AFC middle class should be QB crazy, NFL playoff picture and more

QB Zach Wilson, New York Jets. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
QB Zach Wilson, New York Jets. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images) /

The AFC is being dominated by young, transcendent quarterbacks. In that vein, a few fringe contenders can’t lie to themselves this off-season.

Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, Trevor Lawrence, and Deshaun Watson.

All are top-10 talents at the NFL’s paramount position. All are 27 years old or younger.

If you’re counting, that’s seven AFC teams set for the next decade at the position, with Watson having a caveat with the Cleveland Browns for off-field reasons.

In short, it’s going to be very tough to make any run, let alone the postseason, if you’re an AFC team without an elite quarterback.

This serves as a reality check for the New York Jets, New England Patriots, and Tennessee Titans.

The aforementioned trio has been in the playoff picture all year. Yet none have a long-term answer under center, whether they’re ready to admit it or not.

In New York, Zach Wilson is finished. Head coach Robert Saleh can give all the false hope he desires, but Wilson can’t play. He’s worse than Mike White, who is a fifth-year journeyman. Wilson, despite being the No. 2 overall pick in 2021, has played his left meaningful football in Gotham.

Up the eastern seaboard, the Patriots are dealing with a similar crisis.

New England can tell itself sweet lies about Mac Jones, but Jones is never winning a Super Bowl in the AFC. He’s a below-average quarterback with below-average tools and below-average weapons, surrounded by a great-but-old head coach, and a defensive coordinator masquerading as an offensive guru.

Jones has a horrific situation around him, but that doesn’t change reality. He’s not the answer.

In Tennessee, the Titans have a clearer picture. Ryan Tannehill is 34 years old and can be released for a $17.8 million savings this offseason. Rookie Malik Willis, a third-round pick from Liberty this spring with great arm talent but serious work ahead, looks more like a lottery ticket than a plan.

The upcoming NFL Draft is loaded with premium quarterback prospects. Most agree the top three are Bryce Young (Alabama), Will Levis (Kentucky), and C.J. Stroud (Ohio State) in some order, followed by Anthony Richardson (Florida). All project as high-end first-round choices.

Normally, the Titans, Patriots, and Jets — all 7-8 and currently picking 15th, 16th, and 17th respectively — would have no shot at landing such talents. However, this isn’t a normal draft.

Partially due to last year’s trade bonanza, many teams picking early won’t need quarterbacks. The Philadelphia Eagles may have a top-10 selection and no use for a signal-caller. The Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions could take a quarterback, but they’ve gotten quality play this season from their veterans. The Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals both hold top-five picks through 15 games, and neither needs a quarterback.

This provides teams like New York, New England, and Tennessee with an incredible opportunity. While it’ll be expensive, they can trade up and use their mid-first rounders along with future draft capital to acquire their futures.

If they don’t, they have no chance. Yes, there’s the choice of signing Jimmy Garoppolo or Geno Smith in free agency, or trading for Aaron Rodgers or Derek Carr. But what’s the point? Outside of Rodgers, none have the chops to win the AFC.

And with Rodgers, he’s 39 years old and incredibly expensive. He’s also struggling without excellent weapons for the Green Bay Packers. While the Jets have Garrett Wilson, the Patriots and Titans are devoid of game-breakers as well. Bad fit.

In the NFL, teams should be positioning themselves to be picking really early, or really late. Being in the middle 10-12 picks is purgatory, and for many, years of it.

This season, we saw the Jets, Patriots and Titans all give their fanbases hope. But as the weather turned along with the screws of opposing defenses, all three fell apart from the quarterback out.

Come the offseason, either make a big move or face reality: you have no chance.

