One Mistake Every NFL Team Must Avoid Down the Stretch in 2017

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystDecember 15, 2017

One Mistake Every NFL Team Must Avoid Down the Stretch in 2017

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    It's the stretch run of the 2017 NFL season. Just three more weeks remain between now and the end of the regular season.

    For some teams, that means jockeying for playoff position, whether it's a first-round bye or a division title.

    For others, the only thing to jockey for is a high pick in the 2018 NFL draft.

    And others still are stuck somewhere in between—too bad to make the postseason, but too good to land a top-five pick.

    However, whether they are good, bad or ugly, all NFL teams share one thing in common...sort of.

    Each has one thing it should avoid like the plague over the next three weeks—one mistake it can't afford to make.

    And here's a look at that "don't do it" list.

Arizona Cardinals: Rushing David Johnson Back

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    Jose Juarez/Associated Press

    It's been a miserable season for the Arizona Cardinals where injuries are concerned. And that misery began all the way back in Week 1, when star running back David Johnson dislocated his wrist.

    Johnson has been sidelined since, although there was hope early on that the third-year pro night be able to make a stretch-run return for the Redbirds.

    As Arizona general manager Steve Keim told Darren Urban of the team's website, those hopes have faded, even if the team won't rule the possibility out.

    "He gets paid to play football," Keim said. "But if there are any gray areas, I don't know why you'd want to risk it."

    Even if Johnson were close to full health, bringing him back makes little sense. At 6-7, the Cardinals are mathematically alive, but in a deep NFC the odds are beyond remote. In addition to winning out, Arizona would need about 37 things to happen.

    Johnson is the team's offensive centerpiece—especially given Carson Palmer's uncertain future with the team.

    Risking another injury in a lost season doesn't make any sense.

Atlanta Falcons: Continuing to Underuse Devonta Freeman

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    Danny Karnik/Associated Press

    It's no secret that the Atlanta Falcons have backslid offensively in 2017 under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Not that the team is bad on that side of the ball, mind you—but it has dropped from second in total offense last year to ninth in 2017.

    At least part of that slip can be attributed to using less of fourth-year tailback Devonta Freeman. Both Freeman's per-game usage and per-touch effectiveness are down slightly relative to last season.

    But the latter hasn't fallen off enough to justify the former. In fact, given Matt Ryan's struggles compared to his MVP campaign of a year ago, an argument can be made that the Falcons should be using Freeman more—not less.

    It's no coincidence that Freeman's three biggest usage games in 2017 all came in Atlanta victories. It's partly because teams run more with a lead. But it's mostly because when Freeman is effective and a big part of the game plan, it opens up play-action and makes the offense that much more efficient.

    If Atlanta is going to win out and capture a second straight NFC South title, Freeman needs to be a big part of the stretch run.

Baltimore Ravens: Getting Conservative Offensively Down the Stretch

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Despite blowing a late lead in a 39-38 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last week, the 7-6 Ravens are still in good position to make the playoffs. If it peels off victories in three winnable games to close the season, Baltimore should be back in the tournament.

    The key to making sure there's no late toe-stubbing is not turtling against the Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts or Cincinnati Bengals—instead remaining aggressive on offense.

    Granted, the Ravens haven't had a ton of success throwing the ball in 2017. They are 30th in the NFL in passing at 179.8 yards per game.

    But there's been improvement in that regard of late. In each of the last two games, Joe Flacco has thrown for 269 yards, and it's no coincidence that the Ravens have posted two of their three highest point totals of the season in those contests.

    Against inferior opposition, it might be tempting to grind out wins on the ground. But if Baltimore is going to make any noise in the playoffs, it needs to sustain the momentum built up over the past couple of weeks.

Buffalo Bills: Sticking with Tyrod Taylor

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    Rich Barnes/Associated Press

    Per John Wawrow of the Associated Press, it looks like Tyrod Taylor's balky knee is healthy enough for the veteran to start for the Bills on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.

    That's good news for the team—Nathan Peterman is still in the NFL's concussion protocol after taking a wicked shot to the helmet in last week's snowy tilt with the Colts.

    But assuming that Peterman clears the concussion protocol before the season ends, the Bills need to give the youngster at least one more start in 2017.

    It's become apparent that the new regime in Buffalo is lukewarm at best on Taylor as a long-term solution at quarterback. He'll likely find a new home in the offseason.

