The best two-year stretch of Tom Brady's career is winding down with fresh questions about whether he's in decline. That's how high above the clouds Brady has set the bar.
A sluggish December from Brady opened the door for another quarterback to finish No. 1 in my year-end rankings below, but his prime competition had larger issues. Carson Wentz's season ended after 13 games. Russell Wilson struggled more than Brady to reach the finish line. Aaron Rodgers' return to the field was short-lived.
Those incomplete seasons further highlight Brady's unprecedented elasticity at age 40. Not only does he move better in the pocket than five years ago -- he adapted weekly to a rotating cast of running backs, receivers and right tackles that rarely stayed consistent. He makes the players around him better with his ability to problem-solve, especially his linemen.
Brady's dominant first three months ultimately built enough of a lead to cruise to the top spot in my rankings for a second straight season. He also finished first in Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Yards over Replacement (DYAR) and Pro Football Focus' final grades. The gap between Brady and the next quarterback in PFF's grades was larger than the gap between No. 2 and No. 10 in their rankings.
Despite a season like that, the vultures are circling with Brady's protege, Jimmy GQ, lighting up the West Coast. Anything less than a record sixth Super Bowl title in Brady's eighth appearance will likely be viewed as a letdown, a failure to reach some impossible standard the sport has never quite seen before.
This is the Quarterback Index. For one final time this season, we ranked every team's primary starter based on 2017 performance alone. Each QB's 2016 year-end ranking is listed for context.
BEST OF THE BEST
The trait that first set Brady apart as a young quarterback remains his calling card. His QB rating under pressure was 96.6 according to Pro Football Focus, 12.7 points higher than the next-closest quarterback.
2017 stats: 16 games | 66.3 pct | 4,577 pass yds | 7.9 ypa | 32 pass TD | 8 INT
After a fluky, five-interception performance early this season
against the Jaguars, many wondered if Roethlisberger was washed up. Instead, he was the league's best quarterback during the second half of the season. His improvement on touch passes has made up for any loss of scrambling ability. This marks the fourth time in five seasons doing this exercise that he finished among the top five quarterbacks. Big Ben's a future Hall of Famer who somehow remains vastly underrated.
2017 stats: 15 games | 64.2 pct | 4,251 pass yds | 7.6 ypa | 28 pass TD | 14 INT
An awe-inspiring hybrid of Roethlisberger and Daunte Culpepper, Wentz has the rare ability to make defenders miss, then deliver a pass from any platform an instant later. His torn ACL should not overshadow the most impressive season for a second-year quarterback this decade.
2017 stats: 13 games | 60.2 pct | 3,296 pass yds | 7.5 ypa | 33 pass TD | 7 INT | 299 rush yds | 0 rush TD
Brees attempted 137 fewer passes than a year ago. He made them count. Brees racks up cheap yards because of the Saints' dynamic screen game, but his intermediate and deep throws were on point when they needed to be. He's perhaps the league's steadiest quarterback from week to week, displaying remarkable longevity at age 38 that would get more attention if not for Brady.
2017 stats: 16 games | 72.0 pct | 4,334 pass yds | 8.1 ypa | 23 pass TD | 8 INT | 2 rush TD
The Seahawks' offense was broken by the final month of the season, with Wilson's penchant for running into pressure by holding the ball or leaving the pocket too early exacerbating the problem. This was bound to happen to an attack that relied on little besides shot plays and Wilson's singular improvisational genius. It's an offense that asks Wilson to do too much, an offense that could use fresh coaching eyes before the weight of carrying the group wears on Wilson like it did late during his otherwise brilliant campaign.
2017 stats: 16 games | 61.3 pct | 3,983 pass yds | 7.2 ypa | 34 pass TD | 11 INT | 586 rush yds | 3 rush TD
This was a frustratingly typical Rivers season. His special teams teammates prevented at least three wins, but Rivers' superlative play down the stretch was interrupted by mental errors in decisive losses to the Jaguars and Chiefs. A young group of skill players and scheme continuity provide hope that Rivers still has one last playoff run in him.
2017 stats: 16 games | 62.6 pct | 4,515 pass yds | 7.9 ypa | 28 pass TD | 10 INT
Smith may never go through his progressions like many of the names above, but he reached Peak Alex Smith by doing everything else so well. He decisively hits his first read when the receiver is open, a common occurrence for this well-coached team. He turned his deep ball from a weakness to a strength, his newfound aggression rewarded with a league-leading passer rating on throws of 20-plus yards. Smith led the league in interception percentage and still makes plays on third down with his feet like a boss. If the Chiefs had a top-10 defense, Smith could win a Super Bowl playing like this.
2017 stats: 15 games | 67.5 pct | 4,042 pass yds | 8.0 ypa | 26 pass TD | 5 INT | 355 rush yds | 1 rush TD
Stafford's year-end rankings in the QB Index tell a story. Starting in 2013, he's finished 13th, 17th, 19th, 8th and now 8th again. The arrival of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter is part of the growth, but Stafford deserves credit for harnessing his prodigious talent. Hopefully the Lions improve elsewhere, because a top-10 quarterback in his prime is a terrible thing to waste.
2017 stats: 16 games | 65.7 pct | 4,446 pass yds | 7.9 ypa | 29 pass TD | 10 INT
2016 could be an outlier that Ryan chases for the rest of his career. He's finished 9th, 2nd, 15th, 9th and 11th in the final QB Index rankings over the last five years. Ryan was hit by bad luck this season in the form of dropped passes turning into picks and a brilliant coordinator turning into Steve Sarkisian. Still, it's possible that Ryan lacks some of the truly special traits that separate consistently good starting quarterbacks from Hall of Famers.
2017 stats: 16 games | 64.7 pct | 4,095 pass yds | 7.7 ypa | 20 pass TD | 12 INT | 143 rush yds | 0 rush TD
I debated putting Cousins lower until reading Chris Wesseling's excellent piece about the Redskins quarterback's past, present and future. After a season that proved Cousins has truly risen above the Dalton Scale -- that prime meridian dividing quarterback question marks from franchise solutions -- could the Redskins be foolish enough to let Cousins get away?
2017 stats: 16 games | 64.3 pct | 4,093 pass yds | 7.6 ypa | 27 pass TD | 13 INT | 179 rush yds | 4 rush TD
BRILLIANT AND BRIEF
2017 stats: 7 games | 64.7 pct | 1,675 pass yds | 7.0 ypa | 16 pass TD | 6 INT | 126 rush yds | 0 rush TD
2017 stats: 6 games | 67.4 pct | 1,560 pass yds | 8.8 ypa | 7 pass TD | 5 INT | 1 rush TD
2017 stats: 7 games | 61.8 pct | 1,699 pass yds | 8.3 ypa | 19 pass TD | 8 INT | 269 rush yds | 2 rush TD
I struggled with how to rank these three shooting stars of the 2017 season. Rodgers would be second in my per-game grading average and Jimmy GQ would be in the top-five, but they only played a third of the season and don't deserve to be ahead of top-10 quarterbacks who stayed healthy.
Garoppolo once compared himself to Rodgers, a correlation that makes more sense after watching the 26-year-old rifle the ball quickly from odd angles during his supernova stretch of starts with the 49ers. The presence of coach Kyle Shanahan should ensure Garoppolo's fast start transfers to lasting success.
Watson's stretch of healthy games was like a five-hour energy shot to the 2017 NFL season that wore off too soon, leaving America with a rotten stomach and Tom Savage. The 2018 season will be a lot more fun if we get a full season from this trio.
JEFF FISHER REFUGEES
The advanced metrics (PFF, DYAR, QBR) all have Keenum in the top-seven quarterbacks, so it's quite possible I'm underrating him. He graded slightly lower here because of how much the Vikings' sensational play-calling and receiver play helped out, in addition to an inordinate amount of dropped potential interceptions. Keenum's ability to keep plays alive before finding receivers late in the down was a surprising joy to watch all season.
2017 stats: 15 games | 67.6 pct | 3,547 pass yds | 7.4 ypa | 22 pass TD | 7 INT | 160 rush yds | 1 rush TD
After finishing dead last on these rankings in 2016, some Rams fans might wonder why Goff isn't higher here. He was efficient and accurate finding wide-open receivers in Sean McVay's scheme, but the coaching and running game deserve a share of the credit. Goff's accuracy drops from seventh to 26th when under pressure, according to PFF, and he struggles when forced to move off his spot. Those are small quibbles for a 23-year-old mature beyond his years piloting of one of the NFL's best offenses. There's room to grow, which is scary for the rest of the NFC.