Power rankings

Top 10 NFL named plays of all time

1. The Immaculate Reception – Franco Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers (1972)
2. The Catch – Dwight Clark, San Francisco 49ers (1981)
3. The Helmet Catch – David Tyree, New York Giants (2008)
4. The Hail Mary – Roger Staubach and Drew Pearson, Dallas Cowboys (1975)
5. The Tackle – Mike Jones, St. Louis Rams (1999)
6. The Miracle in the Meadowlands – Herm Edwards, Philadelphia Eagles (1978)
7. The Fumble – Earnest Byner, Cleveland Browns (1987)
8. The Music City Miracle – Kevin Dyson, Tennessee Titans (1999)
9. The Sea of Hands – Clarence Davis, Oakland Raiders (1974)
10. The Holy Roller – Dave Casper, Oakland Raiders (1978)


"“Are we?”"

– Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, when informed his team clinched a playoff berth

Nothing like finding out you’ve made the postseason from the media, as availability coincided with the Patriots losing at home against Cincinnati.


Random stat

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals have two of the three worst winning percentages in NFL history. The Cardinals have the dubious distinction of the most losses in league annals with 778. No other franchise even has 700.

Info learned this week

1. AFC wild-card picture cleared up after Week 16

The wild card race is almost over in the AFC.

With the Jets and Patriots losing in Week 16, it seems a formality we’ll have the Los Angeles Chargers as wild card teams, along with the runner-up from the AFC North. Really, the only questions are who slots were from a seeding perspective, do the Miami Dolphins survive their slide, and who wins the AFC South between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee — more on those latter two items below.

While the NFC picture remains a jumbled mass of humanity towards the bottom of the bracket, the AFC is loaded with quality contenders. The Dolphins have perhaps the best 1-2 combo at receiver in football with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Baltimore has one of the league’s best coaches and a former MVP quarterback in Lamar Jackson. The Chargers have arguably a top-five roster in the NFL.

If the wild card spots are officially clinched before Week 18, it’ll be fascinating to see if and how each team attempts to maneuver. It makes sense to want a pseudo-bye if the picture presents itself in such a way. We could see teams sitting starters, creating the opportunity for another team to slide up or down the board as it pleases.

Playoff picture football. Sports nirvana.

2. Eagles might have lurking questions about their defense

The Philadelphia Eagles losing to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday meant nothing.

Philadelphia will be the NFC’s top seed with one more win. Dallas will be the fifth seed and face the eventual NFC South winner. That’s all but settled.

What was interesting in the Cowboys’ 40-34 win at JerryWorld was the manner in which the game unfolded. Outside of defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, the Eagles are healthy defensively. Yet they allowed 419 total yards, including 347 passing from Dak Prescott.

This season, the Eagles have proven they’re a legitimate Super Bowl favorite at 13-2. They have the NFC’s best point differential at +137. They lead the league with eight Pro Bowlers. Quarterback Jalen Hurts is an MVP candidate. So on and so forth.

But they’ve also faced a comical slate of quarterbacks. The only top-end talents on the list are Prescott and Trevor Lawerence, and the latter saw Philadelphia in a monsoon.

Therefore, Prescott’s performance raises the question: will the Eagles’ defense be exposed by an upper-echelon quarterback in the playoffs?

Luckily for Philadelphia, none exist in the NFC outside of Prescott. Tom Brady of course qualifies, but his offense and surrounding coaching staff will do him in. Yet the AFC is almost certain to produce a superstar signal-caller in February.

Is that going to be a problem for Philadelphia? We might find out.

3. Dolphins enter dangerous territory, and Tua’s play is an issue

It’s time to panic in Miami.

Leading 20-10 in the final two minutes of the first half on Christmas Day against the Green Bay Packers, Dolphins running back Raheem Mostert fumbled at midfield. The Packers proceeded to kick a field goal and then outscore Miami 13-0 in the second half for a 26-20 victory, fueled by Tua Tagovailoa throwing three interceptions on consecutive drives to end the game.

At 8-7, the Dolphins control their destiny, but they have little margin for error after losing their fourth straight game. This Sunday, it’s a trip to New England. After that, they host the Jets to end the regular season. If Miami wins out, or beats the Patriots with New York losing to the Seattle Seahawks, the Dolphins clinch.

However, a loss in New England and the Patriots move ahead of Miami with a trip to Buffalo in Week 18. The Dolphins would still have a chance, but they’d need help.