    Peterman may not be that guy either. If his play to date is any indication, he isn't—his start against the Los Angeles Chargers was a disaster of historic proportions, and his passer rating sits at a robust 38.4.

    That was sarcasm.

    Yes, the Bills are currently the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoffs. They have a chance to break the NFL's longest playoff drought.

    But that dream will probably die in Week 16 at Gillette Stadium. A loss to the Dolphins on Sunday would all but end it before then, but given how long it's been, you can't fault the fanbase for clinging to any shred of hope like grim death.

    But here's the reality in Buffalo. Sean McDermott doesn't want Taylor to be Buffalo's quarterback. He didn't want him when the team hemmed and hawed about Taylor before the season. He didn't want him when he pulled the starter for a 5-4 team. He doesn't want him now.

    In some respects, the sooner the Bills get eliminated the better.

    The team can stop pretending Taylor has a future in Buffalo, and he can get on with his career.

Carolina Panthers: Failing to Involve Greg Olsen Heavily on Offense

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    As Jourdan Rodrigue reported for the Charlotte Observer, Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen wasn't surprised that he received just one target in last week's win over the Minnesota Vikings.

    "I never expected to just come in and get 12 looks," said Olsen. "It’s just not realistic. I haven’t played in a while, so a lot of it is just kind of finding your way out there, and I think each week as I kind of get my legs under me and get back going a little bit, I think we’ll find that rhythm again."

    It's understandable that there would be rust to shake off after the 32-year-old missed most of the season with a broken foot.

    But if the Panthers are going to make a deep playoff run in 2017, they need to make a concerted effort to shake off that rust—now.

    Yes, the Panthers are 9-4. They rank fifth in the NFL in both total defense and rushing this season.

    But Carolina's passing game has been anemic without Cam Newton's favorite target on the field. And a ranking of 28th in the league through the air is not what Super Bowl runs are made of.

Chicago Bears: Prioritizing Winning over Mitchell Trubisky's Development

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    Frank Victores/Associated Press

    Let's be brutally honest. The 2017 iteration of the Chicago Bears has been toast since the beginning of September. And head coach John Fox is about as close to a mortal lock as you can get to be fired as soon as the season is over.

    There's one thing worth doing as the Bears play out the string.

    Roll rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky out there and let him throw it 40-plus times a game.

    Trubisky had one of his best games as a pro last week in a blowout Bears win. He completed 25 of 32 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown.

    The victory was nice. The signs of life from the second overall pick in the 2017 draft were even better.

    Yes, Jordan Howard has been rock-solid for the Bears again in 2017, topping 1,000 rushing yards for the second straight season. But the Bears know what they have in Howard. 

    And yes, the Chicago receiving corps isn't exactly loaded. But Trubisky is building a rapport with wide receiver Kendall Wright, and that's led to a completion percentage of 78.7 over the last two games. 

    Chicago's game plan over the last few weeks should focus on that rapport. On Trubisky's progressions. On using game experience to make him a better quarterback in 2018.

Cincinnati Bengals: Making a Change at Quarterback

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    Frank Victores/Associated Press

    Any hope the Cincinnati Bengals might have had of a last-ditch playoff push went up in a conflagration of awful in last week's blowout loss at home to the Chicago Bears.

    Simply put, the Bengals looked like a team that had quit.

    There are big changes coming in the Queen City. Coach Marvin Lewis may finally have run out of rope. Fans are clamoring for Andy Dalton to get the hook at quarterback in favor of AJ McCarron for the rest of the year.

    That latter switch may be in play down the road.

    But now is not the time.

    In a best-case scenario, McCarron is going to be a restricted free agent after the 2017 season. If he wins his grievance against the team, he'll be unrestricted.

    There's going to be more than a little interest in the 27-year-old in the offseason. If the Bengals start McCarron over the last three weeks of the season and he plays well, it will only serve to add fuel to the fire.

    The Bengals have a decision to make in regards to Dalton's future. But the team is also in the position of knowing better than any team in the NFL what McCarron can and can't do.

    Letting that cat out of the bag now serves no purpose other than to potentially cost the team money.

Cleveland Browns: Retaining Hue Jackson for One More Day

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    This is Cleveland, so of course the one mistake the team most needs to avoid is the one it's going to make.

