The pressure of the pro game can also mount on young signalcallers. This year's class of rookie quarterbacks will set an NFL record for most starts by a first-year crop, and they have had their fair share of moments to come through, or crumble in the clutch.
In Week 14, Cam Newton, Jake Locker and T.J. Yates all had the ball with the clock winding down and a chance to tie or win the game.
Newton's Panthers blew a 16-point halftime lead and were facing a 31-23 deficit with 4:17 remaining, and one of Newton's two interceptions had led to a Falcons score, aiding Atlanta's comeback. Newton hit his favorite target, Steve Smith, for a 48-yard gain, putting the Panthers at the Falcons' 32-yard line with 3:54 to go. A neutral zone infraction gave Carolina an extra five yards, but Newton threw four consecutive incomplete passes, giving Atlanta the ball back to run out the clock.
Locker entered the game for Matt Hasselbeck and got the ball with 1:34 left and a chance to beat Drew Brees and the Saints, which would have kept the Titans holding on to the final AFC playoff spot. Locker completed passes of 25, 10 and 40 yards to set the Titans up at the Saints' five-yard line with seven seconds left. That's where Locker's youth came into play. He took a sack instead of throwing the ball away and giving his team one more chance, thus ending the game.
Then there was Yates, the fifth-round, third-string quarterback who got the ball with 2:33 to go, trailing the Bengals by six. Yates used short-to-intermediate throws to march the team past midfield, but his best play was a 17-yard scramble on 3rd-and-15. A pass-interference penalty set Yates up at the six-yard line, where he hit Kevin Walter for the game-winning touchdown. Yates' heroics gave the Texans their first playoff berth as a franchise.
On the sideline watching Yates' comeback win was another rookie, Bengals QB Andy Dalton. As successful as Dalton has been this season, fourth-quarter success has eluded him. He is tied for the league lead with six interceptions in the last stanza (half of his total interceptions), compared to only three TD passes. Dalton's passer rating in the fourth quarter is 59.5, more than 20 points lower than his overall passer rating.
Newton has thrown five picks and four touchdowns in the fourth quarter. With the Panthers often trailing, Newton is near the top of the league with 151 passing attempts in the fourth.
Surprisingly, Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert, who has struggled all season, has just one interception out of 99 fourth-quarter attempts. He has tossed only two touchdowns, but Gabbert's ball security late in games is noteworthy.
All of the rookie quarterbacks will have plenty of opportunities to do what Yates did on Sunday, and this year's class is getting plenty of chances to see what fourth-quarter football is like in the NFL.
1. Broncos OLB Von Miller (first round, second overall pick)
Last week's ranking: 1
Imagine how much attention Miller would be getting if he weren't on the same team as Tim Tebow. Miller got another sack in the Broncos' overtime win over the Bears and added an extra tackle for loss and QB hit among his five tackles. He is seventh in the league in sacks and one ahead of Aldon Smith for the rookie lead, but Miller has 36 more tackles than Smith.
2. Panthers QB Cam Newton (1, 1)
Last week's ranking: 2
In yet another close loss, Newton completed 19-of-39 passes for 276 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He added 36 rushing yards on seven carries and was actually held out of the endzone on the ground. Newton should pass Peyton Manning next week for the most passing yards in a season by a rookie quarterback and is on pace for 4,000 passing yards.
3. Bengals QB Andy Dalton (2, 35)
Last week's ranking: 3
Dalton had another tough day throwing the football against the league's top defense. He completed 16-of-28 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown, but the Bengals' loss has Dalton on the outside of the playoff picture. Back-to-back games against two NFC West opponents, the Rams and Cardinals, should give Dalton opportunities to get Cincy a chance to pad his own stats and get back into the wild-card chase.
4. Bengals WR A.J. Green (1, 4)
Last week's ranking: 4
Green was held out of the endzone but led the Bengals with five catches for 59 yards on seven targets in the loss to Houston. Green has 891 receiving yards and is on pace to be the first rookie receiver to compile more than 1,000 yards receiving since Marques Colston in 2006.
5. 49ers OLB Aldon Smith (1, 7)
Last week's ranking: 7
Smith racked up four tackles, a sack, one tackle for loss and one QB hit in the Niners' loss to Arizona and trails Miller by one sack for the rookie lead. Smith will get a chance to impress on a national stage in Week 15 against the Steelers on "Monday Night Football."
6. Redskins OLB Ryan Kerrigan (1, 16)
Last week's ranking: 5
Kerrigan was held in check by fellow rookie OT Nate Solder in the Redskins' loss to the Patriots. Kerrigan and Solder went against each other in Senior Bowl practices, with Kerrigan winning more often than not, but he was shut out on Sunday. He did get Solder on the ground on one play and had a QB hit but could not sack Tom Brady. Kerrigan had only one tackle.
7. Texans DE J.J. Watt (1, 11)
Last week's ranking: 8
Watt had four tackles, a tackle for loss and his 12th QB hit in the Texans' win over the Bengals. Watt's 10 tackles for loss are tied for the team lead.
8. Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray (3, 71)
Last week's ranking: 6
Murray's fractured ankle will begin his fall from grace on the meter. He had five carries for 25 yards and one catch for six yards before suffering a season-ending injury. He still holds a sizable lead among running backs with 897 rushing yards, but Roy Helu could catch Murray. One of the knocks on Murray coming into the draft was his durability, and this injury significantly hurts the Cowboys' playoff chances.
9. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson (1, 5)
Last week's ranking: 9
Peterson had five punt returns for 44 yards in the Cardinals' upset win over the 49ers. On defense, he recorded his first career sack among five total tackles.
10. Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin (undrafted)
Last week's ranking: NR
Baldwin had the most all-around effort by a rookie in Week 14, maybe all season. He opened the Monday-night game against the Rams with a 37-yard kick return on a reverse and then downed the Seahawks' ensuing punt at the Rams' six-yard line. When the Rams were forced to punt, Baldwin flew in and got the block, which was picked up and returned by the Seahawks for a touchdown. And that was just on special teams. Baldwin had seven catches for 93 yards and a touchdown. He is second to Green among rookies in receiving yards with 718 and leads the class with 18 catches of 20-plus yards.
On the cusp (listed alphabetically)
Buccaneers DE Adrian Clayborn (1, 20)
Bills DT Marcell Dareus (1, 3)
Redskins RB Roy Helu (4, 105)
Falcons WR Julio Jones (1, 6)
Titans DT Karl Klug (5, 142)
Texans OLB Brooks Reed (2, 42)
Browns OLB Jabaal Sheard (2, 37)
Ravens WR Torrey Smith (2, 58)
Browns DT Phil Taylor (1, 21)
Jets DE Muhammad Wilkerson (1, 30)
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