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QB Index: Top teams struggling in passing game

"The NFL is a passing league."

It's said so often that it's become cliche. Like a lot of cliches, it has the benefit of being mostly true. Mostly.

Many of the teams with the best records this season have struggled to throw the ball. The Chiefs are undefeated despite a mediocre passing attack led by Alex Smith, that can't buy a big play. Andrew Luck's protection and weapons are falling apart. Tom Brady has missed more throws than ever this season, even after you account for his young receiver group. Cincinnati's Andy Dalton is back in one of his prolonged funks.

The four quarterbacks listed above: Your AFC division leaders.

The teams atop the NFC have better passing attacks, but plenty of the top contenders have issues. The 49ers just experienced a game where they gained 46 yards on 28 pass plays. (Essentially they threw the ball like Baltimore runs it every week.)

In Carolina and Seattle, the defense has led the way.

It's still a quarterback league. Teams without a quality option wander from week to week with a stench of hopelessness. But there are other ways to win games. A pass rush is the best place to start.

On to the quarterback rankings. These are based on 2013 performance alone.

Alone at the top


1. Peyton Manning


Manning's season in a nutshell: He throws for 330 yards and four touchdown passes on the road, and it doesn't feel like one of his better games. He's taking more big hits than we're used to. He's also authoring classic two-minute drives like the one before halftime in San Diego.

Next level


2. Drew Brees
3. Aaron Rodgers
4. Philip Rivers

No team, not even the Seahawks, could use homefield advantage more in the playoffs than New Orleans. The Saints' offense breaks records at the Superdome, but it isn't nearly the same outdoors. If only the New York Super Bowl was last year.

Rivers' game against Denver was a reminder of the Chargers' small margin for error. FootballOutsiders ranks San Diego as the worst defense in the league, in large part because they don't create turnovers or negative plays. San Diego's offense relies on third-down conversions, long drives and Rivers fitting passes into small windows. The Bolts had a real chance against the Broncos, but wasted red-zone shots, short-yardage plays and struggled to protect Rivers.

The next level after that


5. Matthew Stafford
6. Andrew Luck
7. Russell Wilson

Luck hardly was the main reason the Colts were manhandled by the Rams, but he still had a rough game. After getting hit a lot early, he sailed a number of passes even when he was protected. We'll have more on the Colts in our Thursday night preview.

Stafford moves to a season-high spot of fifth after another nice performance against Chicago. For the first time in his career, it feels like you know what you are going to get out of Stafford on a weekly basis. (A handful of ridiculous throws included.) An improved running game and offensive line have aided his development.

It's not all the Cowboys' defense


Tony Romo's first five games: 8.1 yards-per-attempt (YPA), with a 72 percent completion rate. He's at 6.36 YPA and 57 percent in the five games since, with zero games over 7 YPA. The rough patch hasn't come against the best pass defenses in the league either. Romo isn't having a bad year. But he will need to have a great year to make up for Dallas' defensive shortcomings.

Worse than the numbers indicate

Luck matters. Nick Foles didn't have a great game in Green Bay despite his incredible stat line. He held the ball too long at times. Two long touchdowns both came off poor throws that could have been picked off. Give Foles credit for pulling the trigger on vertical tries.

Andy Dalton had one of his worst statistical games in Baltimore, but a look at Game Rewind revealed it was even more gruesome. Dalton's two big plays to A.J. Green were both total flukes. Everyone say the Hail Mary. He also had another 43-yard duck that Green came down with. I counted three other passes that could have been picked off.

A few weeks back, there was talk that Dalton had turned a corner. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. It has the last two games.

(Game Rewind, incidentally, is free to try this week. Watch all the games you want. Your ancestors are jealous of your access to coaches film.)

The dumbest storyline of the week


Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman took way too much criticism for not pulling Jay Cutler sooner in last week's 21-19 loss to the Detroit Lions. Cutler made two incredible throws back-to-back to Alshon Jeffery in the third quarter, including a potential touchdown that Jeffery dropped.

In the fourth quarter, the Bears had a touchdown taken away by penalty and replay reversal. The Bears should have been ahead with Cutler in the game. They were outgaining the Lions by almost 100 yards through the air entering the fourth quarter. It was a one-point game with five minutes left.

In hindsight, Trestman probably stuck with Cutler a drive or two too long. But at the time it wasn't so clear. Cutler couldn't throw well on the run, but he didn't give Trestman much reason to pull him until the fourth quarter. It was a tough call because Cutler played at a high level, like he has the whole season. (He's 10th this season in QBR.) Don't we usually celebrate a player when he battles well through an injury?

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