In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 16 of the 2022 NFL season, including:
But first, breaking down the playoff picture after a chaotic Week 15 slate ...
We're down to the final three weeks of the 2022 NFL regular season, and there's already a growing vibe about how this playoff picture will play out. This weekend ended with six teams holding postseason spots, three of whom nabbed division titles. We gained some clarity regarding the wild-card race, as well, with some inconsistent teams stumbling into precarious positions and more hopeful squads gaining momentum. We even witnessed arguably the greatest coach in NFL history standing watch over one of the dumbest game-ending plays ever attempted in this league.
This is what makes this time of year so fun. Coaches are pulling out all their tricks. Players are fighting through injuries. And the game's biggest stars are searching for ways to take their efforts up a notch, all with the full understanding of one central tenet: December is the time when you find out what your team is really made of.
Here's a breakdown of where everything stands now, as well as where this is all heading ...
There are few surprises among the teams that have clinched playoff spots. The Philadelphia Eagles (13-1, currently No. 1 in NFC), Minnesota Vikings (11-3, No. 2 in NFC), San Francisco 49ers (10-4, No. 3 in NFC), Buffalo Bills (11-3, No. 1 in AFC) and Kansas City Chiefs (11-3, No. 2 in AFC) have been impressive all season. The Vikings, 49ers and Chiefs already have claimed their respective division titles. The Bills and Eagles are both one victory away from accomplishing the same feat in the AFC East and NFC East. The Dallas Cowboys (10-4, No. 5 in NFC) would need a full-scale Eagles meltdown to have any chance of topping Philly in their division now, but they're still going to end up as the best wild-card team in their conference. If they keep that spot, they'd get to face the worst division champion in the playoffs, also known as whomever wins the NFC South.
One of the only major questions still remaining amongst this collection is who's going to end up with those coveted first-round byes. Philadelphia is in the best position in the NFC, even taking Jalen Hurts' recent shoulder sprain into account, given its two-game advantage over the next closest competitor, the Vikings. In the AFC, Buffalo certainly needs the bye more than ever after losing star edge rusher Von Miller to a season-ending knee injury. The more games the Bills can play at home, the better their chances are of reaching the Super Bowl. The way the weather turned drastically at the end of Buffalo's 32-29 win over Miami on Saturday proved that much, as snow flurries rolled in just as Bills quarterback Josh Allen was taking over the game.
The Bills still need to hold off the Chiefs, though Buffalo holds the tiebreaker advantage, thanks to a head-to-head win -- and a Week 17 matchup with Cincinnati will be the Bills' toughest hurdle to winning out.
WHO'S FEELING GOOD?
The Cincinnati Bengals (10-4, No. 3 in AFC) are the hottest team in football. They've won 10 of their last 12 games, and they're doing it with style. This isn't just a team with an electric offense anymore. Cincinnati fell behind Tampa Bay by 17 points on Sunday, then ripped off 34 straight points while forcing four Bucs turnovers in the process. Here's how the last three weeks have gone for the Bengals: 1) they beat the Chiefs for the third straight time in a calendar year; 2) they trounced the same Browns team that had dominated them in three previous meetings; 3) they humiliated Tom Brady on Sunday and walked away with a one-game lead over Baltimore in the race for the AFC North. It doesn't get much better than that.
If you want resilience, look no further than the Detroit Lions (7-7, No. 9 in NFC), Los Angeles Chargers (8-6, No. 6 in AFC) and New York Giants (8-5-1, No. 6 in NFC). All three came out of this weekend thinking wild-card spots are very much within their grasp.
Detroit has compiled six wins in its last seven games after a 1-6 start and seems to be growing stronger with each passing week. Quarterback Jared Goff has played at a Pro Bowl level during this stretch. An inept defense has stabilized itself and become fairly reliable. The schedule also works in the Lions' favor, as they won't see a winning team for the remainder of the regular season.
The Chargers know a thing or two about adversity, as well, as it feels as if every star player on their roster has been injured at some point this season. Los Angeles has weathered those issues by riding the shoulders of star quarterback Justin Herbert and finding every way possible to stay alive. Like the Lions, the Chargers also have three opponents with losing records coming up in the next three weeks, leaving them in great shape to claim their own postseason spot.
Then there are the Giants. They hadn't won a game in a month, and their limited offense has struggled for most of that stretch. But they just went into Washington and secured a 20-12 victory that keeps them a game ahead of the Commanders in the wild-card race.
