Biggest Question Each NFL Super Bowl Contender Needs to Answer Before the Playoffs

Alex BallentineNovember 24, 2022

Biggest Question Each NFL Super Bowl Contender Needs to Answer Before the Playoffs

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    Jalen Hurts is going to have to continue to develop to take the Eagles to the Super Bowl.
    Justin Casterline/Getty Images

    If there's one thing we've learned through 11 weeks of NFL action, it's that no team is perfect.

    The Philadelphia Eagles were the last of the unbeaten squads to go down in 2022. But there's a reason there hasn't been an undefeated season since 1972, when the Miami Dolphins completed their unblemished run to a Lombardi Trophy.

    While there are plenty of strong teams in this year's crop of Super Bowl contenders, each of them has a potentially fatal flaw that could sink its hopes come playoff time.

    Fortunately for these contenders, there's still time to find answers for the questions that could become problems, whether it's a scheme adjustment, getting an injured player back in the lineup or making a roster move.

    These are the key questions each contender must answer as it looks to cement its status.

    The list includes the top four AFC and NFC teams in the order they appear in the latest power rankings from the Bleacher Report NFL staff.

Kansas City Chiefs: Can They Tighten Up the Run Defense?

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    Willie Gay and the Chiefs defense have to play better against the run.
    David Eulitt/Getty Images

    There's little reason to be concerned about the Kansas City Chiefs offense. Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce have proved they can overcome injuries, an inconsistent running game and various defensive game plans to come up with enough points to win.

    The 30-27 road victory over the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 11 was a great example of that.

    With wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster out (concussion), Mahomes and Kelce connected on three touchdowns.

    But the Chiefs' inconsistency in stopping the run is a concern that could prove costly.

    According to The 33rd Team, the Chiefs are 26th in EPA per play against zone run and 15th against gap run schemes. Typically, teams that struggle to stop the run can shift toward playing its base personnel package, but that has not been successful for Kansas City.

    They are 31st in EPA when playing out of their base personnel, a package they only use 21 percent of the time.

    The Chiefs have preferred to play nickel 52 percent of the time but run dime personnel at the third-highest rate in the league.

    Led by running back Derrick Henry and quarterback Malik Willis, the Titans rushed for 172 yards on 29 carries in Week 9, allowing them to control much of the game before the Chiefs came back in the fourth quarter to force overtime and eventually claim the win.

    That's a team the Chiefs should beat if they meet again in the playoffs, but it will be difficult if they don't have a better plan.

Philadelphia Eagles: Can the Passing Game Evolve?

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    A.J. Brown and the passing game have to continue to find ways to evolve through the postseason.
    AP Photo/AJ Mast

    Jalen Hurts has made a ton of progress as a passer this season. The addition of A.J. Brown has helped in a major way, and the Eagles have gone from a run-dominant team in 2022 to one that has more balance and explosion in the passing game.

    The Eagles are tied for fourth in completion percentage (68.2) and third in yards per pass (7.8). Head coach Nick Sirianni and his staff have done a great job of building a passing attack that takes advantage of their personnel and plays off the running game.

    But the league is a constant game of punches and counterpunches. After early-season success, the Eagles' passing game has hit a snag. In the loss to the Commanders in Week 10, Hurts was just 17-of-26 for 175 yards and two touchdowns with a pick. In the follow-up win over the Colts, he was 18-of-25 for 190 yards and one touchdown.

    Zone defenses have been especially vexing for the passing attack. As Haley English of Pro Football Focus noted, the Commanders played zone 75 percent of the time against Philadelphia on their way to the upset victory.

    When Brown has one-on-one matchups on the outside, he's able to beat the coverage, and it opens up everything else in the passing game.

    Finding answers on how to consistently beat zone coverages that take away the big plays is going to be key. Dallas Goedert's shoulder injury is going to make things even more complicated, though the tight end is expected to come back before the regular season is over.

