There's a lot to discuss after an eventful Week 16, so let's jump right into it. Today, I'm looking at five quarterbacks who can solidify or save their career trajectories over the final two weeks of the 2022 regular season -- and one additional passer who can do some work to repair his legacy.
Mayfield's first attempt at a fresh start in Carolina, where he was traded following a bumpy end to his Browns tenure, did not go well; in seven appearances with the Panthers (including six starts), Mayfield went 1-5, completing 57.8 percent of his passes for 1,313 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions, eventually leading to his release. But the former No. 1 overall pick has enjoyed three potentially career-reviving weeks with the Rams since they claimed him off waivers. Under Sean McVay in Los Angeles, Mayfield has helped make the disappointing Super Bowl champions competitive again, leading a ragtag supporting cast to two wins in that span, including an exceptionally unlikely comeback against the Raiders in Week 14 and a blowout victory over the Broncos on Christmas Day. In those games, Mayfield has completed 69 percent of his passes for 571 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.
When healthy, Mayfield has played well in this system under both McVay and Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland. Personally, I think the 27-year-old Mayfield has already done enough in his brief Rams stint to prove he can still be an NFL starter. I think Mayfield has a real shot to play in Los Angeles (though Matthew Stafford recently expressed his desire to return to the field for the Rams in 2023, despite battling an elbow injury and a spinal cord contusion that ended his 2022 season in December) or somewhere else next season. But I understand that others might want to see more. A strong final two starts with the Rams will only strengthen Mayfield's prospects for 2023, when he will be a free agent.
Darnold was sidelined by a high ankle sprain earlier this season, but he's played well since returning and taking the QB reins from P.J. Walker and Baker Mayfield. The Panthers' big win over the Lions improved Darnold's mark as a starter this season to 3-1; he's completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 759 yards and four touchdowns (zero picks) for a 104.3 passer rating in that span. Still just 25 years old in his fifth pro season, Darnold is an uber-talented signal-caller who, in my opinion, has yet to peak professionally. After flaming out with the Jets and failing to stick under ex-Panthers head coach Matt Rhule, Darnold is in a favorable situation in 2022, with a great run game -- one that rushed for a franchise-record 320 yards in Week 16 -- and solid defense. Under interim head coach Steve Wilks, this team is playing well enough to win the NFC South.
All eyes will be on Darnold in Week 17's high-stakes contest with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and decisions will be made based on his performance and the outcome. Like his fellow 2018 draftee Mayfield, the former No. 3 overall pick is bound for free agency. If Darnold plays well over the next two weeks, I think that will be enough to land him a gig in 2023, perhaps with Carolina bringing him back. Considering how he's played in four games, going into next season with Darnold and Matt Corral (the third-rounder will be coming back from a season-ending Lisfranc injury suffered in the preseason) on the depth chart wouldn't be a bad thing for the Panthers.
What a roller coaster it's been for these two in Washington this year. Wentz started the season 2-4 before going on injured reserve in October. Heinicke, who is 5-3-1 as the starter this season, took over and played well enough to keep the job -- until Saturday's loss to the 49ers, when he was benched for Wentz.
The saga will continue in Week 17, with Ron Rivera still contemplating who is going to start against the Cleveland Browns. While we wait to learn which QB will get the call with the team's playoff hopes on the line, let's examine where both passers stand.
We've already seen the best of Heinicke, with whom the Commanders have struggled of late. The 29-year-old is a confident player and leader who'll get the best out of those around him, but his physical limitations hinder the offense as a whole. Those limitations are also what will likely keep him from becoming a regular starter at this point in his career. If he's the starter over the next two weeks, I don't think his performance -- good or bad -- will change his outlook for 2023, when he will be a free agent.
We saw Wentz reach his peak in 2017, when a season-ending knee injury derailed a potential MVP campaign. He failed to regain that form post-injury, whether in Philly, in Indianapolis last season or in the first portion of this season in Washington. However, the 29-year-old has the talent and ability to make the Commanders' offense better, if he can avoid negative plays. If named the starter moving forward, Wentz can thrive with a talented supporting cast that includes Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel. If he helps the team reach the postseason, he could stick around for at least another year, despite Washington having an opportunity (with no more guaranteed money remaining on his contract after this season) to move on.
UPDATE: The Commanders announced Wednesday that Wentz will start in Week 17.
After making the Pro Bowl and helping the Patriots reach the playoffs as a rookie, Jones, 24, has endured an up-and-down second pro season that even included some career instability in the form of a small QB controversy. Here's a look at how his production has dipped:
2021 (10-7 record as starter): 67.6 completion percentage, 223.6 pass yards per game, 22 TDs, 13 INTs, 92.5 passer rating
2022 (5-7 record as starter): 65.6 completion percentage, 212.5 pass yards per game, 9 TDs, 8 INTs, 84.6 passer rating
Jones' struggles seem to stem largely from two things: First, the Patriots' bland passing attack under play-caller Matt Patricia doesn't scare defenses from a schematic or talent standpoint. Second, Jones' frustration seems to have led him to poor decision-making; it seems that he's constantly pressing, trying to make plays happen when they're not there.
There have been questions about Jones' future in New England -- might Tom Brady even be a potential option for 2023? -- but I think we need to take this season with a grain of salt no matter how it shakes out. A poor finish shouldn't necessarily cause Bill Belichick to move on from Jones, especially with the head coach eyeing old friend Bill O'Brien as his next season's OC. That said, if Jones could secure a pair of wins -- and especially if he could help New England eke out a second consecutive postseason berth -- it would only solidify his standing heading into Year 3.
Though we haven't seen great play from Wilson this season, I don't think his career is at stake in the final two games. But what he does over Weeks 17 and 18 can have an impact on his legacy.
Wilson's career was on a Hall of Fame trajectory during his 10 seasons in Seattle; he made two Super Bowl appearances (winning one), earned nine Pro Bowl selections and posted nine winning seasons, with a 104-53-1 record as the Seahawks' starter. That version of Wilson feels like a relic of the distant past after what we've watched unravel in Denver this season. In 13 games, he has completed a career-low 60.1 percent of his passes for 3,019 yards, with a 12:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a career-worst passer rating of 82.6.
On Monday, a day after the Broncos were blown out by the Baker Mayfield-led Rams to drop to 4-11, head coach Nathaniel Hackett was fired. But watching the offense this season, I don't think Denver's failures rest entirely on Hackett. Wilson has routinely missed easy reads that no quarterback should miss in a West Coast system.
This is the second season in which Wilson, 34, has struggled in this type of offense after failing to "cook" under offensive coordinator Shane Waldron in Seattle in 2021. At this point, I believe the only system Wilson can succeed in is a run-heavy approach sprinkled with play-action pass -- what he ran in Seattle for much of his career.
Denver remains behind Wilson, who was given a massive contract by the Broncos following his acquisition via blockbuster trade. Wilson and the Broncos have two games left on the schedule, a road contest in Kansas City and a home finale against the Chargers. If he plays well, Wilson can help convince people to give him the benefit of the doubt coming out of this lost season. That said, Wilson will have a lot to do next season to prove he belongs in Canton despite the stain of 2022 on his résumé.
Throughout the 2022 campaign, former No. 1 overall pick and NFL Network analyst David Carr will take a look at all offensive players and rank his top 15. Rankings are based solely on this season's efforts. The Week 17 pecking order is below.
Mahomes burnished his MVP candidacy with another typically brilliant performance Saturday against the struggling Seahawks. He led three first-half scoring drives to give the Chiefs a 17-0 advantage to start the game, and his 3-yard, pylon-reaching TD run slammed the door on any hopes of a late Seattle rally. Mahomes finished with 224 pass yards and three touchdowns (two passing), and the Chiefs have now won at least 12 games for the fifth straight season.
Hurts missed Week 16's clash with the Cowboys, which Dallas won 40-34, with a shoulder injury. His status is day-to-day ahead of a New Year's Day meeting with the New Orleans Saints. If he misses further time, it sure would cut into his MVP stock and could impact the race for both the NFC East and the conference's No. 1 seed, but it's also important to ensure Hurts is healthy enough to lead the Eagles deep into January.
On the way to breaking Randy Moss' franchise record for most receiving yards in a season and Cris Carter's for receptions in a season, Jefferson was a game-changer in the second half to help the Vikings edge the New York Giants on Christmas Eve. He made a leaping 17-yard touchdown grab in the fourth quarter before accounting for 33 yards on two catches on Minnesota's game-winning drive, which improved the team to 11-0 in one-score games. After his 12-catch, 133-yard day, Jefferson needs 209 yards over the final two games to surpass Calvin Johnson's all-time single-season receiving yards record (1,964).
