Now is the time of year when the NFL's biggest superstars take matters into their own hands to help their respective teams qualify for the postseason.
We've seen such players rise when the stakes are highest -- guys like quarterback Joe Burrow, who's led the Bengals to six straight wins, and wide receiver Justin Jefferson, whose prolific production just helped the Vikings complete the largest comeback win in NFL history.
However, not every great player has answered the bell. With three weeks left in the regular season, here are four superstars who are playing below expectation as playoff races heat up.
There's isn't a bigger superstar than the G.O.A.T., and his team is having one of the most disappointing campaigns of the 2022 season. The Buccaneers' Week 15 loss, in which they gave up a 17-point lead to the Bengals, further emphasized Brady's struggles this season. Tampa Bay gave up possession on plays from its own territory on five straight drives, with Brady committing four turnovers (two INTs, two fumbles) in the process. With the loss making it eight on the season (a career-high for Brady), his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day definitely rivaled Alexander's.
These uncharacteristic turnovers have cost Tampa dearly, with Brady committing five of his seven INTs this season over the last three games. Now, he hasn't had any help from the Bucs' league-worst run game and the defense has battled the injury bug, but that's why it's even more crucial for Brady to protect the ball. He is on pace to have more than 750 pass attempts in 2022 -- feels like a questionable recipe for success -- and needs some help from his supporting cast. He's pressing too often when trying to cover up issues along a struggling offensive line, and he's rushing through his reads and missing throws that are normally routine from the pocket.
There's still a lot to play for with Tampa Bay still somehow holding a one-game lead in the division at 6-8. Get Brady into the postseason and anything can happen, but the Bucs are going in the wrong direction, dropping three of their past four games.
Like the Bucs, the Cowboys also gave up a 17-point lead in Week 15, ultimately losing in overtime to Jacksonville. The game's final play came on a pick-six off a low Prescott pass to Noah Brown, who deflected the ball right to Jaguars S Rayshawn Jenkins. It was Prescott's second interception of the game -- the other, also picked by Jenkins, was overthrown -- and his seventh over the last four games. With how the Cowboys are built -- boasting a great defense and potent ground game -- there is no way they should've let Jacksonville back in that game. With the loss, Dallas lost ground on the division-leading Eagles -- who visit Big D on Christmas Eve -- but still holds the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs.
Prescott's Achilles' heel is a constant desire to make the big play, which too often leads to errant throws and, even worse, turnovers. I find myself thinking back to when Cooper Rush filled in for the QB1, and the Dallas offense ran like a well-oiled machine, leaning on Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott and sprinkling in chunk plays in the pass game. It's a winning formula for this team. While Prescott is a more talented passer, it's unnecessary for the Cowboys to risk it all to make the splashy pass play. Less is more.
The Bills have won five straight, with their last loss coming in Week 10 to Minnesota. Week 10 also marks the last game in which Diggs had 100 receiving yards. In Weeks 11-15, Diggs has 27 catches, 314 yards, three TDs and just 1 receiving yard over expected, per Next Gen Stats. Compare these numbers to those of Minnesota's Justin Jefferson, a guy whom Diggs will forever be linked to due to the trade that sent him to Buffalo, and the Griddy dancer blows him out of the water in every category but TDs (both with three). In that span, Jefferson exceeds Diggs by 15 receptions, 249 receiving yards and 157 receiving yards over expected. Furthermore, Diggs led the league in drops (six) in Weeks 11-15, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Bills currently sit atop the AFC, but that's not the ultimate goal. For the Bills to make it through the AFC playoff gauntlet and win a Super Bowl, they need their No. 1 receiver to produce at a high level.
It's still hard to believe that the 5-9 Saints have a shot at winning the NFC South. To do so, they need a lot more from their perennial Pro Bowl running back, who hasn't scored a touchdown since October. On the season, he has just three TDs (one rush, two receiving) and is averaging the second-fewest yards per carry (3.9), rushing yards per game (53.4) and receiving yards per game (37.2) of his career. And he has a career-high four fumbles lost, including some extremely costly ones.
The Saints have an uphill climb to get to the postseason, with games at Cleveland and Philly before closing the regular season at home against Carolina. Truthfully, they needed Kamara to show up long before now, because now is probably too late.
Throughout the 2022 campaign, former No. 1 overall pick and NFL Network analyst David Carr will take a look at all offensive players and rank his top 15. Rankings are based solely on this season's efforts. The Week 16 pecking order is below.
It wasn't Hurts' day through the air on Sunday, as he was picked off twice by the opportunistic Bears defense, but his ability to get it done on the ground helped Philly earn its 13th win of the season. All three of the Eagles' touchdowns came on Hurts runs: a 22-yarder and a pair of second-half QB sneaks. Turning the page to Week 16, a sprained right shoulder has Hurts' status in doubt for Saturday's divisional showdown with Dallas. It's a huge storyline for an Eagles team that's trying to lock up home-field advantage in the playoffs -- and for the front-runner in the MVP race.
