It took 15 weeks, but the NFC finally has shaken out like all of those boring preseason prognostications. The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are the two best teams, regardless of how the 49ers are seeded. Colin Kaepernick's improvement is a big reason why.
Kaepernick is averaging 8.07 yards per attempt over the last month, with seven touchdown passes and one interception. He's making better decisions when to run. As his coach Jim Harbaugh pointed out, Kaepernick also has shown a "Houdini-like" ability to escape pressure and make impossible throws on the move.
The third-year pro is far from a finished product, but the 49ers have settled into a nice rhythm calling plays for Kaepernick. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has grown more creative with his formations in recent weeks after Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham returned to the lineup. The team is deploying running backs Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James well behind Frank Gore, who is running as hard as ever. In short: They look like the 2012 49ers. (And that's not even mentioning Aldon Smith, who is all the way back.)
The 49ers' recent penchant for ripping off long, soul-destroying drives has a lot to do with Kaepernick's play on third downs. He does not need to carry this team, but he's playing his part with more confidence lately.
This is a team, and a quarterback, that is quite capable of getting back to the Super Bowl. Seattle should be hoping for any other divisional-round opponent.
On to the rankings. These rankings are based on quarterback play in 2013 alone.
Alone at the top
It is ridiculous to hear all of the arguments stretching to find other candidates for the MVP award. Manning has 13 more touchdown passes than Drew Brees and 18 more than the third-place quarterback. He's going to set the all-time touchdown passes record for a single season. The MVP race is over.
I also like the idea that the San Diego Chargers found the "blueprint" for beating Denver. Yes, any team that has a top-five quarterback, a top-five running game and an ability to dominate on third downs also can take down the Broncos. Good luck with that blueprint.
Rivers was in my top three as far back as Week 4, and he's stayed in the top five quarterbacks ever since. It was nice to see the faith rewarded with a great performance on a national stage in Denver, but it was an average Rivers game this season. The Chargers' defense just showed up for once.
Brady played one of his best games in Miami despite the ending. He moved the ball all day despite no Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Dobson or Kenbrell Thompkins. Brady also had terrible protection, but he moved in the pocket well and completed a number of low-percentage darts. He's having the best second half this season of any quarterback. ... Brees is not the same quarterback away from home. His shaky protection figures to be a problem this week in Carolina.
Newton moves up after a strong performance against the Jets. He's mixing in a lot of tough completions with smart decisions. He knows when to slide, when to throw the ball away and when to take a calculated risk. Give offensive coordinator Mike Shula some credit for that. It's not a good sign when Greg Olsen is the team's best deep threat, but the Panthers make it work. Newton doesn't get enough love for hanging in the pocket until the last second. He never seems worried about taking a hit.
Jay Cutler's performance against Cleveland was not impressive despite his stats. He wasn't that accurate, and his best play came on a prayer to Alshon Jeffery, who has a way of answering those. Cutler looked a beat late on a lot of throws, whereas Josh McCown often hit receivers in stride. The running game carried Chicago, and Cutler wasn't asked to do that much. The commentary that Cutler "proved Marc Trestman right" was silly. The Bears can win with either quarterback, but Cutler needs to play better for Chicago the next two weeks.
These players are listed in no particular order, as Ryan Tannehill could be above both of them in my year-end rankings. I've spent the better part of this season trying to talk myself into Stafford like so many "Arrested Development" fans tried to convince themselves they liked season four (and with that, I've satisfied my need for one pop culture reference per year). Stafford is nothing if not unreliable. You never know when the boneheaded decision or inaccurate throw is coming.
Romo's performance against Green Bay probably represented his best game since Week 5. It's not a great sign when your best performance includes a ton of missed deep shots, red-zone problems, two killer interceptions in the final four minutes of a tight game and gets included on a list of most painful losses. Romo had multiple chances to win the game with a good throw, including a bomb to Dez Bryant, and he missed.
Romo has been an underrated player for most of his career and remains an above-average starter. But his worst two seasons in the NFL have been his last two seasons.