In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 17 of the 2022 NFL season, including:
But first, zeroing in on the certainties that will emerge in Week 17 ...
Another wild weekend in the NFL gave us another chance to examine the reality of what's coming in the very near future. The Jaguars and Panthers -- two teams that seemed to be going nowhere a couple months ago -- are suddenly very much in control of their chances to win their respective divisions. The Green Bay Packers' situation is not as favorable as those two squads', but their door to the postseason is much wider than anybody ever imagined back when they were 3-6. On the other hand, a handful of hopeful contenders absorbed losses they could ill afford, including the Patriots, Jets, Lions, Seahawks and Titans.
We now enter Week 17 with a chance to make predictions that don't feel so bold anymore. There's enough evidence of where teams are headed, whether that's a positive or negative direction, and there's very little time left for most to alter their likely fates. The teams that belong in the postseason will find a way to ultimately reach that destination. The ones that don't will know exactly where their seasons went south and what factors played the most impactful roles in their eventual demise.
Think about it. We're heading into a weekend where the greatest quarterback in history is flirting with the possibility of missing the playoffs while healthy for the first time in two decades. Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is fighting to keep his 7-8 squad alive, as well, along with his streak of never enduring a losing season with that franchise.
One thing we already know for certain is that there won't be any mystery about the future of Denver Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett. He lost his job after Sunday's 51-14 defeat to the Los Angeles Rams, which was just the latest embarrassment for a team that was harboring high expectations just four months ago.
So, let's remind everyone of the NFL's current state. There are four division titles still up for grabs. There are five playoff spots remaining to be claimed. Even the postseason awards are highly contested. With all that uncertainty lingering, here are four things that will be decided in the penultimate week of the 2022 NFL season:
1) The AFC's No. 1 playoff seed.
The Buffalo Bills (12-3) have won six straight games and 10 of their last 12. The Cincinnati Bengals (11-4) are riding a seven-game win streak while claiming victories in 11 of their last 13. These are the two hottest teams in the AFC, and they're meeting on Monday Night Football in what could very well be a preview of the AFC Championship Game. The stakes are a little higher for the Bills, who can either claim the top seed in the AFC playoffs outright with a win and a loss by the 12-3 Chiefs to the Broncos or (more likely, given Denver's vulnerable position) set themselves up to clinch against New England in Week 18 by winning out (Buffalo holds a tiebreaker over Kansas City if both teams finish with a 14-3 record).
The Bills, by the way, are playing like they desperately need that bye. They've pulled out 3-point wins against the Lions and Dolphins during this current streak while also proving they'll do whatever is necessary to get a victory. One week, it's Josh Allen carrying the offense on his sturdy shoulders. The next, it's the defense overwhelming opponents while an encouraging run game -- spearheaded by Devin Singletary and James Cook -- controls the clock. The Bills understand their margin for error is slimmer than it was before edge rusher Von Miller was lost to a season-ending knee injury. That defense also will face its heaviest test of the year when it squares off with a Bengals offense led by Joe Burrow and a host of explosive weapons.
There's a lot to like about Cincinnati right now. The same can be said about the Bills, who might be able to exploit some injuries in the Bengals' defensive line. So, while this one is an obvious coin flip, it just feels like the Bills can taste a major advantage they've been fighting for all year. That's why they'll beat Cincinnati on Monday night and lock in a favorable postseason scenario.
2) The NFC's No. 1 playoff seed
Philadelphia (13-2) would've been sitting pretty if it had beaten the Cowboys in Week 16. Instead, a 40-34 loss means it will have to wait until Sunday's home meeting with New Orleans to clinch the NFC East and a first-round bye. The Eagles clearly had their chances to leave Dallas with a victory. They'll have even more opportunities to succeed against a Saints team that has been erratic all season. The major question here is whether Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts will be healthy enough to play after sitting out this past week with a shoulder sprain. His backup, Gardner Minshew, played admirably, but four turnovers (including two picks and a fumble by Minshew) doomed the Eagles in that Dallas loss.
