NFL1000: Doug Farrar's Week 14 QB RankingsDecember 5, 2017
NFL1000: Doug Farrar's Week 14 QB Rankings
When you account for 85.7 percent of your team's total offense over 12 games, you should be considered a Most Valuable Player. When you're a quarterback and you lead your team in rushing by 224 yards, you should be considered a Most Valuable Player. When you complete 62.4 percent of your passes and throw 26 touchdowns to just eight interceptions despite an offensive line that, in some spots, wouldn't cut it in the SEC, you should be considered a Most Valuable Player.
And when you welcome the NFL's best team into your stadium and slice up their defense despite the limitations surrounding you, you should definitely be considered a Most Valuable Player. Perhaps the Most Valuable Player.
That's what Seattle's Russell Wilson did to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Seahawks' 24-10 Sunday night win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Not only did Wilson complete 20 of 31 passes for 227 yards and three touchdowns against a Philly defense that was designed to stop him above all, he also added 31 rushing yards on six attempts and made play after play outside of structure that had Eagles defenders shaking their heads and gasping for breath. There are few NFL players who can do more with less than Wilson, and that was never more true than it was against a defense many expected to bottle him up in the pocket and take their shots.
Wilson wasn't the only one who excelled in Week 13. Minnesota's Case Keenum continued his unlikely success story with the Minnesota Vikings. Drew Brees now leads what looks like the NFL's most dangerous offense. Alex Smith made a big comeback, albeit in a loss to the New York Jets, and it was fun to see Kansas City's offense firing on most of its cylinders again.
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 14.
34. Jake Rudock, Detroit Lions
Last Week: N/A (Did Not Play)
Jake Rudock saw his first NFL action late in Detroit’s loss on the road to the Baltimore Ravens. After starting quarterback Matthew Stafford was knocked from the game with a right hand injury, Rudock came on and started well but finished poorly.
Rudock hit on his first three passing attempts. His first NFL completion came on a hitch route that was completed despite the ball coming out a bit late. He then hit on a slant route as well as a slip screen to get the Lions a fresh set of downs.
But then things fell apart. He tried to hit Marvin Jones on a curl route, but the pass on first down was well short of the target and incomplete. Then the Ravens blitzed him on a third and long, and under duress, he attempted a throw to the flat. Safety Eric Weddle read his eyes the entire play and broke on the ball, returning the easy interception for six points the other way.
If Stafford cannot go next week, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter will need to get Rudock up to speed in a hurry for the Lions to have a chance to keep their fading playoffs hopes alive.
33. Trevor Siemian, Denver Broncos
Last Week: 24
The moves from Trevor Siemian to Brock Osweiler to Paxton Lynch and back and forth and back and forth have produced a broken offense and a 3-9 record.
The latest offense came on Sunday with a 35-9 loss to the Miami Dolphins in which Siemian, the last man standing, completed just 19 of 41 passes for 200 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. He did this against a defense that ranked 31st in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted pass defense metrics, behind only the Oakland Raiders.
Siemian's first pick was on a quick slant to Emmanuel Sanders in which slot cornerback Bobby McCain batted the ball into the air in tight coverage, and safety T.J. McDonald came up with the deflection. Siemian threw the ball a tick late, but you could put this down to McCain's coverage, as he's one of the better and more underrated slot defenders in the league. The second came on a quick out route to Demaryius Thomas. Siemian telegraphed the throw all the way, and cornerback Xavien Howard was able to time and jump the route off of that.
The final pick of the day came from another batted pass. Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips batted the ball intended for receiver Bennie Fowler, and Howard came down with his second pick of the day. Siemian had tight end Austin Traylor open to the same side on a quick wheel route—a far less contested catch than Thomas' was—but it's unlikely that Siemian ever saw him, so intent he was on hitting his first read.
The Broncos desperately need a quarterback in the building, and it's just as clear that they don't have one. John Elway's folly has killed his team's season, and the only hope is that the franchise will acquire a starting-caliber signal-caller in either the draft or free agency.
32. Nathan Peterman, Buffalo Bills
Last Week: N/A (Did Not Play)
Nathan Peterman got his chance for redemption against the New England Patriots in the fourth quarter on Sunday, hoping to make people forget about his five-pick disaster against the Los Angeles Chargers two weeks ago. When Tyrod Taylor suffered a knee injury early in the fourth quarter, Peterman was once again the man under center.
The good news? He attempted 15 passes and didn't throw a pick, so that's progress. The bad news? Of those 15 attempts, Peterman completed just six passes for 50 yards. The rookie was far from the primary subject of blame for Buffalo's 23-3 loss, but he didn't do much to help the team when he had the opportunity.
Peterman did have a couple of nice, though easy, completions that were timing-based—simple comebacks and whatnot. But he struggles to get on the same page with his receivers, and he is still learning to throw with anticipation. These are major problems against a Patriots defense that has improved immeasurably over the last two months when it comes to bracketing receivers in zone coverage and pattern-reading in man.
Peterman has some potential, but he also has a long way to go.
31. DeShone Kizer, Cleveland Browns
Last Week: 23
Everybody in the Cleveland Browns organization was excited about the return of Josh Gordon, the talented receiver who hasn't played since 2014 due to his multiple run-ins with the NFL's drug policies.
Head coach Hue Jackson had said that the mission would be to get the ball to Gordon as much as possible in his return against the Los Angeles Chargers. This would certainly help DeShone Kizer, who was going up against one of the NFL's top defenses. Gordon did get 11 targets, catching just four passes for 85 yards, and that was the primary source of Kizer's final stat line—just 15 of 32 completions for 215 yards, one touchdown and one interception in a 19-10 loss. It was far from efficient, but it was a preview of things to come from an offense that does have some potential.
There are times when Kizer still shows glaring inaccuracy—like on the 3rd-and-12 pass to Gordon late in the first quarter. Cornerback Casey Heyward was covering Gordon using a bail technique, and Kizer underthrew the deep route so badly, Gordon couldn't come back to pick it up. That was on Kizer, as the pressure to his back side from end Joey Bosa hadn't arrived yet.
His next throw was high to tight end David Njoku (who played well when he was able to catch the ball) on a sideline route. Soon after that, Gordon beat all coverage with his speed from the left inside slot, and Kizer overthrew him for what would have been an easy touchdown. Kizer has got to clean up the plays in which his receivers can get open but are left moot on the play because he fails to throw with anticipation and proper velocity.
