NFL1000: Doug Farrar's Week 15 QB Rankings
When Jared Goff and Carson Wentz faced off against each other Sunday afternoon, it was supposed to be a personification of the best young talent in the NFL today, as well as a compelling matchup featuring the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles—two teams looking very much like Super Bowl contenders with their second-year quarterbacks at the helm.
And then, with one play, that all changed. The Eagles beat the Rams to move to 11-2, but losing Wentz for the rest of the season to a torn ACL doesn't just affect Philly's postseason prospects; it changes the view throughout the NFC.
The Eagles are a deep and talented team no matter who's under center, but the drop-off from Wentz to backup Nick Foles will be a fairly severe one, as Foles isn't productive under pressure and can't remotely match Wentz's brilliant ability to create outside of structure, which has become a huge part of what the Eagles do.
As for the AFC, Tom Brady's multiple breakdowns on deep passes in New England's loss to the Miami Dolphins on Monday night sets things up brilliantly for next week's game between the Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Can Brady get things back together after two unimpressive games in a row against Pittsburgh's questionable pass defense, or will Ben Roethlisberger's ability to put up huge yardage totals of late negate that particular weakness? If the game goes to the guy on the hot streak, that's Roethlisberger right now.
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 15.
36. Bryce Petty, New York Jets
Last Week: N/A (Did Not Play)
With Josh McCown done for the season with a broken left hand, it will now apparently be up to second-year man Bryce Petty to finish the season for the New York Jets. A third-year man out of Baylor, Petty completed 56.4% of his passes for 809 yards, three touchdowns and seven interceptions in six mop=up starts last season, and is perhaps best-known for playing Madden in order to understand the game at the NFL level—something his collegiate experience apparently didn’t do.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as they say, but in relief of McCown against the Broncos, Petty looked like a kid whose parents had unplugged his PlayStation because he hadn’t done his homework. He completed just two of nine passes for 14 yards, showing a live arm and intriguing mobility, but spotty accuracy and a dangerous tendency to telegraph his throws as he learns to read the field.
Against a group of practiced pass defenders like Denver has, that’s a relative recipe for disaster. The Jets close with games against the Saints, Chargers and Patriots, so Petty’s education is about to go from the virtual to the real in a big hurry against three more of the better pass defenses in the NFL right now.
35. Tom Savage, Houston Texans
Last Week: 25
Before we get into Tom Savage's performance against the San Francisco 49ers, we should mention that Savage was obviously concussed and appeared to suffer some sort of seizure in the game after a hard hit from linebacker Elvis Dumervil—and he was cleared by an independent neurologist to go back on the field. That this happened is as glaring an indictment of the NFL's concussion policy as anything, and it would be nice if the league addressed head injuries in more than a "Whoops, we got caught again!" cosmetic fashion.
That said, onto Savage's on-field accomplishments before the Texans' team doctors mercifully deduced that there might be something wrong with him. He completed six of 12 passes for 63 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions and had a nice deep ball to DeAndre Hopkins with 14:14 left in the second quarter. Savage had just flipped the ball forward a few yards to pick up an obvious intentional grounding penalty but made up for it with a nice sideline throw to Hopkins for a 22-yard gain on 3rd-and-15 in which he got the ball to his receiver before the coverage converged.
When he's healthy, Savage is a player who will make the occasional big play, but is just as prone to throwing deeper passes out of bounds or into coverage. That he played a series after an obvious concussion before he was replaced by T.J. Yates shouldn't be a black mark on his performance on that drive. The fault here lies with the NFL's neurologist and the Texans medical staff for not availing themselves of the tools necessary to save Savage from further injury.
34. Joe Webb, Buffalo Bills
Last Week: N/A (Did not meet minimum number of snaps)
The Buffalo Bills signed Joe Webb to be their third-string quarterback in early September, when both Tyrod Taylor and Nathan Peterman were recovering from concussions. As Webb hadn't thrown a regular-season pass since 2011 (no, that's not a typo), little was expected from the Alabama-Birmingham alum.
But when Taylor missed Sunday's snow game against the Indianapolis Colts with an injured knee and Peterman left the contest with a concussion in the third quarter, Webb marched out into the blizzard with 4:59 left in the third quarter.
As you might expect, Webb didn't do much and looked pretty rusty for the most part, completing two passes in six attempts for 35 yards and a touchdown as the 13-7 Bills win crawled into overtime. He threw a deep sideline route to Kelvin Benjamin early in the fourth quarter in which Benjamin fell down and was injured. He later hit Benjamin on a deep fade that was incomplete, though interference should have been called on cornerback Quincy Wilson.
Eventually, he hit Deonte Thompson downfield late in overtime on a 34-yarder that took the ball from the Buffalo 39-yard line to the Indy 27, which set things up for LeSean McCoy's game-winning touchdown run.
In more hospitable environs, Webb's game may have been slightly better, but he's the emergency quarterback, and the 7-6 Bills will obviously be hoping for good news regarding Taylor and/or Peterman going into the team's upcoming contest against the Dolphins.
33. Jacoby Brissett, Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: 30
In the first half of Indianapolis' snow globe of a game against the Bills in Buffalo, Jacoby Brissett completed a grand total of one pass on two attempts for 11 yards. Were it not for running backs Frank Gore and Marlon Mack, the Colts would have had precious little to show on offense in the first 30 minutes.
In the second half and into overtime, Indy's coaching staff started to open things up a bit for their quarterback, though one wonders if the 13-7 overtime loss might have turned in a different direction had Brissett been given half a chance before that.
As it was, Brissett completed 11 of 22 passes for 69 yards and a touchdown. Grading his performance on a neutral scale is impossible given the weather conditions, but Brissett did show a few good traits under difficult circumstances.
Though he's still getting the hang of reading the entire field, Brissett is becoming a bit more comfortable in going through his reads and reacting strongly to what defenses are doing; in other words, the game seems to be slowing down for him a bit. He's also getting better at selling run-pass option fakes, and though his deep-ball accuracy was off on this day, he does have the potential to sling it.
On a day more hospitable to quarterbacks, and with a team more capable of providing a support system for that quarterback, Brissett's evolving traits might have him turning into something remarkable. In a lost season, with snow all around him and a coaching staff that didn't want him to throw the ball at all for 20 minutes, he did the best he could.
32. Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: N/A (Did Not Play)
Meet your new starting quarterback, Eagles fans.
With Carson Wentz sidelined for the remainder of the season because of a torn ACL, the Super Bowl hopes of Philadelphia now rest on the right arm of Nick Foles. In limited action on Sunday after Wentz left the lineup, Foles completed six of 10 passes for 42 yards as head coach Doug Pederson remained aggressive with his play-calling.
Foles' biggest throw of the game came on a 3rd-and-8 with under two minutes remaining. With the Eagles clinging to a two-point lead and looking to salt the game away, Foles dropped and looked to Nelson Agholor on an option route. Foles placed the throw perfectly, moving Agholor to the outside and away from the defender. Agholor executed his part of the play, and the Eagles had a critical first down.