    Sure enough, per ESPN.com's Pat McManamon, not only has Browns owner Jimmy Haslam indicated that Jackson will finish the season as Cleveland's head coach, but Haslam also pledged that Jackson will return to the team in 2018.

    Not for nothing, but why?

    In almost two full seasons with the Browns, Jackson has steered the team to the worst 29-game stretch in the modern history of the NFL. He bungled the handling of rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, ping-ponging the youngster in and out of the lineup.

    So much for Jackson's reputation as a QB whisperer.

    Then there was the rocky relationship between Jackson and the now-fired Sashi Brown. It was Brown who reportedly nixed the trade for AJ McCarron earlier this season, per CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora. A trade that Jackson supposedly wanted.

    A trade that would have been almost as bad as the monstrosity that was the Carson Palmer deal Jackson swung in Oakland years ago.

    Firing Brown and hiring John Dorsey was a positive step for the Browns.

    Showing Jackson the door would be another.

Dallas Cowboys: Not Playing Running Back Rod Smith

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys are one of a number of NFC teams sitting at 7-6 that are clinging to fading playoff hopes.

    A win over the Oakland Raiders this week would boost those hopes—as would the return of star running back Ezekiel Elliott from suspension the following week.

    Elliott, when on the field, has been the definition of an every-down running back for the Cowboys the past couple of seasons. There's only been one game in 2017 in which Elliott didn't pile up at least 75 percent of the offensive snaps, per FootballGuys.com.

    But given the emergence of passing-down back Rod Smith over the last two weeks, a change in strategy might be in order.

    It's not just the matter of the 160 total yards and two scores that Smith exploded for against the New York Giants last week, either.

    Elliott's per-game workload in the NFL (and in his last year at Ohio State, for that matter) has toed the line between heavy and ridiculous. Elliott touched the ball 377 times as a rookie and would have flirted with that number in 2017 had he not been suspended.

    Spelling Elliott with Smith—even if it's just a handful of times a game—could have both short- and long-term benefits for everyone involved.

Denver Broncos: Sitting Paxton Lynch the Rest of the Season

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Given how poorly Paxton Lynch played in his lone start for the Denver Broncos this season, it's understandable that the idea that he'd start another might make fans queasy.

    Forty-one passing yards, 2.9 yards per attempt, a pick and a passer rating of 38.4 against a bad Oakland defense—pass the Pepto.

    But assuming Lynch's sprained ankle heals enough for him to make another start this season, the Broncos have to bite the bullet and roll him out there at least once more.

    Is Lynch the long-term answer for Denver at quarterback? From everything we've seen to this point, no way. But neither is Trevor Siemian. Or Brock Osweiler.

    And Lynch was more than just a first-round pick. He was a first-round pick who John Elway traded up to draft in 2016.

    If the team is going on to move on from Lynch (at least so far as his starting goes), the Broncos might as well be sure he is as bad as he looked against the Raiders.

    It's not like the Broncos have anything to lose.

Detroit Lions: Bothering to Attempt to Run the Ball

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    The Detroit Lions are another of those 7-6 fringe playoff contenders in the NFC—if Detroit has any illusions of making it back to the postseason, it can't afford another defeat.

    And that means the Lions can't afford the delusion that the team can run the ball even a little bit anymore.

    The Lions are dead last in the NFL in rushing, at a positively putrid 76.3 yards per game. Detroit is averaging a whopping 3.3 yards a pop in 2017, and the next 40-yard run a Detroit back peels off will be the first one this season.

    The team's leading rusher (Ameer Abdullah) has barely gained 500 yards, is averaging 3.4 yards a carry and hasn't rushed for even 60 yards in a game since Week 4.

    Enough. You can't run. Stop trying. It doesn't work.

    Go with three wide receivers. Or four. Or even five. Put third-down back Theo Riddick in there, spread the field, and let Matthew Stafford throw the ball 50 times.

    If the Lions are going to win, that's what it's going to take.

Green Bay Packers: Lousing Up the Aaron Rodgers Situation

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    It appears a decision has been made regarding Aaron Rodgers and his broken collarbone. Per Rob Demovsky of ESPN, the Packers' star quarterback has been cleared to return to the field this week in Carolina.

    With the Packers needing three straight wins (and some help) to make the postseason, it's believed that No. 12 will be under center when the Packers face the Panthers on Sunday.

    If the Packers win out with Rodgers, complete another magical push and make the postseason, no one will think twice about the decision to roll him back out there.

