In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 14 of the 2022 NFL season, including:
But first, a look at what we know and what we don't know with five weeks to go ...
CINCINNATI -- The best thing about a big NFL week in December is the clarity that comes from it. The stakes grow higher. The atmosphere intensifies. Matchups that merely might have been entertaining a month or two earlier suddenly become epic and immense, as one little mistake can tilt the outcome of a contest that has playoff implications.
This is what makes the stretch run of the regular season so thrilling. There were a host of key games played this past weekend, many of which will help determine division races and postseason seeding. We're starting to decipher who we really need to keep an eye on in the coming weeks. On the flip side, we're learning which teams must start thinking about how they'll address critical questions this offseason.
There are some things we can no longer question at this point. There also are some that we still need to ponder. The information is out there, and we're going to learn more with each passing week. Here's what we know and don't know at this stage of the season ...
1) The Bengals are better than the Chiefs
Three wins in three games in one calendar year confirm that Cincinnati is the superior team in this matchup. The Bengals have beaten Kansas City twice in the regular season and once in last year's AFC Championship Game, and they'll certainly keep winning if the narrative in these meetings continues to play out the same way. Cincinnati's 27-24 victory on Sunday looked a lot like every other game these teams have played. The Chiefs couldn't find a way to pressure Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. The Bengals' receivers made big plays in the passing game, while defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo continually implemented schemes to frustrate Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Oh, yeah, the Bengals topped Kansas City by three points for the third straight time. This game also came down to another noteworthy trend: Cincinnati made the key defensive plays when it mattered most, including when linebacker Germaine Pratt stripped the ball from Chiefs star tight end Travis Kelce in the fourth quarter and set up the game-winning touchdown. There's going to be a lot of talk about how this is the AFC's biggest rivalry now. It won't officially be that until the Chiefs win a game in this series.
2) San Francisco's Super Bowl dreams are over
The 49ers were a team primed to make a deep playoff run when the weekend began. They're now a franchise that has to be wondering how it could be so snakebitten at the quarterback position in the span of one season. The broken foot that ended Jimmy Garoppolo's year -- and most likely his career in San Francisco, given that he's headed for free agency in 2023 -- was even more heartbreaking because he had been writing such an inspiring story with his play in 2022. Jimmy G, the former starter who battled his share of injuries and willingly accepted a backup role at the beginning of the year, became the team's savior after second-year quarterback Trey Lance fractured his right ankle in Week 2. This all could've ended with San Francisco hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February. Instead, the 49ers are turning to Brock Purdy, the last pick in this year's draft, to help. He certainly played impressively in an emergency role in Sunday's win over Miami, as he displayed the kind of poise you wouldn't expect from someone thrust into that situation. But it's hard to believe a first-year quarterback can deliver like that every week, with so many high-pressure games on the horizon. Whether the team rolls with Purdy, gives the recently signed Josh Johnson a shot or maybe turns to someone like Baker Mayfield, San Francisco will be at a deficit at the sport's most important position. The 49ers are really good. They aren't that good. (UPDATE: Garoppolo does not need surgery, meaning there is a possibility he could return for the playoffs, NFL Network Insider Tom Pelissero reported Tuesday. Also, the Rams claimed Mayfield on waivers, NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero reported on Tuesday. Per Rapoport, the 49ers did not put in a claim on Mayfield.)
3) The Cowboys are the best team in the NFC
Yes, it's risky to make too much of a blowout win over the Indianapolis Colts. It's also worth noting that the Philadelphia Eagles played this same Colts team in Week 11 and escaped with a one-point win, while the Cowboys dropped 54 on Indianapolis on Sunday Night Football, including a team-record 33 in the fourth quarter. That blowout came two weeks after Dallas beat the Vikings by 37 on the road. The big takeaway here: Nobody in this conference is stopping the Cowboys when they play their A-game. They now have a top-three scoring offense and scoring defense. The schedule is working in their favor, as well, with Houston and Jacksonville coming up next. Dallas (9-3) is going to have a hard time catching the 11-1 Eagles, since they're two games behind in the NFC East standings. That doesn't mean their meeting on Christmas Eve won't have significant ramifications. The Eagles have built the best record in the NFL, but the Cowboys are playing on a different level these days.
