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Eight Questions That Will Shape the NFL Playoff Race

Is Jalen Hurts healthy? Is the Kansas City Chiefs offense a problem? And can anyone hang with the San Francisco 49ers?

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

It’s that time of the year. The calendar has flipped over to December. It’s getting dark before the late-afternoon games kick in. You’ve visited the playoff odds sites often enough that they’re the first suggestion from your browser when you start typing in the address bar. We’ve had to sit through a lot of bad football to get here, but the NFL’s playoff race has officially reached the homestretch.

All of that crappy, disjointed football we endured has left the playoff race jumbled on both sides of the bracket. There are massive fights at the top and bottom of the AFC standings, where three teams could be tied at the top with 9-3 records heading into Week 14. The wild-card race is more organized in the NFC, but San Francisco’s resounding win in Philly reopened the chase for the conference’s top seed. The Eagles remain in the driver’s seat, but their hands (talons?) are slipping off the wheel, with the Cowboys within a game of first place in the division ahead of next Sunday night’s matchup.

There is plenty to sort out between now and the start of the postseason. Let’s try our best to clear up the picture by asking, and attempting to answer, eight questions that will shape the NFL’s playoff race.

1. Is Jalen Hurts healthy enough to carry the Philadelphia Eagles the rest of the way?

Sunday’s lopsided loss to the 49ers won’t derail Philadelphia’s season completely, but injury concerns for quarterback Jalen Hurts could do it if they continue to mount. Hurts briefly left the game to enter the concussion protocol, and while he did return, it’s clear that the Eagles star is far from 100 percent. Hurts has been dealing with a knee contusion since early October, which seems to have limited some of his explosiveness as a runner. But the more concerning effect can be found in the passing game, where Hurts has been a more reluctant scrambler while protecting the knee. That, combined with his tendency to hold on to the ball a bit longer, even when healthy, has put tremendous stress on the offensive line. The Eagles rank 27th in pressure rate allowed, per TruMedia, and many of those pressures have been created by Hurts himself deep into his dropbacks.

Jalen Hurts Pressure Rate by Time to Throw (via TruMedia)

Time to throw Pressure rate Rank
Time to throw Pressure rate Rank
2.0s or less 9.7% 11th
2.5s or less 16.2% 6th
3.0s or less 23.0% 11th
Total 39.7% 27th

Sunday’s game might have been the most extreme example of Hurts holding the ball for far too long. His average time to throw was 3.7 seconds, a season-high number that no doubt contributed to a 61.5 percent pressure rate (also a season high). It was the second week in a row in which Hurts was pressured on at least 50 percent of his dropbacks. He’s been pressured on 51 total dropbacks over the past two weeks, which leads the league, and his average time to throw on those plays is a whopping 4.41 seconds, per TruMedia, indicating that this increasing pressure rate isn’t the fault of Philly’s offensive line. And there were receivers open on some of those longer dropbacks, so we can’t blame it all on the play designs of first-year offensive coordinator Brian Johnson.

If these extended plays were turning into positive gains more often, it wouldn’t be much of an issue, but many of them are turning into ineffective scrambles or throwaways. On Sunday, it was a bit of both. Hurts scrambled four times, with a success rate of 25 percent, and he didn’t pick up a first down on any of them. He also threw away the ball five times, adding to the tally of wasted downs and pushing him up to second in the NFL, with 29 throwaways on the season. Only struggling rookie Bryce Young has more (at 42!), per TruMedia.

Even after a 10-2 start, the Eagles do not have much margin for error. The Cowboys are within a game of first in the division heading into next week’s rematch. If Hurts doesn’t adjust, which could require a healthier knee, that lead will be gone in a week, and the defending NFC champs will start their postseason on the road.

Hurts’s uneven play isn’t Philly’s only concern after Sunday’s beatdown at the hands of the 49ers, but it’s definitely at the top of the list.

2. Is the Kansas City Chiefs defense starting to buckle under the pressure of a “struggling” offense?

Every other Kansas City loss this season has been a referendum on the state of the offense, but we can’t play that game after Sunday’s shocking home loss to Green Bay. The Chiefs scored only 19 points but did it in eight drives. One was a kneel down before the half, and the other was a desperation drive at the end of the game. So on six legitimate drives, Patrick Mahomes led his heavily scrutinized supporting cast to about 3.2 points per drive, which would lead the NFL on the season. This loss falls squarely on the defense.