In his Monday press conference, Pederson announced that he would stay aggressive with the play-calling, as he has confidence in both Foles and the guys around him. Foles may be a decent backup, but he cannot duplicate some of the magic and escapability that Wentz provided in 2017. The impetus now falls to Pederson to design a game plan around Foles and for his quarterback to execute that course of attack.
Thankfully for the Eagles, their schedule down the stretch is rather favorable, with games against the New York Giants, Oakland Raiders and then the Dallas Cowboys at home in Week 17.
31. Nathan Peterman, Buffalo Bills
Last Week: 32
Tyrod Taylor missed the snow bowl in Buffalo on Sunday against the Colts because of a knee injury, so the Bills' chances were left in the hands of backup Nathan Peterman—at least, until Peterman himself departed the game with a possible concussion in the third quarter. Peterman didn't do much in the snowstorm when he did play, completing just five of 10 passes for 57 yards and a touchdown while leaning heavily on running back LeSean McCoy and a tremendous run-blocking performance by Buffalo's offensive line.
Peterman did throw a nice sideline ball to receiver Kelvin Benjamin for a 21-yard gain late in the second half; Benjamin was Peterman's read to the right side after he looked to his left, and the receiver physically overwhelmed cornerback Kenny Moore II. And his eight-yard touchdown to Benjamin on that same drive showed touch, timing and arc.
It's difficult to properly evaluate quarterbacks in extreme weather situations, especially against a defense like Indianapolis', which has had issues covering all season. But Peterman did show he was not completely undone by his five-pick performance against the Chargers a few weeks back, and that's a positive sign.
30. Josh McCown, New York Jets
Last Week: 9
Sunday's 23-0 loss to the Broncos was double-trouble for the Jets. Not only was their formerly volatile offense turned into a pumpkin by the suddenly resurgent Denver defense, but Josh McCown suffered a broken left hand in the third quarter and will be lost for the rest of the season. It's a tough blow for the 38-year-old, who had been enjoying his best season to date with a group of no-name (but talented) receivers on a team that was expected to compete for the NFL's worst record after an enormous offseason salary dump.
In this game, McCown was good for just six completions in 12 attempts for 46 yards and an interception before he was pulled for Bryce Petty, who looks to be the Jets' starter going forward. McCown had already suffered a lower back injury when he threw an errant deep pass in the direction of Robby Anderson, which was picked off by safety Darian Stewart.
The loss of McCown likely puts an end to any thought of the Jets as a credible contender for anything this season, and that's more an affirmation of the season McCown had been having than it is an indictment of Petty's abilities. Though when Petty was able to complete just two passes on nine attempts for 14 yards, that indictment was obvious.
29. Blaine Gabbert, Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: 29
Playing quarterback is like being in a boxing ring. There are aspects to playing the position that mirror being in a prize fight: from the footwork in the pocket, to moving around and finding space to operate. Another comparison is how hits on a quarterback early in the game work much like body blows in the early rounds in boxing. Those banked shots can change the course of events later in the contest.
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Blaine Gabbert was under pressure early and often against the Tennessee Titans. He was sacked eight times. Despite the duress he faced, Gabbert managed to complete 17 of 26 passes for 178 yards. But the hits and the pressure took their toll.
If you want to see how playing the position under this kind of heat can impact you, look to Gabbert's throw on 3rd-and-8 late in the second quarter. Jaron Brown was open on an inside seam route, but because Gabbert felt the need to speed up his process, his mechanics were off. The throw came with too much velocity, and the quarterback missed an open receiver for what could have been a big gain.
Gabbert was impressive on a speed out pattern to J.J. Nelson. He hit this early in the game and returned to it later, displaying timing, anticipation and velocity on both occasions. Those throws helped the Cardinals come out of the game with the 12-7 victory, but the constant pressure he was under seemed to be the story of the day.
28. Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
Last Week: 19
It appears Marcus Mariota has had enough of the Tennessee Titans' stilted offense and his role in it. After a 12-7 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday in which Mariota completed 16 of 31 passes for 159 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions, the third-year quarterback went off about the whole thing.
"I'm just pissed off. That's all," Mariota said, per ESPN's Cameron Wolfe.
Well, there's more to it than that. Mariota has looked uncomfortable in and out of the pocket though most of the season, and this is a primary cause of his career-high 14 picks this season. The coaching staff has dialed back what used to be a varied and effective offense, with two- and three-tight end sets that left defenses wondering where the ball might be going as well as setting things up nicely for Mariota as a runner.
The continued use of running back DeMarco Murray at the expense of Derrick Henry borders on the inexcusable, and Mariota's receivers aren't always in sync. It's obviously starting to get to him.
A play to cornerback Adoree' Jackson, that Mariota hadn't even practiced, may have been the last straw. With 1:11 left in the game, the Titans were facing 4th-and-10 at their own 22-yard line. Jackson was lined up in the right slot, and Mariota threw to him on a short in-cut, but defensive back Tyrann Mathieu deflected the pass, and the game was over.
Now, you could blame the Titans coaching staff for putting a rookie defensive back out there as a receiver, or you could blame Mariota for making that his defined read when the Titans needed 10 yards to continue their drive. Whatever the cause, the 8-5 Titans fell out of the top spot in the AFC South, and with the San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars left on the schedule, things don't look so good for their postseason prospects.
27. DeShone Kizer, Cleveland Browns
Last Week: 31
At some point, the Cleveland Browns will win their first game since Week 16 of the 2016 season, but DeShone Kizer may not be the quarterback. Turmoil in the Browns front office could lead to a full-scale gutting of Cleveland's quarterback depth chart. That's less an indictment of Kizer's play than it is an empirical statement that every GM has his own ideal quarterback in mind.
Two games with Josh Gordon as his primary target have given Kizer the opportunity to prove he has attributes for success in the NFL, albeit with a lot of development to be done. In Cleveland's heartbreaking 27-21 overtime loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Browns were as close as they've been to pulling out their first win of this season. Kizer completed 20 of 28 passes for 214 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, though his second pick of the day really hurt the team.
With 8:43 left in overtime, Gordon flexed out from the right slot to wide right, and cornerback Damarious Randall followed Gordon, who was Kizer's first read. You can argue whether Kizer was in or out of the pocket when Randall started interfering with Gordon, but the interference was obvious. Kizer balked at his first read getting grabbed, rolled left and threw a terrible pass falling away with no zip on it, and Josh Jones' interception led to the Packers' game-winning drive.
Kizer's first pick, at the end of the first half, was far more on him: He simply missed safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix converging in coverage on a deep throw to Corey Coleman.
Still, Kizer's touchdown passes show an increased sense of comfort, he's taken positive steps forward with a dominant target in Gordon. It remains to be seen what the shake-up in the front office will do to his future.
26. Eli Manning, New York Giants
Last Week: N/A (Did Not Play)
Eli Manning returned to the starting lineup for a divisional contest between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys. When this game was put on the schedule, decision-makers at the NFL offices probably assumed it would be a matchup with postseason implications and likely flexed into a national time slot. But with the Giants facing a lost season and the Cowboys clinging to playoff hopes, an early-afternoon kickoff was the order of the day.
