QB Index: Cam Newton's uneven career; MVP race

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Cam Newton's career is hard to talk about. Let's talk about him.

After five years of hot takes and silly sideline-demeanor stories, Newton reached the individual pinnacle of the sport last February 6, becoming a near-unanimous choice for MVP, earning 48 of 50 votes. Von Miller and friends made sure Newton was knocked off his perch the following day.

This depressing 2016 season to follow makes some strange logic in a career defined by streaks. His three previous year-end rankings and current 2016 slot in my admittedly-subjective QB grading tells part of the story: 8, 14, 1, 14. This is a man who doesn't do anything halfway -- like his franchise as a whole. Cam and the Panthers are either the hottest story in the sport or circling into the abyss.

The usual caveats apply to Cam's current predicament. His offensive line has not protected him well and his receivers don't make enough plays for him. Carolina has allowed its once-fierce running game to atrophy. The Panthers ask Newton to consistently make more difficult throws than his counterparts because of his arm strength -- and he usually complies. He's better than the numbers show. And yet ...

Newton has an accuracy problem. It has come and gone in a way that doesn't happen to most top-shelf quarterbacks. His passes in Seattle last week, so often thrown off his back foot, sailed high and wide. Cam reined in these struggles last season, and he often makes up for them with his incredible assets as a runner, but even his most ardent defenders (ahem) should admit the problem.

Cam will turn things around eventually. He'll set the league ablaze again in a career unlike any we've seen because he's a player unlike any we've seen. We'll continue to get distracted by silly tie stories because it's a lot easier than trying to figure out his game.

This is the Quarterback Index. The rankings are based on this season's play alone. For our rankings at the three-quarter mark, we've included comments on all 32 quarterbacks.

Race for the MVP

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

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

3) Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts (LW: 4)

4) Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders (LW: 5)

Brady and Bill Belichick usually aren't about those records, but it was cool to see how much they savored record-setting victory No. 201 for Brady as a starter. Brady even revealed his favorite win of them all: the Super Bowl comeback victory against Seattle sealed by Malcolm Butler. Start No. 1 in this post-Gronk portion of the season showed a less-explosive Patriots attack that will struggle to stretch the field. Losing Danny Amendola only limits the options further, with Baltimore and Denver next up on the schedule.

The Falcons have been the anti-Raiders, quietly blowing four fourth-quarter leads this season. Eric Berry's pick-six and pick-two against Ryan might have knocked him out of MVP consideration for most voters, but we couldn't knock the most sharply consistent quarterback in football any further down the list. Don't knock him if he makes it look easy and don't forget he still has the highest yards-per-attempt mark of any quarterback since Aaron Rodgers' MVP season of 2011.

Peak Andrew Luck might just out-rank Peak Anyone Else. He still has a chance to finish No. 1 in my hare-brained grading system because he's playing smarter and connecting on throws that few others would try.

It's almost as if Carr tries to fall way behind now, just so he can show off. The Raiders creatively changed their offense because of Carr's finger injury, not lining him up under center one time against Buffalo. They also broke out the pistol formation for the first time all season, and they did it for more than 25 percent of his snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. It worked beautifully, looking like a hybrid of Carr's Fresno State offense and the Raiders' attack. Drops caused a slow start in the game; Carr was great throughout.

Top shelf

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

6) Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions (LW: 7)

7) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (LW: 6)

8) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (LW: 9)

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

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

Brees leading the Saints to just 13 points against the Lions in the Superdome ranks as one of the most surprising performances of the season. (Surprising in a Brees is still a 37-year-old human sort of way.)

Stafford is so tough to stop on third-and-long because he is difficult to take down and is delivering the ball very well against pressure. So many of his big plays in New Orleans came after eluding pass rushers or ignoring them entirely as he delivered from the pocket.

If Cam Newton's career arc looks like the results of a nervous lie-detector test, Russell Wilson's is a rolling hill that you can drive through with the whole family. His year-end rankings in this column since 2013: 6, 8, 4 and now headed for another high finish. This Seahawks team and offense belongs to Wilson more than ever -- and it wouldn't be a shock if they don't lose again until the 2017 season.

As the weeks wear on, we are slowly beginning to forget the hazy era of "What's wrong with Aaron Rodgers?" thinkpieces.

This is a big month for Dak Prescott. The Vikings did a terrific job sending exotic blitzes his way and Prescott mostly impressed by knowing what passes not to throw. Even in a sluggish Cowboys performance, Dak keyed the win by changing the play at the line of scrimmage on Dez Bryant's touchdown and making incredible athletes like Anthony Barr look plodding as he made them miss on scrambles. One fly in the ointment to watch: Only two quarterbacks have fumbled more than Dak this season.

The new Ben is boring, to his credit. After a season of extreme highs and lows, the calculated version of Roethlisberger we've seen the last three weeks is a nice change of pace.

Tier should be higher

11) Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers (LW: 10)

12) Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans (LW: 14)

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

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

15) Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins (LW: 13)

This tier is proof that the quarterback position is deeper than ever despite occasional hand-wringing. All of these players' seasons would be worthy of a top-10 slot in many other years.

An otherwise-heroic effort by Rivers to carry an injury-plagued roster has been marred by backbreaking interceptions to lose San Diego's previous two home games. It has been a season of what-ifs. Before his final pick Sunday, Rivers threw one of the most impressive passes all season on a third down under intense pressure. Travis Benjamin dropped what would have been a 79-yard touchdown. It's been that kind of season for the Chargers and we only hope Rivers gets a chance to make it right in San Diego again.

