The First Read, Week 11: NFC contenders, pretenders; plus, Josh Allen’s turnover troubles
Published: Nov 14, 2022 at 08:56 PM
In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 11 of the 2022 NFL season, including:
But first, a full breakdown of the pretenders and contenders in the NFC after a wild Week 10 …
The passage of the midseason point in the 2022 NFL season provides another opportunity to see how the league is shaping up. We talked about pretenders and contenders in the AFC in this space a few weeks back, when that conference was providing some clarity about who was good and who wasn’t. The NFC needed a bit more time to be ready for that kind of dissection. It’s been far more muddled for the past couple months than anybody likely imagined.
Nobody could’ve foreseen a season where Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady would stumble out of the gate with disappointing teams. Even more surprising was the notion that we’d be talking about the Giants, Seahawks and Falcons in ways that didn’t involve projecting whom they would select with the top picks in next year’s draft. Then there are the Rams. Not much has gone right for the defending Super Bowl champs in a year where they were supposed to still be dangerous.
The nice thing is that preseason predictions don’t matter any longer. We’ve seen what everybody looks like after two months of football in the NFC. Here’s where they’re all heading as we move toward the playoffs and try to discern the pretenders from the contenders once again.
NOTE: Analysis for the Eagles and Commanders, along with the MVP rankings, was updated following “Monday Night Football.”
These teams are championship-caliber.
The Eagles have been the most consistent team in the league, one that hadn’t lost a game until their Monday Night Football defeat to Washington. Their offense can thrive with a strong run game, or it can rely on a passing attack blessed with countless weapons and an MVP candidate in quarterback Jalen Hurts. Their defense has a devastating pass rush and a smothering secondary. This team is built to win in a variety of ways and already has shown the ability to do so. The road to the Super Bowl is going through Philadelphia. Verdict: CONTENDER
NOTE: This analysis was updated after the Eagles lost to the Commanders on “Monday Night Football.” The Eagles’ ranking remained unchanged.
No team has faced more questions regarding the legitimacy of their record than the 8-1 the Vikings. That probably has a lot to do with how they win, as they’ve pulled out five victories this year when trailing late in the fourth quarter. They did it again on Sunday against Buffalo — overcoming a 17-point second-half deficit to get a 33-30 overtime triumph — and it’s time to stop pooh-poohing their success. This team’s only loss came to Philadelphia in Week 2. They’re legit. Verdict: CONTENDER
THE SAFE BETS
These teams should make the playoffs.
The Cowboys took a tough hit in Sunday’s 31-28 overtime loss at Green Bay, but there’s still plenty to like about this squad. The most important element is their resilience. Dallas went 4-1 when quarterback Dak Prescott was sidelined by thumb surgery, and the defense is filled with playmakers. The offense could use another weapon for Prescott — insert Odell Beckham Jr. reference here — but there’s enough talent to make it possible to see them landing a wild-card spot. Verdict: CONTENDER
The 49ers made the blockbuster trade of the fall when they acquired running back Christian McCaffrey from Carolina. He’s already an ideal fit in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, which boasts Pro Bowl talents like wide receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle. The real question for this team is how the defense will look once that unit gets healthier. They’ve been battling key injuries all season, but it’s arguably the best group in the league when intact. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this team overtake Seattle in the second half for the NFC West crown. Verdict: CONTENDER
We get it — the Buccaneers have been flawed all season. Banged-up, old and inept on occasion, for sure. They also play in the worst division in football, where 5-5 can keep a team in first place. As erratic as the Bucs have been, they still have the best quarterback in history and the most talented roster in the NFC South. That’s going to make a huge difference in the final months of the season. There’s simply no other team in that division worth trusting more. Verdict: CONTENDER
THE NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
These teams have shown flashes of playoff potential.
This is the best story in a season full of surprises. Nobody was giving the Seahawks a chance to be relevant in a year when Geno Smith was starting at quarterback and so many rookies were taking on major roles. Look at them now. They’re sitting in first place in the NFC West with a 6-4 record. Smith is the obvious choice for Comeback Player of the Year, running back Kenneth Walker III is the front runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year and a once beleaguered defense has found its stride. Pete Carroll deserves to talk some trash. He still knows how to coach in this league. Verdict: CONTENDER
Giants head coach Brian Daboll has been just as impressive as Carroll in the way he’s led his team to a 7-2 record. In fact, Daboll has been doing more with far less. There’s nothing scary about the offense aside from running back Saquon Barkley. The defense is well-coached but not flush with big names. All this team does is believe and find ways to win. That mindset can work wonders in a season where there aren’t many dominant teams to be found. Verdict: CONTENDER
THE JURY IS STILL OUT
These teams have talent and coaching but lack consistency and key players.