That’s the first time we’ve been able to say that about Kansas City this season. While both units have been in the top 10 in most efficiency metrics, the Chiefs have been better on the defensive side of the ball. That’s provided cover for an offense that can still score in bunches but hasn’t done it consistently this season. It would always be difficult for the defense to keep up that pace for 20 weeks, and Sunday’s ugly showing against Jordan Love’s Packers may have been the first sign of slippage. It was easily the worst defensive performance of the season for the defending Super Bowl champs. The defense set season-worst marks in total expected points added allowed, EPA allowed per play, and success rate allowed. Green Bay’s offense scored on nearly every possession and was successful in both early- and late-down situations. The Chiefs defense was thoroughly outplayed.

Even after Sunday’s setback, Kansas City ranks near the league’s top in most defensive metrics. This defense is still excellent. But defensive performance is naturally volatile week to week and even more so later in the year, as attrition builds. On Sunday, the Chiefs lost two key contributors in safety Bryan Cook (ankle) and linebacker Drue Tranquill (concussion), which will necessitate major adjustments from defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo ahead of next week’s showdown with the Bills. On top of that, opponents now have more tape of Spagnuolo’s defense. As offenses get a better understanding of his play-calling tendencies, some of his tricks may lose effectiveness.

With Josh Allen up next on the schedule, the defense won’t have to wait long before its latest big test. If we get a repeat of what happened on Sunday night in Green Bay and the offense remains inconsistent, it might be time to panic in Kansas City.

3. Is Jordan Love the best QB in the NFC North?

Imagine asking this question a month ago. The Lions were running away with the division, and Jared Goff was forcing his way into MVP conversations. Meanwhile, Love’s first season as Green Bay’s starter had hit rock bottom, and the inexperienced quarterback had been inaccurate and indecisive. But over the past month, he’s not only been the division’s best quarterback. It hasn’t been particularly close.

NFC North Quarterbacks Since Week 9 (via TruMedia)

Player Dropbacks Total EPA Comp. % Yards/dropback EPA/dropback Success Rate
Player Dropbacks Total EPA Comp. % Yards/dropback EPA/dropback Success Rate
Jordan Love 188 47.7 66.1% 7.1 0.25 48.4%
Jared Goff 147 14 66.4% 7.5 0.10 49.0%
Joshua Dobbs 153 -3.6 66.4% 6.0 -0.02 44.4%
Justin Fields 73 -5.4 71.7% 5.7 -0.07 39.7%

If you widen the scope to include the rest of the league, Love’s recent performance looks even more impressive. Over the past five weeks, he ranks second in EPA per dropback, behind Brock Purdy and Dak Prescott. He’s sixth in yards per dropback, sixth in success rate, and fourth among quarterbacks in PFF grading. And as impressive as the results have been, what Love is putting on tape is even more exciting. He’s executing Matt LaFleur’s offense even better than Aaron Rodgers did a season ago while adding the kind of playmaking flair we never saw from the aging quarterback in 2022. I’m not foolish enough to compare Love’s long-term prospects to those of the Hall of Fame quarterbacks who’ve played in Green Bay. Still, it’s hard not to draw stylistic comparisons when you watch Love throw from creative arm slots and make throws with unorthodox footwork.

That part of Love’s game separates him from a quarterback like Goff, who is thrown off whenever his pocket and throwing platform aren’t kept immaculately clean. That wasn’t a concern early in the season, when Detroit’s offensive line was mauling opponents every week, but the pass protection has regressed over the past month. Goff has been pressured on 38.1 percent of his dropbacks since Week 9. That’s the 11th-highest rate in the league over that time, and things could get worse after center Frank Ragnow left the Lions’ Sunday win in New Orleans with a knee injury. It’s looking like Ragnow avoided a significant injury, but Goff’s batterymate is expected to be sidelined as the team heads into a tricky two-game stretch against an improving Chicago team and a hot Broncos team.

