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The First Read, Week 12: Free-for-all in the AFC; Jalen Hurts rising

In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 12 of the 2021 NFL season, including:

But first, trying to sort out the chaos enveloping the AFC ...

The 2021 NFL season has taught us one thing when it comes to deciding who's good and who's not: Don't look too far into the future. The current AFC playoff picture is even more indicative of that sentiment. The three hottest teams in that conference are currently Kansas City, New England and Indianapolis. All three of those squads were under .500 a month ago, with the Chiefs mired in last place in the AFC West.

This is the kind of roller coaster ride we should all expect from the AFC as we push into December. A few weeks back, this space was used to talk about how the best defenses would decide who emerges as the eventual Super Bowl champion this year. It's time to add another element to that argument that relates specifically to this conference. The team that does the best job of embracing who they are is the one that is likeliest to go the farthest.

The Chiefs have gone from being led by an explosive, high-flying offense to winning ugly throughout most of a four-game win streak. The Patriots are adeptly managing a rookie quarterback in Mac Jones, while the Colts are riding running back Jonathan Taylor, week in and week out.

As Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said after his team's 19-9 win over Dallas on Sunday, "Every week is a big-time challenge. I'm talking about wins and losses haven't been consistent. There are these ups and downs, and teams are favored and then they get beat. I mean, it's crazy. It's what the league strived for, parity in this league, and I think they've done a great job with that."

There has been so much volatility in the AFC that Kansas City suddenly has a real shot at vying for the top playoff seed. The Tennessee Titans still hold that advantage, but their offense has been struggling so much that Houston just upset them at home. The Buffalo Bills' first four wins of the season came by the combined margin of 156-41, then the team generated all of 21 points in its last two losses. There isn't one division where you could feel comfortable guaranteeing that the current leader will end up taking the crown.

This is what happens when there are no great teams. It's more fun. In fact, when Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger lost a 41-37 shootout to the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday night, a reporter asked him why the AFC was so wide open. His response: "I don't know. It is though, isn't it? That's why you have hope, regardless of your record. There's a few games left and I feel like the AFC is still kind of anybody's game."

That is exactly right. The NFC can have its dominant squads, as there's little mystery about whether Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers will be in the postseason, or about the viability of supremely talented rosters, like those possessed by the Cowboys, Rams or Cardinals. There will be two other teams that will join that Power 5 in the playoffs, but nobody in that lower tier will be much of a threat.

The AFC will be entirely different over the next seven weeks. There will be scrapping and clawing, tussling and tangling, and there's no way to know if those streaking contenders of the moment won't hit another stretch of adversity. All we can say is what Reid said in his press conference after that Dallas win, that teams are better than they've ever been. That means the AFC will give us the best drama of the season as we inch ever so closer to January football.


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

1) Bills at a critical crossroads: The Buffalo Bills clearly spent a lot of time trying to construct a roster and strategy for beating the Kansas City Chiefs, the team that beat them in last year's AFC title game. The problem with that is it suddenly feels like this squad isn't built to deal with any of the other top competitors in this conference. The Bills still boast some gaudy statistics -- they're ranked second in the league in points scored and allowed -- but a disturbing trend has evolved in their losses: They tend to get pushed around a lot, on both sides of the football. The Colts just ran for 264 yards against them in a 41-15 blowout home loss for Buffalo. The Tennessee Titans banged them for 146 yards on the ground in a 34-31 defeat back in Week 6, a game that ended with Bills quarterback Josh Allen failing to convert a quarterback sneak on fourth down in the final minute. Throw in the way Pittsburgh (in Week 1) and Jacksonville (Week 9) roughed up Allen in those two defeats, and you see where this is going. It's clear that plenty of opponents think the best way to deal with Buffalo is to simply be the more physical team. So this is where Bills head coach Sean McDermott needs to get tough with his own squad, which fell to 6-4. We're starting to see the yearly occurrence of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll abandoning the run and hoisting increasingly more pressure on Allen. The Bills also are about to see the New England Patriots twice in the final month of the season. That would be the same Patriots team that now leads the AFC East by a half-game and thrives with a run-first offense and an elite, aggressive defense. The Bills basically need to heed the same lesson the Chiefs just learned: There comes a time when you can't keep asking a young quarterback to do everything for you. Buffalo proved it can beat the Chiefs with a win in Kansas City earlier this season. Now the Bills have to show they can adjust to the way every other opponent will try to play them.