Burrow led the Bengals to four scoring drives on their first five possessions to build a 22-0 lead at the half, completing 28 of his 36 pass attempts (77.8%), the most completions by any QB in a half this season. That was all she wrote for Burrow and the offense, though they were able to hang on for a victory despite the Patriots taking advantage of a pair of turnovers and a missed field goal. Looking ahead, I can't wait to watch Burrow and Josh Allen duel next week in which could be an AFC title game preview.
After a slow start on a cold Christmas Eve in Chicago, Allen and the Bills' rushing attack took matters into their own hands, rushing for three touchdowns and 254 yards in the win, including 160 yards in the second half. The Bills locked up their third straight division title with the win, but Allen must clean up his play, because teams Buffalo will face in the postseason are sure to take advantage of his sometimes sloppy turnovers.
Kelce diced up the Seahawks' defense Saturday for 113 yards on six receptions, including a 52-yard catch-and-run (his longest gain of the season) in the fourth quarter. The performance was his second consecutive 100-yard game and sixth of the season.
The Dolphins regained their early-season form in the first half against the Packers, jetting out to a 10-point lead. Hill had 84 of his 103 receiving yards in the first half, including a 52-yarder that set up Jeff Wilson Jr.'s 1-yard score in the second quarter. Unfortunately, the offense stalled big time in the final two quarters with Tua Tagovailoa tossing three fourth-quarter picks, sending Miami to its fourth straight loss.
The Eagles' offense flexed its muscles with Gardner Minshew replacing MVP candidate Jalen Hurts, outgaining the Cowboy 442-419 in total yards. Despite the narrow loss, Brown played his part and enjoyed his fifth 100-yard receiving performance of the season.
Dak Prescott connected with eight pass-catchers in Saturday's big win over divisional-rival Philly, but no player was more valuable to the Cowboys' offensive success than Lamb. He finished with 10 catches for 120 receiving yards and two scores, beating a pair of defenders on a 36-yard TD to help Dallas take its first lead of the game and snagging a 7-yard grab in the corner of the end zone to help tie it up late. The outing gave the two-time Pro Bowler his second consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season.
Little went right for the Raiders' offense outside of their first possession on Saturday night. Jacobs was held to 44 rush yards on 15 carries, his second-fewest rush yards in a game this season and the fewest of his career in a game with at least 15 carries. It won't get easier next week for the NFL's current rushing leader as he faces DeMeco Ryans' top-ranked 49ers run defense.
In a another win where the 49ers spread the ball around offensively, McCaffrey finished with 15 carries for 46 yards, including a 1-yard TD plunge late in the fourth quarter, and added 12 yards on two receptions in the pass game. CMC can be the hero whenever Kyle Shanahan calls his number, though it's nice that he doesn't have to be every week in this stacked unit.
Adams had just two catches for 15 yards in Saturday evening's snowy loss to Pittsburgh. It marked the third game of the 2022 season in which he tallied fewer than 20 receiving yards -- with the Raiders going 0-3 in those games. Even with those low-production outings on his ledger, Adams still has the fifth-most receiving yards in the NFL.
Chubb ran into a stifling Saints defense on a freezing cold Saturday in Cleveland, finishing with 92 yards on 24 totes (3.8 yards per carry) in the loss. In an underwhelming Browns season, Chubb continues to be a bright spot, with his Week 16 performance lifting him to his highest rushing total since 2019.
Cousins is enjoying the best season of his career, guiding the Vikings (12-3) to an NFC North title. In Saturday's win over the New York Giants, Cousins logged his eighth game-winning drive of the 2022 campaign. In his last five games, Cousins has thrown 13 touchdowns to three interceptions and has a 106.7 passer rating.
Henry shouldered the blame for Saturday's loss to the Houston Texans after his third lost fumble of the season changed the momentum in the fourth quarter. It's hard to really roast Henry when he has basically been the sole driving force behind the Titans' offense for most of the season. On Saturday, he had 126 rush yards and a score on 23 totes while rookie quarterback Malik Willis threw for only 99 yards and a pair of picks. The Titans' struggles don't tell the tale of Henry's season, which will go down as another extremely productive campaign (1,429 rush yards and 10 rush TDs through 16 weeks).
JUST MISSED: Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins (previously No. 11); Stefon Diggs, WR, Buffalo Bills (No. 14).