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The Quarterback Index: Ranking the starters

Philip Rivers is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL this year. No one wants to admit this out loud because Rivers was a punchline last season, and he probably annoys you for some undefined reason.

This column is not about last season. It's not about win-loss record or some tired narrative that was attached to a player so long ago that no one bothers to wonder if it's accurate. As Bill Belichick loves to say, every year is different.

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Perhaps Rivers won't maintain this level of play, but that's not the point. He's playing great now. This is the fourth week of the Quarterback Index, but it's the first week that the players will be ranked on their play this year only.

That's why Colin Kaepernick, one of the league's best talents, can't be ranked very high after two rough games out of three. That's why Tom Brady, ranked No. 2 overall in my preseason rankings, is not in the top 10 this week. He's obviously one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but his poor start to the season can't all be attributed to his young receivers. Rivers is not in the same class as Brady overall, but the punchline has been more effective than the superstar over the last three games. My guess is that fact will probably annoy many of you for some undefined reason, too.

Here is my top 10 for 2013 so far:

Alone at the top

Manning has been nearly flawless through three weeks by any measure. His trip to Dallas in Week 5 looks like his first real test against a quality defense. The Broncos face a loaded Kansas City group twice in three weeks, starting in mid-November. By then, more records could be falling.

Next level

Notes: These rankings are based off watching Game Rewind, but I like to cross-check them after I'm finished with some advanced metrics. My take on Rivers felt far less crazy when Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and ESPN's Total QBR each had Rivers No. 2 overall in the young season. (And those three sources rarely agree on the numbers.)

Rivers played two of the cleanest games you'll ever see against Philadelphia and Tennessee. I charted only one bad pass against the Titans, and these were not all simple throws. Many of the tosses required perfect ball placement, and Rivers delivered.

He just didn't get enough chances. The Chargers threw the ball once in 10 play calls while nursing a four-point lead in the fourth quarter. Coach Mike McCoy caught a bad case of Martyball and it cost San Diego a win. The Chargers will need to find someone else to catch vertical passes while Malcom Floyd recovers from injury. ... Rodgers' uneven game against the Bengals doesn't erase his great first two weeks. ... Brees is going to enjoy playing with a competent defense again. He remains more of a risk-taker than the other "elite" quarterbacks. ... Ryan is raising his level of play overall as the team around him crumbles. The Falcons are getting the ball out of Ryan's hands quickly because they don't trust their offensive line.

Fast starts

Notes: Luck is doing everything asked of him by new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. It's just too bad Hamilton doesn't ask him to do a little more. The Colts are transforming into a team built around running and defense. Luck's lack of possessions are keeping his numbers down, but the play-calling isn't as aggressive as it was under Bruce Arians. Expect fantasy owners to start the Free Andrew Luck movement soon.

This is what Tony Romo looks like when he gets protected. It's a beautiful thing. The Cowboys were up 17-0 last week before Romo had to do anything that difficult. Even during the loss to the Chiefs, Romo was protected and made good decisions for most of the game. He's been decisive and is seeing the field well. No one has ever questioned his ability to make tough throws.

Wilson hasn't even played his best football yet this season, and he's still been very effective. ... Cutler, like Romo, is doing a better job handling the routine plays and eliminating the random mistakes. And he can still throw together a three-play sequence like he did in the key drive against Pittsburgh.

Almost there

Notes:I couldn't quite put any of these guys in the top 10 this week. Flacco has played better on Game Rewind than the metrics show. His best game was against Houston. ... Tannehill has a great chance to show the country on "Monday Night Football" why I've been so excited about him for a while. He's playing like a veteran. 

Whereas Tannehill and Flacco have been steady this year, Vick and Stafford remain up and down. The ups have been sweeter than expected so far. Stafford put together two composed games to start the year before a roller coaster performance against Washington. When he misses, he misses by a lot. He lacks touch, but connects on plays he shouldn't. Yin and yang. 

Trending up

Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers: There was so much to like about Newton's performance against the Giants. The Panthers used the zone read more effectively. They called three straight runs for Newton at one point, and they were effective. Once Newton got on a roll, he was nearly flawless in the second half.

It's worth noting, however, that he missed a ton of throws early. Even during his best games, Can frustrates with bouts of inaccuracy.

Tom Brady, New England Patriots: Brady also has missed more throws this year than normal. It's strange to see him throwing with a hitch so often because his timing with receivers is off. Things improved in the win over Tampa Bay after a rough first quarter. The offense had rhythm for the first time all season. Brady is 16th in ESPN's Total QBR and lower on the other sites. He ranks dead last among starting quarterbacks in yards per attempt.

Trending down

Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers: I tackled this in my piece about the 49ers' struggles, but Kaepernick's receivers can't get open against man coverage. That is partly why Kaepernick looks so indecisive in the pocket. He's not comfortable and occasionally hesitant to pull the trigger on throws. His first read is getting taken away. And defenses are doing a better job defending the read option when the 49ers try it.

Check out the play to the right. Kaepernick reads the defensive end crashing down, but runs right into the waiting arms of Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman. This is an approach that Chris Brown of Grantland wrote about during the offseason.

Whether it's timing or inaccuracy, Kaepernick also is simply missing more throws this season.

Matt Schaub, Houston Texans: Schaub is not playing great, and he knows it. He's costing the team points and throwing costly interceptions. Houston runs a low-risk offense, so Schaub's errors get magnified. The team's two comeback wins helped cover up long stretches of poor offensive play.

*The "Around The League Podcast" broke down every Week 3 game. Click here to listen and subscribe. *

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