Biggest Weakness for Every NFL Division Leader Entering Week 13
The NFL playoff picture is beginning to materialize, but there are still plenty of neck-and-neck divisional races to sort out before the 2022 campaign wraps up.
While some teams are closer than others to locking up their respective divisions, none of the eight current leaders has clinched yet. With plenty of drama sure to unfold over the coming weeks, it’s a great time to overview which clubs are in the driver's seat and how they can be dethroned.
With that in mind, here's a look at the most glaring weakness of every division leader heading into Week 13.
AFC East - Miami Dolphins (8-3): Pass Defense
The Miami Dolphins spared little expense to shore up their weak points this offseason and build a Super Bowl contender. The spending spree has paid off, as they are well in the hunt for their first AFC East title since 2008.
While bringing in the likes of wide receiver Tyreek Hill and offensive tackle Terron Armstead have helped Miami jump out to a narrow lead in the division, those moves left the club with little available finances to bolster its secondary.
The Dolphins' already middling pass defense has taken a step back in 2022. After allowing 227.7 yards per game and giving up 23 touchdowns last year, the unit is giving up an average of 233.8 yards and has already allowed 17 touchdowns through the air.
Miami isn't securing as many interceptions either, averaging just 0.5 per game after reeling in 14 across 17 contests in 2021.
Injuries have hurt the Dolphins' ability to field a quality pass defense. Cornerback Byron Jones (Achilles) has yet to make his 2022 debut, while Xavien Howard, Nik Needham and several other defensive backs have all missed time.
With the pass rush also struggling to get home regularly—Miami has a pedestrian 25 sacks this season—this could be an exploitable area for playoff opponents.
AFC North - Baltimore Ravens (7-4): Receiving Corps
The Baltimore Ravens went into the 2022 campaign with one of the league's more questionable receivers rooms, and the situation has only become more concerning.
After jettisoning top wideout Marquise Brown during the opening round of the draft, Baltimore elected not use any of its 11 picks or sign any notable free agents to replace the speedy veteran. The team opted to head into the season with sophomore Rashod Bateman as its No. 1 and several unproven young talents behind him.
While Bateman looked solid early on, he missed five games as a rookie and had injury issues creep up again this season. He was sidelined for a pair of games with a foot issue and returned for a short stretch before he was shut down for the year to undergo Lisfranc surgery.
His departure has left a ragtag crew that includes Devin Duvernay, Demarcus Robinson, James Proche II and DeSean Jackson to run routes for star quarterback Lamar Jackson. While some of these players have had big games this year, none are performing at a consistently high level, which is a large reason why the Ravens average only 193.4 yards per game through the air (a bottom-10 mark).
While Baltimore does have a strong tight end corps led by star Mark Andrews, the position may not be enough to generate offense when the Ravens inevitably face tougher defenses that can shut down the run in the postseason.
AFC South - Tennessee Titans (7-4): Offense
The Tennessee Titans have one of the more lethargic offenses of any playoff contender. Only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are scoring fewer points per game among the teams currently topping their divisions.
This group averages fewer than 300 yards per game, ranking No. 29 in total offense. The Titans are largely weighed down by an inconsistent passing attack that is mustering just 175.9 yards per game, the fourth-worst mark.
While Tennessee has forged an identity around Derrick Henry pounding the rock and the star running back does have the second-most rushing yardage in the NFL, he hasn't been the same unstoppable force in 2022 as in years past.
He is posting a 4.2 yards-per-carry average, tied for the lowest mark of his career. The Titans are averaging 122.9 yards per game on the ground, only the 12th-most in the league.
Considering Tennessee ranked No. 5 in this category last year, averaging almost 20 more yards per game when it finished atop the AFC South, this could spell trouble in the Music City.
While the Titans do have a quality defense, the unit isn't built to carry the squad. It has given up nearly as many points (205) as Tennessee has scored (209), with a turnover differential of plus-two.
While the Titans are a shoo-in for a postseason berth while playing in one of the weakest divisions, they could easily suffer another early postseason exit unless there's some noticeable improvement offensively down the stretch.
AFC West - Kansas City Chiefs (9-2): Turnovers
The Kansas City Chiefs have remained a powerhouse despite questions going into the season about their ability to remain an elite offense after trading Tyreek Hill to Miami.
While those concerns have proved to be unfounded thanks to superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes elevating his game back to an MVP level, the team with the best record in the AFC still has some flaws.
The most notable has been Kansas City's tendency to commit turnovers on offense and the defense's inability to create them. At minus-three, the Chiefs have not only the worst turnover differential of any division leader heading into Week 13 but also among squads with a winning record.
Every other contender is at least even in that category at this juncture, showing just how ripe the Chiefs are to an upset if they can't take care of the ball and force their opponents into mistakes.
While Kansas City has only lost two games this year, a commonality in each defeat was that the squad committed more turnovers than its foe. The Chiefs have also won four games by three points or fewer, turning the ball over no more than once in each of those matchups.
If opponents can pick off Mahomes or cause an unproven running back platoon to cough up a fumble in the playoffs, Kansas City—which has just 12 takeaways all year—will struggle to make up those possessions by forcing turnovers of its own.
NFC East - Philadelphia Eagles (10-1): Experience
The Philadelphia Eagles may lead the league in wins, but they rate near the bottom of the pack in terms of collective experience.
According to NBC Sports' Reuben Frank, Philadelphia went into the season with the sixth-youngest roster. Only eight position players were above the age of 27.
