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NFL QB Index, Week 18: Matthew Stafford remains a roller-coaster ride, while Joe Burrow hits top three

This is just who Matthew Stafford is. The breathtaking fireshow against the Cardinals. The ridiculous throws that can only be appreciated from the end zone angle. The interceptions into triple coverage when there are receivers open underneath. The throws you can't teach. The mistakes that dug his team a hole in Baltimore and the fourth-quarter comeback to climb out of the hole. All of it.

This is who he was in Detroit, and that's not a bad thing. He's box office and a big enough upgrade at quarterback for the Rams to make them a top-five Super Bowl contender. But changing locales didn't fundamentally change who he was as a player.

One of the primary objectives of the QB Index is to attempt to separate and evaluate a quarterback from his surroundings. It's an impossible goal to perfect because playing quarterback -- playing football -- is so interconnected that there is no full separation. Stafford influences what his teammates and coaches can do, and they change him right back. From year to year and team to team, though, Stafford's baseline is not so different, even if the standings change.

I took a look at his year-end QB Index rankings to see where he landed. Over the previous five years, he's finished eighth, eighth, 16th, eighth and 13th. He's ranked ninth below. His Pro Football Focus grade is right around his average of the last five years, too. This is partly why I've found the Hall of Fame arguments for Stafford laughable while also believing he's good enough to win a Super Bowl with the right surroundings. He has those surroundings this season. Just don't expect him to be a different quarterback in a four-game, single-elimination tournament than he's been for over a decade.

NOTE: Up/down arrows illustrate movement from the Week 17 QB Index. Rankings include each team's starting quarterback from the previous game, based solely on 2021 play.

Rank
1
Aaron Rodgers
Green Bay Packers · Year 17

2021 stats: 15 games | 68.6 pct | 3,977 pass yds | 7.8 ypa | 35 pass TD | 4 INT | 94 rush yds | 3 rush TD | 3 fumbles


Rodgers put the finishing touches on what will likely be his fourth MVP award on Sunday night against the Vikings. If you think he’s not keeping track, just watch his exchange with Peyton Manning on the ManningCast when he asks if anyone has five. (Eli missed the sarcasm.) It’s hard to separate Rodgers and Brady this season. While the interceptions are uneven, Brady and Rodgers rank second and third overall, respectively, in lowest turnover-worthy play percentage, according to PFF. They are both plenty careful. Rodgers has the slight edge for me in week-to-week consistency, even if his highs aren’t quite as high as Brady's. His reading taste might not be mature, but his playing style is.

Rank
2
Tom Brady
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · Year 22

2021 stats: 16 games | 66.9 pct | 4,990 pass yds | 7.3 ypa | 40 pass TD | 12 INT | 81 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 4 fumbles


The Bucs had the ball at their own 30-yard-line, needing a touchdown, with 58 seconds remaining and no timeouts. Three plays and 43 seconds later, all with the clock running, Brady capped one of the best game-winning drives of his career. (And his fifth of the season.) He may not win MVP, but that was an MVP moment. 


Brady is winning by targeting 2021 Gronk and throwing opposite-hash lasers to Cyril Grayson and Tyler Johnson. The seven-time champ leads the NFL in yards, touchdowns, PFF's big-time throws and sack percentage, and it’s somehow so expected at age 44 that no one acts remotely surprised. 

Rank
3
1
Joe Burrow
Cincinnati Bengals · Year 2

2021 stats: 16 games | 70.4 pct | 4,611 pass yds | 8.9 ypa | 34 pass TD | 14 INT | 118 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 5 fumbles


Zac Taylor is finally leaning on his passing game, resulting in two of the best offensive performances by any team all year. We can rightfully laud Burrow for his accuracy and ability to evade rushers, but it's his clear thinking -- as a second-year player -- that really stands out. He so rarely makes the wrong decision, and his ability to respond when down two touchdowns three different times to the Chiefs was amazing. I would not have believed that Joe Burrow vs. Justin Herbert long-term (much less Burrow vs. Patrick Mahomes or Lamar Jackson) would be a debate already, but here we are.  

