5 Things I care about
The Chargers get their guys back
The Chargers offense looked to be at its best functionality in their Week 14 win over the Dolphins, better than it has in months. No surprise, as this was the first game all season that Mike Williams and Keenan Allen started and finished together all season.
Few offenses can just have their top two receivers miss massive portions of the season — especially guys as good as Allen and Williams — and just survive. With their playmakers back in the fold, we can see the plan for the Los Angeles offense more clearly.
And that offense is not an easy operation. It's a complex system with a lot of terminologies that asks a lot of the quarterback. Justin Herbert has been up to the task all season. His teammates see the special qualities in Herbert that may one day launch him into the ranks of the elite passers of this league. Austin Ekeler discussed that with me during the most recent episode of Ekeler's Edge:
Think you saw tonight why Justin Herbert's teammates just love playing with him. I asked @AustinEkeler on the show this week to tell us why he still thinks Herbert has shown he's special despite the frustrations of this season. pic.twitter.com/Oh4198yk5v— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) December 12, 2022
Herbert has all the qualities and traits to be one of THE guys. His resume hasn’t gotten there just yet this season because he’s had to play with a bunch of reserve players on offense. The same thing would happen if any other high-level offense like the one LA runs suffered top receiver losses. But anyone watching the Chargers this year could see Herbert is capable of having games like the one he just had against Miami on a regular basis when the surrounding talent is there.
Herbert’s ability off-script and out of the pocket was on plain display on Sunday Night Football. He’s been trying to break the boundaries of the system when needed, all year. The difference tonight was that he had Williams on the end of those off-script deep shots. The finishing note was there.
Those plays are what the best passers in the game deliver in big games. Herbert passed that test with flying colors in Week 14.
To anyone watching film of this offense in 2022, that’s not a revelation. Herbert offering highlight reel moments on high-degree of difficulty plays are the norm. The twist, if you will, based on how the rest of the season has played out for the Chargers, is that the guys around Herbert held up their end of the bargain this time.
We can evaluate players on an individual level; that's so important. No one knows and believes that more than I do. However, for the bottom-line results to come through, football is still a team game. With Herbert's guys around him in Week 14, he produced the type of results he's always been talented enough to create.
The Panthers identity
The Panthers team we’ve seen the last month does not look like an operation that fired its head coach in the middle of the year, shipped off its best player for draft picks and both benched and cut their Week 1 starting quarterback.
And yet, in conjunction with and perhaps because of at least two of those moves, the Carolina Panthers are 3-1 over their last four games and a single contest out of winning the NFC South.
The Panthers are far from a flawless team. I don’t know what the future holds for Steve Wilks as a possible head coach beyond this year. One thing is for sure: He has these players buying into an identity.
When the Panthers win, they get a lead on defense and pound teams with the run game. Carolina handed the ball to a running back on a whopping 39 plays against the Seahawks. If you watched the Week 1 Panthers and I told you they’d become a bully-ball team this year, you’d never buy it.
I’ll tell you this much, I’d rather see if the Panthers can successfully pull off an upset with this approach in a single-game playoff atmosphere than whatever the Bucs are doing right now.
Brock Purdy’s debut
We know that Kyle Shanahan can get the best out of backup quarterbacks. We’ve seen this story before:
This is a list of QBs with at least 100 attempts since 2018, ranked by yards per attempt.— Robert Mays (@robertmays) December 11, 2022
There are four 49ers QBs in the top 25. pic.twitter.com/3MnEiw0P06
And yet, it was still wild to watch Brock Purdy truly DEALING against a talented Bucs defense in Sunday's win.
Purdy ranked second in adjusted yards per attempt among quarterbacks in Week 14. Shanahan's offense brings yards-after-catch plays to the table that boost a quarterback's efficiency stats. However, for the most part, Purdy earned those yards.
He laid some throws and picked his spots downfield. He evaded pressure in the pocket and kept his eyes up. You could maybe pick out a small handful of snaps where Purdy looked like a rookie, much less the final rookie taken in the draft. Maybe.
We knew the 49ers roster was talented enough to win despite their quarterback. Sunday's win had me feeling better about the fantasy prospects of any player attached to Purdy. He looked that good.
Jets are impressive through injuries
The New York Jets are 7-6. They've had an impressive season without any qualifiers. However, the fact that they've been able to stay this competitive despite dealing with waves of injuries is even more exceptional.
Maladies started early for this team, as they lost hopeful starting tackle, Mekhi Becton, for the season in camp. His replacement, Duane Brown, had a stint on IR before finally getting on the field for New York. The real gut punch came when young stars Breece Hall and Alijah Vera-Tucker were lost for the season. Those are some of their best players and foundational pieces.