Miami Dolphins: Can They Pressure the Quarterback with Fewer Blitzes?

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    Bradley Chubb could be the solution for Miami's biggest question.
    Megan Briggs/Getty Images

    No one is going to look forward to slowing down a Miami Dolphins offense with Tua Tagovailoa, Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle come playoff time. But no one is going to be afraid of the Dolphins pass rush at this point.

    The Fins are just 25th in pressure percentage. What makes that number even worse is the fact they are seventh in blitz rate.

    There's nothing wrong with an aggressive approach on defense, but it doesn't bode well for their hopes against the elite teams in the AFC. Patrick Mahomes' success against the blitz has been well-documented.

    When the Dolphins met the Buffalo Bills the first time this season, Allen was 13-of-17 for 159 yards and two touchdowns when the Fins sent a blitz, according to Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News. Miami came away with a 21-19 win, but it's not a sustainable approach.

    The addition of Bradley Chubb should help bolster the Dolphins pass rush. He's the kind of edge defender who can take advantage of one-on-one matchups. He had five pressures in his second game with the team against the Cleveland Browns.

    The Dolphins pass rush also had one of its best games, with three sacks of Jacoby Brissett. It's a promising sign that one of Miami's biggest weaknesses has been addressed.

Buffalo Bills: Can the Secondary Get Healthy and on the Same Page?

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    Safety Jordan Poyer is going to need to lead a secondary relying on a lot of young players.
    AP Photo/Nick Wass

    The Buffalo Bills snapped their two-game losing streak against Cleveland in Week 11, but questions remain as the AFC East power enters the backstretch of the regular season.

    The issues on offense are likely to resolve themselves. After a series of turnover-laden performances, Josh Allen and the Bills took care of the ball and gashed the Browns defense for 171 yards on the ground.

    The secondary, however, didn't do much to renew confidence.

    The Bills have dealt with a rash of injuries on the back end this season, including a season-ender for Micah Hyde (neck). Tre'Davious White (ACL) has yet to make his 2022 debut, while Kaiir Elam (ankle) and Jordan Poyer (elbow) have dealt with more minor injuries.

    Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier was open about the issues the team has faced.

    "It is for sure challenging, not knowing week to week which guy's gonna start, and as you are trying to look at practice and trying to determine who warrants more snaps," Frazier told reporters. "We haven't had to do that in the past. We had usually four guys that were pretty healthy, for the most part, and they were in the lineup, week in and week out. That hasn't been the case this year."

    White could return as early as this week, but that still only leaves so many games for the group to get healthy and jell.

    After the Bills gave up 324 yards and three touchdowns to Jacoby Brissett in Week 12, it's clear their Super Bowl hopes may depend on what kind of improvement the secondary can find.

Minnesota Vikings: What Can They Do About Offensive Line Woes?

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    The Dallas defensive front had a field day against Kirk Cousins and the Vikings.
    AP Photo/Stacy Bengs

    At this point in the season, offensive line problems are among the worst to have. From a personnel standpoint, it isn't like there are quality offensive linemen who are ready to step in.

    It can also be crippling to an offense. The Minnesota Vikings brought that principle to life on Sunday in a 40-3 home defeat against the Dallas Cowboys.

    Kirk Cousins was constantly asked to make plays in the middle of a collapsing pocket. According to Kambui Bomani of Pro Football Focus, the Vikings offensive line surrendered 16 total pressures on 40 dropbacks, including five sacks and five hurries.

    The problem is that it wasn't an isolated incident. Minnesota has the sixth-highest pressure rate allowed, and Cousins has absorbed 27 sacks on the season.

    Losing left tackle Christian Darrisaw, who had to be evaluated for a concussion for the second consecutive game, certainly didn't help. Making sure Darrisaw is completely ready to go before he takes the field again will be key, as he has only allowed two sacks and has an elite grade of 89.0 from PFF.

