In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 16 of the 2021 NFL season, including:
But first, eyeing one development that would help each team in the playoff field ...
Christmas is finally a few days off, which means it's a great time to think about others. This column is primarily concerned with looking ahead and determining what is most important to focus on in the coming weeks. This time around, the emphasis will be on spreading good cheer to those in great situations. So with the holidays as a backdrop, we'll be assembling a wish list collecting a development that would help each contender that would be in the postseason if it started today.
There obviously could be some wishes extended to those teams still fighting for spots -- and there are plenty of reasons to think such squads might ultimately get in. That also would mean thinking about wishes for about 25 teams instead of 14. There are other things happening in the league. They deserve ample attention as well.
So here's a wish for each of the teams lucky enough to be on solid playoff footing at the moment.
AFC playoff teams
I wish for them to never have to play another game this season without Chris Jones at defensive tackle. That defense is a monster when he's inside. Every time he's anywhere else -- lining up at defensive end full-time or sidelined with a health issue -- that entire unit falls apart. With Jones on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Thursday, the Chargers racked up 428 yards and 28 points.
I wish for there to be more days when head coach Bill Belichick shows his softer side, as he did when he apologized to local reporters for being testy following New England's loss to Indianapolis on Saturday night. This writer would've paid money to be in the room and see the reaction when those words came out of his mouth.
I wish for running back Derrick Henry and wide receiver A.J. Brown to both be available and healthy if this team holds on and qualifies for the postseason. This offense is unwatchable without its best playmakers.
I wish for someone to dig up all the criticisms of the four-year, $60 million contract this team handed defensive end Trey Hendrickson in free agency. There was a lot of talk about this being a gamble, that Hendrickson only thrived in New Orleans because of the presence of Pro Bowl defensive end Cam Jordan. Hendrickson now has 13 sacks ... and more to come.
I wish for head coach Frank Reich to continue doing what he did in Saturday's win over New England -- trust his dominant rushing attack and avoid the possibility that quarterback Carson Wentz might screw things up. Wentz has played better than most expected, but Jonathan Taylor is the man who can carry this team deep into the postseason.
I wish for head coach Brandon Staley to recognize that you can win games against the Kansas City Chiefs with field goals this year. Like the one he just lost in overtime on Thursday night.
I wish for offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to watch tape of Buffalo's win over Carolina every night until this season ends. One week after not giving a single carry to a running back in the first half of a loss to Tampa Bay, Daboll handed the ball to Devin Singletary 22 times for 86 yards. Josh Allen apparently doesn't have to do everything after all.
NFC playoff teams
I wish for general manager Brian Gutekunst to receive plenty of credit for the roster he's assembled. He and the team were embroiled in an offseason feud with Aaron Rodgers, but the Packers have been rolling despite the kinds of losses that would cripple most teams. Just imagine how this squad will look once Pro Bowlers like left tackle David Bakhtiari, outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith and cornerback Jaire Alexander are back on the field. That's Gutekunst's doing.
I wish for linebacker Micah Parsons to win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. No defender has done more for his team than this dude.
I wish for wide receiver Chris Godwin to still find his way to a huge extension someday. Set to be an unrestricted free agent in March, the veteran played this season on the franchise tag in the hopes of chasing a second Super Bowl ring. His year just ended with a torn ACL against the Saints.
I wish for wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to heal fast. The Cardinals' offense doesn't look so dangerous with him nursing a knee injury on injured reserve.
I wish for head coach Sean McVay to continue feeding running back Sony Michel. Michel only had 14 carries during his team’s recent three-game losing streak. He’s had 62 in the Rams' last three wins, while averaging nearly 100 yards a game. Not a coincidence that the Rams are playing better.
I wish for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to continue to play consistently and efficiently. He's thrown 10 touchdown passes against just three interceptions over the last six games, five of which the 49ers have won. He's starting to play his best football for a team that already has its successor in-house.
I wish for people outside of Minnesota to recognize the season Kirk Cousins has put together. He's thrown 29 touchdown passes and six interceptions. There have been a lot of quarterbacks in this league who've been up and down. He's not one of them.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) Cardinals collapsing? This space was used to tout the resolve of the Arizona Cardinals a couple weeks back. Now it's going to be the spot where a wake-up call is issued. It's not only that the Cardinals have lost their last two games. It's that they've lost in demoralizing fashion, including Sunday's 30-12 defeat to Detroit. You can fall by a field goal or a last-second touchdown to a team as bad as the Lions, but you can't get slow-roasted like Arizona just did, not when the Colts and Cowboys are coming up next. The Cardinals now sit at 10-4, and they might just mess around and do something that seemed inconceivable a month ago, which is blow their shot at winning the NFC West. One major problem is the offense. It's still generating a ton of yards, but the loss of DeAndre Hopkins impacts the rhythm of the whole operation. Quarterback Kyler Murray, by the way, has thrown three interceptions and only one touchdown pass in these last two losses. A defense that ranks fifth in the league in points allowed hasn't been any better, as the Cardinals have given up 30 points in both defeats. Look, it's fair to say that nearly every contender this season has endured its rough patch, and this might be Arizona's time to struggle. What can't be denied is something that should be worrying the Cardinals: Issues like those become a lot more ominous in December.
