This is the Hot Read. In this column, you’ll find everything and anything I found interesting from Sunday’s NFL action. There’s the stuff that everyone’s talking about, and the stuff that nobody’s talking about; the stuff that makes football incredible, and the stuff that makes football fun. I hope you enjoy it and learn something cool—and if you do, I hope you’re back next week, when we do it all again.
The Big Thing: The Buffalo Bills Are Back
A lot happened in the NFL on Sunday. If there’s one thing you need to know, it’s this.
The Bills have a 69 percent chance to make the playoffs.
That’s right. The Bills, who even after the Aaron Rodgers injury lost to the Jets in Week 1 because Josh Allen threw three picks. The Bills, who barely survived the Tyrod Taylor Giants in Week 6, only to lose to the Mac Jones Patriots (yes, the Mac Jones Patriots) one week later. The Bills, who fired offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey after consecutive prime-time losses that stuck them at 5-5. The Bills, who have lost Matt Milano and Tre’Davious White for the rest of the season and DaQuan Jones for the foreseeable future. The Bills, who recently had to address comments made by head coach Sean McDermott during the 2019 season about the organization and effectiveness of the 9/11 terrorists.
Those Bills. They’re probably gonna make the playoffs. And after what we just saw on Sunday, are you gonna bet against them when they’re there?
Let’s talk about Sunday. The Bills beat the Cowboys 31-10; at halftime, they were up 21-3. It was a consummate shellacking of one of the NFL’s hottest teams—but the fact that the Bills beat the Cowboys is actually far less remarkable than how the Bills beat the Cowboys. They ran the dang ball. They pounded the daggum rock.
Buffalo ended the day with 19 total dropbacks on 65 snaps—a dropback rate of 29 percent, the lowest in any game of Josh Allen’s entire career. By run rate over expectation, which adjusts for game script, as well as down and distance, this was the highest run rate over expectation for the Bills in the last three years.
James Cook set career-highs in carries (25), rushing yards (179), RYOE (+74) & success rate (64.0%) in the Bills' 31-10 victory over the Cowboys.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 18, 2023
The Bills recorded their highest run rate over expected (+17.0%) in a game over the last three seasons.#DALvsBUF | #BillsMafia pic.twitter.com/U6tswlQIpj
There are a few reasons why the Bills were capable of deploying such a run-heavy game plan. The first is James Cook. The Bills have been trying to find a young go-to back for years now, failing to find such in Devin Singletary and Zack Moss. In Cook, they seem to have finally found what they’ve long sought: a three-down player who can both churn out yards between the tackles and also run and catch on a full route tree. It’s a rare thing to have, but the Bills have it. Cook is now third in the league in scrimmage yards at 1,401. He’s on pace for over 1,000 rushing yards and over 500 receiving yards, which would make him the first player under 25 to have such a season since three players did it in 2019: Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette, and Cook’s brother, Dalvin.
How many backs do you know that run corner routes out of the backfield?
Cook’s talent as a pass catcher speaks for itself—the success of the Bills’ rushing game, however, is a collective effort.
Buffalo really started investing in their handoff game—remember, all of this data is about the designed running game, not Josh Allen scrambles—at the start of the 2022 season, when Dorsey took over as offensive coordinator following the departure of Brian Daboll. The Bills hired Rams offensive line coach and run game coordinator Aaron Kromer for the offensive line job on their staff, and an accompanying jump in run game efficiency followed.
The Bills offensive line, often the culprit of disappointing losses in years past, is now the best Allen has played with. The starting unit hasn’t missed any time—they’ve played together for 867 of a possible 894 snaps. Left tackle Dion Dawkins is playing the best ball of his career; center Mitch Morse, who seemed last season like Father Time was coming for him, is enjoying a quiet resurgence; right tackle Spencer Brown, who needed to take a leap, has.
Are Brown and rookie right guard O’Cyrus Torrence perfect? By no stretch. But they aren’t enormous liabilities, and both can really move people in the running game. Just ask the Cowboys defensive line.
And of course, that’s the last consideration: Johnathan Hankins was out today for the Cowboys. Hankins isn’t a big name on a defense featuring Micah Parsons and DaRon Bland, but he’s a linchpin for Dan Quinn’s scheme. The Cowboys defensive line is built for speed and explosiveness—the other starting DT for the Cowboys, Osa Odighizuwa, is all of 280 pounds. They need the space-gobbling capacity of Hankins to survive against the run—especially with thumping linebacker Leighton Vander Esch out for the season. Rookie DT Mazi Smith is, theoretically, a Hankins replacement—but he has struggled in his debut season.
