It’s getting to be that time of year. Thanksgiving has passed and most teams in the NFL have changed their focus to either the playoffs or the offseason. Yet, there are still teams stuck in the limbo of competing for a wildcard spot or a mid tier draft pick that will not elevate the team to a level of competition where in which they are Super Bowl contenders. These “playoff hopefuls” all have players or coaches that their success depends on. Lets hope these players can come through for their respective teams and fulfill the playoff hopes of coaches, players, and fans alike.
Jakeem Grant: The Dolphins defense has played incredibly, but the rest of the team has been inconsistent. While the offense was moving very well, pre-Tua starting, it has been lacking since then. They did not stop winning at first, but that was mainly due to incredible plays on special teams. Jakeem Grant had an 88 yard punt return touchdown along with a 45 yard kick return that massively aided Miami in their victory against the Rams. However, he has not had a similar performance since than. He has been utilized in the offense more in recent weeks where he has broken several tackles and converted several first downs. The Dolphins will find more success if they continue to utilize Jakeem in the passing game and as a jet sweep/screen option. Also, Jakeem breaking big plays in special teams will be critical to the Dolphins wildcard hopes.
Cory Littleton: When the Raiders signed Cory this offseason they expected a force in the middle who would limit the offences ability to target the middle of the field. This has not necessarily been the case. While, he is allowing a career low completion percentage (69.4%) and career low passer rating, (92.7) he has also missed he most tackles in the league which skews his numbers massively. 87 percent of Littleton’s yards have been after the catch due, for the most part, to his tackling woes. If he can clean up his tackling, the Raiders would quickly find their defense limiting opponents much better.
The Defense: The Browns rank 19th in points for and 19th in points against. Generally speaking, outside of the run game and blocking, nothing has really been been going very well for the Browns. Aside from one small detail, their turnover numbers have been fantastic. They rank 2nd in the league in defensive drives that end in turnovers which is massively lofty for a team with a general lack of defensive talent outside of Ward and Garrett. Their playoff hopes lie entirely in their ability to continue forcing turnovers but, turnovers are extremely inconsistent especially when they are facing the Ravens, Titans, and Steelers in the coming weeks.
Greg Roman: The Ravens passing game has been stagnant all season and its not for a lack of trying. The line is allowing pressure at a 22.1% click as opposed to last years 16.2%. In addition, Lamar’s scrambling has not been as effective, he is averaging half the yards per scramble and this has impacted drives too. Lamar has been sacked at a higher percentage of drop backs as he was last year; 8% of drop backs as opposed to 5.6%. Most importantly, the defenses they are facing are giving them different looks than they got last year and Roman, as the offensive coordinator and play caller, has not not adjusted well. Greg Roman will likely have some time to work on his play design and calling, the assumption being that their game against Pittsburgh is cancelled this week, which is critical if the Ravens expect to lock down one of the coveted AFC wildcard spots.
Philip Rivers: This is the obvious choice. Phil’s play has been up and down all season long and the Colts’ success has been tied to it. The past two weeks have been incredible for Rivers. He has thrown 4 touchdowns to 1 pick on incredible efficiency. In addition, receiving threat has emerged in addition to their versatile tight ends and half backs. Michael Pittman, has grown into their clear number 1 reliever in recent weeks and fits the same archetype of receiver that Rivers has had success with throughout his NFL tenure. Rivers has every tool around him to succeed and, as long as he can maintain average play through out the remainder of the season, the Colts will find themselves in the playoffs.
Isaiah Wilson: The Titans have had horrendous luck at the offensive tackle position this year. First, Taylor Lewan, their star tackle, found himself on injured reserve. Ty Sambrilo, Lewan’s backup, quickly followed suit. Perhaps the biggest issue however, has been their 2020 first round pick, Isaiah Wilson. The issue is not that he has been bad, but he just hasn’t been able to make it on to the field. While he was injured early this season, he is injured no longer and the coaching staff needs to give him a chance. Quessenberry has not shown that he can play at a high enough level to survive the games the Titans have coming up which could mean the Titans fall short in the increasingly competitive AFC.
Steven Sims: Terry McLaurin is an incredible receiver but the Football Team needs a number 2. Steven Sims looked like the guy late last season but has fallen into more of a gadget player role with the changing of the coaching staff. If, Turner can get Sims some more designed plays and give him the space he needs to make plays, Football Team will maintain its space atop the NFC East.