2017 stats: 15 games | 62.1 pct | 3,804 pass yds | 8.0 ypa | 28 pass TD | 7 INT | 1 rush TD
MIDDLE OF THE PACK
The streakiest quarterback in football is capable of taking over any game on the ground or from the pocket, but good luck guessing when it will happen. The trade of Kelvin Benjamin, along with injuries to Greg Olsen and Curtis Samuel, led to the worst passing numbers of Newton's career. Meanwhile, his rushing yardage more than doubled after the very offseason Carolina coaches insisted they wouldn't risk running Newton as much.
2017 stats: 16 games | 59.1 pct | 3,302 pass yds | 6.7 ypa | 22 pass TD | 16 INT | 754 rush yds | 6 rush TD
Winston didn't play as well as some of his numbers suggest (4th in YPA, 6th in yards per game), but he didn't play as poorly as the Bucs' record indicates, either. Three years younger than Garoppolo and two years younger than Wentz, Winston is still on schedule to be a top-10 quarterback.
2017 stats: 13 games | 63.8 pct | 3,504 pass yds | 7.9 ypa | 19 pass TD | 11 INT | 135 rush yds | 1 rush TD
One of the most polarizing players in football is a game manager. That's not a bad thing. Tyrod can have an Alex Smith-like career by protecting the ball, making big plays with his feet and connecting on schemed-up shot plays when called upon. Playing at a league-average level is worth plenty, especially when it helps a franchise end a long playoff drought.
2017 stats: 15 games | 62.6 pct | 2,799 pass yds | 6.7 ypa | 14 pass TD | 4 INT | 427 rush yds | 4 rush TD
On the biggest snaps of the year, Mariota pushed the Titans into the playoffs by using his legs. Tight end Delanie Walker said that "sometimes you've got to overcome coaching" just weeks after receiver Rishard Matthews implored the staff to let Mariota call his own plays in the hurry-up offense. Mariota shares some blame for not seeing the field clearly this season, but this is one coach-QB marriage that needs a divorce. #FreeMarcus
2017 stats: 15 games | 62.0 pct | 3,232 pass yds | 7.1 ypa | 13 pass TD | 15 INT | 312 rush yds | 5 rush TD
The Cowboys' Passing game was a mild-mannered attack not in step with Prescott's terrific deep-ball ability. Prescott played tentatively down the stretch and his coaching staff rarely created easy throws for him. Dak has shown more than enough positives to believe in his potential long-term, but this type of step-back season usually comes with changes to the coaching staff and personnel.
2017 stats: 16 games | 62.9 pct | 3,324 pass yds | 6.8 ypa | 22 pass TD | 13 INT | 357 rush yds | 6 rush TD
It got dark down the stretch. Carr only graded out with one above-average game in the entire second half of the season. He rarely appeared to be on the same page as his receivers or his coaching staff, too ready to throw 3-yard passes on third-and-long.
2017 stats: 15 games | 62.7 pct | 3,496 pass yds | 6.8 ypa | 22 pass TD | 13 INT
McCown savored his career year at age 38, reducing mistakes while mixing in his superhero throws on the run to match his superhero chin.
2017 stats: 13 games | 67.3 pct | 2,926 pass yds | 7.4 ypa | 18 pass TD | 9 INT | 124 rush yds | 5 rush TD
His career ended with injury, unfortunately a fitting conclusion for a quarterback who managed to start 181 games in the NFL. Bruce Arians wrote that Palmer had the best pure arm of any quarterback he's ever seen, which is saying a lot. I'll always remember the beautiful rainbows he tossed to Chad Johnson and Chris Henry in Cincinnati, back when the Bengals' offense was the best show in the NFL.
2017 stats: 7 games | 61.4 pct | 1,978 pass yds | 7.4 ypa | 9 pass TD | 7 INT
STARTERS WITH QUESTIONS
The Jaguars got the best of both worlds. Bortles played well enough this season to help the league's best defense earn a home playoff game, but not well enough to stop Jacksonville from getting a new quarterback this offseason. When the play-calling hits and the running game rolls, Bortles is capable of locking in like a Pro Bowler. When it goes wrong, he just starts throwing hope balls in the sky.