So the Cowboys had no answer for the running game—but that doesn’t change how impressed I am that Joe Brady and the Buffalo offense committed to it. The Bills are at 7-6, with the season functionally in the balance every week, and it’s very hard to take the ball out of Josh Allen’s hands. You want to let your star players carry you to the promised land. To see the favorable matchup and run the ball at a rate you hadn’t hit in ages requires a lot of faith in an offense that has been … mercurial. Kudos to them for sticking to their plan and executing it.
This dominant rushing performance from Buffalo, with their defensive performance considered (three meaningful points allowed to Dak Prescott and the Cowboys?), and the ever-present threat of Allen going thermonuclear? From my vantage point, the Bills look like a complete team for the first time all season. They’ve endured injuries and coaching changes and heartbreak and drama and somehow come out the other end looking like that which they were supposed to be all season: an AFC contender.
The hay isn’t in the barn. They have to stay perfect down the stretch in games against the Chargers, the Patriots, and the division-leading Dolphins to end the season. They could use some help in the wild-card race, as the field is crowded with 8-6 teams: the Texans, the Colts, the Bengals, and the Jaguars. But ask any AFC contender who they don’t want to play come January, and I promise you: The Bills are high on that list.
The Little Things
It’s the little things in football that matter the most—zany plays, small victories, and some laughs. Here’s where you can find them.
THE ACTUAL DARNELL MOONEY MISTAKE
Here is the terrible Darnell Mooney play that everyone saw.
That stinks. Would have been an incredible highlight.
But here is the terrible Darnell Mooney play—far more pedestrian a play, far earlier in the fourth quarter—that really matters to me. Mooney is going to be at the top of the screen, responsible for sealing off the cornerback to give Justin Fields a clean alley to run the naked bootleg. Watch the effort.
This is why the Bears keep losing games. According to Next Gen Stats, the Bears have three losses this season in which they had at least an 85 percent win probability: the Browns on Sunday, the Lions in Week 11, and the Broncos in Week 4. These are games in which Fields has, across the board, played well, games in which the defense, for stretches, has looked impressive. The culture-building wins that head coach Matt Eberflus needs to show progress and hold on to the job.
But instead, there are little execution errors in key moments. A lazy block on fourth-and-1 that becomes a turnover on downs in field goal range in a game that eventually is decided by three points. Chase Claypool was sent out of Chicago for this sort of behavior, yet it remains.
And of course, the drops still hurt, too. Here’s another one—this one from Robert Tonyan.
THE KIRK COUSINS PLAYBOOK
Jake Browning has seen the commercial value of Kirk Cousins’s infamous “You like that?!” outburst, and he would like a piece of that action.
I can see the merchandise now. Put the quote on children’s safety scissors or those little plastic sheaths for kitchen knives. Get Browning on a commercial for cable television and let him voice act for Comcast cable, speaking to a beleaguered streamer suffering from buffering. The possibilities here are endless (and include, should Browning keep playing like this, an actual Kirk Cousins–like career arc for this weirdly good backup QB).
THE ATTENDANCE of the Panthers-Falcons game
If you are one of the 5,200 fans who sat in Bank of America Stadium in multiple inches of rain with wind gusts over 30 miles per hour to watch the hometown Panthers win their second game of the season despite not scoring a single touchdown, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d like to hear the story of your experience and also make sure you didn’t catch a cold.
A stadium worker just told me 5,200 https://t.co/okVKbHuaPu— Carolina Blitz (@KeepBlitzin) December 17, 2023
GOOFY red zone plays
There is something to be said for the Chiefs, who have suffered some of the worst breaks with skill position players this season, continuing to come up with red zone designs at the optimal intersection of goofy and effective.
The Chiefs’ first score in their 27-17 win over the Patriots today came via direct snap to RB Jerick McKinnon (with QB Patrick Mahomes beside him in a 3-point stance), who flipped it to WR Rashee Rice on the shovel.
In the earlier days of Mahomes’s career, when the Chiefs were a total wood chipper on offense, Andy Reid’s incessant red zone chicanery was a novelty at best and a detrimental indulgence at worst. This season, when the Chiefs’ red zone trips are less frequent, and their list of true one-on-one winners is perilously short? It’s actually helpful that Reid can design, install, and execute these little plays to ensure trips end with seven, not three.
Kansas City is ninth this season in touchdown rate on goal-to-go drives, and plays like that one are a big reason why.