Even with the veteran quarterback in the lineup, it was more of the same for the Giants. Manning completed 31 of 46 passes for 228 yards and a touchdown and threw two late interceptions as the Cowboys pulled away in the fourth quarter.
The offense tried to use tempo to get into more of a rhythm, but that was only successful for brief stretches. Once such drive came before halftime, when Manning was able to hit Evan Engram on a wide-open corner route for a big play. He then threw a slant route off play action for another decent gain. They capped off that drive with a dual-tight end flood concept, and Manning hit TE Rhett Ellison on a flat route for a short touchdown to take a 10-3 lead after the extra point.
In the second half, however, the mistakes and missed chances began to pile up, and the Cowboys built their insurmountable lead. Early in the third quarter, the Giants faced a 3rd-and-10. Manning looked to Roger Lewis on a vertical route, but the throw was left too far inside and the pass was broken up.
Manning later looked to Sterling Shepard on a slant route on 3rd-and-2, but the pass was dropped. In the fourth quarter, Manning attempted a comeback route to Engram yet left the throw too far inside again. The pass fell incomplete, although Engram may have had an argument for defensive pass interference.
The interceptions came late: first on a throw into coverage that was tipped, and later on a deep ball that was slightly underthrown, allowing the backside safety to rotate over and make the interception.
The loss dropped the Giants to 2-11 and the inside track to the No. 2 overall pick. That might mean a return to the bench for Manning and more playing time for Geno Smith and Davis Webb in the final few weeks.
25. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 10
Eventually, a defense was going to make Andy Dalton pay for playing it safe. Dalton hadn't thrown an interception in his previous six games before Sunday's matchup against the Chicago Bears, but he also never had more than 265 yards, with explosive plays a rarity.
The Bears have been floundering all season due primarily to some horrible play-calling on offense, but their defense is still good and opportunistic. That unit took it to Dalton in a 33-7 loss for the Bengals. The signal-caller completed just 14 of 29 passes for 141 yards, one touchdown and an interception.
Dalton's 14-yard touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell late in the first quarter was a well-placed ball and his best throw all day. His third-quarter interception to safety Eddie Jackson was supposed to go to A.J. Green on a quick slant, but Dalton threw the ball a hair too quickly, and it was deflected by cornerback Bryce Callahan.
Dalton was replaced by backup A.J. McCarron late in the fourth quarter, with the hope that McCarron could provide more of a spark. But given the reductive nature of Cincinnati's offense, that would be a tough errand for any quarterback.
Dalton remains a quarterback who needs things schemed open for him, and against a fine coverage unit like Chicago's, he's naturally going to struggle. It's likely too late for the 5-8 Bengals to make a playoff push with a more expansive passing game, and Dalton would not be the guy to get that done.
24. Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
Last Week: 14
Asked about his offense playing with more urgency in the fourth quarter during the 26-15 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, head coach Jack Del Rio quipped, "Where was that the first three quarters?"
One might ask where that version of Derek Carr has been all season. Against a struggling Chiefs defense without suspended cornerback Marcus Peters, Carr completed 24 of 41 passes for just 211 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Last time Carr faced the Chiefs, it was his showcase of the season. He completed 29 of 52 passes for 417 yards and three touchdowns. That was also receiver Amari Cooper's only great game of the year, with 11 catches for 210 yards and two touchdowns.
Reality has hit Oakland's offense hard, and as much as Carr could blame a regressing offensive line, inconsistent receivers and a spotty run game, he has to shoulder a lot of this. Carr did hit tight end Jared Cook for a 29-yard touchdown in the third quarter, but even on that throw, his mechanics were off-kilter: He threw the pass over safety Daniel Sorensen on a sluggo route while falling away from the line of scrimmage.
Carr's two picks were more cause for concern. The first one, with 6:39 left in the first half, was an inexcusable heave under pressure. Carr should have taken the sack after defensive tackle Chris Jones absolutely demolished Oakland left tackle Kelechi Osemele to move Carr out of the pocket. Cornerback Terrance Mitchell made a great leaping catch on what was essentially a horizontal arm punt; it was a throw you wouldn't expect from a fifth-round rookie, let alone a four-year starter.
Carr's second pick came with 46 seconds left in a game that had already been decided. He overthrew receiver Johnny Holton on a deep ball that bounced off his receiver's hands right to safety Steven Terrell.
Del Rio doesn't have answers regarding his quarterback's foibles, but one thing's for sure: If Carr doesn't turn this around very quickly, the 6-7 Raiders will miss the playoffs entirely and go down as perhaps the biggest disappointment of the 2017 season.
23. T.J. Yates, Houston Texans
Last Week: N/A (Did Not Play)
T.J. Yates came into the Houston Texans' game against the San Francisco 49ers after team doctors finally figured out what everyone watching the game on television most likely knew: Starter Tom Savage had suffered a head injury. That said, Yates availed himself pretty well against the San Francisco defense, completing 14 of 26 passes for 175 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
As the stats indicate, there wasn't a high degree of difficulty in Yates' completions, but he did what you want a smart, physically limited quarterback to do: take what the defense gives him and don't screw it up. Yates also proved to have decent wheels when he didn't like what he saw downfield, rushing three times for 31 yards.
Yates connected with DeAndre Hopkins on a seven-yard touchdown slant route in the second quarter, and it wasn't the last time he proved able to get the ball to Hopkins on time and with some anticipation, which Savage has struggled with this season. Yates' best ball of the day came on his 29-yard third-quarter touchdown pass to Hopkins; a well-placed pass with timing and arc over 49ers cornerbacks Dontae Johnson and Adrian Colbert.
All indications point to Yates starting next week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, which will be a far tougher test. He showed he's a capable backup when throwing to perhaps the NFL's best receiver against a pass defense that's still putting it together. Doing the same against the league's best defense would be a neat trick.
22. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: 16
The Atlanta Falcons secured a pivotal victory over their NFC South rivals on Thursday night, but it came largely in spite of an ineffective performance from quarterback Matt Ryan. He completed 15 of 27 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown, but his three interceptions forced his team to come from behind in the win.
The first mistake came late in the first half with Atlanta facing a 1st-and-10 in New Orleans territory. Ryan opened to his right and then came back left to try to find Julio Jones on a slant route. With Marshon Lattimore draped all over Jones, Ryan still tried to force a throw that the rookie CB easily intercepted.
Ryan's second interception came on his very next attempt. He started the second half trying to hit Austin Hooper on a curls concept, but the throw was tipped by the tight end and then intercepted by Chris Banjo rotating over. A quicker throw might have prevented the interception, but Hooper should've secured the catch.
The fault for the third interception, however, does lay at the quarterback's feet. Facing a 3rd-and-6 in the red zone and trailing by seven, Ryan bought some time before trying to hit Jones in the back corner of the end zone. Again a defender was in perfect position to prevent the play, this time safety Marcus Williams, and Ryan's pass went directly to him. Trying to give your best player a chance is understandable, but perhaps a throw-away would have been a smarter play.
