In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 10 of the 2022 NFL season, including:
But first, a reminder of just how crucial the QB position is to winning in the NFL ...
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Anybody who watched the Tennessee Titans' 20-17 overtime loss to Kansas City on Sunday Night Football understood one simple reality: It's hard to win in this league when you can't throw. The Chiefs had an elite quarterback running their offense in Patrick Mahomes. The Titans were doing what they always do, relying on workhorse running back Derrick Henry to lead their team while letting the quarterback -- in this case, rookie signal-caller Malik Willis, filling in for starter Ryan Tannehill -- play a supporting role. In other words, Tennessee could create an opportunity to win, but the Chiefs had the ultimate weapon for achieving that feat.
So let's take this lesson and apply it to the NFL as we move past the midway point of the 2022 season. It seems as if teams are running more than ever, whether that's by using quarterbacks as designated runners or simply doing what the Titans do and strapping their offenses to the shoulders of bell-cow backs. This is the year where we've seen a lot of veteran star passers struggle to find success, with future Hall-of-Famers like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers tasting their fair share of frustration. On the other hand, plenty of surprise teams have run their way into postseason contention, a group that includes Atlanta, Seattle and the New York Giants.
It's difficult to find quarterbacks like Mahomes or Buffalo's Josh Allen. It's equally hard to believe a team that runs it heavily can win it all, even in a season when ground-and-pound is becoming more popular. "You still have to have a quarterback who can make the big throw in a crucial moment," said one AFC personnel director. "Regardless of how you move the chains, you need that dimension to win a championship. The other element is the quick strike. You can run the ball successfully and be a contending team, but at some point you're going to have to hit a big play vertically."
Tennessee provided ample evidence for that argument on Sunday night. While Mahomes dominated -- by throwing for 446 yards (on 68 attempts) and running for a team-high 63 yards -- Willis completed just five of his 16 passes. Henry was able to hurt the Chiefs early, on his way to 115 yards and two touchdowns. He also wasn't as influential in the second half, when the Chiefs sold out to stop the run and forced Willis to try to do more with his arm.
The Titans have long taken pride in that blue-collar approach, especially since they've won the last two AFC South titles and earned the AFC's top seed in last year's postseason. "We know how we built our team, we know what works for us and we're not changing up the recipe," said Titans center Ben Jones after the game. It's even fair to wonder what could've happened against Kansas City had Tannehill been able to overcome an ankle injury and play. However, the plays that Mahomes and Allen can make in those clutch situations do factor heavily in how playoff games are decided.
Look at how the Chiefs rallied behind Mahomes in the final 13 seconds of regulation in that epic 42-36 overtime win over Buffalo in last year's AFC Divisional Round playoff game. Nobody is running themselves into field-goal range in that situation. The Baltimore Ravens have faced their own struggles in the playoffs behind dual-threat QB Lamar Jackson. They can control time of possession and beat up on defenses with their potent ground attack, but it's been a challenge when the games matter most.
The last team to win a championship with a run-heavy offense was actually the Seahawks back in the 2013 season. "I do question if you can win it all with a quarterback who can't operate from the pocket," said Bill Polian, who built Super Bowl teams in both Buffalo and Indianapolis and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as an executive. "I'm talking about dual-threat players who run RPOs and read-options. There are a lot of those guys out there, and we've still not seen them win. Somebody like Mahomes is a unicorn, but it's still a question I have with the other guys."
The real reason there are so many run-first teams battling for playoff spots is circumstance. There were so many dynamic quarterbacks and explosive offenses proliferating in the league over the last few years that defensive coordinators had to adjust. The result has been the constant appearance of two-high safety schemes, a shell coverage look that allows teams to vary coverages and limit big plays. The more teams keep their safeties deep, the more opposing offenses are being forced to be conservative with their play-calling.
Mahomes ran so effectively against Tennessee because of opportunity. Other teams around the league are taking advantage, as well. "Teams are daring people to run with all the two-high (looks)," said one NFC general manager. "The teams who can run it efficiently and explosively definitely have a chance to win."
The key word in there is "chance." When people talk about Mahomes and Allen, they see quarterbacks who can carry teams. It's a category that Philadelphia's Jalen Hurts is moving into, as well, as he's developed from a runner learning how to throw into a weapon who can hurt you with his arm and his legs. The teams that don't have these quarterbacks are going to have much tougher sledding when the postseason begins.
That doesn't mean a run-heavy team can't reach a Super Bowl or even win it. It's just that the odds are stacked against it happening. Most of the top young quarterbacks in this game are athletic enough to make plays off-script or handle designed runs when necessary. They also know something Willis might learn as he matures: It helps a lot when you can throw to win, as well.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) Blueprint for beating Buffalo? The Bills offense had been rolling through this NFL season so smoothly that it seemed like no team could really do what the New York Jets just did to them in Buffalo's 20-17 loss on Sunday. The Miami Dolphins beat them in Week 3, but that game involved insane heat and baffling numbers (the Bills dominated the yardage and time of possession). The Jets contest was far more revealing. We saw what can happen when a defense has the luxury of attacking Bills quarterback Josh Allen with four pass rushers, and how quickly that changes the calculus for a team with Super Bowl expectations. The Jets sacked Allen five times and only blitzed him twice in 34 pass attempts. He responded with no touchdown passes, two interceptions and an inability to make much of anything happen in the second half, struggling long before suffering an elbow injury late in the game. This was the first time all season that Allen looked confused and threatened and incapable of giving the Bills exactly what they need. The Jets may be one of the few teams with the personnel to achieve that kind of success -- and all elite quarterbacks are going to be challenged when a defense can disrupt without bringing additional pressure -- but it was a reminder that even an offense as dominant as Buffalo's can be had with the right combination of difference-makers on the other side.
2) Bears finally figuring out Fields: Chicago may have lost to Miami on Sunday, but there was one clear reason to be encouraged about what's happening around that franchise: The coaches finally seem to have embraced the idea of utilizing second-year quarterback Justin Fields as a real running threat. It's the same thought process that worked for the Baltimore Ravens when they found a way to make Lamar Jackson comfortable in his younger days. The Philadelphia Eagles took a similar approach with Jalen Hurts last season, when they created the best rushing attack in the league and used plenty of designed quarterback runs to earn a wild-card playoff spot. It's somewhat baffling that it's taken this long for the Bears to come around to this approach, as Fields ran for 178 yards against the Dolphins and averaged 102 rushing yards over his last four games. It's not a secret that the Bears want to put a better supporting cast around Fields, as the recent trade that brought wide receiver Chase Claypool over from Pittsburgh proved. But there's also nothing wrong with running some things that help a young quarterback gain confidence as he works on being a more skilled passer. They've started to do that with Fields. He's responded by looking more like a true playmaker with each passing week.
3) Colts raise questions: Nobody should've been shocked when Colts owner Jim Irsay fired head coach Frank Reich on Monday. Indianapolis is mired in a three-game losing streak -- a stretch that includes Sunday's 26-3 loss to New England -- and their offense is a train wreck. Reich had benched veteran quarterback Matt Ryan, fired offensive coordinator Marcus Brady and handed the team over to a second-year quarterback (Sam Ehlinger) who was sacked nine times against the Patriots. Irsay literally was running out of people to blame for this disaster. Hiring former Colts star Jeff Saturday to be interim head coach is what should be dropping jaws. Irsay already had two coaches in the building with head-coaching experience (defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and senior defensive assistant John Fox). He could've easily turned to them to finish this season. Pivoting to Saturday -- who has served as a consultant for the Colts and has been an analyst for ESPN -- only adds to the sense of dysfunction. Saturday is a classy dude with a lot of intelligence. We'll see how he navigates this situation.
If the Buccaneers actually do turn this season around, then they'll know exactly when they started moving back in the right direction. Brady didn't just lead his team on a game-winning drive in the final minute of a 16-13 triumph over the Rams. He reminded us all that he's still got a little juice left in him. It hasn't been pretty in Tampa Bay for most of this season. Brady proved that even with all the turmoil -- the countless injuries to his supporting cast, the inconsistent play of this team -- there are some signs of life around those parts. Oh, yeah, he also became the first quarterback to ever throw for 100,000 yards as the Bucs head to Munich to meet Seattle in Week 10.
