This is how you know things are going well: Bucs fans are happy with their quarterback and couldn't care less about how Marcus Mariota is doing in Tennessee, and Titans fans are happy with their quarterback and couldn't care less about how Jameis Winston is doing in Tampa.
Winston or Mariota? Mariota or Winston? Leading up to the draft, the conventional wisdom was that one was going to be a franchise quarterback and the other was going to be a bust. History told us so. Before Winston or Mariota, there was Bledsoe or Mirer, Manning or Leaf, and Luck or Griffin III.
Winston and Mariota won a combined nine games last season. They didn't take the NFL by storm, but they performed well enough to inspire hope that they soon would be considered among the league's best quarterbacks.
That time is now. For both of them.
Winston and Mariota struggled at the start of their sophomore campaigns but have rebounded, their turnarounds helping to transform their teams into playoff contenders. Mariota ranks in the top 10 in quarterback rating, ESPN's QBR and Football Outsiders' DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). Winston is right there with Mariota in QBR and DVOA, but his quarterback rating ranks 20th.
|QB rating (rank)||QBR (rank)||DVOA (rank)|
|Winston||90.0 (20)||68.8 (11)||9.7 percent (11)|
|Mariota||101.9 (5)||68.9 (10)||11.7 percent (9)|
Over the past quarter of the season, we've seen Winston and Mariota take a step forward in each game. Let's review.
• • •
Week 10: Tampa Bay 36, Chicago 10
Key stats: When not under pressure, Winston completed 20 of 24 passes for 247 yards and two touchdowns.
What we learned: This was the "I'm not a loser" game. The Bucs were coming off two home losses in five days, and at 3-5, they didn't look any better than last season's team that finished 6-10.
When asked how he stayed confident after losing 15 of the first 24 games of his career, Winston responded, "Confidence-wise, it's easy, because I'm not a loser. We're winners in this building."
No play better represents Winston's drive to win than the play in which he scrambled around the field to avoid a sack and then heaved a 39-yard pass to Mike Evans.
"When you pull the ball down and the protection breaks down, the first thing you do is think, 'How can you extend the play and get out of here?'" Winston said. "The linemen, they just kept blocking. They didn't give up."
On the next play, he completed a 43-yard touchdown pass to Freddie Martino that put Tampa Bay up 24-10.
Week 11: Tampa Bay 19, Kansas City 17
Key stats: On third down, Winston completed 12 of 14 passes for 133 yards and a touchdown.
What we learned: The Bucs adopted the Chiefs' brand of football: Don't try to do too much, but do just enough. Play field position. Wait for the other team to make a mistake.
Winston made his share — he lost a fumble and was fortunate that Kansas City dropped two interceptions — but Alex Smith made the costliest mistake, throwing an interception in the end zone that safety Chris Conte returned to midfield.
On Tampa Bay's next possession, Winston converted three third downs and capped the drive with a touchdown pass for the deciding score.
Winston was money on third down. On a third-and-3 before the two-minute warning, he proved he can finish when he fired a 14-yard strike to Evans that effectively ended the game.
Week 12: Tampa Bay 14, Seattle 5
Key stats: When he had a clean pocket, Winston posted the highest completion percentage (84.2) of the week and the seventh-best quarterback rating (119.7).
What we learned: Against the Chiefs, the Bucs let the game unfold. Against the Seahawks, they set the tone.
On a third-and-12 on the opening drive, Winston dropped a 26-yard pass to Evans over two defenders. Later in the drive, Winston ran a bootleg left and flicked a 3-yard touchdown pass to Evans.
On the Bucs' second drive, Winston attacked All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, ccompleting another touchdown pass to Evans, this time for 23 yards.
A season ago, Winston and Evans weren't clicking to this degree. Now they are in sync. Aikman-Irvin, Manning-Harrison, Brady-Moss … Winston-Evans?
Week 13: Tampa Bay 28, San Diego 21
Key stats: When blitzed, Winston completed nine of 11 passes for 136 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
What we learned: This was his most consistent performance yet. He was calm, confident and accurate in his first fourth-quarter comeback this season. We saw him hit receivers in stride or lead them to open windows. We saw fewer overthrows and instances of receivers reaching back to catch passes.
One third-quarter pass might be an indication of Winston's growth as a decision-maker. He faked a handoff to Doug Martin and looked deep for Russell Shepard. He started to throw but saw that two defensive backs had Shepard covered and reconsidered. Instead, he checked down to Martin, who picked up 23 yards and a first down. The Bucs kicked a field goal that cut the Chargers' lead to 14-10.
• • •
Week 9: San Diego 43, Tennessee 35
Key stats: The Chargers scored 17 points off three Mariota turnovers.
What we learned: The Titans can put up points in a hurry. After Tennessee fell behind 19-7, Mariota led two 75-yard scoring drives: one in the final two minutes of the first half and the other, which he capped with a 14-yard run, at the start of the second half. On the two drives, Mariota was 12-of-15 passing for 136 yards.
In the end, Tennessee could not overcome Mariota's two interceptions and fumble. On the first interception, he misread the coverage. On the second, the cornerback jumped the receiver's route and returned the interception for a touchdown. The Chargers also returned Mariota's fumble for a touchdown. He hasn't turned the ball over since.
Both Winston and Mariota have fumbled seven times this season and lost four of them. They are tied with five other quarterbacks in most fumbles lost.
Week 10: Tennessee 47, Green Bay 25
Week 12: Tennessee 27, Chicago 21
Key stats: Mariota completed six of 12 deep passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns.
What we learned: Heading into the season, there was no doubt Mariota could attack the short and intermediate zones of the field with quick, precise passes. His deep ball was arguably his greatest weakness.
As he showed against the Packers and Bears, his deep ball is now a strength.
His accuracy has improved significantly, thanks in no small part to a better offensive line, particularly at left and right tackle. The line allowed 105 hits last season, seventh most. This season's unit has allowed 37, second fewest.
The Titans average 4.8 yards a carry, up from 4.0 yards a season ago. Because opponents have had to account for the run, Tennessee is seeing more favorable matchups downfield.
The offseason signing of Rishard Matthews (48 catches, 669 yards, seven touchdowns) has given Mariota a reliable target beside tight end Delanie Walker (49 catches, 657 yards, six touchdowns).
Week 11: Indianapolis 24, Tennessee 17
Key stats: When blitzed, Mariota completed nine of 11 passes for 131 yards and two touchdowns.
What we learned: The Titans can't beat the Colts. They've lost 11 straight to their division rivals, and this one might have cost them a playoff spot.
This loss isn't on Mariota, though. The Colts scored touchdowns on their first three possessions. Five minutes into the second quarter, the Titans trailed 21-0.
If the defense catches up with the offense, the Titans soon could enjoy an extended run atop the AFC South.
Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.