    But there's another possibility.

    Back in 2015, Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys suffered a nearly identical injury and returned to the field that same season. His return lasted less than two games before he rebroke it on Thanksgiving Day.

    Against the same Carolina Panthers.

    That doesn't mean a similar fate will befall Rodgers. But it's entirely possible the Packers could win out and still miss the playoffs, and the Panthers are third in the NFL in sacks this season.

    Rodgers will get hit Sunday. And his collarbone is not fully healed.

Houston Texans: Starting Tom Savage Again in 2017

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    I almost feel bad for the Houston Texans this year.

    There hasn't been a team hit harder by injuries in 2017. The Texans lost their best defensive player in J.J. Watt. Arguably their second-best defensive player in Whitney Mercilus. And their scintillating rookie quarterback, Deshaun Watson.

    Last week backup quarterback-turned-starting quarterback Tom Savage suffered a scary-looking shot to the head that left him lying on the ground as his hands spasmed.

    Savage needs to stay down the rest of this season.

    For starters, there's the matter of Savage's health and how badly the Texans botched this situation. As Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reported, a clearly impaired Savage was allowed to re-enter a game he had zero business playing in.

    At this point in a lost season, there's less than zero reason to rush Savage back.

    Also, to be brutally honest, T.J. Yates played at least as well as Savage has this season once he entered the game. Yates has experience as a starter, too. Let him finish the season.

    Houston botched this situation last Sunday.

    Don't botch it again.

Indianapolis Colts: Continuing to Use Frank Gore as the No. 1 Tailback

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    Frank Victores/Associated Press

    At this late juncture in the season, the Indianapolis Colts have very little left to play for. It's been a miserable season that started with Andrew Luck's injury and may end with Chuck Pagano's firing.

    It may well be that an effort to save his job explains why Pagano is sticking with Frank Gore as Indy's lead running back.

    Yes, Gore is coming off a career high in carries and his first 100-yard rushing game of the 2017 season. But Gore is also a 34-year-old running back about to hit free agency who has all but said he intends to play for a winning team next season.

    That isn't going to be the Colts.

    It's high time for Pagano and the Colts to look toward the future by seeing what they have in younger players, like tailback Marlon Mack.

    Does Mack have what it takes to be a lead back in the NFL? I don't know.

    But he's shown flashes this season, and there's little to be lost in a year that already is by finding out.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Taking Their Foot off the Gas in the Passing Game

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Jacksonville Jaguars are in the midst of their best season in a decade. The Jags are on the verge of not only making the playoffs but also winning the AFC South.

    Jacksonville's success has not exactly come with a grip-and-rip passing game. The team's not horrible through the air (18th in the NFL), but for the Jags, it's been about defense and running the football.

    However, Blake Bortles has improved as the season has progressed—a sentence I did not expect to type. Two weeks ago, Bortles threw for 309 yards and two scores against the Colts. Last week he outplayed Russell Wilson.

    I'm serious. He really did.

    And if Jacksonville's good fortune is going to extend into the postseason, Bortles is going to have to keep playing just like that.

    Whether it's the Tennessee Titans in a Week 17 contest that could decide the division or the playoff games that will come after, it's no great mystery what opponents are going to do defensively against Jacksonville.

    Load up the box, try to shut down Leonard Fournette and make Bortles beat them.

    So, even though the next two games (Houston and at San Francisco) appear winnable, the Jaguars need to keep the pedal to the floor in the passing game. Keep Bortles as sharp as possible.

    Again with the sentences I never thought I'd write.

Kansas City Chiefs: Forgetting That Kareem Hunt Is on the Team—Again

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    The Kansas City Chiefs stopped their free fall last week with an emphatic win over the Oakland Raiders.

    It was also the first time since Week 7 that rookie tailback Kareem Hunt topped 100 total yards.

    No doubt that's just a coincidence.

    Over Kansas City's five-game winning streak to open the season, Hunt averaged 23 touches and 155 total yards per game. When the Chiefs followed that winning streak up with six losses in seven games, those numbers dropped to 17 touches and 75 total yards per game.

    In games where Hunt carries the ball more than 20 times this season, the Chiefs are 4-0 with a point differential of plus-38. In games where he carries the ball 11 or fewer times, the Chiefs are 0-4 with a point differential of minus-30.

    None of those four games were routs, either. There's no earthly reason why, in a close game, Hunt should only carry the ball nine times.

