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One Big Question Facing Each Super Bowl Contender

It was a weird week for the NFL’s upper crust of teams, filled with close wins against inferior competition and a historic comeback needed just to beat the Colts. So here are questions facing each of the top seven teams—the answers could determine how far those teams go this season.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Despite the final results, this was hardly a banner week for the NFL’s top Super Bowl contenders. Six of the seven teams that own at least a 5 percent chance to win it all came out victorious over inferior competition in Week 15, but only San Francisco and Cincinnati could cover their pregame spread. The Bengals were the only team in the group to win by more than one score, and even they had to erase a 17-0 deficit to do it. Meanwhile, the Chiefs needed overtime to beat the Texans. The Eagles had to gut out a close win against a Bears team with little to play for. The Bills trailed in the fourth quarter before rallying to beat the Dolphins. The Cowboys blew a double-digit lead to the Jaguars. And the Vikings needed a historic rally just to beat the Colts.

While the weekend’s results helped to separate the true contenders from the rest of the crowd (see you next season, Baltimore), the race for the Lombardi Trophy looks more wide open than ever. As we head down the homestretch of the regular season, let’s check in on the NFL’s upper crust and tackle one big question facing the teams capable of winning the Super Bowl.

Philadelphia Eagles: What happens when the talent gap closes?

“They ain’t played nobody” is a phrase that’s typically reserved for unproven college football teams, but this year, it applies to the NFL’s best squad. The Eagles moved to 13-1 on Sunday with a hardly convincing 25-20 win over the Bears. It was their 10th win against a team with a .500 or worse record, and while Philadelphia has also gone 3-0 against teams with winning records, those came against the likes of Cooper Rush, Daniel Jones, and Kirk Cousins (back in September). Philadelphia is a legit team that’s mowing down anyone put in front of it, but it’s fair to say it hasn’t been tested like the other teams on this list.

The Eagles got an unexpected test on Sunday against the Bears, mostly because Jalen Hurts had a rare bad day. Hurts was inaccurate on 16.2 percent of his throws, a season high, according to TruMedia, and he threw multiple interceptions for the first time all year. Hurts was indecisive in the pocket, reckless outside of it, and for only the fourth time this season, he finished with a negative EPA per dropback.

Jalen Hurts’s Worst Games of 2022

Week Result Opp. Dropbacks Yd/Dropback Comp% Off-Tgt Throw% EPA/DB Success % Runs
Week Result Opp. Dropbacks Yd/Dropback Comp% Off-Tgt Throw% EPA/DB Success % Runs
4 W 29 - 21 JAX 30 7.0 64.0% 4.0% -0.310 43.3% 16
10 L 21 - 32 WAS 28 6.1 65.4% 11.5% -0.300 39.3% 6
11 W 17 - 16 IND 30 6.7 72.0% 4.0% -0.320 43.3% 16
15 W 25 - 20 CHI 42 7.8 59.5% 16.2% -0.150 38.1% 17
Stats via TrueMedia

Despite his issues in the passing game, Hurts still racked up over 370 yards of total offense and scored three touchdowns on the ground, including two goal-line sneaks. Struggling to separate from a mediocre Chicago team, coach Nick Sirianni played the hits. He used Hurts as a runner, and didn’t ask too much of him in the passing game. That meant spamming slants and go balls to his two star wideouts, A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith. The duo combined for 307 of Philadelphia’s 315 receiving yards, and 75 percent of that production came on those two route concepts. The bulk of the remaining offensive production was generated by Hurts’s legs.

The Eagles haven’t trailed much this season, but when they have, the reaction has been to simplify things, as they did on a windy day in Chicago. Get Hurts on the move. Trust Brown and Smith to win 50-50 balls downfield. And it works! But that kind of shift can happen only when you have a massive talent advantage. What happens when that’s not the case? What happens when they play a defense capable of containing Hurts in the pocket, and competing with the two star wideouts on the perimeter?

The Eagles haven’t had a real opportunity to answer that question yet. Their first crack at doing so will come next week, when they go for a season sweep of Dallas.

Buffalo Bills: Is the defense talented enough?

There’s been a fair amount of hand-wringing over the Bills offense and first-year coordinator Ken Dorsey this season—mostly due to his personnel usage and over-reliance on Josh Allen’s playmaking brilliance—but the rookie play-caller is far from a problem. It’s been harder to appreciate, with Allen embracing his chaotic side a bit more often over the past month, but Dorsey has done an impressive job of working around a bad interior offensive line that makes it difficult to call runs or dropback passes. The receiving corps has been a disappointment, as well, with youngsters Isaiah McKenzie and Gabriel Davis not taking expected steps forward. But even with all those issues, the Bills are still averaging 27.5 points a game, and they rank third in both EPA and success rate. The offense certainly has some things to figure out, but these are first-world problems that 90 percent of the league would love to have.

