QB Index: 'Hawks-Bucs a matchup to watch

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Kirk Cousins' toss to Pierre Garcon through the teeth of a whipping Washington wind last Sunday night acted as an exorcism. An hour before he asked the question to his boss, Cousins drew America close and screamed in our ear about his newfound vertical prowess: How you like me now?

Cousins is only No. 14 in my season-long rankings below, but that number is marred by a brutal first five weeks that lacked a single positive game. Since Week 6, he's been a top-five quarterback in my hare-brained system, with his deep throws adding a missing piece to his profile. Cousins' raw numbers were better down the stretch last season, but he's a better quarterback during this streak.

I loved everything about Cousins joyously challenging his boss, general manager Scot McCloughan, with his postgame exultation. Yet the question remains unanswered: How does McCloughan like Cousins now?

The next six weeks will go a long way in determining Cousins' future. By continuing the hot streak, Cousins would put incredible pressure on the Redskins to give him a long-term deal -- and the QB would have all the leverage, allowing him to only accept a top-shelf offer ($20 million-plus per season). He knows that big money would be waiting around the free agency corner, so don't assume staying with the Redskins is a done deal yet.

In this week's QB Index, I'll look at what's at stake the rest of the season for starting quarterbacks. For Cousins, it's a boatload of cash and the ability to control the next phase of his career. Six weeks is an eternity in the NFL, plenty of time to prove his boss wrong again and again.

Race for the MVP

1) Tom Brady, New England Patriots (Last week: 1)

2) Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons (LW: 2)

A third MVP trophy for Brady, six full seasons after his second award, would punctuate his ridiculous longevity. As recently as 2013, the Manning-Brady debate divided this nation in two. Now it feels like a dusty relic of our recent past. Brady was the Pro Football Hall of Fame's choice as the starting quarterback for their All-2000s Team and he's on track to be the starter again for the 2010s. He is improbably making more plays than ever with his feet, improvising so many of his big strikes before taking big hits against the 49ers last week.

An MVP for Ryan would forever alter how he's viewed as a player and burnish his Canton chances (don't laugh) one day. More importantly, Ryan is surely desperate for his first playoff action since NaVorro Bowman deflected Atlanta's soul in the red zone to cap the 2012 NFC Championship Game.

Top shelf

3) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (LW: 5)

4) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (LW: 3)

5) Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts (LW: 6)

6) Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions (LW: 4)

7) Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders (LW: 7)

Wilson climbs to his season-high slot as he continues to hit big plays from the pocket. The ability to evade pressure has been an added ingredient the last few weeks, but he doesn't make a meal out of the skill anymore. His stakes are high. Wilson is only now hitting the prime of his prime, surrounded by an entire organization doing the same. The time is now for a second Seahawks title.

Under contract through 2017, Brees' future is less of a question than it was at this time a year ago. If the Saints miss the playoffs for a third straight year, it's not on him.

This season already has established that Luck's disastrous 2015 was an unlucky fluke. Sneaking the Colts back into the playoffs would re-establish that the division still goes through him.

Stafford has done a fantastic job finishing all year. We've stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it would be great to see him finish out his career-best season in style. This is a prime chance to win his first NFC North title -- and nab the Lions' first division crown since 1993, back in the NFC Central days.

Don't tell Raiders fans who are thirsty for playoff success, but Carr might have the least at stake the rest of the way. He's already moved up a level of NFL stardom and made the Raiders relevant again. Everything else will be gravy with a team this young.

Tier should be higher

8) Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys (LW: 10)

9) Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers (LW: 8)

10) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (LW: 12)

11) Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (LW: 9)

12) Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers (LW: 11)

As great as Prescott plays every week, he still has less job security than the rest of the top 12. A two- or three-game slide, which would happen to any mortal rookie, would test the patience of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. (Speaking of thirsty for a title ...) There's no indication a slip will happen to Prescott. His uncanny calm at recognizing pressure, avoiding it and making accurate throws showed up in bushels against Baltimore. Keep it up for six more weeks and Tony Romo will be banished from the kingdom come winter.

Rivers carries more baggage than Prescott, not to mention diapers. Rivers probably needs the Chargers to win out in order to avoid another season without the playoffs and offseason of uncertainty. The team's next home -- and head coach -- could be up for grabs. Rodgers is in a similar place. There is sentiment the Packers would never dump Mike McCarthy after one poor season, but finishing the year on a 1-9 or 2-8 skid would challenge midseason logic. Rodgers and the entire offense have played quite well the last three weeks -- if you just ignore the first three drives of each game. I still expect Rodgers to do enough to save the only coach he's ever had as a starter.

