The foundation of any relationship is trust, whether we're talking love or football. Often, the level of trust is tied directly to patterns of behavior. Are you who you say you are? Can you be counted on to do the right thing regardless of the circumstance? Do your actions match your words?
As we enter the final six weeks of the 2022 NFL regular season, it seems an appropriate time to discuss which division leaders can be trusted a little, a lot, or not at all to make playoff runs that end in Glendale, Arizona, the site of Super Bowl LVII. Using those three trust tiers, here's how I categorize the eight teams.
Remember all the talk coming into the season about how the Chiefs offense would miss Tyreek Hill and not be as explosive or efficient? Yeah, me neither.
Truth is, the Chiefs offense has not missed a beat. Kansas City has scored 30 or more five times, and 41 or more three times. Patrick Mahomes, the front-runner for MVP, looks as good as he has at any point in his career. His average of 8.1 yards per pass attempt through Sunday is nearly a full yard more than his mark in the category last season, and his 29 touchdown passes have him on a pace that would fall just a bit short of his career high of 50.
Outside of Philadelphia, no team has been as consistent from Week 1 to now. Like every team, the Chiefs have had one inexplicable loss, in their case at Indianapolis in Week 3; but at 9-2 they are in a great position to have the AFC playoffs run through Arrowhead Stadium, where they are 6-1 over the past three postseasons.
The Eagles opened the season 8-0, but their most impressive victory might have been last Sunday’s. Six days after losing to Washington at home, they traveled to Indianapolis to face a Colts team that had a bit of buzz about it after winning the debut of interim coach Jeff Saturday, and overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to win. Notable was that they did not have their A-game yet were able to grind out a victory. It spoke to not only their talent, but their athletic character.
My belief in them has a lot to do with the play of quarterback Jalen Hurts, who has silenced doubters who viewed him as a question mark, if not a liability, entering the season, and a roster that might be the deepest in the league. General manager Howie Roseman’s sublime free-agent moves and draft dealings coming into the campaign, coupled with the recent signings of defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh, should make him a leading candidate for Executive of the Year, along with Seahawks GM John Schneider.
This should come as little surprise considering the 49ers were basically a dropped interception away from reaching the Super Bowl last season and have only strengthened a roster that returned largely intact. That is not to say they have not been blessed with good fortune, if not blatant luck. After all, they are being led by a quarterback they did everything possible to trade in the offseason only to find no takers because Jimmy Garoppolo was coming off offseason shoulder surgery.
But a season-ending injury to youngster Trey Lance opened the door for Garoppolo to return to the starting lineup and potentially lead San Francisco to a third NFC Championship Game and second Super Bowl as its starter. The 49ers offense is loaded at the skill positions, and the defense is one of the best in the league. Trying to find holes in this team is like trying to find an answer for versatile running back Christian McCaffrey, whom the 49ers acquired from Carolina prior to the trade deadline. Talk about an embarrassment of riches.
How quickly things can change. Tua Tagovailoa has gone from having people question whether he was the long-term answer at quarterback for the Dolphins to being mentioned as a legitimate MVP candidate. Such is life when a plan comes together, when talent and experience are combined with dynamic support on the perimeter and a beautifully creative mind on the sideline.
Tagovailoa is living his best life in part because of the synergy between him and first-year coach Mike McDaniel, whose calm demeanor and play-design gifts have created an environment in which the former No. 5 overall draft pick is flourishing. Miami has no shortage of talent or speed at the wideout position, with the duo of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle causing defensive coordinators to age in dog years.
It is notable that Miami has not lost a game in which Tagovailoa has started and finished. He and the offense appear to only be getting better, as the Dolphins have scored at least 30 points in four consecutive games while holding opponents to 17 or fewer in three of the last five contests. Will their game this coming week at San Francisco be a Super Bowl preview?
Maybe this is a blind spot for me, but I love how the Titans know who they are and don’t try to be something else. While other teams want to lean on their pass game and deception, the Titans line up and seek to beat you with physicality and execution. It doesn’t matter if you know what’s coming, they say, you still have to stop it.
When you have a running game led by Derrick Henry, and a defense led by Jeffery Simmons, and a coach who is one of the best when it comes to situational football and clock management -- those are all things that travel well in the postseason. Their biggest question mark -- and it is a legitimate one -- is quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the lack of consistency in the passing game. Rookie wideout Treylon Burks has shown signs of living up to his first-round draft status the past two games, catching 11 passes for 181 yards. If he continues to improve, and Tannehill protects the football, anything is possible with a defense that has held the opponent to 20 points or fewer in eight consecutive games.
NOT AT ALL
I was prepared to have the Ravens higher on this list until some disturbing demons reappeared on Sunday, namely an inability to close out drives on offense and to finish games on defense.
If you want to be viewed as a legitimate threat, you don’t go 2 of 5 in the red zone against a Jacksonville defense that was allowing touchdowns on 59 percent of opponents’ trips inside of its 20-yard line. And you definitely don’t let the Jaguars rally for a 28-27 victory by driving 75 yards for a touchdown and decisive two-point conversion in the final two minutes.
We can talk about dropped passes or interceptions, but that’s all it would be -- talk. The Ravens thought they had turned the corner on these issues, but clearly they have not.
The Vikings have a five-game lead in the division with six games to play. Should they win the NFC North, which seems a fait accompli, they would have to win at least two playoff games (three if they don't secure a first-round bye as the NFC's No. 1 seed) to reach the Super Bowl and another to win the title. So, the question is, do you trust quarterback Kirk Cousins to do that?
Really, it’s as simple as that. Minnesota has a talented running back in Dalvin Cook, arguably the game’s top wide receiver in Justin Jefferson, and a defense that’s good enough to help the team win. So, do you trust Cousins to deliver? One game, maybe. Two games, possibly. But three?
Talk to me when the Bucs climb above .500. They had a chance to do so on Sunday but blew a fourth-quarter lead to the Browns and lost in overtime, falling for the fourth time in six games. Tampa Bay entered Week 12 ranking at or near the bottom of the league in rushing, red-zone offense and big plays, something not even Tom Brady has been able to overcome with any consistency. Thank god for the NFC South.