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The First Read: One thing each NFL team has to be thankful for entering Week 12

In this special Thanksgiving edition of The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha identifies one thing each team should be thankful for entering Week 12 of the 2023 NFL season.

They will have options. It’s surprising that the Cardinals aren’t the worst team in football because they seemed more than willing to embrace that role before the season began. Then a strange thing happened: They competed. They beat the Dallas Cowboys in Week 3. Quarterback Kyler Murray returned to the field after sustaining a torn ACL last December, and they won again in his Week 10 season debut. It’s hard to know how Arizona is going to handle Murray and his massive contract moving forward, but know this much: This team is trending toward a top-three pick in next year’s draft. The Cards will be able to do something with that.

They have young talent in the building. One of the most perplexing questions in the league involves the Falcons’ inability to mine more production out of their gifted skill players. Tight end Kyle Pitts was a Pro Bowler as a rookie and he’s not even a major threat in the offense. Wide receiver Drake London caught 72 passes in his 2022 rookie season and his impact hasn’t been the same this year, either. Then there’s rookie running back Bijan Robinson, Atlanta’s first-round pick this season. He looks special when he touches the ball, but he shares time with Tyler Allgeier. We’re still waiting for head coach Arthur Smith to figure out how to get the most out of this bunch. What isn’t in question is whether these Falcons have immense potential.

Depth. The Ravens have dealt with their share of injuries this season. Running back J.K. Dobbins went down with a torn Achilles in Week 1, and yet Baltimore still has the best rushing attack in the NFL. The absence of safety Marcus Williams for several games earlier this year opened the door for Geno Stone to become the league's co-leader in interceptions with six. Now, tight end Mark Andrews is expected to miss the remainder of the season with a fractured fibula and torn ankle ligaments. It’s a huge blow to this roster. History also says Baltimore will find a way to survive it.

Their familiarity with adversity. It’s been pretty crazy in Buffalo lately, with quarterback Josh Allen turning the ball over again, wide receiver Stefon Diggs having to comment on tweets about the team made by his younger brother and head coach Sean McDermott suddenly firing offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey (even though the Bills had a top-10 offense). This also isn’t that crazy if you’ve followed the Bills in recent years. In 2021, they lost three of four games and were sitting at 7-6 before finishing the regular season on a four-game winning streak. Last year, they dealt with countless injuries (including the loss of edge rusher Von Miller and safety Micah Hyde, as well as the harrowing near-death experience with safety Damar Hamlin) and still managed a seven-game win streak. We’re not saying the Bills don’t look rough right now. It’s just that they’re more than capable of righting the ship again.

It’s only Year 1. C.J. Stroud ruined things for Bryce Young in Carolina. Rookie quarterbacks are supposed to struggle, and Stroud has done little of that in Houston. On the other hand, Young -- the player selected No. 1 overall, right before Stroud in this year’s draft -- has been trying to figure things out for a 1-9 Panthers team. Carolina’s coaching staff has done quite a bit in its attempts to ease that burden, from changing play-callers (head coach Frank Reich is back to doing that again after initially giving that responsibility to offensive coordinator Thomas Brown a few weeks ago) to giving Young a wristband with plays on it to wear in games. Does it feel like a mess from the outside? Sure. Have we seen young quarterbacks go through this and eventually prosper? You bet.

The 2024 draft. As painful as this season has been in Chicago, the Bears understand life could change in a hurry come April. There’s a strong chance that they’ll be holding two of the top five picks in next year’s draft. They have Carolina’s selection -- thanks to the trade that landed them DJ Moore -- which is currently on track to be first overall. Chicago also will have its own pick, and after blowing Sunday's game in Detroit, this team has the look of a squad that could bottom out over the next two months. 

The team’s personnel moves. Yeah, it sucks that quarterback Joe Burrow is out for the season with a torn ligament in his right wrist. That doesn’t mean this is the last time we’ll be talking about Cincinnati as a Super Bowl contender. This team has been killing it in the offseason for most of the last four years. The Bengals' drafts have produced superstars like Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, as well as other young talents with promising futures (like defensive backs Daxton Hill, DJ Turner II and Cam Taylor-Britt). They’ve also hit big in free agency on pieces such as edge rusher Trey Hendrickson and defensive lineman D.J. Reader. The Bengals have one of the league’s youngest rosters, by the way. They’ll be fine.

