NFL QB Hot Sheet: Saints’ Drew Brees builds case for MVP

Every Wednesday during the NFL season, USA TODAY Sports will assess everyone's favorite topic: quarterbacks. Who's hot? Who's not? Who has the most exciting matchups?

Here's this week's QB Hot Sheet:

Five to watch this week

1. Cam Newton, Panthers: A thrilling Thursday night matchup against the Steelers will be Newton’s latest chance to put his increased efficiency under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner on display. Pittsburgh ranks fourth in sacks (26), but Newton has gotten improved protection from his front and is difficult to take down.

2. Tom Brady, Patriots: Not only do the Titans have the NFL’s top scoring defense (17.6 points a game), but head coach Mike Vrabel – who was Brady’s teammate from 2001-08 – is very familiar with New England. Brady and the Pats offense have found their stride in recent weeks, but Tennessee is fresh off of an impressive performance in which it allowed the Cowboys to convert just one of four trips to the red zone.

3. Dak Prescott, Cowboys: The addition of receiver Amari Cooper to the offense offered a boost, but Prescott – especially in a first-quarter interception in the end zone – too often forced the ball. Dallas’ play calling remains inconsistent, and with a huge Sunday night showdown against the division-rival Eagles, Prescott will need to shine.

4. Baker Mayfield, Browns: Cleveland showed improvements with Freddie Kitchens taking over the offense, but Mayfield will need to be even better against the high-scoring Falcons. Look for running back Duke Johnson again to be a factor in the passing game after recording two touchdown catches last week.

5. Nick Mullens, 49ers: Making his debut as an undrafted free agent who had never taken a regular-season snap, Mullens posted a record-setting Thursday night against the Raiders. Now, with a Monday night battle against the Giants looming, Mullens will get his chance to show it wasn’t a fluke. Look for coach Kyle Shanahan to replicate what worked: quick-release throws, play-action and scheming receivers open.

Three trending up

1. Mullens: The Niners invested in Jimmy Garoppolo as their franchise QB, so Mullens' only has so many games left as San Francisco's starter. But Mullens could continue to hold the role over backup C.J. Beathard if his efficient and productive play continues.

2. Drew Brees, Saints: He carved up a star-studded Rams defense for 346 yards and four touchdowns. As the man at the center of the league's No. 2 scoring offense, Brees is a legitimate MVP candidate.

3. Matt Ryan, Falcons: He finally connected with receiver Julio Jones in the end zone, and posted 350 yards, four touchdowns and one interception against the Redskins while helping keep Atlanta in the playoff race. Over his last six games he has a 17:1 TD-to-interception ratio.

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