NFL1000: Doug Farrar's Week 16 QB Rankings
The marquee matchup of Week 15 was a quarterback battle. When the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers faced off for control of the AFC on Sunday afternoon, the game pitted Tom Brady against a third team in a row capable of playing man coverage and bringing pressure right up the middle—two things Brady didn't like at all when he faced the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills in New England's previous games.
Though the Pats won 27-24, it was a close shave, affected in the closing seconds by a negated Steelers touchdown—yet another version of the NFL's catch rules—and Brady walked away having thrown just two touchdown passes to four picks in his last three games.
New England and Pittsburgh remain on top of the AFC, but the hottest quarterback in the NFL right now doesn't reside on either of their rosters. Most atypically, the hottest quarterback in the NFL right now is Blake Bortles of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who has married the most efficient version of himself to his team's stout running game and vicious defense to make the Jags perhaps the league's most dangerous foe.
Over in the NFC, Nick Foles was able to keep Philadelphia Eagles fans from fretting over a cursed feeling with a highly efficient performance against the New York Giants, making the Eagles the conference's top team once again, with the Minnesota Vikings and quarterback Case Keenum on the chase.
And in the NFC West, the Los Angeles Rams' decisive victory over the Seattle Seahawks indicated more than just a one-game trend; we seem to be seeing a true changing of the guard. Head coach Sean McVay's team is now making moves, and quarterback Jared Goff continues to benefit from McVay's offensive acumen, while Seattle's Russell Wilson pinwheels himself into the ground behind an embarrassment of an offensive line and with no credible running game to speak of.
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 16.
33. Trevor Siemian, Denver Broncos
Last Week: 18
The Denver Broncos' quarterback situation has been a mess all season, and it's the primary reason the team stands at 5-9. Between Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch, Denver has rarely put league-average talent on the field at the game's most important position, and it's paying the price.
The round-robin lost one member in last Thursday's 25-13 win over the Indianapolis Colts when Siemian suffered a dislocated left shoulder in the first quarter, and he'll be out for the rest of the season. When he was in the game, Siemian didn't do much, completing five of nine passes for 67 yards and an interception, showing his limitations as a passer once again.
With 11:34 left in the first quarter, Siemian aimed the ball deep for receiver Demaryius Thomas, who had motioned from left to right to expose Indy's coverage. But the Colts ran a smart zone over the middle as Thomas ran an in-breaking route, and Thomas had two defenders in front of him by the time he'd run through the coverage—linebacker Jon Bostic and cornerback Kenny Moore II, who had the easy pick.
Had Siemian read to the third level of the defense, he would have seen Emmanuel Sanders open on a deep over route with only a deep safety to cover, but Siemian is still limited in his ability to process full route concepts.
Siemian's future in the NFL is likely as a backup or spot starter unless he's able to develop more advanced traits. We'll see in 2018 if the Broncos misidentify him as a franchise future player once again.
32. Bryce Petty, New York Jets
Last Week: 36
Josh McCown's broken hand in Week 14 effectively ended the New York Jets' status as outside contenders for the playoffs. The veteran journeyman was enjoying a career year, and there was no way backup Bryce Petty was going to match that. Petty has shown some mobility and a live arm at times throughout his short NFL career, but the Baylor alum has a lot to learn about quarterbacking at the NFL level, and that was made abundantly clear in the Jets' 31-19 loss to a very good New Orleans Saints defense.
Petty completed 19 of 39 passes for just 179 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, and the only reason the Jets were even in this contest at all was a power running game that wore down the clock with 28 attempts.
Petty tried a few deep balls but appeared to throw late a lot of the time as he was diagnosing coverages. He did hit running back Elijah McGuire for a third-quarter completion of 38 yards as McGuire motioned out of the backfield into a spread formation, forcing linebacker Manti Te'o to try to run with him downfield. That's the kind of scheme stuff Petty is used to from his Baylor days, and the more his coaches can create those kinds of advantages out of wide formations, the better.
That said, Petty's interception on a deep pass was also out of a wide formation—here, on 4th-and-7 with time running out, he tried to stick a throw into converging triple coverage to rookie receiver JoJo Natson, and Marshon Lattimore came up with the pick.
The Jets are in evaluation mode at this point in the season. They have two games left to see just what kind of potential Petty has, and though it's unlikely the future of the team is in his hands, he can at least get some developmental reps against first-team defenses.
31. DeShone Kizer, Cleveland Browns
Last Week: 27
The relationship between an offensive coach and a young quarterback is delicate. The coach is putting his name behind the development of the player, and the player is responding to the coach's instruction, as well as his ability to design plays that lead to success on the field. Generally, there's a code of silence regarding the player's development, even when it's not going as everyone intended.
So, when Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson comes right out and says he wonders if DeShone Kizer will ever "get it," that's a clear violation of that code. Some will see it as tough love or clear reality after Kizer completed 20 of 37 passes for 146 yards and two interceptions in a 27-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. In truth, Jackson's words help nobody.
Yes, Kizer has a long way to go, and his interceptions told that tale as well as anything. He overthrew Corey Coleman late in the first quarter, allowing an easy pick for safety Eric Weddle. The Ravens, as is their wont, disguised the coverage to bracket Coleman to the defensive left side, and Kizer shouldn't have thrown that pass. He also stepped up in the pocket and eluded pressure, for what it's worth.
The second pick was completely inexcusable, though. The Browns were in the red zone with 11:14 left in the game, and Kizer looked first for an open receiver to his right, where the Browns were lined up in a bunch formation. Finding nothing there, he rolled to his left and heaved the ball up into a sea of Ravens in the end zone, where cornerback Brandon Carr had an easy pick.
However, if you look at Kizer's options, it's a bit easier to understand his brain freeze. Cleveland's receivers got nothing out of a bunch-right look against man-under coverage, which is embarrassing. The smart play would have been to throw the ball away on 3rd-and-5, but down 17 in the fourth quarter, Kizer probably developed a hero complex and tried to do too much.
Jackson's misplay of his quarterback's situation doesn't excuse Kizer's performance, but it does put the coach in the position of throwing his quarterback under the bus when Kizer is just one of many reasons the Browns haven't won a game all season. And to put it out in the media that he's thinking of benching Kizer before he informs Kizer? That's a bigger problem.
30. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 25
For most of the 2017 season, the Cincinnati Bengals have smartly treated Andy Dalton like the limited game manager he is. Make the easy completion, don't make the obvious mistake, and let the running game and defense win it. That's the paradigm, though it hasn't worked too well at times—the Bengals could manage just a 3-3 record earlier in the season when Dalton didn't throw a single interception in a six-game stretch.
That all went south in Week 14 when the Chicago Bears trampled the Bengals and Dalton threw for just 141 yards and his first interception since October 22. In Week 15, it got a lot worse. Against the Minnesota's outstanding defense in a 34-7 thrashing, Dalton completed 11 of 22 passes for 113 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. It got so bad that Dalton was benched for backup AJ McCarron in the fourth quarter—something that's now happened two games in a row.