This matchup might necessitate Hurts' return to the field, even if he's not 100 percent. After all, the Saints have been stingier on defense lately -- allowing just 58 points over their last four games -- and at 6-9, they're trying to keep their own flickering postseason hopes alive. There's no reason for the Eagles to wait until Week 18 to seal the top seed. They also know the Vikings (12-3) are still pushing for that bye, even though Philadelphia holds the tiebreaker over Minnesota. The bottom line here is that the Eagles are the better team, one that is coming off a frustrating loss and playing a high-stakes game in front of their home crowd. The smart move is to believe in them.
3) The MVP award
This has been a two-man race for most of the second half of this season, and it's likely to end after this weekend. Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes is the front-runner after producing three touchdowns in a 24-10 win over Seattle while Hurts watched Philly's loss to the Cowboys from the sidelines. However, this coming week is critical for a number of reasons. The first is that we can assume Hurts is definitely out of the running if he misses a second straight game. Voters likely can look past one missed contest (remember that Aaron Rodgers won a second consecutive MVP award last season while losing one game to a positive test for COVID-19 and playing only a portion of the regular-season finale). A player who is absent for two games in a race this tight is likely doomed, especially after the season Mahomes has enjoyed. Another factor is the possibility of Hurts playing extremely well in a game that clinches the NFC East and a playoff bye for the Eagles after they fell to Dallas in a nationally televised matchup. That's the kind of moment that sticks in the minds of voters. The final dynamic to consider is that Hurts won't be playing another meaningful game after Week 17 if the Eagles beat New Orleans. Mahomes will still have a shot at the AFC's top seed if Buffalo doesn't win out, but we're already counting on the Bills to not disappoint there.
So here we go in Week 17. Mahomes will try to beat up on Denver, a team he threw three interceptions against in their first meeting in Week 14, while Hurts will try to return to the field for the Eagles. It's fair to say Mahomes has better stats (4,720 passing yards, 37:11 touchdown-to-interception ratio) while Hurts has a better story. That means Hurts must generate a superior ending if he wants to keep Mahomes from winning his second MVP.
4) The sixth playoff seed in the NFC
You've got to hand it to the Giants. Even when things aren't going their way, they end up getting the kinds of breaks most other teams would love to have at this point in the season. New York went a month without a victory, then scored a crucial road win over Washington in Week 15. This past weekend, the Giants lost on a last-second, game-winning 61-yard field goal by Minnesota's Greg Joseph -- but guess what? That defeat didn't sting as much as it might have, because every other team within a win of the Giants in the wild-card race lost as well, a group that included the Seahawks (7-8), Lions (7-8) and Commanders (7-7-1).
The Giants (8-6-1) now have a pretty nice situation to end the season. The first task is beating a 4-10-1 Indianapolis Colts team that has won just once in its last nine games. The second is facing an Eagles squad that will have nothing to play for in the season finale, as long it beats New Orleans this week. That tie that ended the Giants' Week 13 meeting with the Commanders also plays a significant role here. New York already owns the tiebreaker over Washington, and that tie ensures they'll have at least a half-game advantage over every other team vying for a wild-card spot. So that's what it comes down to for the G-men: beat the Colts and (with the No. 5 spot earmarked for the Eagles or Cowboys) take the second-to-last remaining seat in the NFC postseason.
Bosa has been the most dominant defender in the league over the past two months. He has 11.5 sacks over his last nine games, and he gave the Commanders plenty of problems in Sunday's win (seven tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble). Micah Parsons spent much of this season as the favorite to walk away with Defensive Player of the Year honors. Bosa's argument against that sentiment -- he leads the league with 17.5 sacks -- grows stronger with each passing week.