The word that comes to mind with Marcus Mariota is clean. He's clean in the red zone. He's been clean in his decision making after a rough September. Even the mustache was clean while it lasted.

Winston plays more like Big Ben by the week, impossible to take down and impossible to predict how he'll create plays that weren't there. He also has an obvious connection with his teammates that wasn't necessarily there for Roethlisberger early in his career. Winston plays with joy.

Cousins was one of my lowest-graded quarterbacks through Week 5 and then a top-eight signal-caller from Week 5 through 12. Hopefully his step back in the desert isn't an omen for a slump to come.

Middle of the pack

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

17) Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals (LW: 20)

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

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

20) Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs (LW: 23)

An optimist could see the next month as a chance for Dalton and his young receivers (Tyler Boyd and Cody Core) to develop game chemistry together that will only make Cincy stronger when A.J. Green is back next season.

There has been a lot of speculation that Palmer is cooked and could retire after the season. His quality play over the last three weeks says otherwise. He was building toward his excellent outing against the Redskins for a few weeks where he was not at fault for Arizona's losses. My five lowest-graded Palmer games of this season all came in Week 8 or before. Bruce Arians says the QB's not going anywhere, so would Palmer really pass up a fully guaranteed $15.5 million salary in 2017?

Taylor's game in Oakland showed his brilliance and his limitations. The Bills have the No. 1 rushing attack and never turn the ball over, but Taylor can't seem to make a play in the passing game when the team absolutely needs it. He hasn't broken his tendency to leave a clean pocket. The game reminded me so much of Buffalo's loss in Philly last year where Taylor's late inaccuracy essentially ended the team's playoff hopes.

Watching Vikings games makes me want to repeat to Sam Bradford "It's not your fault" over and over, although hopefully if wouldn't end in a tearful hug.

The Chiefs are suddenly fun to watch, although that's more to do with Alex Smith's talented teammates than the quarterback himself. At least the Chiefs were willing to take a few shots on a poor secondary in Atlanta, something Smith should continue to try this week against Oakland.

Mixed bag

21) Eli Manning, New York Giants (LW: 21)

22) Trevor Siemian, Denver Broncos (LW: 22)

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

24) Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins (LW: 19)

25) Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles (LW: 24)

At least the Giants are trying to go deep more often lately. Eli just hasn't been able to connect and they have reached the portion of the schedule where Manning's decline from last season will show up more.

Paxton Lynch's struggles in his two starts this season help to illuminate how underrated Siemian has played in difficult circumstances. The Broncos have one of the shakiest offensive line/running game combinations in football, a disastrous environment for a young quarterback. Wentz knows all about facing those kind of obstacles. These weekly lessons, even when painful, should pay off for the Eagles' young QB next season. His mechanical issues are a concern, but compared to Eli's rookie season in the NFC East, Wentz is flying high.

We'll never quite understand why the Ravens have turned one of the NFL's biggest arms into a dink-and-dunk quarterback. With that said, Joe Flacco Elite Truthers should be optimistic that his horizontal offense finally got straightened out against Miami.

One rough outing in Baltimore against one of the league's best defenses doesn't erase Tannehill's weeks of progress, but it's safe to say he hasn't answered the eternal Tannequestion: Can he make players around him better?

Known unknowns

26) Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers (LW: 26)

27) Matt Barkley, Chicago Bears (LW: 31)

28) Ryan Fitzpatrick, New York Jets (LW: 27)

29) Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars (LW: 29)

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

31) Josh McCown, Cleveland Browns (LW: 30)

32) Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams (LW: 28)

As the old saying goes, you have to be pretty good to throw for four yards and get sacked five times without losing your starting job for good. Kaepernick can get his ultimate revenge on general manager Trent Baalke by beating the Jets and erasing any chance for the 49ers to get the No. 1 pick.

We're going to wait a few weeks before crowning Barkley, but he has at least guaranteed another five years of employment in the NFL as a backup with these solid spot starts. At this point, Barkley is just making guys like Bortles and Osweiler look bad in comparison because he's stepped off the street, off the practice squad and into the starting lineup like he belongs.

We're listing Fitzpatrick one final time for posterity. He probably won't ever be a Week 1 starter -- or start 10 games in a season -- again over the duration of his fascinating career. Still, Jets fans might soon find out why Bryce Petty was on the bench for so long.

The Jaguars are almost certain to have a new coach in town next season. That's who will decide if Bortles will remain the starter, but he needs competition, at the least.

Robert Griffin III is expected to take over the Browns' slot in the rankings next week. It's worth noting that McCown appeared to be at the end of the line in his appearances. A future in coaching awaits, if he wants it.

A rookie quarterback facing off against Bill Belichick is like a toddler taking the SATs. Goff has a problem with pressure, so expect teams to continue blitzing. Two of his three starts have been bad-weather games and he hasn't reacted well. Drops hurt him in New England, but throwing 3 yards on third-and-eight is never a winning strategy.

The lowest moment in a low season for Osweiler came through the press. It's never a good sign when a team owner tells everyone to leave his starter alone. We know what Bob McNair was getting at. There have been signs of small progress from Osweiler the last three weeks, but this is grading on a serious curve.

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