The First Read, Week 18: How Antonio Brown's meltdown has sealed Bucs' fate; Joe Burrow rising

In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 18 of the 2021 NFL season, including:

But first, a look at how Antonio Brown's meltdown could affect the Bucs in their quest to repeat as champions ...

A wise old coach once said that everything has to go right in an organization in order to win a Super Bowl. You need career years not just from the players and coaches, but from the front office, trainers, support staff, literally everybody in the building. Now imagine how hard it is to replicate that type of good fortune two years in a row for teams that are trying to repeat as Super Bowl champions. This is why Antonio Brown just sealed the fate of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with his epic meltdown.

It's already been a long year for a Bucs team that has won 12 of its 16 games. They've fought through a multitude of injuries -- including the season-ending knee injury sustained by wide receiver Chris Godwin in Week 15 and a hamstring injury in that same game that landed running back Leonard Fournette on injured reserve -- but Brown's antics feel like a bridge too far. The Bucs had no other choice but to dump him after he stripped off his jersey and shoulder pads and bolted off the field in their win over the New York Jets on Sunday. Their willingness to give up on the troubled wide receiver now leaves them woefully inexperienced at a position that was once a strength. (The Bucs have yet to officially release Brown as of Monday afternoon.)

Let's start with the obvious here: Brown might not have even been in this position if the Bucs hadn't lost Godwin to a torn ACL. Brown was serving a three-game suspension for violating COVID-19 protocols, and head coach Bruce Arians was miffed enough that he openly suggested Brown could've been gone at that point. So Brown already was on a short leash with the organization. All he needed was one more stupid decision to blow up this entire relationship.

It says a lot that wide receiver Mike Evans appeared to be the only Bucs player to try to calm Brown down before he erupted. More people on that team had probably lost patience with Brown than we knew. He surely understood how critical he was to whatever offensive success the Bucs hoped to enjoy in the postseason, as he and quarterback Tom Brady have an undeniable chemistry. Brown's implosion speaks to how little he appreciated the role the team was asking of him.

The Bucs will turn to Evans and an assortment of younger players to fill this void moving forward, a group that includes Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, Breshad Perriman and Cyril Grayson. Brady has won championships with unheralded receivers before but this time feels different. The NFC playoffs will be loaded with teams that possess talented defensive backs and ferocious pass rushers. The last thing the Bucs need is to enter that fray short-handed on pass catchers.

That is where they stand today. That is the challenge they'll face as we push deeper into January. We knew there would be plenty of hurdles, especially because no team has repeated since Brady's New England Patriots accomplished the feat in the 2003 and 2004 seasons. Now we see how difficult Tampa Bay's pursuit of history actually will end up being.

HOT READS

Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.

1) Cowboys conundrum: The Cowboys' 25-22 loss to Arizona proved one thing about Dallas that is increasingly hard to ignore -- you just can't trust this offense right now. Oh, the defense is legit. The offense, on the other hand, still can't generate the type of momentum that is necessary for a deep playoff run. The Cowboys mustered only 45 rushing yards against the Cardinals. Quarterback Dak Prescott threw for only 226 yards -- the fourth time in the last five games that he's generated fewer than 240 passing yards -- while being outplayed by Kyler Murray. All those good vibes that followed the Cowboys' 56-14 thrashing of Washington a week ago were replaced by inconsistency and ineffectiveness at key junctures. There is enough evidence that Dallas has the kind of defense that can get hot during the postseason. What's more in question is whether this team can make a run without the other side of the football living up to its lofty rankings (Dallas is currently first in the league in points per game and second in total yards). Balance was the very quality that created so much excitement about what this team could do. Now the Cowboys have watched both of their top running backs fight through injuries (Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard), their third receiver (Michael Gallup) go down with a torn ACL in Sunday's loss and Prescott fail to play with the same magic he displayed before suffering a calf injury earlier this year. There's still time for the Cowboys to figure this stuff out. The problem is that time amounts to about two more weeks.

2) Bills bang away: Anybody who's followed this column all season understands how much space has been devoted to the pleas for Buffalo offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to give his offense a little more balance. The Bills ask so much of quarterback Josh Allen that he's sometimes prone to trying to do too much. That's why Sunday's game was so nice to see. The Bills ran for a season-high 233 yards on 44 carries in a 29-15 win over Atlanta. Even if those numbers were more about circumstances than actual strategy -- the game was played in windy, snowy conditions and Allen threw three interceptions -- the Bills learned a valuable lesson from their earlier loss to New England in inclement weather. There are other ways to win games. It doesn't always have to be about the star taking over. This is especially important for Buffalo because it's been no secret that opponents have succeeded at pushing this team around at various points in the season. By utilizing backs like Devin Singletary more -- he's now had at least 20 carries in two of the last three games -- the Bills are sending a message for the postseason. They will hit you in the mouth when they have to.