Rank
4
1
Justin Herbert
Los Angeles Chargers · Year 2

2021 stats: 16 games | 67.3 pct | 4,631 pass yds | 7.6 ypa | 35 pass TD | 14 INT | 301 rush yds | 3 rush TD | 1 fumble


Vic Fangio and the Broncos defense did a better job stymieing Herbert in Week 17 than the box score showed. The difference between the disappointing loss in Denver in Week 12 and Sunday's win was the Chargers' defense continuing to get Herbert the ball back before he settled in. 


Whether that’s a sign of growth for this erratic Chargers squad or a matter of L.A. just getting on the right side of the COVID-19 list, who can truly tell? Just more unanswerable questions in this bizarre season. This much I know: If Herbert plays his best in Vegas on Sunday, he will start his first playoff game the following week. 

Rank
5
1
Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs · Year 5

2021 stats: 16 games | 66.6 pct | 4,569 pass yds | 7.4 ypa | 35 pass TD | 13 INT | 327 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 9 fumbles


Mahomes’ best three-game stretch of the 2021 campaign? His last three games -- and it’s not close. His passes are more consistently on point, and the game has slowed down for him again. Mahomes’ play and an O-line proving to have incredible depth make me higher on the Chiefs’ title chances than at any point this season. I give him a slight edge over Kyler Murray on this list because of Murray’s three missed games.

Rank
6
1
Kyler Murray
Arizona Cardinals · Year 3

2021 stats: 13 games | 69 pct | 3,547 pass yds | 8.0 ypa | 23 pass TD | 10 INT | 388 rush yds | 5 rush TD | 13 fumbles


When the Cardinals needed a play Sunday, Murray ran. His four first downs rushing against the Cowboys were massive, and the big-time throws he made outside of structure were even more fun. It still felt like Murray was fighting uphill, needing extraordinary efforts to keep the chains moving. He needs James Conner and Rondale Moore back to win in the playoffs, but his performance in Dallas was one to build off

Rank
7
2
Josh Allen
Buffalo Bills · Year 4

2021 stats: 16 games | 64.1 pct | 4,168 pass yds | 6.9 ypa | 34 pass TD | 15 INT | 700 rush yds | 6 rush TD | 8 fumbles


The highs are intro-worthy. The lows -- Allen threw three picks and completed less than half his passes for 120 yards against the Falcons -- are perplexing. Every full Bills drive Sunday ended with an interception or a touchdown, which also shows Allen's high floor. On days when he's misfiring, his rushing ability (81 yards and two scores vs. Atlanta) keeps the Bills offense rolling enough to beat bad teams. His season rushing total is a career high, and he leads the league in yards per carry (6.0).

Rank
8
2
Derek Carr
Las Vegas Raiders · Year 8

2021 stats: 16 games | 69.2 pct | 4,618 pass yds | 7.8 ypa | 21 pass TD | 14 INT | 109 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 12 fumbles


Carr has five interceptions and four fumbles in the last four games combined, often trying to do too much because of the shortcomings around him. He's also led the Raiders to five walk-off wins this year, doing his best work late in fourth quarters. His third-and-10 completion to Hunter Renfrow in the game's final minute on Sunday was one of the best quarterback plays of the season.

Rank
9
1
Matthew Stafford
Los Angeles Rams · Year 13

2021 stats: 16 games | 67.3 pct | 4,648 pass yds | 8.2 ypa | 38 pass TD | 15 INT | 43 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 5 fumbles


Does Stafford get credit for overcoming his three brutal turnovers with two precise fourth-quarter touchdown drives to win the game or blame for putting his team in that position? The Cardinals game was not a turning point in Stafford's season, just part of a roller coaster with extraordinary highs and depressing lows, sometimes in the same afternoon.

Rank
10
1
Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · Year 6

2021 stats: 15 games | 68.4 pct | 4,154 pass yds | 7.3 ypa | 32 pass TD | 10 INT | 146 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 14 fumbles


The Cowboys were willing to use Dak's legs late against the Cardinals, which bodes well for the future. The rest of the game left me asking what's missing in their passing attack, like a lot of Cowboys games lately. Vance Joseph did a good job mixing coverages, and Prescott was again not his early-season accurate self. Dallas was not able to take advantage of mismatches on the outside. That was partly due to some fluky batted passes, but Prescott has struggled to stay in rhythm.

