The postseason field is almost complete after 17 weeks of NFL action. The contenders have separated from the pretenders, with quarterback play and defensive disruption frequently making the difference.
With only a week remaining on the regular slate before we start the single-elimination tournament, here are some thoughts and observations from a former NFL scout.
Three things I liked
1. Jaire Alexander is a shutdown corner
There have not been many cornerbacks who have slowed down Justin Jefferson since the star wideout entered the league in 2020. Alexander can raise his hand as a shutdown corner after blanketing the Vikings’ No. 1 receiver for four quarters while holding him to just one catch for 15 yards.
Green Bay’s scrappy corner contained Jefferson without assistance while utilizing several techniques, including traditional bump-and-run tactics and a “quick jam” maneuver that disrupted the crafty receiver’s timing at the line of scrimmage. Considering Alexander shadowed Jefferson on 20 of 31 routes and contained the playmaking wideout like no other defender, the Packers’ CB1 is a legitimate eraser on the perimeter.
Jaire Alexander, Packers defense shut down Vikings
Jaire Alexander backed up calling Justin Jefferson’s Week 1 game a fluke by holding the Vikings receiver to just one catch in the Packers’ 41-17 win.
2. Kenneth Walker III answers the bell
Pete Carroll’s vision of the Seahawks features a punishing running game pacing a balanced offense that perfectly complements a disruptive defense. When the Seahawks can stay true to their formula, they have routinely chalked up wins and looked like a playoff contender. With Seattle’s hopes hinging on the team’s ability to win out while getting a little assistance from others, Carroll put the ball in the belly of a rookie runner who continues to deliver as a workhorse.
In helping the Seahawks win their eighth game of the season, Walker rumbled for 133 rushing yards on 23 carries, including a 60-yard run that showcased the speed, burst and vision that made him a top prospect in the 2022 draft. The rookie also flashed balance, body control and toughness on an assortment of runs between the tackles that gutted the Jets defense.
Though Walker is not the sledgehammer that Carroll had in Marshawn Lynch, he is the five-star runner the Seahawks need to reemerge as a contender in the NFC.
3. Daniel Jones makes his case
The jury was still out on Jones securing his spot as the Giants’ franchise quarterback heading into the season. But the fourth-year pro is making it hard on the team to part ways with him after guiding New York back into the postseason while dazzling as a dual-threat playmaker.
Brian Daboll has plucked some pages from his old Buffalo Bills’ playbook to unlock Jones’ talents like he helped Josh Allen find his MVP-caliber game. Although Jones is not quite the “one-man show” that Allen has become with the Bills, the slick playmaker has certainly shown promise as a runner-passer this season. Most importantly, he has curbed the turnovers that wrecked the Giants’ winning chances in the past (only eight giveaways in 16 games).
Daniel Jones MVP material after earning playoff spot?
Craig Carton makes a case for Daniel Jones winning the MVP award after the quarterback led the Giants to a win over the Colts, securing a spot in the postseason for the first time since 2016.
Against the Colts, Jones accounted for 268 yards of total offense, including 91 rushing yards on 11 attempts. With the Giants QB1 also tallying four scores (two passing, two rushing) with zero turnovers while displaying magician-like ball-handling skills executing RPOs and various zone-read runs, it is time to put the debate to bed and pencil Jones in as the long-term starter for a team that claimed its first playoff berth since 2016.
Three things I did not like
1. Carson Wentz wilts under pressure
Only Ron Rivera knows why he decided to put the ball in the hands of Wentz with the Commanders’ playoff hopes on the line. Although the veteran has the potential to produce big plays, he has rarely delivered on his promise in big games down the stretch, including last season with the Colts.
Against the Browns on Sunday, Wentz’s turnover woes and egregious errors showed up early and often in a pressure-packed game that seemingly overwhelmed the seventh-year pro. He turned the ball over twice in the Commanders’ first three drives and failed to surpass 100 passing yards until late in the fourth quarter. The steady stream of misfires and mistakes undermined the team’s chances of winning and put Rivera on the hot seat for his decision.
