In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 13 of the 2022 NFL season, including:
But first, a look at six unlikely heroes who could shape the playoff race ...
This was the week when a valuable lesson was learned about life in the NFL as the postseason races intensify. The stars will always command the spotlight, but they aren't the only people who determine the outcomes. Sooner or later, an unexpected hero ascends to become an intricate part of a team's winning formula. It's those players that you have to keep an eye on at this time of year, as well.
The Kansas City Chiefs had a running back named Damien Williams emerge during their Super Bowl run in 2019. In-season acquisitions of notable wide receivers -- Antonio Brown in Tampa Bay and Odell Beckham Jr. with the Los Angeles Rams -- helped determined the champions in the next two years after. This all comes back to something late Raiders owner Al Davis once said about building a contender: You really don't know what kind of team you have until you get into November and December.
This season is no different. There are a number of teams in the thick of the playoff hunt and an assortment of unforeseen players who are in position to impact those races. It doesn't matter that some of these men weren't familiar names when this year began. They will definitely become more recognizable over the next six weeks.
Here are the players who might become unexpected heroes down the stretch run of this year:
Recent events couldn't have gone any worse for Zach Wilson. First, he was benched last week. Then, he had to watch his backup quarterback light up the Chicago Bears in a 31-10 win, a victory that made it clear that Wilson might have to sit for the remainder of this season. White, selected in the fifth round in 2018, was basically everything the Jets have been hoping Wilson, the second overall pick in 2021, would become, completing 78.6 percent of his passes for 315 yards and three touchdowns. Come on, bro. There's no way the Jets can go back to Wilson after that, even if White isn't as spectacular in his next outing. (And White did throw four picks in a start last year two games after throwing for 405 yards.) The Jets have a ferocious defense and the inside track at a wild-card playoff spot at the moment. They can't risk success to see if Wilson can grow up in a hurry. They needed a leader under center. Looks like they just found one.
The Chiefs have been using a combination of backs all season (veteran acquisition Melvin Gordon promises to be the latest to join the fray), but Pacheco, a seventh-round pick in this year's draft, has become the best of the bunch. He's a violent runner who brings an intriguing combination of speed and power to this backfield. To be blunt, Kansas City's offense simply looks different when Pacheco is on the field. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid was so enamored with this rookie's skill set that Reid named Pacheco the starter prior to the team's win over San Francisco on Oct. 23. The head coach wanted to get Pacheco more touches, and that's exactly what has happened since that point. Pacheco has averaged 18 carries and 86 rushing yards over the last three games. The Chiefs had hoped former first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who's currently on injured reserve with an ankle injury, could be this type of runner. Instead, he's lost his job to a player who came out of nowhere.
This duo will make all the difference in terms of what happens with the Eagles' interior defense. Philadelphia's run defense suffered a huge loss when rookie defensive tackle Jordan Davis went down with a high ankle sprain. Suddenly, a team with few flaws was vulnerable to teams that wanted to pound the rock relentlessly (as the Washington Commanders did in Philadelphia's only loss of the season thus far, in the Eagles' second game without Davis). The Eagles responded by signing Joseph and Suh to fortify the depth along their defensive line a couple weeks ago. Their impact has been noteworthy. Philadelphia allowed 320 total rushing yards in the two games before Suh and Joseph arrived and 205 in the two games since. There's still work to be done, but at least there's more optimism until Davis returns from injured reserve in December.
The Buccaneers have been searching for an injection of energy all season. White looks like the type of runner who can supply that for them in the race for the NFC South. The rookie ran for a season-high 105 yards in his first start, a win over Seattle in Munich in Week 10. He followed that with 64 yards to go along with nine receptions for 45 yards in Sunday's 23-17 overtime loss to Cleveland. The Bucs clearly want the ball in White's hands, even more so now, with veteran running back Leonard Fournette battling a hip injury and averaging 3.4 yards per carry. White brings a wiggle to the Bucs' offense that is vital for a team that has struggled to run the ball all season. He may be playing alongside bigger names in Tampa, but his contributions could make life much easier on quarterback Tom Brady moving forward.