2017 stats: 16 games | 60.2 pct | 3,687 pass yds | 7.0 ypa | 21 pass TD | 13 INT | 322 rush yds | 2 rush TD
he Ravens will point to Flacco's much-improved final five games of the season as proof that he's still a franchise quarterback. The goalposts keep moving for what's acceptable from a $25 million-per-year quarterback, but surely they should aim higher than "passably close to league average." As Flacco turns 33 years old with recurring back issues, the organization has to wonder: Is that all that there is?
2017 stats: 16 games | 64.1 pct | 3,141 pass yds | 5.7 ypa | 18 pass TD | 13 INT | 1 rush TD
If there was any question about whether Dalton could elevate the players around him, his seventh season provided a resounding answer. The Bengals' offensive line, running game and lack of receiving depth helped make this the worst of Dalton's seven seasons. At least it ended with a bang.
2017 stats: 16 games | 59.9 pct | 3,320 pass yds | 6.7 ypa | 25 pass TD | 12 INT
Manning faced pressure on just 29.2 percent of his throws, according to PFF, the fifth- lowest mark in the league. The narrative that Manning's season was all the offensive line's fault was overblown. Defenses knew Manning's limitations. He can't move well and had the lowest completion percentage on throws 20 yards downfield of any quarterback in the NFL. It's time for the Giants to move on.
2017 stats: 15 games | 61.6 pct | 3,468 pass yds | 6.1 ypa | 19 pass TD | 13 INT | 1 rush TD
Brissett took a league-high 52 sacks in large part because he holds on to the ball too long. But there was a lot to like from the second-year pro, considering the high degree of difficulty he faced after arriving in a trade from the Patriots following training camp. The numbers are respectable and Brissett's leadership skills indicate a long career ahead with more chances to start.
2017 stats: 16 games | 58.8 pct | 3,098 pass yds | 6.6 ypa | 13 pass TD | 7 INT | 260 rush yds | 4 rush TD
If only he retired after the team's Monday night win over the Patriots. It was strange to see Cutler so different than his reputation: careful to a fault, dinking, dunking and often surprised when his athletic gifts didn't respond like they used to.
2017 stats: 14 games | 62.0 pct | 2,666 pass yds | 6.2 ypa | 19 pass TD | 14 INT
He showed more positive traits in 12 starts than Goff did a year ago, although Trubisky missed a few too many open throws from the pocket for a quarterback whose reputation relied on accuracy. (Almost all of Trubisky's best throws came on the move.) Now Bears general manager Ryan Pace just needs to find his very own Sean McVay to save Trubisky, along with an influx of receiving talent. That's a lot to ask.
2017 stats: 12 games | 59.4 pct | 2,193 pass yds | 6.6 ypa | 7 pass TD | 7 INT | 248 rush yds | 2 rush TD
There was a time this season that Siemian's Broncos were 3-1 and he was performing as a mid-level starter. Siemian's sometimes-irrational confidence in his arm eventually caved in after a streak of bad decisions behind a woeful offensive line. He was better than Paxton Lynch or Brock Osweiler, but that wasn't enough.
2017 stats: 11 games | 59.0 pct | 2,285 pass yds | 6.5 ypa | 12 pass TD | 14 INT | 127 rush yds | 1 rush TD
Watch the 50 best plays from Kizer's rookie season, and he looks like the next Andrew Luck, showing incredibly pretty throws with natural pocket movement and anticipation. Watch all 885 snaps of his year, and he looks more like the next Blake Bortles, likely to tease with impressive raw skills.
2017 stats: 15 games | 53.6 pct | 2,894 pass yds | 6.1 ypa | 11 pass TD | 22 INT | 419 rush yds | 5 rush TD
Yes, I included a second Green Bay QB on this list, as Hundley wound up starting nine games. The Packers expected more. Hundley never got comfortable, although his shortcomings should be shared by a coaching staff that either didn't evaluate him well or failed to come up with enough solutions to help him.
2017 stats: 11 games | 60.8 pct | 1,836 pass yds | 5.8 ypa | 9 pass TD | 12 INT | 270 rush yds | 2 rush TD
Check the Air Index each week to see which quarterbacks are delivering at the top of their game, just like FedEx Ground delivers with fast and affordable shipping.