Mark Schlereth, Adam Amin discuss Commanders’ loss
Carson Wentz was disappointing in his return to the field after missing much of the season, throwing three picks that contributed to the Browns’ 24-10 victory.
With Wentz’s performance extending a streak of poor play in high-pressure moments, there are a lot of decisions to be made in Washington.
2. What is the Dolphins‘ identity?
Mike McDaniel was hired to fix the Dolphins’ quarterback woes while implementing a creative running game enabling South Florida’s team to mix finesse and physicality within the game plan. The utilization of innovative rushing schemes was supposed to be a big part of why the team wanted McDaniel, but we have not seen the Dolphins rely on those tactics during their free fall.
Why? Why have the Dolphins avoided the ground-and-pound approach that made McDaniel one of the hottest coaching candidates on the carousel?
That is the million-dollar question McDaniel will need to answer when explaining his team’s poor performance down the stretch. Although the big plays to Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle made the team fun to watch, the Dolphins have faltered in crucial moments due to their inability to control the game. By building a quarterback-centric offense that relied on the play of the oft-injured Tua Tagovailoa (and Teddy Bridgewater), the Dolphins compromised their chances of making the playoffs when a series of injuries disrupted their original plans.
3. The moment was too big for Gardner Minshew
Despite the glowing numbers that have dotted Minshew for most of his career, the veteran backup is not QB1 material.
While his supporters rave about his production as a super sub, the noodle-armed passer compiles gaudy stats on an assortment of “dink-and-dunk” passes against soft coverage. When opponents take away the easy access throws and force Minshew to make contested tosses into tight windows, he lacks the velocity and accuracy to throw strikes when it matters.
Saints defense shuts down Eagles offense
The Saints held the Eagles to just 313 total yards, and Marshon Lattimore’s pick-six late in the fourth quarter sealed the victory for New Orleans.
Against the Saints, Minshew’s flaws showed up in crucial moments as he could not put points on the scoreboard. Outside of a deep ball to A.J. Brown that resulted in a 76-yard score, the Eagles’ punchless offense looked nothing like the high-octane unit that has torched defenses all season. With Minshew unable to threaten the perimeter as a runner while also lacking the arm talent to stress the defense as a passer, the Eagles could not take advantage of a New Orleans defense that has been maddeningly inconsistent this season.
Moreover, the QB2’s subpar play suggests the Eagles’ Super Bowl hopes hinge on Jalen Hurts’ return to the lineup.
My top 10 teams
1. Kansas City Chiefs: Andy Reid’s squad has seemingly been lying in the weeds as the top contender in football, and a loss by the Bills could give the Chiefs the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Given Patrick Mahomes’ dominance at this time of year, the rest of the league certainly does not want to see the road to the Super Bowl run through Arrowhead Stadium.
2. San Francisco 49ers: The Brock Purdy-led 49ers are the hottest team in football, with a nine-game winning streak fueling their rise to the top of the charts. Kyle Shanahan has tapped into his QB3’s skills as a pinpoint passer to add an efficient passing game to a rushing attack that can bludgeon opponents, with Christian McCaffrey running like a madman between the tackles.
Brock Purdy on 49ers’ overtime win over Raiders
QB Brock Purdy spoke with FOX Sports’ Laura Okmin after San Francisco defeated the Raiders 37-34 in overtime. “It’s great for us to have some adversity,” he said.
3. Philadelphia Eagles: Back-to-back losses have put the Eagles in a position to lose their No. 1 seed after dominating the league for most of the season. While Jalen Hurts’ return could solve the team’s offensive woes, defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon must figure out how to get his playmaking unit to turn it up a notch to handle the dynamic offenses that will dot the playoff field.
4. Buffalo Bills: Josh Allen is the most dangerous offensive playmaker in the league as an electric dual-threat quarterback with rare skills as a runner and passer. The Bills have complemented him with an explosive collection of pass-catchers and an emerging group of backs that could enable Sean McDermott’s squad to win utilizing an offensive-centric approach. With a Monday Night Football matchup against the Bengals, the football world will soon find out if the Bills are worthy of carrying the No. 1 seed heading into the playoffs.
