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The First Read: One reason for hope for nine bubble teams still in NFL playoff hunt; top MVP candidates

In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 16 of the 2023 NFL season, including:

But first, why nine teams currently outside of the playoff picture still have hope for a postseason berth ...

It's about that time. We're in the stretch run of the regular season and we're going to be talking about playoff scenarios every week moving forward. The beauty of that exercise is that there are no dominant teams in the league this year. The San Francisco 49ers are probably as close as we'll come, and even they had to deal with a three-game losing streak earlier this year.

The biggest takeaway from Week 15 of this NFL season is that the playoff picture will be muddled until the final games are wrapping up three weeks from now. The division races are mostly competitive, but the true intrigue revolves around the teams that currently sit on the bubble for playoff spots. Only six teams have been mathematically eliminated as of this writing, so you can imagine how many squads are still praying for the opportunity to reach the postseason. There currently are six teams in both the AFC and the NFC that are within at least three games of the final wild-card spot. The question facing all of them is one we'll evaluate in this week's version of The First Read:

Why should they be hopeful?

Some of these teams have been trending in the right direction, while others have been dealing with a variety of challenges in recent weeks. The common denominator for all of them is that the NFL truly is unpredictable. Any one of these teams still in the hunt can find itself in the postseason if certain variables work out in its favor.

So here's one reason for each team that isn't holding a playoff spot at the moment to feel good about its chances. For the sake of time and space, the only teams mentioned here are those that still have a shot at a winning record.


Houston Texans

Reason for Hope: The culture. Rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud has been the major reason for the Texans’ surprising success this season. The reality is the No. 2 overall pick isn't the only factor behind this team jumping into postseason contention. Head coach DeMeco Ryans and general manager Nick Caserio have built a roster that is filled with young players who believe they can win NOW. That was clear when Stroud was winning big games earlier this year and it was just as apparent on Sunday, when backup quarterback Case Keenum started in place of Stroud (concussion) and helped lead Houston to a win over Tennessee. The Texans have found key contributors in less-heralded players like defensive end Jonathan Greenard (12.5 sacks), cornerback Steven Nelson (four interceptions) and wide receiver Nico Collins (who missed Sunday’s game with a calf injury but already has 1,004 receiving yards).

Buffalo Bills

Reason for Hope: They’re rolling. The Bills have become the scariest team in the AFC -- and you can make a case that they’re probably top three in the NFL right now. That’s how well they’re playing these days. They just crushed Dallas with quarterback Josh Allen throwing for all of 94 yards. They went into Kansas City and beat the Chiefs two Sundays ago and they were within a missed throw from Allen to wide receiver Gabe Davis of taking out Philadelphia in overtime one game prior. For all the craziness that has surrounded this team this season -- both on and off the field -- Buffalo is rounding into form at exactly the right time. Running back James Cook has added a much-needed dimension to the offense, while the defense completely shut down a Dallas team that has led the league in scoring. In fact, a wild-card spot might not be the only thing the Bills are shooting for as we move towards the end of the regular season. They have the Chargers and the Patriots over the next two weeks before visiting Miami in the season finale. If the Bills win out and the Dolphins slip up, Buffalo could take the AFC East and enter the postseason as a top-two seed.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Reason for Hope: Mike Tomlin’s track record. Tomlin has never experienced a losing season as the Steelers' head coach, so that must create some optimism for a team that has dropped three straight games. The Steelers also know what it’s like to be in this position when their coach is tasked with creating miraculous results. They were 7-7-1 with two games left in the 2021 season -- and fresh off a blowout loss in Kansas City -- when they somehow managed to win their final two games and sneak into the AFC's final wild-card spot that year. The problem, as the saying goes, is that all good things must come to an end. The Steelers are relying on backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky to lead one of the worst offenses in the league. They’ve also lost to Arizona and New England -- two teams destined for high picks in next year’s draft -- and the Colts just handed them a 30-13 beatdown on Saturday. Tomlin is one of the best coaches this league has ever seen. If he can turn this thing around at such a late stage, it will be his most impressive job yet.