The Commanders have caught fire lately — they’ve won three out of their last four with Taylor Heinicke filling in for injured starting quarterback Carson Wentz — but they’re stuck in the wrong division. The NFC East has been strong all year, as the Eagles, Giants and Cowboys all have been more consistent. Washington impressed in that Monday Night Football win over Philadelphia, but the numbers simply aren’t in the Commanders’ favor. They can compete in this division in years when eight or nine wins can get you into the playoffs. Not this year. Verdict: PRETENDER
NOTE: This analysis was updated following the Commanders’ win over the Eagles on “Monday Night Football.” The Commanders’ ranking improved from No. 11 to No. 8 after the game, with the Packers, Cardinals and Falcons each moving down one spot correspondingly.
The only reason the Packers are sitting this high is because of that win over Dallas on Sunday. That victory snapped a five-game losing streak and, more importantly, revealed that there is still some semblance of a pulse left in that locker room. However, the Vikings are running away with the NFC North, and the schedule isn’t going to do Green Bay any favors any time soon. The next six weeks feature opponents like the Titans, Eagles and Dolphins. With that gauntlet awaiting, it’s hard to see the 4-6 Packers staying in contention for a wild-card spot. Verdict: PRETENDER
The Cardinals are within striking distance of a wild-card berth, but it’s hard to be hopeful about this squad while quarterback Kyler Murray nurses a hamstring injury that kept him from playing in Sunday’s win over the Rams. This also isn’t the time of year when it’s wise to jump on the Arizona bandwagon. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about this team under head coach Kliff Kingsbury since he took over in 2019, it’s that it tends to become less reliable as the weather turns colder. Verdict: PRETENDER
It’s actually a good sign that Atlanta is in the playoff conversation at this stage. It wasn’t a stretch to see the Falcons barreling toward a top-five pick when this season kicked off. They remained relevant because their head coach (Arthur Smith) is both smart and creative, and they’re not afraid to lean on their run game. The problem is that this team just doesn’t have the horsepower to keep pace for a playoff spot down the stretch, even though they’re just one game out of first place in the NFC South. Verdict: PRETENDER
These teams have replaced high hopes with mystifying problems.
It feels like this team won the Super Bowl five years ago rather than last February, given how their season has played out. All those good vibes have been replaced by an offense that is averaging just 16.4 points per game (29th in the NFL) and a defense that isn’t strong enough to carry the team. This is what can happen when you build your team around stars and average players and adversity strikes. The highs are really high, and the lows look like this year. Verdict: PRETENDER
The Saints have only won two of their last nine games. The scary part is that they’re looking worse with each passing week. We knew this wasn’t going to be an electric team on offense, not with Jameis Winston and now Andy Dalton at quarterback. However, they expected more from a defense that has battled injuries and inconsistency. Either Sean Payton left at exactly the right time, or his replacement, longtime defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, wasn’t ready to coach this team. Verdict: PRETENDER
THE PARTY IS OVER
These teams started in holes too deep for them to still be playoff contenders.
