How about that ride in? I guess that’s why they call it the NFL.
Anyways, seemingly the only consistency during the first 16 weeks of the 2021 NFL season was the general inconsistency at hand. High-end quarterback play has largely been missing — at least consistently — the entire season. There are certainly plenty of contenders out there, but each of the league’s top-five scoring offenses — the Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts have proven to be quite mortal on more than one occasion throughout the year.
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Ultimately, we’re in the final stretch run of 2021, and these are the weeks that could help set up fringe squads for unexpected success or lead to more disappointment from teams that simply looked so much better a month or two ago.
What follows are my top-10 Week 17 quarterback storylines in an effort to contextualize next week’s headlines today.
1. Can Tom Brady put the finishing touches on a potential MVP campaign?
Pick a passing stat, any stat, and there’s a good chance Brady is among the leaders in it:
- PFF passing grade: 90.2 (tied for No. 1 among 43 quarterbacks with 100-plus dropbacks)
- QB rating: 100.2 (No. 10)
- Passing yards: 4,580 (No. 1)
- Passing touchdowns: 37 (No. 1)
- Big-time throws: 35 (tied for No. 1)
- Big-time throw rate: 5.5 (No. 10)
- Turnover-worthy play rate: 1.8% (No. 3)
Brady has survived 31 dropped passes along the way — a mark only Trevor Lawrence (32) has surpassed.
However, this isn’t just a continuation of what happened last season. Bruce Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit” offense regularly asked Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer and Jameis Winston to attack defenses downfield with reckless abandon. Brady largely followed suit with a 10.1-yard average target depth (aDOT) in 2020 — tied with only his 2017 campaign for his highest mark since 2005. This season, Brady’s 8.2 aDOT is unironically tied with Mac Jones for just the 20th-highest mark in the league.
Throwing downfield isn’t a requisite for elite quarterback or offensive play, but it’s just interesting to see Brady demonstrate the full range of his powers after just two seasons in Tampa Bay. It’s not like this ability has gone anywhere, as Brady is simply doing dominating when throwing to all depths of the field. Overall, he has the second-highest PFF passing grade on passes thrown from behind the line of scrimmage up to nine yards downfield as well as on throws that travel at least 20 yards. The only place Brady has been somewhat mortal is on passes in the intermediate area of the field (10-19 yards), where he still comes in at a plenty respectable 15th in PFF passing grade among 38 qualified quarterbacks.
Not having Chris Godwin (knee, IR) and Mike Evans (hamstring) won’t help this latter “issue,” although Antonio Brown sure looked good in his first game action since Week 6. Brady and the Buccaneers get to feast on the New York Jets’ league-worst defense in yards allowed per pass attempt (8.18) next week so don’t be surprised if the Buccaneers’ 44-year-old GOAT manages to seize back the lead in the betting odds from Aaron Rodgers with a blistering end to the season.
2. Will Josh Allen repeat as the overall fantasy QB1?
Fantasy football has evolved as passing games have become more and more lethal over the years. And yet, one of the commonalities over time has been dual-threat quarterbacks' dominance. Racking up production in both the pass and run game has made this player archetype a bit of a cheat code in football.
Since 2000, there have been 14 different quarterbacks to serve as the overall fantasy QB1, but you have to go all the way back to 2003-2004 to find the last time one repeated the honor. This was achieved by none other than Daunte Culpepper, who managed to throw Randy Moss not one, not two, but 30 touchdowns during that span.
Enter Allen, who worked as the fantasy QB1 in 2020 and continues to sit pretty atop the throne as we enter Week 17. Allen has had an awfully great WR1 to throw the ball to in Stefon Diggs, but Allen’s true differentiator as a fantasy asset over the years has been his consistent ability to find the end zone as a rusher. Overall, Allen ranks 10th in rushing touchdowns (29) since entering the league in 2018 — Lamar Jackson (21), Cam Newton (21) and Kyler Murray (20) are the only other quarterbacks who are even close.
Up next is a dream spot against the Atlanta Falcons’ third-worst defense in fantasy points per game allowed to opposing quarterbacks. Get your popcorn ready.
3. Can Joe Burrow continue to put on for his city (on the field, obviously)?
Joe Burrow doing Jedi shit pic.twitter.com/JvEjS70YyB
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) December 27, 2021
The 2020 NFL Draft’s No. 1 overall pick is PFF’s highest-graded passer since the Bengals returned from their Week 10 bye. It’s really not necessary to even break down Burrow’s success by a certain split, as he trails only Kyler Murray and Tom Brady in PFF passing grade on the season while only Aaron Rodgers has a higher QB rating.