Denver Broncos

Reason for Hope: Resilience. Let’s face it -- nobody thought we’d be talking about the Broncos being in this position a month into this season. Their defense was too shoddy, their offense was too inconsistent and head coach Sean Payton was already lining up veterans to dump from the roster. Then a funny thing happened: They rallied. The fact that Denver won five straight games after opening the season with a 1-5 start means this team has some legitimate fortitude. The defense that was such a liability also became a strength during that turnaround, as it forced 18 turnovers over a seven-game stretch. That same unit now must rebound from an awful effort in Detroit that was a reminder of how bleak things looked in the season’s first weeks. That 42-17 loss was sobering for the Broncos in so many ways. The good news is that they won’t see another winning team for the rest of the regular season. If they can handle the Patriots, Chargers and Raiders, they’ll have a decent shot at a wild-card spot.

Las Vegas Raiders

Reason for Hope: Antonio Pierce. The Raiders' interim head coach has kept this team engaged ever since Josh McDaniels lost his job six games ago. The team has gone 3-3 in that time, which isn’t all that impressive, unless you compare it to the work McDaniels was doing before owner Mark Davis canned him. The Raiders haven’t hidden the fact that they’re playing for Pierce. They’d love to see him hold onto this job on a permanent basis, a hypothetical that'd probably demand a playoff appearance. Of course, the Raiders also went down this road not that long ago. Rich Bisaccia went from special teams coach to interim head coach in the 2021 season, after Jon Gruden resigned. Bisaccia, also a favorite of the players, led the Raiders to a 7-5 record and a wild-card slot. He ultimately didn’t get the job, but the point here shouldn’t be lost. The Raiders still have plenty to play for, even though they’re fighting against the odds for another postseason berth.


Seattle Seahawks

Reason for Hope: The schedule. The toughest game left on the Seahawks’ schedule was their Monday night matchup with Philadelphia. After that, they face the Titans, Steelers and Cardinals, which shouldn’t be a stretch that scares anybody. The real question is whether the 'Hawks can find a way to capitalize on this opportunity to create some momentum in the race for wild-card bids. Quarterback Geno Smith has been plagued by a groin injury -- along with consistently disappointing play -- while the defense has become as unreliable as it was last season. There’s a reason why Seattle lost four straight games heading into its game with Philadelphia. The Seahawks simply haven’t made enough plays to compete with the better teams in the NFL. That’s why their remaining schedule should create a little optimism. There’s not a team coming up at the end that they can’t beat.

New Orleans Saints

Reason for Hope: Talent. The Saints have more of that than any other team in the NFC South. They have older stars like Cam Jordan, Demario Davis, Tyrann Mathieu and Alvin Kamara. They have injured stars who should be returning to the lineup soon, including wide receiver Michael Thomas and cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Their quarterback, Derek Carr, also happens to be the most accomplished player at his position in this division, even with all the challenges he’s faced this season. Yes, the Saints have struggled mightily to find some consistency. They also have the greatest potential of any team in this division when they’re clicking. Their schedule won’t be easy moving forward -- with the Rams, Buccaneers and Falcons rounding out the remaining games -- but their personnel gives them as good a shot as anybody.

Atlanta Falcons

Reason for Hope: The NFC South. That’s pretty much every team’s best argument in this division. As frustrating as Sunday’s loss had to be for the Falcons -- when they gave Carolina its second win of the season in that 9-7 defeat -- they are still very much in the hunt for the NFC South crown. They’re only one game behind Tampa Bay and New Orleans, and they’ll see the Saints in the season finale. That said, there are no more gimmes coming for this team. They have the Colts and Bears on tap over the next two weeks and both of those squads are feisty. There are some elements of the Falcons that are encouraging (especially the talent in their rushing attack), but they’ve also battled inconsistency all season. It’s quite likely that only one team in this division is making the postseason. The best-case scenario for Atlanta is that the rivals who currently sit above them in the standings start imploding.

