The NFL playoffs are inching closer. The air is frigid, the holiday lights are bountiful and each game has an increased importance as the season reaches its waning days. There’s a team that’s back to looking like the cream of the crop in the NFL, but first, this column will start with a team whose quarterback carousel may have taken its final turn.
Zach Wilson is right to take this opportunity to play
Zach Wilson being frustrated with the Jets after his benching was understandable. He has since watched Tim Boyle and Trevor Siemian not be the answer to the Jets’ offensive woes, and on Wednesday head coach Robert Saleh said Wilson will start again Sunday, which puts him back in position to remain the starter for the final month of the season.
Apparently, Wilson initially wasn't too enthused about the idea of getting back into the starting lineup for the Jets. According to The Athletic, Wilson was “reluctant” about resuming his role as the Jets’ starting quarterback, which would not have been the best decision on his part. In fact, he shouldn’t even really have considered sitting down.
Let’s deal with the facts here: Wilson’s career as an NFL player is on life support. He has been so bad and generally lost as the Jets’ quarterback that it would be hard for an NFL team to invest in him as a quality backup quarterback — he hasn’t shown he can do that in any capacity. There’s only so long a player can stick in the league as a pure practice squad guy, even in the era of expanded practice squads that can include veterans. That’s where Wilson’s career is after what can be described only as a disastrous tenure with the Jets.
This is, quite possibly, the last chance that Wilson will have to make sure he still has a solid future as an NFL quarterback. Salty feelings aside at what’s transpired, Wilson needed to do what’s best for him and his NFL future. Careers have been made off of fewer than five games. Josh Dobbs just secured a forever backup job off of the work that he put in with the Vikings this year. Wilson doesn’t need to prove he’s the savior for anyone, that ship has sailed, but there’s still a chance for him to play his way onto being a real piece of an NFL roster instead of an auxiliary trip.
Wilson’s potential concerns about being injured are fair. The Jets' offensive line has deteriorated into a completely unusable state and they have a lot of work to do on that side of the ball. The wide receiver situation outside of Garrett Wilson is a bit spooky as well. This is a bad situation, no doubt about it. A situation that involves an increased injury risk due to the surrounding talent. Unfortunately, Wilson finds himself in a situation where this is an extremely pivotal moment for him as a future player.
Block out the noise. Take back over as the team’s starter. Salvage what’s left of this Jets tenure. That’s about all that can be done here. It feels unlikely for Wilson to remain as the quarterback of the Jets given how things have transpired, so his future with another team has come into view. How he handles, or doesn’t handle, the next few games will have an impact on his career. It’s up to him to decide what’s next, but this NFL writer is happy he's getting back on the field.
Jaguars blew a crucial moment to grab the No. 1 seed
So close. So, so close. The table was set for the Jaguars to take hold of the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Chiefs lost to the Packers, the Ravens were on a bye. Everything was lined up for the Jaguars to get that No. 1 seed, one that has increased importance now that only one team gets a bye in each conference and automatically goes to the divisional round. All the Jaguars had to do was get past Jake Browning and the Bengals, who are just vibing and trying to get to the end of the season with Joe Burrow on injured reserve with a wrist injury.
Unfortunately, they dipped back into the aura of the previous Jaguar regimes and got diced up by Browning and the Bengals’ skill players. The Jaguars are certainly better than the Bengals team that just walked into their stadium and pantsed them on Monday night, but they weren’t on top of their game and missed a sweet chance to position themselves in a strong place for the final push of the season.
Instead, the Jaguars are 8-4. That’s still a good spot to be in, but now they hold the fourth seed in the AFC as they sit atop of the AFC South. This is a bit precarious because the AFC South is surprisingly competitive this year. The Colts and the Texans are both 7-5, chomping at the bit for the Jaguars to potentially slip up toward the end of the year. The Jags have the tiebreaker over the Colts but split their season series with the Texans, making this a bit more of a difficult spot than they envisioned entering last week.
It all stems from the annoying realization that the Jaguars blew a game to an inferior opponent. Not only did they lose the game to the Bengals, but they lost star quarterback Trevor Lawrence to a high-ankle sprain, which will undoubtedly make their path toward holding the division harder.
It’s unclear how much time Lawrence will miss, but the Jaguars still have games against the Browns and Ravens next before their schedule eases up with the Buccaneers, Panthers and Titans to close the season. If the defense can get back to form and hold strong as one of the better units in the league, Jacksonville's schedule is navigable even if Lawrence misses extended time. Getting him back healthy for the playoffs should be their top priority.
