Trying to separate a quarterback from the team around him is one reason I enjoy writing this article in the first place. Andrew Luck has made a calculated effort to dial back his mistakes without losing what makes him special. The Saints are wasting another top-five season from the ageless Drew Brees. (The 37-year-old's prime was supposed to be over years ago.) Matt Ryan connected on more incredible throws over the last two weeks than in any other stretch of his season -- his outing at Seattle ranks among the best performances by any quarterback all year -- yet Atlanta lost both games. So, in this file, I'll focus on some obstacles players have overcome that don't always show up in the standings.
This is the Quarterback Index. Each week, we rank every starter based on 2016 performance alone.
Three of Rivers' favorite targets (Keenan Allen, Danny Woodhead and Stevie Johnson) were all gone by mid-September. A fourth (Antonio Gates) is not close to his old self. Yet Rivers still pilots the second-highest scoring team in football, in large part because he's still the best at throwing from a crowded pocket. The Chargers' offensive line has improved from "not there" a season ago, but it's still a lackluster unit in pass protection. Rivers' ability to connect on third-and-longs with pressure in his face is awe-inspiring. His zeal for the game remains the same no matter the situation or record. He looked like he was punched in the stomach after Melvin Gordon failed to convert a first down late against Atlanta, doubled over as he crouched near the ground. Then he stepped up on the very next play and connected on a fourth down throw that kept the Chargers alive.
Brady's ability to problem-solve stands out more than ever. The Bengals and Steelers both confused him for prolonged stretches the last two weeks, and then Brady figured out how to adjust. That resulted in 32 points over the final 33 minutes vs. Cincinnati, and back-to-back touchdown drives two times against Pittsburgh. When the Patriots score, they do it in bunches.
Knocking on the door
This version of Andy Dalton could have taken the Bengals deep in the playoffs the last four years. Cincinnati's MIA running game and diminished weapons have especially hurt, yet Dalton plays around his own limitations -- and the limitations of his team -- so well. The mental lapses are gone. He's maxing out his ability and just needs the rest of the organization to catch back up to him. It's basically 2012-14 in reverse.
Middle of the pack
Smith is showing signs of breaking out of an early-season malaise, in his own Smithian way. He's more willing to push the ball down the field and is getting comfortable using all the options at his disposal. Smith has targeted 10 different receivers in each of the last two games despite throwing 24 passes or fewer in both contests. No Chiefs receiver topped five targets in either game. This is coach Andy Reid's offensive dream: a buffet of acceptable options for Smith to choose from without stuffing himself on any one dish. (Sorry to Travis Kelce fantasy owners.)
The transformation of the Cardinals into a team led by defense and running was on display for all to see Sunday night. This was an offense built the last two seasons on an aggression that bordered on cockiness. Palmer doesn't trust his deep threats (John Brown and Michael Floyd) or the right side of his offense. Bruce Arians, in turn, doesn't trust Palmer as much. Through seven games, this is a below-average passing attack.
The Giants are trying to win with an up-tempo offense featuring the worst running game in football and a total lack of vertical passing. That leads to lots of short drives and defenses sitting on Eli's dinks and dunks. It's a terrible sign Big Blue couldn't move the ball on the Rams' defense -- a unit susceptible to patient marches down the field.
Hoyer, who broke his arm last Thursday, is included for the last time this season. His brief run as Chicago's starter is a reminder that he's the perfect backup. He can operate a variety of offenses at a professional level and outplay starters who have more raw talent. Brock Osweiler's play in Houston is a reminder that teams aren't always better off with Door No. 2. Hoyer is a free agent again in 2017 and will probably be caught continuing the cycle as option 1B for another bad team.
Mariota has been forced to overcome a strange mix at receiver, yet his struggles can't all be attributed to his surroundings. He's getting excellent protection overall and has not been especially accurate, making too many poor decisions for an offense not built on taking chances.
Sunday was one of the lowest moments of the Blake Bortles era in Jacksonville. Bortles' crazy mechanics have been dissected to death and his total lack of accuracy is far from his only problem. On so many of his dropbacks against Oakland, Bortles had all day to throw -- but his decision-making moved in slow motion. The third-year QB stared down receivers and often had a hitch in his throw. That led to eight passes defensed by Oakland on a day when Bortles was very lucky to only have two interceptions. This used to be a big-play offense. Now? Bortles routinely checks the ball down on third-and-long, often throwing heaters to his receivers only a few feet away.
Gus Bradley has stood behind Bortles, which is understandable. In Year 2, Bortles put as many "wow plays" on film as any quarterback in football. A total system failure like this, however, might only be solved with a break. Chad Henne is not the answer, but Bortles might be better off watching from the bench for a few weeks if he stays at this level Thursday night against the Titans.