2) A.B. ASAP: Anybody who caught Tampa Bay's 9-0 loss to New Orleans learned two things: 1) The Saints are undoubtedly a horrible matchup for Tampa, and 2) The Bucs are going to be leaning on wide receiver Antonio Brown quite a bit, now that he's heading back on the field. Of course, the major story revolving around Brown over the past month was that he'd been busted for violating COVID-19 protocols after allegations that he misrepresented his vaccination status, a move that earned him a three-game suspension from the NFL. There had been rumblings that the Bucs might move on from Brown once his punishment ended this week, but then Sunday night happened. It's an entirely different conversation now, with Tampa having lost three key offensive starters -- Chris Godwin, running back Leonard Fournette (hamstring) and wide receiver Mike Evans (hamstring) -- during the course of that contest. In layman's terms, it was a good old-fashioned beatdown, and with Godwin gone and the returns of Evans and Fournette (a Le'Veon Bell signing was in the works Tuesday) up in the air, quarterback Tom Brady needs some reliable weapons, especially since most of the replacements on Sunday couldn't help him much. Brown was off to a fast start this season before being slowed by injuries, and he was a critical difference-maker when the Bucs surged in the second half of last season. Brady sorely needs that element on the outside in this offense until those other starters heal. Tight end Rob Gronkowski had been playing his best football lately, but that isn't enough. The Bucs are going to see plenty of strong defenses when the playoffs arrive, and the Saints might very well be one of them. Tampa isn't going to successfully defend its Super Bowl title with a banged-up offense. Even though head coach Bruce Arians said Brown was on a short leash when Brown showed up last season -- because of all the off-field issues that had followed the mercurial receiver -- this one was the right call. The deepest team in the league suddenly needs all the help it can get.
The Saints didn't have head coach Sean Payton (COVID-19) or anything close to a high-powered offense heading into their Sunday night game with Tampa Bay. It didn't matter. Allen ran the team, constructed yet another masterful game plan against the Bucs and watched his defense produce the third shutout of Tom Brady's career. It's impressive enough that the Saints have forced 10 turnovers against Brady over the last two years. This one means more because it keeps their flickering playoff hopes alive.
The Chiefs tight end reminded everybody of what he can do when there's plenty of room to operate. Kelce only had 11 receptions and 128 yards over his three previous games before Thursday's 34-28 overtime win over the Chargers. His 10 receptions for 191 yards and two touchdowns -- including the 34-yard game-winner -- indicated that he might be heating up at the right time. Even with the possibility of Kelce missing this week's game against Pittsburgh with a positive COVID-19 test, there should be defenses fretting all over the league. He still has plenty of juice in those 32-year-old legs.
It's hard to find anything to like about the Bears these days, but Quinn deserves his due, even in defeat. He's closing in on the team record for sacks in a single season after adding two more in a Monday night loss to the Vikings. Quinn is now second in the league with 16 sacks. He's posted 10.5 of those in his last six games. If the Bears were any good, this guy would be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year.
It's been a lingering question as to what the Patriots' offense would like if Jones was forced to carry a heavier burden. The Indianapolis Colts provided an answer to that on Saturday. The most revealing aspect of New England's 27-17 loss was how limited Jones became when this team trailed 17-0 and the running game was useless. He threw two huge interceptions and, more importantly, provided a glimpse into what can happen when an opponent can bully the Pats right back. New England just became a lot less scary heading into January.
All the optimism that should've come with Jones returning to the field last week evaporated in Tennessee's 19-13 loss to Pittsburgh. He only had one target, didn't catch a pass and left the game with -- stop me if you've heard this one before -- a hamstring injury. Jones has been limited to only eight games already this season because of hamstring issues. Tennessee may be hopeful to have Henry and Brown back from injuries by the postseason, but Jones probably won't be much help moving forward.
Denver is nearly impossible to watch when it's trying to score. The Broncos have scored just 32 points in their last three losses, including 10 in Sunday's defeat to Cincinnati. Their play-calling lacks creativity. The explosive plays are practically non-existent. If this team really is going to pursue a big-name quarterback next offseason, it had better think long and hard about how head coach Vic Fangio and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur want to play offense.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
Where do you think Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is playing after this season?
PERSONNEL DIRECTOR FOR AN NFC TEAM: "I don't know. I have a hard time believing any team will take their chances with an unknown commodity over a perennial MVP candidate at that position. But I don't know all the details behind the scenes. Clearly, he's still in the prime of his career. And they continue to win and get in the mix to be in it at the end despite not having a loaded roster. He's the only guy on the roster that when you're planning, you know you can't do anything with him. They put the other kid out there (Jordan Love) and they might have three wins by now. And that's being generous. ... Looking at it from the outside, I always thought he'd be a guy who would ride off into the sunset. He never struck me as somebody who cared what people thought of him or his legacy. But it does seem that he has been having more fun than he's had in a long time over there, which might make a difference in the offseason. He's also still the same [player] he was back in 2012, which is scary, because he was great then. I always say he's the best QB I've ever seen play live. But as far as how this all plays out, nobody has the answer to that."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 16 (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 Chiefs.