In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 6 of the 2022 NFL season, including:
But first, a look at a team staying grounded despite starting the season 4-1 ...
EAGAN, Minn. -- The best thing about the Minnesota Vikings -- the team atop the standings in the NFC North -- is that they don't believe in blowing smoke. They could be sitting here with their 4-1 record and talking about how excited they are about a fast start in a league that currently is filled with mediocrity. Instead, they're more focused on missed opportunities, inconsistent performances and underwhelming finishes. The collective mindset around the team's facility is that this team will be even better once it starts meeting its own lofty expectations.
Such candor is refreshing because you'd assume the Vikings would be giddier about where they sit. This is the same team that started 1-3 in 2021, 1-5 in 2020 and made one playoff appearance in the last four years. Franchises that go through such frustrations tend to savor whatever success comes their way, particularly when they're dealing with new leadership (general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O'Connell are both in their first year in those roles). It says plenty about the folks in charge that the Vikings remain hyper-focused on where they can go as opposed to what they've suddenly become.
"We've won but I don't know if, outside of the first game, that we've played all that great," Kirk Cousins told me during a conversation at the team's practice facility last Friday. "We've left a lot out there. So the record is great but we all feel like we need to play better and there's a lot of room for improvement. It's great to be in this position and there's a sense of urgency that comes with that. But you're also grateful to be having these conversations in this situation than dealing with something much worse."
Cousins is especially eager to see the offense become more consistent. The Vikings' 29-22 win over Chicago on Sunday was the perfect example of what Minnesota can produce over the course of a game. The Vikings scored touchdowns on their first three possessions in taking a 21-3 lead. They finished the game needing Cousins to engineer a 17-play, 75-yard drive that ended with his game-winning, one-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings need to figure out how to continue such starts while avoiding those types of close calls at the end. They have so much talent -- particularly with running back Dalvin Cook and wide receiver Justin Jefferson -- that it feels like those weapons should be dominating throughout a contest. What too often ends up happening is that those stars will disappear for long stretches and then take over in spurts (Jefferson, for example, has three games with 147 receiving yards or more and two others where he's amassed just 62 total receiving yards combined). That inconsistency can be even more maddening when the defense is fighting through its own growing pains while acclimating to a new 3-4 scheme.
"It's just a matter of consistency," O'Connell told me last week. "Guys doing their job, Kirk running the show and making sure we put a lot on his plate. He's done a really good job of handling all that but at the same time we want to get that comfort where -- as he said to me -- there's no thinking anymore and he's just playing. We're getting close. How we put together plans helps us do that and I have a ton of confidence that we'll find that rhythm and consistency. And when we do, the results will speak for themselves."
It's apparent that O'Connell has the potential to become a quick star in this business. He's been able to steer his team through the kind of adversity that can undermine other first-time head coaches, and his players respond to his energy. O'Connell brings that fresh-faced optimism that is such a trademark of his former boss with the Los Angeles Rams, Sean McVay. It's also a stark contrast from the gruffness of former Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, a defensive-minded leader who scoffed at the idea of an offense becoming too cavalier with risk-taking.
Cousins, for one, has had to adjust to the idea of still taking chances with the football after throwing interceptions, while his teammates have faced their own transitions.
When asked about O'Connell's aggressive offensive philosophies, wide receiver Adam Thielen said, "You can tell on the field, especially in that first game (a 23-7 win over Green Bay). It was noticeable when we started getting a little bit of a lead and we were still aggressive in calling all the plays we were game-planning for."
Added Cook: "It's a different feeling for me, just having a head coach in the offensive meetings, period. And having him tell us how he feels. We never met with Zim so it's different having K.O. around all the time and feeling his personality and his love."
It's been a few years since the Vikings could feel this good this early in a season. In recent years, they were trying to dig out of a hole or answer questions about a costly mishap that cost them in a close game. Today, it's all about the work that still lies ahead and all the good things that might come from it. They're not immune to the reality that there are teams with comparable talent that are scuffling along and worrying increasingly more about future positioning for playoff spots.
O'Connell summed it up best when he said, "It's nice knowing that we've got a couple wins in our back pocket, including some games where we had to come from behind to get the win."