The hiring of Jim Schwartz. If the Browns have any chance of overcoming the season-ending shoulder injury to quarterback Deshaun Watson, then it will come on the shoulders of a defense that has turned dominant under the tutelage of Schwartz this season. Yes, we get it. Stud edge rusher Myles Garrett was already in the building when Schwartz arrived, along with sticky cornerbacks like Greg Newsome II and Denzel Ward. Now here’s a question: How did that unit perform in previous years? Schwartz unleashed everything that defense could be, and Garrett is the top candidate for Defensive Player of the Year as a result. 

Dak Prescott. The Cowboys quarterback picked the ideal time to produce the best ball of his career. He’s turned himself into an MVP candidate over the past month by providing big plays with his arm, timely scrambling and the confidence that he can carry this team when necessary. The big question coming into this season was whether Prescott could avoid the turnovers that killed this team a season ago. He now has 14 touchdown passes and just two interceptions over his last five games (he has 19 and six on the season in those categories). Just as importantly, Prescott has leaned on CeeDee Lamb and taken the wide receiver's game to another level. Dak receives a lot of hate when things aren’t going right in Dallas. He deserves plenty of love these days.

The resurrection of Russell Wilson. It was hard to believe Wilson would go from being a future Hall of Famer to a complete disaster in one season, without any chance of rebounding. But look at him now. He's thrown more touchdown passes in 10 games (19) than he did in his entire first year in Denver (16). Not unrelated: The Broncos already have matched last year's win total. Even when Denver was stumbling around at the start of this season, its lack of success had more to do with a defense that couldn’t stop anybody. Wilson was playing much better during that early stretch. He’s improved even more as the season has gone on.

Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell. The Lions are barreling towards their first division title in three decades and their first playoff appearance since 2016. That is happening because their general manager and head coach created a vision nearly three years ago, when they arrived in the Motor City. Holmes and Campbell wanted a physical, blue-collar team filled with gritty players who wanted to win and didn’t care about the franchise's lackluster history. Fast-forward to this season, and that’s exactly what the Lions are putting on the field every week.

Jordan Love showed some progress. It’s been a wild ride with Love this season. He started the year with encouraging play, then regressed into a quarterback who made some poor decisions and committed too many turnovers. Then came Sunday, when Green Bay’s 23-20 win over the Chargers wound up being Love's best game of the season. The 25-year-old produced strong numbers (27 of 40 for 322 yards and two touchdowns). More importantly, he led the Packers on a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter that culminated in a 24-yard touchdown pass to Romeo Doubs. There’s been a lot of speculation about Love’s future in Green Bay after this season. This was evidence that he can improve quickly.

C.J. Stroud. This is as big of a no-brainer as you’ll find in this list. Who knows where the Texans would be if Carolina had selected Stroud first overall in the 2023 NFL Draft instead of Bryce Young? That’s not to shade Young’s future, but Stroud already is in the midst of the best rookie season we’ve ever witnessed from an NFL quarterback. He doesn’t have a reliable running game -- although Devin Singletary has come on of late. He’s throwing to receivers most people wouldn’t recognize. And there’s no real star power on the team. Don’t buy into the notion that a rookie on a team that isn’t winning its division can’t be an MVP candidate. Stroud is the epitome of what valuable means.

Shane Steichen. The Colts’ head coach has proven to be fairly resourceful in his first season on the job. His best offensive player, running back Jonathan Taylor, was caught up in a public squabble with ownership over a new contract, one Taylor eventually received. His rookie quarterback, Anthony Richardson, impressed at the start of the year before a shoulder injury ended his season. The Indianapolis defense also has struggled, as it ranked 25th in the league in points allowed heading into Week 11. Throughout all that, the Colts are still sitting at 5-5 as they rest up during their bye. Steichen could’ve lost this team long ago. It says plenty that the Colts are still competing for a playoff spot.

Travis Etienne. The Jaguars' offense hasn’t exploded in the way many anticipated, but it’s not Etienne’s fault. He’s been dynamic as both a runner and receiver, so much so that he should be thinking about a spot in this year’s Pro Bowl. Etienne is getting anywhere from 20 to 30 touches each week and is on pace for 1,618 total yards from scrimmage. It now seems comical that Urban Meyer flirted with the idea of utilizing Etienne as a wide receiver when the Jaguars drafted him in the 2021 NFL Draft. This dude is going to become even more of a monster the longer he plays.

Steve Spagnuolo. Defenses have taken over the league once again and Spagnuolo has presided over one of the best in Kansas City. This unit has everything you’d like in terms of talent, including an assortment of disruptive pass rushers, savvy linebackers and versatile defensive backs. What makes it elite is the way Spagnuolo deploys all those weapons. He has a variety of exotic blitz packages, but he’s also gotten this group to trust one another, to believe in what they can accomplish as a unit. You can’t argue with the results. This is the best defense of the Patrick Mahomes era, one that is already responsible for three wins this year (over Jacksonville, Denver and Miami).