Ryan did deliver in the fourth quarter to put his team in position to win. He hit Mohamed Sanu with a short touchdown pass on a post route from a bunch formation to tie the game at 17 after the extra point. He then converted on passes to both Sanu and Jones later in the quarter to put Atlanta in position for the field goal to take the lead late.
Those were big throws his team needed to pull out the win. But if the Falcons are to force their way into the playoffs, they'll need Ryan to be cleaner in the final three weeks.
21. Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins
Last Week: 17
Well, that escalated quickly.
The Washington Redskins were officially eliminated from the playoffs thanks to a blowout loss at the hands of the Los Angeles Chargers. Kirk Cousins completed 15 of 27 passes for 151 yards, a touchdown and one interception.
Cousins started the game in good shape, hitting Jamison Crowder over the middle against zone coverage with good velocity and placement. But shortly thereafter, he threw the interception. The Redskins paired a wide receiver post route with an out-and-up from Vernon Davis. The Chargers were in a Cover 3 look, and cornerback Trevor Williams stayed home, waiting for Davis' route. Cousins looked to his tight end the entire play, and Williams was in position to deflect the pass right to Kyle Emanuel for the turnover.
Washington trailed 13-0 when it finally got on the board. On a 3rd-and-11, Cousins did a great job of climbing in the pocket to extend the play before finding Davis along the right sideline for the score. The defense slid Melvin Ingram inside on the play, which forced Cousins to the right side and upfield to evade the pressure, but he kept his eyes downfield to locate his TE.
But that would be it for the Washington offense. On its next drive, Cousins missed Davis on a deep route on fourth down in the second quarter, giving the Chargers the football back with a 20-6 lead.
Cousins was lucky not to be intercepted on two later throws. First he left a slant route to Josh Doctson too far inside and was nearly intercepted by Cameron Heyward. Then Cousins forced a throw toward Crowder into triple coverage that should have been picked off as well.
With the loss and elimination, the Redskins face the decision over Cousins' future that has loomed since the preseason. Finding a way to retain the quarterback makes more sense than the uncertainty of trying to address the position with a new face, but the economics might make that an impossible task. That means Redskins fans might be forced to find out if the grass is truly greener with a new QB.
20. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Last Week: 1
The Jacksonville Jaguars have assembled a historically impressive pass defense. They entered Week 14 with the No. 1 pass defense in terms of DVOA, and their -36.9 percent mark was good for second-best since 2000. The Jaguars pass defense is among the 10 best in history in average net yards per passing attempt (ANY/A), as calculated by Charles McDonald at Football Outsiders.
Facing that group, Russell Wilson completed 17 of 31 passes for 271 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions in Seattle's loss in Jacksonville.
As you might expect, the Jaguars forced Wilson to attempt some difficult throws to beat them, and on a few occasions Wilson could not deliver.
His first interception came on a slightly overthrown deep shot to Doug Baldwin. Jalen Ramsey was with the receiver step-for-step and came down with the pass in the end zone. Later, Wilson scrambled to his right and tried to hit Jimmy Graham on a deep crossing route, but the pass was underthrown and A.J. Bouye secured the pick.
The third interception came on another deep route to Baldwin. The receiver was running a vertical route up the seam and was split between two defenders, Bouye and safety Tashaun Gipson. This would have taken the perfect throw, and Wilson slightly overthrew it, allowing Bouye to record his second pick.
But Wilson then mounted a fourth-quarter comeback. He hit Paul Richardson on a scramble-drill throw for a 61-yard TD and later found Tyler Lockett on a busted coverage for a 74-yard strike to cut the Jacksonville lead to 30-24. Seattle would have one more chance, but on its final drive, Wilson failed to pull the trigger to the flat route on a go/flat combination facing 3rd-and-1, and he was sacked for a loss of eight. On fourth down he tried to hit Baldwin on a curl route that the receiver had adjusted to a vertical pattern, but the pass was overthrown under pressure and fell incomplete.
Wilson gets credit for the big plays late in the game, but his early mistakes put the Seahawks in a hole against a very talented defense. But with the Los Angeles Rams' loss, they remain just one game behind in the division with the leaders coming to town this Sunday.
19. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: 5
Perhaps the best decision Andy Reid has made this season was to put the offensive play-calling in the hands of right-hand man Matt Nagy. Reid did so before Kansas City's 38-31 loss to the New York Jets, and the results for Alex Smith were spectacular: He went off for 366 passing yards and four deep touchdowns—two to speed receiver Tyreek Hill and two to cornerstone tight end Travis Kelce.
Against the Raiders in a 26-15 win last Sunday, Smith wasn't nearly as impressive, which was surprising given the ease with which most opponents dispatch the Raiders' secondary. Smith completed 20 of 34 passes for 264 yards, no touchdowns and an interception, but rookie running back Kareem Hunt got back on track with a 116-yard game. The offense was more varied and effective, exploiting option looks and fakes as it did to great effect in the first month of the season.
The design of Kansas City's final play of the first quarter, a touchdown pass to Kelce that was overturned on review, was a great indicator as to how this offense should work with all the pieces in place. Speed receiver Tyreek Hill moved from the left slot to the backfield to the left flat pre-snap like a CFL receiver at high speed, and a fake handoff to Hunt and then a fake pass to Hill forced Oakland's defense as one to move the wrong way—in both directions. Then, Smith threw a perfect swing pass to Kelce, who rumbled just short of the end zone. Hunt broke the plane for a touchdown on the next play.
Smith's main problem in this game was pressure, and his reaction to it. Per Pro Football Focus, he completed just five of 11 passes for 103 yards and his interception under pressure. The pick came with 6:23 left in the third quarter: Smith rolled right against a zone blitz and overthrew Kelce, with the ball landing in safety Karl Joseph's hands.
The Chiefs seem to have fixed their base offense; now, it's up to Smith to keep things together and come up with the big plays that could make the difference in a middling AFC West.
18. Trevor Siemian, Denver Broncos
Last Week: 33
It must have felt good for the Denver Broncos to not have the most anemic passing attack on the field. It was a surprise given New York Jets QB Josh McCown's success this season, but Trevor Siemian got enough done on his end to help with the 23-0 win—the team's first after an eight-game losing streak in which quarterbacks have come and gone with too much regularity and too little efficiency.
Siemian didn't do much against the Jets, but he did hit Demaryius Thomas on a 20-yard touchdown with pressure in his face halfway through the first quarter. Linebacker Josh Martin blew through the left side of Denver's offensive line and gave Siemian a major hit, but the signal-caller had the wherewithal to get the ball up in the air accurately despite being forced off his base.
Siemian also connected with receiver Cody Latimer on a deep ball down the left side earlier in the first quarter; this pass was a bit underthrown, but Latimer adjusted to make the catch. He reverted to the short stuff as the game got out of hand, but for a team with no clear answer at quarterback, above-average performances provide encouragement that Siemian can be a high-level backup or spot starter in the future.
17. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars
Last Week: 21
The Jacksonville Jaguars have an outstanding power run game and the NFL's best and most aggressive defense, and they have tried everything possible to avoid having quarterback Blake Bortles upset the formula. The idea, of course, is to take the team's assets as far as they can go—perhaps all the way to the Super Bowl—without allowing their primary liability (Bortles' inconsistency) to mess that up.
Against the Seattle Seahawks' admittedly depleted defense, Bortles did pretty well for himself in a 30-24 win, completing 18 of 27 passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns. Most importantly, Bortles played relatively mistake-free football, which is all the Jags need him to do.
Bortles overshot a couple of screens and short passes and wasn't always accurate deep, but his 18-yard pass to Marqise Lee late in the first quarter was the ideal distillation of what this team would like to do with its passing game. It was 2nd-and-7, and the Seahawks were reading run (no surprise there; Jacksonville's running backs face more stacked boxes than any other, per NFL NextGen Stats). Bortles brought the linebackers in with a play fake and hit Lee in stride on an intermediate crossing route past overmatched cornerback Byron Maxwell.
With 12:07 left in the third quarter, Bortles pulled off his best throw of the day—an 18-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Dede Westbrook that sailed over the head of Seattle linebacker Terence Garvin. And his 75-yard third-quarter touchdown pass to another rookie pass-catcher, Keelan Cole, was a good enough throw to hit the mark even if linebacker K.J. Wright, in pursuit on a busted coverage, had been able to keep pace.
The win put the Jaguars at the top of the AFC South all alone with a 9-3 record, and it gave hope that Bortles is capable of staying within himself and avoiding the catastrophic error. That would be enough for this team to do some major damage in the AFC playoffs.
16. Brett Hundley, Green Bay Packers
Last Week: 28
If it was his last start for the Green Bay Packers this season, Brett Hundley went out on a high note. He completed 35 of 46 passes for 265 yards and three touchdowns, in Green Bay's 27-21 overtime win over the Cleveland Browns that kept their slim playoff hopes alive.
Hundley's first scoring play came early, as he found running back Jamaal Williams alone near the right sideline for a touchdown. The Browns blitzed and played a Cover 3 shell behind the blitz, and cornerback Jason McCourty broke forward on a shallow route and took his eyes off Williams. Hundley was able to evade the blitz and buy time before finding his running back for the score.
But then, the Packers offense stalled. They finished the first half 0-6 on third downs and fell behind 21-7 entering the fourth quarter. Hundley and company then were able to fight back and force overtime. A big punt return from Trevor Davis gave them favorable field position, and Hundley found Davante Adams on a fade route with a good throw and an even better adjustment from the receiver, and the extra point forced overtime.
In the extra session, Hundley completed some safe, easy throws after the Packers were gifted great starting position following an interception by Kizer. Hundley threw some checkdown routes as well as a quick slant to Adams, but finally the game ended on a smoke screen to Adams on a 3rd-and-6. The receiver wriggled free and raced into the end zone to end the game.
15. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: 7
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave their quarterback some new weapons in the offseason, acquiring tight end O.J. Howard and wide receiver Chris Godwin in the draft and DeSean Jackson through free agency. But those acquisitions failed to pan out, and the team is limping to the finish line to close out 2017.
Sunday's 24-21 loss to the Detroit Lions saw another mixed performance from Jameis Winston. The third-year quarterback hit on some big plays and made some impressive throws, but turnovers and mistakes doomed the team's chance at completing a comeback.
Winston started this game well and made some solid throws on Tampa Bay's second drive, including two to Mike Evans: the first coming on a spot route and the second on a backside curl route. Both completions were made with good velocity, timing and placement. He also hit Howard on a seam route on the second drive, opening to the left side, pump-faking and then finding his tight end up the seam with a perfectly placed throw.
Then the mistakes came. The first interception was on a play-action boot concept along the boundary to Jackson. Winston's throw came a step late, which allowed Darius Slay to break on the pass and make the interception. Then Winston tried to hit Howard on a short crossing route, but the pass was badly overthrown and intercepted by Quandre Diggs. Finally, midway through the third quarter, Winston tried to climb the pocket but was stripped by Jarrad Davis, and the fumble was recovered by the Lions. These mistakes allowed the visitors to build a 21-7 lead.
But Winston then delivered on two red-zone passes to even the score at 21: first on a flood concept to Howard and then on a tackle-eligible play to Leonard Wester. He would have another chance when the Tampa Bay defense forced a Detroit punt, but with under four minutes remaining, the Bucs could not do anything with the football. They were forced to punt the ball back to the Lions, giving Stafford one more chance to pull out the win.
14. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: 22
Baltimore's offense has been one of the most reductive in the NFL this season, with Joe Flacco completing very few deep passes—primarily because he's not attempting that many. But against the Steelers on Sunday night in a tough 39-38 loss, Flacco unleashed the deep ball more often because he had to.
Per Pro Football Focus, he completed two of five passes over 20 yards for 70 total yards, though he also threw an awful first-quarter deep pick to safety Sean Davis that was intended for Jeremy Maclin in triple coverage. Not seeing Pittsburgh's defense converging near the goal line on what looked to be a stock second read typifies Flacco's season.
Flacco's 30-yard second-quarter touchdown pass was a better deep ball, though receiver Chris Moore did more of the work in getting past Davis. In a bunch-right formation, the Steelers were forced to play one-on-one on that side, and Flacco used proper mechanics and benefited from time in the pocket.
His third-quarter deep ball to Mike Wallace was predicated on play-action and Pittsburgh's defense losing its way in intermediate coverage, while a fade to Wallace later in that quarter was the opposite: Flacco threw the ball from an unsound base, had Wallace not effectively deflected the underthrown ball from cornerback Artie Burns, the defender would have had an easy interception.
While Ben Roethlisberger was throwing for the third 500-yard game of his career, Flacco's performance and statistics were more pedestrian: 20 completions in 35 attempts for 269 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, as well as the fumble on the last play of the game.
Flacco isn't a quarterback capable of consistently raising the performance levels of those around him, so when Baltimore's defense fell apart, it was as much up to running backs Alex Collins and Buck Allen to keep the Ravens in the game. That's how things are done in Baltimore at this point: Protect your quarterback as much as you can and hope everything else works out.
13. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Last Week: 12
One week after he dropped from third to 12th in our QB Rankings, Tom Brady looked like he might drop even further following the first-possession interception he threw to Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard on Monday night.
Brady was trying to hit Brandin Cooks, his best speed receiver, on a post corner, but Howard played it as well as one can and picked off the pass. The Patriots' second drive ended with Brady throwing low to Chris Hogan, and Dolphins cornerback Alterraun Verner nearly intercepted that one too. New England totaled two yards on its first two drives, showing that even NFL demigods can have off nights.
The Dolphins had the ideal game plan for Brady in their 27-20 win. They aligned their pass defenders to trail New England's deep receivers and got pressure right up the middle (which has always been Brady's Kryptonite) to hurry throws and force mistakes.