Every team has to fight through the ebbs and flows of the NFL season, including losing a game to Browning and losing a quarterback along the way. How the Jaguars rebound will play a huge role in determining their season and the rest of the AFC playoffs.
San Francisco regained its throne as the team to beat
The 49ers have beaten the Cowboys and Eagles this year by a combined score of 84-29. Those are widely considered to be the best teams in the NFC, in a tier of their own with the Lions flirting with that status of an NFC elite.
The 49ers have obliterated teams since they recovered from a three-game losing streak before their bye, setting themselves up to be the best team in the NFC (and probably NFL) again. Whether or not they can do it in the postseason with Brock Purdy as their quarterback hasn’t been answered yet, but there’s no doubt that this is probably the scariest team when they’re rolling on all cylinders.
The toughest challenge when facing the 49ers is matching up with the skill that they’ve assembled and developed. It’s basically impossible. Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk are probably the toughest wide receiver duo in the NFL to face. Samuel can do everything from running routes down the field to masquerading as a running back, while Aiyuk is arguably the most dangerous big-play threat in the NFL not named Tyreek Hill. George Kittle is still one of the elite tight ends in the league. Christian McCaffrey has reached ironman status with the load that he’s carrying in the run and pass game, giving the 49ers a completely dominant weapon since they traded for him last season.
There is only one thing getting in the way of 49ers dominance this season: injuries. When the 49ers have been banged up, it’s tougher for them to be better. The defense is still good, but offense is still what mainly drives this machine. It’s hard to replace the unique talents of these players in case of absence, and it’s the only foe in their way because it doesn’t seem like anyone has an answer for this 49ers team at full capacity.
How Purdy performs in the playoffs will be a fascinating experiment and question as well. In the two games Purdy finished last postseason, he didn’t seem like too much of a hurdle for the 49ers. Despite being a seventh-round rookie, he lit up Seattle’s defense before playing quality football in a close game against Dallas. He might not be the most talented quarterback out there, but he has found himself in the right situation where he can put up numbers.
Godspeed to the 49ers' opponents. This team, if healthy, should probably be Super Bowl favorites — which is an extreme testament to the roster that they’ve built and the efficiency with which they play.
Browns' loss to the Rams feels like the end of their season
There’s only so far a team can go with the level of quarterback play that the Browns have had this season. From Deshaun Watson to P.J. Walker to Dorian Thompson-Robinson and now Joe Flacco, the Browns haven’t gotten enough help from their offense or quarterback in order to pose a realistic threat as a postseason team, and now they may end up losing their grasp on the postseason all together.
It has been a valiant run for the Browns, especially their defense, throughout the majority of the season, but their 36-19 loss to the Rams felt like an omen on where their year is about to head.
It’s been obvious for most of the season that the Browns don’t have a great shot to win if their defense doesn’t go berserk mode, but luckily they have. They’ve probably been the best defense in the league, leading the Browns to this point where they’ve established themselves as the sixth seed in the AFC without much by way of offense. However, when the defense can’t come through in the clutch and drag the offense, they’re completely toast.
That’s what happened in the Browns’ loss to the Rams. Matthew Stafford and Puka Nacua had a field day with the Browns’ defense, leaving Flacco and the gang to play catch-up. That, uh, didn’t happen. Flacco had some nice moments after signing with the team 16 days ago, but ultimately failed to be much of a threat. Playing defense in the NFL is incredibly hard and it’s tough to expect the Browns to be lockdown every week to the point that they can take a bottom-five offense to the wild-card round. At some point, the offense has to do its part, which is difficult considering the position the Browns find themselves in.
The Browns still may make the playoffs, but they’re not a serious contender in this shape. What’s interesting is that they’re about to be on the third year of the Deshaun Watson experience and still have no clue if he can be the quarterback to lead them out of the darkness and into consistent relevancy. Watson is still Cleveland's best option at quarterback, but he hasn’t done nearly enough in the 12 games that he’s played with the Browns to give them a shred of confidence with that fact.
Whether or not that changes remains to be seen for 2024, but Sunday was a reminder that the 2023 Browns are currently maxed out. They’re too beat up and it’s unfair to expect the defense to play perfect football every week. The whole thing is a reminder of what their operation could be if Watson ever returns to his top form.