The Chargers have been plagued by injuries to their receivers, with star Keenan Allen (hamstring) and Mike Williams (high ankle sprain) missing significant amounts of time this season. Those losses have resulted in more targets for Palmer, the team's third receiver, and he's delivered. He's had two 100-yard receiving games in the last five weeks and recorded two touchdown receptions in a 30-27 loss to Kansas City in Week 11 (during which Williams reaggravated that ankle injury). The Chargers have been touting Palmer as a legitimate talent; he has the speed to get deep and the size (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) to dominate after the catch. If he can continue maturing -- and team with a healthy Allen and Williams -- this offense will be hard to handle in December.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) Miami's moment of truth: It's intriguing to think about where the Dolphins (8-3) would be if they hadn't lost quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to a concussion in Week 4. All three of Miami's losses came with him sidelined (Tua started the Dolphins' 27-15 defeat at Cincinnati, but suffered the head injury in the second quarter), and it's fair to wonder if this team would be in prime position to land the top seed in the AFC playoff race if the quarterback hadn't been impaired. Fortunately for the Fins, they're heating up once again. They're riding a five-game win streak after Sunday's 30-15 dismantling of Houston, and we're about to learn even more about how good this team might be. Miami has three straight road games on tap against the 49ers (7-4), Chargers (6-5) and Bills (8-3). Everything we know about Miami is about to be tested. Mike McDaniel's team has plenty of offense, there's no doubt about that. The defense remains the bigger question, one that will be heavily scrutinized over the next three weeks against an offense as diverse as San Francisco's and quarterbacks as gifted as Los Angeles' Justin Herbert and Buffalo's Josh Allen. Keep in mind, the Dolphins haven't beaten a team with a winning record since the Week 3 win over Buffalo. That matters when you're thinking about falling in love with their potential. The Chiefs had a prolific offense when Patrick Mahomes took over at quarterback in 2018, but a porous defense undermined their championship hopes in that season. Conversely, the Bengals balanced out an explosive offense last year with a defense that forced seven turnovers in the AFC playoffs on the way to winning the conference title. If Miami is really going to be dangerous in January -- and it has the feel of a squad that could be a tough matchup because of Tagovailoa's emergence and the speed of his offensive weapons -- it will have ample opportunity to display its own balance in the coming weeks.
2) Chargers staying alive: The Chargers could be the team nobody wants to see in the postseason -- if they can make it there. Los Angeles' 25-24 victory over Arizona was the team's fourth fourth-quarter comeback win this season, and you're talking about a squad that is as banged-up as it gets. The Bolts have played a good portion of this season without several star players, including wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, left tackle Rashawn Slater, edge rusher Joey Bosa and cornerback J.C. Jackson (who's done for the season). Yet, they just improved to 6-5 with that last-minute victory over the Cardinals -- which was decided by a two-point conversion pass from quarterback Justin Herbert to tight end Gerald Everett -- and they've positioned themselves to make a strong run at a wild-card spot. The AFC West pretty much belongs to the Chiefs for a seventh consecutive year, as they hold a three-game advantage over Los Angeles. However, the Chargers play four teams that currently own losing records over their final six games, giving them ample opportunity to punch their own postseason ticket. They also know how to fight. For all the jokes about the Chargers finding ways to beat themselves in recent years, they've actually proven to be quite resilient in the face of so many key personnel losses. They now have a chance to get healthy at the right time. Williams and Bosa are supposed to return at some point in the coming weeks, while Slater still has a shot at playing this season. If the Chargers can regain some star power after fighting to stay alive, they'll have a chance to deliver on all that hype that surrounded them in the offseason.
3) Seahawks sliding: There couldn't be a worse time for Seattle to start imploding defensively. Pete Carroll's team was supposed to be beyond such problems, as they became the feel-good story of the first half of the season precisely because they resolved some earlier defensive woes. Now here they are again, trying to figure out how to stop opposing offenses while keeping their hopes of an NFC West title alive. The Seahawks just sustained a critical loss to the Las Vegas Raiders by a score of 40-34 in overtime. It was an exciting game to watch and a painful one for Carroll's squad to endure. Seattle literally had no answers for Raiders running back Josh Jacobs, who ran for 229 yards, in addition to tallying another 74 receiving and scoring two touchdowns, including a walk-off 86-yard jaunt. That's a Raiders-record 303 total yards from scrimmage, for those scoring at home. The Raiders didn't have two of their best weapons -- tight end Darren Waller and wide receiver Hunter Renfrow are currently on injured reserve -- and they're trying to push through a season that had only produced three wins before Sunday. This was a game the Seahawks needed to win, especially because a couple of other vulnerable opponents are coming up on the schedule (the Rams in Week 13 and the Panthers in Week 14). Seattle could've been riding a three-game winning streak heading into a rough December stretch against the 49ers, Chiefs and Jets. They can still build some momentum before that time arrives, but they'll need much better defense to make that happen.
This rookie running back was lying in a hospital bed in August after being shot in the knee and glute during an attempted armed robbery or carjacking. He's now quickly becoming one of the most inspirational stories of the season. Robinson ran for a season-high 105 yards on 18 carries in Washington's win over Atlanta, proving yet again that he's ready to handle feature-back status in the Commanders' offense. He's averaged 18 rushing attempts over the last four weeks. That makes him a big reason why this team has fought its way back into playoff contention, securing six wins in its last seven games.