Teams around the league might not be so jealous of the defense, however. It’s not that the defense is bad. It came into the week ranked fourth in the league in DVOA. But Saturday night’s matchup against the Dolphins shined a light on the unit’s biggest issue: It doesn’t have cornerbacks it can trust to get a stop in man coverage. The hope was that Tre’Davious White’s return from injury in Week 12 would solve that issue, but the undersized corner has had a rough go of things. The Miami game was especially ugly, with White getting beaten for several big plays, including this Tyreek Hill touchdown against press man coverage.

Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier are dialing up a lot of zone coverage. That might work against the Zach Wilsons and Mac Joneses of the world, but the top quarterbacks and play-callers have had no problem finding holes against a banged-up secondary. The Bills have tried to play man in obvious passing downs—it just hasn’t worked. They rank 25th in success rate allowed when playing man coverage on third downs and have yet to intercept a pass playing man on any down, according to TruMedia.

With injuries to Von Miller and Micah Hyde, Buffalo’s defense has already lost two of its major playmakers on that side of the ball. If White can’t get back to an All-Pro level, the unit lacks star talent capable of changing a game with one play. That’s something a defense needs if it’s going to take a bend-but-don’t-break approach, which is really the only option the Bills have at this point.


Kansas City Chiefs: Is their defense tough enough?

The Chiefs notched the ugliest win of any contender this week, needing overtime to put away a one-win Texans team that held the lead going into halftime. But don’t be fooled by the final score. Kansas City dominated this game from start to finish—it just made a handful of poorly timed mistakes and had those exacerbated by questionable calls from referee Carl Cheffers.

Outside of those penalties and mistakes, Kansas City looked like the best team in the NFL. Patrick Mahomes certainly looked like the league’s best (and most valuable) player: He completed 36 of 41 passes for 336 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He added a third score on the ground to finish with a QBR of 92.3. That led the NFL for the week, according to ESPN. At one point, he completed 19 passes in a row:

The run game was also operating efficiently. Isiah Pacheco shook off an early fumble and finished with 97 yards of total offense. Backup Jerick McKinnon put up 122 yards from scrimmage, including the game-winning touchdown run in overtime.

The defense showed up, as well. Houston averaged just 3.8 yards per play on Sunday and all of its scoring drives were set up by Kansas City turnovers or third-down penalties that extended drives. And it was the defense, not Mahomes, that put the game away—Frank Clark stripped a scrambling Davis Mills from behind to give the offense a short field for the game-winning score.

The concern with this Chiefs team remains the same, however. It’s not a particularly tough team, especially on defense, and tackling opposing ball carriers has been an issue for two years running. Kansas City currently ranks 24th in Pro Football Focus’s tackling metric, and while that isn’t going to cost it a win against a team like Houston, it will in bigger games against better opponents. It’s already happened in marquee losses to Buffalo and Cincinnati earlier this season, the two biggest threats in the conference. And even on Sunday, Houston averaged 2.5 yards after contact on run plays, and Chiefs defenders missed several opportunities for tackles behind the line of scrimmage or short of the sticks. If that issue doesn’t get squared away over the next month, it could end Kansas City’s season.

Cincinnati Bengals: Does the offense need more downfield passing?

Football games are a lot easier to win when the opposing team is just giving away short fields. After falling behind 17-0 in the first half, Cincinnati took advantage of four consecutive Bucs turnovers in their own territory to score 34 straight points. That win propelled the defending conference champs to the top of the AFC North standings for the first time all season, and pulled them within a game of Buffalo and Kansas City in the race for home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Joe Burrow also kept himself in the MVP race with a four-touchdown game, but the third-year pro has enjoyed much better outings this season. He averaged fewer than 5 yards per dropback and didn’t complete a single pass of more than 15 air yards. If it weren’t for the Buccaneers offense forgetting how to play football in the second half, that might have been a bigger talking point on Monday, but the team’s sixth consecutive win covered up for the fact that this Bengals offense struggled in a lot of the same ways it had early in the season. The run game disappeared for the first time in months, as Tampa Bay contained the shotgun RPO concepts that have served Zac Taylor so well of late. Bengals running backs finished the game with 45 yards on 18 attempts, losing the offense 4.8 expected points on those plays, according to RBSDM.com.

We’ll give the run game another week before we declare this a team emergency, but if it doesn’t rebound, then the lack of big plays in the pass game becomes an even bigger concern. Burrow now ranks 28th in the league in average depth of target. He’s opting for quicker, shorter throws in order to avoid sacks, and he’s been more than good enough to keep the offense afloat with that conservative approach. But it’s harder to string together long drives that way, especially without the help of a consistent, productive run game.