The firing of Josh McDaniels. It’s confounding to think McDaniels didn’t learn much about being a head coach from his first time on the job, when he flopped with the Denver Broncos. He brought the same poor communication skills and dictatorial approach to the Raiders and, somehow, it just didn’t lead to his players buying into his vision. Give owner Mark Davis credit for seeing where this was heading and hitting the eject button before the season was too far gone. Interim coach Antonio Pierce clearly has the faith of these players. He also has a great chance at leading them to the postseason, given the way the AFC playoff picture looks right now.

The hiring of Kellen Moore. The Chargers are back to their frustrating ways this season, but Moore has been far from the problem. Head coach Brandon Staley hired him to improve the offense -- more specifically, to elevate the performance of star quarterback Justin Herbert -- and that’s been one of the positives in Los Angeles thus far. Herbert has taken more shots downfield and he’s become more efficient in the process. The Bolts have plenty of issues on defense, as they proved once again in Sunday’s loss to Green Bay. Moore’s work with Herbert is one of the few things keeping them alive.

The Seattle Seahawks. The Rams won both games against Seattle this season, and you can argue that those victories have been their biggest. The first was a season-opening blowout that introduced the world to Puka Nacua. The second came on Sunday, when the Rams secured a 17-16 victory after the Seahawks couldn’t connect on a last-second field goal. Los Angeles could easily be trending in the wrong direction. Instead, it's now sitting at 4-6 with some newfound optimism about getting back into the wild-card race.

Jalen Ramsey’s return to the field. Nobody knew what to expect when Ramsey underwent knee surgery at the end of July. He’s been pretty amazing ever since that point. First, Ramsey recovered faster than anticipated, as early reports had him returning in early December. Then he started balling like crazy after getting back on the field. Ramsey had an interception in his first game back. He helped the Dolphins hold the Chiefs offense to just 14 offensive points in his second game. And in his third game -- Sunday’s win over the Raiders -- he hauled in two more interceptions, the second of which sealed the victory. Miami traded for Ramsey back in March in the hopes of landing an impact player. Mission accomplished.

Kevin O’Connell. The easy answer here would be quarterback Josh Dobbs, who’s been nothing short of sensational since showing up in a midseason trade and starting three games. The fact is O’Connell has kept this team together through a litany of challenges. The Vikings started the season 1-4, thanks in part to a slew of turnovers. They lost Justin Jefferson in Week 5 to a hamstring injury he has yet to return from. They lost Kirk Cousins in Week 8 to a torn Achilles. They’ve battled injuries to other key starters and had to rely on a quarterback who was starting for the Arizona Cardinals just three weeks ago. They’ve gotten through all that and returned to playoff contention because O’Connell is a strong candidate for Coach of the Year.

No football last week. The Patriots had a bye in Week 11, and that had to be a welcome relief for the franchise and its fans. New England, 2-8, sits at the bottom of the AFC. The Pats have suffered some of the worst defeats in Bill Belichick's career this fall and have shown little signs of improvement as the season has gone on. The roughest part about all of this: They still have seven games to go. Perhaps the week away and a matchup with the 3-8 Giants are exactly what this team needs.

The NFC South. New Orleans has been one of the more confounding teams all year. The offense has been up and down. At 5-5, the Saints have been in a pattern of winning a couple games and then losing a couple. If they played in a different division, they’d be lucky to be in the wild-card conversation. Since they play in the NFC South, they’re in a great spot to be division champions. 

The Daniel Jones contract. If the Giants can take anything away from what has been a horrendous season, it is that it’s time to think about other options at quarterback. They gave Jones a four-year, $160 million extension in March, but the penalty of walking away from him isn’t substantial after the 2024 season. That means it’s time to take advantage of what is trending toward being a top-five pick in next year’s draft. There will be plenty of quality prospects to choose from, and Jones could be a bridge if the team wants to give that newbie a year to develop. It sucks that Jones tore his ACL and had to play behind a lousy offensive line. But it also would be a huge mistake for the Giants to not find a way to benefit from all that frustration. 

That defense. It’s one thing to be optimistic about winning enough games to create the remote possibility of Aaron Rodgers playing again after sustaining a torn Achilles in the season opener. It’s another to be in a position to still make that happen. The Jets can thank that nasty defense for doing its part when it comes to keeping hope alive. The unit has been elite all season, and especially disruptive against some of the best quarterbacks in the league. Just imagine where this team would be if Rodgers had been healthy all year.