As bad as Dalton's numbers were, imagine if he hadn't managed to hit receiver Brandon LaFell on a 45-yard pass in the third quarter. LaFell beat veteran cornerback Terence Newman on a deep over route from the left slot, Newman couldn't keep up, and Dalton threw the ball with good timing.
Sadly, that was the only highlight of Dalton's day. The lowlight was unquestionably the pick-six he threw to linebacker Eric Kendricks with 5:54 left in the first quarter. Dalton was trying to hit receiver Alex Erickson on a quick crossing route, but he threw it late into multiple short coverage, and Kendricks had one of the easiest picks he'll ever have in his life.
The Bengals have a lot of decisions to make when this season ends. Rumors regarding head coach Marvin Lewis' departure are flying around, and Dalton is on what amounts to a year-to-year contract. He's done very little this season to convince any new head coach he's the franchise quarterback of that coach's future.
29. Jacoby Brissett, Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: 33
It's highly unlikely Jacoby Brissett will be the Colts' long-term starting quarterback. Indy is 3-11, with a highly likely host of coaching changes coming soon, and with Andrew Luck's shoulder situation still very much in the air, it's possible that general manager Chris Ballard would look elsewhere for a quarterback solution. To beat the odds, Brissett would have had to show radical development in a passing offense with subpar pass protection and limited routes.
Brissett has looked good at times, but there have been more performances like he had against the Broncos Thursday than the types of games that would have the Colts thinking he was their guy on a long-term basis. Brissett completed 17 of 30 passes for 158 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions against a Denver defense that has struggled to live up to past seasons, and though he did have a rushing touchdown, there wasn't much of note about this game for him.
His problems have been the same all season—Brissett has issues with processing speed, and he'll balk at tough completions as a result. The deep ball has been all but eliminated from the Colts offense, and when Brissett does take a shot downfield, he's more likely to miss than anything else.
This happened late in the first quarter when he tried a deep completion to T.Y. Hilton on a comeback, and overthrew Hilton to the left sideline. Brissett also missed Chester Rogers on the right side for what would have been a sure touchdown, as Rogers had beaten Aqib Talib with a sick foot-fake on a stutter-go.
It's a lost season for the Colts, and the only way it won't be a lost season for Brissett is if he's able to put enough good tape together to advance his case as a starter somewhere in the NFL. Right now, that looks like a big hill to climb.
28. Jay Cutler, Miami Dolphins
Last Week: 7
Remember Week 14, when Jay Cutler riddled New England's defense with great throws in head coach Adam Gase's offensive system that exploited the defense with great receiver spacing and route concepts? Remember the deep throws that, after Miami's 27-20 upset victory, had us wondering if the Good Jay Cutler was going to hang around for a while?
Stand down, Cutler hopers. Reality returned in Miami's 24-16 loss to the Bills Sunday, as Cutler accounted for no touchdowns and three picks, completing 28 of 49 passes for just 274 yards. It was a "clinic" in the kinds of throws Cutler has made through his career that infuriate coaches.
Down 21-6 as the second half started, Cutler threw his first pick to Kenny Stills. Here, he committed one of his most common mechanical sins—a flatfooted throw that forced him to misjudge the velocity required. He overthrew Stills, and deep safety Jordan Poyer had the easy pick. Press coverage at the line from cornerback Tre'Davious White affected Stills' route timing, but NFL quarterbacks are supposed to adjust for things like that pre-throw. Cutler didn't.
His second interception, halfway through the third quarter, was also an attempt to Stills, who was running an intermediate crossing route out of a tight bunch right. Cutler threw the ball as if Stills were going to be in the middle of the field. Stills wasn't, but cornerback Shareece Wright was. Then, with time running out in the fourth quarter, Cutler threw an inexcusable fadeaway arm punt that floated into White's hands.
Cutler is capable of the occasional big play and the occasional great game, but it's pretty clear he's never going to ascend from the mechanically inconsistent, though perennially gifted, quarterback he's always been. Any franchise willing to take that on will see both sides.
27. Blaine Gabbert, Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: 29
As the early afternoon tilt between the Washington Redskins and the Arizona Cardinals got underway, Fox color commentator Ronde Barber mentioned before Arizona's first offensive play that quarterback Blaine Gabbert needed to do a better job of "protecting the football."
Two plays later, Gabbert was sacked and the ball was on the turf.
Two themes with Gabbert have emerged over the past two weeks: first, a tendency to make mistakes with the football, as Barber alluded to, and second, the fact that Gabbert has been under a lot of pressure playing behind a struggling offensive line. In the first quarter alone, Gabbert was sacked three times.
Playing under these circumstances, Gabbert struggled on Sunday. He completed only 16 of 41 passes for 189 yards and an interception. There were some missed opportunities, as the Cardinals had a number of red-zone chances but could only come away with field goals on those drives.
Gabbert hit Troy Niklas on a seam route in the fourth quarter that could have given the Cardinals a go-ahead touchdown, but the pass was dropped. On an earlier possession, Gabbert and running back D.J. Foster failed to get on the same page on a 2nd-and-goal play. Foster ran a pivot route and Gabbert threw the slant, resulting in a doink shot as the ball hit Foster in the back of the helmet.
There were also some clear misfires from Gabbert, even when he was not pressured. On a 2nd-and-6 play early in the second quarter, Arizona ran a slant/flat concept where the receiver was wide open on the flat route, but Gabbert simply airmailed it from a clean pocket.
The loss ended the slim chance the Cardinals had at making the playoffs. Gabbert's streaky play during the last half of this season might have earned him a shot at the backup job in Arizona, but barring huge improvement, that might be his ceiling in the league. Or perhaps it has not even earned Gabbert that much, as head coach Bruce Arians announced on Monday that Drew Stanton would start in Week 16.
26. Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers
Last Week: 2
Philip Rivers has been a legitimate MVP candidate through most of the season, as he caught fire through October and November after the Los Angeles Chargers' 0-4 start. He had thrown eight touchdowns and no interceptions in his previous four games, and the Kansas City Chiefs defense he was facing on Saturday had been one of the league's least effective, ranking 21st in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted pass-defense metrics. Which makes Rivers' three-interception performance against Kansas City in a 30-13 loss all the more mystifying.
The Chargers had a 17-13 deficit when Rivers threw his first pick on an atrocious deep ball into double coverage, intended for receiver Tyrell Williams, which cornerback Marcus Peters easily intercepted. The throw was late and coverage had already converged, and Rivers had open reads underneath. Judging by Rivers' reaction after the pick, Williams might not have run to the right depth, but it's hard to reconcile that with the throw point.
The second pick, thrown more to safety Ron Parker than to tight end Antonio Gates, was an eephus pitch intended to arc over Kansas City's coverage, but Rivers couldn't get the ball past Parker. If Tom Savage or DeShone Kizer had made that throw, we'd be lampooning him all day. This might have been the ugliest throw of Rivers' season.