This writer was high on the Lions for reasons that are hard to explain today. It’s not a question of talent, because they have a decent amount of it (and a top-10 scoring offense). It’s about learning how to win. The Lions have won their last two games by a combined score of seven points. They also have four other one-score games that they’ve lost on the way to a 3-6 record. Verdict: PRETENDER
This may be the only team at the bottom of this list that should be excited about where it’s heading. The Bears have only three wins this season, but they’ve also got a game plan for utilizing second-year quarterback Justin Fields. With 749 rushing yards this season, he’s currently on pace to break Lamar Jackson‘s single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,206), and he’s showing more skill as a passer than we’ve seen from Fields before. For a team with a massive amount of projected cap space, this is a good place to be when looking at the future. Verdict: PRETENDER
Give interim head coach Steve Wilks credit for how he’s managed this team despite all the distractions around it, including the firing of head coach Matt Rhule, the instability at quarterback and the trades that jettisoned McCaffrey and wide receiver Robbie Anderson. The Panthers have won two of five games since parting with Rhule, and they’re really one D.J. Moore helmet toss away from having three victories during that stretch. These things matter when you’re 3-7 and otherwise going nowhere. Verdict: PRETENDER
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) Chiefs in control: All the talk about the projected brilliance of the AFC West has led us to a very familiar point in the season — the time when Kansas City is preparing to take over this division once again. The only team left to challenge the Chiefs is the one they’ll see on Sunday Night Football this week: the Los Angeles Chargers. This would’ve been a more intriguing matchup if the Chargers were healthy and within striking distance of Kansas City. Instead, a loss to San Francisco dropped the Chargers to 5-4, which leaves them two games behind the 7-2 Chiefs. The Chargers also remain dogged by injuries, as they played that 49ers game without star wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams and still don’t have a timetable for the return of injured Pro Bowlers like edge rusher Joey Bosa and left tackle Rashawn Slater. The Chiefs, on the other hand, have won three straight games, with quarterback Patrick Mahomes playing out of his mind once again. He’s thrown for 1,200 yards during that stretch, and he tossed four touchdown passes in Sunday’s win over Jacksonville. If that weren’t enough, the Chiefs just moved into the top spot in the race for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs following the Bills’ loss to Minnesota. There’s no way Kansas City is going to blow that momentum now, not with an opportunity to put a divisional rival down for the year. The Broncos and the Raiders stopped being threats to the Chiefs weeks ago. The Chargers are the only competition left, and they don’t look ready for this kind of fight, either.
2) Josh Allen‘s regrettable regression: Bills fans were supposed to be worried about the UCL injury their star quarterback was nursing all last week as that huge game with Minnesota neared. It turns out the bigger concern is how he’ll shake his struggles with ball security, the very problem that used to plague him in the past. Allen had three huge turnovers in the second half of a 33-30 overtime loss to the Vikings. One was an interception thrown in the end zone to Patrick Peterson when Buffalo led 27-17. The second miscue came when he fumbled the snap at the Bills’ 1-yard line and watched Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks recover it for a touchdown that gave Minnesota a 30-27 lead with 41 seconds left. And the final giveaway came on the final play of the game, when Peterson intercepted Allen again on a pass intended for Gabriel Davis. There’s no question that this game was incredible to watch and the best of the season so far. It also provided more startling evidence that Allen is in the kind of slump that could destroy Buffalo’s hopes of winning that Super Bowl they covet so much. Allen now has seven turnovers in his last three games for a team hasn’t won a division game yet and would be the sixth seed if the AFC playoffs started today. The problems started with a couple reckless throws in an easy win over Green Bay, the kinds of mistakes that nobody remembers when a team is dominating an opponent. But the issues persisted in a loss to the Jets in Week 9, and they were even more disturbing in this Vikings defeat. The bottom line: The Bills have lost three games this season by one score when their offense was on the field and had a chance to either tie or win the game. That’s not championship-caliber play. It’s also true that Super Bowl teams usually have to fight through some sort of adversity to claim a Lombardi Trophy, whether that’s the Rams enduring a three-game losing streak in the second half of last year, the Bucs battling through their offensive problems two years ago or the Chiefs losing Patrick Mahomes to a knee injury for a couple games in 2019. This might be the kind of challenge that makes the Bills stronger. It also could be the first real indication of how vulnerable they actually could be, especially if their quarterback tries to do too much.
The Vikings wide receiver said he wanted to be considered the league’s top receiver by season’s end, and Sunday was a strong statement in that regard. Minnesota wouldn’t have had a shot at its 33-30 overtime win over Buffalo if Jefferson hadn’t been on the roster. He made every big catch down the stretch, including a jaw-dropping one-handed grab on a fourth-and-18 play that would’ve ended the game if Minnesota hadn’t converted. He finished with 10 receptions for 193 yards a touchdown and one of the best catches in NFL history. Critics have given the Vikings plenty of guff about being overrated. Jefferson proved they should be taken very seriously moving forward.
