In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 17 of the 2021 NFL season, including:
But first, looking back on five decisions that had a massive impact on the 2021 NFL regular season ...
Last week was about Christmas and finding a wish list that worked for teams that had solid playoff footing. This week is about reflection, since we're about to end this calendar year and embark on a new one. It's hard to imagine a regular season that has been as wild as this current campaign. It's also important to note that the offseason was filled with quite a bit of craziness, as well.
The next couple weeks will be focused on which teams are going to fill out the postseason brackets in the AFC and NFC. What shouldn't be overlooked is how we reached this point in the first place. We had a frenzied free agency period, a draft stocked with future franchise quarterbacks and a pandemic hanging over our heads every step of the way. Oh, yeah -- Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl, and he's currently on a quest to attain an eighth ring with the defending-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It's going to be a fun ride. It will be just as enjoyable to think about all the major decisions that led to this being such an exciting year. After all, just about every team in contention can look back and point to a move that helped them find success.
Here are the five biggest, in the mind of this writer:
1) Aaron Rodgers stays put: The Green Bay Packers star quarterback kept the NFL captivated for nearly three months this offseason as word of his unhappiness with team management went public. We didn't know if Rodgers had: 1) the leverage to force a trade, 2) the nerve to retire or 3) the willingness to suck it up and play ball for another season. He ultimately chose what was behind Curtain No. 3, and Green Bay has benefitted ever since. The Packers currently have the best record in the NFL, the inside track on the NFC's top seed in the postseason and a chance to redeem themselves for a home loss to Tampa Bay in last year's NFC title game. Rodgers also might win his second consecutive league MVP award (and fourth overall), as he has 33 touchdown passes and four interceptions on the year. Nobody knows what happens to his future after this season ends. What is clear is that Rodgers may bring drama -- let's not forget that little "immunization" controversy and the positive COVID-19 test that cost him a game -- but he's well worth it in the end.
2) Denver drafts Patrick Surtain II ninth overall: This actually has nothing to do with the Broncos passing on the chance to select quarterback Justin Fields, who ultimately landed in Chicago with the 11th overall pick. It's about how Surtain going to Denver resulted in Dallas taking the best available defensive player after that selection, which turned out to be linebacker Micah Parsons, at No. 12. The Cowboys desperately needed help at cornerback at the time. What they learned was that cornerbacks play a lot better when quarterbacks are running for their lives. Parsons has been a one-man wrecking crew who has thrived at linebacker and defensive end and essentially lived in opposing backfields all year. He already has 13 sacks, and he's likely to break the NFL rookie sack mark held by Jevon Kearse (14.5, set in 1999). The rise of the Dallas defense (ranked seventh in points allowed) has been a huge story all year (and ironically, 2020 second-round pick Trevon Diggs has enjoyed the best year of any cornerback in the league for the Cowboys). That wouldn't be the case if the 'Boys hadn't drafted a player who might end up being the Defensive Rookie of the Year and the Defensive Player of the Year.
3) Pittsburgh trades Melvin Ingram to Kansas City: This was a move that felt like pure desperation at the time. The Chiefs had a horrible defense in the first half of the season, and the Steelers weren't happy with what Ingram was providing (one sack in six games) after he signed with that franchise this offseason (Ingram also had been talking to the Chiefs in free agency as well). So the Steelers shipped Ingram to Kansas City at the trade deadline for a sixth-round pick. No big deal, right? It turns out that move started some dominoes falling in Kansas City that have resulted in a major defensive transformation. Having Ingram at defensive end gave defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo more reasons to play Chris Jones (four sacks since Ingram arrived) at defensive tackle again, instead of keeping him on the edge. Having Jones on the interior full-time and Ingram on one end gave Frank Clark (2.5 sacks, 12 QB hits, one forced fumble since Ingram arrived) more opportunities to impact the game at the other defensive end spot, which is something he hadn't done since 2018. Even defensive tackle Jarran Reed -- a major free-agent signee who had been invisible through the first eight games of the season -- began making plays (1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles since Ingram arrived). The Chiefs suddenly have a scary defense (fifth in points allowed) and a front four that keeps opposing quarterbacks up at night. The Steelers, on the other hand, have one more reminder of how this really hasn't been their year.