3) Chargers' chance at redemption: The AFC West is going to be the home of the most compelling regular-season finale this year: Chargers at Raiders. The winner gets a wild-card playoff spot. The loser gets to wonder what could've been. Even though the game will be played in Las Vegas, this feels like a contest the Chargers should win. They were playing for a chance to win the AFC West just three weeks ago, when they suffered a 34-28 overtime loss to Kansas City. They followed that with a brutal defeat to Houston, as an assortment of key players missed that contest because of injuries or COVID-19. This is the last opportunity the Chargers have to show the world they really are built for big things. That's not to take anything away from the Raiders, because they've pushed through all sorts of controversy this season. It's just that the Chargers defeated the Chiefs earlier this year, nearly beat them in the second game and Los Angeles averages nearly 28 points a game. The Raiders, on the other hand, have scored just 80 points over the last five weeks and were dominated by the Chiefs in both meetings. It should be an entertaining game because of the familiarity, the stakes and the fact that Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa mocked Raiders quarterback Derek Carr after Los Angeles won the first meeting. But make no mistake, the Chargers are the second-best team in this division. They just have to go out and prove it.

THREE UP

Rank
1
Ja'Marr Chase
Cincinnati Bengals · WR

Last week was the time to talk about how smart Cincinnati was to take Chase fifth overall in this year's draft instead of selecting an offensive lineman. This is the week when Chase made this writer look smart for bringing that up. The dude almost singlehandedly dominated one of the hottest defenses, with 11 receptions for 266 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-31 win over Kansas City. Any debate about Offensive Rookie of the Year officially ended on Sunday. 

Rank
2
++Nick Sirianni ++
Nick Sirianni
Eagles HC

The Philadelphia Eagles were going nowhere in September. They had an inconsistent offense, a lousy defense and little reason to believe things could change in a hurry. Sirianni never bought into that belief. He turned his offense into a dominant rushing attack, coached up quarterback Jalen Hurts and led this team to a wild-card playoff spot that was clinched Sunday night. There's a lot of competition for Coach of the Year but he deserves to be in the conversation. 

Rank
3
D'Onta Foreman
Tennessee Titans · RB

The Tennessee Titans were scrambling for backfield options when workhorse Derrick Henry went down with a broken foot at midseason. Foreman has quietly answered some of those prayers. He ran for 132 yards in Sunday's victory over Miami, which helped the Titans win the AFC South and re-establish themselves as the top seed in the AFC playoffs. Tennessee clearly needs Henry back to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. But having Foreman in the mix -- a player who has gained 100 yards in the three of his last five games -- is a good thing as well.

THREE DOWN

Rank
1
Tua Tagovailoa
Miami Dolphins · QB

The Dolphins had a prime opportunity to see what their second-year quarterback could do with a playoff spot hanging in the balance. What they found in Sunday's defeat to Tennessee was another reason to not be overly optimistic about the future with Tagovailoa. He completed only 47 percent of his passes, committed two turnovers and watched Miami's postseason hopes evaporate. You can say Tua needs more help. It's also looking like the Dolphins might just need another quarterback.

Rank
2
Kansas City Chiefs

The one lingering concern about Kansas City’s defensive dominance over a recent eight-game winning streak revealed itself in Sunday's loss to Cincinnati: a good quarterback blessed with talented skill players can still give this team fits. Joe Burrow threw for 446 yards, Ja'Marr Chase had 266 receiving yards and the Chiefs inexplicably gave up a first down on a third-and-27. In fact, here's a stat worth noting as the playoffs near: The four best quarterbacks Kansas City has faced this season -- Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson and Burrow -- have thrown 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions against this unit. The Chiefs went 1-4 against them.

Rank
3
Kirk Cousins
Minnesota Vikings · QB

Cousins landing on the COVID-19 list at some point during the 2021 season seemed inevitable given his unvaccinated status. But that he tested positive, and thus was immediately ruled out, just days before Minnesota's most critical game, is simply brutal. Without the veteran passer, the Green Bay Packers demolished the Vikings and extinguished what was left of their playoff hopes. For all the good things Cousins produced this year -- he’s thrown 30 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions -- the Vikings deserved a better ending from their leader.



SCOUT'S READ

One question answered by an unnamed front office source.

Is Joe Burrow one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL?

AFC PERSONNEL DIRECTOR: "He's a good player, but he's not special by any stretch yet. He makes smart decisions and has that subtle pocket mobility to stay alive in a conflict pocket and make accurate throws. I definitely think he hides their offensive line's weaknesses. Their scheme is really quarterback-friendly and he thrives in it, but it's clear that he's a notch below that first tier at the position. He's not in the same class as (Patrick) Mahomes, (Tom) Brady or (Aaron) Rodgers. People also are exaggerating his learning curve. He was older coming into the league than some of the other young quarterbacks. He's two years older than (the Chargers') Justin Herbert. He's actually the same age as (Buffalo's) Josh Allen (25) and he's played two less seasons. I get the hype around him because he's made Cincinnati into a playoff team. But I think a lot of people look at how good he is in Year 2 and then extrapolate that out to the point that he's going to be a Hall of Famer. I think he's already closer to his ceiling than people realize. What sets him apart is that he's got that dog in him. So he'll keep finding ways to improve."

MVP WATCH

A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 18 (arrows reflect movement from last week's edition):

Rank
1
Aaron Rodgers
Green Bay Packers · QB
Rank
2
Jonathan Taylor
Indianapolis Colts · RB
Rank
3
1
Tom Brady
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · QB
Rank
4
NR
Joe Burrow
Cincinnati Bengals · QB
Rank
5
Cooper Kupp
Los Angeles Rams · WR

EXTRA POINT

My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Packers over Bills.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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