2) Hurts so good: Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts is one of those players who will always spur debate. When he's struggling, there will be plenty of people who will nod and tell you how he'll never be a franchise quarterback in this league. It's an entirely different matter when he's thriving. That's when you start to see the possibilities, the qualities that can give him a chance to succeed for a long time if he continues to grow. Hurts has quietly been one of the better stories in this league over the past month. You wouldn't have known it outside of the Philly area, because the Eagles started the season 2-5. But look at him now. Hurts has led the Eagles to three wins in their last four games, and he just scored three rushing touchdowns in a 40-29 win over New Orleans. He's throwing the ball less frequently (he's only had 78 pass attempts during that four-game stretch) but using his legs effectively in an offense that is far more run-heavy today (he's had at least 55 yards rushing in every game in that time). In fact, Hurts has 618 rushing yards this season, with six left on the Eagles' schedule, which means he has a pretty good chance of joining Baltimore's Lamar Jackson as the only quarterback in league history to amass 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a season. There are still more questions for Hurts to answer in the coming weeks, particularly as a passer. However, the Eagles are contending for a playoff spot largely because he's found a real comfort zone.

3) Broncos setting up shop: The most interesting storyline involving the Denver Broncos won't get rolling until after the regular season ends. At 5-5, they are still technically in the mix for a playoff spot, but nothing about them currently suggests they can make a push for a postseason bid. The real intrigue will start once Broncos general manager George Paton figures out what he's going to do with his quarterback position. This writer already has spent enough time wondering why the Broncos used their first-round pick in this year's draft (No. 9 overall) on cornerback Patrick Surtain II instead of quarterback Justin Fields. The next question to be asked is how the team will maneuver to set itself up for a better option than Teddy Bridgewater. The first move was clearly the decision to trade star outside linebacker Von Miller to the Los Angeles Rams, which netted a second- and third-round pick next year. If the Broncos want to pursue a trade for an expensive veteran signal-caller -- such as Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Houston's Deshaun Watson or even Seattle's Russell Wilson -- they'll need to be saving as much as they can wherever possible. Paton also just handed out contract extensions to wide receivers Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick. That investment indicates he wants to keep his pass-catching corps -- which includes second-year targets Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler, as well as tight end Noah Fant -- together for the foreseeable future. The depth of talent, especially on offense, is what made the Broncos such a trendy pick as an under-the-radar team before the season began. Of course, the most significant decision Paton has to make will involve the coach he wants in place if Denver is going down this road. At this juncture, it's fair to assume that Vic Fangio, who has a record of 17-25 since taking over in 2019, isn't going to get a fourth year leading this team unless a crazy turnaround ensues in the coming weeks. You'd also expect a team this flush with offensive talent to be in the market for an offensive coach, and there will be plenty of those on the market (including Dallas' Kellen Moore, Buffalo's Brian Daboll, Kansas City's Eric Bieniemy and Tampa Bay's Byron Leftwich). So sit tight. The Broncos might not be much to watch these days, but they'll be vastly compelling in the not-so-distant future.


Justin Jefferson
Minnesota Vikings MIN · WR

The Vikings have made a concerted effort to target Jefferson more lately, and the results have been undeniable. He's had 312 receiving yards over his last two games, including 104 in the first quarter of Minnesota's 34-31 win over Green Bay on Sunday. More importantly, Jefferson is helping the 5-5 Vikings make a huge push in the conversation for a postseason berth. This was a team that was finding ways to lose earlier this year. With two straight wins against playoff-caliber teams (the NFC North-leading Packers and the Chargers) -- and with Jefferson playing as well as any receiver in football -- the Vikings are trending in the right direction.

Deebo Samuel
San Francisco 49ers SF · WR

This dude could be on this list every week. It's ironic that he's making it after a game when he only caught one pass -- in San Francisco's 30-10 win over Jacksonville -- but Samuel actually led his team in rushing with 79 yards on eight carries. Every time the 49ers have an issue on offense, they ask more of Samuel. Entering Monday Night Football in Week 11, Deebo was second in the NFL in receiving yards (994) and fourth in yards per catch (18.1), and it's hard to imagine a tougher player at that position right now. Oh yeah, his team is also officially back in playoff contention after improving to 5-5.