Frankly, perhaps the bigger concern is Tagovailoa. After a red-hot start to the season, the former first-round pick has fallen apart. Over the four-game losing streak, Tagovailoa has an average stat line of 15-of-29 for 246 yards, along with six touchdowns and five interceptions.

If Miami’s passing game — which has been its engine all year — doesn’t regain its previous form, the Dolphins could lose out against teams with excellent defenses.

4. Niners and Vikings vying for No. 2 seed in NFC playoff picture

The San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings are different animals.

On Saturday, the Niners rolled the Washington Commanders to the point of Taylor Heinicke being benched for Carson Wentz. In Minnesota, the Vikings needed 17 fourth-quarter points and a 61-yard field goal from Caleb Joseph to escape at home against the New York Giants.

In one-score games, Minnesota has a +75 point differential in the fourth quarter, and -70 in every other stanza.

Meanwhile, the 49ers are rolling. They’ve won eight consecutive games, and only two have been by eight points or fewer. Despite being on third-string quarterback Brock Purdy, San Francisco is breezing toward the playoffs.

The only question is whether the Vikings or 49ers earn the NFC’s No. 2 seed. At 12-3, Minnesota is a game ahead but loses the tiebreaker based on conference record.

Whoever wins the race may well host the other come the Divisional round.

5. Jaguars in control of AFC South after Titans’ disaster

Things change rapidly in the NFL. Just gaze at the AFC South.

Five weeks ago, the Titans were 7-3 and comfortably ahead of the 3-7 Jacksonville Jaguars. Tennessee seemed destined to win its third straight division crown before easing into a potential playoff run. Conversely, Jacksonville would be eliminated in December, but have the comfort of avoiding three consecutive years of No. 1 overall picks.

Then, football happened. The Titans lost five straight, and in the midst of the collapse, shockingly fired general manager Jon Robinson along with losing quarterback Ryan Tannehill for the year to a high ankle sprain. Jacksonville, after stunning Baltimore with a last-second comeback, lost to the Detroit Lions before reeling off three wins, including a 36-22 pasting of Tennessee in Nashville.

Incredibly, both teams are 7-8. Jacksonville holds the tiebreaker for the moment. However, nothing is settled.

Oddly enough, Week 17 means nothing. The Jaguars and Titans will be playing for the divisional title in Week 18 when they meet in Florida regardless of this upcoming weekend’s results.

Still, it’s hard not to favor Jacksonville. Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence is playing phenomenal football, throwing 14 touchdowns against one interception over his past seven starts. For Tennessee, it’s relying on Malik Willis, who in three starts is yet to eclipse 100 passing yards.

The Titans and Jaguars will play for the AFC’s No. 4 seed on the regular season’s final day. But while things are even, Jacksonville has the upper hand.

Two cents

Sean Payton is a wanted man. Don’t count out the Los Angeles Rams.

Payton, 58, is taking a year off from coaching after resigning from the New Orleans Saints after the ’21 season. Still under contract for the next two years, New Orleans must receive compensation for Payton signing elsewhere as a head coach.

While the last sentence makes this tough on the asset-strapped Rams, keep the following in mind:

Payton is an offensive coach who loves the vertical passing game. Matthew Stafford is one o the league’s best. The Rams don’t have many picks or much cap space this offseason, but that changes in 2024. Additionally, Payton would get to live in Los Angeles and get paid well by a deep-pocket owner in Stan Kroenke.

As for Sean McVay, there’s reason to think he might be leaving. Rams offensive coordinator Liam Coen and McVay are exceedingly close. But a few weeks ago, it was reported Coen is taking a job with the University of Kentucky in the same role he’s serving under McVay.

Why would Coen, who was the Kentucky offensive coordinator in 2021, return to that job when his security was never in question? After all the rumors of McVay stepping away last year after winning the Super Bowl, perhaps the timing is right to reset.

And if McVay leaves, the Rams need an experienced hand to guide Stafford in his final years of contending viability. Nobody would be a better fit than Payton, and while the cost will be high, general manager Les Snead has never shied away from a big price tag.