Cornerback Xavien Howard had two interceptions on downfield throws to Cooks, and Brady didn't have a completion to any of his receivers until late in the third quarter. The Patriots didn't convert a single third down, and Brady finished his frustrating day with 24 completions in 43 attempts for 233 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a whole lot of missed deep passes.
Brady's 38-yard completion to Cooks with just over two minutes left in the game against Miami's zone coverage was too little, too late. It was actually a reminder of just how the Dolphins had dominated New England's normally clutch offense. Even in the fourth quarter, when Miami went against all possible practical advice and didn't run the ball, New England got opportunity after opportunity but couldn't come through.
That Brady has now had two subpar games in a row is cause for concern, though all could be righted if the Pats are able to beat the Steelers next Sunday. With that win, New England would have the AFC's first seed pretty much locked up, and Brady would have time to work out whatever's bedeviling him.
12. Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: 20
"Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies."
Hope, as described by Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, is a powerful emotion. Under recently acquired quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the San Francisco 49ers are 2-0, and you could understand Niners fans feeling hopeful about the future.
Garoppolo completed 20 of 33 passes for 334 yards, one touchdown and an interception in San Francisco's 26-16 road victory over the Houston Texans.
The former New England Patriot showed a command of Kyle Shanahan's offense, evident both in his processing speed on various plays and route concepts as well as his touchdown pass to Garrett Celek. The 49ers ran a boot-action play, a staple of Shanahan's scheme, and Garoppolo immediately found Celek out of the fake and hit him in the flat for the score.
What also stood out watching Garoppolo was his arm strength. Velocity was not identified as a strength of his coming out of Eastern Illinois, but on passes such as a backside post route to Marquise Goodwin in the second quarter, or a crossing route to Goodwin in the second quarter, or a boundary route to Goodwin late in the third (that also drew a roughing-the-passer penalty) Garoppolo showed those high RPMs necessary to succeed in the NFL.
In a season that began with questions at the quarterback position, the 49ers seem to have answered them with the acquisition of Garoppolo. If they can work out an extension with the quarterback, San Francisco can then use its nine draft picks to address other needs, perhaps even trading down in the first round to a QB-needy team. In that scenario, the Niners could drastically improve from 2017 to 2018. At the very least, there is that potential, and a reason to hope for their faithful fans.
11. Case Keenum, Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: 2
The Minnesota Vikings entered Sunday with a chance to stay atop the NFC standings with a road victory against the Carolina Panthers. However, they fell in the final minutes and will point to some missed chances along the way as a big reason why. Quarterback Case Keenum completed 27 of 44 passes for a pair of touchdowns and two interceptions in the loss.
His ability to move and evade in the pocket was again on full display. On one prime example, Keenum was able to duck under and away from Luke Kuechly, turning a potential sack into a minimal gain and keeping the offense on schedule.
His touchdown passes were both impressive. The first came on a seam route to tight end Kyle Rudolph in the red zone. Minnesota ran a concept that sent Rudolph up the seam and had a receiver hitch in the underneath zone. That drew the attention of the safety for a split second, allowing Rudolph to establish inside leverage, and Keenum put the football right on his TE for the score. Then Keenum drilled in a post route to Adam Thielen between multiple defenders, and from there the WR outraced the Panthers defense for the score.
But the interceptions and the missed opportunities were the story of Keenum's day. Early in the game, Keenum tried to hit Thielen on an out-and-up route, but the pass was underthrown and Daryl Worley was able to recover for the interception.
Then Keenum looked to Stefon Diggs on a smoke screen, but the throw was too high and Diggs could not secure the pass, tipping it to a Panthers defender for the turnover. Diggs also worked free on a slot-fade route against Captain Munnerlyn, but Keenum's pass was underthrown and the defender broke it up.
Finally, the Vikings faced a 1st-and-goal late in the game, trailing by three. With a chance to take the lead, Keenum missed Diggs on a fade-stop route, leaving the throw too far inside and allowing the defender to make a play. Then on third down, Keenum was sacked, forcing the field-goal unit to come on and tie the game. That set the stage for Cam Newton's big run and the game-winning score for Carolina.
The loss prevented Minnesota from clinching the division, and while its path to the playoffs remains solid, the No. 1 seed is far less likely. However, if Keenum can eliminate the mistakes and convert chances like he saw Sunday going forward, Minnesota will remain a difficult team to face in the postseason.
10. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Last Week: 15
We have talked about Cam Newton's torque before. That was a focal point in Carolina's Week 10 win over the Miami Dolphins. Newton's ability to use his upper body to generate tremendous velocity on his throws was apparent yet again in Carolina's 31-24 victory over the visiting Minnesota Vikings and their defense, which was ranked in the top 10 in DVOA entering Week 14.
The first example of this came on a back-shoulder throw to Devin Funchess late in the first quarter along the left sideline. The route and pass were executed to perfection because the timing and velocity gave the defender no chance to break on the throw.
Later in the game, when Newton hit Funchess for a touchdown pass, we got another look at how pivotal the upper body is to throwing the football. Newton was pressured and started to slide to his left, before throwing to Funchess deep and back to his right. Despite moving away from his receiver, Newton was able to quickly get his left shoulder pointed at the target and use his upper body to get sufficient velocity on the throw. That is a pass only a few humans can make, and Newton is chief among them.
It was the proverbial "lesson in what not to do," but Newton, in his own words, overcame coaching on the play.
It was his legs, however, that delivered the pivotal moment of the game. The Vikings tied the game at 24 after a Newton interception gave Minnesota the football with good field position. (On the interception, Newton was pressured but found Christian McCaffrey on a slant route, but the pass bounced out of his running back's hands and was picked off by Andrew Sendejo.)
The Panthers ran a zone-read play, but the Vikings were ready. Defensive end Everson Griffen crashed down inside to force the keep read from the quarterback, but linebacker Anthony Barr scrape-exchanged to the edge and was in position to stop Newton. Left tackle Matt Kalil then cut outside at the last moment and got enough on Barr, allowing the QB to burst upfield for a 62-yard gain. A few plays later, Jonathan Stewart plunged into the end zone for the game-winning TD.
9. Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears
Last Week: 24
When looking at the growth of a rookie quarterback, it is important to remember these words: "Development is not linear."
It would be foolish to assume straight, linear growth from week to week, or even drive to drive. There will be some plateaus and even some regression from time to time. But the overall arc is what is critical. Is the body of work trending in the right direction?
For Mitchell Trubisky, that body of work is trending upward. He completed 25 of 32 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown in Chicago's 33-7 blowout victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Trubisky was viewed as an athletic quarterback coming out of North Carolina, and he did show some impressive feats in this regard on Sunday, including a short touchdown run on a zone read in the red zone.
Also impressive was the improvisation he displayed on a flip to Benny Cunningham. Facing a 3rd-and-12, Trubisky looked to climb the pocket when he was grabbed by a defender. That sent Trubisky into the air, but he somehow managed to find his running back and flip him the football before crashing to the turf.