    Outside of that, head coach Kevin O'Connell is going to have to figure out ways to better protect his quarterback while still allowing Justin Jefferson to hurt defenses deep down the field.

    Otherwise, the same thing that happened in Week 11 is going to happen again on an even bigger stage.

Dallas Cowboys: Do They Need Another Receiver?

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    Michael Gallup hasn't lived up to expectations in his return from ACL surgery.
    Cooper Neill/Getty Images

    The Dallas Cowboys showed just how dangerous they could be in their 40-3 win over the Vikings, but that was when everything broke their way.

    Their defense crushed Minnesota's front, beating up Kirk Cousins all day. Their offense put pressure on the Vikes to keep throwing the ball despite Dalvin Cook averaging 6.5 yards per carry.

    The result was a thrashing that helped Cowboys fans forget about the 31-28 overtime loss to the Green Bay Packers in Week 10.

    The key question for the Cowboys still resides on the offensive side of the ball. Tony Pollard, Ezekiel Elliott and the running game provide a strong punch, but the passing game still doesn't feel complete.

    Dallas relies on a heavy dose of CeeDee Lamb, who has the fifth-highest target share in the league. However, the receivers outside of Lamb don't offer much threat.

    Michael Gallup has not been the No. 2 receiver the team hoped he would be coming back from an ACL tear. He has yet to record at least 50 yards receiving in a game. James Washington still hasn't made his 2022 debut after fracturing a foot.

    Noah Brown is second on the team in receiving with 384 yards over nine games.

    Odell Beckham Jr.'s free-agency decision looms large for the Cowboys. He could become that secondary weapon this offense needs.

Baltimore Ravens: Can Lamar Jackson Get Back to September Form?

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    Lamar Jackson's productivity has slowly declined throughout the season.
    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    After an ugly 13-3 win over the Carolina Panthers in Week 11, Lamar Jackson talked about the difficulty of winning in November and December.

    "That's November, December football," Jackson told the media. “You just find a way to win to get in the playoffs. That's what it's all about right now. Some of them going to be ugly, some of them going to be pretty, but a win is a win."

    There's some truth to that, but at some point, Jackson has to start looking like the quarterback he was at the beginning of the season. The 2019 NFL MVP was not dynamic, recording just 31 rushing yards on 11 carries and 209 passing yards with an interception on 33 attempts.

    In September, Jackson threw 10 touchdowns to two interceptions, and he averaged 9.4 yards per carry with two additional scores on the ground.

    In October, Jackson threw just five touchdowns to four interceptions, averaged 6.3 yards per carry and didn't score a rushing touchdown.

    So far in November, he has just one touchdown pass and an interception and has averaged 5.1 yards per carry.

    The Ravens have won five of their last six games. It's a testament to their opportunistic defense and a running game that has provided a certain level of consistency.

    But if Baltimore is going to contend for a Super Bowl, it needs Jackson to play at an MVP level. We saw it in September. The Ravens have to find a way for him to get back to that point.

San Francisco 49ers: Can They Stay Healthy?

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    Christian McCaffrey has been a difference-maker for the 49ers.
    AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez

    This is a question that every Super Bowl hopeful must answer. Injuries are part of the game, but it rings especially true for the San Francisco 49ers.

    Christian McCaffrey has provided the spark the Niners hoped he would. As Field Yates of ESPN noted, the team is 3-1 since his arrival and has gone from converting 41 percent of its third downs to 55 percent.

    However, McCaffrey only played in 10 games in 2020 and 2021 combined because of injuries. The 49ers have been without several key contributors for at least one game this season. Wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk is the only skill player who has started all 10 games.

    Nick Bosa, Jimmie Ward, Samson Ebukam and Dre Greenlaw are among the important defensive pieces who have missed at least one contest.

    The 49ers have shown what they can do when mostly healthy. The 38-10 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football was a comprehensive beat down and their third victory in a row.

    If they can stay healthy, they have all the ingredients to make a deep playoff run. But that's a big if.

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