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QB Index: Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota rose up in 2016

The crushing news of Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota's twin broken fibulas shouldn't obscure the progress both quarterbacks made this season.

Carr finished 10th in my year-end QB Index rankings last season and checks in at No. 5 heading into Week 17. His upward trajectory over three seasons has proven as steady as his personality. Gifted with rare traits, Carr plays this well this fast in part because he's judicious about using those traits. He's more cautious than his contemporaries, knowing the routine throw is often the right one. I now look back on his dink-and-dunk rookie season and see a young player who knew how much he didn't know and smartly wanted to avoid mistakes.

Mariota finished No. 22 in my rankings as a rookie and sits at 14th after his 15 starts this season. His trademark accuracy turned wonky in his final three games, but overall Mariota took a step forward. He improved his deep ball and was money in the situations where quarterbacks make their money: third downs, red zone and hurry-up.

At a graying position, Carr and Mariota are young players their organizations can build around. They are blessed with quality offensive lines and supported by skill-position teammates. Mariota is right on schedule and Carr is ahead of it. A young quarterback is a terrible thing to waste, and it's clear the Titans and Raiders aren't wasting theirs. Perhaps Carr could even play this February in the city that drafted his brother -- if Matt McGloin can pull a Hostetler in the meantime.

This is the Quarterback Index. Each week, we rank every starter based on 2016 performance alone.

The MVP candidates

I keep waiting for Brady's best season since 2007 to take a downturn because that's what should happen at 39 years old. Instead, he keeps dipping into his bag of tricks to show different parts of his skill set each week. Against the Broncosand Jets, his touch passes stood out. He also has shown incredible patience with his play calling this season, so often audibling into runs again and again until defenses take their extra DB off the field.

Ryan's first touchdown against the Panthers last week was a perfect symbol of his entire season. He ripped a ball 26 yards downfield into a pinprick hole in Carolina's zone coverage to a player few Americans have heard of (Josh Perkins). Ryan has thrown 125 fewer passes this season than Drew Brees and Joe Flacco because Ryan doesn't need to throw any more.

Rodgers has proved once again over the last month that his best is better than anyone else's best.

Top shelf

Reasonable minds could disagree, but Dak's performance against the Lions was the best of his wildly impressive rookie season. According to my Twitter responses Monday night, this doesn't count because it came against a thin Lions secondary. This type of argument is asinine. Either the throws and the reads were on point or they weren't. So many of his throws Monday night were into tight coverage where Detroit defenders were in great position. Prescott's decisiveness and accuracy have been his trademarks all season and he's only getting better. Now he's showing more confidence to make difficult throws.

I wrote my piece on Luck's failed final exam in Oakland earlier this week. He simply didn't play his best in the Colts' two biggest games this season.

Slightly down seasons for two greats

This is what a Hall of Fame quarterback career looks like. Even in relative down years, Roethlisberger and Wilson hang around as top 10 signal callers and author memorable performances.

After Roethlisberger's comebacks the last two weeks, Big Ben is primed to survive thorny playoff tests. On the other hand, Wilson's comeback attempt against Arizona was typical of a Seattle season that has unfurled in fits and starts. There is no rhythm to the Seahawks' offense and Wilson has probably played worse overall since he got healthy. Explain that.

Two guys who would probably get along

My New Year's Eve wishes for these two gentlemen are as follows:

» For Rivers, I hope he does not have to use a silent count in a home game one more time. Or get emotional because he believes it's the team's final game in San Diego. Or lose in heartbreaking fashion in the final moments. The Chargers deserve to give their fans -- not to mention beleaguered coach Mike McCoy -- a warm goodbye. What ownership and the NFL have done to this organization, leaving it in limbo for two years, is patently unfair.

» For Cousins, I want him to deliver a memorable performance in a meaningful Washington win. This is the most entertaining Redskins team in more than a decade and they would be a fun No. 6 seed.

Middle men

This tier was difficult to rank, with the first six names barely separated in my grading system. None of the players here really jump out as obvious candidates for the top of the tier, but Dalton and Taylor feel too low.

My "grades" for Palmer have trended up consistently in the second half of a season that has mostly been ignored. For all his issues, Palmer is essentially playing at the level he's played for much of his career. 2015 was the anomaly.

The timing of Tyrod Taylor's benching is ridiculous and bizarre. He's coming off perhaps his best career game and one of the greatest offensive games in Bills history (589 yards!). No one should blame Rex Ryan for insisting on playing the team's best quarterback, even if it cost him his job.

Mercurial men

The model outing for Eli came in Week 15 against Detroit: He played a clean game, made a few nice throws and mostly stayed out of the way. The Giants need to have a semblance of a running game and a dominant defense for Manning to have a chance. When he starts getting pass-wacky and making mistakes like he did against Philadelphia, he actively hurts the Giants' chances to win.

This has not been an easy second half of the season for Wentz. The rookie could use a nice finale to exit the season on. Too often over the last month he's just played like a guy with nothing to lose at the end of a long season.

Known unknowns

My favorite Matt Barkley moments come when he's barking at teammates like he's been starting for the Bears for a decade. My least favorite moments come after he buys an improbable amount of time to throw the ball, then throws said ball to the other team.

Savage was not as bad as it appeared if you half hate-watched Bengals-Texans on Christmas Eve. Houston's offensive line was miserable in the first half and the strategy of running Alfred Blue into the line every first and second down worked as you'd expect. Savage didn't overcome his surroundings, but he didn't crumble either, or kill Houston's chances to win with big mistakes like Brock Osweiler has. Savage improved in the second half when the Texans went up-tempo. It's hard to evaluate any quarterback after six quarters, but Houston is undoubtedly getting better play at the position.

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