• The first two picks of the 2015 draft face measuring-stick games this weekend with their teams fighting for playoff spots. Would the Winston-Mariota debate be any different knowing what we know now?
By Chris Burke
December 16, 2016

In February at the NFL scouting combine, Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter revealed that he was not exactly convinced from the outset that Jameis Winston was the right choice atop the 2015 draft.

“I was probably one of the last people holding out going through the whole process last year,” Koetter said, via the Tampa Bay Times. “There was plenty of other people convinced way before I was that this was the guy. … I was only a holdout in that we were basically comparing two really good players: Jameis and Marcus Mariota. Both really, really good players. And my job that I was assigned was more the film evaluation part.”

Koetter, then the Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator and now its first-year head coach, has Tampa Bay on the verge of a playoff berth with Winston at the helm. Mike Mularkey has woven a similar thread in Tennessee. Like Koetter, he was named the interim head coach partway through the 2015 season, won the permanent job ahead of 2016 and now is fighting for the postseason.

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Winston has thrown for 3,364 yards and 23 touchdowns so far this season. Mariota has 3,086 yards, 25 touchdowns and an additional 348 yards on the ground.

Both are playing well. Both are leading vastly improved teams. But they always will be compared to each other. As such, this question:

The vote stayed relatively close throughout, and rightly so. It is difficult to say now that either Winston or Mariota is, and will continue to be, far superior to the other. Both teams found what they needed atop the ’15 draft: a franchise quarterback around which to build an offense.

Personally, if given a vote—and it’s my poll, so I think it’s allowed—I’d go with Mariota, with an agreeing nod toward Koetter because I also preferred Mariota to Winston based off their college efforts. The main reason I would make the Mariota call now is the same as it was then: His skill set pushes the door further open if you want your team running a more varied, unique offense. He has made exceptional strides as an NFL passer, too (last week’s game against Denver aside), and the Titans have used that to their advantage in crafting a scheme that’s very difficult to defend.

That’s not meant as a slight against Winston, though. Again, so much of this debate simply revolves around what a person prefers at QB or in scheme. As with Mariota, Winston has improved from the pocket, as his command of what’s going on around him has sharpened. The turnovers still happen too often—he has 12 interceptions and has fumbled seven times—but Winston has played well against a handful of outstanding defenses.

We often go searching for a definitive answer in these cases, like we have all year in the case of Dak Prescott vs. the rest of the 2016 QBs. What makes the Winston-Mariota debate so enthralling is that there is a legitimate case on each side.

The old guard of quarterbacks is growing … well, older. Peyton Manning retired, Tom Brady is 39, Drew Brees is 37, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers are 35, Carson Palmer left his throwing ability somewhere around Charlotte last January. It’s not just that every team in the league is desperate to keep or find standout quarterbacks, but that the league needs them to. The NFL is at its best when its QBs are performing at a high level. As those long-time veterans start heading off into the sunset, a new group has to take their place.

Winston and Mariota have a long way to go before they’re thought of like Brady or Brees or either Manning. They are, however, off to outstanding starts, and both of their franchises are far better now than when they first arrived.

So, take your pick. It’s hard to go wrong.

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Four-Man Front

A quartet of players who could be key to this week’s matchups:

1. Bilal Powell, RB, Jets: Matt Forte would like to give it a go Saturday despite a torn meniscus. The Jets might be better off keeping him sidelined and letting Powell go to work. The versatile backup rushed for 145 yards on a season-high 28 carries last week, scoring twice. He is averaging 5.8 yards per carry on the year and also has 42 receptions.

2. Daniel Sorensen, LB, Chiefs: Sorensen played 54 snaps last week, due to Derrick Johnson exiting with an injury. While he may see less work Sunday against the Titans’ physical ground game, he is the clear-cut top choice whenever the defensive sub packages are required. Tennessee is capable of spreading the field and still running between the tackles, so Sorensen will have to clean up a bunch of plays.

3. Darius Slay, CB, Lions: The only player on the Giants’ offense who worries defenses at all is Odell Beckham Jr. Slay draws that matchup this week, all while dealing with a sore hamstring. (He was limited in practice Wednesday.) Shut down Beckham, and you shut down the Giants. Is Slay up to the task?