The third and final pick came at the second half's two-minute warning and with the Chiefs already up 30-13. Here, Peters jumped the route and took the ball away while receiver Travis Benjamin kept running straight upfield, which is a sure sign of route confusion.
Rivers was under marginal pressure on all three picks, with open receivers available. Given his history of excellence, it's easier to believe this was a fluke performance and things will work themselves out. The Chargers are now 7-7, and they won't get anywhere near the postseason unless Rivers is at his best.
25. T.J. Yates, Houston Texans
Last Week: 23
In Week 14, Yates came in against the San Francisco 49ers in place of the concussed Tom Savage and looked like the Texans' best quarterback since Deshaun Watson's injury. Yates completed 14 of 26 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns, giving the team some modicum of hope that its quarterback situation might be sorted out.
Reality came calling in the form of the Jacksonville Jaguars defense last Sunday. Yates is a high-level backup, and teams could do worse than him as a spot starter, but he was clearly overwhelmed by a Jags defense that has done the same to quarterbacks better than him. Yates completed just 12 of 31 passes for 128 yards, a touchdown and an interception as Jacksonville poleaxed the Texans, 45-7, to drop Bill O'Brien's team to 4-10 on the season.
To Yates' credit, though, he did have a couple of nice throws to perhaps the best receiver in football, DeAndre Hopkins. He was covered by Jalen Ramsey, who has an equivalent case as the best cornerback in the league. With 9:50 left in the third quarter and the Texans already down 31-0, Yates stepped forward in the pocket, navigating pressure against the blitz and hitting Hopkins for a 40-yard gain. And his 25-yard touchdown pass to Hopkins with 8:17 left in the third had nice touch on an arcing throw, and it hit Hopkins in stride as the receiver beat Ramsey in a footrace.
As for the rest of it, this was a case of a pretty good quarterback going up against a marvelous defense, and that played out as you'd expect. But over the last couple of weeks, Yates has shown a few things, and it's possible he'd be a better backup option than Savage when Watson returns to the field in 2018.
24. Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears
Last Week: 9
We've argued before—and will argue again in the year-end rankings—that development is not linear. Teams and their fans need to take a long-term view when looking at the growth of a young quarterback. Overall, Mitchell Trubisky's growth this season has been positive, and Week 14 was perhaps his best showing yet.
Week 15 was a bit of a step back.
Trubisky threw three interceptions Saturday night in Chicago's 20-10 loss to the Detroit Lions. The rookie did throw a touchdown in the loss, but two of his picks came on mistakes.
On a 2nd-and-8 early in the second half, Trubisky came out of a play-action fake and rolled to his right. He tried to hit a corner route along the left sideline, but he failed to really get his left shoulder turned toward the target before making the throw. The slight mechanical misstep caused the pass to sail high, and it was intercepted.
In the fourth quarter, with the Bears trailing 20-3 but in the red zone, Trubisky made another big mistake. Right at the snap, he opened to his left to spot Dontrelle Inman on a post route and never looked anywhere else. He even had a crossing route coming from right to left he could've peeked at to move the safety, but Trubisky stayed locked on Inman, allowing Quandre Diggs to read his eyes and break on the ball.
Trubisky gets a home game against the Cleveland Browns followed by a meeting with the Minnesota Vikings (who may be resting starters) to put a final stamp on his rookie season. While Week 15 was a step backward, Bears fans need to be patient and recognize that the overall trend is in the right direction.
23. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: 4
The Dallas Cowboys kept their narrow pathway to the playoffs open for one more week, eeking out a 20-17 victory on the road over the Oakland Raiders. Quarterback Dak Prescott struggled a bit, throwing two interceptions, but he did enough with his arm and his legs to get the win.
Prescott opened the game well, hitting on a deep out pattern to Jason Witten on a divide concept on Dallas' opening drive. But that possession ended with a turnover on his first interception of the night. The Cowboys ran a slant/flat concept on 3rd-and-10, but Prescott led Dez Bryant a bit too far on the slant route, and the throw went right to Oakland's Sean Smith.
The second pick was due more to a failure in protection, but there was some hesitation from the quarterback. Holding a 10-7 lead midway through the third quarter, Dallas faced a 3rd-and-9 on its own 16-yard line. Bruce Irvin beat left tackle Tyron Smith on a speed rush and got to Prescott just as he was throwing the ball, causing it to pop into the air.
It went over the head of Cole Beasley and into the waiting arms of Smith for the interception. Prescott waited a bit too long to pull the trigger as Beasley was breaking open on the curl route. If the QB had made the throw a step sooner, the Cowboys would have at least avoided the turnover.
Prescott did make some big throws in this game, such as a corner route to James Hanna late in the first quarter that he dropped in perfectly. Also, off a flea-flicker, Prescott put a deep ball right on Terrance Williams that was dropped. Finally, his short scramble late in the third quarter, with good coverage in the end zone, gave Dallas a pivotal touchdown and a 17-10 lead after the extra point.
With running back Ezekiel Elliott coming back from suspension this week, Dallas has a chance. Prescott will need a cleaner performance on Sunday against another team facing an uphill climb, the Seattle Seahawks, to keep hope alive for another week.
22. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Last Week: N/A (Did Not Play)
Aaron Rodgers returned from his collarbone injury to try to lead the Green Bay Packers to an improbable playoff berth with three straight wins.
Thanks to a last-minute recovery of an onside kick, the Packers were in position to perhaps tie the game late, but a fumble by Geronimo Allison ended their threat. With the Atlanta Falcons' victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night, Green Bay has been eliminated from playoff contention.
Rodgers did provide some of the magic he is known for, such as on his second touchdown pass of the game. The Packers used a quick game concept with slant routes to both sides of the field, but the quarterback was flushed to his right and toward the line of scrimmage. At the last moment and while falling down, Rodgers found Randall Cobb working across the field and flipped him the ball. From there, Cobb made a few defenders miss en route to the end zone.
Rodgers' two other scoring plays were more conventional. First he hit Davante Adams on a post route in the red zone. Adams used a dino stem to get separation and leverage on the defender, and Rodgers drilled in a perfect throw for the score. Late in the game, Rodgers found tight end Richard Rodgers in the middle of the field, perhaps due to a blown coverage, and the touchdown set the stage for the onside kick.
But there were signs of rust, and some "decisions that are uncharacteristic" from Rodgers, as described by FOX color analyst Troy Aikman. He threw three interceptions, with the first coming on a deep route to Adams. The play would have needed a perfect throw, but with pressure in his face, Rodgers could not step into it, and the pass was badly underthrown and intercepted.
Later in the game, Rodgers looked to Cobb on a seam route toward the middle of the field with the Panthers in Cover 2. He made the right read to throw the seam, but safety Colin Jones did a great job of carrying the route and was able to step in front of the throw. A better pass from Rodgers could have resulted in a big play.
