Even the biggest Carson Palmer loyalists could not have imagined 2015 going this well. After one "retirement," two seasons of Hard Knocks and two torn ACLs, Palmer has found his football destiny with the third moribund franchise to acquire him.
Palmer searched for a healthy, stable season for more than a decade. No one dared to imagine him as a 35-year-old MVP candidate on the most complete team in football. With two primetime games in a row coming up, don't be surprised if Palmer starts winning over some voters.
I'm convinced. There is little separating the superlative performances by Palmer, Tom Brady and Cam Newton this season, but Palmer has reached No. 1 on my rankings for the first time this week. It's not about the metrics, which are insanely good. (He's First in DVOA, first in QBR, first on ProFootball Focus, first in touchdown percentage, first in adjusted yards-per-attempt, first in yards-per-completion, second in touchdowns and second in yards-per-attempt.) It's about the tape.
It's about the out routes under pressure to keep a drive alive. It's about the 31-yard toss to Michael Floyd on third down delivered a moment before a crushing Aaron Donald hit. It's about the 68-yard bomb to John Brown in the fourth quarter of a blowout just because Palmer can. Aggression is the only option in a Bruce Arians offense, and this has been Palmer's season to go for it.
Palmer's performance in Seattle was my highest-graded game by any player all year, yet his next two outings in Weeks 11 and 12 were more telling. Against Cincinnati and San Francisco, Palmer started the game slowly with mistakes. But he kept firing the ball downfield and eventually completed bushels of passes that few other quarterbacks would even attempt. After 12 seasons of fighting uphill, Palmer is closer than ever to reaching the NFL summit.
*This is the Quarterback Index. The rankings below are based on this year's play only. *
The Magnificent Seven
These seven quarterbacks have set themselves apart through three quarters of the season. It almost feels unfair for Dalton to be so low in the middle of his breakout year, but the quality around him is too good. It's hard to imagine Russell Wilson playing any better than he has over the last three weeks. He's pitching near-perfect games from the pocket and breaking out his scrambling genius when necessary. You know things are going well when he throws a 53-yard touchdown one play after a penalty erases his 53-yard rushing touchdown. If he can sustain these gains, the Seahawks can absolutely win road games in Arizona or Carolina in January.
Wilson still might not be the hottest quarterback at the moment. Ben Roethlisberger's last two games were symphonies of vertical passing. He makes 25-yard passes up the seam look routine. On a per-game basis, he'd be either No. 1 or No. 2 on this list. It would be a delicious Super Bowl rematch if Roethlisberger faced his old coordinator Bruce Arians and the Cardinals in Santa Clara this February. ... Cam Newton is also playing his best over the last month. He throws the ball 55 yards off his back foot and he does it more accurately this year. The play below is his defining throw each week: A laser that tears through the guts of the defense, allowing no time for the opposition to react. I see the MVP race as an even three man battle heading into the home stretch, with Brady still very much alive. The next four weeks should tell us the winner.
The weight of carrying the Chargers is catching up to Rivers. The Chargers are still among the leaders in 10-plus play drives, but he's having to work too hard for every first down because of San Diego's laughable offensive line. ... Drew Brees is the least of the Saints' problems. Still, it felt telling for this Saints squad when they finished last week's game with three straight incompletions at midfield. Just one first down and New Orleans could have tried for overtime against the undefeated Panthers. ... Derek Carr was well overdue for a down week, and he finally had one against Kansas City. I expect him to respond well in a tough environment this week in Denver.
Middle of the pack
It's incredible how well the young generation of quarterbacks are playing. Winston and Bortles have hit season highs in the rankings after boffo outings. Bortles is second in the league in plays of 25 yards or more (behind Aaron Rodgers), and he ranks first in picking up first downs-per-rushing attempt. He and Marcus Mariota put on a show that is well worth watching on Game Pass this week or on a lonely spring night when Jaguars-Titans suddenly sounds like a great idea. Mariota mixes old school craftiness with new school athleticism. And his numbers are better than you think. He is second in the league in passing first downs-per-attempt. In other words: He'd look pretty great if the Titans had any running game to speak of. ... Tyrod Taylor has also hit a huge number of big-time throws over the last two weeks. He's recovered well from a midseason lull.
Winston is the young quarterback I enjoy watching the most each week. After nearly 40 years, the Bucs have a legitimate franchise quarterback. I love his audacious anticipation on some of the throws below that Brian Baldinger ably outlines.
The Vikings' offense is not built to pass first and it shows. Teddy Bridgewater is plagued by poor protection, and Chris Wesseling rightly noted on this week's podcast that Teddy is starting to see ghosts in the pocket. There aren't enough flash plays to make up for the 1-2 big mistakes Bridgewater makes each week. We fully expect him to improve dramatically, but it might not happen this season with the schedule coming up. ... The 49ers have to be thrilled to have Gabbert under contract next year for cheap. He has shown enough to be competing for a starting job. ... Hasselbeck started off last week's game with the yips and he just isn't wired at this stage to get into shootouts.
Below Sea Level
In case you missed it, this week's QB Index is all fancy and sponsored. What could be better than integrating a movie title with the fortunes of Matt Cassel? The Cowboys' starter actually made a few nice throws outside the numbers against Washington, but we are grading on a curve at this point. He's taken a step back even from his Minnesota backup days. ... It's pretty safe to say this is the last we'll see of Foles and Davis on the rankings this year. The Rams guaranteed money for Foles into next season and he won't be easy to trade.