While there are some grizzled veterans playing key roles such as offensive lineman Jason Kelce and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, many of Philadelphia's most important players are still early on in their careers. There are just five holdovers from the club's stunning Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots a half-decade ago.
Jalen Hurts is making his MVP case, but the up-and-coming quarterback—now in his third professional season—is 24 years old and has seen action in just one playoff contest. He's leading an offense that has zero skill-position players over 27.
The defense is also young, but the front office has been trying to rectify that by bringing in some aging veterans to make a Super Bowl run. In recent weeks, Philadelphia has signed the likes of Ndamukong Suh—now the oldest player on the roster at 35—and Linval Joseph.
While the Eagles are rife with talent, their lack of big-game experience could come back to haunt them in the playoffs.
NFC North - Minnesota Vikings (9-2): Secondary
The Minnesota Vikings have excelled despite having one of the more glaring weaknesses of any Super Bowl contender. They are allowing the most passing yards per game in the NFL, an issue that could end up costing them dearly in January.
Despite having the same troubles last year—Minnesota allowed 252.9 passing yards per game, the fifth-most in the league—the organization didn't make any major changes in the secondary. The decision seems to be regrettable after the Vikings regressed and now concede 276.1 yards through the air.
Starting cornerback Patrick Peterson was once one of the best at his position, but he's struggled in coverage during his 12th season. The 32-year-old has allowed 33 completions on 56 targets, giving up 431 yards and four touchdowns.
Cameron Dantzler, who spent a chunk of 2021 in former head coach Mike Zimmer's doghouse, hasn't fared much better. Opposing quarterbacks feasted on the starter, torching the third-year veteran for a 77.8 percent completion rate before a Week 9 ankle injury landed him on injured reserve.
Nickel Chandon Sullivan might be the most vulnerable corner on the roster. He has given up 30 completions on 39 targets for 403 yards and a score.
While the Vikings have a reliable veteran safety in Harrison Smith, he's now well on the wrong side of 30 and isn't the same player he was in years past. That decline is reflected in his Pro Football Focus grade, which has fallen to a 61.1 after being no lower than 74.3 between 2014 and 2021.
The Vikings must focus on shoring up this area during the offseason, but there is little they can do now other than hope they avoid a postseason opponent that can masterfully exploit this secondary and eliminate them.
NFC South - Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-6): Health
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been gutted by injuries this year. This attrition has caused them to fall from a preseason Super Bowl favorite to a group that's only holding on to a playoff berth by a thread.
While they do have the good fortune to play in what has become arguably the league's weakest division, they could fail to win the NFC South after an abysmal 5-6 start. Tampa is only narrowly ahead of the rebuilding Atlanta Falcons (5-7) and could come up short if they don't right the ship and the Carolina Panthers or New Orleans Saints (both 4-8) make a late surge.
It appeared the Bucs would cruise to another divisional title when Tom Brady announced he would end his short-lived retirement and return for the 2022 campaign. While the legendary quarterback has managed to remain healthy, his supporting cast has crumbled.
The offensive line—which already saw Ali Marpet retire and Alex Cappa sign elsewhere in the offseason—lost a Pro Bowl center in Ryan Jensen (knee) and guard Aaron Stinnie (ACL/MCL) in the preseason. All-Pro tackle Tristan Wirfs is the latest Tampa O-lineman to go down. He was carted off during the team's Week 12 upset loss to the Cleveland Browns and has been ruled out for multiple weeks with a high ankle sprain.
None of Tampa's seemingly deep cast of wide receivers has played the full season. Running back Leonard Fournette became the latest skill-position player to miss time after he was sidelined Sunday with a hip injury.
These issues have led to the Bucs fielding the lowest-scoring offense (18.2 points per game) of any division leader and the sixth-lowest in the NFL. That's a far cry from the 30-plus points this unit averaged during the first two years of the Brady era.
With injuries mounting, the Bucs will likely have a quick exit in the postseason if they even make it there.
NFC West - San Francisco 49ers (7-4): Quarterback
The San Francisco 49ers had hoped to start a new era in 2022 with Trey Lance, the quarterback they took third overall in 2021 after giving up so much valuable draft capital to acquire him.
Lance lasted just one full game before suffering a season-ending ACL tear early in Week 2, an injury that once again elevated Jimmy Garoppolo to QB1.
While the Niners have found success with Garoppolo in the past, it’s unlikely they'll finally be able to recapture a Vince Lombardi Trophy with him under center.
Even though the 31-year-old signal-caller has consistently won regular-season games when healthy (37-17 as a starter in the Bay Area), San Francisco was ready to move on from the veteran because of the lower ceiling he placed on creative head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
Garoppolo has struggled under the brightest lights, including in last year’s NFC Championship Game. It was clear the coach was reticent to put the ball in his hands against the eventual champion Los Angeles Rams, leaning toward a conservative run-first approach.
When the team was forced to throw as part of a comeback attempt late in the fourth quarter, Garoppolo went just 1-of-6 for negative-three yards and an interception.
He collapsed in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl LIV defeat against Kansas City as well, completing just three of 11 passing attempts for 36 yards and an interception. He took a brutal fourth-down sack with the game up for grabs and finished with a 2.8 fourth-quarter passer rating, the lowest of any starting Super Bowl quarterback since the stat began being tracked in 1999.
While the Niners may make it back to the postseason with Jimmy G at the helm, it’s hard to envision them raising another banner with him as their starter.