If Detroit drops either of those games, the NFC North race will get awfully interesting down the stretch. The Lions currently lead the division by three games, but Green Bay won’t face another team with a winning record, and Detroit still has a matchup with the Cowboys left on the schedule. Time isn’t on Green Bay’s side, but the schedule–and possibly the QB matchup—favors the Packers.

4. Can any defense stop a healthy San Francisco 49ers offense?

If you can bottle up whatever the Eagles defense did in the first quarter of Sunday’s game, you might have a chance. Philadelphia’s defense swarmed the 49ers early on, destroying the run game and other early-down tricks and putting Purdy into obvious passing situations. San Francisco looked overwhelmed, and the game was moving too fast for its young quarterback. After the opening 15 minutes, the 49ers had managed minus-6 yards.

Things changed, obviously. Whether it was because the Eagles defense lost juice or Kyle Shanahan found the right buttons to press, once it clicked for the 49ers, there was little Philly could do to stop what is arguably the greatest collection of offensive talent this league has ever seen. It feels like it’s a new star every week for the offense, but it was a total team effort during Sunday’s drubbing of the Eagles. I don’t even know where to start? How about with Deebo Samuel, who backed up all of his offseason talk with a dominant performance headlined by this 48-yard catch and run?

Christian McCaffrey chipped in with 93 rushing yards and a score. George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk were both chain movers. And, oh yeah, Purdy threw four touchdowns and averaged more than 11 yards per attempt. And, still, the most impressive offensive performance may have come from left tackle Trent Williams, whose number was called anytime the 49ers needed to pick up a first down on the ground.

There is no limit on what this 49ers offense can do, especially when it’s operating ahead of the chains and Shanahan can dial up his misdirection plays that are predicated on the threat of the run. But Sunday’s game did show the path to slaying San Francisco’s multiheaded monster: If a defense can win big on first down with negative plays, it can negate the play-calling advantages that Shanahan typically provides. Those jet motions, formational shifts, and play-action fakes aren’t nearly as effective when the defense isn’t worried about run fits. The 49ers will still own the personnel advantage in almost every instance, but at least the schematic advantages are reduced. You’re not totally destroying the invading alien ship, but hey, the shields are down now!

Winning the early-down matchup is easier said than done, of course. It requires not only the personnel to win one-on-ones across the field but also a sharp defensive mind. Fortunately for football nerds, San Francisco’s Week 16 opponent, the Baltimore Ravens, checks both of those boxes. (I’m fully expecting the 49ers to steamroll over their next two opponents, the Seahawks and Cardinals.) If Mike MacDonald, the NFL’s best defensive coordinator, doesn’t have the players and tactics to slow down the 49ers, then we might as well hand them the Lombardi Trophy right now.

5. Which AFC division leader has the inside track to the no. 1 seed?

The clusterfuck at the top of the AFC standings just got more clustered and more fucked after Sunday’s slate. Assuming the Jaguars take care of business against Jake Browning’s Bengals on Monday, there are now four teams with at least a 20 percent chance of landing home field advantage throughout the playoffs:

What’s Left for the AFC Division Leaders (Odds via The New York Times)

Team Dolphins Ravens Jaguars Chiefs
Team Dolphins Ravens Jaguars Chiefs
Current record 9-3 9-3 8-3 8-4
Week 14 Titans Rams @ Browns Bills
Week 15 Jets @ Jaguars Ravens @ Patriots
Week 16 Cowboys @ 49ers @ Bucs Raiders
Week 17 @ Ravens Dolphins Panthers Bengals
Week 18 Bills Steelers @ Titans @ Chargers
Chance at 1-seed 28% 25% 24% 22%

Kansas City has the longest odds of earning the top seed, but it has the most favorable schedule. Next week’s game against Buffalo is its last remaining game against a team without a losing record, and the other three teams play one another, with Jags-Ravens set for Week 15 and Ravens-Dolphins coming the week after. As dire as things look for Kansas City, it could end up in a familiar place when the season ends: at the top of the conference and playing at home in January.

6. Is the door still open for the Los Angeles Chargers and Buffalo Bills?

Neither team scored a touchdown on Sunday—Buffalo was on a bye, to be fair—but both were big winners this week. Had the Colts dropped an overtime game in Tennessee, it would have been a perfect weekend for two of 2023’s biggest disappointments, but losses by Denver, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and New York still provide both the Chargers and Bills with a little hope going forward.