The third interception was also an underthrow, this time in the direction of Jordy Nelson.
Rodgers remains one of the game's elite players, and even a rusty version of him can come out and throw three touchdowns against a stout defense. That shows the incredible ability he has at the quarterback position.
21. Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
Last Week: 24
Derek Carr's most costly play of the Oakland Raiders' 20-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys was not a pass. With 31 seconds left in the game, Carr scrambled to the end zone and extended his arm to try to get over the goal line. But he lost the ball, and the officials ruled that it went into the end zone for a touchback, giving the Cowboys possession and effectively ending the game.
Carr did throw for two touchdowns and completed 21 of 38 passes, but that he managed just 171 passing yards for 4.5 yards per attempt tells you all you need to know about the state of Oakland's passing game. Carr did nothing with the deep ball except for drawing a 55-yard pass interference call on Cowboys rookie cornerback Jourdan Lewis with 1:01 left in the game that set up the QB's final mistake.
Right now, Oakland's struggles in the passing game are down to a mishmash of basic routes opposing defense find easy to deal with and receivers not getting separation. Both of his touchdown passes were two-yarders to Michael Crabtree; quick, one-read throws in which Crabtree could use his physicality to create matchup advantages on the fly. But there isn't much route development going on, and with Amari Cooper underperforming most of the season, too much is put on Carr's plate.
People will remember that misbegotten run, but Oakland's offense has many more issues than one mistake, and it's showed in Carr's performances all season.
20. Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins
Last Week: 21
Kirk Cousins was able to take advantage of some good field position and a well-designed screen play for two touchdown passes, propelling the Washington Redskins to a narrow victory Sunday over the visiting Arizona Cardinals.
Cousins completed 18 of 26 passes for 196 yards and the two touchdowns. The first score came after a fumble by Blaine Gabbert on Arizona's third offensive play gave Washington a 1st-and-goal to start its day on offense. On second down, Washington ran play action, and Cousins used a half-roll to the right side. Jamison Crowder ran a shallow crossing route from the backside, and Patrick Peterson slipped in coverage to give Cousins an easy throw for the score.
The second touchdown came on a masterfully designed and executed screen pass, which began with a fake inside handoff, followed by a fake end-around before a dump-off to Kapri Bibbs. The running back went from the practice squad on Tuesday to the end zone at FedEx Field on Sunday afternoon.
From there, Cousins and the offense slowed down. Their time of possession in the first half was a mere 6:34, which is the lowest by any team in a single half this season. With some chances to perhaps put the game away in the fourth quarter, Washington fell short.
It went three-and-out on one drive following a Gabbert interception, including a third-down play when Cousins double-clutched, and his pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage. On its next possession, Cousins was pressured on a 3rd-and-5 by Chandler Jones and his high pass fell incomplete.
19. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Last Week: 20
Some early miscues from the Seattle Seahawks offense, as well as some big plays by the Los Angeles Rams in all three phases of the game, put the home team in a big hole early. Russell Wilson and company could not climb out of it, falling 42-7 at home. The loss virtually ended any chance at the NFC West and now has the Seahawks outside the playoffs.
From a numbers standpoint, it was one of the tougher outings of the season. Wilson's QBR of 7.4 was the lowest he has posted this season, and his quarterback rating of 71.8 was his third-worst of the year. He completed less than 50 percent of his passes, hitting on 14 of 30 throws for 142 yards and a touchdown.
Early errors set the tone on offense. On their opening drive, Wilson hit Tanner McEvoy on a crossing route on a third down, but the receiver fumbled downfield and the Rams took over possession. Their second possession was ended on a third-down sack by Aaron Donald, and their fourth drive stalled on a 3rd-and-8. Already trailing 13-0, Wilson missed an open Paul Richardson on a slant route that would at least have picked up the first down.
Wilson did chip in his usual dizzying array of scrambles and escapes in the pocket, but he also lost a fumble on one of those plays. He attempted a spin in the pocket while using the football as a pivot point, but he lost control of the ball and the Rams recovered.
His one scoring throw, a vertical route to tight end Luke Willson for a touchdown, was well-executed against Cover 2 in the red zone. Willson split the safeties, and his QB dropped in a good throw for the score. But that came much too late in the game to make a difference.
Seattle lost not only the game, but control of its own playoff destiny too. It needs to win out and get some help to get into the dance. But with the Rams on the verge of clinching the NFC West, Seattle looking up at Carolina and Atlanta in the Wild Card standings and some discord brewing in the locker room, the Seahawks face a winter on the outside for the first time since 2011.
18. Brock Osweiler, Denver Broncos
Last Week: N/A (Did Not Play)
If there is one thing nobody expected from Denver's 25-13 Thursday night win over the Indianapolis Colts, it was Brock Osweiler hitting the field in relief of the injured Trevor Siemian and looking like a fully functional quarterback capable of multiple big plays. But that's just what happened. The star-crossed veteran looked like the guy the Houston Texans wanted him to be when they signed him to a ginormous contract before the 2016 season.
Osweiler was able to take advantage of a struggling Colts defense with a number of young players in the secondary, completing 12 of 17 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns. He added another 17 yards and an additional touchdown as a rusher. It made for his best single-game passer rating in outings with more than two attempts, and though it may not be indicative of anything long-term, it was nice to see a Broncos quarterback doing something on the field this season.
Both touchdown passes were on deep balls over 20 yards in the air. There was the 22-yarder to receiver Cody Latimer, who took D.J. White to the back side of the end zone before Osweiler hit him accurately on his third read.
Jeff Heuerman then reeled in a 54-yarder. Osweiler not only hit his tight end in stride on a deep post, but he threw the ball to him when Latimer ran a shorter route underneath. Clearly, this was a man in control of his game and the offense.
We haven't seen much of this from Osweiler over the years, so we don't yet know if this is a case of the light going on or just three quarters of good football against a really bad defense. But for one Thursday night in December, Brock Osweiler looked like the quarterback so many people have wanted him to be.
17. Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills
Last Week: N/A (Did Not Play)
At 8-6 after their 24-16 win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, the Buffalo Bills are still in the playoff hunt despite a quarterback situation they couldn't have handled much worse. Bouncing Tyrod Taylor in and out of the lineup in favor of rookie Nathan Peterman hasn't done anybody except the Bills' opponents any favors, and Buffalo wouldn't be anywhere near the postseason without its run game and pass defense.
That said, Taylor was the starter against the Dolphins and availed himself fairly well, completing 17 of 29 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown. He also added 42 rushing yards on six carries. The scrambling was important, because Miami's defense bottled LeSean McCoy up for just 50 yards on 20 carries, though both McCoy and Taylor scored rushing touchdowns.
