Best, worst NFL QBs of Week 15: Take a ride on the Philip Rivers, Jameis Winston roller coaster

ByKevin Seifert via ESPN logo
Tuesday, December 17, 2019

If Eli Manning bid a sweet farewell Sunday to the New York Giants, what should we think about Philip Rivers' performance for the Los Angeles Chargers?

Rivers, famously traded for Manning during the 2004 draft, committed a season-high four turnovers in the Chargers' 39-10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. He has thrown 12 interceptions in his past five games, is entering the final two games of his contract and might have shifted the conversation from where he will play in 2020 to if.

We'll start with that heavy question in ESPN's Week 15 QB Awards, our Tuesday assessment of quarterback highs and lows using unique data culled from ESPN Stats & Information and NFL Next Gen Stats.

Newly questionable award: Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers

All three of Rivers' interceptions Sunday were on passes that traveled more than 20 air yards. Rivers hasn't been shy in his career about slinging the ball downfield into coverage, sometimes with poor results. But this season, that habit has bitten back hard. He has a total of eight interceptions on such throws, the most in a season since Rex Grossman threw nine while with the Washington Redskins in 2011.

Are those interceptions simply poor decisions? Are they a function of an offense that has undergone personnel and coaching turnover throughout the season? Do they suggest that Rivers has lost some zip on the ball? The Chargers -- or any other NFL team considering him as a 2020 starter -- will need to answer these questions.

Overall, his 21 turnovers rank third in the NFL, behind that ofJameis Winston and Kyle Allen. Rivers is on pace for by far the worst Total QBR (48.3) since the statistic was developed in 2006. When the name of a Hall of Fame candidate starts showing up alongside "Grossman," "Winston" and "Allen," it's time to take notice.

At this point, the primary difference between Rivers and Manning is that the Giants drafted Manning's replacement last spring, when they picked Daniel Jones at No. 6 overall. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Chargers, projected by ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) to get the No. 10 overall pick, do the same in 2020.

Dime of the week award: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

There is almost no doubt that Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is going to win NFL MVP. He deserves it. But that isn't going to stop me from pointing out, on a weekly basis if I must, that Wilson is routinely completing some of the league's most difficult passes.

The latest was a 19-yard touchdown throw to receiver DK Metcalf during the Seahawks' 30-25 victoryover the Carolina Panthers. Once again, Wilson showed incredible touch in placing the ball down the sideline, where only his (closely guarded) receiver could catch it. He put enough air under the ball to keep it aloft for 1.97 seconds, allowing Metcalf to gain 1 yard of separation from Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson and make a leaping catch 1.1 yards from the sideline and 6 yards deep in the end zone.

The pass had a 14.8% chance to be complete, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, making it the most difficult connection of Week 15. It was one of two touchdown passes Wilson threw Sunday of at least 15 air yards, raising his total on such throws to 43 the past three seasons. That's 13 more than the next-highest quarterback (Kirk Cousins, 30) in that period, another data point for the increasingly inarguable position that Wilson is the league's most effective deep thrower.

Questionable game plan award: Devlin Hodges, Pittsburgh Steelers

When the fourth quarter began Sunday night in Pittsburgh, the Steelers held a 10-7 lead over the Buffalo Bills. Soon, the Bills tied the game at 10. What happened next was head-scratching.

With the game on the line, and despite the healthy return of tailback James Conner, the Steelers turned to their rookie quarterback to try to lead them to victory. Hodges dropped back 20 times in the fourth quarter, including the first nine plays after the Bills tied the game. That decision led to two consecutive three-and-out possessions, as well as a pair of interceptions and two sacks. The Steelers didn't score again in a 17-10 loss.

Hodges has been impressive as a spot starter since he was promoted from the practice squad earlier this season, but it was still a surprise to see the Steelers ignore their running game and put the game in his hands. The Bills' defense has held opposing quarterbacks to the NFL's third-lowest QBR (45.2), and it's not as if they were loading up against the run and daring Hodges to throw.

The Bills aligned eight or more defenders in the box on only seven of the Steelers' 57 plays, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, and not once in the fourth quarter. The Steelers still have a 43.6% chance to make the playoffs, according to FPI, but their fourth-quarter approach was one of the most baffling decisions of an otherwise overachieving season.

Don't sleep on ... award: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs

You'll be excused if you looked elsewhere for your high-level quarterback fix earlier this season, when Mahomes was sidelined by a knee injury. But here's something you should know about the 2018 MVP: Since he returned in Week 10, Mahomes' QBR of 76.3 is surpassed by that of no quarterback other than Jackson.

Sunday's 23-3 victory over the Denver Broncos marked Mahomes' seventh 300-plus-yard passing game of the season. He completed 10 passes that traveled at least 10 yards in the air, marking the third time he has done that in a game in 2019. The Broncos were largely unable to pressure him on a snowy day at Arrowhead Stadium, and Mahomes capitalized on nearly every clean pocket, completing 25 of 26 passes for 329 yards in those situations.

Mahomes' 300.5-yard average per game this season ranks fourth in the league, and his 77.9 Total QBR isn't far behind Jackson's (80.2). Mahomes isn't the 2019 MVP and might not be the runner-up in the voting, but he is finishing the season in a way that should scare his playoff opponents.

Keeps it interesting award: Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A week ago, a few of us were asked to project where Winston would play next season. I had a hard time believing that coach Bruce Arians would want any quarterback who commits as many turnovers as Winston, who leads the league with 29. But it's easy to see how alluring Winston might be to the Buccaneers' front office after watching him throw for 918 yards the past two weeks, including 458 and four touchdowns in a 38-17 victory over the Detroit Lions.

All four of Winston's touchdown passes came on throws that traveled at least 10 yards in the air, bringing his season total on such throws to an NFL-high 16. If nothing else, he has displayed an undeniable ability to make up quickly for his mistakes with big plays. According to the NFL, the Bucs lead the league in plays that impact win probability by at least 10%.

That's no way to win a championship and maybe not even to make the non-fantasy playoffs. But I'll be the first to admit that the Winston decision will be one of the NFL's most difficult this offseason.

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