Kizer's second-quarter touchdown throw to Njoku was nicely timed, but the pass that most showed what this offense can be came with 2:36 left in the second quarter. Gordon muscled past Hayward on the left sideline, and Kizer placed the pass perfectly over Hayward's head, where Gordon could easily get it. That play and a handful of others were encouraging, but there are reasons the Browns are 0-12, and one of the primary causes of that winless streak is that the execution of the offense doesn't match the design.
As much as Kizer has shown flashes of potential, there's still a lot of work to be done.
30. Jacoby Brissett, Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: 31
Jacoby Brissett is in an impossible situation. He's one year removed from starring for the New England Patriots with a series of read-option plays against the Houston Texans, and then getting exposed as an inexperienced pocket quarterback the following week against the Buffalo Bills. Then, Tom Brady's DeflateGate suspension ended, and Brissett went back to the learning process.
When he was acquired to replace the injured Andrew Luck as the Colts starter, he was carrying a lot of that inexperience. That's okay if you have a run game, offensive line and defense to buttress your efforts. Brissett has had none of those things on a consistent basis, so he's going to have games like he did against the Jacksonville Jaguars' league-best defense. In a 30-10 loss in which the Colts defense seemed intent on making Blake Bortles look like Tom Brady, Brissett completed 21 of 36 passes for 174 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
It was as conservative a game plan as you could draw up, and Brissett didn't have a lot of opportunities to create explosive plays. He threw two passes over 20 yards in the air against Jacksonville, per NextGen Stats. One was an incompletion, and one was an interception. The deep pick came with 44 seconds left in the first half and the Colts already down 16-3. Brissett tried to hit T.Y. Hilton on a post pattern, but cornerback Jalen Ramsey disguised the underneath coverage by trailing the first part of Hilton's route then undercutting it.
Brissett isn't at a point in his development where he's going to see and process that in the milliseconds it takes.
However, the third-quarter post throw to Hilton that resulted in a 40-yard touchdown shows what Brissett can do if he's given the time to go through his reads, and his receiver presents him with a clear opening. Here, Hilton separated nicely from Ramsey, and Brissett was able to throw to what he saw.
JBrissett has proven that he has all the physical traits necessary for success at his position, but the mental part is going to take time.
29. Blaine Gabbert, Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: 29
Over the past few weeks, we have noticed a bit of a trend with Blaine Gabbert. The quarterback starts games well by making some impressive reads and throws, but late mistakes either cost his team the win or put his team in bad position.
This week against the Los Angeles Rams, Gabbert decided to flip the script. He threw two interceptions early but then settled in to help the Arizona Cardinals claw back into the game. On the first interception, Gabbert made an aggressive decision, trying to hit a deep shot on a play-action boot concept. But the pass was badly underthrown and intercepted. He followed that with a pick-six to Alec Ogletree. On that play, he tried to hit running back D.J. Foster on a Texas Route out of the backfield, but the Rams linebacker dropped off the line of scrimmage and into the throwing lane, pulling down the throw and returning it for the score.
From there, Gabbert was better. He found Larry Fitzgerald on a beautifully anticipated post route for a touchdown, with the quarterback showing great timing on the release and good placement on the throw. He was also effective on Sticks Concepts, often finding Ricky Seals-Jones right past the first-down marker on the curl route over the middle for first downs.
Gabbert was also good on a few blitzes. On one facing a 1st-and-20, he identified a slot blitz and replaced it with the football, hitting Jermaine Gresham with a quick throw for a good gain.
It was not enough, as the Cardinals dropped to 5-6 with the 32-16 loss to the Rams. Despite the mistakes each week, Gabbert is showing enough to at least keep him in the mix for Arizona's quarterback plans going forward. He may not be the long-term answer at the position, but he has proven to at least be a capable QB2. In a league where injuries at the quarterback spot can change a team's fortune without a capable backup, that might be a good thing for his job security.
28. Brett Hundley, Green Bay Packers
Last Week: 17
How would Brett Hundley follow up a rather impressive Sunday night performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers? Would he continue to show signs of development, or would he regress against Tampa Bay?
Despite the Packers' pulling out an overtime win, it was more of the latter.
Hundley struggled at times and completed 13 of 22 passes for a meager 84 yards and one interception. As we have seen before, Hundley looked OK to start the game, running the scripted plays, but Green Bay's first drive ended when he missed Geronimo Allison on a wide-open corner route in the end zone, and the Packers missed a chance for six. This was a common theme, as later in the game, Hundley's ball placement on a corner route to Davante Adams was off, and the pass was broken up.
The interception came on a deep shot to Jordy Nelson. Hundley failed to manipulate the safety with his eyes, allowing him to rotate over for the pick. The defense showed a two-high safety look pre-snap, but the play-side safety dropped down into a robber alignment. Hundley stared down Nelson the whole route, and Justin Evans read his eyes and got in place for the turnover.
Down the stretch, it was his legs, however, that helped the Packers pull out the win. On their game-winning drive in overtime, Hundley was able to scramble on a 3rd-and-4 and pick up the first down. He followed that with a good keep on a run/pass option play to help set up the winning touchdown from Aaron Jones. So the Packers were able to secure the win, and now the football world waits on the collarbone of Aaron Rodgers.
27. Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills
Last Week: 18
Tyrod Taylor's mess of a season just got messier. On the first play of the fourth quarter in the Buffalo Bills' 23-3 loss to the New England Patriots, Taylor missed a simple outlet pass to LeSean McCoy and was taken down by defensive tackle Malcom Brown. Taylor finished the series, which was a three-and-out, but was taken out of the game after that with a knee injury.
His last play of the game was a third-down deep throw to receiver Deonte Thompson in which Thompson could have caught the ball but dropped his hands as cornerback Malcolm Butler and safety Duron Harmon closed in on him.
It was that kind of day. Before Taylor gave way to Nathan Peterman, he completed nine of 18 passes for 65 yards and a really bad interception. There was also a Joe Webb Wildcat-type play that is best forgotten. The pick was kryptonite to all of those who believe that Taylor is a high-potential quarterback who just needs a team that isn't so eager to push him out the door and will actually create a game plan tailored to his skill set.
With 7:51 left in the first quarter and the ball on the New England 6-yard line, McCoy flared from the backfield wide right, and the idea was to have McCoy run a quick in route and get in front of the defender. But Taylor threw late, balking a bit at pressure up the middle, and delivered the ball right to defensive end Eric Lee, who was just standing there, in front of where McCoy was going. If Taylor had thrown the ball on time, it would have been an easy completion, and the pick negated a long drive that started at the Buffalo 28-yard line.
The Bills are a mess right now. They don't have the right offensive identity for any of the quarterbacks on their roster, and none of the quarterbacks have the specific skills for that offensive identity. That said, Taylor could have made a far better case for himself in this game. Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network reported that the belief is that Taylor's knee injury is not too severe, so we could see him against the leaky Colts defense next week.