Rank
11
1
Ryan Tannehill
Tennessee Titans · Year 10

2021 stats: 16 games | 66.9 pct | 3,447 pass yds | 6.9 ypa | 17 pass TD | 14 INT | 272 rush yds | 7 rush TD | 10 fumbles


Tannehill is a mudder. Put this man in rain, sleet, snow or behind a leaky offensive line, and he stands tall. It's the little things. He sells fakes so well and makes good decisions on when to run. After two years where Tannehill wasn't quite as good as his MVP-stratosphere numbers showed, he's so much better than his counting stats this season.

Rank
12
3
Russell Wilson
Seattle Seahawks · Year 10

2021 stats: 13 games | 62.5 pct | 2,875 pass yds | 7.7 ypa | 22 pass TD | 5 INT | 178 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 5 fumbles


Wilson hasn't played as well snap-to-snap as the raw numbers indicate, but it's also hard to ignore how those stats are real spiffy for a down year. It was nice to see Wilson throw to D.K. Metcalf when he was covered, and it was even nicer to see Wilson going deep against foolish Cover-0 looks, same as it ever was. Wilson's athleticism may not be what it once was, but the touch on those deep passes is still beautiful.

Rank
13
1
Mac Jones
New England Patriots · Rookie

2021 stats: 16 games | 67.6 pct | 3,540 pass yds | 7.2 ypa | 21 pass TD | 12 INT | 125 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 6 fumbles


The Patriots led 34-3 before Jones threw his third incompletion Sunday. Yes, the opponent must be taken into account. But if the takeaway is that Jones fillets bad defenses, well, that's a great sign for a rookie. He's above average in nearly every metric, another great sign for a rookie. When Jones has open receivers, he sees them quickly and delivers. He has no clue how to celebrate, but that too can improve with time.

Rank
14
2
Jalen Hurts
Philadelphia Eagles · Year 2

2021 stats: 15 games | 61.3 pct | 3,144 pass yds | 7.3 ypa | 16 pass TD | 9 INT | 784 rush yds | 10 rush TD | 9 fumbles


Sunday's win was one of Hurts' best performances of the year because a lot was working against him. His defense couldn't get off the field and he only had seven full drives. The run game wasn't clicking. His offensive line was struggling for once. Hurts overcame it all with a clean, accurate game that included some fantastic efforts on third down. It's an encouraging hint of Hurts' development that he can lift his teammates and play winning football even when the flash is turned down.

Rank
15
2
Matt Ryan
Atlanta Falcons · Year 14

2021 stats: 16 games | 67.4 pct | 3,752 pass yds | 7.1 ypa | 19 pass TD | 11 INT | 80 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 10 fumbles


My favorite Matt Ryan moment of the year was ruined by the over-enforced taunting rule. Ryan scrambled for a touchdown and let safety Jordan Poyer know about it afterward, which Matt Ryan should absolutely be allowed to do every time he scores a rushing touchdown. Unfortunately, it was ruled upon review that he was down just short of the goal line, the penalty still counted, the Falcons were backed up 15 yards and the game was essentially over. Let’s do better as a society. 

Rank
16
3
Carson Wentz
Indianapolis Colts · Year 6

2021 stats: 16 games | 62.6 pct | 3,378 pass yds | 6.9 ypa | 26 pass TD | 6 INT | 198 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 7 fumbles


Over the last three weeks, Wentz has sandwiched two of his worst games of the year around one of his best, the win in Arizona. And while it's tempting to say this is par for the course, Wentz hasn't been that type of player for most of the year. Colts Wentz was mostly predictable, if unspectacular. Adding this level of "Who the hell knows?" at this stage of the season is destabilizing.

Rank
17
2
Tua Tagovailoa
Miami Dolphins · Year 2

2021 stats: 12 games | 67.8 pct | 2,544 pass yds | 7.0 ypa | 15 pass TD | 10 INT | 90 rush yd | 3 rush TD | 9 fumbles


It's distressing that Tua gets worse as he gets more aggressive. The driving rain in Nashville didn't help, but Tagovailoa struggled to throw on the move. His decision-making since the bye may be a bigger concern than his throws. I still believe Tua's ceiling is higher than people realize, but these last three weeks have not made the Dolphins' offseason decision easier. Consider it a bad sign they brought in Jacoby Brissett for a play to stretch the field in a way Tua can't.