Buffalo placed its star edge rusher on injured reserve with the hope that a longer rest period will stabilize his injured right knee for a playoff run. It's the smart play. The Bills signed the 33-year-old Miller in the offseason to be the final piece of what they believe to be a championship formula. That means he needs to be available for the postseason, not at a point in the year when Buffalo has enough talent to succeed without him. People shouldn't forget that this team caught fire late in the 2021 season and looked very much like a championship squad before losing to Kansas City in the Divisional Round. The Bills still have Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and a supporting cast that easily dismantled the Patriots last Thursday night. The roster is also going to get healthier as the race for the AFC East and that first-round bye intensifies. There's no question the Bills will need Miller to be their closer when the playoffs begin. They also have a team that should gain even more confidence winning with Miller on the shelf.
EDITOR'S UPDATE: Von Miller will miss the rest of the 2022 season due to a torn ACL, Bills coach Sean McDermott announced Wednesday.
5) Mike Tomlin will finally have a losing season
Tomlin has a produced a Hall-of-Fame worthy career because he's gotten the most out of every team he's led since the Steelers hired him in 2007. He's been doing the same thing in Pittsburgh with this group, even though it's not going to end in typical fashion for him. The man has gone 15 years without a losing season. He has a 5-7 team that needs to win four of its last five games for that streak to continue to 16. Not gonna happen. That's not a knock on Tomlin. It's just reality. The Steelers will see the Ravens twice, the Browns and the Raiders before the season ends. Sure, there are questions about those teams, but they're all better than Pittsburgh right now. To be honest, it was stunning that Tomlin dragged a weak Steelers squad into the postseason in 2021. The Steelers are still mathematically alive in the postseason race. But they're about to start fading fast.
The Ravens lost their starting quarterback for the final four games of last season, and it wasn't good. Baltimore didn't win any of those contests. The difference this year -- as we wait to see what's next for Jackson, termed "week to week" by coach John Harbaugh after suffering a knee injury in Sunday's win over Denver -- is the state of the Ravens' defense. Injuries gutted that unit in 2021, but this bunch is far healthier as it enters the critical part of the season. It also has an assortment of playmakers at every level and a stud linebacker in Roquan Smith who arrived in a midseason trade. Now comes the downside: This team still has a hard time maintaining leads. That was a major problem earlier this year (when the Ravens gave up two leads of 17-plus points), and it became an issue again a couple weeks ago (when the Jaguars overcame a 9-point fourth-quarter deficit to win). The Ravens are still very much in a good position, as they're tied with Cincinnati for the lead in the AFC North. However, this is going to be a huge test. The Ravens' offense had been struggling with efficiency and injuries before Jackson hurt his knee. They're probably not going to be more effective when Tyler Huntley is under center.
If Sunday's loss to San Francisco is any indication, the answer is no. The Dolphins are in the midst of a brutal three-game stretch -- up next are road trips to the Chargers and Bills – that was always going to be a defining time for this team. The defeat to the 49ers was as rough a start as you could imagine, as Tagovailoa looked overwhelmed in what was easily his worst game of the season. He missed open receivers, threw bad interceptions and only completed 54.6 percent of his passes, 15.1 percentage points worse than his completion percentage for the season entering the game. To be fair, the 49ers can give plenty of offenses problems when healthy. The problem is that Dolphins are now one game behind Buffalo in the division race, and that next meeting with the Bills will be in Buffalo. The Dolphins won the first matchup between these teams despite Buffalo dominating in yardage and time of possession. That same formula won't work again. In fact, it's quite plausible that Miami could leave this stretch on a three-game losing streak.
