In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 15 of the 2021 NFL season, including:
But first, taking stock of a playoff picture taking shape heading into the 2021 NFL season's final four weeks ...
In golf, it's known as "moving day," the critical moment in a tournament when the players who've been battling to stay in contention push ahead on the leaderboard in anticipation of the final round. In the NFL, we just got our first glimpse at what should be called "moving month," that point when the final four weeks of the season are finally upon us. The concept is no different than that in golf. This is the time of year when we discover who we can really trust after months of so much unpredictability.
This past Sunday gave us plenty to unpack. It started with early games filled with shock and awe (the Chiefs, Cowboys and Browns all jumped out to huge leads in key divisional matchups), while the late games delivered drama and despair (the Bengals and Bills both endured significant blows to their playoffs bids with overtime losses). There were plenty of teams still clinging to the notion that they can hang around long enough to snag the sixth or seventh seed in the NFC. The AFC was a different story, where teams like the Ravens, Steelers and Raiders all looked like they're about to slide into oblivion.
The first major takeaway from all this is something that was discussed in this space a few weeks back: Defense is going to matter more than ever in deciding this year's champion. Kansas City dominated the Raiders in a 48-9 win by forcing five turnovers, including a fumble by Las Vegas running back Josh Jacobs that Mike Hughes returned for a touchdown on the game's first play. The Cowboys scored a defensive touchdown in their win over Washington, while the Browns got one of their own against Baltimore. On the other hand, Pittsburgh trailed by 29 points in the first half of its 36-28 loss to Minnesota on Thursday Night Football.
If you want to consider a couple other factors that make some teams safer bets at this time of year, go to the obvious: experienced coaches and talented quarterbacks. The Chiefs and Patriots wouldn't have turned around their seasons -- and become the two hottest teams in the AFC -- if they weren't led by Andy Reid and Bill Belichick. The Titans have maintained their lead in the AFC South despite a bevy of injuries because Mike Vrabel knows what he's doing on the sidelines. And just look at all the quarterbacks who went off this weekend, from Patrick Mahomes to Justin Herbert to Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
We all knew this was going to be a long season, especially with the addition of a 17th game. We've already seen the potential impact in that change by the number of star players who've been injured for substantial periods of time or lost for the season. This year is more about fighting attrition than ever before. You do that by what you have on your roster, but what you have in your heart is just as essential.
This is the time when we're finally getting a true glimpse of what all these teams are really made of. There are more big games to come -- including Monday night's matchup between the Rams and Cardinals -- and more clarity to be gleaned as a result. It's just good to know we're past the point of wondering how one team could look so bad one week and so good the next. The next month will be about one thing: Discovering who really understands what it takes to ascend when truly matters most.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) Justin Herbert's shot at the crown: Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes uttered an infamous line this offseason when a Los Angeles Chargers fan told him to be wary of Herbert. Mahomed butchered his cliché response at the time -- "I'll see it when I believe it," he said during a golf event -- but his sentiment was appropriate. The Chargers' second-year QB needed to live up to the hype that has been building around him, and this Thursday's meeting with the Chiefs will be the ultimate barometer. The Chiefs have been rolling since a 3-4 start, as they've ripped off six straight wins. Most impressively, their defense has gone from being the worst in the league to being one of the best. So as much as this will be billed as a matchup between Mahomes and Herbert, it really will come down to whether Herbert has answers once again for the Chiefs defense. He announced himself to the league last season when he entered a home game against Kansas City -- after Chargers starter Tyrod Taylor went down in warmups -- and nearly led Los Angeles to an overtime win. Herbert also threw for 281 yards and four touchdowns in a 30-24 victory over Kansas City in Week 3 this season. More recently, he's found a way to steady his performances after playing erratically in losses to Minnesota, New England and Baltimore. Herbert has led the Chargers to two consecutive wins, completing 74 percent of his passes and throwing six touchdowns to one interception in that span. He'll have to be that sharp against Kansas City, because the Chiefs' pass rush has exploded, and their defense has allowed just 65 points during their current win streak. Basically, it feels like Kansas City is returning to the form that made it a popular Super Bowl pick before the season. The Chargers, on the other hand, can take a huge step toward claiming the AFC West title by winning this game, improving to 9-5 and seizing control of the tiebreaker. It's all there for Los Angeles after watching the Chiefs capture the division over the last five years. The only question is whether Herbert is ready for the biggest test of his young career.
2) The Cowboys' defensive dominance: Dallas inspired talk of a Super Bowl run at the start of this year because of its talented roster and overall balance. Now those chances hinge mainly on a defense that has re-energized itself lately. All the smack Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy talked before their game with the Washington Football Team -- when McCarthy guaranteed a victory in this critical NFC East contest -- was backed up by a defense that came in looking for blood. The Cowboys wound up with four takeaways and only gave up 224 total yards in the 27-20 win. They recorded a pair of strip-sacks, one of which was returned for a touchdown, jumped out to a 24-0 lead and dominated the game until Washington rallied in the fourth quarter. This is essentially what the Cowboys will have to be until they can lock up a playoff spot. Their defense has gotten better with the return of pass rushers Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, the rise of second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs and the astonishing impact of rookie linebacker Micah Parsons, who has made a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year. The offense, however, is dealing with two banged-up running backs (Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard), a line that has endured its own injury problems and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who has been playing his worst football of the season. This would look a lot rougher in Dallas if coordinator Dan Quinn hadn't turned around that defense. The unit has had its issues when it was beat up -- it gave up 36 points and 509 yard to the Raiders in a Thanksgiving Day loss -- but the Cowboys are about to be like a lot of others teams in the league this year. They're going to have to embrace the art of winning ugly if they want to keep playing deep into January.
3) Titans getting healthy at right time: The Tennessee Titans have been one of the more intriguing teams of this season. They're about to get even more interesting in the next few weeks. The same team that held the top playoff spot in the AFC only three weeks ago is finally able to think about being whole again. Wide receiver Julio Jones was back on the field this weekend after a three-week stint on injured reserve. Wide receiver A.J. Brown is expected to be back from his own IR stint in a couple weeks. Then there's the really big news: All-Pro running back Derrick Henry is making enough progress from midseason foot surgery that he could be playing again by January, per NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. As easy as it's been to knock the Titans of late -- they only scored 26 total points in consecutive losses to Houston and New England before Sunday's 20-0 win over Jacksonville -- they can be downright scary with all those weapons back in the field. This team was good enough to beat Kansas City, Buffalo and the Los Angeles Rams. They also have only one game left against a team with a winning record (a Dec. 23 meeting with the 49ers). As impressive as the Chiefs and Patriots have been recently -- and as dangerous as the Colts might be within the AFC South -- the Titans have scuffled long enough to have everything still in front of them, including a division crown and a shot at a bye. If they can get all their stars back, then they're likely to be as scary as what we last remembered of them in prime form.
There has been no better sight for the Saints' offense in recent weeks than that of Kamara lining up in the backfield in Sunday's game against the New York Jets. There's been no shortage of scrutiny in this space about the lack of firepower on that roster, especially with New Orleans' star back sidelined for four weeks with a knee injury and hamstring issues. Kamara reminded everyone of what he can do, as he ran for 120 yards on 27 carries and added four more receptions for 25 yards in a 30-9 win. The Saints still have a middling passing game and a ton of competition for a wild-card spot in the NFC. But they're also very much in the hunt with their best offensive player back in the fold.
The 49ers' second-year wide receiver had all of nine receptions when this team was sitting at 2-4. He's been a valuable weapon ever since, especially over the past month. Along with scoring the game-winning touchdown in San Francisco's 29-23 overtime triumph over Cincinnati, Aiyuk was the leading receiver in each of the 49ers' previous two victories (he finished with six catches for 62 yards against the Bengals). There was a time earlier this year when wide receiver Deebo Samuel was the only major threat in this offense. With tight end George Kittle healthy again and Aiyuk maturing, the 49ers' offense is trending up at the right time.