That ultimately is a mark of good team, having the ability to succeed even when you're not at your best. The Vikings can see that there's plenty of growth still ahead of them. That realistic nature likely will be the major reason they're still playing meaningful games come January.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) Carolina's collapse should be a teaching tool: The Carolina Panthers are looking for a head coach again and that shouldn't be surprising to anybody. Matt Rhule, fired after a 1-4 start, had reached the point in which there was nothing he could do to keep his job. The question now is whether owner David Tepper is going to avoid the same mistake he made when he initially hired Rhule: Thinking that the NFL is still a place where college coaches can show up and thrive. Those days are over. Rhule went 11-27 in his two-plus seasons in Carolina. Urban Meyer didn't even last a full season in Jacksonville last year before owner Shad Khan decided he'd seen enough of that dumpster fire. For every Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh who found immediate success more than a decade ago, there are far more memorable failures like Bobby Petrino and Greg Schiano. The story frequently seems to be the same. The college coach shows up with a lot of optimism and a big reputation for motivating and scheming. Then a year or two goes by and the players are balking because those same leaders don't know how to deal with grown men. This is the kind of stuff that drives people nuts when quality minority head coaching candidates get passed over time and again when jobs become available. No offense to guys like Arizona's Kliff Kingsbury -- who's faced his own share of criticism despite taking the Cardinals to the playoffs last season -- but let's hope there's a lesson learned with Rhule. College coaches look better in college for one simple reason -- they have a lot more power than they're ever going to find in pro football.
2) Josh Allen's timing couldn't be better: The Bills' star quarterback doesn't need another regular-season win over the Kansas City Chiefs -- something he attained last year -- to prove how good his team is. He just needs to keep doing what he did on Sunday to ensure Buffalo is ready to roll in the postseason. Allen went off for a career day against the Steelers, as he threw for 424 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another 42. He did all that at a time when the Bills are dealing with multiple injuries to key players and coming off a couple games in which their offense wasn't exactly sharp. This was basically a quarterback doing MVP-like things at exactly the right time. If the Bills are going to win a title this year, there are going to be days when Allen literally will have to put this team on his shoulders. They're too beat up right now to expect anything less. The good news in Buffalo is that he now understands that such performances don't have to come every week. He just needs to pick his spots. Up next is a Chiefs team that has broken the Bills' hearts in each of the last two postseasons. It will be the most hyped game of the week and there will be plenty of talk about the duel between Allen and Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. It's also important for the Bills to establish a head-to-head win over Kansas City that could potentially decide whether Buffalo is hosting the AFC title game in late January. What it won't be is a measuring stick for the Bills as a championship contender. They've been good enough to win it all since this season began. All they require is for their quarterback to keep reminding folks why he's one of the best.
3) Mike McCarthy's moment: We've once again arrived at the point where it's time to give the Dallas head coach some love for what his team has accomplished. That tends to be a difficult task for all the folks who love to treat McCarthy like a human piñata when it comes to the Cowboys' struggles. Even as Dallas has improved to 4-1 -- while playing the last four weeks without injured starting quarterback Dak Prescott -- it seems the credit mostly has gone to others. The brilliant schemes of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and that ferocious defense led by Micah Parsons. The efficiency of backup quarterback Cooper Rush in emergency duty. The revived run game and the resourcefulness of an offensive line missing stud left tackle Tyron Smith. It's not like the Cowboys are doing all this without somebody calling the shots, keeping people focused and ignoring all the noise about how this squad was supposed to be dead and buried right now. Dallas found a way to give the surprising New York Giants their only loss of the year and it has now beaten both teams that played in last season's Super Bowl (the Bengals and Rams). Their biggest test of the year comes this week in what will be the second-most hyped game on the schedule: a road trip to play the undefeated Eagles. This will be a classic matchup of strengths -- Philadelphia's versatile offense versus the Cowboys' vaunted defense -- but it will also be another chance for McCarthy to show what he's about. This team could have folded long ago. He's a big reason why it didn't.
If you want to know why the rookie running back inspired so much hype entering the league, just look at what he did in Sunday's win over Miami. He had 100 receiving yards on two catches. He had 97 rushing yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. He also produced the Jets' longest play of the season (a 79-yard catch-and-run) and proved to be a nice complement to Michael Carter. The Jets still have a long way to go, but the second-round pick's maturation will help second-year quarterback Zach Wilson become more comfortable as this offense evolves.