Who saw the one-win Texans nearly upending the Chiefs? Not me, that's for sure. The Texans have found a way to stay competitive with Davis Mills and Jeff Driskel splitting snaps, but there isn't much any team can do to shut down Mahomes. He completed 36 of 41 pass attempts for 336 passing yards and two TDs and ran for a third score in the Chiefs' overtime victory that clinched the team's seventh straight AFC West title.
I'm still in disbelief that Minnesota won after trailing the Colts 33-0 at half. It took a full team effort to claw back and prevail in overtime, giving the Vikings the NFC North title. Jefferson certainly did his part, looking every bit of the NFL's top wideout during the comeback and finishing with a game-high 12 receptions for 123 yards, including an impressive 8-yard TD early in the fourth quarter. The third-year pro is breaking records by the week with more to come.
Cincinnati looked dead in the water after Tampa Bay built a 17-0 lead. Then Joe Cool 2.0 led the Bengals to a roaring comeback, scoring on five straight drives. Burrow threw TD passes to four different targets in the second half, and the victory helped Cincy overtake Baltimore for the AFC North lead. This is one of the scariest teams in the NFL right now, largely due to Burrow's ability to lead everyone through adversity to get the job done.
The Bills looked determined to keep hold of the AFC's No. 1 seed, with Allen doing everything in his power to win the high-stakes game against the Dolphins on a snowy Saturday night. After a costly fumble that allowed the Dolphins take an eight-point lead (their biggest advantage of the game), Allen led a pair of scoring drives to complete the comeback that clinched a playoff berth. The MVP candidate was 25-of-40 for 304 yards and four TDs and led the Bills in rushing with 10 carries for 77 yards.
In Saturday night's loss to Buffalo, which ultimately dropped the Dolphins to the seventh seed in the AFC playoff picture, Hill had a pedestrian performance by his own high standards. Despite catching nine balls for 69 yards and a touchdown, "Cheetah" took himself to task on Twitter following the game. I expect he'll come to play vs. the Packers on Sunday, as the Dolphins look to snap a three-game losing streak.
Kelce had his fifth 100-yard game of the season in Kansas City's overtime win over the Texans. The effort helped Kelce (10,150) pass Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe (10,060) for the fourth-most career receiving yards by a tight end in NFL history. I'm still waiting to find a player who can regularly cover this guy.
Marcus Jones and the Patriots' defense limited Adams for most of Sunday's game, forcing other Raiders pass catchers to make plays. The five-time Pro Bowler had four catches for 28 yards on nine targets, but like with any elite receiver, he was able to open up the field for guys like Keelan Cole and Mack Hollins, who both had TDs in the win. Sometimes being the decoy is as good as getting numbers.
Jacobs had another solid outing in Las Vegas' wild 30-24 win over the Patriots, marking his fifth game in a row with at least 90 rushing yards. The one-time Pro Bowler leads the NFL with 1,495 ground yards with three weeks left in the 2022 season.
Posting a league-high 181 receiving yards in Week 15, Brown has been on an absolute tear in December. Since Week 13, Brown's 370 receiving yards trail only Justin Jefferson (391) despite the Eagles star having nine fewer receptions.
Despite the loss at Buffalo, the Dolphins looked much better Week 15 than it had the previous two weeks. Tagovailoa protected the ball and threw for 234 yards, delivering a pair of second-half scoring strikes to give the Dolphins a lead entering the fourth quarter -- though it wasn't quite enough to upend the Bills this time. On the down side, Tua has completed less than 60 percent of his passes in three straight games (all losses), a concern as we head into the most crucial point of the season.
The Browns beat the Ravens behind a great defensive performance and a solid Chubb-led ground attack. Chubb rushed for 99 yards on 21 attempts (4.7 yards per carry), notching a big pickup on fourth-and-1 during Cleveland's lone touchdown drive. The combination of a great run game and defense has kept the Browns hanging around in the playoff race, and they could make things even more interesting over the final three weeks with remaining games against the Saints (5-9), Commanders (7-6-1) and Steelers (6-8).
We all suspected McCaffrey would be a playmaker in Kyle Shanahan's offense, but he's become the unit's most valuable player since Jimmy Garoppolo's injury in Week 13. CMC has scored four touchdowns in the last three games after having six TDs in his first 11 games of 2022 -- and he's coming off a 32-touch performance in the 49ers' NFC West-clinching win over the Seahawks, the heaviest workload since his career-high 37 touches in Week 4 of 2019. He's averaging 145.6 scrimmage yards per game since Week 13, music to the injury-riddled team's ears.
As I mentioned above, Diggs hasn't been the impact playmaker we expect him to be of late, but he still ranks third in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,299 through Week 15.
Lamb made some big-time plays in the overtime loss to the Jags -- a 39-yard catch-and-run and another YAC-filled, 25-yard gain -- to finish with 126 receiving yards, catching all seven of his targets. Lamb has established himself as one of the league's better receivers and must keep up his level of play if Dallas intends to bounce back in a big divisional tilt against the Eagles on Saturday.