NFL Coaches, Players with the Most on the Line in Week 18January 8, 2022
NFL Coaches, Players with the Most on the Line in Week 18
Only one week remains in the NFL's inaugural 18-week campaign. While the addition of an extra week brought the potential for a dud of a finale, things haven't played out that way. While much of the playoff picture has been decided, 18 teams are still alive, two divisions are undecided, and three playoff spots are still up for grabs.
And that's just the playoff race.
Week 18 is going to be a big one for several individual players and coaches too. Whether they involve coaching for a job, playing for a contract or chasing a milestone, many games will carry weight beyond postseason implications.
Here, you'll find a look at nine coaches or players with something on the line aside from a playoff berth. These storylines should provide additional reasons for the casual fan to tune in this week, and they'll help make virtually every game of the final slate important.
Players and coaches are listed in alphabetical order.
Before we dive into the list proper, let's examine some players and coaches who perhaps aren't performing for their futures but will still be in the spotlight.
We begin with head coach Joe Judge and quarterback Daniel Jones of the New York Giants. Judge has largely disappointed, winning just 10 games through his first two seasons. Jones, meanwhile, still hasn't established himself as a reliable starter—and he's done for the year with a neck injury.
However, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported in late December that New York plans to stick with Judge and Jones in 2022.
The situation surrounding Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and quarterback Russell Wilson is also worth monitoring. According to Schefter, many in the league believe one of the two will be out after the season. However, Carroll has refuted this notion.
"The kind of conversations that we have behind the scenes are not in line with the rumors," Carroll told reporters.
These situations could easily change in the coming days, but it seems that Judge, Carroll and their quarterbacks are in a safe place heading into the finale.
Las Vegas Raiders interim coach Rich Bisaccia could help his case to become the full-time coach by getting Las Vegas into the postseason. Yet, franchise owner Mark Davis may consider a splashier option anyway.
"If the Raiders make the playoffs, there is an argument to be made for retaining Bisaccia as the head coach," Vincent Bonsignore of the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote. "However, Mark Davis, who owns the Las Vegas Aces as well as the Raiders, is not afraid to take a big swing when it comes to the leader of his franchises."
Davis isn't likely to make his decision solely on Sunday's outcome.
Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy may already be out, regardless of how his team fares on Sunday. According to Boomer Esiason of WFAN, Nagy has been told that he won't return in 2022.
Fans will also be watching Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, as he potentially plays his final NFL game. Big Ben hasn't officially announced that he'll retire after the season, but he didn't sound like a player who plans to return following last week's home finale.
"This game was very special to me," Roethlisberger told reporters after the 26-14 victory over the Cleveland Browns. "I told them thank you, how much this place and they mean to me. ... I'm just so blessed to play this game for a long time."
One last big win over the rival Baltimore Ravens would allow Roethlisberger to go out on a high note. However, there's nothing left for him to prove. The two-time champion's legacy has already been cemented.
Similarly, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady needs 16 completions to break Drew Brees' record of 471 in a season—but that record would be a mere side note on Brady's lengthy resume.
Taylor Heinicke, QB, Washington Football Team
Roethlisberger and Brady already have Hall of Fame careers. Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke is simply fighting for a long-term job.
Heinicke wasn't supposed to be Washington's starter this year. A Week 1 injury wound up ending Ryan Fitzpatrick's season, and Heinicke took over. He's played reasonably well—posting a passer rating of 86.5—but he hasn't solidified himself as a permanent answer.
It seems Heinicke has done enough to get another shot next season, though.
"Taylor's definitely going to be a factor," offensive coordinator Scott Turner said, per Peter Hailey of NBC 4 Washington. "If we do bring a guy in, if that happens and however that happens, Taylor's gonna be here."
While Heinicke is under contract through 2022, ending the year with a strong performance and a win over the Giants would be huge for him. He isn't likely to be cut or see a raise in the offseason, but he isn't guaranteed to be the starter, either.
The Football Team currently holds the No. 9 pick in the 2022 draft and has $60 million in projected cap space. It will have options at quarterback.
If Heinicke wants to earn a legitimate shot at competing for the starting job in 2022, it would behoove him to make one tremendous final impression.
Taysom Hill, QB, New Orleans Saints
New Orleans Saints signal-caller Taysom Hill is in a similar situation to Heinicke. He isn't playing for a new deal—he's under contract through 2025—but Hill could be fighting to be New Orleans' long-term starter.
