As NFL playoff stretch run begins, these six gamers can have the largest impression
How will the last three weeks be? Let’s take a look at the six players who are most important during the playoff stretch run:
QB Russell Wilson, Seahawks: This one is easy. Wilson was the leader for MVP honors earlier in the season when Seattle started 5-0 with 56 touchdowns on Tempo.
But the “Let Russ Cook” approach has solved some problems in the last few weeks, and at 9: 4 the Seahawks are fighting the Los Angeles Rams (9: 4) for first place in the NFC West and a home in the first Round game. The teams have played more zone defense against Wilson over the past few weeks, trying to limit his deep throws to DK Metcalf and making the Seahawks’ action game, which was also hit by injuries to their running backs, less effective. In Seattle’s four losses, Wilson has 16 sales.
But Wilson used the profitable New York Jets to fix many of his problems. After holding an average of 3.38 seconds on the ball a week earlier in a 17:12 loss to the New York Giants, Wilson took the ball out of his hands in an average of 2.65 seconds and completed 21 of 27 passes for 206 yards and four touchdowns in a 40-3 win. He threw more screens and check-downs. If the defense gets better, his play on the track will determine whether the Seahawks leave the Rams behind at NFC West.
QB Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: His return after 14 missed games with an elbow injury a year ago meant everything for Pittsburgh at the 11-0 start. However, with two losses to Washington and Buffalo, things fell apart and the offense averaged only 16 points during the skid.
Roethlisberger has thrown five interceptions in his last four games, and his pass catchers have let him down, finishing second in the NFL with 25 passes down this season. Look out for Roethlisberger to get back on track against Cincinnati on Monday, but how he fares against Indianapolis and Cleveland in weeks 16 and 17 will have a huge impact on the AFC playoff race.
DT DeForest Buckner, Colts: It’s a quarterbacks league, and Philip Rivers did a good job getting Indianapolis into the playoffs. But Buckner, who was taken over by San Francisco in the off-season, is the most important piece in one of the NFL’s best defenses.
When Buckner is on the field, the Colts give up about 3.3 yards per carry. If he isn’t, opponents will race around 5.2 yards per carry. He has 4.5 sacks and 20 quarterback hits. It’s a different defense when he’s on the field, and if he can stay out there the Colts have a good chance of winning two or all three of their remaining games: against Houston, in Pittsburgh, and against Jacksonville.
RB Derrick Henry, Titans: Last season, Tennessee Henry and quarterback Ryan Tannehill drove to the AFC championship game. Henry’s ability to overwhelm the on-site defenses leaves the Titans 9-4 with a great chance of winning the AFC South.
To secure a championship title, they have to prevail against their remaining opponents: Detroit, Green Bay and Houston. Henry plays a crucial role in particular against a Packers defense who are known to fight escape.
QB Josh Allen, Bills: It was a close call between Allen and star-wide receiver Stefon Diggs, but it’s impossible to miss how well Allen played, resulting in a crime averaging 27.6.
Diggs’ arrival at a trade this off-season certainly helped, and he’s got 100 catches for 1,167 yards. But Allen’s improvement was remarkable. He has won head-to-head matchups with Jared Goff, Tannehill, Wilson and Roethlisberger. He must be considered one of the six best candidates for the MVP award.
Buffalo is 10-3 and has three winnable games left: Denver, New England and against Miami. If Allen can run the bills to wins in all three, they stand a good chance of reaching number 2 in the AFC – it would only take Pittsburgh to drop one of their last three games.
QB Jalen Hurts, Eagles: He has become a wild card in the rapidly improving NFC East. When Doug Pederson put Carson Wentz on the bench, he wasn’t sure what he was going to get from Hurts, especially in a matchup with NFC-leading New Orleans and their fearsome defense.
Hurts scored a disgruntled win, overtaking Taysom Hill, becoming only the second player in NFL history to double-triple (passing and rushing more than 100 yards) on his first start after Lamar Jackson did so in 2018.
The Jackson comparison is interesting. Baltimore was on the ropes before John Harbaugh – who, like Pederson, was in the hot seat at the time of the QB change – turned to Jackson, who promptly led the Ravens into the playoffs. The Eagles (4-8-1) have less time to work, but if they can win in Arizona and Dallas, their week 17 meeting with Washington (6-7) could be for the NFC East Crown.
All about the NFL
Jon Gruden hasn’t fired any coaches this season, but he’d seen enough of defense coordinator Paul Guenther. The Raiders had dropped 37.5 points per game in the past four weeks and lost three of those games. Gruden wanted to stop the bleeding, even if playoff hopes in Las Vegas have subsided.
The jets are really, really bad. Their 40-3 defeat in Seattle was a disaster. New York only had 185 yards of attack – and only 20 in the second half. The Jets are 0-13 and their average loss of 16.2 points is the second worst ever among winless teams. No Seahawks player enjoyed the win more than Jamal Adams, who has been a hitter since trading with the Jets. He earned a sack in victory and set an NFL record for a defensive back at 8.5.
You have to wonder if this is the end for quarterback Matthew Stafford in Detroit. He suffered a rib injury in Sunday’s loss to Green Bay that could mean he missed the last three games of the season. With the franchise looking for a trainer and general manager, the new regime could decide to move on from the 2009 No. 1 picks. What a shame that would be. Stafford is a great talent, but he has seen so many manager changes on so many bad teams.