By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- There's no more important position in team sports than quarterback. Everybody knows that. And a look around the league at the current quarterback situations shows that it's a wild time under center.
Of course Tom Brady, even at age 40, remains the constant. Same goes for soon-to-be-39-year-old Drew Brees. The NFL probably wouldn't mind if the faces of those two quarterbacks could be printed on giant banners all around Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII in February.
After that, though. Things get a little strange.
Jared Goff and Carson Wentz -- the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in 2016, respectively -- have taken massive leaps forward in their second years. Goff has gone from throwing five touchdowns and seven interceptions last year to a solid 16-to-4 ratio this year. He's upped his passer rating from 63.6 to 98.9 while increasing his average yards per attempt by nearly three full yards.
Wentz, meanwhile, has been an MVP candidate for the Eagles, with his NFL-leading 25 touchdowns compared to five interceptions. His rookie season was much better than Goff's, but Wentz has still managed to improve significantly, as evidenced by his passer rating jumping from 79.3 in 2016 to 103.4 in 2017.
The flip side of Goff and Wentz, though, is reigning NFL offensive rookie of the year Dak Prescott. The Cowboys QB was an absolute sensation in 2016, leading Dallas to a 13-3 record while completing 67.8 percent of his passes and throwing 23 touchdowns to just four interceptions. This year, however, has been a disaster. His completion percentage has dropped by five full points, his yards per attempt dropped by 1.3, and his TD-to-INT ratio has dropped from being close to 6-to-1 to now being closer to 2-to-1. His passer rating went from 104.9 as a rookie to 89.8 in year two, and with Ezekiel Elliott out for the next five weeks, there's not much that would indicate a late-season turnaround for Prescott.
One quarterback who has managed to undergo that kind of fluctuation within this very season is Alex Smith. The 12th-year starter uncharacteristically aired it out to begin the year, with great success. He posted a passer rating better than 100 in six of his first seven starts of the year, completing 72.3 percent of his passes for 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions. In his last three games, though, he's thrown three touchdowns and three interceptions, compiling a 79.7 passer rating and looking very much like the Alex Smith of old. His Chiefs have lost four of their last five games after starting the year 5-0.
We've seen a notable backward slide from Derek Carr, and a massive drop-off from 2016 NFL MVP Matt Ryan, whose 117.1 passer rating last year led the NFL and whose 95.7 passer rating ranks 11th this year.
There have been some surprises, too, like Case Keenum (9-15 as a starter entering the year) leading the Vikings to a 6-2 record (though, really, he's 7-2) while playing at a level that's serviceable to above average. Jameis Winston showed few, if any, signs of improving in his third season before suffering an injury. Joe Flacco is on track to match his worst season ever, Brett Hundley has been absolutely dreadful in place of the injured Aaron Rodgers, and Bills rookie Nathan Peterman has tried his hand at reinventing the position by throwing five interceptions on 14 pass attempts in his debut as a starter.
We've seen rookie Deshaun Watson absolutely light up the league before suffering a season-ending injury at practice. It speaks to Watson's pop that he still ranks fourth in the NFL with 19 touchdown passes, despite not playing for the last month and despite not beginning the season as the Texans' starting quarterback.
We've witnessed the Jaguars succeed -- to the tune of a 7-3 record thus far -- despite getting almost nothing from Blake Bortles, who in year four appears to be a mediocre-at-best NFL quarterback. We also may be witnessing history, as Browns rookie DeShone Kizer has thrown five touchdowns and 14 interceptions. There aren't too many quarterbacks in history who have thrown 20 interceptions with fewer than 10 touchdowns, but Kizer just might do it.
Out in Seattle, Russell Wilson is as close to being a one-man show as is possible in the NFL. With 21 passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns, Wilson has accounted for 23 of the Seahawks' 24 offensive touchdowns. He's also the team's leading rusher, and by a wide margin at that. He's run for 376 yards and two touchdowns; Chris Carson ranks second with 208 rushing yards and one touchdown. It's literally Russell Wilson vs. 11 every snap.
The rest of the usual suspects -- Ben Roethlisberger, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers, Andy Dalton, Jay Cutler, etc., etc., etc. -- fill in the blanks between to complete the portrait of NFL quarterbacking in 2017, a period of extreme fluctuation across the board.
(Home team in CAPS; Wednesday lines)
Minnesota (-3) over DETROIT
DALLAS (+1) over Los Angeles Chargers
WASHINGTON (-7.5) over New York Giants
Whoever decided on that Vikings line is already drunk on table wine, and for that I am grateful. There's nothing quite like having a win in your back pocket before the turkey's even served. The Cowboys are sputtering but should benefit from being at home on a short week, when Phil Rivers won't be happy about traveling from L.A. on Thanksgiving and being away from his one-hundred children. And while a Giants victory would be a much more hilarious outcome than a solid Redskins victory, we've got to make the smarter pick here.