4. Kenneth Farrow, RB, Chargers: Farrow carried the ball 16 times and caught six passes last week, after Melvin Gordon had to be carted off the field with a hip injury. Assuming Gordon sits against Oakland, too, it’ll be Farrow and newcomer Ronnie Hillman splitting work in the backfield. The Raiders allow 4.7 yards per carry, third-worst in the NFL.

Last week: 11–5 overall (137-69-1 season), 9-6-1 vs. the spread (104-96-9 season).

Best pick in Week 14: Redskins 27, Eagles 23 (actual score: Redskins 27–22).

Worst pick in Week 14: Colts 34, Texans 17 (actual score: Texans 22–7).

Saturday marks the official start of bowl season, but that didn’t stop the NFL from dropping a prime-time AFC East matchup on the docket. What the league probably did not plan on when it scheduled this game: a) the Jets being five games under .500; and b) the QB matchup being Matt Moore–Bryce Petty. But with Ryan Tannehill sidelined with a sprained ACL and MCL, the Dolphins will trot out the veteran Moore to face off with the Jets’ 2015 fourth-rounder. Both quarterbacks are willing to push the envelope a bit, for better or worse. When Miami beat the Jets back in Week 9, Jay Ajayi rushed for 111 yards and a TD; the Jets just coughed up 248 yards rushing to San Francisco. But Miami’s offense has not traveled well, with four games of 14 or fewer points in six road trips.

Watchability index (out of 10): 6. Your football choices are this game or the New Orleans Bowl between Southern Miss and Louisiana. The bowl might be more entertaining.

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Matthew Stafford may be an MVP candidate, thanks in large part to his late-game heroics, but the Lions’ surge this season has been as much about their defense as anything. Against defenses ranked in the top half of the league for points allowed, the Lions are averaging just 204.8 yards passing—that’s 61 yards off Stafford’s pace for the year. Sunday, Stafford faces the Giants’ seventh-ranked scoring defense, with a banged-up middle finger on his throwing hand, in wintry conditions. Can the Giants score enough points to take advantage? They haven’t topped 300 total yards since Week 11 (but have gone 2–1 in that stretch nonetheless). This game pits the Lions’ No. 29 rushing attack against the Giants’ 31st-ranked group.

Watchability index: 8. An absolutely huge game within the NFC playoff picture, pitting two underrated defenses. The Lions are 0–2 in outdoor games this season.

Brock Osweiler has not exactly lit the world afire in his 20 career starts, but the Jaguars held him to his lowest output as a first-teamer: 99 yards in a 24–21 Houston win earlier this season. The Texans overcame Osweiler’s sluggish day because they rushed for 181 yards and won the turnover battle (2–0). They would like a little more out of Osweiler, but it’s O.K. to repeat the script—last week, the Texans nursed a lead against Indianapolis with 181 yards rushing and 131 passing. Osweiler can’t turn it over if he doesn’t have the ball in his hands. Blake Bortles might be able to find a way to pull that trick off, given how this season is going. He’ll need one of his best performances of the year, against the league’s No. 5 pass defense, to spring the upset.

Watchability index: 4. The Texans could lose this game and still control their AFC South fate, but winning would keep them on an easier path to the division crown.

The Bills’ Marcell Dareus guaranteed victory here, so perhaps that adds a little juice. Otherwise, there’s not much moving the needle. Buffalo would love to turn LeSean McCoy loose on Cleveland’s awful run defense, hold the ball for about 40 minutes and call it a day. For the Browns to hang, they’ll need a lot more chemistry between Robert Griffin III and his wide receivers. Corey Coleman and Terrelle Pryor were targeted a combined 14 times last week, resulting in four catches for 34 yards.

Watchability index: 2. Unless you believe the Bills can a) run the table and b) make the playoffs at 9–7 (the latter is unlikely), this game actually carries more weight in terms of draft positioning.

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Let’s talk about the Chiefs, shall we? They’re leading the AFC West, with a season sweep of the Raiders banked, and they have won eight of their last nine games. They also have a shaky run defense that just lost leading tackler Derrick Johnson (Achilles) for the season. This is a tough matchup to have immediately after that injury. Tennessee is averaging 144.5 yards rushing per game, behind DeMarco Murray’s lead, and it beat Denver last week despite throwing for just 73 yards. This game will mark another test for the suddenly surging Alex Smith. The Titans face the second-fewest rushing attempts per game (21.4) but the third-most passes (40). Teams obviously believe Tennessee can be had through the air.