Something is wrong if Wilks isn't seriously considered for another permanent head-coaching job. The Panthers have endured all sorts of challenges on offense -- from adapting to the trades of running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver Robbie Anderson to battling through a revolving door at quarterback -- and here they sit, fully capable of winning the NFC South. Carolina was going nowhere when owner David Tepper fired head coach Matt Rhule after the team's 1-4 start. Since then, Wilks has guided the Panthers to a 5-5 record, with wins in three of their last four games. Saturday's 37-23 beatdown of the red-hot Lions was one of the biggest statements of the weekend.
A Green Bay defense that has been largely disappointing showed up big after a rough first half on Sunday. The Packers forced four turnovers in a critical win over Miami -- including three fourth-quarter interceptions of Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa -- and helped Green Bay stay alive in the pursuit of a wild-card spot. There are still two more huge obstacles awaiting the Packers, as the Vikings and Lions both have plenty of offensive firepower. This defense needs to continue playing with the same urgency it displayed in the second half against Miami.
This past week, Stevenson lost a fumble on the Bengals' 8-yard line when New England was going in for what could've been the game-winning score in a 22-18 loss to Cincinnati. One week prior, he was racing downfield on the last play of regulation in a tie game when he decided to lateral the ball to wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, who in turn tossed another inexplicable lateral that Raiders defensive end Chandler Jones snared and returned for the deciding score in a loss to Las Vegas. Meyers deserved most of the blame for that bone-headed move. However, it can't be overlooked that Stevenson isn't helping the Patriots when he's touching the ball in critical moments, either.
Commanders head coach Ron Rivera lost so much confidence in Heinicke during Saturday's loss to San Francisco that Carson Wentz wound up finishing that game. Now it's unclear who'll get the nod under center from Rivera over the final two weeks. The odds don't favor Heinicke, who lost a fumble and threw an interception before Rivera benched him. Heinicke was a huge spark when this team rallied into postseason contention following a 1-4 start. He also hasn't done enough lately to help a squad that has gone three straight games without a win.
The Raiders looked like a team nobody wanted to see in the postseason at the beginning of December. That was before they lost two of their next three, with Carr's play going downhill in a hurry. He threw three interceptions in a Saturday night loss to Pittsburgh. He has six picks over his last three outings, completing just 53.4 percent of his passes in that span. Carr essentially has picked the worst time to play his worst football. Consequently, Las Vegas' playoff hopes are nearly cooked.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
AFC GENERAL MANAGER: "Yes, if you're going to run your offense through them. They're both three-down backs who can control game tempo and play in all types of situations. In Saquon's case, you're talking about a home-run hitter who can create big plays without a coach having to get overly creative in dialing something up. I know they've both had injury problems, so that comes down to how you structure the deal. You at least get to the (negotiating) table, but you have a hard line because of their history of not always being available, especially if so much of your offense is going to run through them. You look at backs like Jonathan Taylor or Derrick Henry, and you can see that players like that can carry an offense. The thing about investing big money in a running back is that it tends to result in higher investments and costs in the defense. It's tougher to sustain that style of play and rebuild the foundation if a new regime comes in and wants to pivot away from that. But a scheme that has a good quarterback and is aided by a back who has high-end skills as a runner or receiver balances out the load and makes you more unpredictable. You can't ignore what an elite back can still do in this league. They're still game-changers."
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 17 (odds courtesy of FanDuel were current as of 8:15 p.m. ET on Dec. 26):
Weeks in Top 5: 16
Next game: vs. Broncos | Sunday, Jan. 1
Weeks in Top 5: 14
Next game: vs. Saints | Sunday, Jan. 1
Weeks in Top 5: 8
Next game: vs. Bills | Monday, Jan. 2
Weeks in Top 5: 14
Next game: at Bengals | Monday, Jan. 2
Weeks in Top 5: 7
Next game: vs. Rams | Sunday, Jan. 1
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Eagles over Bengals.
Previous picks ...
- Week 16: Eagles over Bengals
- Week 15: Eagles over Bengals
- Week 14: Bengals over Cowboys
- Week 13: Eagles over Bills
- 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