In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 13 of the 2021 NFL season, including:
But first, weighing a rookie QB's ability to carry his team ...
The New England Patriots have generated a six-game winning streak by relying on all the foundational principles that make head coach Bill Belichick smile. They've benefitted from a ball-hawking defense, effective special teams and a blue-collar offense that prides itself on efficiency and balance. All those elements have helped rookie quarterback Mac Jones find his way as a first-year starter. His next game will give us an idea of whether he's truly prepared to take this team on a championship run.
There is no bigger matchup in the NFL this coming week than the one that will pit the Patriots against the Buffalo Bills next Monday night. This is the first of two meetings that will ultimately decide the AFC East, which means Jones has to be at the top of his game. We all know Buffalo is bringing an MVP-caliber quarterback in Josh Allen to this fight. The Patriots are coming with Jones, a player who went from being the last signal-caller taken in the first round of this year's draft to being the likely NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
This isn't to say this contest comes down to Jones outplaying Allen. What this game will be about is Jones proving he can thrive on this kind of stage, when he'll have to make some special plays to help his team win. So far, he's been the perfect fit for a team that has been built to make life easier for him. "Mac is the type of guy who will come in here to compete (and) be the best guy he possibly can," said Patriots wide receiver Jakobi Meyers after Sunday's win over Tennessee. "The guys around him have to continue to do a better job supporting him, and I feel like that is why he's been playing better."
The Patriots often talk about Jones in the context of how he functions within the team. Jones was asked to be a game manager when he beat out Cam Newton for this job in the preseason, and he's proven to be adept at the responsibility. He takes advantage of every weapon around him, including all the acquisitions that came through Belichick's offseason shopping spree (tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith and wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne). Jones also is quick to celebrate the protection from his offensive line and the opportunistic play of that swarming defense.
What Jones realizes is that opponents are going to keep trying to put more of the burden on him. The Tennessee Titans, for example, devoted a lot of effort to stifling New England's running attack. Jones responded by hitting on more explosive plays down the field. It's a safe bet the Bills will come with a similar game plan, as they've boasted one of the league's best defenses all season.
Jones -- who has completed 70.3 percent of his passes, with 16 touchdown and eight interceptions -- already has seen more creative blitzing in recent games. It wouldn't be surprising to see Buffalo come after him more, as well. "I think teams do what they do, and that's definitely a way to hurry up a quarterback, especially a younger quarterback," Jones said after the Tennessee game. "So I'm sure that's something people watch and make sure we have it corrected."
The Patriots already have seen that Jones can handle himself in big games. He played well against both Dallas and Tampa Bay, even though both those contests ended in losses. Jones also is trending in the right direction as a host of young quarterbacks around the league have struggled lately. He hit on 41 of 49 passes in New England's two victories prior to the Tennessee win (a 25-0 romp over Atlanta and a 45-7 beatdown of Cleveland).
Jones basically has been everything Belichick has asked and then some. He's helped return the Patriots to prominence, and the next step in that process involves beating a Bills team that ran through the AFC East a year ago. Jones already has shown that New England can win with him. Next Monday, he might have to prove they can win because of him.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) Cowboys running on empty: There are a lot of issues plaguing the Dallas Cowboys these days, from multiple injuries to star players to a rash of COVID-19 cases currently affecting the franchise. None of that stuff feels as ominous as what's been happening to this once-vaunted rushing attack. The Cowboys raced out to a 6-1 start on the strength of having Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard sharing the workload in their backfield. They've lost three of their last four as that two-headed monster has steadily vanished from the offense. Part of the issue is that it's become more apparent that a lingering knee injury is hindering Elliott, with head coach Mike McCarthy recently acknowledging he was watching the running back's health heading into this Thursday's game against New Orleans (McCarthy won't be coaching in that contest, now that he's tested positive for COVID-19). Elliott (who did practice Monday) has rushed for only 149 total yards in the past four games. What's worse is the Cowboys seem to have forgotten that running the football is what helped them enjoy so much success in the first place. The same team that averaged 152 rushing yards through its first seven games has only generated 84.5 per contest over the last four weeks. Dallas also attempted only 36 rushes in consecutive losses to Kansas City and Las Vegas. At 7-4, the Cowboys still have enough breathing room in the NFC East to feel good about winning that division. The problem is that a deep playoff run isn't happening for this team until they find a way to resuscitate that stagnant ground game.
2) Dolphins dig deep: Give Miami head coach Brian Flores credit. It felt like this team bottomed out weeks ago, after a seven-game losing streak left it mired at 1-7. The Dolphins have ripped off four straight victories since that time, largely because their defense has dominated on a weekly basis. This unit was always supposed to be the strength of this team. But that defense was exposed early, such as in a 35-0 loss to Buffalo in Week 2 and a 45-17 thrashing by Tampa Bay in Week 5, and everyone began wondering when Flores would lose his job. That same defense has given up just 46 points over the last four games. Some of that is obviously schedule-driven, as the Dolphins benefitted from seeing the Texans (Week 9) and Jets (Week 11). The rest is simply a team buckling down and doing what it has to do survive. Miami thoroughly stifled Baltimore in a 22-10 win, telling the rest of the league that relentless all-out blitzing is an effective way to rattle Ravens star quarterback Lamar Jackson. The Dolphins then beat up on the Carolina Panthers in Sunday's 33-10 victory. They flustered Cam Newton to the point that he was benched after completing just five passes and throwing two interceptions, then sacked Newton's replacement, P.J. Walker, four times. Of course, Flores still has a ways to go before his team can be back in consideration for a playoff spot in the crowded AFC race. The good news is that Miami will still benefit from great timing. Their next two games are against two of the worst scoring offenses in the league (the Giants and Jets), while the two after that are against teams that have been ravaged by injuries on offense (the Saints and Titans). In year that has been up and down all around the league, it feels like Miami is primed to keep trending in the right direction.
