screen route to Nelson Agholor, which was more a result of the receiver's ability after the catch. But his third touchdown, a red-zone slant route to Alshon Jeffery, showed Wentz's ability to identify a mismatch pre-snap and then exploit it with great touch and placement.
As I mentioned with Jared Goff, perhaps a decision not to throw will go down as Wentz's best play of the game. Facing a 3rd-and-9 early in the second quarter, the Eagles looked to set up a running back screen. Wentz opened to his left to throw the screen pass, but a defender jumped into the passing lane late and the quarterback pulled the ball down. But on the backside there was a cornerback blitz, and Wentz had the presence and feel to spin away and scramble for the first down. The eye in the back of his head has enabled Tom Brady to play at an elite level into his 40s, more than all the avocado ice cream in the world, and Wentz has shown an ability to make this same type of escapes.
There were some plays that detractors could point to where Wentz showed some of the bad habits he displayed in college. At times, he stared down his primary read (such as an out pattern to Torrey Smith on Philadelphia's second drive) and was statuesque in the pocket.
He was also occasionally slow to get through his reads (an example being a 1st-and-10 play early in the game when he threw to Jay Ajayi in the flat late) but these are infrequent. Wentz's development this year has been impressive, and his success in the red zone is just one more thing Eagles fans can point to.
Philadelphia faces its biggest test of the season this week, as it travels to Seattle for Sunday Night Football. If Wentz and the Eagles pass this test, we can really look to them as the true favorites to represent the NFC in Minnesota come February.