5. Cincinnati Bengals: The Monday Night matchup against the Bills will give the Bengals a chance to show the football world that they are ready to run it back as AFC champs. Joe Burrow & Co. are hitting their groove heading down the stretch, and few opponents can match up with their personnel on the perimeter.
6. Dallas Cowboys: It is not all glitz and glam with the Cowboys under Mike McCarthy. The star-studded squad has found ways to win, employing various styles to get the job done. From shootouts to nail-biters, the Cowboys are equipped to win behind a talented offense and playmaking defense that features enough firepower to take down any heavyweight in the league.
7. Los Angeles Chargers: The Bolts are peaking heading into the playoffs, with some of their star power returning to the lineup. The offense, in particular, looks like a potential juggernaut, with Justin Herbert teaming with Mike Williams, Keenan Allen, Gerald Everett and Austin Ekeler to torment opponents with an aerial circus. As the defense adds Joey Bosa to a frontline that is beginning to generate consistent pressure at the point of attack, the Chargers could emerge as the sleeping giant in the AFC.
8. Minnesota Vikings: Despite 12 wins on their résumé, the Vikings look like a potential one-and-done team heading into the tournament. Although Kevin O’Connell’s superb playcalling has helped the Vikings navigate a questionable defense and inconsistent quarterback play, the team’s fatal flaws could lead to a quick exit in the playoffs if O’Connell is not on his game.
9. New York Giants: Brian Daboll should earn plenty of postseason accolades and hardware for transforming the Giants into a playoff squad. The G-Men have mastered the art of winning games by avoiding the self-inflicted mistakes (turnovers, penalties, big plays allowed and kicking game errors) that plagued the team in the past. With Daniel Jones & Co. putting up enough points to complement an ultra-aggressive defense that confuses and confounds quarterbacks and playcallers, the Giants could be a tough out in the tournament.
10. Jacksonville Jaguars: Doug Pederson has taught the young Jaguars how to win down the stretch. The Super Bowl-winning head coach has crafted an offense with the potential to light up scoreboards behind an emerging star quarterback and a collection of unheralded playmakers with “take over the game” potential. As the Jaguars’ confidence grows with each win, the rest of the league is taking notice of the AFC South leaders.
Week 17 Game Balls
Most Valuable Player of the Week
It is time to give Kenny Pickett some credit for his late-game heroics for the Steelers. The rookie gunslinger has directed game-winning drives in back-to-back weeks to keep the team’s playoff hopes afloat. Moreover, Pickett has shown glimpses of being the franchise quarterback capable of leading Mike Tomlin’s squad back to prominence.
Offensive Player of the Week
Tom Brady continues to defy the odds as a 40-something quarterback. The seven-time Super Bowl winner produced a 400-yard game to rally the Buccaneers from a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit in a must-win game. With Brady turning back the clock with a vintage performance on the eve of the playoffs, the Buccaneers are the team that no one wants to face in a single-game elimination tournament.
Buccaneers clinch NFC South with win over Panthers
Tom Brady and the Buccaneers clinched the NFC South with a 30-24 win over the Panthers in Week 17. Brady had 432 passing yards and touchdown passes of 63, 57 and 30 yards to Mike Evans. Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe react to Brady making the playoffs for the 14th consecutive season.
Defensive Player of the Week
James Houston has given the Lions the pass-rushing presence the team needed opposite of Aidan Hutchinson. The Jackson State product has collected eight sacks in six games, including a three-piece against the Bears that showcased his instincts, athleticism and skill as an explosive edge rusher. With Houston just scratching the surface of his potential as a dynamic sack artist, the Lions might have uncovered a hidden gem in an undersized former HBCU standout.
Unsung Hero of the Week
Browns WR Amari Cooper squashed the Commanders’ playoff hopes with a 100-yard game showcasing his unique playmaker talents. The veteran topped the century mark on just three catches, exhibiting outstanding catch-and-run skills in the open field as he scooted around the defense. Cooper’s explosion not only reminded the football world of his continued excellence but also helped Deshaun Watson shake off the rust as he flashed the skills of a top-five quarterback in the second half.
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Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He regularly appears on “Speak For Yourself” and also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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