Hill wasn't good enough to become the Saints' starting quarterback, but he's pretty effective when playing to his strengths. Seattle got a full dose of that on Sunday, when Hill ran for 112 yards and three touchdowns -- including a 60-yarder that clinched the game -- while also tossing a 22-yard scoring pass on the day. New Orleans needed every bit of that offense, along with the return of Alvin Kamara from a rib injury (he accounted for 194 total yards). The Saints have so many issues with quarterback play (making his second start in place of the injured Jameis Winston, Andy Dalton put up 187 passing yards with a 1:1 TD-to-INT ratio) and turnovers (New Orleans leads the NFL with 13) that creativity has to be a huge part of their approach. Hill, now listed as a tight end on the roster, offers exactly that.
The Texans head coach has a team that is playing tougher than its record shows. Sunday's 13-6 win over Jacksonville -- Houston's first of the season -- revealed as much. Houston slowed down a Jaguars offense that had been averaging 26.3 points per game and intercepted second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence twice. More importantly, the Texans proved once again that Smith isn't going to let this team be a pushover for anybody. They tied the Colts in the season opener (after Houston blew a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter) and lost games in Weeks 2 and 3 by a total of 10 points. This team may not be flush with talent, but Smith is teaching his players how to compete.
You never want to bet against the Pittsburgh head coach, but it feels like there's no way that streak of 15 consecutive non-losing seasons is going to 16 this year. These Steelers simply seem to be too young, too flawed and to rely too heavily on rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett to be counted on to rebound from a 1-4 start. Two of Pittsburgh's losses came against offensively challenged opponents (the Patriots and Jets), and they fell by 12 points to a Browns team carrying a point differential of -4 versus other opponents this season. On Sunday, the high-powered Bills ran through them. It also doesn't get any easier before the Steelers' Week 9 bye, as the Buccaneers and Eagles are coming within the next three weeks.
The time for optimism is over in Los Angeles. This Rams team ranked 29th in the NFL in scoring before they played the Cowboys on Sunday. They managed just 10 points in that contest while displaying the same problems that have plagued them all season. Their offensive line is a mess. Their running game is non-existent. And wide receiver Cooper Kupp remains the only skill-position player providing any consistent production. This isn't something that will be fixed with the potential return of free-agent receiver Odell Beckham Jr. The Rams really have the kinds of problems that destroy seasons.
The Arizona Cardinals quarterback caught a lot of grief about the preparation clause that appeared in his new contract extension over the summer (a clause the team later removed from the deal after it became public). Sunday's loss to Philadelphia won't help people forget that episode. Murray appeared to severely mismanage an end-game situation in that defeat, as he slid a yard short of the first-down marker on a second-down run, spiked the ball on third down and then left his team no other option but to attempt a game-tying, 43-yard field goal that Matt Ammendola sent wide right. To be fair, the Cardinals' coaches clearly didn't help Murray in that situation; head coach Kliff Kingsbury said he called for Murray to make the errant spike. But instead of remembering that, many people will see a star signal-caller who didn't seem ready to handle a critical situation.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
PERSONNEL DIRECTOR FOR NFC TEAM: "I don't see it that way. He's played in that scheme or a variation of it his entire career, going back to his time in Seattle (with former Seahawks offensive coordinators Darrell Bevell and Brian Schottenheimer). I'm betting a majority of the language that (Broncos head coach) Nathaniel Hackett uses is already second nature to Russ. I chalk it up more to timing and experience with that supporting cast. The early season is pretty much the new preseason and the news just came out that he's having shoulder problems (Wilson underwent a procedure on his throwing shoulder after last week's loss to Indianapolis). He also has a limited offensive line in front of him. Beyond the left tackle (Garett Bolles is now out for the season after fracturing his right leg against the Colts), that isn't a top unit by any means and that handicaps some of the explosive play calls for the weapons they have. Personally, I never saw that deal taking off overnight. Russ isn't the young Russ anymore. He can still move but it's no longer that elite-caliber escapability, which causes concern because he has to hit shorter passes in tighter pockets. He also had a lot more chemistry and time with Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf (in Seattle). I'm sure he'll start looking more in sync with (Broncos wide receivers) Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy with more time."
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 5 (odds courtesy of FanDuel are current as of 4 p.m. ET on Oct. 10):
Weeks in Top 5: 5
Next game: at Chiefs | Sunday, Oct. 16
Weeks in Top 5: 5
Next game: vs. Bills | Sunday, Oct. 16
Weeks in Top 5: 5
Next game: at Giants | Sunday, Oct. 16
Weeks in Top 5: 3
Next game: vs. Cowboys | Sunday, Oct. 16
Weeks in Top 5: 4
Next game: vs. Broncos | Monday, Oct. 17
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Bills over Eagles.
Previous picks ...
- 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