    It's happened three times this year.

    It doesn't take a rocket surgeon to see that in 2017, as goes Hunt, so goes the Kansas City offense.

Los Angeles Chargers: Failing to Address the Run Defense

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Chargers are one of the hottest teams in the National Football League. After winning four in a row and seven of nine, the Bolts have a chance to assume first place all by their lonesome with a win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday.

    If L.A. can make the playoffs after losing its first four games, it would become just the second team in NFL history to accomplish that feat.

    The Chargers were also the first.

    But as they prepare for this must-win contest, there's an elephant in the room. L.A.'s run defense has been not so good in 2017.

    The Chargers are tied with the Chiefs for 30th in the NFL against the run, allowing a hair under 125 yards a game. That number has actually improved over the last month, but it's hard to tell whether that's due to the return of linebacker Denzel Perryman or a schedule stretch that's been heavy on tomato cans.

    The Chiefs are not a tomato can, averaging 116.6 yards a game on the ground. Saturday's game will be a litmus test as to whether or not the Chargers' improvement against the run of late has been a trend or a mirage.

    And given the stakes of this game, the Chargers can't afford to be wrong about which one it is.

Los Angeles Rams: Getting the Late-Season Yips

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Rams are one of 2017's biggest surprises. A Rams team from which little was expected this season sits at 9-4 and in first place in the NFC West.

    The Rams are also in the middle of an absolutely brutal stretch in the schedule. From Week 11 to Week 16, the Rams either have played or will play five teams currently slated for postseason berths.

    So far, the Rams are 1-2 in those games, with a win over the Saints and losses to the Vikings and Eagles. On Sunday, Los Angeles will travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks in a game that may wind up deciding the NFC West this year.

    The Seahawks prevailed when these teams first met in Week 5, but even if Sunday brings a repeat, the best thing the Rams can do this late in their surprise surge is take a deep breath.

    As things stand right now, there's a chance that an 11-5 team could wind up out of the NFC playoffs altogether. The chances of that actually happening are remote, but it shows how little margin for error there is in the NFC this year.

    Part of becoming a successful franchise is learning how to shake off setbacks, like last week's wild loss to Philly. And whether that setback came last week, comes this week or in Week 16 in Nashville, this late in the game the Rams are going to have to be a quick study.

    Or, of course, they could just win out. That works too.

Miami Dolphins: Being Fooled by a Late Run

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Misery loves company—or so the old saying goes.

    The Miami Dolphins could spend the last month of the 2017 season spreading misery across the AFC East like a reverse Santa Claus. Last week's win over the Patriots put New England on the verge of losing home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Beat Buffalo even once in two tries, and odds are the NFL's longest playoff drought continues.

    A Week 16 win in Kansas City could knock the Chiefs out of the playoffs, too.

    But even if the Dolphins win out and spend the rest of the year taking teams down with them, it isn't going to erase the stink of a disappointing campaign.

    Yes, the Dolphins found themselves in scramble mode after Ryan Tannehill got hurt. They never expected to be rolling out Jay Cutler at quarterback. Or Kenyan Drake at tailback, for that matter.

    But the Miami offense was awful for most of the season. The defense was average and generated next to no pressure on opposing quarterbacks, ranking 28th in the NFL in sacks.

    Don't let a little late success erase all those failures and cover up the warts.

    There's a lot of work to be done in Miami this offseason.

Minnesota Vikings: Seriously Considering Starting Teddy Bridgewater

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Almost from the moment Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was activated, there's been speculation that it was just a matter of time until he unseated Case Keenum as the team's starter.

    After all, it's Case Keenum we're talking about. It's not like the dude has been playing lights-out football in leading the Vikings to eight straight wins or something.

    Except that's exactly what Keenum did.

    Yes, Minnesota's win streak was snapped last week in Carolina. But there's no shame in losing on the road to a very good Panthers team, and while Keenum didn't exactly light it up against one of the NFL's best defenses, he also wasn't horrible.

    Meanwhile, Bridgewater's last pass in a game that counted was in January...2016.

    That's almost two years ago, if you don't like calendars.

    It's a great story that Bridgewater's been able to make it back after nearly losing his leg due to a truly horrific injury in practice.

    But so long as the Vikings have something to play for—whether it's the NFC North title or playoff seeding—Keenum's the guy.