Inside the league

The Chicago Bears will be in a unique position this offseason.

Likely picking No. 2 overall in an upcoming NFL Draft loaded with the aforementioned elite quarterback prospects, Chicago general manager Ryan Poles has ample options.

Much like we saw the Dolphins do in the ’20 Draft, Chicago can trade back with a quarterback-needy team and acquire a slew of selections to jumpstart the rebuild around Justin Fields. In Miami’s case, it netted three-first round picks, which helped it land receivers Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill.

If Poles decide to stand pat, he’ll be able to choose the best non-QB in the draft, giving him a cornerstone elsewhere.

Additionally, no team can outbid Chicago come free agency. The Bears have an absurd $124.4 million in projected cap space, giving it the resources to throw money around at a variety of issues.

It’s been a tough year in Chicago with the important caveat of Fields’ development. But if the Bears make the right moves this offseason, they could be a powerhouse in short order.

BetSided’s best bet

Commanders -1.5 (-115) vs. Browns

Washington returns home where despite a potential quarterback controversy, they at least don’t have Deshaun Watson and his contract saddled on their books.

Regardless of who’s throwing the ball, Jahan Dotson is starting to come alive of late with 14 receptions, 226 yards and three touchdowns in his last three games. Meanwhile, Chase Young is back and should cause havoc on the Browns’ struggling offensive line in pass protection.

The Commanders are clinging on to a playoff spot. The Browns have been done for weeks, and couldn’t run it at home against a bad New Orleans Saints team.

I’m jumping on this number before it gets to 2.5 or three points.

– Ben Heisler

History lesson

This was supposed to be a weekend for Franco Harris in Pittsburgh.

Instead, the football world was left mourning with the news of Harris’ passing at 72 years old. Harris was more than a Hall of Fame running back who won four Super Bowls. He was and remains a civic icon, the first symbol of the city many see at Pittsburgh International Airport, making his famous Immaculate Reception against the Oakland Raiders in 1972.

Before Harris, the Steelers played 39 seasons and didn’t host, or win, a postseason game. With Harris, Pittsburgh won 14 playoff games, including four Super Bowls over a six-year span. Harris was named Super Bowl MVP in the first title, rushing for 158 yards and a touchdown to beat Minnesota.

Pittsburgh has enjoyed many iconic athletes over the years. Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and a host of Steelers, including Harris and his nine Hall of Fame teammates.

But nobody embodies Pittsburgh more than Harris, and nobody ever created a louder roar than the one he elicited on that cold December day in 1972.

Rest in peace, Franco.

Parting shot

Are you ready for some (Monday night) football?

We might see the best game of the 2022 regular season come Monday when the Cincinnati Bengals host the Buffalo Bills.

Cincinnati is 11-4. Buffalo is 12-3. The Bengals are fighting with the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North crown, leading by a game with a looming rematch come Week 18 after Baltimore won the initial battle in October. The Bills have clinched the AFC East and a top-three seed but must keep winning to hold the home-field advantage, currently tied with the tiebreaker over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Assuming the Chiefs handle the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead on Sunday, Monday’s tilt takes on massive significance for half the AFC playoff picture.

In that scenario, a Bengals win would potentially clinch the AFC North (Baltimore would need to lose at home against the Steelers). Cincinnati would also become the No. 2 seed, knocking Buffalo to No. 3 and moving the Chiefs onto the top line. In such a world, Kansas City would need to beat the Raiders in Las Vegas come Week 18 to firm up a first-round bye.

However, if the Bills win, the Bengals can’t clinch the division and if Baltimore is victorious, would slide the Bengals into the No. 5 seed with one game remaining for the North crown. The Chiefs would then clinch a top-two seed — again, with a win over Denver assumed. Buffalo would only need to beat the Patriots at home in Week 18, or get a Chiefs loss in Las Vegas, to be the AFC’s top seed for the first time since 1993.

Bills at Bengals. No game has been more critical all year.