The Bengals have been searching for this kind of game from their star running back since the season began. The numbers were tremendous against Carolina -- 153 rushing yards, 58 receiving yards and five touchdowns -- but so was the commitment to run this offense through Mixon. The Bengals found a way to adjust earlier this season when defenses were taking away the deep shots. They proved they can adapt again after struggling to deal with the absence of wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase in a Monday Night Football loss to Cleveland in Week 8.
The Patriots linebacker came into this weekend tied for the league lead in sacks and then added another three quarterback takedowns in a win over Indianapolis. Forget for a moment that the Colts' offensive line is a major disappointment, so much so that it surrendered nine sacks to New England. Judon already has three multi-sack games this year and 11.5 sacks overall. He's got a legitimate shot at hitting 20 sacks -- and his career best is 12.5, set last season.
There have been a lot of people to blame for the implosion that has been the Green Bay Packers this season. Rodgers officially joined the party during Sunday's loss to Detroit. Rodgers hasn't thrown more than five interceptions in a season since 2017. He threw three against the Lions, bringing his total for 2022 so far to seven, while the Packers scored all of 9 points against the league's worst defense. The Packers obviously have been brutal for some time now. Incredibly, they keep finding new ways to look worse.
It's already been a long year for the Rams head coach, and it didn't get any easier on Sunday. It was bad enough that the Rams' offense couldn't run out the clock with a 4-point lead late in that loss to Tampa Bay. But then Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey literally called out the offense for forcing the defense to deliver another stop at the end of the game, one that obviously didn't happen. The Rams have been undone by injuries and inconsistency on their way to a 3-5 record. You can add an apparently growing divide between offense and defense to the list judging by Ramsey's comments.
The Raiders had a chance to pick up some easy wins recently as they moved into the softer part of the schedule. Instead, they were shut out by a two-win Saints team in Week 8 before blowing a 17-point lead this past weekend to a Jaguars squad that came in that contest with only two victories. This is the point in the season when we can start wondering if McDaniels actually can handle this job. It was sensible to talk about the Raiders perhaps simply being on the wrong side of close games earlier in the year. It's hard to give them the benefit of the doubt now that they're 2-6 and dropping games they desperately need to win.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
AFC GENERAL MANAGER: "I honestly don't think we'll have clarity on that one until we see how far he takes them into the playoffs. It's a difficult situation but I understand the thinking on both sides and why nothing got done. I don't think the team wants to be dishing out huge money for a top-level quarterback and possibly be landing in the bottom tier of their division (see Arizona and Denver right now). They already offered him more per year than Kyler Murray, Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes before talks shut off so the team is on record as far as trying to pay Lamar at that level. It feels like they're letting it play out to see if he can justify getting paid like he wants, which is significantly better than what Allen and Mahomes received. Deshaun Watson's deal is already widely being cast as an anomaly, which is appropriate. Unfortunately, Lamar's camp may be using that deal as a barometer instead of an outlier. I'm sure they feel like he can keep getting tagged at the high number -- like (Kirk) Cousins did in Washington -- and make that amount while keeping that leverage for an even bigger deal. But to get what he's looking for, he's going to need another MVP-caliber season and a legit Super Bowl appearance, or at least an AFC Championship Game. And he's got to stay healthy."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates as I see them, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 10 (odds courtesy of FanDuel are current as of 7 p.m. ET on Nov. 7):
Weeks in Top 5: 9
Next game: vs. Jaguars | Sunday, Nov. 13
Weeks in Top 5: 7
Next game: vs. Commanders | Monday, Nov. 14
Weeks in Top 5: 9
Next game: vs. Vikings | Sunday, Nov. 13
Weeks in Top 5: 1
Next game: vs. Buccaneers (Munich) | Sunday, Nov. 13
Weeks in Top 5: 2
Next game: vs. Broncos | Sunday, Nov. 13
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Bills over Eagles.
Previous picks ...
- Week 9: Bills over Eagles
- Week 8: Bills over Eagles
- Week 7: Bills over Eagles
- Week 6: Bills over Eagles
- Week 5: Bills over Eagles
- Week 4: Bills over Eagles
- Week 3: Bills over 49ers
- Week 2: Bills over Buccaneers
- Week 1: Bills over Packers