Brock Purdy’s Zag: Christian McCaffrey for MVP
I tend to be a little contrarian. It’s not so much a personal choice as it is an occupational hazard. Here’s where I’ll plant my flag … but this week, I’m letting Brock Purdy plant his flag, after comments he made postgame about the MVP race.
The MVP race hasn’t had a clear favorite all year—until this week. Finally, a front-runner has emerged: 49ers QB Brock Purdy is currently -200 to win the award on FanDuel, which implies a 67 percent chance Purdy will win the league MVP.
It makes sense. While Purdy and the 49ers dropped 45 on the Cardinals on Sunday (with Purdy completing 16 of 25 passes for 242 yards and four touchdowns), his competition for the award floundered. Dak Prescott lost a bad game to the Bills, and Josh Allen didn’t even throw for 100 yards in Buffalo’s run-heavy victory. Lamar Jackson, in a distant second place at +450, powered a big Ravens win against another AFC contender on Sunday Night Football but must play even bigger against the 49ers next Monday night to challenge Purdy’s lead in the race.
Now, while the market is sure that Purdy is the MVP, Purdy himself isn’t so sure. In his words:
“I think Christian should be MVP” - Brock Purdy. I asked Purdy to make a case for Christian McCaffrey, his answer on that plus Purdy’s thoughts on his own candidacy. pic.twitter.com/RajTiGtzzy— Omar Ruiz (@OmarDRuiz) December 18, 2023
Of course, Purdy was explicitly asked to make the case for McCaffrey as MVP—this wasn’t an unsolicited endorsement. But the case isn’t hard to make. McCaffrey has 1,801 scrimmage yards on the season; Tyreek Hill, who is second with 1,557 yards, is quite a ways back. After his three-touchdown performance against the Cardinals, McCaffrey is tied with Dolphins RB Raheem Mostert for the league lead in touchdowns, with 20.
Since McCaffrey joined the 49ers, they’ve been entirely unstoppable. Over the past two years, with McCaffrey on the field, the 49ers’ success rate (49.3 percent) and EPA per play (0.17) both rank comfortably first among all offenses. For perspective: The best offense by success rate over the past 10 years is the 2021 Chiefs, who were at 49.3 percent; by EPA per play, the 2018 Chiefs, at 0.20. Since the 49ers got McCaffrey, they’ve been playing to the standard of the best offensive football we’ve seen over the past decade.
Of course, you can make the same argument for Purdy, who became the 49ers’ starting quarterback seven weeks after McCaffrey joined the team. With Purdy on the field: 48.5 percent success rate, 0.15 EPA per dropback. Just a hair below the McCaffrey numbers.
That’s the uncomfortable reality of the 49ers offense—why it’s hard to figure out exactly who the most valuable player on the team is. Just last week in this column, we showed how integral Deebo Samuel has been to the offense this season; on any given down of 49ers football, some star player is making a star play.
So Purdy says it should be McCaffrey—of course he does. He’s being a good teammate. When Deebo was asked two weeks ago, he said it should be Brock. It’s easy to pass credit to others when everyone is eating, and it’s good for the culture. So Brock isn’t really zagging—though he isn’t wrong to say McCaffrey has a deserving case.
And that’s the real issue. On a team that has multiple stars contributing high-caliber play, it is really hard to award the league MVP to any one player. Purdy is an enormous favorite because he is the quarterback of this team, and accordingly, much of the production runs through him. But the idea that Purdy should get it because his stats are so good floats the intention of the award and diminishes the contribution of Purdy’s skill players, who make up the absolute, inarguable best supporting cast of offensive teammates in the league.
So we should take Purdy’s play in a vacuum, separate it from his cast, and measure it against the rest of the league—but that’s easier said than done. The only real way is to watch a lot of film—of Purdy and all the other top quarterbacks in the league—but that’s a subjective process. I did an episode of The Play Sheet on Purdy this past week, talking about his film and what it shows about his contributions, and 49ers fans really didn’t like it or think it was fair.
If Purdy wins it, it will be well earned: He’s doing exactly what he’s asked to do and producing wild numbers by doing so. If McCaffrey wins it, it will be well earned: He’s doing exactly what he’s asked to do and producing wild numbers by doing so. If it were my award to give, I’d give it to McCaffrey over Purdy—and apparently, Purdy would too.
(Mostly Real) Awards
I’ll hand out some awards. Most of them will be real. Some of them won’t be.