Jalen Hurts: Carson Wentz has failed the Eagles. He is holding the ball in the pocket for far too long and is being indecisive in the pocket. This has lead to him being sacked a league leading 40 times which has stalled drives all season. In addition, Wentz has a bad throw percentage of 20.6 and leads the league in interceptions. This is not starting caliber numbers. The move to Hurts needs to happen, whether its to tank or to move on to the playoffs it needs to happen. However, there is more upside to Hurts. Hurts took care of the football at an incredible rate and was able to run the ball very well. Hurts may not have been worth the second round pick, but he is good enough to manage the game and take the Eagles to the top of the NFC East (which isn’t saying much).
Andrew Thomas: Thought by most draft analysts to be the most pro-ready of the top 4 OTs in the 2020 class, (myself included) Andrew Thomas has far underwhelmed this assessment. He has allowed 6 sacks and the most pressures at his position by a large margin. This needs to change. Daniel Jones has played admirably under pressure to this point, but play under pressure is never sustainable. Things have looked up recently though. In his most recent game Thomas only allowed one pressure on 33 pass blocking snaps in his most recent game. Coming out of the bye, Andrew has the perfect opportunity to bounce back from the poor performance he began the season with.
Leighton Vander Esch: The Cowboys’ defense is god awful. However, there is room for improvement. Vander Esch showed up his rookie year and played incredibly, but has failed to replicate that level of performance since then. In the 16 games since the end of his rookie year, Vander Esch’s missed tackle percentage went from 6.7 to 15.2; more than doubling over that span. He needs to clean up the tackling and, if he does, he may be able to fix some of Dallas’ defensive issues in the middle of the field. Simply put, Dallas needs someone to step up on defense and I believe that Esch is the one who has shown the most potential to do so.
Joseph Noteboom: Andrew Whitworth was placed on IR after suffering a serious injury during their game against the Seahawks two weeks ago. This could prove to be disastrous as Whitworth, despite age is a top 5 left tackle. Joseph Noteboom is not anywhere near as good as Whitworth but he needs to perform as well as he possibly can for them to have any chance at a wildcard spot. Goff tends to be atrocious against pressure and that blind spot needs to be protected if they ever want to get that offense moving.
Isaiah Simmons: Simmons struggled early this season but, in recent weeks, he has played quite remarkably. Since week 9, Simmons has seen his snap count rise drastically from around 15% to 50% and he has delivered. Over the 3 games, Simmons has been a force for the Cardinals allowing a mere 59 yards in pass defense even against highly volatile passing offenses in Buffalo and Seattle. As long as Simmons keeps this up, the defense should be able to do enough for Kyler to lead the team to victory.
Mitch Trubisky: Foles has not been the starting QB that the Bears expected. However, a hip injury has reopened the door for Mitch to take over. While I am not saying Mitch is a good QB by any means, the remaining schedule is rather lax when it comes to defensive talent. If Trubisky can channel his inner 2018 self, the Bears could potentially make a run for the playoffs but it is rather unlikely at this point. In the case that Foles returns to the starting job once recovering from his injury, it is incredibly unlikely that he can take them to the playoffs. He simply does not seem to have the same high level of play in him that he did during the 2018 post-season.
Anthony Harris: Most Vikings fans would be quick to point to Cousins as the cause of their misery this season, but the more glaring issue has been their defense. In 2019, the Vikings defense succeeded, in large part, due to the play of their safeties. It is safe to say that production has not been sustained into 2020. Anthony Harris allowed a 44.2 passer rating in 2019 that was massively skewed due to 6 interceptions and no touchdowns allowed. As such, during the 2020 offseason, I was adamant the Vikings should move on from the aging safety as he would never come anywhere near repeating his 2019 season and the franchise tag would likely be better spent elsewhere. Harris has been abysmal this season having allowed a 124.3 passer rating along with 3 touchdowns with out having a turnover to his name. He absolutely needs to turn it around if the Vikings want any chance at the playoffs.
Ali Marpet: An offensive guard really? Yes. Ali has been out 3 weeks in a row for Tampa Bay and the results have not been promising. Over that span, the Buccaneers went 1-2 and had nearly a 10 percent discrepancy in pressure percentage allowed. In addition, over those three games, Tom Brady has produced a 20+ bad throw percentage in all 3 games. The Buccaneers need Marpet to come back from injury and show up at the same level he was playing early this season in order to make and compete in the playoffs. Without him, the line is missing a critical component that makes it extremely difficult for Brady to get the ball out to Tampa Bay’s lethal playmakers.
Photo: John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel