There are four weeks remaining in the NFL regular season. I know what many of you are thinking: “Damn, I have to buy Christmas presents already. Maybe I shouldn’t have spent that weekend in Vegas at the end of the summer.” Credit cards are about to be burning the next couple of weeks, but this time of the year is also the final 400 meters of the NFL regular-season schedule.
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As long as teams have been near, or at, the top of the pack the first 1200, obvious flaws could be ignored. On this final lap, though, all mistakes and deficiencies are magnified because only so much race remains. The Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, and Kansas City Chiefs began this season with a smooth stride. Those strides have looked increasingly vulnerable as the mile race of the 2023 season has progressed.
The Chiefs actually stumbled out of the blocks with a season-opening loss to the Lions at home.
Patrick Mahomes & Co. gathered themselves immediately and won their next six games. The Eagles won nine of their first 10 games, and the Lions have been winning at a steady pace all season.
For all three teams, recent weeks have put an interrogation room light on their weaknesses. No NFL teams are perfect. The limits of humanity and the NFL’s hard salary cap do not allow for that. It is not difficult to figure out each team’s weaknesses. How often those shortcomings — as well as the total number of them — are exploited is what differentiates the good, the average, and the stank teams.
The Lions’ Thanksgiving game kicked off 71.5 hours after a classic Dan Campbell postgame speech. They came back from a 12-point deficit in just over four minutes to defeat the Chicago Bears at home. No potential champion should be in that precarious of a situation against a team that might clean house after spending two years restocking it.
Both the Eagles and Chiefs are staring at two-game losing streaks. The Chiefs did not lose consecutive games at any point during their 2022 Super Bowl championship season. The Eagles lost two in a row, last year, in Weeks 16 and 17 with Jalen Hurts sidelined. After 14 weeks, the two participants in Super Bowl LVII are on the ropes.
The old championship mettle argument can be used for the Chiefs and Eagles, although significantly less so for last season’s runner-up. That argument can’t be applied to the Lions’ roster, as currently constructed, or the organization as a whole. They have won one playoff game since their last NFL Championship — in 1957. Three favorites are hitting the skids with only a handful of games remaining in the regular season. They all absolutely register on the panic meter.
I did not invent the panic meter, so I am not about to provide exact quantifications on its readings. I prefer to think of these teams as a car’s temperature gauge. As long as it hovers center-right — get your head out of politics — a team has no problems. Problems arise once the gauge pushes noticeably to the left. If a car runs that hot with no effort to cool it, significant damage can occur.
The Lions are like an old car with a gauge that regularly stays just a bit to the left. For a person who cannot afford something better, it can transport a driver for only so long. Campbell’s bunch is a great story. Teams like this are what give sports the slightest vein of decency.
A tough bunch is trying with all its might to turn a losing franchise around. Their defense has struggled mightily, even in victories, but this Jared Goff-led offense also deserves scrutiny. He lost fumbles on consecutive drives during their Thanksgiving matchup against the Green Bay Packers. Jonathan Owens — shoutout to Simone Biles, an American hero who still wants to cheer on her husband in the northern Wisconsin elements — returned it for a touchdown and put his team up, 20-6, in the first quarter.
While the Packers turned the ball over on downs after the second fumble, they kept the Lions at bay all day. The score did not get within one possession until Detroit cut the lead to five points following a touchdown and successful 2-point conversion attempt with 41 seconds remaining in the game.
During the Lions’ first matchup against the Bears in November, three passes got intercepted and they fumbled on special teams. The turnovers were all doubled up — two interceptions in the first quarter and a back-to-back interception and fumble in the third quarter.
Against the Bears, Week 14 at Soldier Field, the Lions turned the ball over three times. That all happened before the gift of that offsides flag that resulted in a game-winning touchdown for Chicago. The Lions’ defense is flawed and not as strong as their early-season performances. However, their turnover problem couldn’t be fixed by Robert Porcher or Dick “Night Train” Lane.
In mid-November, Campbell instructed his team to never feel bad following an NFL win. I agree with him in the sense that every win in that league is precious, even though some of them do deserve deep introspection. Teams like the 2023 Eagles, that win a lot of one-score games, should examine why they continually struggle to pull away from teams.
Of the Eagles’ 10 wins — the first team in the NFL to reach that total this season — only two were by more than one score. Their last four wins required fourth-quarter comebacks. Coming back to win after trailing at halftime in four consecutive games tied a league record. The other three teams to accomplish that feat were the 1971 Cleveland Browns, the 2006 Tennessee Titans, and the 2011 Arizona Cardinals. Only that Browns’ team made the playoffs, and they lost their first game to the Baltimore Colts.
Like the Lions, the Eagles’ defense has struggled. They aren’t anywhere near the Lions in the unweighted defense DVOA rankings. Detroit was 10th while Philly was 21st going into Week 14. For all of the Eagles’ talent on the defensive line, their secondary struggles. Their defense went from the first quarter against the San Francisco 49ers to the third quarter against the Dallas Cowboys without forcing a punt.
Against the 49ers in Week 13, the Eagles were not able to keep pace in a 42-19 blowout loss at home. The Cowboys were aided by turnovers in their 33-13, Week 14, Sunday Night Football home victory. Jalen Hurts, A.J. Brown, and DeVonta Smith each lost fumbles during that game.
The Eagles fumbled three times against the Cowboys at home in November and were lucky to recover all of them. Without Travis Kelce’s second-half fumble in Week 13, they might not have escaped that game against the Chiefs with a victory.
Few rosters in the NFL are as strong as the one wearing the Philadelphia green, but it is not as dominant as last year. The Eagles are capable of a return trip to the Super Bowl and might even be able to clinch home-field advantage. They just had better not count on a potential NFC Championship Game opponent to have no options at quarterback after halftime for a second consecutive season.
In this piece, I will not get into officiating during the Chiefs’ last two games. Regardless of outside forces that have played a role in KC losing consecutively for the first time in two seasons, the team is 8-5 through 14 weeks.
The Chiefs have not lost five games in a season since Alex Smith’s last year as a starter in 2017, when they went 10-6. In 2016, when Mahomes was still at Texas Tech, they finished with a 12-4 record. They have won the AFC West the last seven seasons. Mahomes has never played in a road playoff game.
Coming off of a championship season, the Chiefs had to shuffle some money which resulted in them losing Orlando Brown Jr. and Andrew Wylie on the offensive line, as well as wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and defensive back Juan Thornhill.
The defense and the offensive line have largely done their part to keep the Chiefs a contender. It’s the pass catchers that are letting games slip through their fingers. Kelce has received criticism for his spotty performance in 2023. In 2022 he caught 110 passes. This season, the 34-year-old Kelce has 74 catches with four games remaining while averaging more than a full yard less per reception.
Smith-Schuster has not been able to come close to salvaging the 2023 New England Patriots, but his 78 receptions for 933 yards from 2022 are missed. Behind him was Marques Valdez-Scantling with 687 yards receiving. Valdez-Scantling currently has less than 300 total yards receiving on the season and the Chiefs lead the NFL in drops. This, while no team has scored 30 points against KC this season.
Going into Week 14 the Chiefs had the No. 4 offense and No. 9 defense per DVOA. That being said, after two huge and uninspiring losses helped spiral KC to its potentially worst record in seven seasons, even Mahomes can’t play past the reasonable doubt facing the 2023 Chiefs.