By the way, happy fifth birthday to the Butt Fumble. You'll always be the greatest part of Thanksgiving.
INDIANAPOLIS (+3) over Tennessee
Carolina (-5) over NEW YORK JETS
PHILADELPHIA (-14) over Chicago
The Eagles have a really fun late-season schedule, from a viewer's perspective. After this dud, they travel to Seattle and then to L.A. to face the Rams, and after a couple of gimmes at the Giants and against the Raiders, they'll host Dallas in Week 17 in a game that is likely to mean something for both teams. I'll watch every second.
The Panthers, by the way, are about to complete a sweep of the AFC East on the year, which is pretty neat. Generally speaking, a trip to Foxboro typically prevents that from happening for NFC teams. However, the 2011 Giants were able so win at Gillette en route to sweeping the AFC East, and we know how their season ended.
ATLANTA (-10) over Tampa Bay
KANSAS CITY (-10) over Buffalo
CINCINNATI (-8) over Cleveland
NEW ENGLAND (-17) over Miami
The Falcons are back, baby! At least, they're back until they have to face the Vikings, the Panthers and the Saints (twice) over the final five weeks of the season. But for now? Back.
It really speaks to Miami's ineptitude that a 17-point spread isn't even worth thinking twice about. Could they cover? Sure. I guess. But they've been outscored 139-65 during their four-game losing streak, and they're heading to a building where they haven't won since 2008. Granted, when you're talking about the Dolphins from 2009-16, you're talking about completely different coaches and players. But there's just something about the issues Miami and New England have in playing in each other's homes that's very much real.
Patriots by a million.
Seattle (-6.5) over SAN FRANCISCO
Jacksonville (-5) over ARIZONA
Denver (+5) over OAKLAND
What in the Sam HECK are the 49ers doing with Jimmy Garoppolo? They're putting themselves in a rather lousy position, as they may end up forking over a way too much dough for a quarterback who can't hack it in the NFL (if, you know, Garoppolo can't hack it in the NFL). When you give up a second-round pick, you better acquire someone who does more for you than warm the bench behind C.J. Beathard, you know? And so when it comes time to pay Garoppolo after this season, you'd think that the 49ers might want to have actually seen how well (or poorly) the quarterback has played in their system.
Meanwhile down in Glendale, Blaine Gabbert against the team that leads the NFL in sacks ought to be a real hoot. And considering how winded Jack Del Rio's team looked in Mexico City, I'm not exactly optimistic for their outlook in Denver. I know Paxton Lynch is a wild card, but he can't be any worse than what Vance Joseph has thrown out there all year*.
*I reserve the right to completely rescind this comment and strike it from the record if Paxton Lynch is indeed actually worse.
LOS ANGELES RAMS (-2.5) over New Orleans
To be honest, I've been waiting for the Saints' magic to run out for a few weeks now, and I felt like quite the smarty pants when the Redskins won by double digits in New Orleans last week. Except, apparently somehow the Redskins didn't end up winning by double digits? Typically a 15-point lead with 3:30 left in the game holds up in the NFL, but Washington proved to be a special breed.
What's crazy about the Saints is that when they started the year 0-2, seemingly everybody said in unison, "Same old Saints, destined for 7-9." Yet those losses were to the Vikings and Patriots, both of whom are currently 8-2. The Saints have beaten everybody else since, by a combined score of 263-131. They are rolling.
But winning streaks that last longer than a half of a season are difficult to maintain, and while there may be no firm logic or objective stat to back this up ... I don't believe the Rams will lose two in a row.
That's what Sean McVay has done. He has made me believe in the Rams for the first time since Marshall Faulk was still in the league. They ought to check if McVay is a witch, come to think of it.
PITTSBURGH (-14) over Green Bay
It was mentioned in the intro to this story, but it bears repeating: Brett Hundley is terrible. All he had to do was keep the Packers afloat and maybe keep hope alive that Aaron Rodgers could return from injury for a postseason run. Instead he's driven the ship into the ground, gone 1-4, thrown two touchdowns and seven interceptions, and averaged under 200 yards per game. In his last four games he's thrown just one touchdown.
Thanks for nothing, Brett. Though at least we can all get to bed nice and early on Sunday evening to end our holiday weekend properly.
BALTIMORE (-7) over Houston
The greatest moment of this past Monday Night Football game came after Russell Wilson completed a pass to a wide-open receiver. Jon Gruden was talking about the play and said to broadcast partner Sean McDonough, "Sean, you could have completed that pass."
About four long silent seconds passed before McDonough finally muttered, "Yeah."
It was truly a special moment.
Anyway I have absolutely nothing to say about this week's Monday Night Football game, so that's all you'll get.
Last week: 9-4-1
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