We've hit the post-Thanksgiving crucible of the NFL season, where the playoff heavyweights separate themselves from the pack, and the featherweights look forward to what might come in the offseason.
The pressure of the upcoming weeks can show the resolve of some clubs and the fragility of others. Coaches are tasked with steeling their players to withstand the brutality of the stretch run to ensure success into January.
Every head coach faces a different challenge.
For some, playoff success is paramount. In a zero-sum league, how a team reacts when the competition ratchets up will define a coach's tenure. Fail too many times on the biggest stage, and they enter limbo as a good coach who can't get a team over the hump.
For others, even in a lost campaign, it's about proving that they're the right person to steer the ship into a brighter future.
The final six weeks will reaffirm or break the narratives surrounding a host of coaches. Let's take a gander at 10 with the most to prove down the stretch.
PLAYOFF SUCCESS OR BUST
It's all about the postseason for Dallas. With the Cowboys sitting at 8-3, it would take an epic collapse for them to miss the playoffs. If that happens, I believe McCarthy is gone -- even if the cause is Dak Prescott's arm spontaneously exploding and Micah Parsons being miraculously transported to Knowhere. The bigger question is whether the coach can lead them to a playoff win. Jerry Jones can spout all the flowery language he wants when asked about McCarthy until January. It's the postseason performance that matters. Dallas hasn't advance beyond the Divisional Round since 1995. Last season, the Cowboys went 12-5 and got bounced in the first round. If that happens again, surely a seething Jones will be ready for another change -- particularly with Sean Payton potentially available.
Fourth-down decisions aside, Staley's club has underperformed while facing lofty expectations through his first 28 games on the job. Still, the Chargers sit at 6-5 with a chance to make a run at the postseason. Yes, they have dealt with rough injuries, but so have most clubs. I'd love to beg offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi to open up the offense to utilize Justin Herbert's massive arm and athleticism, but that'd be like asking a Christmas elf to play Santa Claus -- not in the DNA. Staley's Chargers have yet to beat a team that currently has a record of .500 or better. Two close losses to Kansas City do not a successful season make. I believe Staley needs a strong end-of-season run to the playoffs to ensure he gets a third campaign. The Chargers would likely have the most desirable head-coaching spot if it opened this offseason.
After replacing Bruce Arians, Bowles has come under heavy heat in Tampa for conservative game management and a club playing below its talent level. The offense has been an inconsistent mess, with the Tom Brady-Mike Evans connection looking lost in the Bermuda Triangle. The defense has been gashed and can't get off the field in critical spots. Bowles' club has lost to four opponents that currently have losing records, including a dismal 21-3 defeat at Carolina. Not trusting the G.O.A.T. to avoid a turnover late in Sunday's overtime loss in Cleveland underscored the errors that have plagued Bowles in his return to the big chair. At 5-6, Tampa still leads the dismal NFC South. Bowles needs a strong December to silence the critics and have any chance to make noise in the postseason.
Not all stretch runs are created equal. The Bills built a roster to contend for the Super Bowl. Now McDermott must get his club to that game. Despite significant injuries, Buffalo has the talent to contend with anyone. They have horses on defense, playmakers on offense and an MVP-caliber quarterback in Josh Allen. McDermott was part of those 2000s Andy Reid-led Philadelphia teams that gobbled up a lot of wins but never hoisted the hardware at the end of the season. He doesn't want to end up in that same boat. McDermott has pushed the Bills from an also-ran to a nice story to a perennial contender. It's time to take the next step.
It might be too late to stop the Broncos from bucking Hackett after one season. It's been putrid performance after putrid performance from Denver, beginning with the Week 1 decision to attempt a ludicrously long field goal in the final minute to ineptitude Sunday against a three-win Carolina club. Hackett is supposed to be an offensive coach. His offense is the worst in the NFL -- scoring more than 16 points twice in 11 games -- and it's not even particularly close. The coach recently gave up play-calling to try to jumpstart the broken operation. It hasn’t worked so far. There hasn't been anything Hackett has done that he can hang his hat on to show management why he deserves another season. With new ownership, Hackett's future seems a fait accompli. It might take winning out to give Hackett a chance to return, but with games against Baltimore, Kansas City (twice), and the Chargers in the final weeks, that seems about as likely as you and I winning the lotto four straight times.
The Saints' offseason moves suggested they were here to contend. Nope. Instead, New Orleans has been dismal through 12 games. Allen's club is undisciplined (among the league leaders with 80 penalties), can't sustain consistent offense and comes unglued in key moments. The inability of offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael to get playmakers like Alvin Kamara in space underscores how much New Orleans misses Sean Payton. Maybe Carmichael becomes the scapegoat for the disappointing campaign, but Allen has done nothing to suggest he can turn around a sinking ship. Sunday's shutout loss to San Francisco dropped Allen's career head-coaching record to 12-36 (8-28 with the Raiders from 2012 to 2014). It will take a big late-season run to quell the throng of Saints fans calling for Allen's job.
The Cardinals have crashed and burned down the stretch after hot starts in previous years under Kingsbury. At 4-8 entering a Week 13 bye, Kingsbury is now just trying to avoid a full-scale disaster. The Cards' offense -- the coach's supposed fortè -- sleepwalks for long stretches and gets hamstrung in key moments. The defense has been smashed, giving up 25 or more points six times. If Kingsbury can't kick his offense into gear, he brings little to the table. From suspect play-calling to weak game management, Kingsbury is the Office Space "What would you say ... you do here?" quote personified. A new contract signed this past offseason is the only thing that might save his job with another brutal end run.
The Texans are the worst team in the NFL. It's not close. To be sure, Houston is a talent-poor club, but Smith and his staff haven't exactly raised the play of the group. The Texans don't have a franchise quarterback on the roster. Throughout his career as a head coach, Smith hasn't shown the ability to nurture that position. Would the front office be comfortable with him developing a signal-caller if the Texans draft one with their top pick? The decision to hire Smith after unceremoniously dumping David Culley (whose team battled) after one season seemed odd at the time. It looks no better months later. Houston needs to see growth and grit down the stretch to have confidence in Smith long-term. The question for owner Cal McNair regarding Smith's future is whether he wants to pay for another one-and-done head coach.
PROVEN WINNER FACING NEW CHALLENGE
The Rams have suffered brutal luck, with the offensive line devastated by injuries, Matthew Stafford in the concussion protocol for the second time this season, Cooper Kupp placed on injured reserve and now Aaron Donald dealing with an ankle injury. No one expects the defending Super Bowl champs to bounce back and make a postseason run in the final six weeks. How McVay handles the adversity will say a lot about the culture he's cultivated in L.A. It's easy to bask in the praise when everything goes your way. Will the Rams battle down the stretch or pack it in and stare at last season's Lombardi? Is McVay regretting not going out on top, sliding into a cushy TV job? Touted as a wunderkind, it's on McVay to show he can pull a club through the roughest patch of his tenure.
A LOT TO PROVE
Fair or not, Saturday is under more scrutiny than any interim head coach in recent memory. That happens when the owner plucks a former player from a broadcast analyst role with zero coaching experience at the pro or collegiate level to take over. Saturday's first game was a nice story, but since then, the inexperience has been highlighted, most notably with Monday night's end-of-game management against Pittsburgh. The Colts battle hard, but that wasn't exactly an issue under Frank Reich. They're still a flawed team, and the interim hasn't changed that fact. The more errors that mount, the more pressure will be on Saturday to prove it wasn’t a mistake to hire him.