4) The Los Angeles Rams trade Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford: This deal was a blockbuster (Detroit also snagged a 2021 third-round pick and first-rounders in 2022 and '23), and it's paid off immensely for the Rams. Stafford may have problems when it comes to protecting the football -- he has four games with multiple turnovers, including a three-interception debacle in Sunday's win over Minnesota -- but he's taken the Rams' offense to another level. The knock on Goff was that he's a system quarterback, a creation of head coach Sean McVay. Stafford is the type of swash-buckling signal-caller who can thrive off-script and open up everything with his arm talent. Case in point: Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp. He's gone from being a solid player to a Pro Bowler who's flirting with breaking the league records for receptions and yards in a single season. Stafford's presence has plenty to do with that success. The Rams also are running the ball more effectively these days, which means Stafford should be in position to do even more damage off play-action, the staple of McVay's offense. The Rams made this deal for many reasons, the most obvious being the path to a Super Bowl in the NFC goes through Aaron Rodgers and/or Tom Brady. Stafford has given them a legitimate shot of surviving that gauntlet.
5) Cincinnati drafts receiver Ja'Marr Chase fifth overall: There was a lot of talk about the need for Cincinnati to protect quarterback Joe Burrow, whose promising rookie season was cut short in 2020 by a knee injury, when this year's draft arrived. The Bengals could've taken a highly regarded offensive tackle like Penei Sewell (who went to Detroit seventh overall) or Rashawn Slater (who landed with the Chargers 13th overall) with the fifth overall selection, but the idea of giving their quarterback one more skill player was too much to ignore. They chose well in the end. The Bengals need to still improve their offensive line, but you can't argue with the weapons around Burrow. Even though Chase has struggled with drops, he's been the best rookie receiver in the league, as he currently has 68 receptions for 1,163 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also has a shot at breaking Anquan Boldin's rookie record for receiving yards (1,373). Then there's the impact Chase's presence has on everyone else. Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins are dangerous threats. Tight end C.J. Uzomah is an underrated tight end. Joe Mixon is one of the best backs in the league. The Bengals have so many weapons that it's easy to see why Burrow has blossomed in his second season. This team is far from a finished product, and their offense can be inconsistent at times. But the Bengals also are sitting in first place in the AFC North with a strong shot at their first playoff appearance since 2015. Adding Chase back in April was a significant step in that direction.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) Chiefs in charge: There was once a point, not that long ago, when it was fair to question if the Kansas City Chiefs were going to make the playoffs. Today, the only real mystery surrounding this team is whether anybody in the AFC can keep them from reaching a third consecutive Super Bowl. That's how good the Chiefs are playing right now, as evidenced by their 36-10 blowout of Pittsburgh on Sunday. The Kansas City defense has been the dominant storyline for most of the second half of the season, especially since it's blossomed into a disruptive force after an abysmal start. However, the more intriguing aspect of the Chiefs now is the way their offense has grown in recent weeks. Kansas City didn't have All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce available against Pittsburgh. That absence opened up opportunities for other players to be featured, targets like Byron Pringle, Mecole Hardman and rookie tight end Noah Gray. What Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes proved is that he can count on those players when necessary. This offense has been so dependent on Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill for so long that it felt like Mahomes couldn't trust other receivers. He's doing that now. He's also more comfortable and patient in the pocket, which speaks to how he feels about an offensive line that has steadily improved. The Chiefs may not be in position to play the fast-break style of football they've enjoyed over the first three years that Mahomes has been the starter. But what we're seeing is a quarterback finding peace with what defenses are giving him, and understanding he doesn't have to force the action for his team to find success.
2) Big Ben's reality check: There really isn't much else to question about the future of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after what we saw in that Chiefs loss and most of this season. It's time for him to call it a career. There have been whispers about his potential retirement throughout the year. There were reports that Roethlisberger's family traveled to Kansas City over the weekend -- road trips are apparently a rare event for that bunch -- because it was Christmas and they wanted to savor everything he does for the remainder of this season. Then there was the performance he produced in that marquee game, with the Steelers fighting to stay in playoff contention. He threw for only 159 yards against Kansas City, and that was on 23 completions. But this wasn't just about the numbers. It's about how that game epitomized everything he's lost at this stage, where the best he can do is dink and dunk and pray the Steelers find enough breaks to stay competitive. That's a long way from the Big Ben we remember in his prime, the supersized signal-caller who shrugged off oncoming pass rushers and chucked dimes downfield on a routine basis. The Pittsburgh offense was built to run through Roethlisberger's impressive physical skills back then. Now it's heavily reliant on his wily experience to make things happen. It doesn't work anymore. The 39-year-old Roethlisberger is in the same place we've seen the other two quarterbacks taken in his 2004 draft class -- Eli Manning and Philip Rivers -- land with the teams that drafted them. The supporting cast around him isn't good enough, and he's lost the ability to carry them. That's not meant as a slight. It's just a reality that most players in this league will never age as well as Tom Brady has.