Taylor's rushing touchdown showed how effective he can be in designed runs. The Bills were at the Miami nine-yard line with 40 seconds left in the first half and aligned in a diamond formation to the right. Running back Travaris Cadet motioned to the back of that four-receiver formation, and with Miami looking to defend a quick pass, Taylor put the ball down and scooted to the left sideline and outran multiple Miami defenders to the end zone.
Taylor's touchdown pass to McCoy was also a nice design, as McCoy ran a quick out to a fade to the right side of the end zone, and Taylor put the ball in McCoy's hands right on time as the Dolphins struggled to catch up.
This game was an example of how Taylor can play if the offense is designed around his capabilities and he isn't looking over his shoulder every time he makes a mistake. Hopefully, the Bills have learned the obvious and now understand which quarterback can actually take them to the playoffs.
16. Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
Last Week: 28
When one of your team's receivers insinuates that it would be better if the quarterback called the plays on the field, that's quite an indictment of the coaching staff. Following the Tennessee Titans' 25-23 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Rishard Matthews told ESPN's Cameron Wolfe:
"I'd rather have Marcus calling the shots. There's proof in the success when that happens. I'd like to do no-huddle more. I know we'd all like to do it more. We definitely talk about it a lot. Sometimes we go into it a lot. Sometimes we don't. This game we stayed in it, and I feel like we were pretty good when we were in it."
Probably not a good feeling for head coach Mike Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie, but Matthews has a point. When the Titans went no-huddle for the most part in the middle of the game, they scored 17 points and gained 225 yards on 32 plays, per Wolfe.
Watching the tape, it's clear Mariota is a freer player when the game plan is in his hands. The Titans tend to call reductive passing routes when they huddle, though Mariota still misses throws he should complete. He outright overthrew Delanie Walker in the left side of the end zone when he had running back Derrick Henry open on a shorter pass, although he found Walker in the end zone on the next play: Mariota booted to his right and waited for Walker to get open on a crosser in the back of the end zone.
On his second touchdown pass of the day, Mariota waited for Matthews to get open in the end zone and found him for the eight-yard score.
Mariota completed 23 of 33 passes for 243 yards and those two touchdowns, but the loss and Mariota's performance are less problematic than what is starting to look like a public schism between the Titans coaching staff and the players. That's the kind of thing that rarely ends well, though it must be said that Mularkey and Robiskie have exhausted their opportunities to make this a fully functional passing game, and it hasn't happened to date.
15. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: 14
The Baltimore Ravens' philosophy for success is no longer relying on Joe Flacco to take the helm and perform at an—if you'll pardon the expression—"elite" level. At this point, Flacco's mechanics on his deep ball are too inconsistent, Marty Mornhinweg's offense is too limited to create explosive plays and the defense and run game are good enough to get wins against inferior teams, even when Flacco isn't playing well.
Such was the case when the Ravens beat the Cleveland Browns, 27-10, on Sunday. Flacco completed 26 of 42 passes for 288 yards and a touchdown, adding another score on the ground. His most important play as a passer was the 33-yard touchdown to tight Ben Watson, who ran a deep over route late in the first half and broke through double coverage at the line to bring the ball in.
Flacco hit Mike Wallace on a couple of deep throws against the Browns' iffy zone coverage, and he made a beautiful throw halfway through the second quarter to Wallace, over cornerback Jason McCourty, on a deep corner route to the left side. It was a perfectly placed pass that found the receiver despite McCourty's excellent coverage.
For the most part, though, Flacco played it safe and let the run game, defense and the Browns' own inefficiencies take the day. As long as the Ravens can get away with that formula, they'll remain a playoff contender and mild postseason threat.
14. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Last Week: 13
Against the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins in Weeks 13 and 14, Tom Brady was rendered relatively mortal by two defenses with the ability to consistently do two things: drape Brady's receivers with tight man coverage and create pressure from the edges of the pocket, forcing Brady to step up into interior pressure.
Brady has fried the Pittsburgh Steelers' preferred zone defense concepts over the years, so you'd think the defense would have the same game plan other teams have run with success. Any port in a storm against the best quarterback of all time, right?
The Steelers played some man and got decent pressure on Brady, who completed 22 of 35 passes for 298 yards, one touchdown and an interception. Not a great day statistically, but the Pats won, 27-24, to take pole position in the AFC.
They came close to losing it in the final seconds, though, as Pittsburgh's goal-line offense fell apart. If there's reason for concern in Foxboro right now, it's around the fact that Brady has just two touchdown passes to four interceptions in his last three games.
Brady did get back on track with Brandin Cooks, as the pair hooked up with a 43-yard completion early in the first quarter. This was an outstanding design, with play-action from the backfield and on a sweep from left to right. The defense reacting to the run gave Cooks a one-on-one against safety Mike Mitchell on the deep seam-to-corner route for the long gain.
Outside of that, there wasn't much downfield for Brady. He tried Cooks again down the left boundary in the second quarter, but the Steelers did a nice job of disguising bracket coverage with a man look pre-snap.
Brady's third-quarter interception fit the Kryptonite prototype. Facing pressure up the middle with a four-man rush, Brady got bumped as he threw. The Steelers made the short crossing routes sticky with tight coverage, and linebacker Vince Williams followed Rob Gronkowski across the field for the pick.
Yes, the Patriots won this game, but Bill Belichick and company had best figure out how to beat this defensive strategy before the playoffs start. History suggests they will, but this is something to watch closely.
13. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 6
Drew Brees' strong 2017 campaign continued Sunday, as he completed 26 of 36 passes for 281 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in the Saints' 31-19 victory over the visiting New York Jets. To give you a sense of just how good Brees has been this year, his 101.7 quarterback rating against the Jets was only his 10th-best outing this season.
His numbers would have looked better had he and receiver Michael Thomas finished off two plays that were reversed upon review after initially being ruled touchdowns. First, Brees hit Thomas on a smoke screen, and the receiver lunged into the end zone only to be ruled down short of the goal-line.
Later, Brees hit Thomas on a deep post pattern for what looked like a long touchdown pass, but the review found the receiver's second foot came down on the back line.
Brees' first touchdown came on a great no-throw decision. In the red zone, the Saints set up a slant pattern to Thomas from a trips formation on the right. Brees was about to pull the trigger, but spotted the safety jumping the route. He instantly turned to the back side of the play and threw a perfect pass to Alvin Kamara on a Texas route, and the rookie running back cut into the end zone for the score.
Brees was a standout baseball player in high school and at one point thought professional baseball would be his career of choice. On his second scoring pass of the game, a quick slant to Thomas in the red zone, Brees looked more like a second baseman turning a double play than an NFL quarterback. Brees got the pass out of his hands so quickly that he never had a chance to reset his grip before throwing. On the other end was Thomas, whose emphatic spike was understandable given his previous near-touchdowns in the game.
The victory kept the Saints atop the division standings, owning a tie-breaker over the Carolina Panthers. The schedule sets up favorably for New Orleans in the final two weeks, as it hosts Atlanta on Christmas Eve and finishes on the road against Tampa Bay.
12. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: 22
It's amazing what the microphones can pick up on the field these days. This week we heard Cam Newton call his shot and Matt Ryan, well, furiously implore his teammates to get set before a play in the fourth quarter. (We would link to it, but this is a family website after all.)
The Atlanta Falcons entered Monday night with a chance to keep their divisional hopes alive. With wins in each of their remaining three games, the defending NFC champions would earn another NFC South title. They took care of the first step on Monday night with their 24-21 victory down in Tampa Bay. In the win, Matt Ryan completed 17 of 31 passes for 212 yards and a touchdown.
We again saw good anticipation from Ryan in the pocket. On a 1st-and-10 early in the game, Ryan was pressured but looked to Justin Hardy on a deep curl route. The ball came out well before the break, and Hardy was able to make a good catch to move the chains.
The Falcons finished that drive with a touchdown pass from Ryan to Hardy that again showed good timing, anticipation and feel. Tampa Bay used a Cover 0 blitz, and Hardy was isolated on the left side of the formation in single coverage. He ran a back-shoulder fade route, and Ryan put the throw on him with perfect timing for the score.
In the second half, it was more what Ryan did with his legs that stood out. On a third-quarter drive that ended with a blocked field goal, the Atlanta QB delivered on two impressive scrambles for yardage. One included an open-field move on rookie linebacker Kendell Beckwith that you do not often see from the Boston College product.
Some third-down plays in the final quarter were pivotal to the outcome, and Ryan was impressive on two. Facing a 3rd-and-3 on their own 20-yard line with under 12 minutes left, Atlanta needed to move the chains. Ryan dropped to throw, immediately saw man coverage and checked the ball down to Devonta Freeman on a swing route that the running back turned into an 11-yard gain. A small decision, but it was a big one in the context of the game.
Then on a 3rd-and-6 with under three minutes remaining and a three-point lead, Ryan slid in the pocket and found Freeman again on a Texas route for the first down in a critical spot.
But on a 3rd-and-9 coming out of the two-minute warning, Ryan dropped to throw, climbed the pocket and was sacked to give the Buccaneers one final shot. But the field-goal attempt at the final gun sailed wide, and the Falcons' divisional hopes stayed alive for at least one more week.
11. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: 19
In the Kansas City Chiefs' 30-13 Saturday win over the Los Angeles Chargers, rookie running back Kareem Hunt was the star of the show, carrying the ball 24 times for 155 yards and a touchdown, adding seven catches for 51 yards and another score.
Putting the game in Hunt's hands further sets Smith up for success by forcing defenses to sell out to the run, allowing more play action. Smith completed 23 of 30 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns, with the most explosive play of his day coming on a 64-yard touchdown pass to Tyreek Hill in the second quarter.
For all the talk about the Chiefs' need for schematic complexity, the touchdown pass to Hill was as simple as it comes. Cornerback Casey Hayward stacked over Hill at the line of scrimmage, but Hill turned his man the wrong way with a quick foot-fake and beat the usually outstanding Hayward downfield on a straight vertical concept.
The touchdown pass to Hunt was more complex and well-executed. From the Chargers' three-yard line, tight end Travis Kelce ran a fade to the deep left side of the end zone, carrying cornerback Trevor Williams over the top. That left cornerback Desmond King to deal with Hunt after Smith's play fake to the back sucked the linebackers in. Hunt ran a flat route underneath, and King, obviously feeling overwhelmed, held Hunt all the way to the end zone. That didn't matter, as the running back broke free of the "coverage" and caught the touchdown pass.
The Chiefs are at their best offensively when the running game leads the way and Smith is able to use his intelligence to exploit one-dimensional defenses for big plays at the right times. That's what happened against the Chargers, and it should be encouraging that with offensive coordinator Matt Nagy calling the plays, it's happening more often.
10. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: 15
It might be a lost season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but they gave the Atlanta Falcons everything they could on Monday night, falling short, 24-21. Jameis Winston was impressive in the loss, completing 27 of 35 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns.
Winston's first two scoring throws came from a healthy mix of design and trust. His touchdown pass to O.J. Howard came on yet another throwback design, which is how the rookie tight end scored his first NFL touchdown and something both teams in this game have been living on the past two years.
Facing a 3rd-and-1 in Atlanta territory, the Buccaneers had Winston carry out a play-action fake. The quarterback then immediately looked to the right flat and Adam Humphries. But Howard, who began the play on the right side of the formation, worked across the field on a shallow crossing route to the backside of the play and was wide open.
Winston's touchdown pass to Mike Evans, at least the one that counted, was due to trust. Facing a 1st-and-10 on the Atlanta 42-yard line, Evans ran a deep post route from the left side of the field toward the right and drew two defenders. But Winston trusted his receiver and gave him a chance to make a play.
Winston did make a mistake on a seam route to Cameron Brate early in the game. Safety Ricardo Allen was sitting in the middle of the field in Cover 1, and Winston never moved the safety with his eyes. Humphries was running a corner route on the other side of the field, and a quick glance in that direction would have bought some more room in the seam for Brate. But with Winston failing to move the defender, Allen was able to break on the ball and deliver a shot on the tight end that knocked him from the game.
Tampa Bay fell down by 10 points in the fourth quarter, and Winston was impressive again on the ensuing drive, which ended with his third touchdown pass. On a 2nd-and-10, Winston did a great job of sliding around in the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield and finding Humphries in the end zone. For his part, Humphries did a great job of uncovering in the scramble drill to get open.
Then Winston had a shot to pull out the win and started with two-straight completions to Brate and Freddie Martino to open the drive. After a spike to stop the clock, Winston hit Brate one more time to get the Buccaneers in position for the game-tying field goal. But kicker Patrick Murray pushed the long field-goal try wide to the right.
9. Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams
Last Week: 5
Jared Goff faced a big test in Week 15, returning to the scene of one of his toughest outings as a rookie in the rough environment provided by the Seahawks and CenturyLink Field.
Thanks to an opportunistic defense, some key plays on special teams and a big performance from running back Todd Gurley III, Goff and company passed that test and all but secured the NFC West.
This was an afternoon when seemingly everything went right for the Rams. A prime example came late in the second quarter, when Goff was strip-sacked on a 2nd-and-8 and offensive lineman Rob Havenstein managed to recover the loose ball. On the ensuing play, Gurley ripped off a 57-yard scoring run on 3rd-and-20 to push the Rams' lead to 34 following the extra point.
Goff's mistake came on a 4th-and-1 early in the second quarter. Holding a 13-0 lead, head coach Sean McVay made an aggressive call and kept his offense on the field, electing to throw. Goff rolled to his right and simply ran out of time, with his pass tipped and intercepted.
