The calendar said October 20, 2013. It felt like November 2012.
San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman broke out more read-option plays in Week 7 against the Tennessee Titans, and with far more effectiveness. Kaepernick ran with a level of aggression that has been missing this season, and he finished the game with 68 yards on the ground. It wasn't a perfect performance, but the 49ers kept hitting on chunk plays on third down. San Francisco combined power football with a handful of beautiful vertical tosses from Kaepernick. It was his best game of the season, and it wasn't all because of his strong runs.
Griffin's burst is back. After running for 72 yards in Washington's first four games combined, he's galloped for 161 yards the last two weeks. Most of his passes in the win over the Bears tended to be on first reads in the middle of the field, but that shouldn't take away from the numerous sweet throws he made against Chicago. Griffin held onto the ball more often in the read option and was hit hard a few times. He made people miss as a runner and was more accurate as a passer. It looked like he knew his own speed again. One bad decision aside, it was a clean, confident game. It easily was his best performance since offseason ACL surgery.
Even great quarterbacks often don't have smooth career arcs. It's only natural for Griffin and Kaepernick to hit some pot holes early in the season, but they slowly have been building toward this "turn back the clock" week.
The NFC playoff race will be shaped, in part, by their ability to keep partying like it's 2012.
Now on to the quarterbacks. Remember: These rankings are based on a quarterback's performance this season alone.
Alone at the Top
There's no arguing that Manning is coming off his worst two games of the season in succession. It's ridiculous, however, that one of Manning's worst games of the year included 383 passing yards, three touchdowns and 33 points.
I re-watched every Manning throw on our Game Rewind coaches film, looking closely to see if his arm was affected by the huge hit Robert Mathis laid on him. Yes, Manning underthrew the ball on a few deep throws. He and Demaryius Thomas struggled to take advantage of one-one-one coverage against Vontae Davis. But Manning also converted a number of difficult passes after the hit.
We've been writing for a while that Manning might have the weakest arm of any starting quarterback in the NFL. Some wobbly passes aren't new. The biggest difference in this game was that Manning was under duress. He often was forced to move "off the spot," and he's not going to throw a pretty pass on the move. Denver's running game was awful. The Colts' physical secondary disrupted Denver's timing, like New England's secondary used to disrupt Manning's old Colts teams.
The Colts defense played an outstanding game. They forced three turnovers and still gave up 33 points at home. That's what it's going to take to beat Manning and these Broncos. We wouldn't be too worried about this Broncos offense yet.
The next level after that
6. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
7. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
8. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
9. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
10. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears
11. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
12. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Notes: Ryan had another near-flawless game in the win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I continue to think he's playing just as well this year as one season ago, if not better. ... Wilson's performance in the win over the Arizona Cardinals was one of the best games by a quarterback all season. He was not throwing the ball as well early in the season, but it looks like he might have turned a corner. ... Stafford continues to be a more consistent quarterback week after week. ... Cutler will be taken off the list moving forward because of injury, but he's played like a top 10 quarterback this year. It seems crazy that Bears coach Marc Trestman would consider letting him go.
Knocking on the door
Notes: Newton had just two incompletions Sunday in the win over the St. Louis Rams. One was a drop; the other came at the end of the first half in a desperate situation. This was not a case of Newton throwing a bunch of dump-off passes. He completed a number of difficult throws. One of the NFL's streakiest players is on a hot run. ... Locker played very well overall against the San Francisco 49ers, just like he did early in the season. He paid dearly for one bad decision, but he otherwise showed a lot of toughness and made some eye-opening throws.
Thad Lewis, Buffalo Bills: Buffalo's offense looks no worse with Lewis behind center than it did with Manuel. I'd argue that they have looked slightly better. Lewis throws the occasional "Freeman," a pass that sails 15 yards over his intended target. But he mostly makes good decisions in the pocket, and he has the ability to make a few "wow" plays each week.
Ryan Tannehill: His performance against the Buffalo Bills was one of the worst of his career. He threw a pick six on his first toss of the game and looked a little tentative for a few drives after that. Even in a game where he struggled, Tannehill made a few exceptional plays. But he struggled when his first read was taken away. These games are going to happen occasionally for young quarterbacks.