New England Patriots: Underestimating Their Problems

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots don't generally make the sort of mistakes listed in this piece. If they did, they wouldn't be the Patriots.

    But there is one problem the Patriots may have a hard time coming to grips with as they head toward a ninth straight division title.

    The problem is that the Patriots have problems. Problems that manifested quite clearly in last week's loss in Miami.

    With injuries mounting defensively, New England is reverting back to the unit we saw over the first few weeks of the 2017 season. A unit that couldn't stop anybody.

    Heck, it couldn't even slow anyone down.

    Perhaps even more importantly, without Rob Gronkowski on the field Monday night, the mighty Patriots offense sputtered. Tom Brady was clearly outplayed by Jay Cutler.

    Chew on that sentence for a second.

    There isn't a team in the NFL that's better at making adjustments than the Pats. Bill Belichick, more than any coach in the league, will turn his team upside down if he believes it will give the Patriots an edge.

    With a huge matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers looming that will likely determine the AFC's No. 1 seed, that ability to adapt is about to be put to the test.

New Orleans Saints: Leaning Too Heavily on the Run Game

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    At first glance, this might not seem to be a problem at all. The fourth-ranked rushing attack of the Saints is a big reason the team is 9-4 and on the brink of its first playoff trip since 2013.

    However, the Saints have lost two of their last three games—losses that were an equal mix of a less-potent-than-usual ground game and surprisingly mortal performances from Drew Brees and the Saints passing game.

    It sounds incredibly weird to say this, but to an extent down the stretch, opponents are daring Brees to beat them—targeting the run game first and foremost.

    The Saints need to demonstrate that's a mistake—give potential playoff opponents some film to chew on.

    Mind you, it's not a bad thing that the Saints have more balance. That they are running the ball about 44 percent of the time this year as opposed to 35 percent of the time in 2016.

    But there's a theme in the Saints' four losses. In those games, New Orleans is averaging just 75.5 rushing yards per game. That's a full 60 yards per game less than its season average.

    And in those games the Saints are averaging over nine points a game under their season average of 28.5.

    This isn't to say that New Orleans should pull a Kansas City and forget Alvin Kamara is on the team for three weeks. That would be ludicrous.

    But the Saints struggled a bit offensively last week without Kamara on the field—struggles that may indicate they've been leaning a little too much on the rookie sensation.

    And I have a hard time believing it's because Brees forgot how to throw a football.

    Spread it out early Sunday against the New York Jets. Let Brees go to town and carve Gang Green to pieces in the first half. Turn those recent tendencies on their head.

    Give the rest of the NFC something to think (and worry) about.

    It will open up the run that much more.

New York Giants: Winning Another Game

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    To say that the 2017 season has been a disaster for the New York Giants is one whopper of an understatement. A team that entered the year with Super Bowl aspirations has already sacked its head coach after two wins in 13 games.

    The last thing the Giants need is to win any more.

    There's a silver lining to this catastrophe of a season. It will net the Giants a very high pick in next year's NFL draft—a pick that could be used to select Eli Manning's eventual successor at quarterback.

    We won't get into the Manning fiasco here. It's a long, sad story.

    As things stand right now, only the winless Browns would pick ahead of the Giants next April. However, a win or two over the last three weeks serves just one purpose—to cost the Giants slots in the draft.

    They say it's always darkest before the dawn, and as bad as this season's been, sometimes a sudden fall can be the genesis of an equally rabid rebound.

    Don't louse up 2017 a second time with a meaningless win over the Cardinals or Redskins.

New York Jets: Starting Christian Hackenberg Under Any Circumstance

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    The New York Jets fought the good fight this season.

    At first glance, a 5-8 record might not appear much to write home about. But given the expectations that surrounded the team (or lack thereof) before the year began, five wins are actually quite the accomplishment.

    Now, sadly, the party's over. With veteran quarterback Josh McCown out for the season with a broken hand, the prospects for the New York offense aren't good.

    However, regardless of how bad things get with Bryce Petty under center, there's one thing the Jets simply cannot—must not—do.

    Start Christian Hackenberg.

    That the team is going to Petty at all demonstrates just how much confidence it doesn't have in Hackenberg. And if you've ever seen the 22-year-old play, you know why that is.

    It doesn't matter if Petty goes out against the New Orleans Saints and pulls a Peterman with five first-half interceptions. It doesn't matter if the Jets get beaten 47-0.

