At the conclusion of Monday’s Redskins-Eagles game, all 32 NFL teams will have completed three quarters of their regular-season schedules. What are the biggest questions at the season’s quarter pole? Let’s take a look:
• Can the Chiefs hold off the Patriots, Texans and Chargers atop the AFC?
Kansas City played a role in the biggest off-field story of the week, as the team released star running back Kareem Hunt after TMZ posted a video of Hunt making physical contact with and kicking a woman, as his friends struggled to keep him from potentially doing even more serious harm. The fact that Hunt wasn’t truthful with the Chiefs when they questioned him about the incident in the offseason played a role in their decision to let him go.
There is still much to be determined about the discipline Hunt will face, along with any potential future backlash against the team or the NFL for their handling of the initial investigations. But there is also the on-field question of whether Kansas City, atop the AFC standings at 10-2, will hang on against a very strong group of challengers.
What the Chiefs’ 40-33 win over the 2-10 Raiders showed was that quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who threw for 295 yards and four touchdowns, gives them a chance in every game. It also showed that their margin for error is thinner without Hunt on the field.
Spencer Ware is a serviceable NFL running back, but he’s not Hunt, who had 1,202 total yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 games. Against Oakland, Ware rushed for 47 yards on 14 carries and had one reception for 5 yards, and the lack of production forced Mahomes to run a little more, gaining 52 yards on nine carries.
The Chiefs are fortunate to have three of their final four games at home, but the next three are tough, hosting Baltimore and the Chargers before traveling to Pittsburgh. Even scarier is the fact that they only have a one-game division lead over the Chargers following their 33-30 upset of the Steelers Sunday night, in addition to a one-game lead over the Patriots (who hold the head-to-head tiebreaker) and Texans in the race for home-field advantage. They should still get a first-round bye, but the No. 1 seed isn’t guaranteed.
• Who will the Packers hire to replace Mike McCarthy?
As I covered the Packers’ sideline during their recent Thursday night loss to the Seahawks, I could feel the tension and frustration building between McCarthy and franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers had clearly recovered from his early-season knee injury, and was showing signs that he was back to being the best quarterback in the game.
But it was just as clear that the coach and QB weren’t on the same page, and over the past week, stories have surfaced of times when McCarthy called one play and Rodgers ran another. Whether that was true or untrue, it didn’t matter — the rift between the two was obvious. A 20-17 home loss to Arizona expedited a firing that was all but certain at the end of the season.
What’s clear is the Packers have to hire an offensive head coach to satisfy and get the most out of Rodgers. Firing him with a month left in the season gives the Packers a chance to explore college coaches, and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley should have the edge over guys like Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, Baylor’s Matt Rhule, Iowa State’s Matt Stewart or Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald.
From the NFL side, offensive coordinators Josh McDaniels of the Patriots, John DeFilippo of the Vikings, Matt LaFleur of the Titans, Eric Bieniemy of the Chiefs and Pete Carmichael Jr. of the Saints head the list, while Rams’ quarterback coach Zac Taylor should be in the mix, too. If there is mutual parting in Baltimore, John Harbaugh could be a candidate.
Regardless, this is the best job opening that will come available this offseason. It could go numerous ways, and McCarthy should get more than a couple of offers to be a head coach.
• What other coaches are at risk?
A couple weeks ago, I had a list as big as 11 coaches on the hot seat. Jason Garrett saved his job with a three-game winning streak, while Harbaugh’s three-game winning streak with Lamar Jackson at quarterback could save his in Baltimore. Vance Joseph is also on a three-game winning streak, but still might not survive if the Broncos don’t make the playoffs. Devastating injuries on offense would make it unfair to fire Jay Gruden in Washington, but anything can happen there.
But Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati), Adam Gase (Miami), Todd Bowles (New York Jets), Dirk Koetter (Tampa Bay), Doug Marrone (Jacksonville) and Steve Wilks (Arizona) are all at serious risk. Ron Rivera of the Panthers could be in trouble if they continue to lose.
• Who will earn the wild-card spots in the NFC?
The Seahawks could all but lock up the No. 5 seed next Monday if they can beat the Vikings. After an 0-2 start, they have won seven of the last 10 games, including an easy 43-16 win over San Francisco Sunday.
The No. 6 seed is anybody’s guess. The Panthers have lost four of the past five and are 6-6. The Vikings are 6-5-1 and could be at .500 if they can’t pull off a road win in Seattle next Monday. The Redskins are 6-5 but have too many injuries on offense to mount a big finish. Philadelphia is 5-6 and would get back in the race if they can beat the Redskins. I’d still give the Vikings the edge.
• Who will win the MVP?
I’d still give Drew Brees the advantage even after Thursday’s 13-10 Saints loss to the Cowboys, but Mahomes is still in the mix, along with Rams running back Todd Gurley. But the sleeper is Philip Rivers, who led the Chargers back from a 16-point deficit in Pittsburgh to earn a huge victory. We’ll see if it changes next week, but for now, it’s still Brees.
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Harbaugh deserves plenty of credit for pulling off a three-game winning streak with first-round pick Lamar Jackson at quarterback. Jackson and fellow rookie Gus Edwards combined for 38 carries and 159 yards in a stunning 26-16 win in Atlanta.
The concern for the Ravens is running Jackson so much puts him at risk. He had to go through concussion protocol but came back in the game. Harbaugh can now justify keeping Jackson as the starter for next week at Kansas City and giving Joe Flacco more time to get his hip injury healed.
The Broncos’ 30-16 victory over the Bengals helps Joseph in many ways. It got the Broncos to 6-6 and a chance to snag the AFC’s No. 6 seed. But if Denver misses the playoffs and he’s let go after the season, it might have given him an audition in front of Bengals owner Mike Brown.
The Brown family, which might finally move on from Lewis after this season, prefers to hire coaches who have been in the organization. When the Broncos wanted to interview Joseph for the defensive coordinator job a couple of years ago, Brown blocked the interview, telling Joseph he could be the next Bengals head coach if Lewis retired.
Joseph would be an easier sell as head coach to Bengals fans than Hue Jackson, who won three games in three years in Cleveland.
Just a few days after Cam Newton said he’s playing his best, he had a four-interception day in Tampa Bay in a 24-17 loss to the Bucs. The Panthers have lost four straight games and reports surfaced Sunday that new owner David Tepper is getting antsy and might make major changes after the season if the losing continues.
It doesn’t help matters that the Panthers have two games against New Orleans in their final four. Newton has been on the injury report with a sore right shoulder. That may have played a part in his off performance Sunday.
Another concern is tight end Greg Olsen, who reinjured his right foot in the loss and didn’t return. After the game, he was on crutches. There a good chance his career is over.
“We’ve kind of pushed this foot I think as far as possible the past two seasons,” Olsen said, “and today it just kind of had enough.”