Week 10 of the NFL regular season helped identify which teams are elite. Most of the league's elite teams won again, while some of the bad ones showcased why they will be spending January on vacation. There are a handful of teams somewhere in the middle. A few are barely hanging on to their wild card spot, and others on the verge of irrelevance.
Here are the highlights - and lowlights - from Week 10's QB performances:
Brady, Patriots dominate Broncos
After starting 2-2, the Patriots have reeled off five straight wins, making it look like the AFC title game will again be played in Foxborough.
The Broncos, who had lost four in a row going into Sunday, were playing a team that had definitively hit their stride. Taking on the Patriots must have felt extremely challenging for Denver, a team which is a shell of their former championship ball club 22 months ago.
New England, per usual, is one step ahead of everyone else in the NFL. In an era of mobile, playmaking quarterbacks, the Patriots are showing the league that having a pure pocket passer is still possible.
Tom Brady can still throw it. His accuracy and arm strength have not waned in recent years. Like great baseball pitchers who can throw into their mid-40s, Brady will be able to play for a long time if he chooses.
Brady's full understanding of the game puts him ahead of other great signal callers. He sees blitzes, reads coverages, and finds weaknesses in the defense he faces each week. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick aren’t just playing chess while others are playing checkers, they're both grand masters who see their moves two steps ahead of their opponent.
As teams drafted and schemed to stop the Patriots’ passing game, New England deployed a different offensive approach, and Belichick began drafting athletic tight ends to take advantage of mismatches against linebackers and weak covering safeties. This is why Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were such a challenge in game preparation for most teams.
Gronk has developed into a superstar, and he has been receiving superstar treatment from defensive coordinators as a result. Secondaries are doubling Gronk, similar to what they attempted to do with Randy Moss in his heyday.
Then, Belichick took the next step and started drafting and signing non-traditional running backs. The Patriots currently play four: Mike Gillislee, Dion Lewis, James White, and Rex Burkhead. Each player can run the football like a traditional back, but more importantly, all can win one-on-one matchups in the passing game.
Sunday, as the once-dominant Broncos defense double-teamed Gronk, the Patriots continually sent him on decoy missions to open up room for the running backs. Brady is the perfect quarterback to diagnose non-traditional coverages such as these, finding the best remaining matchup on the field.
The Broncos have been a great man-to-man team for years, but mostly in coverage on wide receivers and tight ends. They were tested, and exposed, by a team that took advantage of linebackers trying to cover versatile backs.
This is next-level football. I bet few, if any, NFL teams go into games looking for matchup advantages with multiple running backs versus the opposing team's linebackers. Sunday night, it looked like the Patriots built their game plan around their pass-catching backs.
This didn’t just happen overnight. The Patriots have prepared for this type of offense, continually signing non-traditional skill position players. Belichick is adding “football players” to his roster, not just position specific athletes.
The Patriots lead the NFL in passing yards, despite not having an elite receiver. This is the most dangerous passing attack in the league because of its balance, and a quarterback who knows how to use his weapons.
A new era for Brees, surging Saints
Since an embarrassing opening-game loss to the Vikings on Monday Night Football, the New Orleans Saints have won seven of eight games, putting them in the driver’s seat in the always competitive NFC South.
Nobody has done more for the Saints organization than Drew Brees and Sean Payton. Since their arrival in 2006, the Saints have consistently been one of the best offenses in the league, with Brees setting numerous NFL records, and nearly every Saints record.
The dominant Brees/Payton era was in jeopardy following an 0-2 start this season, however, those thoughts were short-lived. They have since found their way and are again near the league lead in offense - only this time, it's because of a top flight running game, ranked third in the NFL.
When the Saints signed Adrian Peterson last offseason, the thought was that, as Brees approached 40 years of age, redesigning the offense to rely more on the running game would take some of the load off him.
This has come true, except that Peterson is no longer on the Saints’ roster. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara have been rushing the ball for a healthy 5.2 yards per carry, combining for nearly 1,000 rushing yards.
Running the ball has meant fewer attempts for Brees, making his life much easier as a quarterback. He is currently connecting on 71 percent of his throws. Because of the running threat, New Orleans is getting more one-on-one coverage on the outside, something Brees hasn’t seen since his days of handing the ball to LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego.