    Whether it's the practice field or in the preseason, Hackenberg has been well and truly awful at every turn. He's completed less than half his passes with a 3-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio in games that don't count against defenders who are mostly delivering pizzas and working at Home Depot now.

    In two years, a team desperate for a franchise quarterback hasn't let Hackenberg throw a single regular-season pass.

    Subjecting Jets fans to him this season would just be mean.

Oakland Raiders: Continuing to Halfheartedly Run the Ball

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    At 6-7, the Oakland Raiders are just about cooked.

    Even if the Raiders win out, an Oakland team that came into 2017 with Super Bowl hopes will need something of Christmas miracle to make the playoffs at all.

    Of course, it won't matter unless Oakland wins its last three games. And to do that, it needs to ride the run game until Marshawn Lynch's legs fall off.

    The Marshawn Lynch experiment in Oakland has been something of a failure. The Raiders rank 26th in the NFL in rushing, at 91.5 yards per game.

    That failure doesn't rest on Lynch's shoulders, however. He's actually played fairly well for a 31-year-old tailback, averaging 4.2 yards a carry and scoring seven times.

    But for whatever reason, the Raiders have more commitment issues than Taylor Swift where running the football is concerned. Despite a good offensive line and a bad defense (two factors that lend themselves to playing ball control), Lynch has 15 carries in a game all of three times this season.

    Oakland won all three.

    Funny coincidence, that.

Philadelphia Eagles: Getting Too Conservative Offensively

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    The loss of Carson Wentz to a season-ending ACL tear was a devastating blow to the Eagles' Super Bowl aspirations. And while Nick Foles is a capable and experienced backup, safety Malcolm Jenkins allowed to ESPN.com's Tim McManus that Philly will probably be making some schematic adjustments offensively.

    "Offensively, there's going to be some things that we'll probably change around just because Nick doesn't have some of the abilities of Carson when you talk about mobility and all of that," Jenkins said. "Going to run the ball more and rely on these great backs that we have on the team. Our defense needs to step up and be the defense that we've been all year."

    That's fine—so long as the team doesn’t make too many adjustments to compensate for the change under center.

    The Eagles aren't going to get far in the postseason if the offense becomes two runs followed by a pass on every series. Or if all those pass attempts are short. The Eagles have been great at running the ball this season (second in the NFL), but Wentz contributed to that success on the ground as well by keeping defenses honest.

    If the Eagles are going to continue marching toward Minnesota, they need to trust Foles to make vertical throws and continue challenging defenses through the air.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Giving Star Players Too Much Rest

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers are in the position every NFL team wants to be in this time of year. With a win over the New England Patriots on Sunday, the Steelers will lock up the top seed in the AFC playoffs and home-field advantage up until the Super Bowl.

    That's the good news.

    The bad news is that if the Steelers do get that win, head coach Mike Tomlin might be tempted to sit players like quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown—especially after watching linebacker Ryan Shazier go down with a scary season-ending injury back in Week 13.

    With Bell, it's understandable. He's carried a heavy workload this year and has a history of getting nicked up late in the year.

    But Tomlin needs to resist the urge to sit Big Ben and AB for more than a half or so of the season finale.

    It's a movie we've seen far too many times. A top seed sits its stars in Week 17—or Week 16 and Week 17. Then they have a week off before the Divisional Round. Then those players come out flat because of the long layoff, and the next thing you know it's upset city.

San Francisco 49ers: Continuing to Win Games That Don't Matter

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    It was going so well.

    Over the first half of the 2017 season, the San Francisco 49ers were absolutely perfect at being bad. Every week, the team would play opponents tight.

    Every week, the 49ers would lose.

    Then the Niners went out and traded for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

    And now he's ruining everything.

    Over the last month, the 49ers are 3-1, with two of those wins coming with Garoppolo at the helm. Yes, the new regime can point to that streak as a measure of improvement by the team.

    But that improvement comes at a price—draft position. If the Niners land a high enough pick next year, then with Garoppolo in the fold San Francisco can either draft a difference-maker at another position or (even better) flip the pick to a team desperate for a quarterback.

    The 49ers have already stockpiled a nice array of draft capital—a very good thing for a team with holes all over the place. Trading a top-five pick could land them even more.

    But to land a windfall, the 49ers must stay in the sweet spot—inside the top five.

    So, knock it off, Jimmy. Gotta think big picture.

