QB Index: Year-end rankings

The year of Aaron Rodgers ended with a preview of the back nine of his career. Even before Rodgers momentarily left Sunday's MVP-clinching win over Detroit with a calf injury, Rodgers was winning quietly.

He was making quick throws in rhythm to beat the Lions' pass rush before it picked up steam. He was targeting the weak spots of Detroit's defense before the snap. He was winning from the pocket. He was winning like Peyton Manning.

The theatre of the injury was hard to resist. Rodgers won the NFC North by reminding everyone that he can crush you without relying on his trademark "late in the down" improvisational skills. He can freelance or stick to the script. Rodgers can do it all, which means he doesn't have to do it all every week.

Year-end Rankings

*This week wraps up the regular season for the QB Index. The rankings below are based on 2014 play only. I've included each player's 2013 year-end ranking in parenthesis to the right of each name. *

Rodgers was my clear No. 1, but there isn't a huge gap between Brady and the rest of this tier. Both Brady and Manning staved off the ravages of time overall, but Manning's stretch run provided reason for concern. The Broncos still hit plenty of big plays, but defenses dared Manning to throw deep, and he forced more passes than usual. Still, Manning's ability to integrate new weapons like Emmanuel Sanders is unmatched. There was slippage, but let's not get carried away. The Broncos finished second in points overall, and Manning finished in the top five in nearly any season-long stat. I don't understand how Manning gets it done, but he does it.

Brady sandwiched 10 brilliant weeks between an erratic September and slow finish. The Patriots had a constricted offense and struggled to hit on the deep ball, but Brady's fastball and pocket movement were at peak level. ... Roethlisberger enjoyed a steady season punctuated by stretches of brilliance. There were few down moments or bad decisions. He nearly reached 5,000 passing yards. This is the type of season that Ben backers have always believed was possible with the proper offensive line and weapons. He delivered. ... Romo would be No. 2 if we only ranked the second half of the season. This is the best team around him since 2008, and it's been fun to watch.

Luck showed the strain of carrying an organization late in the year, especially in games against Cleveland and Houston. But he's firmly established himself among the best quarterbacks and created separation from the other quarterbacks of his generation.

Next Level

Brady won multiple titles, and then he got better. Russell Wilson has the chance to follow the same path. It took Wilson half a season to get back to playoff form, but he's playing electric, complementary football again. Few quarterbacks are as scary on third-and-long. ... Philip Rivers and Wilson had opposite seasons. Rivers was third in my midseason rankings, but he struggled to hold together an offense late in the year that was ravaged by injuries, including his own. Still, this was a strong way to back up his 2013 "comeback" campaign. Rivers is going to get paid soon.

The Week 17 meltdown for Ryan obscures an otherwise strong season. He did a better job avoiding pressure and is never afraid to make tough throws. He put on a show in Green Bay and outplayed Brees in two key rivalry games. He's not Rodgers or Luck, but most teams would kill for him. ... Brees played like he knew he needed to put up huge numbers to keep up with the Saints' lousy defense. Brees had to throw too much, even though the Saints were better when they were balanced offensively.

The resurgent duo

They don't belong with the names above, but Flacco and Manning stood out during quietly impressive seasons. Manning took to Ben McAdoo's offense, especially after Odell Beckham showed up. Eli got rid of the ball faster, looking a lot more like his brother. Beckham is going to make Eli more money. ... Flacco more often looked like the guy from the 2012 playoffs. When he's on, he's one of the most fun quarterbacks in the league to watch because he completes throws that other quarterbacks don't attempt. Ravens fans should hope that offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak doesn't get a head coaching job elsewhere.

Hardest to evaluate

Tannehill has proven he's a mid-level starter, albeit one without a deep ball. His athleticism fit well in new coordinator Bill Lazor's system. It's hard for me to rank him above Newton, but Cam's midseason slump was a reminder he's the streakiest top quarterback in the league. ... Stafford can be depressingly consistent. He misses too many throws and doesn't adapt well against quality defenses.

Alex Smith is the opposite and doesn't really fit in this "enigma" tier. Smith and coach Andy Reid are playing a style of football that is more condensed than any in the league. It's not a blast to watch, but it's hard to argue with Smith maximizing a limited skill set. He's ranked above his old teammate Kaepernick, who had another frustrating year. I wrote last year that Kaepernick took a half step back in order to take two steps forward in 2014. Whoops. Could this just be what Kaepernick is?

Middle of the pack

Bridgewater has been compared to Smith and Dalton, but he showed a higher ceiling with his play down the stretch. He just has the look of a player that will be around for the next decade. ... Dalton's stats were worse this year, but his level of play was the same as ever. He remains the prime meridian of quarterbacks and remains prone to a few meltdowns each season. The Bengals can only hope he avoids one this week.

After Dalton

It was hard to separate the Eagles' quarterbacks, who both put up big numbers despite way too many mistakes and missed open receivers. When they faced quality opponents, they usually cracked. ... Cutler had career highs in yards, touchdowns and completion percentage (and fumbles). He finished 15th in QBR, 16th in DYAR, but 32nd in Pro Football Focus' metrics. He was the garbage-time king, and his lack of mental development helped end another era in Chicago.

The Rest

These rankings are for 2014 play only. Carr is easily the quarterback I'd take from this tier for the future, and he has a great chance to climb next year. He showed a lot of the traits you like to see, but the situation in Oakland won't be easy to overcome. ... The same is true for Blake Bortles in Jacksonville. As great as he looked in the preseason, his decision-making and accuracy were causes for concern.

Lindley is about what you'd expect from a third-string quarterback. The Titans and Texans were both playing their third-stringers by the end of the year, too. McCown reminded the Bucs why he's been a backup for most of his career.

The best thing about Hoyer: He wasn't Johnny Manziel. ... I'm stubborn enough to think Geno still has a chance to be a decent starter; he played fine down the stretch. ... Griffin was depressing to watch at times. He no longer had the speed to outrun defenders to the edge, and he struggled to make quick decisions in Jay Gruden's offense. ... This ranking could be a little high for Orton. Consider it his going away present. If Gods don't answer letters, surely quiet warriors don't read rankings. They go to meetings and never come back.

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