26. Jay Cutler, Miami Dolphins
Last Week: N/A (Did Not Play)
The Miami Dolphins ended their five-game losing streak with a 35-9 win over the Denver Broncos, helped to a great extent by Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian's three-interception day and Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake's 120 yards and one rushing touchdown.
Jay Cutler completed 18 of 31 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns for the Dolphins, but he also threw two interceptions that would have been far more problematic against a team with half an offense.
Cutler's first pick of the day happened with 6:01 left in the first half, and it was the kind of throw we've seen from him a thousand times. He started scanning the field to his left, went to the right, and saw receiver Kenny Stills just ahead of Broncos cornerback Chris Harris. Cutler threw the ball with awkward lower-body mechanics, leading to an underthrow, when a ball with more velocity would have seen Stills run past Harris. In this case, Harris deflected the ball and came down with it.
The next pick came with 4:56 left in the third quarter. Cutler was trying to hit DeVante Parker on a crossing route, but he threw late and allowed safety Justin Simmons to jump the route and return the ball 65 yards for a touchdown.
Cutler atoned a bit for these transgressions with a nice deep touchdown to Stills in the fourth quarter, but this is the quarterback you get when you sign Jay Cutler and ask him to run your offense—a guy who alternates between tremendous plays in which he marries athleticism and velocity, and plays in which he is unable to avoid mechanical regression and the inefficiency it produces.
25. Tom Savage, Houston Texans
Last Week: 26
At this point in his career, Tom Savage isn't playing to become the starting quarterback of the Houston Texans. The team told Savage what it thinks of his future prospects when it traded up to get Deshaun Watson in the draft, and Watson validated that move in every way possible before a knee injury knocked him out for the rest of the season. Savage is playing to, at best, be somebody else's starter.
Against the Titans on Sunday in a 24-13 loss, he alternated between looking like he was ready to take the next step somewhere and very definitely not.
Though he put some good throws together, Savage's—and Houston's—inability to get anything done in the red zone killed the offense. Savage completed 31 of 49 passes for 365 yards: obviously good numbers, but for just one touchdown and an interception.
Big plays were a problem, too—most of them come from the receivers, and Savage, according to NextGen Stats, completed just one of five passes over 20 yards in the air. Well, he completed two such passes—problem was, one of them was to Titans cornerback LeShaun Sims on a throw to the end zone with 1:13 left in the game.
On this play, Savage had to get the ball to DeAndre Hopkins before Hopkins was bracketed by Sims and safety Kevin Byard, but the ball arrived when Hopkins was practically rendered invisible on tape because Tennessee's two defenders had him covered so well. On this play, Savage took the "Throw the ball to Hopkins no matter how many defenders are on him" strategy to its illogical conclusion.
The four-yard touchdown pass Savage threw to tight end Stephen Anderson with 10:40 left in the first half was more in his wheelhouse—a play in which he lumbered out of the pocket, found the open receiver and threw the ball low enough that it wouldn't get picked.
If you keep Savage safe with the short stuff and let him heave the ball to Hopkins once in a while, it's a manageable system. Anything more than that will require more development.
24. Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears
Last Week: 21
Let's check back in on the development of Mitchell Trubisky, which has been an up-and-down process over the past few weeks. Against the visiting San Francisco 49ers, Trubisky did not have a ton of chances in the passing game. He completed 12 of 15 passing attempts for 102 yards and a touchdown, so he was relatively clean from a completion-percentage standpoint.
As has been the issue with Trubisky in his rookie season, processing and play speed is an area that needs improvement. On one of his first passing attempts of the game, he was slow to read the defense and never pulled the trigger when he had a crossing route open over the middle, and it led to a sack. He was also late on a slant route to Dontrelle Inman to open Chicago's second drive of the game, but with good velocity and ball placement, he was able to complete the throw. On a sack late in the third quarter, Trubisky was again a step slow to try to throw, but he was able to get back on the football after being stripped by Cassius Marsh.
His touchdown came on another slant route to Inman. The Bears looked to attack a backup cornerback who had just entered the game due to injury, and Trubisky stared Inman down the entire play. But with velocity and placement once more, he was able to complete the pass for a score. We also got to see his athleticism, as he made a number of runs and scrambles to extend plays and pick up yardage with his legs. He finished the day with 19 yards rushing on four attempts.
Development is not linear, and Trubiisky is going through expected rookie ups-and-downs, but on the whole, his progress has been positive, which is at least something that Bears fans can take away from the 2017 season.
23. Geno Smith, New York Giants
Last Week: N/A (Did Not Play)
Shortly after 1 p.m. on the West Coast Sunday, nothing else mattered but what happened on the field. Stripping away the decision to bench Eli Manning, his future with the team, how that decision was handled and the future of head coach Ben McAdoo, it was time for Geno Smith to run the New York Giants offense.
As one might expect, there was some rust early. Smith was slow in the pocket on a few plays, including his first passing attempt, when he tried to hit rookie tight end Evan Engram on a stick route. His second throw, a slant to Roger Lewis, came late and allowed the defender to break on the ball.
But then Smith seemed to improve. He had two great plays to Engram late in the first quarter: first on a crossing route where Smith was pressured off the edge, climbed the pocket and found Engram downfield. Then the Giants isolated Engram on the left and Smith hit him on a curl route, leading his tight end perfectly toward the boundary and away from coverage.
Smith's one touchdown pass of the day was also a thing of beauty. Engram ran a perfect stick-nod route and got open in the back of the end zone. Smith faced a difficult throw, needing to clear underneath defenders but still keep Engram in the field of play. He dropped in the throw perfectly and Engram secured the ball for the score.
There were mistakes, such as the strip-sack that came in the second quarter in the face of an overload blitz, when Smith was slow to climb the pocket and throw. Near the end of the first half, Smith was sacked in the red zone and again lost the football. But if he can be faster when facing pressure, Smith might just help the Giants salvage something from this season. That is, unless interim coach Steve Spagnuolo decides to go back to Manning.
22. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: 27
For most of the 2017 season, the Baltimore Ravens have been stuck in a reductive passing nightmare. Marty Mornhinweg's conservative game plans have been necessitated to a large degree by the undeniable fact Joe Flacco has mechanical issues that prevent him completing deep passes consistently. But in Sunday's 44-20 win over the Detroit Lions, Flacco and the Ravens were able to reverse course a bit.