In terms of development, however, two plays stand out. First was right after the flip to Cunningham. The Bears faced a 4th-and-3 and elected to go for the first down, and Trubisky hung in the pocket and worked through his reads before finding tight end Adam Shaheen on an out route to convert the first down. Not only was the processing speed impressive, but Trubisky's throw came with anticipation; a sign that the game is slowing down for him.
Later, he was pressured in the pocket but hit tight end Dion Sims with impressive velocity and placement despite the duress.
From a statistical standpoint, it was one of Trubisky's best efforts of the season. His quarterback rating was 112.4, the second-best of his 2017 campaign. But more importantly for Chicago is how his development is tracking. The future looks bright.
8. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
Last Week: 13
Another week and another fourth-quarter game-winning drive, only this time with an injury to his throwing hand, to add to the growing resume for Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Stafford completed 36 of 44 passes for 381 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in Detroit's 24-21 road victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Stafford started the game on solid footing, finding Kenny Golladay early on a hitch route with good timing and placement. He then hit Theo Riddick on a Texas route with pristine placement.
He also showed great vision and processing speed on a curl route to Darren Fells early in the game. Stafford opened to the right to throw a slant route, saw that it was covered and worked through his progressions to find Fells.
His one touchdown came on a spot concept in the red zone, where he found Golden Tate open just inside the end zone. Stafford placed the throw low and away from the defender, and his receiver made the catch for the score.
But Stafford did make two mistakes late in the first half that resulted in turnovers. First he tried to hit Golladay in the "turkey hole" against a Cover 2 look on a vertical route. He needed to make a perfect throw to split the corner and the safety, and he could not. Cornerback Brent Grimes carried the vertical route well and stepped in front of the throw for the interception.
On Detroit's next possession, he scrambled to his left and tried to throw a route along the sideline, but the cornerback peeled off the flat receiver and secured the pick.
After Jameis Winston and Tampa Bay tied the game late in the fourth quarter, Stafford led the Lions on another game-winning drive. The biggest play of that sequence came on 2nd-and-15 at the Tampa Bay 41-yard line. The Lions needed more yardage to get Matt Prater into reasonable field-goal range, and Stafford was patient in the pocket, waiting for Tate to break free underneath before hitting him on a crossing route. The gain of 14 set the stage for Prater.
Whether Detroit can somehow sneak into the playoffs remains to be seen. But for one more week at least their fans can dream of the postseason, thanks in large part to their QB.
7. Jay Cutler, Miami Dolphins
Last Week: 26
When the Miami Dolphins lost to the New England Patriots 35-17 two weeks ago, head coach Adam Gase was hamstrung by Matt Moore's limitations. This time around, he had a healthy Jay Cutler under center, and Gase did what he does best as an offensive play-designer, using formations and numbers advantages to put his quarterback's targets where the defenders aren't.
That's a challenge to accomplish against a Patriots defense that has become far better at bracketing deep receivers and pattern-matching short to intermediate routes, but Gase did a really nice job with cuts, crossers and comebacks to get his guys open. There were also interesting receiver clusters out of empty sets to engage an injury-depleted Patriots defense, and they worked well alongside an array of bootlegs. Cutler completed 25 of 38 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns in Miami's 27-20 upset win.
He has always been an outstanding thrower on the run when his mechanics don't get away from him, and his five-yard touchdown throw to Jarvis Landry in the second quarter was an excellent example of that. Landry had an easy score after he went across the formation to his right, making it difficult for New England's defense to see him, much less account for him.
Things got bogged down in the fourth quarter as the Dolphins found it tougher to get drives going and refused to run the ball when it would have helped, but the lead they'd established was too big to beat.
Cutler hit several outstanding deep iso throws with great timing, showing that his arm is still one of the best in the NFL as long as the mechanics hold up. Against this Patriots defense, bereft of several players due to injury, everything held up, and the Dolphins came away with an unexpected and important victory.
6. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 3
The success of the New Orleans Saints offense, particularly in recent weeks, has largely been due to the play of rookie running back Alvin Kamara. On Thursday night against the Atlanta Falcons, however, they lost Kamara early to a head injury. That put more of the focus on quarterback Drew Brees. The veteran responded early, but his one mistake late cost his team a shot at a pivotal victory over a divisional opponent.
Brees hit on 26 of 35 passes for 271 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but the most memorable play was the interception he threw on the Saints' final offensive play to linebacker Deion Jones. Before that, however, we did see two impressive scoring plays from the New Orleans offense.
The first came on a go/flat concept to the left side, with wide receiver Tommylee Lewis running the vertical route. Lewis found the soft area of the Cover 2, and Brees put the football on him quickly before the safety could rotate over from the hashmark. That enabled Lewis to put a move on the defender, avoid the tackle, and notch the touchdown.
The second touchdown came on a goal-line play, with Brees sprinting out to the right and finding Michael Thomas in the flat for the easy throw-and-catch. That gave New Orleans a 17-10 lead early in the third quarter following the extra point.
But the Saints could not close out the win. They were given a good situation when Falcons head coach Dan Quinn declined a holding penalty late in the fourth quarter, and Brees converted the quarterback sneak on the ensuing 4th-and-1 to extend the drive. But on 2nd-and-10 with 1:30 remaining, Brees made an aggressive decision.
The Falcons were playing a red-zone Cover 2 look with Jones covering Josh Hill underneath. The tight end tried to split the safeties with a seam route, and Brees took his shot. Jones was in good position trailing the TE, though, and his acrobatic interception sealed the win for Atlanta.
5. Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams
Last Week: 4
Lost in the wake of Philadelphia Eagles QB Carson Wentz suffering a season-ending ACL tear is the fact that his opponents last Sunday, the Los Angeles Rams, now face a fight for their playoff lives down the stretch. While they remain ahead of the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West, if they lose to Seattle on Sunday, they could potentially be on the outside looking in come playoff time.
But in the loss to the Eagles, quarterback Jared Goff had a solid, if overlooked, performance. Goff completed 16 of 26 passes for 199 yards and a pair of touchdowns that helped the Rams fight back into a game that seemed to be getting out of hand.
They opened the scoring by converting a Wentz interception into a Todd Gurley touchdown run, and Goff hit a free access hitch route to Sammy Watkins on his first throw of the game. But then the Eagles scored three straight touchdowns to roar to a 21-7 lead. Goff and company settled things down, and the second-year QB hit rookie wide receiver Cooper Kupp on a well-placed out route to cut the visitors' lead to seven.
In the second half, Goff hit on another short touchdown pass, this time a one-yarder to Watkins, to cut the Eagles' lead to three. The Rams used a stack-slot look, and Watkins cut underneath Kupp on a slant route before Goff put the throw right on him for the score. That play was one of many the Rams used on Sunday with a stack-slot look, and the formation will be something to watch going forward.
Goff did make a pivotal mistake in the fourth quarter. The Rams were clinging to a one-point lead, 35-34, when Goff dropped to throw. He tried to climb the pocket but was stripped by Chris Long off the edge, and the Eagles recovered. They would kick the go-ahead field goal on their ensuing possession.