Seattle Seahawks: Losing Their Composure…Again

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    That the Seattle Seahawks were handled last week by the Jaguars in Jacksonville was concerning.

    That a Seahawks team that's supposed to be the most battle-tested in the NFC completely lost its collective head at the end of the game is so much worse.

    Seattle head coach Pete Carroll admitted to reporters, via Jeremy Bergman of NFL.com, that the behavior of players like Michael Bennett at the end of the loss was beyond the pale.

    "I really don't like the way the game ended," Carroll said. "The level that we play at, that's not an excuse for going over the top like that. All these guys have heard that and they understand that and we don't ever want to look like that."

    The Seahawks already had problems in 2017. The offensive line has been spotty. So has the run game. The secondary has been ravaged by injuries. And now Seattle could be without linebackers Bobby Wagner (hamstring) and K.J. Wright (concussion) heading into an absolute must-win game with the Los Angeles Rams.

    Should the Seahawks be fired up for their most important home game of the year? Of course.

    But blow a stack again and get an ill-timed personal foul, and it could cost the Seahawks more than just 15 yards.

    It could cost them the playoffs altogether.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Letting Dirk Koetter "Save" His Job

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered 2017 amid all sorts of expectations as a "dark horse" playoff contender—the Hard Knocks darlings of the NFL.

    The Buccaneers haven't come close to meeting all those expectations. In fact, the Buccaneers have been one of the league's more disappointing teams.

    That isn't solely head coach Dirk Koetter's fault. After all, he hasn't been on the offense that ranks 26th in rushing. Or the defense that ranks 31st in the NFL.

    But Koetter deserves his share of the blame. The Buccaneers have been one of the NFL's more undisciplined teams in 2017. There have been far too many missed opportunities and unforced errors. Tampa is tied for seventh in the NFL in giveaways with 20, has converted less than 40 percent of its third downs and ranks 22nd in red-zone touchdown percentage.

    There's also the matter of the reportedly growing rift between Koetter and quarterback Jameis Winston (who has regressed in 2017), per Jenna Laine of ESPN.com. Yes, Winston denied that rift, but the rumbles came from somewhere, and it's just another indicator of the dysfunction that has plagued the Buccaneers this season.

    There's also been criticism of Koetter's offense, which one opponent called "easily the most predictable we've seen all year."

    Add it all together, and regardless of what happens over the next three weeks, a change at head coach in Tampa appears to be in order.

Tennessee Titans: Throwing the Ball, Like, Ever

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Tennessee Titans are 8-5—still very much in the hunt both in the AFC South and for a wild-card spot.

    But the Titans have also become this year's poster kids for winning ugly. Among teams with eight or more wins, Tennessee is the only one with a negative point differential (minus-21) for the year.

    The Titans haven't been piling up points largely because they haven't been piling up yards, either. Tennessee ranks 21st in the NFL in total offense and 27th in passing offense in a year where the play of quarterback Marcus Mariota has taken a big step backward.

    However, the Titans are a top-10 running team, averaging 117.7 yards per game.

    And they need to embrace who they are.

    Tennessee isn't going to win shootouts. The Titans also aren't going to mount any 20-point comebacks given how Mariota has struggled this year.

    Play ball control. Control the clock and the tempo of the game. Pound away on the ground, and slam the ball down an opponent's throat.

    Tennessee will go as far in this year's postseason (assuming it holds on and makes it) as Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray take it.

Washington Redskins: Quitting

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    The 2017 season has been a letdown for the Washington Redskins. The team may not have been considered any sort of favorite in the NFC East, but there was at least optimism that Washington might contend for a wild-card spot.

    It wasn't to be. At 5-8, the Redskins are just playing out the string.

    Of late, Washington's been doubly disappointing. Injuries have played a part, to be sure, but over the past couple of weeks, the Redskins have been flat on both sides of the ball.

    Over that span, in a pair of defeats, Washington has been outscored 68-27.

    It hasn't been a good look.

    Washington isn't bad enough to benefit from going into the tank. As things stand now, the Redskins would pick on the cusp of the top 10 next April. And there are some huge decisions to make regarding key players like quarterback Kirk Cousins and inside linebacker Zach Brown.

    Wide receiver Terrelle Pryor checked out earlier this season, and he's all but certainly going to be looking for a new team next spring.

    The rest of the team would be well-served to keep that in mind.