This is the time of year, as we know, when teams begin to separate. Cream rises, and all that good stuff. It's also the time of year when those not-quite-ready-for-prime-time players tend to sink, and we saw that continually Sunday from a host of young AFC quarterbacks.
It was a day when Mark Sanchez hit some new lows and put his team in a position where the game essentially was over before halftime. It was a day when T.J. Yates, for the first time, looked the part of a fifth-round rookie quarterback thrust into a starting role. It was a night in which Joe Flacco, in a rare instance where Baltimore's defense sagged, couldn't rise to the challenge, turning the ball over and getting little help from his offensive line. Tim Tebow, too, was a mere mortal, losing control of the ball at times and unable to muster any late heroics this time.
For four teams looking to take that next step in the postseason in the AFC, it proved to be a humbling set of circumstances and certainly raised questions about their aerial abilities in the playoffs (assuming the Jets and Broncos even get there). The Ravens, so desperate to finally get a home playoff game, lost their shot to simply win out and cinch the top seed. The Texans have lost their grip on the first seed, despite continually overcoming injuries, and may not get that bye week now. The Broncos now have the Raiders, Chargers and Chiefs on their heels in the AFC West race, and the Jets could end up needing help just to secure a wild-card spot.
These teams' collective plight is not entirely about the quarterback position, but the questions about the relative young players under center will resonate into January. Is this is good as Sanchez will get, and can he play with consistency? Can Flacco shine on the road? Will the stage get too big for Yates? Is Tebow equipped to get the ball downfield in a traditional sense if and when the Broncos fall behind?
On a day when all four teams could have used a victory to varying degrees, the results were not pretty. Let's examine all four:
» Mark Sanchez -- He was the worst offender of the bunch. I continue to talk to people who have played with him, and been around the Jets, and don't get the sense there is great hope he will take that next step. Rarely does he get multiple pass-catchers involved in the same game, and, according to sources, he has trouble reading both sides of the field. Therefore, the Jets couldn't go with as many three-receiver sets as they would like. Sanchez still makes horrific throws with far too great regularity and without a dominant run game protecting him, his flaws are being exposed more.
At times, according to the same sources, Sanchez tries to do too much, barking out faux calls at the line and making things more complex than they need to be. He had been better in the red zone for a few weeks, but he still tends to force throws there that lead to crippling turnovers. Santonio Holmes has been pouty about the lack of diversity in the passing attack and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is open to new challenges and looking to explore head-coaching options.
Down 7-0 early, the Jets got a gift on a muffed punt at the Eagles' 14. Sanchez threw an ugly pick on the second play of the drive. Sanchez looked jumpy most of the game, holding the ball and taking sacks. Down 21-0 early in the second quarter, deep in his own territory and needing to protect the ball, he was too casual with his grip and fumbled. He threw another pick in the second half.
You don't see that inspiring a lot of confidence. We'll see if the Giants are able to rediscover their pass rush in the battle of New York this weekend, which could well decide the season for the loser.
» T.J. Yates -- He lost his mojo some Sunday, and you have to wonder if he can rediscover it when the Texans have to play the big boys in the playoffs. They'll have Andre Johnson back by then, but even with their running game and defense, I don't see Houston doing postseason damage if Yates ends up with a stat line like he had against struggling Carolina -- 19-of-30, 212 yards, two picks and a 56.5 rating.
In the first half, when this game got away from Houston, Yates was just 10-of-14 for 71 yards with an interception. The Texans had no semblance of a downfield thrust, and, trailing 21-0, badly needed one. Teams will continue to make adjustments on him as the game film piles up, and we'll see how Yates responds to his first professional adversity.
» Tim Tebow -- He never got a real chance to launch into Tebow Time. The deficits grew too big, and he also failed to handle the ball in some option situations on a day when fumbles undermined the Broncos' chances. Tebow completed just half of his passes, which has been the norm, but with RB Willis McGahee now banged up again, Denver might need to expand its mode of attack more down the stretch. Given their current limitations, Tebow simply can't turn the ball over; ball-control is paramount, especially with a quarterback like Tom Brady on the opposite sideline.
» Joe Flacco -- He is generally in a cocoon with Ray Rice as his security blanket and one of the NFL's truly elite defenses helping his cause. Sunday he simply couldn't come close to playing catch-up against Philip Rivers. Baltimore trailed 17-7 at the half, and in the third quarter Flacco threw two debilitating interceptions that put the exclamation point on San Diego's lopsided win.
Flacco has floundered at Tennessee, at Jacksonville, at Seattle and now at San Diego. He's a stud at home but the road woes could be enough to keep Baltimore from its Super Bowl dreams, again. (Postscript to that game: If Norv Turner is fired, I'd be stunned if Baltimore doesn't make a big effort to get him to replace Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator if this Ravens season ends the same way as the previous three.)
You have to like Brady and Ben Roethlisberger well above this bunch, with the distances between these franchise quarterbacks and the rest of the QBs mounting by the week. If that continues in the playoffs, it could be one of those two familiar faces representing the AFC in the Super Bowl once again.
Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @JasonLaCanfora