3) Raiders rebounding: The Las Vegas Raiders needed some positive news after what they've endured this season, including the controversial resignation of head coach Jon Gruden and the release of wide receiver Henry Ruggs after he was charged with a DUI resulting in the death of another person in that city. DeSean Jackson looks like their ray of sunshine at the moment. The Raiders had scored a measly 43 points in their three games heading into their Thanksgiving Day game against Dallas. They generated 36 in that overtime win alone, largely because the 34-year-old Jackson injected a vital element in that offense: electric speed. Jackson only caught three passes in that game, and he wound up with 102 yards and a 56-yard touchdown as a result. Listen -- this writer will be the first to admit that it was wrong to start writing off the Raiders after that offensive drought. It was no secret that Ruggs gave this offense the ability to take the top of a defense, and that opposing defensive backs were setting up shop on every short route the Raiders ran after his dismissal. That's not happening any longer. Jackson wanted off the Rams' roster because he wanted to contribute more to an offense. He has a great chance to keep doing that for a Raiders squad that actually isn't ready to collapse after all.
The Buccaneers' running back just enjoyed his best game of the season, rushing for 100 yards on 17 carries and scoring four total touchdowns in a comeback win over Indianapolis -- and his timing couldn't be better. Fournette didn't have more than 11 carries in any of Tampa Bay's previous three games, two of which ended in defeat. He also was playing his best football of the year when the Bucs went on their playoff run last season, providing a reliable threat on the ground to complement Tom Brady's passing attack. Brady clearly loves having a healthy Rob Gronkowski back at tight end. Handing the ball to Fournette helps this offense plenty, as well.
Surtain II played a huge role in Denver's 28-13 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, intercepting two passes. One stifled a potential touchdown while the other resulted in a 70-yard return for a touchdown. You'll never convince this writer that the Broncos wouldn't have been better off drafting quarterback Justin Fields with the first-round pick they used on Surtain II. But none of that matters today. The Broncos just moved into a three-way tie for second-place in the AFC West (with the Chargers and Raiders), and that's not because of their lackluster offense. This team will have to win ugly to keep its playoff hopes alive. Relying on young talents like Surtain II gives Denver a chance.
Rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase was the Bengals' offensive star during the first half of the season. Mixon now has become the workhorse for the stretch run. He ran for 123 yards two weeks ago against Las Vegas, then followed that with 165 yards in a 41-10 win over Pittsburgh on Sunday. Most impressively, Mixon has logged 58 carries during that stretch. The Bengals will still need their passing game as they make a run at a playoff spot, but Mixon's current play is a strong sign. You don't win in the AFC North without being physical. The Bengals' running game is proving it's up to that challenge.
Looks like Newton really is back ... in all the ways Carolina and New England fans would like to forget. The Panthers were riding high when Newton scored two touchdowns in limited action in his first game back with the team, a blowout victory over Arizona. He's been spiraling back to earth ever since, with his latest effort landing him on the bench in a loss to Miami. The final stat line -- 5-for-21, 92 yards, two interceptions -- was bad enough on Sunday. Then Monday arrived, and the Panthers learned that star running back Christian McCaffrey was done for the season with an ankle injury. In other words, Newton still has plenty of work to do before this feel-good story actually starts to feel good.
The Bills lost an All-Pro cornerback when White left a Thanksgiving Day win over New Orleans with a torn ACL. Buffalo has fielded one of the best defenses in the league all season, with White being a critical element in that success. He's one of the best cover corners in the game, versatile enough to shadow bigger targets, like Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. The Bills still have some impressive depth at cornerback. What they don't have is an elite difference-maker as they prepare to battle New England for the AFC East title in the coming weeks.
The Vikings' star running back had to be carted off the field with a torn labrum and dislocated shoulder in Sunday's loss to San Francisco, which means Minnesota loses a major asset in the midst of its own playoff push. Cook averaged 101.6 yards over the five games preceding Week 12. He's an essential part of an offense -- one that includes MVP candidate Kirk Cousins at quarterback and wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen -- that had been as impressive as any unit in the league over the past month. Minnesota did receive valuable production from backup Alexander Mattison when Cook was sidelined earlier this year (Mattison had two 100-yard games in Cook's absence). The Vikings will need a similar performance to remain viable down the stretch.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
Can Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill carry that offense with so many injured skill players?
GENERAL MANAGER OF AN AFC TEAM: "No. I like Ryan when he's on a strong team. But he's shown at both Miami and Tennessee that he can't be the catalyst in critical moments and turn you into a scoring juggernaut without help. It's not a talent issue. He's big, mobile, has a strong arm and outstanding football IQ. It's that 'it' factor that is missing. It shows up in situational ball. It's poise when the chips are down. It's the ability to make those around you overcome defenses scheming against you. Quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Drew Brees mastered it, and they were never as physically gifted as Tannehill. That team obviously has the ingredients to go on a Super Bowl run if (running back) Derrick Henry comes back (from foot surgery) and (wide receivers) Julio Jones and A.J. Brown start getting healthy. But that also would involve him elevating his play like Kurt Warner did for the Cardinals when they went on their run (Arizona lost to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII in the 2008 season). I don't see him getting to that level unless everyone else around him is playing out of their minds."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 13 (arrows reflect movement from last week's edition):
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Packers over Patriots.