Burrow’s performances have been even more impressive due to his ability to maintain high-level accuracy while consistently testing defenses downfield. Overall, Burrow ranks first in adjusted completion rate and has the league’s eighth-highest average target depth among 32 qualified quarterbacks.
Hopefully, Burrow’s massive Week 16 performance encourages coach Zac Taylor to unleash his explosive passing game more often, as the Bengals rank just 15th in pass play rate in non-garbage time situations on the season and 17th since their Week 10 bye. Things won’t be easy against the Chiefs’ fifth-ranked scoring defense, but this offense sure looks rather unstoppable when everything is clicking.
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4. Can this Tennessee Titans offense keep humming now that the passing game is healthy?
A.J. Brown caught 11 of a career-high 16 targets for 145 yards and a score in his first game action since Week 11. The impact on Ryan Tannehill wasn’t hard to see, as he posted his best PFF passing grade (80.0) since Week 9 and averaged seven yards per attempt for the first time since Week 10.
This Titans’ passing game reaches another level when Brown is at his best, as the third-year talent is truly one of the best players at his position. Brown has posted the following finishes in yards per route run during his short career:
- 2019: 2.67 yards per route run (No. 3 among all wide receivers with 50-plus targets)
- 2020: 2.65 (No. 3)
- 2021: 2.52 (No. 7)
Overall, only Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp, Justin Jefferson and Antonio Brown have a higher PFF receiving grade than Brown, as you don’t need more than two hands to count the number of wide receivers better than the Titans’ 24-year-old stud.
The Miami Dolphins blitz more than any other team and also happen to employ two of the league’s better outside cornerbacks in Byron Jones and Xavien Howard, so Tennessee needs Brown to be at his best in order to keep this newfound offensive momentum riding high into the playoffs.
5. What is the rookie quarterback landscape looking like?
The following table denotes rookie quarterback performance in a variety of metrics, as each player’s average rank in each leads to a cumulative ranking. Note the rankings are among 48 signal-callers with at least 60 dropbacks this season in order to include Trey Lance:
|Name||PFF Pass Grade||YPA||aComp%||QB Rating||Average|
One could certainly use this to honor Jones or point out that Mills has a real argument as the season’s second-best rookie quarterback.
Ultimately, none of these rookies have put together a season that lands them inside of the league’s top-20 quarterbacks, as each will need to improve quite a bit in order to fulfill their respective prophecies as a franchise quarterback.
6. Which version of Matthew Stafford will show up?
The Stafford experience has been a bit of a roller coaster for the Los Angeles Rams this season. Things have generally been really good or really bad, especially over the last two months of the season:
- Week 9: 47.4 PFF passing grade (No. 25 among qualified quarterbacks)
- Week 10: 64.7 (No. 14)
- Week 12: 55.4 (No. 19)
- Week 13: 78.6 (No. 4)
- Week 14: 91.3 (No. 2)
- Week 15: 76.4 (No. 6)
- Week 16: 39.0 (No. 32)
At his best, Stafford looks like a world-beater with the sort of rocket launcher for a right arm that makes him a threat to complete a pass to seemingly any square inch on the field. At his worst, all the Detroit Lions slander over the years seems warranted.
Luckily for Cooper Kupp and company, this Ravens secondary doesn’t look capable of stopping anybody in its current state. Removing Marlon Humphrey (pec, IR), Marcus Peters (knee, IR) and Jimmy Smith (COVID, IR) from the equation has left this cornerback room rather depleted, to say the least:
- Kevon Seymour: 161st in PFF defense grade among 165 qualified corners
- Tavon Young: 104th
- Anthony Averett: tied for 117th
The Ravens were forced to start journeyman Daryl Worley during their Week 16 meltdown against the Bengals while usual special teamer Robert Jackson has also been forced into action on defense in recent weeks.
Aaron Rodgers and Joe Burrow combined to throw for 793 yards and seven touchdowns without a single interception against this defense over the past two weeks, so the best version of Stafford is more than capable of putting up similar gaudy numbers this Sunday.
7. Is Russell Wilson going to keep ordering takeout?
The Seattle Seahawks simply haven’t been the same juggernaut through the air this season. Yes, Pete Carroll has regularly limited Wilson’s true ability to cook by deploying a run-first offense over the years. Also yes, 2021 marks the first time in Wilson’s career he hasn’t operated a top-tier passing attack in terms of expected points added (EPA) per pass play:
- 2021: -0.047 EPA per pass play (No. 21)
- 2020: +0.123 (No. 12)
- 2019: +0.110 (No. 8)
- 2018: +0.148 (No. 7)
- 2017: +0.069 (No. 10)
- 2016: +0.063 (No. 14)
- 2015: +0.262 (No. 1)
- 2014: +0.111 (No. 10)
- 2013: +0.186 (No. 4)
- 2012: +0.156 (No. 5)
Sadly, there hasn’t been much of a change in performance between Wilson and backup Geno Smith this season. Wilson leads the way in yards per attempt (7.7 vs. 7.4), but Smith has been more accurate (80.5% adjusted completion vs. 72.9) while accordingly posting a better QB rating (103 vs. 99.4) and PFF passing grade (73.0 vs. 67.8).
