Derek Carr plays like a quarterback 10 years older than he is, an assessment that has evolved from an insult to a compliment at this position dominated by graybeards.
In this hyper-specialized era where quarterbacks act as part athlete, part leader and part computer processor, it's getting tougher for young players to emerge at the top of the position. The mental demands of playing quarterback help explain why two players nearing their 40s (Tom Brady and Drew Brees) are in the top five of my midseason rankings. It explains why Matt Ryan is playing his best at age 31 and why Matthew Stafford is having a "breakout" campaign in his eighth season. It's why Carr is the only quarterback drafted in the last four years to crack the top 10, jumping all the way to No. 6 after his incredible performance against the Bucs.
While the rest of the quarterback class of 2014 implodes (Blake Bortles), sits (Jimmy Garoppolo), recovers (Teddy Bridgewater) or drifts away (Johnny Manziel), Carr steadily works on his craft. He is calculated when taking chances, anticipates throws and is an expert at looking off safeties. His uncanny pocket movement and ability to avoid sacks can't be taught. He often plays against his "gunslinger" reputation, only going into attack mode when it's required. Carr plays to the scoreboard like a member of the Class of 2004, toggling between aggression and third-and-long dump-offs, depending on the situation.
Carr has been here before. He was playing at a top-10 level in the first half of last season, with eerily similar stats to his fast start this year. Don't expect a similar second-half slide from Carr this time around. He's more comfortable in Year 2 of Bill Musgrave's system and knows how best to use the considerable talent around him. (That includes his boffo offensive line.)
Get ready for a lot of Derek Carr in your life down the stretch. The Raiders are in prime time in three of their next five games, an example of the schedule makers getting it right in an otherwise rough year. While you're at it, get ready for a lot of Derek Carr in your life for the next decade. He has plenty of time to grow into his old man's game.
This is the Quarterback Index. Each week, we rank every starter based on 2016 performance alone. (In this week's midseason edition, you can find each quarterback's preseason ranking in parentheses.)
In a league of his own
I remember walking out of a funereal Patriots locker room following Super Bowl XLVI after seeing Tom Brady with his head in his hands, thinking that his gradual decline was probably right around the corner and New England likely would never get so close to a title again. Five seasons later, Brady and the Patriots' offense are improbably more explosive than ever. Brady's rate stats are even better than his 2007 MVP season, an impossible pace to keep up. Then again, Brady has a way of making conventional "regression to the mean" or "career arc" expectations look foolish.
The Saints have made a fascinating transition the last two weeks to a brutally effective, almost boring ball-control offense. It keeps the New Orleans defense off the field and shows that Brees can bend a game to his will, slowing it down or speeding it up like a wizened orchestra conductor.
Cam looks ready to go on a tear. While the Panthers made a point to design more runs for him against Arizona, his accuracy from the pocket was especially on point. In this video, check out his ability to subtly avoid or withstand the pass rush on a pair of second-quarter plays. He has been electric since returning from his concussion.
Probably not getting that MVP this season
Wilson's numbers for the season (5 TDs and 2 INTs) could pass for a typical Brees game. My preseason pick for MVP is probably not going to make a run at the award this year, in part because he's not involving his young wideouts in the action. Tyler Lockett and Paul Richardson have combined for 313 yards. It's hard to blame everything on Wilson's diminished mobility, because he played two excellent games after initially hurting his ankle and knee. Still, the cumulative effect of those injuries (and a pectoral problem) has taken a toll. It was eye-opening to see Seattle's offense put up just 13 points in the Superdome. Wilson isn't playing poorly, he's just not special right now. That's not the Wilson we are used to.
Rodgers is coming off one of the best games by any quarterback all season. It should inspire Mike McCarthy to find roles for his younger receivers each week. This is hardly Rodgers' first great game in an erratic season, though. His opener (in Jacksonville) and Week 3 game (vs. Detroit) were similarly filled with highlight-reel tosses. Rodgers just hasn't been able to back up his great outings, yo-yoing like a young quarterback.
Knocking on the door
Prescott's ability to finish with a flourish against Philadelphia helped erase what was otherwise his toughest career start. That ability to fight through adversity has impressed coach Jason Garrett and owner Jerry Jones, who all but confirmed the Dallas quarterback decision is made. They are going to keep playing Prescott until he compels them to do otherwise.
Bradford's offensive line and running game have given him no chance the last two weeks. The Vikings should be seriously concerned their quarterback won't stay healthy if he continues to get hit like this.
Dalton picked an unfortunate time in London to have his worst game of the season. He has clearly taken a step up in class since the start of 2015. The next step would be to carry an underachieving roster back to the playoffs in a down year for the franchise.
Stuck in the middle
Carson Palmer enters the bye week knowing that his right tackle can't play and his left tackle is on injured reserve. The second half of the season will be one of the biggest tests of his career, as Palmer and Bruce Arians try to come up with Plan C.
As great as Derek Carr played Sunday, he would have never had the chance to rack up so many yards in overtime if Winston had connected on a handful of open deep balls. The Bucs finished the Raiders game with three consecutive three-and-outs. An overheated checkdown throw in overtime ended a drive, the type of routine miss that happens too often for Winston when he hits a cold patch. Winston has made a concerted effort to dial down the turnovers, throwing six TDs to only one interception over the last three weeks. He still shows guts, like when he tried to run over Raiders linebacker Perry Riley at the goal line. But his funky, streaky accuracy reminds me of a young Joe Flacco, a player who can go from Canton to Cartman during the span of one game.
The unmagnificent seven
Benching Bortles would be an act of mercy if this continues any longer. You can almost hear all the conflicting noise in his head as he winds up to throw each fastball. I had him higher than Stafford or Carr going into the season, which was a terrible misevaluation -- but it also serves as a reminder that Bortles has shown off his incredible natural ability at times as a pro. He can be fixed, but it's hard to see that happening without some sort of break. He's lost at the moment.