The Packers have spent all season waiting for their rookie receiver to produce. He’s been plagued by injuries and inconsistency, but he finally delivered in Green Bay’s 31-28 win over Dallas. Watson had more receiving yards in that contest (107) than he’d generated all year heading into Sunday (88). He also had three touchdown receptions, which marked the first time a first-year Packers receiver has produced multiple touchdown catches in a game since 1978. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has experienced plenty of frustration this season. He may have found a reason to put more faith in Watson in the coming weeks.
Pittsburgh Steelers · Edge
The Steelers’ star outside linebacker returned to the field for the first time since tearing a pectoral muscle in the season opener. It wasn’t that he produced amazing numbers, as he only had four tackles. It was the way Watt flew around the field in Pittsburgh’s 20-10 win over New Orleans. Pittsburgh’s defense had been listless, and that had plenty to do with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year not being available. It’s too late for the Steelers to do much with their season, but Watt’s presence at least reminds us of what they should look like on that side of the ball.
The Rams wide receiver has been one of the few positives for that team, and now he’s dealing with his own bad news. You knew Kupp was in trouble as soon as he limped off the field in the fourth quarter of the Rams’ 27-17 loss to Arizona. Cardinals cornerback Marco Wilson rolled into Kupp’s lower right leg as Kupp went up for a pass, and Kupp was visibly upset afterwards. Kupp didn’t do anything in the game (three receptions for minus-1 yard), but the thought of trying to compete while Kupp misses time with what NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported “seems to be more of a high ankle sprain” is even more troubling, even if he appears to have avoided the worst-case scenario.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · RB
A rough year for Fournette — who was averaging 3.4 yards per carry coming into Week 10 — got even harder this past week. He nearly missed the team’s flight to Germany for Sunday’s game with Seattle (because of passport issues), and then he watched backup Rachaad White start and go off (with 105 yards on 22 carries). White’s big game couldn’t have come at a better time for the team, as it helped Tampa get a 21-16 win. On the other hand, it’s also more evidence that the Bucs can’t rely so heavily on Fournette to power their lackluster ground game any longer.
Somebody has to remind the Falcons that they need some defense if they really want to make a run at a playoff spot. They have struggled all year on that side of the football — they rank 27th in points allowed and 31st in yards allowed — and Carolina took it to them last Thursday. The Panthers — the same team that traded away Christian McCaffrey — ran for 232 yards against Atlanta in that 25-15 Falcons loss. That can’t happen at this point in the season, not when Atlanta (4-6) is tying to keep pace with Tampa Bay in the race for the NFC South title.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
AFC GENERAL MANAGER: “They probably end up with a top-five pick. But if you’re going to try an untraditional move like this, they’ve got the window of opportunity. To be honest, it would be tough for any coach taking that job in this situation. I also don’t think the owner (Jim Irsay) is fazed by any of the criticism that came with this move. The organization caught a lot of crap when they promoted Jim Caldwell after Tony Dungy retired, and they kept winning and made another Super Bowl. Irsay also has been around some good coaches. He hired Chuck Pagano. He had Bruce Arians in an interim situation. And he hired Frank Reich, who really wasn’t a bad hire. It’s just tough when the quarterback retires (Andrew Luck did so prior to the 2019 season), and it hits your organization like a ton of bricks. I’m sure they thought Matt Ryan had enough left in the tank when they got him, and people often overlook that they lost both their coordinators, who were very good. That’s a lot of firepower to lose in less than two seasons. Saturday doesn’t have any high-level coaching experience, but he’s an excellent football mind. I suspect the owner doesn’t see it as any different than asking Peyton Manning to do it. They won their first game and got Ryan back on the field. Maybe they get back to leaning on the run and making the offensive line and Jonathan Taylor the focal point. Their record says they can still be in it, but who knows what’s going on behind the scenes with player morale, injuries and other factors impacting the future outlook.”
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 11 (odds courtesy of FanDuel are current as of 8:15 p.m. ET on Nov. 14):
Weeks in Top 5: 10
Next game: at Chargers | Sunday, Nov. 20
Weeks in Top 5: 3
Next game: vs. Texans | Sunday, Nov. 27 (Week 12)
Weeks in Top 5: 8
Next game: at Colts | Sunday, Nov. 20
Weeks in Top 5: 2
Next game: vs. Texans | Sunday, Nov. 27 (Week 12)
Weeks in Top 5: 10
Next game: vs. Browns | Sunday, Nov. 20
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Eagles over Bills.
Previous picks …
- 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