Watchability index: 10. A Titans win could shift the entire balance of power within the AFC and AFC South. They’re capable of getting it done. But the Chiefs are sitting where they are for a reason.

If Carson Wentz were on a pitch count, the Eagles would be about ready to shut him down. The rookie has thrown 498 passes this season, with a whopping 44.7 attempts per game since Week 8. That probably won’t change Sunday because the Eagles are banged up in the backfield and Baltimore still boasts the league’s top rush defense. The Ravens have their own issues getting the run established. They ran the ball just 14 times Monday night in New England, against 52 throws. That split is way out of whack for a team that has had success in recent weeks and also has a burgeoning star in running back Kenneth Dixon. Could the Eagles catch the Ravens napping? Next week’s trip to Pittsburgh likely will make or break the Ravens’ season.

Watchability index: 5. While the Eagles have fallen apart in recent weeks, Wentz has an opportunity to regain a little mojo Sunday. He’ll have a tough time outdueling Joe Flacco.

The current high in Chicago’s Sunday forecast is negative-1 (without wind chill), meaning this is tailor-made for fans of old-school football, complete with steam rising from players’ heads on the sideline. We’ll see how Aaron Rodgers’s calf responds in the chill. Granted, the throwback feel might end with the visuals, if Week 7 was any indication. Rodgers threw 53 times in that game, a 26–10 Packers win in which the Bears lost quarterback Brian Hoyer for the year. Green Bay’s Ty Montgomery saw nine carries in the win, a season-high he matched last Sunday. His expanded role has made the offense more creative and balanced. Don’t sleep on Matt Barkley giving the Packers fits—he has played well in his three starts, despite almost no help from his receivers.

Watchability index: 7. The Bears should be more competitive than they were for the Thursday nighter. Green Bay–Chicago in the freezing cold is as classic as it gets.

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Nine of the Colts’ 13 opponents this season have rushed for 100 yards, including the Texans’ 185-yard outburst last Sunday. Is this the week Minnesota finally tops the century mark for the first time since Week 4? Well, reports are saying that Adrian Peterson—who suffered a torn mensicus in Week 2 and hasn’t played since—will be taking the field. Chances that he cracks the 100-yard mark is slim, but depending on his health, he could provide that level that the Vikings have been missing in their run game. If not, it’ll fall on Sam Bradford to power the offense again. He’s still leading the league in completion percentage (71.2) and last week started to get some return on that work with 292 yards and a TD. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen have turned into a solid 1-2 combo at receiver, while Kyle Rudolph draws a Colts D that has allowed almost 900 yards to opposing tight ends this season. Indianapolis is reeling. OL Jack Mewhort (knee) is now on IR, WR Donte Moncrief (hamstring) is questionable for Sunday and even Andrew Luck (shoulder) is ailing.

Watchability index: 5. This had flex-game potential at the start of the season. Now, the loser might be done in the playoff chase ... and the winner’s not going to be in great shape, either.

It’s no secret that Ben Roethlisberger has been a better QB at home than on the road this year—he has a 59.5% completion rate, eight TDs, eight INTs and a 76.3 QB rating outside of Pittsburgh. He also wasn’t all that good against Cincinnati earlier this season in a 24–16 win: 19 of 37 for 253 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions. Big Ben did not have Le’Veon Bell that afternoon; Bell is averaging 28.5 touches per game since his suspension ended. And Cincinnati is giving up 4.5 yards per carry. The mystery is if the Bengals’ wins in Weeks 13 and 14, over the Eagles and Browns, were signs of improvement or the poor opposition. They won’t have A.J. Green (hamstring) again.

Watchability index: 6. Whatever constitutes the Bengals’ best shot these days, the Steelers will get it on Sunday.

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The Disappointment Bowl, pitting a formerly high-powered Saints team that has slipped from 4–4 to 5–8 against a popular Super Bowl pick that’s losing key players by the week. Drew Brees has zero touchdowns and six interceptions the past two weeks, and his offense has a total of 24 points in that time. Shocking stuff, really, given what the Saints were doing not that long ago. Arizona does have the league’s No. 2 passing defense, but S Tyvon Branch and LB Deone Bucannon just landed on injured reserve. The David Johnson–Saints defense clash is a sneaky good one—New Orleans is allowing just 76.8 yards rushing in road games. On the other hand, that unit has given up the third-most yards receiving to opposing RBs this season (663), and Johnson is lethal as a receiver.