The Most Baker Mayfield Season of All Time Award: Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Baker Mayfield
You know how the whole infrastructure of fairy existence in Peter Pan is conditional on people’s belief in them? Baker Mayfield is the exact opposite: His talent is inversely related to how much people believe in him.
Entering this season, Mayfield’s reputation had never been lower. Released last season by the Panthers, picked up off waivers by the Rams, left on the free agent market to join the Buccaneers on a roster still recovering from the Tom Brady–induced Super Bowl push. Mayfield’s arc screamed “bridge quarterback”—yet here we are, enjoying the best Baker Mayfield season since the 2020 Browns run. Even this game was like a mini Mayfield arc. He’d take a terrible sack on first-and-10, then rip a key throw on second-and-20, and suddenly, the Bucs dropped 34 points for a big win in Green Bay.
My goodness.— NFL on CBS (@NFLonCBS) December 17, 2023
Baker Mayfield becomes the first visiting QB EVER with a PERFECT Passer Rating (158.3) at Lambeau Field.
*min. 5 attempts pic.twitter.com/HbFcWXolIl
At 7-7, the Bucs are in control of their destiny in the NFC South—a Week 17 game against the Saints could very well decide the division. If Mayfield lands the plane, he’ll likely be the starting quarterback of the Buccaneers again in 2024 … at which point people will believe in him … and with the vanishing of his haters, his powers will diminish … and the cycle will begin anew.
Coach of the Year (of the Week): Houston Texans HC DeMeco Ryans
The Jaguars, Texans, and Colts are all 8-6 in the AFC South. The Jaguars aren’t too much of a surprise, but the Texans and Colts certainly are. In my book, the Coach of the Year race comes down to those two first-year coaches: Shane Steichen in Indianapolis and Ryans in Houston. And they play each other in Week 18—how lucky are we?
For this week alone, though, I do want to highlight the win the Texans pulled off. After an embarrassing loss to the Jets that saw Nico Collins and C.J. Stroud join Tank Dell in the injury tent, it felt like the Texans’ luck broke and their season was lost. Houston traveled to Tennessee to face a Titans team that had just upset the Dolphins, and the Texans didn’t have their QB1, WR1, WR2, and LG, plus they lost their RT during the game. Entering the contest, they made the call to start Case Keenum over presumed QB2 Davis Mills.
It was far from a pretty win, but they gritted it out, climbing up from a 13-0 hole that would have shaken most young and inexperienced teams. Ryans’s defense totaled seven sacks and 12 TFLs on the day; Derrick Henry now has a claim to the worst offensive game ever:
Derrick Henry is the first player in NFL history to have at least 20 touches in a game and produce less than 15 yards from scrimmage.— Ryan McDowell (@RyanMc23) December 17, 2023
Enormous, season-saving win for the Texans. If they get Stroud out of concussion protocol and back for next week, they’re still squarely in the AFC wild-card race.
Everyone’s Favorite QB2 Award: Washington Commanders QB Jacoby Brissett
Do you know how many times I’ve hollered/written/muttered, “You’re telling me that Jacoby Brissett couldn’t come into this offense and …” this season? Dozens. Every time a Jets quarterback had an atrocious day, I bemoaned the fact that they didn’t trade for Brissett, wallowing away on the Commanders bench. Every Desmond Ridder game-losing pick in Atlanta; those first Tommy DeVito games when he was real rough; before the Browns discovered Joe Flacco. Where was Brissett?!
Still on Washington’s bench.
The Commanders have largely had a lame-duck season and were right to give Sam Howell plenty of slack to grow as a potential franchise quarterback—it was the best long-term move for the franchise, even if Howell hasn’t panned out as a starter.
But it sure was nice to see Brissett take command of the offense in garbage time and put up 124 yards and two touchdowns on a mere 10 attempts. Brissett remains the man at QB2.
Offensive Rookie of the Year (of the Week): Detroit Lions TE Sam LaPorta
LaPorta isn’t actually going to win this award—not with Stroud putting up the numbers that he has; with Jahmyr Gibbs and Puka Nacua and Rashee Rice putting up the numbers they have. But on the simple scale of “How impressed am I when I watch this rookie?” I think LaPorta is right up there with Stroud, Gibbs, Nacua, and Rice.
It is wicked hard to produce as a rookie tight end, but LaPorta looks like a veteran out there with his feel, hands, and versatility. He’s legit quick, too—a nightmare to cover or find in the open field, as he showed during his three-TD performance on Saturday night. LaPorta’s on pace for over 900 receiving yards, which has been done only once by a rookie TE in the Super Bowl era: Kyle Pitts.