Generally, a higher completion percentage equals lower yards per attempt. This is not true with Brees. The Saints are gaining over eight yards every time Brees drops back to pass. This puts him fifth in the NFL. Being in the top five in completion percentage and yards per attempt rarely happens. Brees is having another Pro Bowl year at 38.
The Saints defense has also significantly improved. Currently, they are ranked 8th in total defense and 6th in points scored. As their running game has kept their offense on the field longer, the defense has been playing with more energy and grit this season. No longer is the defense considered a weakness.
Goff, Prescott reverse roles
A year ago, Jared Goff was being called a bust, and Dak Prescott was looking like one of the great fourth-round finds in NFL Draft history. Though Prescott continues to look like he will be, or is, an elite quarterback, Goff’s sophomore season has completely changed his "bust" perception.
On Sunday, Goff had one the best games of his career. Conversely, Prescott was sacked six times by Atlanta’s Adrian Clayborn. Goff’s success and Prescott’s harassment were due to a flip in their offensive line play and running games.
Sean McVay’s zone running scheme, combined with play action, has completely changed the Rams franchise. Goff, who is a great deep-ball thrower, is leading the league in yards per attempt at 8.5. Unlike last year, the Rams are maximizing running back Todd Gurley's talent.
As linebackers and secondary players inch closer and closer to the line of scrimmage to stop the Rams’ running game, McVay is calling play action concepts that take advantage of nosey safeties.
Sunday, Goff connected with speedster Robert Woods on a 94-yard post route. Coming off his play action fake, Goff noticed two Texans defenders 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, doubling slot receiver Cooper Kupp.
With the help of a tighter than normal split, a creative formation design by McVay, Woods had one-on-one coverage with outside leverage on cornerback Johnathan Joseph. A post route from Woods, one of the fastest players in the league, left Joseph in the dust. Goff’s deep throw was perfect. McVay’s design was perfect. And the Rams are smiling at 7-2.
On the flip side, Prescott got a taste of what Goff felt for the majority of his rookie season. Playing without running back Ezekiel Elliott and left tackle Tyron Smith, the Cowboys' offensive line was exposed.
If a quarterback doesn’t have a legitimate running game, he better have a great left tackle. The Cowboys had neither on Sunday. Unsurprisingly, Prescott had one of his worst games as a pro, throwing for only 176 yards in a blowout loss to Atlanta.
I believe Scott Linehan is an excellent NFL offensive coordinator, and I’d be surprised if his game plans going forward don't focus on helping the left side of his line. The Cowboys miss Elliott, but they may miss Smith more.
Around the League
- The Vikings shouldn't even think about removing Case Keenum as their starter. Yes, he threw interceptions on back-to-back plays in yesterday’s game, but he had previously thrown four touchdown passes. The Vikings put up 37 points on a defense that gave up just 14 at Seattle the previous Sunday. Keenum is playing like a top-15 quarterback, and his hot hand should stay on the field until he cools off.
- Big Ben is 35 years old and the Steelers are walking away with the AFC North division. Add him to the list of other old guys (Brady and Brees) who should win another division title near the end of their careers.
- On the other hand, Eli Manning and the Giants are a disaster. This type of season can’t be blamed on one thing. Losing to the winless 49ers, dropping the GMen to 1-8, isn’t Eli’s fault. It’s not the offensive line’s fault. It’s not Ben McAdoo’s or general manager Jerry Reese’s fault. As each week passes, it looks like a total house cleaning may be in order, something that has rarely occurred in the New York Football Giants’ 93-year history.
- I was happy Brett Hundley got his first win as a Packer. It can’t be easy filling in for Aaron Rodgers. Hundley won’t be confused with Rodgers anytime soon, but his touchdown throw on the run was Rodgers-esque.
- The 49ers are making the right move by sticking with C.J. Beathard, and leaving Jimmy Garoppolo on the bench. It’s assumed Garropolo is the future franchise quarterback, but the 49ers get to have Beathard play until Garropolo fully learns the 49ers' system. Kyle Shanahan knows how to find value in mid-round quarterbacks. He and his dad were responsible for picking Kirk Cousins in the fourth round in Washington. Two good quarterbacks would open up a lot of options for John Lynch as he builds this team.
Sage Rosenfels is a former 12-year NFL quarterback who writes, does radio, and podcasts about the NFL and college football. Find him on Twitter @SageRosenfels18.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)