At the time of the injury, the explosiveness of Hall and the running game had become the identity of the Jets offense. Since then they've managed to pivot to a pass-first operation with Mike White under center and Garrett Wilson carrying the heavy weight as the centerpiece. That comes back to coaching. Shifting to another identity amid injuries and still succeeding isn't something every team in the NFL can pull off.
They’ve had some other bumps and bruises along the way but have managed to play through them. How much more can this team take, though? Week 14 held some more scary moments for the Jets as White had to leave the game multiple times while getting crushed by the Bills defense.
#Jets coach Robert Saleh told reporters that QB Mike White is headed to the hospital as a precaution. They announced two rib injuries and tests are for potential internal injuries.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 11, 2022
Another troubling development came when Quinnen Williams left the game with a non-contact injury. Williams has been one of the best players on the team this year and has 11 sacks on the season. His emergence as a dominant player has been crucial to the team's defensive turnaround.
If White or especially Williams misses any time, things could get dire for a Jets team that is fighting for its playoff life.
The Zach Wilson miss at second overall is a dark cloud hanging over what's been an impressive team build. It's so impressive that I'll consider this season a win no matter how it ends. That's not good enough for this Jets team, though, which sports an excellent roster that knows it's good enough to win right now.
Deshaun Watson has been a downgrade
The Browns quarterback can turn it around the longer he plays. No one is writing the book on the rest of his career on December 11, 2022.
But there is no other way to say it: Deshaun Watson has been an on-field problem for the Cleveland Browns since returning to the NFL.
Part of the calculus in trading for Watson despite the weight of 20-plus sexual misconduct allegations hanging over him is he would be so good on the field folks would soon forget his issues away from it. Cleveland was even hoping he'd be so good right away that he would be the finishing piece to make a playoff push in the AFC this year. The rest of the roster looked set up to tread water while it waited for the suspended franchise quarterback.
None of that has come true.
Watson returned to an underperforming 5-7 Browns operation. But it wasn't really the fault of his replacement. Jacoby Brissett ranks 11th in EPA per dropback and sixth in completion percentage over expectation. He has been good enough in his role, but the Browns defense sank the season.
Watson hasn’t looked ready to save the team or even keep the ship afloat. He ranks inside the bottom five of both the efficiency metrics Brissett shined in during his absence. He’s been inaccurate and mistake-prone. Frankly, he looks like a weird fit in Kevin Stefanski’s timing-based, structure-heavy offense.
Again, no one is claiming that Watson will never play well again. It’s just objectively true he’s been a huge problem so far. But it’s worth wondering how much goodwill exists for someone accused of what he’s accused of.
5 Things I don’t care about
The Dolphins' first punch
It's hard to care too much about the Dolphins' first punch ... because we know it hits. We know that when Miami can play on their script and land the hit on that first punch, they KO just about any team.
The last two weeks have brought a rather interesting question to the table: What's Miami's countermove?
The Chargers followed the 49ers' game plan for slowing down the Dolphins' onslaught offense. Just like DeMeco Ryans before him, Brandon Staley clouded the middle of the field for Tua Tagovailoa and most importantly, sold out to jam the receivers in man coverage outside.
Jaylen Waddle and especially Tyreek Hill are good press-coverage beaters. These guys can eventually get open against any coverage. The 49ers and Chargers have both allowed huge plays and let their corners be embarrassed by Hill down the field on touchdowns in back-to-back weeks. But those are just two plays. On just about all the others, this physical brand of coverage has successfully disrupted the timing of the offense.
It only takes a few, perhaps even half of a second. Then you have the quarterback's head scrambling.
Over the last two weeks, Tua has completed a paltry 45.9% of his passes and ranks 30th in EPA per dropback. He's struggled under the weight of defenses pushing him out of rhythm with physical coverage.
The Dolphins' first move was and is more dangerous than any other team in football. The time to celebrate and laud that has come and gone. Now we're at a point where Mike McDaniel needs to find a way to create a counterpunch and make sure it's one that works within his quarterback's style.
Jared Goff discourse
The Lions offense has a ton of good players. You know that's the case because they racked up a ton of points on Minnesota and none of the players folks were starting in fantasy — Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jamaal Williams and D'Andre Swift — were among the beneficiaries.
Lions with touchdowns— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) December 11, 2022
Lions without touchdowns
Amon-Ra St. Brown
When your ancillary players are shining, you’re a good offense. This Lions' offensive roster is good.