Watchability index: 6. If only there were more on the line, or if either Brees or Carson Palmer were playing well, this would be must-see football. None of those things are true.

Remember when Alabama played Chattanooga a week before the Iron Bowl? Yeah, this could look similar. Chattanooga actually led in that one after a quarter, 3–0, before losing by four touchdowns. And the 49ers, with Colin Kaepernick tending to start games strong and Carlos Hyde approaching 1,000 yards, could trouble the Falcons’ defense where it is weakest. Regardless, it’s almost impossible to envision the 49ers stopping the Falcons’ offense enough to pull this one off. The Niners have allowed 26 passing TDs this season (third most in the NFL), and the Jets just rushed for 248 yards on ’em last week.

Watchability index: 3. There might be fireworks throughout, but they’re probably going to be one-sided.

The Chargers pulled a Thursday night surprise on AFC West rival Denver earlier in the year. Can they trip up the Raiders this week? Philip Rivers has a prime opportunity to bounce back—he has failed to throw for 250 yards in three straight games after hitting that mark four times in a row. He also now has 17 interceptions, throwing one on 3.7% of his passes, a rate higher than every QB other than Ryan Fitzpatrick. Oakland’s Derek Carr has just five picks this year, but he is coming off a complete dud in Kansas City (17 of 41 for 117 yards). Dare he test NFL interceptions leader Casey Hayward, who figures to see plenty of Amari Cooper?

Watchability index: 7. The Raiders could be eliminated from the AFC West race Sunday, so they have a lot riding on their performance. Three of San Diego’s five wins have come against teams currently in playoff position; a fourth was over Tennessee.

The Patriots didn’t gash Baltimore in the run game last Monday, but they were persistent with that part of their attack: 26 attempts for 95 yards. Denver ought to be worried about that commitment to offensive balance, because it continues to have all sorts of problems slowing opposing backs. While the edge between New England’s receivers and Denver’s cornerbacks clearly rests with the home team (even with the Patriots’ late-week claiming of Michael Floyd off waivers), lead back LeGarrette Blount draws a Denver D allowing 127 yards rushing per game. The Broncos are now shuffling Devontae Booker and Justin Forsett in their backfield. The duo produced 18 yards on nine carries last week, while Trevor Siemian threw 51 times. If those numbers are not closer to a 50-50 split, the Broncos are in for another long afternoon.

Watchability: 9. No longer do we get the Tom Brady–Peyton Manning clash. Brady against the Denver secondary is a decent consolation prize.

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Dak Prescott is in a rut. The Tampa Bay defense is on a roll. Does either recent trend reverse Sunday night, or do the Buccaneers inch closer to wrapping up a playoff berth while simultaneously putting Dallas’s No. 1 seed in jeopardy? Tampa Bay is allowing just 12.8 points over its past five games, all wins, and it picked off Drew Brees thrice last Sunday. Elsewhere, Prescott fired two interceptions (doubling his season total) in a frustrating loss to the Giants. The Cowboys’ central focus again will be feeding Ezekiel Elliott against a beatable Tampa Bay run defense. The Bucs will try to do the same with Doug Martin—he’s had 87 combined carries the past four weeks. Early success from Martin would set up those Jameis Winston-to-Mike Evans shots downfield.

Watchability: 9. The NFC’s top team has appeared a touch vulnerable of late.

Surprise star of Week 15: Cameron Meredith, WR, Bears. Chicago might not have enough to knock off Green Bay, but Meredith has found a nice rapport with Matt Barkley. In Detroit last week, Meredith caught six passes for 72 yards and a TD.

Upset of the week: Tennessee (+5.5) over Kansas City. It’s asking a lot of Mariota to go into a frigid Arrowhead Stadium and emerge victorious. If all goes according to the Titans’ plans, though, he won’t even be needed that much as they test the Chiefs’ Derrick Johnson-less defense.

College upset of the week: Louisiana (+5) over Southern Miss, New Orleans Bowl. The Ragin’ Cajuns’ defense will have to lead the way, although Louisiana does feature one of the better under-the-radar running backs in the 2017 draft class: Elijah McGuire.

Eagle (-2)
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