Hill wasn't New Orleans' first choice this season, or even its second. He competed with Jameis Winston for the starting gig but lost out to the former Buccaneers starter.
Hill only stepped into the starting role after Winston was lost for the year (torn ACL) and after Trevor Siemian got a four-game starting opportunity.
An unconventional dual-threat quarterback, Hill has played reasonably well. He has posted a passer rating of only 69.8, but he has gone 3-1 as a starter. New Orleans has won its past three games with Hill under center and has a shot at the playoffs because of him.
The Saints need help in the form of a San Francisco 49ers loss, and they also have to beat the Atlanta Falcons to get in.
If Hill can finish the season with a divisional win and perhaps sneak into the postseason in the process, he might just get his shot to be the starter throughout camp and heading into 2022.
Vic Fangio, HC, Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio is set to miss the postseason for the third straight year. He went 12-20 in his first two seasons and is sitting on seven wins in 2021.
While the Broncos' inability to find a starting quarterback has been part of the problem, Fangio's team hasn't shown a ton of progress since he took over. It currently has the same record as it did in Fangio's first campaign.
According to Schefter, the Broncos like Fangio and may keep him, but they'll also be looking for someone to blame for the lack of improvement.
"That's more of a quarterbacking or organizational problem," Schefter said on 104.3 The Fan's Schlereth and Evans. "But someone usually takes the fall for that. And in this particular case, Vic is sitting in the prime slot to take the fall for that, if that's what they decide to do."
Upsetting the Kansas City Chiefs in the finale—and thus ending Kansas City's bid for the No. 1 seed—would represent a big step for Fangio. Not only would it get him to eight wins for the first time in three seasons, but it would also show that Fangio can go up against Andy Reid and the Chiefs and win.
Denver hasn't defeated Kansas City since 2015. If the Broncos are going to be relevant in the AFC West, they must find a coach who can end that losing streak. Fangio has his shot on Saturday.
Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams are already in the postseason, but they'll be playing for the NFC West division title on Sunday. Wide receiver Cooper Kupp, meanwhile, will be chasing history.
Kupp needs 12 receptions and 136 receiving yards against the 49ers to break the NFL single-season receptions and receiving records—held by Michael Thomas and Calvin Johnson, respectively. There's a chance that he breaks one or both marks against San Francisco.
As Kupp noted, though, the addition of a 17th game makes accomplishing such feats a little easier.
"It wouldn't hold the same weight to me as it does for guys that have done that in a 16-game season and the accomplishments those guys had and the seasons they put together," Kupp said, per Lindsey Thiry of ESPN.
While Kupp may not view a 17-game record as legitimate, breaking the marks of Thomas and Johnson would establish him as arguably the best receiver in the NFL. Having the records on his resume would also be beneficial after the 2023 season, when Kupp is scheduled to become a free agent.
Getting the records could potentially help jump-start a Hall of Fame push for Kupp, too. The 28-year-old has two 1,100-yard seasons on his resume but was recently named to his first Pro Bowl. He'll need a lot more than a couple of records, but having them would certainly help his eventual case for Canton.
Matt Rhule, HC, Carolina Panthers
One game shouldn't determine coach Matt Rhule's future with the Carolina Panthers. However, Rhule may need to make a strong impression to finish the season.
According to Joseph Person of The Athletic, franchise owner David Tepper is "unhappy and embarrassed" by the seven-year contract he gave Rhule just two offseasons ago.
Rhule has been hampered by bad quarterback play this season. Sam Darnold, Cam Newton and P.J. Walker have a cumulative quarterback rating of only 67.2. With star running back Christian McCaffrey also out for the year with an ankle injury, Rhule has some legitimate excuses for his team's disappointing performance.
The Panthers went 4-3 in games with McCaffrey on the field.
However, Tepper could find it difficult to swallow a seven-game losing streak to end the season. Rhule has an opportunity to go out with a bang by upsetting the Buccaneers and hurting Tampa's bid for the No. 2 seed in the conference—the Bucs, Rams, Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals all have 11 or 12 wins.
If the Panthers fall flat and get embarrassed in the finale, Tepper could pull the plug on the Rhule experiment without putting much thought into the decision.
Allen Robinson II, WR, Chicago Bears
Like Nagy, wideout Allen Robinson II could be approaching his final game with the Bears. Unlikely Nagy, Robinson could have a big contract at stake in the finale.