Rank
18
NR
Tyler Huntley
Baltimore Ravens · Year 2

2021 stats: 6 games | 67.5 pct | 940 pass yds | 6.0 ypa | 3 pass TD | 2 INT | 222 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 3 fumbles


He is so obviously an NFL quarterback and would hold up as a starter if ever asked to run the Ravens for an extended stretch. The Rams tape will be painful for Huntley to watch because he played a strong game overall that could have been great if he just executed a few plays near the goal line better. I love his ability late in the second quarter to respond to an interception with a stellar hurry-up drive, and I love the faith John Harbaugh shows in his young QB. Huntley's been a revelation.

Rank
19
NR
Trey Lance
San Francisco 49ers · Rookie

2021 stats: 6 games | 57.7 pct | 603 pass yds | 8.5 ypa | 5 pass TD | 2 INT | 168 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 0 fumbles


Lance's second career start was sluggish at times, but the numbers look great in retrospect. The previous sentence also describes the majority of quarterback starts in the Kyle Shanahan era. Lance warmed up as the game went along and offers different elements as a runner and downfield passer. I want to see him against the Rams, and Shanahan should, too.

Rank
20
1
Baker Mayfield
Cleveland Browns · Year 4

2021 stats: 14 games | 60.5 pct | 3,010 pass yds | 7.2 ypa | 17 pass TD | 13 INT | 134 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 6 fumbles


Coach Kevin Stefanski told Peyton Manning that the Browns intended to throw the Steelers out of playing base formations. Pittsburgh, like New England, disrespected Mayfield enough to play heavy personnel all game, daring Cleveland to pass against seemingly advantageous man-to-man matchups. Stefanski kept taking the bait, again. It kept failing, again. Mayfield misfired and held the ball too long. It felt like Stefanski was using the game as one final piece of evaluation before trading Baker in the offseason. Case Keenum will mercifully start in Week 18.

Rank
21
NR
Andy Dalton
Chicago Bears · Year 11

2021 stats: 7 games | 61.7 pct | 1,190 pass yds | 6.3 ypa | 7 pass TD | 7 INT | 69 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 1 fumble


For those scoring at home, the Bears have won three games started by Dalton, two by Justin Fields and one by Nick Foles. Dalton's performance against the Giants may have been his worst of the season. Then again, it's possible this game didn't exist at all. Just an utterly forgettable affair.

Rank
22
Ben Roethlisberger
Pittsburgh Steelers · Year 18

2021 stats: 15 games | 64.2 pct | 3,496 pass yds | 6.2 ypa | 21 pass TD | 9 INT | 9 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 11 fumbles


Roethlisberger spent much of his career strangely underrated, then hung on a year too long. It happens. It was predictable to see his home swan song be a little touching, awkward and depressing all at the same time. Like Kobe in his last game, Roethlisberger put up a lot of shots (Kobe 50, Ben 46 passes). Unlike Kobe, that led to one of the worst statistical games of Ben's career. No quarterback in NFL history has thrown for fewer yards (123) on at least 45 attempts.

Rank
23
NR
Taysom Hill
New Orleans Saints · Year 5

2021 stats: 11 games | 56.8 pct | 871 pass yds | 7.0 ypa | 3 pass TD | 5 INT | 356 rush yds | 5 rush TD | 2 fumbles


Taysom connected on a couple downfield shots to Marquez Callaway, hit a few other throws outside the numbers and executed a nice two-minute drive before halftime. This was progress and good enough for the Saints to beat a lackluster opponent. If Hill plays like that Sunday against the Falcons, he may just get to start a playoff game.

Rank
24
1
Taylor Heinicke
Washington Football Team · Year 6

2021 stats: 15 games | 65.5 pct | 3,299 pass yds | 6.9 ypa | 20 pass TD | 15 INT | 310 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 6 fumbles


Heinicke's performance against the Eagles was his season in a nutshell. He made a ton of impressive third-down plays to overcome his situation in the first half, hitting his first 11 throws. Then the roof caved in during a scoreless second half.

Rank
25
Davis Mills
Houston Texans · Rookie

2021 stats: 12 games | 66.5 pct | 2,363 pass yds | 6.5 ypa | 13 pass TD | 10 INT | 32 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 5 fumbles


The trip to San Francisco was a "back to reality" game for Mills. The rookie wasn't Houston's biggest problem Sunday, but he made the type of mistake in 49ers territory with a third-quarter lead that the Texans couldn't afford. (He also made a fantastic completion to Brandin Cooks that traveled nearly 60 yards in the air, but was negated by a holding penalty.) Even in a down week, it's obvious Mills has improved compared to his first stint as a starter.