As for good teams that lost this weekend, the Baltimore Ravens (9-5, No. 5 in AFC) didn't have much fun against Cleveland, but they both should be comfortable with their playoff pictures. Even with a suddenly inert offense, the Ravens have a shot at the AFC North crown.
Speaking of not having fun, Tennessee Titans (7-7, No. 4 in AFC) head coach Mike Vrabel is leading a team that has been besieged by injuries and looks increasingly worse every time it takes the field. It also doesn't help that Tennessee fired general manager Jon Robinson while citing the belief that this franchise needed to perform at a higher level. The Titans may have been falling apart before Robinson's dismissal, but they haven't done anything since that point to make it seem like he was the only problem. There's now a very real chance that Vrabel's squad -- which has lost four straight -- could be surpassed in the race for the AFC South crown by the Jaguars, who probably have a decent case to be included in the "feeling good" section after their big win over Dallas. Only one game separates Tennessee and Jacksonville (6-8), and those teams will meet in the regular-season finale, right after the Titans face the Cowboys.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-8, No. 4 in NFC) are in a similar place in the NFC South. It's been easy to say they're the most talented team in a weak division. What's becoming more obvious is that such a claim means nothing in 2022. Tampa Bay is only one game ahead of Carolina (5-9) in that division race. The only reason the Bucs remain ahead in the standings is because the Panthers keep blowing every opportunity to catch them. The fact is, Tampa Bay hasn't looked like a playoff team all season, and Sunday's second-half meltdown against Cincinnati only confirmed that the Bucs aren't likely to stick around long if they do make it to the postseason.
If you want to find teams to start giving up on in this category, here are three to consider: the New England Patriots (7-7, No. 8 in AFC), New York Jets (7-7, No. 9 in AFC) and Seattle Seahawks (7-7, No. 8 in NFC). They've all had some encouraging stretches this season but seem too flawed at this stage to inspire hope. The Patriots -- who have lost three of their last four games -- had that disastrous lateral play that ended up as a walk-off, 48-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Raiders defensive end Chandler Jones in Sunday's 30-24 loss. The Jets were reminded once again why Zach Wilson isn't capable of leading this team when it needs a crucial win. And the Seahawks can't run the ball or stop the run consistently anymore.
On the other hand, the Miami Dolphins (8-6, No. 7 in AFC) are better than their three-game losing streak might suggest. The 49ers and Bills are two of the best teams in the league, while the Chargers are hitting their stride. There's no shame in falling to opponents like those, especially when considering that Miami fought Buffalo to the end in that Saturday night loss. The Dolphins may be clinging to that last wild-card spot, but they're good enough to hold on.
The same probably can't be said for the Washington Commanders (7-6-1, No. 7 in NFC). They have the 49ers and Dallas coming up after taking a tie and a loss to the Giants in consecutive games. Facing those teams is not going to be an easy task. Finally, we can talk about teams that are still mathematically alive -- a group that includes the Las Vegas Raiders (6-8, No. 11 in AFC), Cleveland Browns (6-8, No. 12 in AFC), Pittsburgh Steelers (6-8, No. 13 in AFC), Green Bay Packers (6-8, No. 10 in NFC), Indianapolis Colts (4-9-1, No. 14 in AFC) and every other team in the NFC South -- but we'd be wasting time and space. None of those teams have shown enough to make one think they will go on miraculous runs over the next three weeks.
WHAT'S AT STAKE IN WEEK 16?
This coming weekend is going to be the equivalent of a knockout round, the schedule shot through with playoff implications. There are plenty of games involving teams who literally could be doomed by a defeat. The Jaguars-Jets matchup on Thursday night is one such affair, as is Lions-Panthers on Saturday. Both those games have the potential to factor heavily in a couple of division races. If you want wild-card intrigue, look at these contests: Bengals-Patriots, Seahawks-Chiefs, Giants-Vikings and Commanders-49ers. Every one of those games involve prospective wild-card teams that can ill-afford to slip even a little bit against superior competition.
Of course, the marquee game will be Eagles-Cowboys. Dallas linebacker Micah Parsons spent last week suggesting Jalen Hurts wasn't as great as people think, then promptly took a loss from a Jacksonville team that was actually focused on winning the game it was playing that week. The Eagles survived a tough game against Chicago, and you can bet they'll be hunting for a sweep of their NFC East rivals, even if Gardner Minshew ends up under center in place of Hurts, who is doubtful because of that shoulder sprain. An Eagles win gives them the division crown (in addition to the No. 1 seed in the conference), and that accomplishment would feel so much sweeter if it happened in Dallas.