Robinson is playing on the franchise tag and will be a free agent in March. He likely would have earned a sizeable contract in 2021 free agency had he hit the open market. Despite underwhelming quarterback play in 2020, Robinson managed to finish with 1,250 yards and six touchdowns.
It was Robinson's second successive 1,100-yard season in Chicago.
Unfortunately for Robinson, the 2021 season was not good for his free-agent resume. He has battled COVID-19 and still doesn't feel 100 percent, but Robinson's production has disappointed all season.
Through 11 games, Robinson has only 36 receptions, 388 receiving yards and one touchdown. Chicago's quarterback play again hasn't been great—Bears signal-callers have a cumulative rating of 75.4—but Robinson isn't getting a hefty long-term contract with those numbers.
If Robinson hopes to garner a strong free-agent market, he needs one strong performance to finish the season.
Receivers like Chris Godwin and Davante Adams could be available in March. If Robinson hopes to be a top choice for a receiver-needy team, he needs to go out against the Minnesota Vikings and remind the football world how special he can be.
Kevin Stefanski, HC, Cleveland Browns
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski may not be on the hot seat after being named Coach of the Year in 2020. However, it's worth noting that Nagy was Coach of the Year in his first season and could be out three years later.
Stefanski has struggled to manage injuries—notably Baker Mayfield's torn labrum—and expectations this season. He's also hurt Cleveland with some very questionable play calling.
Late in the game on a potential go-ahead drive against the Green Bay Packers, for example, Stefanski chose to throw with an injured Mayfield rather than run Nick Chubb, who was averaging 7.4 yards per carry. Mayfield was picked off in Packers territory, the Browns lost and Cleveland was eliminated from contention the following week.
According to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com, Mayfield believes Stefanski didn't regularly put him in position to succeed and may seek a trade in the offseason—if "Mayfield doesn't get reassurance that things will change next season."
Cleveland finally shut down Mayfield for the year, so Case Keenum will get the start against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals, meanwhile, won't play starter Joe Burrow and will be without running back Joe Mixon (reserve/COVID-19 list).
If Stefanski can't beat the Bengals' B team, franchise owner Jimmy Haslam may have to question whether his coach was a bigger problem than Mayfield or his injuries in 2021. It could easily put Stefanski on the hot seat heading into 2022.
T.J. Watt, Edge, Pittsburgh Steelers
Like Kupp, Steelers pass-rusher T.J. Watt has a chance to make history this weekend. With 21.5 sacks, he is one sack short of tying Michael Strahan's single-season sack record. If Watt can notch 1.5 sacks against the Ravens, he'll have the new high-water mark.
What's truly impressive about Watt's 2021 performance is that he's only appeared in 14 games because of groin, knee and hip injuries. He's getting a 17-game season to chase Strahan but could set a new record in only 15 appearances.
Becoming the new all-time single-season sack leader would certainly help Watt's Hall of Fame case. Unlike Kupp, Watt has already gotten his campaign started with four Pro Bowls and two first-team All-Pro selections. Watt may have already locked up Defensive Player of the Year this season, too.
Watt knows what the record could mean for his legacy.
"I only get one chance at this," Watt said this week, via the Associated Press. "You only get to play for so long. ...The people around me truly push me and understand my obsession with this game and wanting to be the best."
If Watt breaks Strahan's record on Sunday, he'll cement his place in history as one of the best defenders the NFL has ever seen.
Mike Zimmer, HC, Minnesota Vikings
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer may or may not be out after Sunday. According to The Athletic's Chad Graff, the Vikings ownership group plans to meet before the season finale to consider significant changes in the front office.
"It appears all options are on the table, including firing or re-assigning head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman as the Vikings close out a second consecutive season with a losing record," Graff wrote.
A strong showing against the Bears might not save Zimmer's job, but it could help him make an argument for another chance in 2022.
Minnesota has lost its past two games, but it played Week 17 without starting quarterback Kirk Cousins (reserve/COVID-19 list) and lost standout receiver Adam Thielen in Week 16 when he aggravated his ankle injury.
If the Vikings handle the Bears, Zimmer can argue that a few tough breaks were all that prevented his squad from reaching the postseason. If Minnesota loses, the Vikings could quickly decide that after two playoff wins in eight seasons, Zimmer's time has run its course.
*Cap and contract information via Spotrac.