Rank
26
1
Trevor Lawrence
Jacksonville Jaguars · Rookie

2021 stats: 16 games | 58.9 pct | 3,418 pass yds | 6.0 ypa | 10 pass TD | 17 INT | 317 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 9 fumbles


Down 50-3, Lawrence threw a 28-yard touchdown pass on a screen. CBS announcer Andrew Catalon got a little too excited about Lawrence finally breaking a streak without a touchdown pass going back to Week 12, an example of how low the bar is for this Jaguars season's tiniest possible victory. It just needs to end.

Rank
27
2
Zach Wilson
New York Jets · Rookie

2021 stats: 12 games | 56.7 pct | 2,247 pass yds | 6.2 ypa | 8 pass TD | 11 INT | 161 rush yds | 4 rush TD | 4 fumbles


Wilson's sudden progress is what late-season football is all about. The game has started to slow down for the No. 2 overall pick, who played with more confidence and decisiveness against the Bucs than he has all season. He had his lowest time to throw, yet threw the ball deeper. He only took one sack and didn't have a turnover. A special throw or two was mixed in. One more time, please!

Rank
28
Drew Lock
Denver Broncos · Year 3

2021 stats: 5 games | 63.2 pct | 625 pass yds | 7.2 ypa | 2 pass TD | 2 INT | 18 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 2 fumbles


Lock went from a promising rookie quintet of games to a disastrous second season. If the last two starts are any indication, he's made enough progress in his third season to believe he can have a career as a backup. The Broncos did not give him much help the last two weeks, but at least he avoided the catastrophic decisions that plagued him in 2020. He made more plays than the box score showed again, looking more like Teddy Bridgewater. In Lock's case, that's a good thing.

Rank
29
1
Tim Boyle
Detroit Lions · Year 4

2021 stats: 4 games | 64.9 pct | 526 pass yds | 5.6 ypa | 3 pass TD | 6 INT | 14 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 1 fumble


Boyle helped the Lions put up 29 points in Seattle without Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond and Halapoulivaati Vaitai. The touted arm strength hasn't shown up much in games, but Boyle has increasingly looked like a passable NFL backup with each successive start.

Rank
30
NR
Sam Darnold
Carolina Panthers · Year 4

2021 stats: 11 games | 58.8 pct | 2,308 pass yds | 6.3 ypa | 7 pass TD | 12 INT | 203 rush yds | 5 rush TD | 8 fumbles


The time off hasn't helped. Darnold averaged 3.5 air yards per attempt against the Saints, the lowest figure of his career. Yet he still held the ball too long while taking seven sacks. On screen passes, he's always so uncomfortable with the expected pass rush coming that his throw or the timing is usually off. It's a little thing that speaks to his larger problems. The Panthers had 90 net passing yards on 33 dropbacks, with Darnold turning the ball over twice.

Rank
31
NR
Sean Mannion
Minnesota Vikings · Year 7

2021 stats: 1 game | 61.1 pct | 189 pass yds | 5.3 ypa | 1 pass TD | 0 INT | 14 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 0 fumbles


I’ve heard speculation that Cam Newton will be out of football next season. If that’s the case, it’s because he doesn’t want to be a backup. There is no question Cam is far better than a lot of backups, such as Mannion and Mike Glennon, who keep collecting paychecks. If nothing else, Mannion’s spot start should make Kirk Cousins haters in Minnesota realize it could be a lot worse.

Rank
32
NR
Mike Glennon
New York Giants · Year 9

2021 stats: 6 games | 53.9 pct | 790 pass yds | 4.7 ypa | 4 pass TD | 10 INT | 33 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 6 fumbles


As the immortal Charley Casserly once said, "The most important person in your organization is your quarterback. And the second-most important person is your backup quarterback!" I have seen enough to know that Mike Glennon should not be the second-most important person in your organization.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.

The Air Index presented by FedEx ranks NFL quarterback performances all season long. Check out the weekly FedEx Air NFL Players of the Week and cast your vote after Sunday Night Football.

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