3) Can the Giants finish as strong as they started?
It was hard to make sense of all the success the Giants enjoyed on their way to a 6-1 start, largely because of the lack of firepower on offense. What's happening to them these days is much easier to wrap your head around. The Giants have only won one game in the last five weeks -- a span that includes a 20-20 tie with Washington on Sunday -- because they're limited as a team. Head coach Brian Daboll has mined every last bit of potential out of this bunch, but that only goes so far in an NFL season. Talent is what ultimately matters most in December and January. There might be more optimism around the Giants right now if Graham Gano's attempt to kick a game-winning field goal hadn't fallen short in overtime. Now it's hard to see this team (7-4-1) keeping pace in a playoff race where they'll see the Commanders again, as well as the Vikings and the Eagles twice. Let me repeat that: They haven't even faced the Eagles yet.
4) Will the Raiders be the scariest team nobody is talking about?
Put this down on the list of things we didn't see coming in December. The Raiders had two wins through nine games and gave Colts head coach Jeff Saturday his only career victory (in Saturday's coaching debut no less). All Las Vegas has done since that point is rip off three straight wins, improve to 5-7 overall and create an outside chance at securing a playoff spot. The Raiders have three winnable games coming up next, against the Rams, Patriots and Steelers. It's not hard to see this team sitting on the right side of .500 after that stretch. Their two offensive stars -- running back Josh Jacobs and wide receiver Davante Adams -- are playing at that high of a level. Jacobs has been the best back in the league this year, and he's averaging 161 rushing yards over his last three games. Adams is delivering on all the expectations that followed him after a blockbuster trade and massive contract brought him to Vegas from the Packers in the offseason. He's produced 41 receptions and 664 yards over the last five games. It's also important to note that both tight end Darren Waller and wide receiver Hunter Renfrow will be returning from injured reserve soon. What does all this mean? Basically, there's a legitimate chance that the regular-season finale against Kansas City could have far more stakes attached to it than one might have once thought.
5) Will there be a couple of first-year head coaches worrying about their jobs come January?
This may have been a big year for some new head coaches -- the Giants' Daboll, Miami's Mike McDaniel and Minnesota's Kevin O'Connell all have Coach of the Year credentials -- but it's been rough for others. Let's start with Denver's Nathaniel Hackett. It isn't his fault that Russell Wilson started a rapid decline after joining the Broncos and signing a massive contract extension this offseason. That's just bad timing. The apparent inability to scheme around that issue, the clock management problems and an assortment of other organizational struggles? Those do fall on Hackett's shoulders. This is a 3-9 team that was supposed to make the playoffs and is acclimating to a new ownership group. It's hard to feel optimistic about Hackett's job security when weighing those circumstances. Houston's Lovie Smith is in a different situation. That team is so devoid of talent that nobody should be surprised by its 1-10-1 record. The problem there is that the Texans fired Smith's predecessor, David Culley, after one season ... and Culley won four games. It's highly unlikely that Smith has that much success this year, not with the Cowboys and Chiefs coming up next. This is a listless team that will surely be in the market for a new quarterback in the draft. That's not a good place for Smith to be.
The Lions keep fighting because their head coach keeps them believing. This team has won four of its last five games, with the only setback being a 28-25 loss to Buffalo on Thanksgiving (and that only happened after Bills quarterback Josh Allen led his team to a game-winning field goal in the final minute). Detroit also just hung 40 points on the Jaguars in an impressive win. The Lions now stand at 5-7 with two huge matchups looming next, against the Vikings and Jets. They can push themselves back into the NFC playoff picture if they can manage to stay hot.
The Seahawks' quarterback has been terrific all season. He might have to be more than that as Seattle fights for a playoff spot and a division title down the stretch. Smith threw for 367 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-23 win over the Rams, but that wasn't the big story coming out of that game. Running back Kenneth Walker III, the leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year, left the contest with an ankle injury. The Seahawks already lost Rashaad Penny to a season-ending injury, and the severity of Walker's condition remains unclear as of this writing. Time for Smith to go next level.