The two touchdown throws were a mix of execution and design. The first came on a simple flat route to Robert Woods in the red zone. Los Angeles quickly broke the huddle and raced to the line of scrimmage, snapping the ball quickly while Seattle was still setting its defense. Woods was wide open, and Goff hit him in stride for the score.
The second came on another red-zone opportunity, with Gurley leaking to the flat on the right side while Sammy Watkins created some traffic with a slant route. Linebacker Bobby Wagner could not work around Watkins, and Gurley was wide open for the score.
The win capped off a remarkable turnaround from the Rams' 2016 campaign. That is impressive in and of itself, but Goff's developmental arc this season means the turnaround might be more than a one-year deal.
8. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: 3
Everybody who watched the Patriots beat the Steelers 27-24 on Sunday afternoon is obviously talking about Jesse James' last-second touchdown being overturned due to the NFL's ridiculous catch rule. It appears the rule was called properly (which is good), and in that case, the Steelers have nothing to gripe about.
Beyond that debacle, there was the matter of the interception by New England safety Duron Harmon in the end zone as Roethlisberger tried to get fine with a goal-line slant to Eli Rogers. The ball went off Rogers' hands and into Harmon's, and one might wonder why the Steelers would go with a play that has not historically worked well against the Patriots—just ask the Seahawks.
Why the Steelers didn't run a fade outside is a mystery, but those two plays decided the game in New England's favor.
Outside of that, the calf injury receiver Antonio Brown suffered in the first half that will keep him out for at least the regular season is a complication, though Roethlisberger fared pretty well without his primary target. Rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster was Roethlisberger's primary receiver, snagging six passes for 114 yards and proving this offense can roll well without Brown in the lineup.
Smith-Schuster's 69-yard reception late in the fourth quarter set up that ill-fated goal-line stand. The rookie slow-rolled cornerback Eric Rowe on a drag route and nearly broke the play for a game-winning touchdown in a fantastic yards-after-catch performance.
Roethlisberger and the Steelers can only try to comfort themselves with nearly having this one in the bag and hope for a return matchup in the postseason.
7. Eli Manning, New York Giants
Last Week: 26
If this was the final game for Eli Manning in the 2017 season, it was a pretty good way to go out. In the narrow 34-29 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, Manning completed 37 of 57 passes for a season-high 434 yards, three touchdown passes and an interception.
The Giants relied on an uptempo approach at times, and it led to positive results. Tempo was a factor on their second drive of the game, which ended with Manning's first touchdown pass of the afternoon on a slant-and-go route to Tavarres King. The receiver angled inside at the snap, and Jalen Mills broke on the slant, but then King turned upfield and Manning hit him for the score. It was the second time in the game the Giants used that route, as Manning hit Roger Lewis on the same design on their opening drive for a big gain.
Manning's second touchdown pass came thanks to Sterling Shepard and the mesh concept. On a play that would make noted Air Raid connoisseur Mike Leach smile, Shepard and tight end Rhett Ellison crossed over the middle close enough that they could high five, which is how Leach coaches up the concept. Manning hit Shepard with the short throw, and the second-year receiver took it the distance for the score.
The Giants had a chance to win the game on their final offensive play, facing a 4th-and-goal. They ran a double-China concept, with tight end Evan Engram running the corner route as the inside trips receiver. Manning might have thrown to Shepard, who was open underneath, but he was short of the goal line, and it would have taken a great run after the catch for the Giants to score. Instead Manning looked to Engram, who was covered, and the pass was high and incomplete.
With two games remaining, it is quite possible the team gets rookie Davis Webb onto the field to help figure out how to approach the quarterback position in the upcoming draft. Manning should still be in New York's plans as the starter to begin 2018, but time is running out to truly get a sense of where the rest of the quarterback room stands entering next year.
6. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
Last Week: 8
In these rankings pieces and in the NFL1000 Notebooks, we have discussed some of the nuances that go into playing the quarterback position. We have outlined the importance of torque, using Cam Newton as an example. The ability to manipulate defenders with your eyes is another area we have discussed, notably with Case Keenum this week. To that we can add arm slots, and Matthew Stafford is a prime example.
Stafford completed 25 of 33 passes for 237 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Detroit Lions' 20-10 victory over the Chicago Bears on Saturday night. Stafford's ability to adjust his arm angle on throws to evade pressure, and still deliver accurate passes with velocity, was on full display during the contest.
Late in the first quarter, the Lions ran a play-action boot concept, with Stafford rolling to his right. He had pressure in his face and dropped his throwing angle to a three-quarters release point, fitting the throw to the receiver around the defender. On a Texas route to Theo Riddick in the second quarter, Stafford again dropped his arm to evade pressure, but the throw was still delivered with accuracy and velocity.
Stafford also showed off some of his elusiveness in the pocket on an early play. The Bears used a weak-side blitz from Stafford's blind side, but he was able to feel the pressure, spin away from it (using the football as a pivot point on the ground) before taking a checkdown to Eric Ebron on a shallow crossing route to convert the third down.
A great debate raged this week about Russell Wilson versus Matthew Stafford, and while many came down on the side of the Seahawks' passer in that discussion, Stafford's solid play this year—and in Week 15—has kept the Lions' playoff hopes alive into December.
5. Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: 12
The San Francisco 49ers are fun again.
In the aftermath of San Francisco's 25-23 victory in the final seconds over the visiting Tennessee Titans, here are two facts that bear mentioning: First, the 49ers won their third straight game, the first time the organization has accomplished that feat since November 2014; second, Jimmy Garoppolo completed 31 of 43 passes for 381 yards and a touchdown, throwing for over 300 yards in two-straight games. The last time a 49ers quarterback accomplished that, Bill Clinton was in the White House. Jeff Garcia did it for San Francisco in November 2000.
Some of Garoppolo's best throws came in the final quarter of a back-and-forth affair. After the Titans scored a touchdown to take a 20-16 lead early in the final frame, Garoppolo opened San Francisco's next possession with a touch throw to Garrett Celek that picked up 41 yards. Later on that series, he hit Marquise Goodwin on a 3rd-and-3 with a perfect throw on a slant route, and the 49ers would go on to kick a field goal and cut the lead to one.
On their next possession, Garoppolo was big once more. They opened the drive with another chunk play, as the quarterback hit Kendrick Bourne in stride on an in-breaking route, and Bourne almost took the play the distance. Garoppolo later delivered on an out route to George Kittle and finally on a well-placed throw to Trent Taylor on an option route to help set up another field goal from Robbie Gould.
Tennessee answered with a field goal of its own before Garoppolo again led his team into field-goal range. His last attempt was a perfect throw to Goodwin (who caught a season-high 10 passes), and Gould kicked the game-winner from 45 yards as time expired.
After San Francisco acquired Garoppolo from the New England Patriots, many wondered if playing with Tom Brady would have helped Garoppolo's development as a quarterback. You saw a quick glimpse of that early in the game.