There's a reason Allen was a heavy preseason favorite to win this year's MVP award. He carried his team to a huge win over Miami on Saturday night -- throwing for 304 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for a team-high 77 yards -- and it feels like he's heating up at the right time. Allen also hit his stride last December, as he was playing the best football of his life before the Bills suffered that heartbreaking Divisional Round loss to Kansas City. He'll need to be operating at that same level this January, especially since the Bills' defense lost edge rusher Von Miller to a season-ending knee injury and the offensive supportive cast hasn't been as potent lately as it was earlier this year.
The Giants' rookie edge rusher picked the perfect time to have a career day. He was the best player in Sunday’s 20-12 win over Washington, producing 12 total tackles (three for a loss) and a strip-sack that he scooped up for a touchdown. The Giants had been melting down for the past month with a listless offense and a defense that wasn’t making enough plays. Thibodeaux helped resuscitate them with that monster performance.
Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence had a huge day in Jacksonville's upset win over Dallas, but Jenkins literally won the game. You're going to make this list when you're a safety who leads his team in tackles (18) and intercepts two passes, including a walk-off, 52-yard pick-six in overtime. There's a lot to like about what Jacksonville is building on offense. There also are some positive things happening with the young talent on the other side of the ball, with Jenkins (in his fourth season as a starter in the NFL) being further proof of that.
Turnover issues continue to pop up for the Cowboys quarterback. He threw two more interceptions in Sunday's overtime loss to Jacksonville -- including that game-ender that propelled Jenkins into the "up" list above -- and he's tossed 11 picks (tied for third-most in the NFL) in just nine games this season. Two weeks ago, the Cowboys had a case for being the best team in the NFC. Now they feel like a team that is going to be sabotaged by its leader at some point in the postseason.
Did you see the end of that Raiders game? Belichick built a career out of mastering situational football. The final play in that 30-24 loss – a botched lateral strategy that ended with Raiders defensive end Chandler Jones scoring on a 48-yard fumble return for a touchdown – spoke volumes about how far New England has fallen in the last few weeks. The first half was bad enough, as the Patriots fell behind by a score of 17-3. The conclusion simply provided the perfect reason to stop thinking they have a real shot at a wild-card spot.
The scary part about the Baltimore offense is that there were concerns about it even before Lamar Jackson went down with a knee injury in a win over Denver on Dec. 4. Head coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman would gladly take those problems compared to what this unit is going through these days. Thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness, the Ravens literally have nothing resembling a reliable passing game right now. They scored 3 points in Saturday's loss to Cleveland, and they've generated only 29 over their last three games. At this rate, it's fair to wonder if Baltimore will score even one more touchdown before Jackson returns.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
NFC GENERAL MANAGER: "You look at the coaching he receives and the scheme he's in and I believe they can win playoff games with him. You still need quarterbacks who can make big-time throws to win a championship, but (49ers head coach) Kyle Shanahan does a great job of scheming guys open and helping his quarterbacks. I saw Purdy in college and liked some of his qualities. He's accurate, mobile but not fast and he processed well and got the ball out quickly. His arm strength is below average and he's short, but he's a natural baller. The guy knows how to make plays. He's not afraid to put the ball up for grabs, and while he doesn't have the kind of arm that translates to long-term success at this level, his skill set fits well in that quick-timing, play-action offense. He's basically a nice luxury for a team that has a lot riding on Trey Lance. They spent so much capital to get Lance (in the 2021 NFL Draft) that I don't see this being an issue if Purdy keeps playing well. It probably ends up being pretty much the same situation they had with Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo. They have to keep developing Lance and putting him out there when he's healthy, but maybe they can trade Purdy down the road. But let's also not get over our skis here. Purdy has played two great games. That's a very small sample size. Defenses will adjust, we'll start seeing Purdy's deficiencies and then there will be a different conversation about him at that time."
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 16 (odds courtesy of FanDuel were current as of 8:15 p.m. ET on Dec. 19):
Weeks in Top 5: 13
Next game: at Cowboys | Saturday, Dec. 24
Weeks in Top 5: 15
Next game: vs. Seahawks | Saturday, Dec. 24
Weeks in Top 5: 7
Next game: at Patriots | Saturday, Dec. 24
Weeks in Top 5: 13
Next game: at Bears | Saturday, Dec. 24
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Eagles over Bengals.
Previous picks ...
- Week 15: Eagles over Bengals
- Week 14: Bengals over Cowboys
- Week 13: Eagles over Bills
- Week 12: Bills over Eagles
- Week 11: Eagles over Bills
- Week 10: Bills over Eagles
- 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