Lined up in the shotgun, Jameis Winston took the snap, dropped back three steps and fired the ball toward Mike Evans down the right sideline.
The linebacker tracked running back Charles Sims into the flat but kept his eyes on Winston in the backfield. The ball spiraled toward Evans but got only halfway to its destination. The defender — directly in the ball's path — jumped, snagged it out of the air and cradled it as he hit the turf.
That was seven weeks ago against the Carolina Panthers, and it was Winston's fourth interception, and fifth turnover, of the afternoon. The 37-23 loss, which dropped the Bucs to 1-3, was ugly, yet familiar. For the 25th game in a row, they gave the ball to their opponent.
A forlorn Winston talked after the game about the importance of bouncing back.
"I will never lose my confidence," the rookie insisted. "I'll never lose it. Confidence will never be an issue. I've just got to work harder."
Since that game, Winston has thrown nine touchdowns and only two interceptions and emerged as an NFL offensive rookie of the year candidate. The Bucs have gone 4-2, the latest win a 45-17 headturner against the Eagles in Philadelphia on Sunday. Suddenly, broadcasts' playoff picture graphics are showing Tampa Bay as one of the NFC teams that are "in the hunt."
On his way to five touchdown passes — tying Matthew Stafford's rookie record — Winston picked apart the Eagles' soft man-to-man defense. Short, intermediate, deep — he beat them all over the football field. And with Vincent Jackson back in the fold, Winston leaned a little less on Mike Evans and spread the ball around much more effectively, targeting five receivers at least four times.
The offensive line was an area of concern coming into the season, and one adjustment the Bucs have made to compensate is the use of formations featuring an extra lineman and/or a second tight end. As game film analysts Greg Cosell and Ron Jaworski noted on Twitter this week, the Bucs used six offensive linemen against the Eagles on 15.7 percent of their snaps, the most in the NFL. Winston was perfect in those situations, completing all six of his passes for 90 yards and two touchdowns.
Winston wasn't flawless, however. He was fortunate the Eagles dropped two potential interceptions in the second quarter, one by safety Malcolm Jenkins in the end zone when the Bucs led 14-7 and one by linebacker Connor Barwin in the red zone when the Bucs led 21-14. In both cases, Winston threw a touchdown on the next play.
Marcus Mariota's stat line wasn't as flashy — he completed 22 of 35 passes for 231 yards — but the No. 2 overall pick was solid in the Tennessee Titans' 19-13 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. For the second straight game, he didn't throw a touchdown pass, but he did score his first rushing touchdown. The 23-yarder is the longest touchdown run by a quarterback this season and longest by a Titans quarterback since Vince Young's 28-yarder in December 2006.
Once again, Mariota excelled when throwing short and intermediate passes, completing 19 of 21 attempts (not counting two spikes) under 15 yards. He completed just three of 12 passes beyond 15 yards, with the third completion — a 17-yarder to Dorial Green-Beckham — coming in the final seconds of the fourth quarter as the Titans' tried to rally for a game-winning touchdown.
For the third time this season, Mariota targeted tight end Delanie Walker 10 times. Walker, whose 66 targets leads the team, caught eight passes Sunday for 109 yards. He has been a safety valve in the truest sense; in at least two instances, Walker has bailed Mariota out of bad decisions and caught passes that defenders tipped. He took one 61 yards for a touchdown against the Saints in Week 9 and was in the right place at the right time again Sunday, snatching a deflection off linebacker Telvin Smith's hands.
Here's how Winston and Mariota compare in their past four games.
A week after posting his lowest rating of the season — 55.9 against the Dallas Cowboys — Winston posted his highest, his 131.6 against the Eagles besting his 128.1 against Washington. His overall rating, which had fallen three straight weeks, rose 6.4 points to 86.5 and now resembles the ratings of Matt Ryan (87.8) and Jim Kelly (83.7) at the same point in their careers, according to our database of quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 1980.
Mariota earned an 81.8 rating against the Jaguars, and although his overall rating dropped from 98.3 to 96.1, he has yet to fall behind Winston. Mariota trails only Ben Roethlisberger (101.3) and Robert Griffin III (101) through the first 11 weeks of their careers.
Total Quarterback Rating (QBR)
ESPN's QBR rates quarterbacks on a 0-100 scale. Last week, Mariota (37.2, 21st) and Winston (33.6, 23rd) failed to crack the top 20. This week, Winston led all quarterbacks with a 94.7 QBR, while Mariota finished sixth with a 81.8 QBR. It's the first time this season both finished in the top six. Overall, they're nearly tied, with Mariota nipping Winston by 0.3.
Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA)
For the first time this season, Winston has crossed over into positive territory in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, which measures a quarterback's value on a per play basis relative to the league average. The formula factors in down, distance and situation. Throughout the season, DVOA also adjusts for strength of opponent, which QBR does not do. A positive percentage indicates an above-average player and a negative percentage indicates a below-average player.
Winston's DVOA, which jumped from minus-5.5 percent to 3.4 percent, ranks 13th, behind Philip Rivers (6.5) and Kirk Cousins (5.9). He's ahead of several veteran quarterbacks with impressive resumes, including Week 11 twin Cam Newton (1.2), Russell Wilson (1.2), Eli Manning (0.9) and Matt Ryan (0.2).
Mariota's DVOA dropped into negative territory after he threw two interceptions in a 38-10 Week 5 loss to the Miami Dolphins. He has rebounded some but not completely. This week, his DVOA increased modestly from minus-7.3 to minus-4.2, which ranks 20th.
Thomas Bassinger can be reached at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.