Buffalo has the most straightforward path to a postseason berth. The Bills are just a game behind the Browns and Colts for the last spot in the playoff field, and both of those teams are dealing with major concerns at quarterback. Cleveland had to bring Joe Flacco off the couch to boost its injury-plagued QB room, and the Colts have to overcome Gardner Minshew’s reckless play every week. As wonky as the Bills offense has been this season, quarterback play has never been an issue. The schedule, on the other hand, is a major concern. Buffalo is in the middle of a brutal stretch that won’t let up before the playoffs. A home game against the Cowboys follows next week’s trip to Kansas City. That’s followed by what could be an elimination game against the Chargers on the eve of Christmas Eve.

Los Angeles should come into the crucial game on a high. It’ll get a beatable Broncos team at home next week, followed by a road game against the Raiders before the showdown with Buffalo. It’s conceivable, if not likely, that the Chargers will have a better record when the two teams meet in late December. I feel like a sucker talking myself into this team (again), but the underlying numbers, including the conference’s seventh-best point differential, suggest that the Chargers are of playoff caliber. The defense has shown signs of improvement, and Justin Herbert had been playing elite-level football before Sunday’s rain-soaked mess in New England.

Buffalo’s playoff odds sit at 14 percent as I’m writing this, per The New York Times. The Chargers have a 7 percent chance. But those numbers don’t consider that these teams employ Josh Allen and Justin Herbert. More crucially, they don’t consider that Flacco, Minshew, Russell Wilson, and Mitchell Trubisky are the quarterbacks standing in their way of a playoff push. Don’t count the Bills and Chargers out yet.

7. Can Dak Prescott keep this up against the good teams?

Depending on how you feel about Seattle this season, he already has. Prescott kicked down the doors of any MVP debates with another near-perfect performance in a win over the Seahawks on Thursday, continuing the best stretch of play we’ve ever seen from the Cowboys quarterback.

It’s not like we haven’t seen Prescott go on an extended heater before. As much shit as he gets for his team’s failures, he has been one of the NFL’s consistent producers at the quarterback position. But this latest stretch just feels different. It could end at any time because this level of play would be difficult for any quarterback to sustain, but it feels like Prescott has finally put it all together. He’s still as sharp as ever before the snap, when he basically calls the offense from the line of scrimmage, and he’s just not making any mental errors after it. On top of that, we’ve seen the return of Dak’s early-career creativity. Because he’s been a pocket passer throughout his NFL career, it’s easy to forget that he entered the league as a dual threat quarterback after playing for Dan Mullen at Mississippi State. Over the past few months, Prescott has leaned on his mobility instead of forcing passes into tight windows. His interceptions are down, and productive, chain-moving scrambles have replaced them.

Prescott has looked like an MVP outside of the high-profile stinker against San Francisco. The only question about his case is the level of competition he’s faced, but that will change over the next few weeks with games against Philadelphia, Buffalo, Miami, and Detroit left on the schedule. It’s a tough slate for Dallas as a whole, but from a quarterback’s perspective, at least, it’s not the most daunting test. All of these teams have mediocre pass defenses by EPA and success rate, so the Cowboys should be able to move the ball through the air in these games.

So to answer the question: Yes, Prescott should be able to keep this up against the good teams, but we’ll have to wait for January to see him against the only defense that has been able to slow him down these past few months.

8. Is the New York Jets’ Aaron Rodgers dream already over?

Rodgers returned to Jets practice this week, triggering a 21-day window for his possible return from what many assumed was a season-ending Achilles injury. But the veteran QB has said that he’d return this season only if New York’s playoff hopes were still alive, and after Sunday’s dreadful 13-8 loss to the Falcons, those hopes are now on life support. Per The New York Times, the Jets have a 1 percent chance of making the playoffs, and that number will drop down to a big fat 0 if they lose either of their next two games against the Texans and Dolphins. In other words, that sucker is dropping down to a big fat 0 very soon. In the meantime, Rodgers will get an extra week to pretend that a return in 2023 is possible, but let’s face it: The Jets were done as soon as they decided on starting Tim Boyle two weeks ago.