Week 17’s home matchup against the Lions should yield the sort of get-right spot this passing game sorely needs. After all, Detroit ranks among the league’s bottom-three defenses in both yards per attempt and explosive pass play rate allowed so good luck containing D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett as long as Wilson is at least somewhat close to his usual self.
8. Who will win the matchup of the week between Kyler Murray and Dak Prescott?
The Cowboys opened as relatively modest 2.5-point home favorites against the Arizona Cardinals, but the line has already ballooned up to 5.5 at the time of this writing. The Cowboys-Cardinals’ 52-point opening game total is this week’s only matchup with an over/under in the 50s, so there’s plenty of reason to believe this could turn into a shootout come Sunday.
The Cowboys’ league-best scoring offense looked better than ever during their 56-14 demolition over the Washington Football Team Sunday night. There might not be a defense in the NFL capable of slowing down Dak Prescott and company when they’re at their best.
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) December 27, 2021
Meanwhile, don’t let a recent mini-slump distract from the fact that Murray ranks first in big-time throw rate (8.4%) and fourth in turnover-worthy play rate (2.2%), as nobody has been better than the 2019 NFL Draft’s No. 1 overall pick at simultaneously making “elite” high-level throws while limiting mistakes.
9. What sort of cruel things will Aaron Rodgers do to the Minnesota Vikings’ secondary?
The Green Bay Packers star QB has been on one helluva heater in recent weeks, throwing 16 touchdowns against zero interceptions since Week 11. The hot streak started with Rodgers going for 385 yards and four scores through the air against Minnesota's defense. Don’t be surprised if Mike Zimmer’s group (again) underwhelms, as there simply isn’t anyone in this secondary capable of checking Davante Adams and company:
- Cameron Dantzler: 64.5 PFF coverage grade (No. 58 among 130 qualified corners)
- Patrick Peterson: 60.7 (tied for No. 78)
- Bashaud Breeland (released): 45.3 (No. 126)
- Mackenzie Alexander: 41.0 (No. 129)
Overall, this defense ranks among the league’s bottom-six in yards per attempt (8.97) and explosive pass play rate (22.8%) allowed to wide receivers. It’s safe to say cornerback will be the top-team need for this squad once we start to look at that sort of stuff in February.
Adams has posted 5-54-1, 8-64-1, 5-69-1, 7-106-0, 13-116-0, 14-156-2, 7-53-3 and most recently 7-115-2 receiving lines against this group since 2017 so don’t expect this streak of 100-plus yards and/or a score to end against the Vikings, barring a miracle of sorts.
10. Will the real Baker Mayfield please stand up?
On the one hand, Mayfield has been playing through a myriad of injuries virtually all season long. On the other, he’s “healthy” enough to suit up, so it’s tough to simply excuse the consistently mediocre play he’s exhibited in 2021.
Stable metrics for the quarterback position attempt to hone in on more volatile stats in an effort to better predict the future. Mayfield’s ranks in these respective statistics are as follows:
- PFF passing grade from a clean pocket: 78.9 (No. 23 among qualified quarterbacks)
- Grade on standard dropbacks (from within the pocket): 69.9 (No. 26)
- Grade on first/second down: 72.7 (No. 19)
- Grade with no play-action: 61.0 (No. 35)
- Grade on passes at/beyond the sticks: 75.2 (No. 30)
This has also been behind PFF’s 10th-highest-graded offensive line in pass blocking. Not great, Bob. To top it off, the Cleveland Browns rank fourth in team-rushing grade. Some might point to the rather underwhelming group of wide receivers at hand as a prime culprit, although Mayfield’s early-season struggles were largely pinned on Odell Beckham‘s presence, so it’s tough to overly criticize the remaining receivers. Note that OBJ (four touchdowns) has more trips to the end zone than the rest of the Browns wide receivers combined (three) since Cleveland decided to part ways with the ex-Giant.
Up next is a Pittsburgh Steelers defense that has held Mayfield to 225 or fewer passing yards in all six of their career matchups. Perhaps better health down the line will bring out a superior version of the 2018 NFL Draft’s No. 1 overall pick, but for now, it’s tough to call Mayfield anything other than a below-average professional quarterback.