The Raiders' offense has been on fire lately, but Jones might be coming alive at the right time, as well. He had three sacks in the win over the Chargers, which is exactly the kind of effort Las Vegas wanted when it signed him in the offseason. The Raiders' defense has been disappointing for most of this season, with Jones playing a major role in that. The guy had a half-sack before this weekend after arriving as a major free-agent signing. This is his chance to redeem himself after those struggles. The combination of Jones and fellow edge rusher Maxx Crosby can still be problematic for opposing offenses.
The Texans were hoping to see what Allen could provide an offense that was floundering under former starter Davis Mills. The last two games should be enough to end this experiment. Allen has four interceptions and five turnovers in those two starts. He lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown -- on a quarterback sneak -- and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in Sunday's loss to Cleveland. It's one thing for a backup to make some mistakes. It's another if he ends up being the best scoring option for the other team.
The Chiefs safety made a big mistake when he talked trash about the Bengals' pass-catchers (mistaking tight end Hayden Hurst for other players in the process). It was a decision that irked Reid's head coach, Andy Reid, and it came back to bite him on Sunday, as well. Joe Burrow picked apart the Chiefs' defense, making a number of key plays in the second half. Justin Reid, on the other hand, didn't have any real impact, unless you count the moment Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase was penalized for taunting Reid after a Tee Higgins touchdown catch in the second quarter. After the game, Reid -- who was facing Cincinnati for the first time after signing with Kansas City this offseason -- apologized for not giving "the proper respect to" Hurst. A bit of advice for Reid moving forward: Don't chirp at opponents you haven't beaten.
The Titans' pass defense has been a problem all season -- it currently ranks 31st in the league -- and that didn't change against the Eagles. A.J. Brown had 119 yards and two touchdowns in his first meeting against his former team. DeVonta Smith had 102 yards, while Jalen Hurts threw for a season-high 380 yards and three touchdowns. It's bizarre to see a team so scrappy be so bad when it comes to stopping opposing passers. Some of that has to do with injuries at cornerback, but the Titans have found ways to scheme around setbacks before. They just don't have answers this time around.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
AFC SCOUT: "It depends on how seriously Wilson takes this time off. His benching has the potential to help his career and you have to give (Jets head coach) Robert Saleh credit with how he's framed this. Even when you discount the mistakes Wilson has made when talking to the press, the Jets had been winning games in spite of his play, not because of it. The key is what happens behind the scenes. A lot of the problems he had on tape were the same problems he had last season -- like being slow to process what defenses are doing -- and he just hasn't improved. Now he gets the chance to really work on his craft. Sometimes young quarterbacks need time to step back and take a breath. We also have to wait and see what happens with Mike White in there. He has to show more before people start anointing him as the answer. I do believe Wilson probably gets one more shot to come in and show what he is as a player. He is still the same guy they drafted with the No. 2 pick (in the 2021 draft). If he struggles after that, then any criticism people had of him before he was drafted will be validated."
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 14 (odds courtesy of FanDuel were current as of 8:15 p.m. ET on Dec. 5):
Weeks in Top 5: 13
Next game: at Broncos | Sunday, Dec. 11
Weeks in Top 5: 11
Next game: at Giants | Sunday, Dec. 11
Weeks in Top 5: 5
Next game: vs. Browns | Sunday, Dec. 11
Weeks in Top 5: 11
Next game: vs. Jets | Sunday, Dec. 11
Weeks in Top 5: 6
Next game: at Chargers | Sunday, Dec. 11
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Bengals over Cowboys.
Previous picks ...
- Week 13: Eagles over Bills
- Week 12: Bills over Eagles
- Week 11: Eagles over Bills
- 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