There haven’t been many opportunities to praise the Panthers’ execution this season, but we got one on Sunday when Carolina pulled off one of the more flawless NFL news dumps in recent memory. The team was on bye in Week 13, but rather than use the downtime to announce they were parting ways with second-year offensive coordinator Joe Brady, the Panthers waited until this week’s early slate of games was 20 minutes underway. If you were busy watching seven hours of commercial-free football, you may have missed the news entirely.
Brady’s firing comes just days after the Panthers put Christian McCaffrey, the team’s best player, on injured reserve with what was first described as a “rolled” ankle. Between those two moves, it looks like the organization is waving a white flag on this season and starting to look ahead to 2022. That may seem premature, considering the team is 5-7 and just one game out of a playoff spot, but for the first time since they hired Matt Rhule, the Panthers are being realistic about where they stand in the league. This is not a good football team, and next offseason will be massive for this regime. Getting an early start is probably best for the franchise.
Carolina won’t be the only team sorting through its priorities over the next five weeks. The wild-card races in both the NFC and AFC are wide open, with 10 teams, including Carolina, within a game of a playoff spot. Some may use the last month of the year to push for that postseason ticket; others have issues that could take precedence over a playoff run. So where do these middle-of-the-pack teams’ priorities lie? Let’s try to figure that out, starting with the team that has the best odds of making the playoffs, according to FiveThiryEight’s prediction model.
Indianapolis Colts: Deciding how much faith to put in Carson Wentz
Playoff odds: 62 percent
The Colts are the only team on this list I feel comfortable calling “good.” Only New England and Buffalo own better point differentials in the AFC, and Indy has already beaten the latter once this year. How the Colts fare against the Patriots in two weeks will tell us a lot about this team’s ceiling.
Carson Wentz is playing far too big a role here for me to fully jump on this team’s bandwagon, but the front office clearly feels differently about its quarterback. Indianapolis already sent a third-round pick to Philadelphia this offseason in the trade for Wentz, and it will have to fork over a first-rounder if he plays 75 percent of the team’s offensive snaps this season—a benchmark the QB is expected to hit next week. In other words, the Colts will almost certainly lose that pick.
Now the question is: How much time and money is this team willing to commit to Wentz beyond 2021? The answer is complicated by the way this team is winning. Wentz is doing a decent job of protecting the football, and he’s made just enough plays to keep the offense rolling when Jonathan Taylor isn’t devouring the souls of opposing defenses. But Frank Reich’s system is very much designed to protect Carson from Carson—something the Eagles couldn’t quite figure out how to do during his last years in Philly. Wentz has avoided the mistakes that typified the end of his Eagles career, but there have been flashes of recklessness, including two brutal interceptions in a Week 8 loss to the Titans that may have cost Indy the AFC South.
With Wentz’s cap hit jumping north of $28 million in 2022, restructuring his deal should be a priority in the offseason. There are no guarantees left on the contract, which runs through 2024, so both parties should be interested in working something out. This next month (and possibly the one after that) could determine how much money the front office is willing to commit to a quarterback that few teams wanted at this time last year.
Philadelphia Eagles: Seeing how Jalen Hurts performs in a more robust offense
Playoff odds: 38 percent
Just two weeks ago, a string of productive starts had many wondering whether the Eagles had found their quarterback of the future in Jalen Hurts. From weeks 8 through 11, Hurts led Philadelphia on a 3-1 tear during which he ranked third in EPA per play, according to RBSDM.com. Then came an ugly 13-7 loss to the Giants, in which Hurst threw three interceptions, and Gardner Minshew’s near-perfect display against the other bad New York team on Sunday. Now we’re starting to ask questions about Hurts’s grip on the starting job.
Coach Nick Sirianni spent the early part of the season calling plays that gave his team the best chance to win—building his offense around the option run game and a passing attack that largely ignored the middle of the field—but it wasn’t the best environment for evaluating Hurts’s long-term prospects as a passer. When Hurts returns from an ankle injury in the next week or so, the Eagles could pick up where they left off and make a run at the postseason. But it might be in their interest to take the training wheels off and see how their young quarterback fares in a more expansive offense—the type of offense he’ll eventually have to play in if Philly does see him as its franchise quarterback. That would likely lead to worse results, but getting a definitive answer on Hurts would be far more valuable than losing a playoff game on Nickelodeon.
Minnesota Vikings: Convincing other teams that Kirk Cousins is worth trading for
Playoff odds: 28 percent
I don’t know whether there’s a better cure for false hope than Jared Goff throwing a walk-off touchdown against you to end a winless streak that dates back to last year. If Vikings fans had any hope left for this season, Sunday’s 29-27 loss to the Lions should have taken care of that. Yes, Minnesota still has a 28 percent chance to make the postseason, per FiveThirtyEight, but according to my They Lost to the Fucking Lions™ model, the season is already over.
Now the front office must ask itself a familiar question: Do we really want to do this again? “This,” of course, means bringing Kirk Cousins (and his $45 million cap hit) back for 2022. The Vikings may not have a say in the matter. All of Cousins’s money is guaranteed next season, and the only way for Minnesota to rid itself of that contract is by convincing some desperate team to trade for him. In all likelihood, the Vikings would still have to pay a large chunk of money to get a deal done. But how much they’d have to pay could be determined by how Cousins plays over the next five weeks. So as cursed as this may be, my advice to Minnesota is: Let. Kirk. Cook.
Cleveland Browns: Evaluating the defensive coaching staff
Playoff odds: 20 percent
Are you ready to have another discussion about Baker Mayfield’s contract? Just kidding, we’re not going to do that here. Mayfield’s deal is obviously the most pressing question facing Cleveland right now, but it’s become clear that this saga won’t be concluded before 2022. With Mayfield dealing with various injuries, the team will be hesitant to hand him a big-money deal in the offseason, which means he’ll likely play on his fifth-year option next season, and that will determine his future. Let’s table any further discussion about this matter until then.