The Jaguars had never won a game when they trailed by at least 7 points with less than a minute remaining. That streak ended on Sunday because Lawrence displayed the kind of ability that Jacksonville hopes becomes the norm for the first overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft. He produced huge numbers (29 of 37, 321 yards and three touchdowns) and led Jacksonville on a game-winning touchdown drive that ended with a scoring pass to Marvin Jones Jr. and a 2-point conversion toss to Zay Jones. Over his last three games, Lawrence has completed nearly 77 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and no interceptions. Sounds like somebody is coming of age.
Philadelphia has been the best team in the NFC all season for a lot of reasons, with its offensive line ranking high up on that list. That unit has veteran experience and elite athleticism, and it just dominated the Green Bay Packers in a 40-33 win on Sunday Night Football. The Eagles ran the ball 49 times for 363 yards and produced two 100-yard runners (quarterback Jalen Hurts totaled 157 and running back Miles Sanders added 143). Hurts was only sacked two times, as well. A team can go a long way with numbers like those.
The good news is that Miller didn't tear an ACL late in Buffalo's Thanksgiving Day win over Detroit. The bad news is that there's still no clarity on how his knee injury will impact the rest of the season, beyond his already being ruled out for Week 13. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Miller could be sidelined for a couple weeks or possibly be done for the year, depending on how things go with Miller's knee. The Bills are now playing the waiting game, both to see what doctors say and how Miller responds to rehab. Bills Mafia just went through something similar with Josh Allen's elbow, though the quarterback never had to miss a start. It will be more excruciating with Miller's torn meniscus.
As good as the Eagles' offensive line was on Sunday night, the Green Bay defense was just as bad. The Packers gave up 500 total yards. They allowed Jalen Hurts to become the first player in at least seven decades to run and throw for at least 150 yards and have multiple passing touchdowns in a game. We'll say it again: This defense was supposed to be a strength. It's been anything but that this season.
There hasn't been much positive happening around the Saints these days, and Sunday was more evidence of that. Kamara carried the ball seven times in a 13-0 loss to San Francisco. He gained 13 yards and fumbled twice. And he's supposed to be one of the stars on this offense. This team has struggled to run the football for most of the season. It doesn't look like New Orleans is going to improve in that area anytime soon.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
Deshaun Watson was officially added to the Browns' 53-man roster on Monday after serving an 11-game suspension for violating the league's personal-conduct policy. The 27-year-old is now in line to make his first regular-season start since Jan. 3, 2021, on Sunday. What should we expect from him on the field?
AFC PERSONNEL DIRECTOR: "Once they signed him to a contract of that magnitude (a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed deal), all the potential excuses about him being rusty or underperforming went out the window. He's been out two seasons. He's also been with Cleveland throughout the offseason, and had plenty of time to adjust and adapt. We've seen rookie quarterbacks perform at high levels despite the high stakes and pressure, and he isn't a newbie. He's being paid to take that roster, which is plenty good enough to contend in the conference and mostly healthy, and make it a Super Bowl contender. They've got [two] Pro Bowlers on their offensive line ... a former Pro Bowler at running back, a [former] Pro Bowl receiver who's on pace for his [sixth] 1,000-yard season and a loaded, relatively young defense. It's on his shoulders to maximize them because he's walking through the door with bigger toys on both sides of the ball than pretty much all the teams left on their schedule. If he's the professional he's being sold as, he better be ready to lead them. He's not being paid to get them to the playoffs. He's being paid to win Super Bowls."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates as I see them, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 13 (odds courtesy of FanDuel were current as of 11:40 a.m. ET on Nov. 29):
Weeks in Top 5: 12
Next game: at Bengals | Sunday, Dec. 4
Weeks in Top 5: 10
Next game: vs. Titans | Sunday, Dec. 4
Weeks in Top 5: 5
Next game: at 49ers | Sunday, Dec. 4
Weeks in Top 5: 4
Next game: vs. Chiefs | Sunday, Dec. 4
Weeks in Top 5: 4
Next game: at 49ers | Sunday, Dec. 4
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Eagles over Bills.
Previous picks ...
- Week 12: Bills over Eagles
- Week 11: Eagles over Bills
- Week 10: Bills over Eagles
- Week 9: Bills over Eagles
- Week 8: Bills over Eagles
- Week 7: Bills over Eagles
- Week 6: Bills over Eagles
- Week 5: Bills over Eagles
- Week 4: Bills over Eagles
- Week 3: Bills over 49ers
- Week 2: Bills over Buccaneers
- Week 1: Bills over Packers