The wide receiver room right now is especially interesting. D.J. Chark is healthy and gives the team a big-play presence on the outside. He's a vertical-ball-winning X-receiver who brings a great complementary dimension to St. Brown's game.
Rookie Jameson Williams only ran a route on 15% of the dropbacks. The team is bringing him along slowly, which is smart. But Williams reminded us why he can be a special player with unique speed. He doesn't need a ton of time on the field to make an impact.
Josh Reynolds also got in the touchdown mix today. The same Reynolds who was the top outside receiver for this team for a long stretch of last season. Now he's the fourth-best receiver on the Lions when everyone is fully operational.
The Jared Goff discourse was so weird to me last week. It's not the least bit surprising that Goff is succeeding in this environment. For starters, Goff isn't as bad as people think. He's not a difference-maker anywhere close to the top-tier NFL passers but he's at least a league-average starter. Goff is a guy that can be the point guard of a good offensive ecosystem. The skill-position players are good, the line is rock-solid and the play-calling is superb.
That’s the big take here: The Lions have a strong offensive ecosystem. For as long as Goff is the quarterback of this group, he can be a quality producer.
Sometimes, weird games just happen. A team that’s a 17-point favorite can need all 60 minutes to take down the worst team in the NFL.
Weird things just happen in this game. Not everything means something for a team going forward. That's how I'm feeling about the Dallas Cowboys' frightening near-loss to the Houston Texans.
Let's get one thing straight: No matter what you think about the Texans, they are not about to just quit. Those guys on Houston's defense were hitting the Cowboys today. The running backs took shots in the open field. Michael Gallup had a touchdown spring loose when a secondary man popped him in the end zone. Houston hit Dak Prescott five times. CeeDee Lamb took such a huge shot in the open field that he got up and gave the defender daps.
The Texans didn’t play like a team looking forward to vacation or dreaming of the golf course.
Just because one team is great and supposed to come out and dominate an opponent on paper doesn’t mean it will always play out that way. The other team has pride too and can take advantage of any minor mistake.
The Cowboys were able to sneak out the win and I still feel just as confident in them as an NFC contender as I did going into the game. Dallas has clear strengths and those can shine through in big games.
The Titans loss
Everyone associated with the Titans will find this loss very troubling. I can’t fault them for that. Regardless, I’m most concerned with the play of one guy in the middle of this losing effort.
Derrick Henry entered Week 14 on an ice-cold streak. He had averaged 2.8 yards per carry since Week 10 and gone under 60 yards rushing in three of four games. Henry had just one touchdown to his name during that 2-2 stretch for Tennessee.
It was worth wondering if Henry was nursing some unreported injury or playing through an issue. Even worse, was the hulking back finally starting to wear down under the weight of his heavy workload the last few seasons? All of these questions were worth mulling over as Henry struggled.
So it was great to see him bust his slump with a 17-carry, 121-yard game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He added 34 yards on three catches.
The matchup was soft but Henry has upcoming matchups with similar pillows like the Texans and Chargers run defense. Week 14’s result makes me feel better that he can take advantage of those spots and the four-game streak prior was merely a blip on the radar.
December has typically been Henry’s month. We’re officially back on track.
Bills ancillary players
Fantasy folks spent a ton of time this summer debating the draft stocks of guys like Isaiah McKenzie, Dawson Knox and especially Gabe Davis. I'm not sure how much any of them move the needle at this point.
Davis has gone under 40 yards in seven of his 12 games this year. His upside is overstated and his floor is ghastly. That’s both from a fantasy angle and his play on the field. He is simply not a consistent player and that shows up in his production. Davis feels like he’s the WR2 on the Bills by default for now but someone they’ll look to upgrade on this offseason.
McKenzie has also had a handful of pop-up games but for the most part, he’s been just a guy. He still looks more like a kick returner than a legitimate slot receiver.
Knox found the end zone and led the team with seven targets in Week 14’s win but has rarely been a featured receiver on the season. He’s scored three times and cleared 60 yards just once.
We even tried to get excited about James Cook coming into this matchup after he played more snaps than Devin Singletary last week. He ended up totaling just 15 yards from scrimmage in this matchup.
Admittedly, the Jets defense is full of dogs; it's one of the best units in the NFL. However, all of these issues and lack of consistent play from the guys beyond Stefon Diggs in the receiver room have been a theme of the season.
Josh Allen is a superstar and capable of elevating talent around him. Let's just be honest about the players he's working with right now. Beyond Diggs, it's just a bunch of guys.