Even if the next month won’t provide answers on the quarterback situation, though, the Browns can use it to evaluate the performance of defensive coordinator Joe Woods, who might be the second-most-scrutinized member of the organization. The front office used significant resources to rebuild the secondary and strengthen the front seven this offseason in hopes of improving a defense that finished 25th in DVOA in 2020. And there has been improvement overall, with the unit currently sitting at 14th. But inconsistency has been an issue. Per Football Outsiders, only three defenses have seen more week-to-week variance. And while the high-end performances have shown what this defense could potentially be under Woods, those have mostly come against flawed opponents. In games against the Chiefs, Chargers, Patriots, and Cardinals, the defense gave up an average of 40.5 points per game. Given the talent on the roster, that has to fall on Woods.
But there’s still time for Woods to prove he’s capable of leading a Super Bowl–caliber unit. The Browns play the Ravens, Bengals, and Packers in the last five weeks of the season. The defense handled Baltimore and Cincinnati well in their first matchups, and repeating those performances—plus putting up a fight against Aaron Rodgers—could save Woods’s job for another year. I’ll let Browns fans decide whether that’s a desirable outcome.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Figuring out what this offense will look like in 2022
Playoff odds: 18 percent
After the Ravens’ failed two-point conversion attempt on Sunday sealed a dramatic 20-19 win for the Steelers, the cameras cut to an emotional Ben Roethlisberger on the sideline. I don’t know if Ben was in his feelings because it could have been his final home game against a fierce divisional rival, or if it was the realization that the Steelers’ season was still alive and he actually had to play more meaningful football. (Kidding, mostly.) But it was hardly a surprise when Adam Schefter reported Saturday that the 39-year-old plans to retire after the 2021 season.
The win over Baltimore will keep Pittsburgh’s faint playoff hopes alive, but now that we’re unofficially at the end of the Roethlisberger era, it’s time for the team to start looking ahead. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada has made plenty of schematic concessions to suit Roethlisberger’s preferred style over the past couple years, but, at some point, the Steelers will need to see how this young core looks in Canada’s real offense—the offense we can expect to see After Ben. Whether the offensive line is equipped to block for Canada’s diverse run game is a question that needs answering. And with JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington headed for free agency in a few months, and Diontae Johnson likely asking for a big extension in the offseason, the front office will have to decide who they want to keep, and who they’ll let walk. I don’t know that we’ll get useful answers to either of those questions if the team insists on using this Ben-approved version of the offense for the rest of the season.
Denver Broncos: Sorting out Vic Fangio’s future
Playoff odds: 17 percent
Once again, the Broncos will be in the market for a quarterback in the offseason. But will they also be in the market for a new coach? The next month will likely determine that, as Vic Fangio’s seat gets hotter with every loss. Given what he’s had to work with at the quarterback position, Fangio probably hasn’t been afforded a real opportunity to win in his first three years in Denver. But the Broncos defense has also regressed this season, and Fangio’s offensive coordinator hirings have been uninspired and unsuccessful. I’m not sure what the coach has added to this team in his 44 games at the helm, and at this point, making the playoffs may be his only chance of sticking around into next season.
New Orleans Saints: Not overreacting to awful injury luck
Playoff odds: 14 percent
Who knew that losing Jameis Winston would have this effect on the Saints’ season? OK, seriously, the team’s ever-growing list of injuries—which is headlined by Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Winston—is the primary culprit behind this second-half nosedive, so New Orleans doesn’t need to overreact to what happens over the last month of this season. It’s not the best year to draft a quarterback, so the Saints don’t need to tank for draft positioning, and they don’t really have the financial means to make any significant changes to the roster. Regardless of how this season finishes, New Orleans will likely run it back in 2022. If that means staying the course and trotting Taysom Hill out there to “play quarterback” for the next month, so be it.
Las Vegas Raiders: Establishing the core of the roster (and thinking about the next coach)
Playoff odds: 9 percent
Before Jon Gruden’s abrupt resignation following the release of years of emails in which he used racist and homophobic language, the Raiders looked like a team capable of making a run in the playoffs. The past month or so has washed away any optimism surrounding this team. But those early-season flashes could be enough to convince owner Mark Davis to stick on a path that had the Raiders sitting at 5-2 before the season’s halfway mark.
The defense still has its holes, but general manager Mike Mayock has solved its long-standing pass rush issue, and he’s only one or two pieces away from building a competent secondary. The offense remains inconsistent under Derek Carr, but recently Carr has shown that with a little more aggression, he can perform like a top-10 quarterback. And there is more than enough offensive talent on the roster to help him do it. Finding a coach who pushes Carr and can continue to build on the strides the defense has taken this year will be the team’s top priority. That won’t happen until the season ends, so this next month should be spent establishing the core players to build around.
Atlanta Falcons: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Playoff odds: 5 percent
The Falcons don’t have any cap space. They have maybe three or four young players worth building around. Matt Ryan’s salary balloons to $48.7 million in 2022, and there aren’t any obvious options to replace him. Basically, I’m saying something that should have already been obvious based on the cursed history of this franchise alone: There is no hope. The fact that this team is still in the playoff race is a minor miracle, and maybe even a worst-case scenario for a front office that is in desperate need of draft capital if it’s going to properly rebuild the roster. The Falcons’ top priority should be losing as many games as they can and improving their draft position … which means they’ll win just enough to miss out on a top-10 pick while still failing to make the playoffs. After all, the Braves just won a World Series a month ago. Atlanta sports fans can’t have too many nice things.