We cover the biggest storylines each week in the Quarterback Index and rank the position based on this year's play alone.
That throw, and the ensuing controversy over the lack of a penalty on the play, obscured an electric performance by Cam Newton and an equally significant one by Brady. The New England Patriots' offense is back.
I was hesitant to place too much importance on Brady's explosion against the Pittsburgh Steelers before New England's bye. It was one flawless performance after a half-season's worth of struggles. New England's success against the Carolina Panthers shows that we can expect Brady to finish strong.
Facing the top defense in the league, the Patriots put up 28 first downs and 390 yards in just seven drives. Their shortest drive was eight plays, and that went for a touchdown. The Pats survived losing a fumble inside Carolina's 10-yard line. They settled for a field goal in the fourth quarter after a disastrous play call on third-and-1 inside the 10. Yet Brady and Co. were still in position to win the game on the road against a top-five NFL team. (Yes, the Panthers are that good.)
The Patriots are running the ball well. Brady, who relies so much on timing and anticipation with his receivers, looks like himself again, with Shane Vereen, Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski all healthy again.
Brady has to be better because New England's defense is hemorrhaging players and is looking weaker by the week. The Patriots' only chance to beat the Denver Broncos this week is to win in a shootout. It took half a season, but they look capable of putting together huge offensive performances once again.
'04 class rises
Philip Rivers has spent most of this season outshining his 2004 classmates, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. (I imagine Rivers is sending them derogatory texts, with Eli and Ben replying with pictures of their Super Bowl rings.)
With the stretch run upon us, Big Ben and Manning are rounding into form. Roethlisberger has played much better than Manning all season, and Roethlisberger is starting to peak. He came out against Detroit in full control with a sensational first half. Slower than ever on scrambles, Roethlisberger is doing a better job moving inside the pocket; he's looking more comfortable in Todd Haley's offense. His 93-yard drive against Detroit could turn Pittsburgh's season around.
Eli had his best game of the season against the Green Bay Packers. It's a game I've been waiting to see, one in which he doesn't make a couple of crippling, mind-melting throws. Eli has tossed in a handful of great passes every week, but this was his cleanest game of the season.
A preseason question, answered
I was asked the same question on radio stations all offseason: Of the young quarterback crop, who is most likely to take a step back this season? My answer was a cop-out: Robert Griffin III, because he's coming off a torn ACL.
After 10 games, we have an answer. It's Colin Kaepernick and RGIII. Griffin's play has been worse than his numbers indicate. Kaepernick is averaging roughly 4 yards per attempt the last two weeks. Kaepernick is still capable of big games, and he makes a handful of gorgeous passes most weeks. He did it against the Saints, but he's not reacting well to pressure overall.
Kubiak's strange call
After watching Oakland-Houston, Texans coach Gary Kubiak's decision to pull Case Keenum looks even more bizarre. Keenum was not having a poor game. The Texans had 192 yards of offense and a lead at halftime.
The offensive line played poorly, Garrett Graham lost a fumble, Andre Johnson dropped a third-down pass and the defense was getting knocked around by Matt McGloin and Rashad Jennings. So naturally the inclination was to bench Keenum?
Matt Schaub made more bad throws in his first three drives than Keenum did for two and a half quarters. Kubiak blamed Keenum's benching on handling Oakland's blitz and setting protection, but that was only an issue on a couple of plays. Keenum has played very well the last month, which is probably why Andre Johnson was so upset.
Losing with Schaub at the helm was a sad moment in a wildly depressing season. It felt like the end of something.
Finally, we're on to the rankings. These are based on 2013 play alone.
Alone at the top
The only way to disrupt this Broncos offense is with pressure. New England just doesn't have the personnel to pull it off this week.
Brees is so impressive at finding throwing lanes and open receivers in a crowded pocket. Brees and Sean Payton are incredible at finding roles for receivers in their system. In San Diego, Robert Meachem was an abject bust. In New Orleans, he's back to averaging more than 25 yards per catch. Perhaps that's only one big play or two per game, but it's helped the Saints' offense a great deal.
The next level after that
Newton is coming off one of his best games of the season. The craziest part about the Panthers' turnaround this season is that their offense isn't particularly better this year. Explosive plays are way down. It's a conservative attack that allows the defense to win games. Newton is more consistent overall, but he still misses four to five open throws every week. He also mixes in plays that no other quarterback can make, and he's avoided making bad decisions. He's so difficult to deal with on third downs and short-yardage situations.
Newton is better than he was one year ago, but the improvement is incremental. He was close to being a top-10 quarterback last season, too. This is the highest Wilson, Newton, Roethlisberger and Brady have been ranked all season.