Michael Vick, Sam Bradford and Blaine Gabbert have two things in common. One, they quarterback losing teams that rank in the bottom six in the NFL in scoring. Two, they all have a better quarterback rating than Andrew Luck, who has helped lead the Colts to a 9-4 record and a 22.5 points-per-game average that ranks 17th in the league.
The deficiencies of the quarterback rating metric are well-documented, but it is particularly ineffective when it comes to evaluating the performance of young signalcallers. That's because the formula — which is far too complicated to explain in a space such as this — is structured so that it rewards efficiency more than actual performance. Completion percentage, touchdowns per attempt and interceptions per attempt are three of the four categories used to calculate the NFL's version of the quarterback rating. And as we all know, offensive coordinators tend orchestrate game plans in a more conservative manner with an inexperienced quarterback at the helm. While that approach might be good for a quarterback's rating, it isn't necessarily good for winning.
Look at it from a microscopic point of view. Let's say Rookie A faces Rookie B in a game. On their first two drives of the game, both quarterbacks face a third-and-10. Rookie A checks down on both third-down plays, completing passes for 7 and 8 yards. He is 2-for-2 for 15 yards, but his team has to punt both times. Rookie B, on the other hand, throws a deep incompletion on his first drive to force a punt. But on his next third-and-10, Rookie B hits a wide receiver for 15 yards and a first down. Rookie B is 1-for-2 for 15 yards, giving him a lower quarterback rating. But clearly, Rookie B has done more in this small sample size to increase his team's chances of scoring.
Luck's brilliance is quantified best when you look at the Colts' performance on third down. Heading into Week 15, Indy had tallied first downs on 40.6 percent of its third-down passing attempts, which ranked ninth in the NFL. The teams ranked in front of them feature a who's who of quarterbacks: the Patriots, Broncos, Falcons, Cowboys, Lions, Steelers, Saints and Packers. Only the Packers faced a longer average to-go situation on those plays (an average of third-and-7.81 compared to the Colts' third-and-7.75). Luck's 1,101 passing yards on third down were second-most in the game behind Matthew Stafford.
So, with all that said, I'm leaning toward taking the Texans at -9 this week. As impressive as Luck has been this season, the Colts are in playoff contention only because they have played the easiest schedule in the NFL (according to ESPN's strength-of-schedule calculations). Their only two victories against teams with winning records came against the Packers in Week 5, and against the fraudulent Vikings in Week 2. When they do lose to a superior opponent, they lose bad: 41-21 to the Bears, 35-9 to the Jets, and 59-24 to the Patriots. The thing all three of those teams have in common is a veteran defensive coaching staff. The most impressive part of Luck's game has been his ability to complete passes with defensive lineman hanging on his shoulder pads. The Colts' pass protection has been brutal, and I'm not sure that even Luck is good enough to weave his way through the stout Texans front seven that is sure to engulf him. I'll be rooting for him, because it is impossible not to root for this Indianpolis team. But I'll be betting against him.
TAKE THE CHARGE
I finally gave up on taking the Chargers in my pool last week, which of course meant that it was the week that they finally covered. Let's hope they make it two in a row, because I like them at -3 at home against the Panthers.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
You can't ignore the Cowboys' struggles in December, nor can you ignore Mike Tomlin's track record in crunch time. There are winning teams, and there are losing teams. As depleted as the Steelers have been this season, they are winners, and I'll take the +1 on the road.
ROUNDING IT OUT