The Rams were trying to set up a deep shot to Watkins on a post route, but Kupp was open underneath on a curl. Goff should have taken the underneath route quicker and moved to the next set of downs.
The loss sets up a pivotal showdown with the Seahawks, in Seattle, in a game that likely decides the NFC West.
4. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: 18
The Dallas Cowboys have an extremely narrow path to the playoffs, but on Sunday in the Meadowlands they kept those slim hopes alive thanks to a season-saving performance from their second-year quarterback. Dak Prescott completed 20 of 30 passes for 332 yards and three touchdowns as the Cowboys dispatched the New York Giants, 30-10.
Perhaps the biggest play of the game, and the season for Dallas, came late in the first half. Eli Manning had just found tight end Rhett Ellison on a short touchdown pass to give the Giants a 10-3 lead just before halftime. But on Dallas' next possession, the offense faced a 2nd-and-6 at midfield. Prescott delivered a strike on a quick slant to Dez Bryant, and from there Bryant broke a tackle and raced into the end zone to knot the game at 10.
In the second half, it was all Cowboys. Prescott threw two touchdown passes: first on a well-run stick-nod route to tight end Jason Witten in the red zone, and later on another quick slant to running back Rod Smith on a 3rd-and-3 to seal the game.
Prescott also showed off his athleticism and play-strength, most notably on a 1st-and-10 when defensive end Olivier Vernon had a shot at him in the backfield. Prescott was able to shrug off the defender and find Alfred Morris on a checkdown route. It was a small play in the course of the game, but it was emblematic of Prescott's ability.
Dallas still needs to draw an inside straight to get into the postseason. But with Ezekiel Elliott set to return in two weeks for a showdown against the Seattle Seahawks, Dallas facing the Oakland Raiders this week and Prescott's play, anything is possible.
3. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: 11
Don't look now, but after a full season drawn over the last half of 2016 and the first half of 2017 in which he was remarkably inconsistent, Ben Roethlisberger is getting hot at exactly the right time. And we're talking about more than his 506 yards against a Ravens defense on Sunday night that inexplicably decided to single-cover Antonio Brown with cornerback Brandon Carr.
Roethlisberger's yardage total was a bit of stat-collecting: He attempted 66 passes, completing 44, and threw two touchdowns in Pittsburgh's 39-38 nail-biter over Baltimore.
That said, over his last four games, Roethlisberger has completed 66.8 percent of his passes for a league-leading 1,446 yards, while his 12 touchdown passes (to just three interceptions) are also the most over that span.
Better mechanics and a less frenetic, offhand style of play have a lot to do with it. For some reason over the last month, Roethlisberger is playing more within the system, and when you pair that with the fact Brown is just about uncoverable these days, it's bad news for Pittsburgh's opponents.
Roethlisberger isn't totally cured of his random tendencies, though. Had Baltimore's secondary played as it generally does in an assignment-correct fashion, he would have thrown at least one interception due to his proclivity for throwing the ball up in the air with no clear target.
Perhaps the best example of how tough Pittsburgh's passing offense is to stop was Roethlisberger's 28-yard pass to Brown with 14:00 left in the first half. Carr had good single coverage down the right sideline, but Roethlisberger flicked a perfect pass. Brown got outside position on Carr from the first step and separated himself from the veteran cornerback with his own veteran move—yes, a slight push-off. A similar play went for 43 yards later in the second quarter, proving that if you don't adjust your coverages to stop Brown, Roethlisberger will hunt all day long.
At 11-2, the Steelers have a legitimate shot at the top seed in the AFC, pending, of course, next Sunday's pivotal matchup against the Patriots. That will be appointment viewing, as New England's defense has shown a great ability to adjust in the last couple of months.
2. Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers
Last Week: 6
You may remember Philip Rivers' September, when he threw four touchdowns to four interceptions. You may remember his October, when he threw nine touchdowns to two picks but completed just 57.5 percent of his passes. The Chargers' opponents would like to remember those versions of Rivers, because the one who stepped out of November and into December has been among the most ruthlessly efficient quarterbacks in the NFL, with 10 touchdowns and one interception while completing two-thirds of his passes.
Los Angeles' thrashing of the Washington Redskins on Sunday, 30-13, was yet another example of this, as Rivers completed 18 of 31 passes for 319 yards and two touchdowns. His most valuable target was again receiver Keenan Allen, who has set his own remarkable standards of production of late. Allen caught six passes for 111 yards against Washington, and he wasn't even on the receiving end of a Rivers touchdown this time around. Those passes went to tight end Hunter Henry and receiver Tyrell Williams.
The 75-yard pass to Williams for a score with 10:13 left in the first half was a thing of beautiful coordination. Williams smoked cornerback Josh Norman on a deep over route, and Rivers, with all the time in the world in the pocket, hit his man in stride. It was clear that Norman was expecting safety help up top from D.J. Swearinger, and just as clear that he didn't get it. Swearinger bailed out the wrong way and frantically tried to catch up on a route that seemed predetermined to succeed.
If you come unprepared as a defense to a Philip Rivers exhibition these days, you're going to get smoked, and that's what happened to the Redskins. Now, at 7-6, the Chargers are officially that team nobody wants to face. Had they not lost their first four games as everyone was finding their way, they'd be a legitimate contender for the AFC's top seed. For the last month, they've been playing like that, anyway.
1. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 8
"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart."
A. Bartlett Giamatti was describing baseball in his poem The Green Fields of the Mind, but you could excuse Philadelphia Eagles fans for believing those words applied to them this week. On an afternoon where their beloved Eagles improved to 11-2, clinched a division title and won impressively on the road against a game Los Angeles Rams squad, it was bittersweet at least. MVP candidate Carson Wentz threw his fourth touchdown pass of the game late in the third quarter on a fourth down with the Eagles trailing by four, and then limped off the field having injured his knee a few plays prior.
As head coach Doug Pederson confirmed on Monday, Wentz suffered a torn ACL and is lost for the season.
The injury overshadows another impressive performance from the second-year quarterback. Before exiting, Wentz completed 23 of 41 passes for 291 yards, the four touchdowns and one interception. The other three scoring plays went to tight ends: first to Brent Celek on a flat route with a throw that was placed perfectly along the sideline, and the next two to Trey Burton.
Burton's first touchdown came on a post pattern where the TE beat his man in coverage, and Wentz placed the throw in a great spot that prevented the underneath linebacker from making a play on the football. The second TD toss to Burton came on a smash concept in the red zone, and once Wentz saw the cornerback stay in the flat, he drilled in a throw to his tight end for the score.
The interception, which came on Philadelphia's opening drive, was an example of the issues that haunted Wentz predraft. He stared down the route from the snap and the ball came out a step late, allowing the defender to break on the throw, tip it in the air and intercept it.
However, none of that matters now. What matters is the stability and structure of Wentz's left knee. The image of him standing in the pocket until the final second to deliver for his team will be an enduring one. One that Eagles fans will rely on to "buffer the passage of time" until he returns to the field.