Flacco completed 23 of 36 passes for 269 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Not exceptional numbers, but it's how he got them that matters. According to Pro Football Focus, he attempted 12 passes of 10 or more yards downfield, and for once, most of those passes weren't thrown away from his own receivers, or more in the direction of defenders.
Flacco's 66-yard completion to Mike Wallace with 12:50 left in the second quarter of the game—Baltimore's longest play of the season—was particularly encouraging. Flacco ran a play-action fake to running back Alex Collins and hit Wallace on a deep over route to the right sideline from the left slot. Flacco's mechanics were ideal on the throw: His front leg was planted with plenty of support, and he used hip turn to generate torque—quite unlike the upper-body throws that have produced so many air balls.
Because his body was in sync, it was easy for him to time the throw to Wallace, who had beaten safety Glover Quin with his raw speed. Flacco also had a clean pocket on the play, and that's incredibly important to the Ravens' playoff potential: He tends to vary his throwing process pretty wildly when defenders are closing in on him and he has to move.
At 7-5 and with one of the NFL's best defenses, the Ravens are an intriguing possible postseason entrant. That progress will obviously be facilitated by any level of consistency from their quarterback.
21. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars
Last Week: 30
If you were prone to snarkiness about Blake Bortles' future prospects, you might have said Jacksonville Jaguars punter Brad Nortman's 29-yard fake punt pass to tight end James O'Shaughnessy made him the best thrower on the Jaguars roster. And in some weeks, Nortman might be.
But Bortles performed well against the Indianapolis Colts' imploding defense, completing 26 of 35 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns. Outside of his four-touchdown outlier against the Baltimore Ravens in September and the last time he played the Colts in October, it was Bortles' most efficient game. It provided respite for a running game and defense that has been carrying the load for their inefficient quarterback through most of the season.
Bortles attempted three passes over 20 yards in the air, completing two of them, per NextGen Stats. The touchdowns were both short passes, but Bortles was at his most efficient when he needed to be. According to ESPN's Stats & Info, he completed 11 of 14 passes for 116 yards and both of those touchdowns on third down. That helped head coach Doug Marrone win how he wants to win: by extending drives and playing suffocating defense. Both of his touchdown passes also came under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus' charting.
This performance came against a weak defense and an opponent Bortles historically tends to trend up against, but if he can keep it going over the next month or two, the Jaguars would turn from scrappy playoff contender to legitimate Super Bowl possibility.
20. Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: 33
Hope is a powerful emotion, and for one week, San Francisco 49ers fans have reason to hope once more.
In his first start wearing the red and gold, Jimmy Garoppolo completed 26 of 37 passes for 293 yards and an interception. The numbers were not spectacular, but he led the 49ers to a last-minute victory on the road over the Chicago Bears. Garoppolo delivered a number of big throws on the winning drive, including a 3rd-and-9 conversion to Trent Taylor on a tosser (double-slant) concept to keep the possession alive. This was a staple of the offense Garoppolo ran in New England, and he executed it to perfection in a big spot.
The interception was also a pretty good read and throw from Garoppolo. He saw Louis Murphy on an in cut and put the throw right on his receiver, but Murphy could not complete the catch and the football was wrestled away from him for the turnover.
It was also easy to see just how the San Francisco offense seemed to be more in sync with Garoppolo at the helm. In addition to the timing of routes and the anticipation from the quarterback, boots and waggles, which are a staple of Kyle Shanahan's offense, were more effective with Garoppolo running the offense.
Sure, it is just one game against a team having a difficult season, but that is the power of hope. It is hard to blame 49ers fans for believing on this Tuesday morning.
19. Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
Last Week: 20
To put it kindly, Marcus Mariota's 2017 has been a disappointment. He came into Sunday's game against the Houston Texans with just nine touchdowns to 12 interceptions, and he was two weeks removed from a four-pick game against the Pittsburgh Steelers that might have been the worst game against his NFL career.
To counter Mariota's issues—his unstable pocket presence and a dangerous tendency to throw late to his receivers on routes that require anticipation—head coach Mike Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie seemed to simplify and risk-proof the game plan, and it worked. The Titans came away with a 24-13 win, raising their record to 8-4, and Mariota completed 15 of 23 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown, adding a touchdown run.
There were no big plays of note, but no real mistakes, either. And with the team's 25 rushing attempts for 198 yards, Mariota didn't have the entire game on him. The transfer of power in that running game from DeMarco Murray to Derrick Henry helped, as Mariota could comfortably throw from play action, which has always been a specialty of his.
Mariota's lone touchdown pass, a 24-yarder with nine seconds left in the third quarter, came off play action. It was a return to the "Exotic Smashmouth" offense Mularkey prefers but has been in comparatively short supply this season. Operating out of a heavy package with an additional offensive lineman, and Henry staying in to block after the fake, Mariota had the time and the clean pocket to hit Walker on a post for the score. The addition of run action on this play (when blockers fire out on a pass) had the Texans thinking run all the way.
These adjustments allowed Mariota to play with greater urgency without slipping into freneticism. The Titans are at their best when they lead with the run game and have multi-tight end formations that leave the divide between run and pass as a source of confusion for the defense.
Tennessee has the lead in the AFC South just over Jacksonville despite a version of Mariota it did not expect. To get Mariota rolling again is an assignment of utmost urgency if this team is to keep its edge in the final month of the regular season.
18. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: 15
Dak Prescott did not put up huge numbers against the Washington Redskins in the Dallas Cowboys' 38-14 victory last Thursday night, but the victory kept his team alive for one more week in the NFC playoff picture. Prescott completed 11 of 22 passes for only 102 yards against Washington, but he threw two touchdown passes and added 28 yards rushing to help the Cowboys earn the win.
Ball placement, which has been an issue for Prescott the past few weeks, was a problem again early against Washington. On Dallas' opening drive, he looked to check the ball down to Alfred Morris, but his throw was high and the pass was incomplete. On his second drive of the game, Prescott did a good job stepping up in the pocket on a third down, but he then should have been intercepted when he threw slightly off target and late over the middle to Dez Bryant.
Prescott then settled in a bit. His first touchdown pass came to tight end Jason Witten on a run/pass option look. Prescott made the right decision to pull the football, quickly froze the play-side safety in the middle of the field and then hit Witten on a quick in-breaking route for the touchdown. The second touchdown came on a well-placed goal-line fade route, which allowed Bryant to do what he perhaps does best: win at the catch point.
Perhaps more importantly for the Cowboys, Prescott was able to return to the game after having his throwing hand examined on the sidelines. He threw the touchdown pass to Bryant after returning to action, and he showed great velocity on a throw to Bryant breaking toward the middle of the field in the third quarter. Seeing Prescott make throws like that after having his hand checked out gives Cowboys fans a reason to relax and keep hope alive for at least one more week.
17. Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins
Last Week: 9
Thursday night's loss to the Dallas Cowboys sparked many post-game debates about both the future of the Washington Redskins, as well as the future of their current quarterback. That discussion began on the set of the telecast, when Steve Smith, Michael Irvin and Marshall Faulk crushed Cousins after his performance against Washington's divisional foe.
Cousins completed 26 of 37 passes for 251 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but he threw two interceptions, the first coming in the red zone early in the game on a throw to Jamison Crowder. It was that play—and the aftermath—that sent the three legends of the game down their path.
Let's start with the two touchdowns. The first ended a drive before halftime that helped the Redskins get back into the game. Cousins found Ryan Grant on a vertical route along the left sideline for a touchdown, with Dallas caught in a Cover 2 look and Cousins able to hit Grant in the "turkey hole" before safety Jeff Heath rotated over. That was a good read, a good throw and a great use of vision from Cousins.
The second score came on a corner route to Josh Doctson. The throw was a bit high and could have been placed better, but Doctson was able to high-point the football and secure the throw for the touchdown.
That brings us to the interception thrown in Crowder's direction. Cousins saw the defense in Tampa 2 coverage. As he dropped to throw, Cousins flashed his eyes to the right, which caused the linebacker in the middle of the field to drop and turn his back to Crowder. Cousins immediately came to his left and threw to his receiver on a quick post route right on the money, but the pass went through Crowder's hands and right to Heath for the interception.
Cousins made the right read, used his eyes well and made a good throw. But when he did not immediately try to pick his teammate up on the sideline or even on the field, that started Faulk into motion.
The debate over Cousins' future in Washington has been raging for nearly a year now. There are those who believe he isn't worth what the Redskins might need to pay him to keep him in town. But looking both at Cousins' body of work and even his game against Dallas, and then seeing the rest of the quarterback landscape, it's hard to argue against him.
16. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: 5
The Atlanta Falcons entered Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings as the best offense in the league on third downs. Through 12 weeks, Atlanta was converting 48 percent of those opportunities, above both Minnesota and New England. But against those Vikings, the Falcons managed to convert only 1 of 10 third-down chances. After the game, Matt Ryan put a lot of the blame on himself and Atlanta's inefficiency on first and second downs. Ryan finished the game completing 16 of 29 passes, but for only 173 yards, and he was held without a touchdown pass.
Some of that inefficiency was on display on Ryan's first passing attempt of the game. On a 1st-and-10, he looked to Julio Jones on a slant route, where the receiver had established inside leverage against Xavier Rhodes, one of the game's best cornerbacks. But the pass went through Julio's hands and fell incomplete. He also looked to Jones later on a first-down play-action design in the third quarter, but threw into double coverage and should have been intercepted.
The most telling sequence of the game came early in the fourth quarter, though. The Vikings had just scored on a long touchdown drive to take a 14-9 lead, and after a running play on first down, Ryan threw incomplete after he was forced to check the ball down late under pressure on second down. Facing another 3rd-and-long, Ryan was pressured and forced to scramble. He could not pick up the first down with his legs, and Atlanta was forced to punt once more.
Atlanta now sits two games behind the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South, but it faces its division rivals twice over the next three weeks. The Falcons will need to get back to form on third downs if they are going to make a move toward a division title.
15. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Last Week: 19
Statistically speaking, this was one of the best games of Cam Newton's season. Newton completed 17 of 27 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. While not a perfect statistic, his quarterback rating for the game was 107.5, his fourth-best result this season. His Adjusted Yards per Attempt was 8.26, also his fourth-best posting in 2017. Newton also added 51 rushing yards on six carries, for an average of 8.50 yards per attempt.
But it was not enough to overcome the Saints, and Newton and company fell 31-21.
A few throws stood out. He found Brenton Bersin on a crossing route against a Cover 2 look and drilled a throw with great velocity and placement into a very small window. Newton needed to fit the ball in before the Cover 2 cornerback in the flat rotated over and in front of the defender in trail coverage, and he delivered it perfectly.
He also showed good patience and pocket awareness on a touchdown pass to Christian McCaffrey. Newton let the pressure get close to him as his rookie RB leaked out into the flat and then found him late in the play for the touchdown.
Newton and Devin Funchess combined to light up your Twitter timeline later in the game. First Newton ripped off a 32-yard gain on a 2nd-and-2 in the fourth quarter, where he displayed both the speed and the change-of-direction ability as a ball-carrier that makes him such a dangerous weapon. The Panthers ended that drive with Newton finding Funchess along the right sideline: Funchess high-pointed the catch and then raced into the end zone for the final points of the game.
But the Saints took a season sweep of the Panthers, meaning Carolina will need some help to overtake New Orleans in the NFC South. That might not happen, but the team is still in the playoffs at the moment. It'll need Newton to have more games like this one to punch their postseason ticket.
14. Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
Last Week: 13
Derek Carr went into Sunday's game against the New York Giants with two distinct disadvantages: the absences of primary receivers Amari Cooper (injury) and Michael Crabtree (suspension). He also had one distinct advantage: He was facing a Giants team that had benched Eli Manning and whose defense was playing out the string.
His stats—22 completions in 36 attempts for 287 yards, one touchdown and no picks—should be taken in the context that he was without his two primary targets, though only Crabtree has played as expected this season.
Like any good quarterback does, Carr took advantage of the options he had. Speedster Cordarrelle Patterson was Carr's favorite teammate in this 24-17 win, catching four passes for 97 yards, including a 59-yard gain in the fourth quarter on a quick screen. His only deep ball of the day came halfway through the third quarter, when tight end Clive Walford ran a post past a defense that seemed to be moving in slow motion, and Carr made a well-timed throw for the completion.
At 6-6, the Raiders have four games left to right the ship and make a run to a postseason most deemed to be theirs for the taking before the season began. If Cooper and Crabtree can return at top form and play their roles, and the team can continue to find ways to make Patterson their after-catch monster, Oakland's offense might just be explosive enough to make up for its defense against teams that aren't already done for the season.
13. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
Last Week: 11
Matthew Stafford turned in one of the more...interesting performances from a quarterback this week in the Detroit Lions' road loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Stafford started slowly, missing some throws in the downfield passing game. He threw a vertical route to Marvin Jones on Detroit's second drive that was left too far inside. There were also drops from Kenny Golladay and Golden Tate early.
Stafford then completed 20 straight passes, with the last coming off a well-executed goal-line play-action fake where he found fullback Nick Bellore in the flat for the score. That touchdown cut the Baltimore lead to 27-20 and came on a drive where Stafford hit Jones on a vertical route and then executed a perfect tight end wheel route to Eric Roberts to set the Lions up with the 1st-and-goal.