Green Bay Packers

Reason for Hope: Jordan Love. If the Packers are going to regain the good vibes that surrounded them just two weeks ago, then their young quarterback will have to be the catalyst. He was exactly that during a three-game stretch, when the Packers posted wins over the Chargers, Lions and Chiefs. Love also was solid on Sunday in Green Bay’s 34-20 loss to Tampa Bay and he engineered a go-ahead drive late in a Monday night loss to the Giants last week. Unfortunately for the Packers, they’re going to need him to be even better than that in these final three games. Green Bay’s defense inexplicably has disappeared at the worst possible time. That unit added to the legend of Tommy DeVito in that last-second defeat at New York, and Baker Mayfield lit up the Pack for 381 yards and four touchdowns in the loss to Tampa. A few weeks ago, it was understandable to think the Packers would cruise to a wild-card spot with a remaining schedule that features the Panthers, Vikings and Bears. Now it’s anybody’s guess as to how they’ll fare against that slate. Love found a way to elevate his game -- and inherently, lift the team -- earlier this year after struggling through inconsistency and ineffectiveness. He’d better find a way to hit another gear with Green Bay’s season clearly on the line.


The final game Brandon Staley coached for the Chargers. The Raiders didn't score a single point in their Week 14 loss to Minnesota. Four days later, they exploded in a 63-21 win over the Chargers that ultimately resulted in the firings of both Staley and Bolts general manager Tom Telesco. This was the perfect example of what it looks like when a team gives up on its coach. The Raiders went up and down the field, led 42-0 at halftime and set a franchise record for points in a game. The Chargers are now left to figure out who should lead them next ... and whether that person can do more with their potential than Staley.


  1. Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals rally from a 14-point second-half deficit to win on a field goal in overtime.
  2. Chicago Bears at Cleveland Browns: Joe Flacco continues his magic in Cleveland by leading the Browns to a last-minute win.
  3. Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans: Houston keeps its playoff hopes alive with backup quarterback Case Keenum under center.


A Monday night matchup featuring each conference's best team, this highly anticipated Christmas clash offers all sorts of playoff implications. The 49ers are riding a six-game winning streak in which every victory has come by double digits. The Ravens are hoping to keep their hands on the top seed in the AFC playoffs, while proving they can impress against another NFC contender (they already blew out Detroit and Seattle earlier this season). This could easily be a preview of Super Bowl LVIII, given how well both squads have played this season.


A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 16 (with Caesars Sportsbook odds as of 9 a.m. ET on Monday, Dec. 18):

Brock Purdy
San Francisco 49ers · QB
  • Caesars odds: -225
  • Weeks in top five: 7
  • Next game: vs. Ravens | Monday, Dec. 25
Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · QB
  • Caesars odds: +500
  • Weeks in top five: 6
  • Next game: at Dolphins | Sunday, Dec. 24
Lamar Jackson
Baltimore Ravens · QB
  • Caesars odds: +500
  • Weeks in top five: 6
  • Next game: at 49ers | Monday, Dec. 25
Josh Allen
Buffalo Bills · QB
  • Caesars odds: +1100
  • Weeks in top five: 6
  • Next game: at Chargers | Saturday, Dec. 23
Jalen Hurts
Philadelphia Eagles · QB
  • Caesars odds: +1400
  • Weeks in top five: 4
  • Next game: at Seahawks | Monday, Dec. 18


My slowly evolving Super Bowl LVIII pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: 49ers over Bills.

Previous picks ...

  • Week 14: 49ers over Ravens.
  • Week 13: 49ers over Ravens
  • Week 12: 49ers over Ravens
  • Week 11: Eagles over Ravens
  • Week 10: Eagles over Bengals
  • Week 9: Ravens over Eagles
  • Week 8: Eagles over Bengals
  • Week 7: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 6: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 5: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 4: 49ers over Bills
  • Week 3: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 2: 49ers over Bills
  • Week 1: 49ers over Dolphins

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