Houston Texans

The Texans had only one win before Sunday's 22-13 triumph over Tennessee, so this likely will be their only chance to make this list. Give Culley credit for keeping this team focused and competitive at a point in the season that hasn't produced many positives. The Texans forced five turnovers. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor ran the offense efficiently. And Culley set the proper tone by not giving out game balls because the team hasn't won enough. It was a huge road victory over the AFC's top team -- and the New York Jets are next on the schedule.


Tennessee Titans

Tennessee was going to face this problem sooner or later. You lose Derrick Henry and Julio Jones for prolonged stretches, and your offense is going to suffer. That's what we saw on Sunday, when the Texans trounced Tennessee, turned quarterback Ryan Tannehill into a turnover machine and reminded us that Titans running back Adrian Peterson really is 36 years old. It wasn't just that the Titans looked flat in what should've been an easy win. It's that they dropped that contest just as a road game with the New England Patriots -- a team that actually has an elite defense -- is coming up next.

New Orleans Saints

This side of the football has been an issue for New Orleans all season, and it's only gotten worse as the injuries have mounted. It would be easy to put this all on quarterback Trevor Siemian, who hasn't done much positive since Jameis Winston went on injured reserve with a season-ending knee injury suffered in Week 8. That also wouldn't be fair. The Saints are missing their best wide receiver (Michael Thomas), and they lost to the Eagles without Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara or either offensive tackle available. The passing game was anemic before Siemian took over, as the Saints haven't thrown for 300 yards all season. The New Orleans defense actually might not be good enough to overcome what's happening on offense.

Las Vegas Raiders

We'll go three-for-three in offenses trending down this week, because the Raiders have to be lumped into this category as well (and the Seahawks should be thankful there are only three slots in this space). This unit hasn't been the same since the team released wide receiver Henry Ruggs following his car crash that resulted in a fatality in early November. (Ruggs was arrested and booked on a charge of DUI resulting in the death of another person.) Maybe the overall impact of that tragedy has traumatized this team. It's certainly obvious that the Raiders miss the deep threat that Ruggs brought to that offense. Whatever the factors, Las Vegas has gone from being one of the most electric teams in the league to one of the most boring. The Raiders have scored all of 44 points and committed seven turnovers over their last three games, all while first place in the AFC West hung in the balance. The annual implosion is officially underway in that franchise.


One question answered by an unnamed front office source.

Would you give Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield a long-term extension?

PERSONNEL DIRECTOR FOR AN AFC TEAM: "Without knowing what's going on behind the scenes, I wouldn't. The standard of players getting that kind of payday at that position has been MVP-caliber play or at least being close to being among the top five at the position for a couple of seasons. He's not at that level. The quarterbacks who get those kind of deals always seem to uplift their supporting cast regardless of circumstance, and he's just not doing that, both because of injury and ability. The thing is that rookie slotting financially makes it more sensible to move on in a case like this. Quarterbacks like Carson Wentz and Jared Goff played well enough to get big money before they got traded from their teams. Wentz was a front-runner for MVP in Philadelphia, and Goff took the Rams to the Super Bowl. But latching yourself to an unknown in a personnel decision is just not the way anymore. Ownership is too impatient. It's easier to move on with a cheaper option that buys you more time and reinvigorates your fan base, or to put those resources into a veteran free agent. What you have to remember about Baker is the current GM (Andrew Berry) didn't bring him in. This isn't a great draft class for quarterbacks, but this could be the best free agent market at the position ever, especially with players like Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson possibly being in play. They've got the fifth-year option on him (for 2022) but there's a lot that can play out over the course of year. Ultimately, they can find somebody else."


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 (arrows reflect movement from last week's edition):

Jonathan Taylor
Indianapolis Colts · RB
Kirk Cousins
Minnesota Vikings · QB
Tom Brady
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · QB
Aaron Rodgers
Green Bay Packers · QB
Justin Herbert
Los Angeles Chargers · QB


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

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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