Facing a 3rd-and-5 on San Francisco's opening drive, Garoppolo opened to his left to throw. He was pressured, but somehow felt the edge defender behind him and was able to spin away and make a great throw to Taylor from an awkward platform to pick up the first down. Plays like that have extended Brady's career, and perhaps they will do the same for Garoppolo.
4. Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 32
Philadelphia Eagles fans worked themselves through the stages of grief after Carson Wentz was lost for the season with a torn left ACL. Their general mood went from despair, to resignation, to cautious optimism and finally confidence in their backup quarterback.
Nick Foles rewarded that confidence with a four-touchdown performance on the road against the New York Giants to keep his team's shot at the top overall seed in the NFC alive.
Head coach Doug Pederson said last week that the offense would stay aggressive under the backup QB, and Pederson lived up to his word. Using a mix of downfield passing concepts, run/pass option designs, screens and rub routes, Foles completed 24 of 38 passes for 237 yards and the four scores in the win. Most importantly, he did not throw an interception on the afternoon.
We broke down two of the touchdown passes in the Week 15 Notebook, but Foles' best throw of the afternoon might have come on the second touchdown pass of the game. Facing a 2nd-and-10 in the red zone, Foles dropped to throw and looked to his left, where tight end Zach Ertz was running a stick nod route. Ertz got just enough leverage inside of the defender, and Foles drilled a pass to his tight end for the score.
If there is one aspect to his playing style to watch as the Eagles look to the playoffs, it is Foles' tendency to "burp the baby" before delivering a throw. On a 3rd-and-11 to start the second quarter, Foles gave the football an extra pat before throwing a boundary curl route to the right side. The pass was a step late, and Ross Cockrell was able to break on the ball.
Now that's a minor nitpick, and it should not overshadow the backup signal-caller's performance. With a favorable schedule over the final two weeks, Philadelphia has a great chance to lock down that No. 1 seed in the conference, forcing the road to the Super Bowl through the City of Brotherly Love.
3. Case Keenum, Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: 11
On Minnesota's first offensive play of the game, Case Keenum dropped to pass. He checked downfield and then to the right flat, where his running back was on a swing route. He didn't pull the trigger and tried to pivot away from pressure, but then he tripped over his feet and was "sacked" for a nine-yard loss.
He was almost flawless from there.
Keenum completed 20 of 23 passes for 236 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Minnesota's blowout victory over the visiting Cincinnati Bengals. His first touchdown, a perfect vertical route to Stefon Diggs out of the slot, serves as an example of how quarterbacks can manipulate defenders with their eyes.
The Vikings emptied the backfield on the play with three receivers to the right and two to the left. Diggs was the middle receiver in the trips. They ran a dual HOSS concept, with Diggs and the slot receiver on the left running vertical routes while the outside receiver on each side ran a hitch route. Keenum took the snap and opened to his left, moving the free safety away from Diggs, and then dropped in a perfect throw a few steps before the safety could recover and break on the ball.
The Vikings also took advantage of some blown coverages in the secondary, including on Keenum's second scoring toss of the game. On a goal-line play, the Vikings showed run to the right, but then brought both tight ends, Kyle Rudolph and David Morgan II, on crossing routes working to the back side from right to left. Only one defender was home to cover the two routes, and he chose the deeper crosser from Morgan. That left Rudolph wide open for the one-yard TD toss.
The Vikings' win clinched the NFC North, and with Keenum playing nearly perfectly, they remain in contention for the top overall seed in the NFC.
2. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars
Last Week: 17
When the 2017 season began, Blake Bortles was supposed to have a receiver trio of Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee. Two of those three players were out with injuries when the Jacksonville Jaguars faced the Houston Texans on Sunday, and the other didn't last too long.
Robinson has been out since Week 1 with a torn ACL, Hurns has been out since Week 10 with a sprained ankle and Lee limped from the field in the first quarter of the Houston game with his own sprained ankle.
So, Bortles was throwing to guys like Keelan Cole and Jaydon Mickens. Who? Well, Mickens is perhaps best known for sleeping in his car to save money earlier this season when he was on the Jaguars practice squad. Given this no-name receiver corps and Bortles' well-earned reputation for inconsistency throughout his career, you'd expect the Jaguars' passing game to be a relative disaster.
Think again. Bortles has been the hottest quarterback in the NFL through the month of December, completing 65 of 91 passes for 903 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Against the Texans in a 45-7 thrashing, Bortles tore Houston's secondary apart, completing 21 of 29 passes for 326 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
While Bortles is making some great throws on his own through this hot streak, play action is turning enemy defenses around and giving Bortles some easy one-on-one matchups. His first-quarter completion to Cole, a deep over route that went for 42 yards, was a perfect example. Bortles faked the handoff to Chris Ivory, which brought Houston's inside linebackers to the line of scrimmage and gave Bortles a clear advantage on the deep ball. Cornerback Kevin Johnson tried to keep up, but it didn't happen.
But Bortles' 41-yard pass to Mickens in the third quarter had nothing to do with play fakes—this was all about a great throw and a solid offensive concept. Mickens was in the outside slot in a trips right formation, and he ran a crosser with Cole against Houston's man coverage, leaving cornerback Marcus Williams struggling to keep up.
The Jaguars already have the NFL's best defense and a highly effective power run game. If Bortles proves to be more than a three-game fluke, this team may be the toughest out in football—now and throughout the postseason.
1. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Last Week: 10
During Game 3 of the 1932 World Series, Babe Ruth was at the plate. He was being heckled the entire game by the Chicago Cubs bench and their fans, and during his fifth-inning at-bat he pointed twice in the general direction of the center field stands. He would go on to hit a homerun on a curveball, his final postseason dinger.
Imagine if that was caught on audio, with the Bambino telling pitcher Charlie Root that he had something extra special for him.
Because that's basically what Cam Newton did on one of his four touchdown passes against the Green Bay Packers Sunday afternoon. As you can see, in the pre-snap phase the Packers defense was calling out for a wheel route from running back Christian McCaffrey.
Newton heard that, shot back that they've been "watching film" and then warned them to "watch this." Then, McCaffrey started outside but then cut underneath on a Texas route, and Newton hit him in stride for the score. Newton would go on to finish the day completing 20 of 31 passes for 242 yards and four touchdowns.
The biggest development of the game from a Panthers perspective might be the growing trust between Newton and wide receiver Damiere Byrd. The receiver caught two TD passes from Newton, the second coming on a run/pass option design where the QB hit Byrd in stride on a Bang 8 route for the score.
But the first was one of those trust plays. Newton opened to the right on a play-action pass in the red zone to read a Flood concept. Seeing that covered, Newton came to the middle of the field late and threw high toward Byrd, but the receiver went up for the ball and came down just inside the end zone for the TD.
The victory kept the Panthers in playoff contention. With Newton playing well, the team carving out an even bigger role for their rookie running back, Greg Olsen looking healthy and Byrd earning the trust of his QB, this could be a scary offense to face in the postseason.