Big Ben's career is becoming reminiscent of Brady's, just on a smaller scale. Roethlisberger's individual brilliance and most explosive offenses have only improved as his team has found less relative success. This Roethlisberger campaign, complete with its usual midseason injury and dip, feels too familiar.

We stuck a fork in the Panthers on Tuesday's Around the NFL Podcast, in large part because of the team's schedule and injuries. Newton has played better than his numbers indicate, but it would be nice to see him develop consistency with his young receivers before hitting the offseason.

Tier on a roll

13) Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans (LW: 13)

14) Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins (LW: 16)

15) Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (LW: 14)

These three all have played like top-10 quarterbacks over the last month, with rocky starts to the season weighing their overall rankings down. While Cousins' future remains uncertain, Mariota and Winston should be with their respective teams for a decade-plus. Taking part in their first playoff race would be a nice bonus in what's been a strong second year of development for both players.

Mixed bag in the middle

16) Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills (LW: 15)

17) Sam Bradford, Minnesota Vikings (LW: 18)

18) Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals (LW: 17)

19) Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals (LW: 21)

20) Eli Manning, New York Giants (LW: 22)

21) Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs (LW: 20)

22) Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles (LW: 19)

23) Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins (LW: 23)

24) Trevor Siemian, Denver Broncos (LW: 24)

25) Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens (LW: 25)

Tyrod's contract extension before the season gives the Bills stability. Barring a late-season collapse, it's hard to see Buffalo shaking up the coaching staff or quarterback position. Taylor has earned his keep.

Bradford's situation is unique because no one knows when Teddy Bridgewater will be back on the field. The Vikings traded for Bradford in part because he's under contract in 2017. If Bradford continues to play at this level, he'll be the favorite to start for them next season. Bridgewater will have to show he's ready to play again and play at a high level. Consider it a "good problem" if the Vikings suddenly have too many starting quarterbacks.

The next six weeks will be among the most challenging of Dalton's career. He was receiving less support from his teammates than ever before -- and that was before losing A.J. Green and Gio Bernard to injury.

Nothing would surprise me about Palmer's future. He's guaranteed a big salary next season, but he's always ranked high on the "Guys who could retire out of nowhere" list.

Smith has not played as well this season as a year ago. It's hard to imagine the Chiefs finding competition for him, but a rough end to the year should at least have them making quarterback a bigger priority in the draft.

Eli, who has played well two of three games since the Giants' bye, will probably sneak into the playoffs with nine wins by less than seven points, then go on to earn his third Super Bowl MVP.

Ryan Tannehill and Adam Gase's marriage remains in wait-and-see mode, despite the team's winning streak. How Tannehill plays down the stretch could impact how aggressively the Dolphins peep the quarterback market in the offseason.

Uncertain futures

26) Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears (LW: 26)

27) Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers (LW: 27)

28) Ryan Fitzpatrick, New York Jets (LW: 28)

29) Cody Kessler, Cleveland Browns (LW: 29)

30) Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars (LW: 31)

31) Brock Osweiler, Houston Texans (LW: 32)

32) Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams (LW: NR)

This season has been an extended audition for Kaepernick, and it's going better every week. He's not exactly "back," but he's showing enough to get an RGIII-like contract if he becomes a free agent in the offseason. Kaepernick can void his contract in the offseason and the 49ers are probably ready to move on, as well.

Cutler is listed one final time this season for posterity. He'll be featured prominently when we look at the likely free-agent market. Just know this: He'll get offers (plural) and it won't surprise me if he is a Week 1 starter somewhere next season. Fitzpatrick is essentially auditioning for other jobs, too, although there's not much he could do to change his value. His last five years of tape will keep him employed, just not as a starter.

Osweiler needs to show the Texans more during this stretch or it's fair to wonder if they will open up his job to competition in the offseason -- if not consider giving Tom Savage a look late this season. Bortles is in a similar situation. The next Jaguars coaching staff probably will want an alternative to compete with him, but it would help Bortles immensely to finish this season with some positive tape.

This also could be the last time Kessler is ranked. He played well enough to be in the mix for a long-term backup job in Cleveland, but the Browns should invest heavily at quarterback in the draft again.

Any experience for Goff should be a learning experience. You just hope all his starts don't look like his first one. There's also a chance Goff is earning experience in a system that will be junked in the offseason, like Rams offenses tend to be every few seasons.

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