Prior to the season, the Bucs, Rams and Packers all profiled as 13-win teams. Ferocious defenses. Smart coaches. Elite quarterback play. All three ticked every box. Surely, they would mop the floor with all before them and compete with one another for the coveted first-round bye, right? Not quite.
All three remain among the best teams in the conference, but over the course of the season, flaws have been exposed. The Packers’ offense hasn’t been as explosive as in years past, while the Rams and Bucs continue to stumble over their own feet. The Cardinals had the look of a both-sides-of-the-ball team to start the season. But with injuries mounting, some of that early-season shine has dissipated. So far, the NFC playoff picture is just as gummy as in the AFC.
Fun fact: The Chiefs are tied for the second-most wins in the AFC. For all the (rightful) consternation about the Chiefs’ early struggles – the issues on offense, the broken defense – the team still rank among the upper-tier of AFC contenders.
The Chiefs offense was back to its best against the Raiders in Week 11, albeit with some help from a Vegas side that appeared to misunderstand exactly how teams had been stifling Mahomes and Co all season long.
Most importantly: The defense has taken a midseason leap. Most defenses get better as the season runs along. A coordinator figures out what his group can and (most importantly) cannot do. Still, it’s not often that a defense jumps from the are-they-even-trying level all the way up towards sneaky-good territory.
Hidden in the shadows of the Mahomes discourse, the Chiefs defense has been getting it right for the past month. Over the past three weeks, it ranks as the 10th-best defense in Expected Points Added (EPA), ahead of the Cardinals, Rams and Saints, three of the league’s top units overall. That figure has been buoyed by a couple of cupcakes on the schedule, including Jordan Love’s less-than-stellar debut, but the defense has shown signs of life – and the team’s schedule isn’t exactly oozing with tough opponents the rest of the way.
Don’t look now, but Jalen Hurts is operating one of the NFL’s few Must Watch offenses. The Eagles are using their quarterback’s legs to great effect on the ground, leveraging the threat of Hurts as a runner to open up all kinds of room for the team’s running backs. In the passing game, the Eagles are chucking the ball deep early and often.
The Eagles have embraced a similar philosophy to that of Lamar Jackson and the Ravens – though Jackson is the far superior quarterback and is running a more sophisticated system on a snap-by-snap basis. It’s a boom-or-bust style. They’re not bothering to ask him to be a Tom Brady-like rhythm-based passer. That’s not his game. Instead, they’re embracing what he can do, leaning on quarterback runs and letting him uncork the ball downfield over and over again.
Hurts might not wind up being the long-term solution in Philadelphia, but he’s proof that good things can happen when you build a system around the strengths of a young quarterback – stripping the fat out of the playbook and honing in on what they do well – rather than asking them to be someone they’re not.
Baker Mayfield and Kevin Stefanski take the bulk of the criticism when it comes to the Browns. But what about the should-be-elite defense, that of the best two-man pass-rushing tandem in the NFL and a secondary swimming in high-end draft picks?
The Browns finished 22th in expected points added per play last season, a measure of the unit’s down-to-down value. They made a bunch of savvy upgrades this offseason. The result: A group that ranks 28th in EPA this season. Ooof.
For a team that is increasingly reliant on the flow of the game – the offense needing to run the ball and then take the play-action shots that flow from that – the defense hasn’t been close to good enough. The talent suggests dominance; the results don’t agree.
Stefanski and the Browns have a bunch of tough questions to answer during the final stretch of the season. Figuring out if they can patch together an effective defense while injuries mount will be as big a challenge as any.
Do you know what wasn’t the issue with Justin Herbert during his rookie season? His willingness and ability to throw the ball downfield. The Chargers built a splash play offense, one that regularly asked Herbert to do superhuman things.
Herbert delivered, planting himself right at the top of any ‘which quarterback would you want for the next 10 years?’ discussion. It’s not that Herbert has regressed this year, but that the Chargers are asking so little of their budding star.
The Chargers brought in Joe Lombardi, the former Saints quarterback coach, to pilot the new offense. His answer to the concerns about Herbert’s protection issues during his rookie season: To run the Drew Brees offense with… not Drew Brees. Elements of the system work great, but they also restrict the aspect of Hebert’s game that makes him such a unique talent – throwing the ball over seven yards, for instance; or making plays outside of the confines of a carefully crafted structure.
Herbert has attempted just 29 throws over 20 yards this season, and that trend doesn’t look like it will reverse as the season progresses. He attempted 69 throws over 20 yards last season, at an average of more than four per game. The Chargers find themselves 21st in explosive play rate this season, per Sharp Football Stats, despite having one of the game’s premier playmakers handling the ball on every snap. Go figure.
Remember when the Jaguars listed former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson as a ‘Designated Weapon’ on the team’s official depth chart? It was hokey, but it was a window into where the sport was heading on offense: position-less players who could flex from outside as wide receiver, line up in the slot, or shuffle into the backfield and take a handoff as a running back.
Enter Cordarrelle Patterson. After bouncing around the league as an elite kick-returner, Patterson has become The Guy in Atlanta, serving as both a running back and receiver. Along with Kyle Pitts, he is the Falcons offense, which tells you an awful lot about Atlanta’s soft rebuild as much as it does about Patterson himself.
Currently, Patterson has 776 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns. If advanced numbers are your thing, Patterson ranks 14th in the league in yards after contact as a runner (ahead of Leonard Fournette!) and he is averaging 3.22 yards per route run, by far the highest figure of any receiving threat in the league. Not bad for former bust-turned-returner.