Cincinnati’s offense remains one of the NFL’s top units, and the season-long results are improved from a year ago, when it made a Super Bowl run—but we’ve seen this unit slow down when the run game isn’t humming along and Burrow is forced to do it all himself. The formula worked in 2021, but with injuries piling up on the other side of the ball, it’s going to be hard to recreate a similar recipe against what figures to be a loaded AFC playoff field.


Dallas Cowboys: Has the defense been figured out?

The NFL regular season is long. Injuries pile up. Opponents get more film on you. And bad breaks are bound to happen. That’s what makes it so hard to bank on an elite defense remaining elite all season, as the Cowboys are finding out. Before a 40-34 overtime loss in Jacksonville on Sunday, Dallas had been on a four-game winning streak that may have covered up the fact that its defense—which was so dominant early in the season—is starting to slip. The Texans and Colts were unable to capitalize in recent weeks but kept things close up until the final quarter, which should have raised some red flags. Now those flags have been firmly planted in the ground after the Jaguars hung 40 on Dallas despite turning the ball over twice in enemy territory.

Jacksonville got back into the game after falling behind 14-0 thanks to shrewd play-calling from Doug Pederson. The former Eagles head coach borrowed the same approach his old team used earlier this season to slow down a terrifying Cowboys pass rush featuring Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence. That meant a heavy dosage of screen passes, RPOs, and receiver runs that took the teeth out the Dallas rush and forced Parsons and Lawrence to think twice before pursuing the passer. And when Trevor Lawrence did drop back to pass, he got the ball out of his hands well before the rush could get home:

There now seems to be a book out on Dan Quinn’s defense: Get rid of the ball quickly, avoid game-changing plays by Parsons and Co., and find mismatches in the secondary. Those mismatches have also come because Dallas has been hit hard with injuries. We’ve seen corners Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis land on injured reserve recently. Safety Jayron Kearse has been banged up, and now linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who was enjoying a resurgent season, will miss time with a neck injury suffered in the loss to Jacksonville. The pass rush will also be down a key contributor after Dorance Armstrong, who was closing in on a 10-sack season, left Sunday’s game with a knee injury.

Dak Prescott and the offense are good enough to keep things afloat while the rest of the team gets healthy, but if the Cowboys are going to compete for a Super Bowl, the defense needs to regain its early season form—in a hurry.

San Francisco 49ers: Does Brock Purdy’s effectiveness have an expiration date?

Everything else is in place. The offense has an endless supply of weapons. The defense is loaded at all three levels with a dominant pass rush, a swarming linebacker corps, and a physical, playmaking secondary. In Kyle Shanahan and DeMeco Ryans, the 49ers arguably have the best play-calling duo in the league. If the quarterback position wasn’t so important, San Francisco would be the runaway favorite to win the Super Bowl.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and this loaded team’s championship hopes rest on the shoulders of Brock Purdy. Through two starts, that doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. Purdy has executed Shanahan’s QB-friendly scheme efficiently and he’s even added a playmaking element the offense had lacked with Jimmy Garoppolo under center. But, so far, we’ve only really seen the good version of Purdy, and there’s another side lurking—the reckless Purdy we saw at Iowa State who’s a little too confident in his physical ability. While he’s thrown only one interception during this recent three-game stretch, the rookie quarterback has been dinged with four “turnover-worthy plays” by PFF. And if he had enough dropbacks to qualify for the statistical charts, his 4.5-percent turnover-worthy play rate would rank fourth-worst in the NFL, behind only Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, and Taylor Heinicke. Eventually, his luck will turn, and he’ll get punished for a few more of those mistakes.

We’ve seen the ceiling for this 49ers offense with Purdy at the helm. We still haven’t seen the floor. And until we do, it’s hard to predict how far this team can go with a seventh-rounder starting at quarterback.

Minnesota Vikings: Are they actually good?

Pulling off the greatest comeback in NFL history is certainly an admirable accomplishment, and it’s more proof of this Minnesota team’s resilience. But the historic feat was possible only because the Vikings allowed a Jeff Saturday–coached Colts group to build a 33-0 lead. And as enjoyable as the comeback was, it’s only going to create more questions about the legitimacy of this Vikings team.

The 39-36 overtime win was the 10th one-possession victory of Minnesota’s season. Performance in close games is notoriously flukey and not very predictive, suggesting that, in an alternate reality, this same Vikings team could be headed for a top-10 pick in the draft rather than a home playoff game. Minnesota ranks outside of the top 20 in overall DVOA, according to Football Outsiders. The offense ranks 14th in EPA; the defense ranks 17th. The Vikings have outscored their opponents by a measly two points, giving them the NFL’s 12th-best point differential. All of the numbers suggest this team is little more than a fringe wild-card group, and the film backs up that theory. I’m sure Vikings fans don’t mind their team being a statistical anomaly as long as the wins keep coming, but we don’t have to pretend this team is capable of winning a Super Bowl.