A.J. Brown. The Eagles’ star wide receiver has been a force this season, and only Miami’s Tyreek Hill has eclipsed him in productivity. Prior to Monday night’s quiet outing in the win over the Chiefs, Brown had produced an NFL-record six straight games with at least 125 receiving yards. His big plays helped Philadelphia snap out of an early-season funk. With tight end Dallas Goedert sidelined with a forearm fracture, there’s even more pressure on Brown -- and fellow wideout DeVonta Smith -- to make momentum-altering plays. The Eagles continue their most brutal stretch of the season, with games coming up against the Bills, 49ers, Cowboys and Seahawks. Don’t be surprised if Brown is even more impressive in those contests.

T.J. Watt. We’ve been praising head coach Mike Tomlin all season for the job he’s done in Pittsburgh with an underwhelming offense. It’s time now to heap some love on the one player Tomlin can count on every week to deliver the game-changing plays that give the Steelers a chance at winning: Watt. There aren’t many edge rushers who are as consistently disruptive. Watt already has 11.5 sacks, putting him on pace for 19.5. He’s forced two fumbles, recovered three others, intercepted a pass and scored the game-winning touchdown on a fumble return in a Week 2 victory over the Browns. It’s hard to know if the Steelers can reach the playoffs without a productive offense (as we saw in Pittsburgh’s 13-10 loss to Cleveland on Sunday). What we do know is Watt will do his part.

Improved health. The 49ers went from riding a five-game winning streak to suffering through a three-game losing streak, and there were plenty of questions that came with that stark change in fortune. The reality is that the reasons behind those issues were easier to explain than some wanted to believe. The most glaring factor was an offense that was plagued by injuries to star players (wide receiver Deebo Samuel, left tackle Trent Williams and running back Christian McCaffrey). With those pieces compromised, quarterback Brock Purdy pressed more, turnovers became a bigger issue and the defense didn’t help by producing some bad outings. Things look a lot better in the Bay Area these days, primarily because the team is more whole again after winning two straight.

Boye Mafe’s development. The Seahawks have been trying to bolster their defensive line over the last couple years, so Mafe is growing up at just the right time. He’s easily the most improved player on this team, as he’s leading Seattle in sacks (seven), quarterback hits (11) and fumble recoveries (two). The Seahawks anticipated that Mafe would need some time to grow into a consistent player when he arrived as a second-round pick last year. He’s already more than doubled his sack total from his rookie season and is looking more dangerous with each passing week.

Tristan Wirfs. The Buccaneers moved Wirfs from right tackle to left tackle this season. He’s played like he’s belonged there his entire career. (Heading into Sunday’s loss to San Francisco, Wirfs hadn’t allowed a sack all season.) He’s also proven once again why he should be a cornerstone for this team moving forward. A first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Wirfs is in the midst of his fourth season, and he should be in line for a huge contract extension. The Bucs have struggled to find consistency as a team this season. Wirfs should make them feel better about their future.

Self-realization. The Titans are about to go through a rebuild, and they’re leaning into it in the right way. Rookie Will Levis already has been named the starter for the rest of the season as the team prepares to move on from Ryan Tannehill. Tennessee also sent safety Kevin Byard, a longtime defensive leader, to Philadelphia near the trade deadline. There’s certain to be more speculation about an eventual departure for star running back Derrick Henry as we move into the offseason. The Titans still have one of the league’s best head coaches in Mike Vrabel and some nice pieces on defenses -- like defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons -- but this is a team that needs to retool its core. The good thing is the Titans can see it.

Sam Howell. It’s been a long time since Washington could be this deep into a season and feeling good about the future of its quarterback position. Howell has gone from being an intriguing talent to legitimately being a player who could be on his way to a nice career. He’s produced solid numbers despite playing behind suspect pass protection, throwing for an NFL-high 3,038 yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Just as importantly, he’s shown some moxie and a cavalier approach to the game that could serve this franchise well. The Commanders have put a lot of duds under center over the past few years. This guy has a great chance to avoid that fate. 


A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 12:

C.J. Stroud
Houston Texans · QB
  • Weeks in top five: 2
  • Next game: vs. Jaguars | Sunday, Nov. 26
Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · QB
Myles Garrett
Cleveland Browns · DE
  • Weeks in top five: 2
  • Next game: at Broncos | Sunday, Nov. 26
Brock Purdy
San Francisco 49ers · QB
  • Weeks in top five: 3
  • Next game: at Seahawks | Thursday, Nov. 23
Tyreek Hill
Miami Dolphins · WR
  • Weeks in top five: 5
  • Next game: at Jets | Friday, Nov. 24


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

Previous picks ...

  • 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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