The Titans have been desperate for any sign of hope in their beleaguered offense. Brown supplied it on Thursday night with 11 receptions for 145 yards and a touchdown in a huge win over San Francisco. Suddenly, quarterback Ryan Tannehill is playing efficient football again. There's also still an outside shot at regaining possession of the top playoff spot in the AFC, if the Chiefs somehow falter and the Titans win out. We knew the Titans missed Brown, who was sidelined for the previous three games with a chest injury. Now we understand how much.
The Falcons' rookie tight end has been everything he was hyped up to be when he became the fourth overall pick in this year's draft. He's already amassed 949 receiving yards, which puts him well within range of Mike Ditka's rookie record for tight ends (which is 1,076 yards). Cordarrelle Patterson has been the most versatile player on the Falcons' roster this season, but make no mistake about it: Pitts is their best offensive weapon.
The Eagles' standout right tackle scored his first career touchdown pass on a 5-yard catch in Sunday's win over the Giants, but that's not why he's on this list. It's because he's had a hell of a year. Johnson hasn't given up a sack all season. When he returned from a three-game hiatus to address his mental health issues, he helped transform the Eagles' offense into the league's best rushing attack. Even with all that, Johnson didn't make the Pro Bowl. He'll get plenty of love here.
First there were all those failed fourth-down attempts in a loss to Kansas City. Then comes a 41-29 defeat to the woeful Texans. It's fair to say the first-year head coach's team was undermanned in that Houston game, as he didn't have stars like Joey Bosa, Mike Williams, Austin Ekeler and Derwin James. But nobody cares about excuses in December. You have to find ways to win critical games, and the Chargers are flirting with not even making the playoffs now. The shine is clearly off Staley.
There isn't much left to say on this topic. The dude plays with heart and toughness. He's also too beat up and erratic to help this team reach the postseason in a year where there were sky-high expectations. A four-interception performance in a Saturday night loss to Green Bay -- including a pick on what could've been the game-winning drive -- only cemented a painful trend for Mayfield this season. He's had a habit of producing his worst moments when facing the best teams in this league.
This unit had created plenty of optimism for a New England team eyeing a deep playoff run just a couple weeks ago. Now it's showing all sorts of fatal flaws at the worst possible time. This defense has been gashed by the run (the Colts' Jonathan Taylor gained 170 yards against New England two weeks ago) and dominated by the pass (Buffalo's Josh Allen threw for 314 yards and three touchdowns against it Sunday). The Patriots already were facing the reality that teams were figuring out rookie quarterback Mac Jones. The problems on the other side of the football should make them more concerned about this team's staying power when January arrives.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
GENERAL MANAGER OF AN NFC TEAM: "Personally, no. But that may not matter since he's their most valuable asset to deal and jump-start a rebuild. They've been through one rough year after a long run of success they've had, and he's not the best version of himself this year. The problem is this: Good luck finding a better option at the position. It's not likely coming through the draft this season, as far as immediate returns. This class reminds me of that 2013 year (when EJ Manuel was the only quarterback selected in the first round). Moving a franchise quarterback usually only works when you're in a position to grab another can't-miss prospect at the position in a deep draft, like when the Colts got Andrew Luck after Peyton Manning's injury or the Packers got Aaron Rodgers in anticipation of replacing Brett Favre. You can't even create a situation like the Chiefs had with Patrick Mahomes and Alex Smith (in 2017), because the talent just isn't there in this class. It's not even like it was in 2018, when you had unfinished products with rare physical skills like Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson available. It's a tough spot for them because they're now the worst team in a loaded division, and San Francisco and Arizona already have younger quarterbacks in place. But his people already have put it out there (that there are places Wilson would like to play), so it has to be on Seattle's mind."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 17 (arrows reflect movement from last week's edition):
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Packers over Chiefs.