This guy has been one of the best in-season acquisitions of the NFL season. Douglas was sitting on the Arizona Cardinals' practice squad in early October when the Packers signed him to help out an injury-depleted defense. He's been astonishing ever since. He sealed a win over the Cardinals with a last-second interception in Week 8. He's returned two interceptions for touchdowns, including one in Sunday's victory over the Bears. Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has taken a lot of grief about his relationship with Aaron Rodgers. What can't be denied: The man knows a few things about picking players to help his team win, with Douglas serving as more evidence of that.
An ankle injury knocked the Ravens' star quarterback out of a 24-22 loss to the Cleveland Browns. It also may have capsized Baltimore's chances of winning the AFC North and qualifying for a playoff spot. Jackson was the primary reason this team had managed to keep winning games despite a slew of high-profile injuries. If he's down for any period of significant time, it's hard to see back up Tyler Huntley delivering victories against the Packers, Bengals, Rams and Steelers. That's who Baltimore will see in the final month of the season.
Bisaccia has been charged with the daunting task of keeping this team together while serving as an interim head coach in the midst of such rocky circumstances. Sunday's 48-9 loss to Kansas City was the kind of embarrassment that could break what's left of the Raiders' spirit. Las Vegas lost a fumble on the first offensive play of the game, watched it returned for a touchdown and trailed by 32 points at halftime. For a team that was hoping to catch up with the Chiefs this season, here's another stark reminder about that gap: Kansas City outscored Las Vegas 89-23 in their two meetings. Oh yeah -- great idea to have the team stomp on the Chiefs' logo at midfield before the game.
This is the third time the Jaguars' head coach has landed on this list and, once again, it's thoroughly warranted. Along with fielding one of the worst teams in the league, Meyer can't seem to find a way to avoid controversy. My colleague Tom Pelissero reported Saturday that months of tension surrounding Meyer "boiled over with multiple run-ins with players and other coaches in recent weeks," including accounts of him calling his assistant coaches "losers" during a meeting and angering team captain Marvin Jones so much that it led to a heated argument at practice. In yesterday's post-game press conference, Meyer downplayed the incident with Jones, called the loser comment "inaccurate" and expressed a desire to root out anyone who leaks information about what's happening with his team. Most first-year coaches have enough problems on the field (see: Detroit's Dan Campbell). Meyer is once again learning that this isn't college, and he can't control everything.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
Is there any reason to still be optimistic about the Pittsburgh Steelers making the postseason?
GM FOR AN AFC TEAM: "You never want to count them out because of their head coach (Mike Tomlin), but they've been fighting uphill all year. They just have too many limitations. Ben (Roethlisberger) is pretty much what he was at the end of last year. He can still make a few throws that remind you of what he used to be, but it's only a few. He basically runs their system and relies on touch accuracy. Their offensive line has really struggled this season, and Ben's style of play doesn't help. Even though he's lost mobility, he still prefers to play a playground style of ball. It's just tough to win games week in and week out if your quarterback can't capitalize on the opportunities you do get to make big plays. I think Najee Harris works in what they want to do in their run game. He is tough to bring down and runs with a nice downhill lean. But he's not explosive enough to be a game-changer. I just don't think anything close to a dangerous Big Ben is coming back. And without that, this team can't score a bunch of points, which puts their defense in a tougher spot. T.J. Watt is a stud, but teams don't have as much concern about him creating momentum with the pass rush if [the Steelers] aren't playing with a lead. I see a team that isn't going to be there when the playoffs start."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands ahead of Rams-Cardinals on Monday night (arrows reflect movement from last week's edition):
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Buccaneers over Patriots.