But Stafford's day ended on his next passing attempt, which came in the face of pressure from Terrell Suggs and Willie Henry. Stafford forced a throw in the direction of Jones and into triple coverage, and it was intercepted. Stafford landed awkwardly on his right hand, and the injury to his throwing hand cut his day short. Stafford completed 24 of 29 passes for 292 yards, with the one touchdown and an interception.
Detroit's playoff hopes are diminishing and likely rest on that right hand. If Stafford can return to the lineup, he can keep the Lions in game, but it is hard to see the Lions making a late push to the postseason if he is sidelined for any amount of time.
12. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Last Week: 3
Tom Brady hasn't failed to throw a touchdown pass in a game since the New England Patriots' opening-day loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. His team also hadn't won a game in which Brady had no touchdown passes since it beat the Denver Broncos last December.
That the Pats were able to take the Bills apart, 23-3, without Brady's assistance in the end zone was a testament to two things that might make them even tougher opponents in the postseason than usual: a pass defense that has improved drastically in the last two months and a multi-tiered rushing attack that seems to have all the bases covered.
But Brady struggled in this one. The Bills have had a beatable defense all season long, but they were able to bring enough pressure to prevent Brady from having a clean pocket on several attempts, and he tended to underthrow and miss wide. He completed 21 of 30 passes, but for only 258 yards and one interception.
Rob Gronkowski was the only Patriots receiver who had more than 34 yards, with 147 yards on nine catches. Gronkowski's rightful one-game suspension after his ridiculous hit on Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White means Brady will have to find other targets against the Miami Dolphins next Sunday night. But that play, and others, showed Patriots opponents how to beat New England's offense: get Brady off his spot, make him throw inaccurately from an unstable position and man-cover his targets as aggressively as possible.
In this case, New England's out was to run the ball against Buffalo's leaky front seven and wait for its offense to fail. Other teams might have more success with this strategy, though.
11. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: 8
Ben Roethlisberger has alternated between the best version of himself (a mobile wonder who can make killer vertical stick throws) and the worst version (a random mechanical nightmare who loses touch with his receivers over multiple plays) through the last calendar year.
In Pittsburgh's 23-20 last-second win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night, we saw enough of both versions. Roethlisberger missed Antonio Brown on multiple plays, but Brown still caught eight passes for 101 yards and a touchdown, albeit on 15 targets.
The most glaring example of this miscommunication came halfway through the second quarter. Roethlisberger appeared to overthrow Brown over the middle, and both players were jawing at each other afterwards. Still, Roethlisberger was able to complete 24 of 40 passes for 290 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, including an absolute bullet to Brown with 3:57 left in the game that tied things up. It was an incredible play by Brown to hold onto the ball at all, as he was absolutely lit up by safety George Iloka in the process.
Roethlisberger's other touchdown pass was certainly more confusing to the Bengals defense. With 9:09 left in the third quarter, Roethlisberger dumped a quick screen pass to running back Le'Veon Bell. Linebacker Jordan Evans was in pursuit, as was cornerback William Jackson. At the last second, as Bell traipsed down the left sideline, it appeared Jackson backed off a potential tackle because he thought Evans was going to wrap Bell up, and Jackson didn't want to risk a late hit penalty. While all that was going on, Bell sauntered into the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown.
It wasn't pretty. In fact, with all the brutal hits and injuries, it was the kind of game that makes you want to use the term "old school" as an insult. But the win lifted the Steelers to a 10-2 record ahead of key matchups against the Ravens and Patriots.
10. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 14
Through most of the 2017 season, the Bengals have played it safe with Andy Dalton. He came into Monday night with just one 300-plus-yard game and just two where he's thrown for three or more touchdowns. It's worked to a point, as Dalton hadn't thrown an interception in his previous five games and managed a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 7-0 in Cincinnati's three prior games, two of which were wins. In Cincinnati's 23-20 loss to the Steelers, Dalton did about what he's done all season, completing 21 of 36 passes for 234 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Dalton hit receiver A.J. Green on a 15-yard touchdown pass with 35 seconds left in the first quarter to put the Bengals up 17-0 with the extra point. And then the Bengals offense shut down for all intents and purposes, while the Steelers picked up the pace. In the end, Chris Boswell's 38-yard field goal as time expired gave Pittsburgh a 23-20 win, while the Bengals fell to 5-7 on the season.
Dalton looked quite good in the first half, connecting with Green on two touchdown passes, and the duo would've had a third score with 7:50 left in the third quarter on a deep throw were it not for a highly questionable holding call on running back Giovani Bernard. That penalty took the ball from the Cincinnati 39 to the 29. Though Dalton was able to connect with Brandon LaFell for 27 yards a few plays later on a well-placed sideline throw, that drive ended in a field goal. It was the last scoring the Bengals would do on the day, while the Steelers ran up 13 points and got the win in the fourth quarter.
This was a heartbreaking loss for the Bengals and a very rough game for both teams, as several players suffered serious injuries in what was a brutal contest. Dalton played well enough for the Bengals to win, but the Steelers solved his defense in the second half, and that was the difference.
9. Josh McCown, New York Jets
Last Week: 12
It's safe to say very few people expected the New York Jets to have a 5-7 record after an enormous offseason salary dump left the team with few notable stars. It's also safe to say fewer people expected Josh McCown, the 38-year-old career journeyman, to enjoy a career year as a starter with stud receivers like Robby Anderson and Jermaine Kearse.
But that's exactly what's been happening, and McCown's performance in the Jets' 38-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs was what we've come to expect: nothing flashy, but a few big throws, some surprising mobility and exploiting weak, undisciplined defenses.
McCown completed 26 of 36 passes for 331 yards and just one touchdown, but he picked apart Kansas City's defense with precise throws and added two one-yard rushing touchdowns. The best throw of the day was the 44-yarder he threw to Kearse with 5:11 left in the first quarter. Kearse beat cornerback Steven Nelson on a right-side switch release, and McCown stepped up in the pocket and hit Kearse in stride with a throw that had optimal touch and velocity off perfect mechanics.
McCown's second-quarter touchdown to running back Matt Forte came out of a nice design, with Forte flared out wide left and the Chiefs playing it passively. Forte, one of the best receiving backs in recent memory in his prime, slanted his way through Kansas City's zone as the Chiefs over-focused on Kearse's deeper route to the same side.
Whenever you see a quarterback connecting with his receivers and making the most of the playbook, it's a nice experience. Surprisingly after a rather average career, he's coming into his own at an age when a lot of quarterbacks are retreating to the broadcast booth.
8. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 1
Sunday night was a huge opportunity for Carson Wentz and the Philadelphia Eagles to deliver a statement victory in front of a national audience. It was a chance to show those who doubted Philadelphia's 10-1 record that they could beat a quality opponent. For Wentz to perhaps stake a solid claim as the 2017 MVP.
Wentz and the Eagles largely failed those tests.
The second-year quarterback did deliver a few magical moments. His 51-yard strike to Nelson Agholor to start the fourth quarter was without doubt a highlight-reel play. Wentz faced only a three-man rush but was still flushed to his right, and with Quinton Jefferson wrapped around his legs, Michael Bennett bearing down on him and his body crashing to the turf, Wentz still had enough arm strength to find Agholor downfield.
The pass traveled 46 yards in the air and was as impressive a play as you will see. Philadelphia ended that drive with another impressive throw from Wentz to Agholor. The Seahawks blitzed, and Wentz was able to climb the pocket and then slide to the right, before finding his receiver along the left sideline in the end zone for the score.
However, Wentz's performance Sunday contained many mistakes and missed opportunities. Early in the game, Wentz had Agholor wide open on a crossing route from left to right but overthrew his target. That play could have gone for big yardage, perhaps even six points.
On a fourth down in the third quarter, Wentz was blitzed and looked to float a pass to Kenjon Barner leaking out of the backfield. But the pass fell incomplete when again the intended target had room to run. Finally, Wentz lost the football on a running play diving for the goal line in the third quarter, and the Seahawks took over possession when the loose ball trickled out of the end zone.
When teams and quarterbacks fail to convert chances like those, they often find themselves on the losing end when the clock strikes zero.
7. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: N/A (Did Not Play)
You might have expected Jameis Winston to show some rust in his first start after missing multiple weeks with a shoulder injury. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback started hot and was very impressive on his opening drive.
On a 2nd-and-5, he was blitzed but was able to stand in the pocket and find Antony Auclair in the flat to move the chains. On a 2nd-and-6 later in the drive, he stood fast in the face of pressure and found Alan Cross, again in the flat, to convert the first down. He capped off the drive with a great read and throw to Cameron Brate on a post route for a touchdown. It was against a Cover 2 the announcers said Winston told them in a production meeting he was expecting. Winston made the right read quickly and took advantage of the weak spot in the secondary.
He finished the day completing 21 of 32 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns. His second scoring pass came later in the game, when he found Brate once more on an option route for the score. Brate sat down in a soft area of zone coverage after breaking off his vertical stem before Winston found him for the score.
But there were a few mistakes and missed opportunities. After Packers quarterback Brett Hundley threw an early second-quarter interception, Tampa Bay failed to capitalize on its ensuing possession. Winston twice looked to Mike Evans on that drive, and he underthrew him on second down when Evans had a step on a vertical route.
On third down, Winston was flushed to his left and attempted a dangerous throw to Evans on a crossing route that should have been intercepted, but the pass fell harmlessly to the turf. Winston also lost the football on a boot-action play later in the second quarter, and Dean Lowry scooped the loose ball for a defensive touchdown.
Winston could only sit and watch as the Packers had the only overtime possession, capping off their opening drive with the game-winning touchdown.
It was a good return to the lineup for Winston, but in keeping with the disappointment of 2017 for Tampa Bay, it did not end in victory.
6. Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers
Last Week: 4
Philip Rivers didn't quite put up the numbers against the Cleveland Browns that he did against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving in one of the best games of his career. But he still was ruthlessly efficient and remains one of many reasons the Los Angeles Chargers are a team nobody wants to face right now. They've won six of their last eight games after starting out 0-4, and if there's one truly dangerous 6-6 team in the NFL, this is the one.
Rivers completed 31 of 43 passes for 344 yards and a touchdown against a Browns defense that has been playing above the fold despite the team's winless record. Rivers didn't throw many passes over 20 yards in the air (just three, per NFL NextGen Stats, and he didn't complete any of those). However, he did connect on a ton of passes 10-19 yards in the air, mostly over the middle and to his right, to receiver Keenan Allen and tight end Hunter Henry.
Allen caught 10 passes on 105 yards and a touchdown on 14 targets, and his touchdown showed his outstanding route-running ability and Rivers' impressive timing with his top receiver. With 10:40 left in the third quarter from the Browns' seven-yard line, Allen influenced cornerback Jason McCourty with the kind of outside move McCourty's seen a hundred times in his NFL career. But Allen sold the move so well that McCourty was out of step when Allen moved to the goalpost, and Rivers had his easy score.
The Chargers obviously have a better chance of winning when Rivers is peppering the air with touchdown passes, but the fact they have learned to win even when he doesn't makes the team dangerous.
5. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: 16
Through the first five weeks of the 2017 season, the Kansas City Chiefs averaged 414.2 yards in total offense per game and went 5-0. Over the next six weeks, that same team averaged 312.3 yards per game and came away with just one victory. Sunday's game against the New York Jets didn't turn out any better in the win column for Andy Reid's team, but that had far more to with the Chiefs' defensive implosion than an offense that had gone stale.
Reid turned the play-calling over to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy last week, and for the first time in a long time, Kansas City's offense was more than a bunch of shovel passes, elementary run-pass options and deep iso routes Alex Smith had no business attempting.
The difference in Sunday's game, when Smith completed 19 of 33 passes for 366 yards and four touchdowns? Play action. All four of Smith's touchdown passes came on throws over 20 yards in the air, and three of them—both of his touchdown passes to tight end Travis Kelce and one of two to receiver Tyreek Hill—came on faked handoffs to running back Kareem Hunt when Hunt then released into the curl/flat area. This forced at least a linebacker, and sometimes a safety, to focus on Hunt as a passing option, opening up one-on-one matchups downfield.
On the downside, there were the three incompletions that ended the drive that might have sent the game into overtime. Hunt complicated matters by dropping a simple swing pass with 58 seconds left in the game. Smith then nearly threw an interception to safety Jamal Adams on an attempt to receiver Demarcus Robinson, which Adams dropped. Then, Smith overthrew Travis Kelce on 4th-and-6, and that was that.
Whoever is in charge of calling the Chiefs' plays, there's still work to do. Smith needs defined openings if he's going to succeed in crunch time, Hill needs more rushing attempts no matter what the score is and the option elements that once kept Kansas City's opponents on their heels need to be further expanded. This was several steps in the right direction, but without a win, the 6-6 Chiefs should see it as so much noise.
4. Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams
Last Week: 2
When the final whistle sounded on the Los Angeles Rams' 32-16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, the team moved to 9-3 on the season and secured its first winning record since the 2003 season. Jared Goff continued his impressive rebound season, completing 21 of 31 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns, along with one interception.
In the wake of the Rams' victory last week, there was much discussion over head coach Sean McVay having his offense line up quickly so he can relay last-second instructions and audibles to his quarterback. It is a brilliant way to help a quarterback prepare for the next play, but the signal-caller still needs to execute, and Goff has been doing that this season.
His interception was down to failed execution, although credit must be given to the defender on this particular play. Linebacker Kareem Martin began in a four-point stance, but right at the snap, he dropped off the line of scrimmage and into the flat. That put him between Goff and running back Todd Gurley. The quarterback failed to see that before hitting Martin right between the 9 and the 6 on his jersey for an interception.
However, Goff did deliver on two red-zone throws for touchdowns. The first came early in the game, on Los Angeles' third offensive possession. Facing a 4th-and-goal at the 1-yard line, McVay split rookie tight end Gerald Everett out wide to the right, with fellow rookie Budda Baker across from him. Everett was able to get inside leverage on a slant route, and Goff hit him for the score.
Later in the game, the Rams used a mesh concept in the red zone, and Goff stayed calm in the pocket before hitting Sammy Watkins on a crossing route for his second touchdown toss.
The victory keeps Los Angeles atop the NFC West, one game ahead of the Seattle Seahawks. It also sets the stage for Goff vs. Wentz I when the Eagles come to town Sunday. That game will mark the first time since 2015 (with Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston) that quarterbacks drafted first and second overall have met in the regular season. That came in the season opener, but this meeting comes late in the year, with playoff positioning on the line.
3. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 10
Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram might be earning the lion's share of headlines for the New Orleans Saints right now, but Drew Brees is turning in solid performances week after week. Kamara continued his case for offensive rookie of the year on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, accounting for 126 yards from scrimmage and a pair of rushing touchdowns. But Brees was effective yet again for the Saints, completing 25 of 34 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown, as New Orleans dispatched division foe Carolina, 31-21.
Brees' touchdown, a red-zone throw to wide receiver Michael Thomas, illustrated the difficulty teams now face trying to defend the Saints. Worried about potential mismatches in man coverage with players like Kamara and Thomas, teams might look to try more zone coverage. But Brees is usually masterful in those situations, and he was on this play. He did a great job of moving and influencing the underneath coverage with his eyes, and when Thomas settled down in a soft area of the coverage, Brees threw a strike for the touchdown.
Brees and the Saints were also strong on third down, converting 6 of 15 third-down opportunities, above even their current 38.9 percent average, which was good for fourth in the league coming into Sunday. One of Brees' biggest throws came on a 3rd-and-5 in the third quarter. Holding a 21-14 lead and with the football near midfield, Brees waited in the pocket against pressure to find Willie Snead on the left side of the field for a big first down. Kamara capped off the drive with his second touchdown run of the game to push the New Orleans lead to 14.
With a season sweep of the Panthers in hand, the Saints now turn to the other divisional rival chasing them: the Atlanta Falcons. Two of the Saints' next three games are against the defending NFC champions, starting Thursday night in Atlanta. If Brees, Kamara and company can take care of business, they should lock down the division before Christmas.
2. Case Keenum, Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: 6
The visiting Minnesota Vikings topped the Atlanta Falcons 14-9 in one of the week's more intriguing matchups. Vikings quarterback Case Keenum completed 25 of 30 passes for 227 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the victory, which helped Minnesota move into the top spot in the NFC standings after the Eagles' loss.
Keenum got off to a slow start, perhaps due to some mixed coverages in the Falcons secondary. On Minnesota's opening drive, he double-clutched on a hitch route to Stefon Diggs, and the resulting late throw was broken up, forcing a punt. On his second drive of the game, he missed on a deep shot to Diggs when the receiver could not get both of his feet down in bounds. Then on another third down, Keenum double-clutched again, which resulted in a sack.
Then Keenum settled in, and the Vikings were able to get into the end zone twice thanks in large part to their quarterback. On his first touchdown, the Vikings used a sprint-out concept that got Keenum to the edge, and he found Jerick McKinnon in the flat on a rub-route concept. Later in the game, the Vikings capped off their longest drive of the year—a 15-play, 89-yard march that took over eight minutes off the clock—with a beautiful throw on a stick-nod route to tight end Kyle Rudolph, who deserves a great deal of credit for the route.
We also saw more of the calm pocket presence from Keenum that we have seen in recent weeks. A perfect example came midway through the third quarter. Facing 2nd-and-9, Keenum slid around in the pocket but never gave up on throwing the ball downfield. Even with defender Courtney Upshaw at his feet, Keenum found Diggs on a crosser late in a scramble-drill situation for a solid gain.
Keenum's ability in the pocket has been a big reason for his strong play as of late. He and the Vikings will look to continue their winning ways and stay atop the NFC down the stretch when they visit the Carolina Panthers this upcoming Sunday.
1. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Last Week: 7
I could write 400 words or even 4,000 words on how masterful Russell Wilson has been in 2017, and how Sunday night's performance against the Philadelphia Eagles was more of the same, but this tweet probably carries more weight.
When noted Wilson critic Pete Prisco becomes a believer, you know something magical has taken place.
Wilson continued his wizardry Sunday evening against one of the NFL's best defenses, leading the Seattle Seahawks to a 24-10 win over the Eagles. He completed 20 of 31 passes for 227 yards and three touchdown passes. Those came on a quick out-and-up to Jimmy Graham in the red zone, a short crossing route to Tyler Lockett near the goal line, and a red-zone vertical route to J.D. McKissic.
Most people will remember Wilson's elusiveness in the pocket from this game, or perhaps his scramble on a 3rd-and-9 in the fourth quarter that he capped off with a late lateral to Mike Davis, where Wilson looked more like Tommie Frazier against the Florida Gators or McKenzie Milton against South Florida in UCF's season finale.
But the most impressive play from Wilson on Sunday night was the throw he made on a 3rd-and-10 near midfield in the third quarter. The Eagles trailed by seven but looked to force a punt, bringing a Cover 0 blitz. Wilson trusted his protection and stayed in the pocket, finding Doug Baldwin on a corner route for a huge gain down to the Eagles' 1-yard line. Sure, Wilson is almost deadly outside of the pocket, but he's mighty dangerous from it as well.
The victory pushed the Seahawks' record to 8-4, and while they still trail the Los Angeles Rams by one game in the division, ask yourself this: Would you want your team to face Seattle and Wilson right now?