National Football League

Opposite Directions

December 14, 2020

By Geoff Schwartz
FOX Sports NFL analyst

Sunday's NFL action revealed quite a bit about a few playoff hopefuls, particularly among the AFC's contenders in the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs and under-the-radar Buffalo Bills.

Over in the NFC, the Green Bay Packers are asserting themselves, while New Orleans found out what they really have in Taysom Hill.

Also, I reveal an NFC East team that I'm starting to come around on.

Here's a look at what we learned in Week 14, so far:

Buffalo bringing the spice

For nearly 14 weeks, I’ve thought only one team could compete with the Chiefs in the AFC.

After Sunday Night Football, I still believe only one team can compete with the Chiefs, but it’s not the team that I've been rolling with.

After a convincing 26-15 victory over the Steelers, the Bills have emerged as the only threat to the Chiefs. While the Bills started the game slowly, once they got going on offense, the Steelers could not stop them.

Josh Allen is clearly a top five quarterback this season, and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has aided his improvement. The Bills wide receivers wide open all the time. Allen can create extra time with his legs, and while he’s still got some YOLO when he scrambles, he has been deadly accurate this season.

His improvement is almost unheard of iin NFL history and I feel confident that it won’t disappear once the pressures of the playoffs are upon him. Buffalo’s defense is just average, but it forces turnovers and is pesky enough to complement the explosive Bills offense.

You’re not winning the Super Bowl in 2020 because of defense. You’re outscoring the Chiefs with a defense that finds enough ways to get stops.

Steelers in an offensive funk

I feel vindicated about my Steelers offensive takes after two straight weeks of stinkers. My concern with the Steelers offense is twofold, but realistically, it’s the same issue.

It looks way too hard for the Steelers to move the ball. They never have receivers wide open like other top offenses in the NFL. It’s a struggle whenever they must get yards. There’s no explosive nature to their offense. They do not use play-action pass enough. And their receivers drop too many dang passes.

They also can’t run the ball, which isn’t as important as being able to pass it, but still – when they need a yard, it’s hard to come by. In my opinion, the Steelers suffer from poor play design more than anything when it comes to rushing the ball.

The Steelers rush the ball from shotgun too often without the threat of the quarterback keeping the ball to make the defense focus attention to him. Without the threat of the QB running, it severely limits your creativity when you rush the football. Plus, you’re asking the offensive line to be in two-point stances, which are far less powerful than the traditional three-point stance.

Because the Steelers don’t run the ball well, they often find themselves in longer passing situations on third down, which isn’t ideal for Big Ben. Lastly, they can’t generate play-action passes off these shotgun formations as easily as being under center – a much tougher sell on the defense.

While I had hoped the Steelers would figure out a more explosive offense, it appears it won’t happen in 2020.

Kansas City’s glaring weakness

The Chiefs are now 12-1 after a close 33-27 win in Miami, and they continue to be the heavy favorite to win the Super Bowl. However, I’m noticing a trend that cannot be ignored. They do not finish games like a champion.

They’ve now failed to cover the spread in their last five games, and most of those were games the Chiefs dominated. Take Sunday for example. The Chiefs were up 30-10 while being minus-three in turnover margin, which is tough to do. The Chiefs scored on special teams, plus a safety. They were manhandling the Dolphins. Then slowly the lead dwindled down to where the Chiefs needed a field goal under one minute to increase the lead back to nine and finish the game. 

The Chiefs aren’t finishing games for a variety of reasons. They are having issues connecting on deep passes. They have big plays called back for holding. KC struggles to rush the ball when the defense knows it’s happening. Their pass rush disappears and their pass coverage becomes soft.

And like Sunday, they make small mental errors. With just over two minutes left, Tyreek Hill caught a first down pass and eventually ran out of bounds. Yikes. If he stays inbounds, the Chiefs kneel three times and the game is over.

Those mistakes, while not yet costly because the Chiefs have the best player in the world in Patrick Mahomes, make me worried about the playoffs. In the playoffs, the Chiefs will play teams that can take advantage of a relaxed KC team that believes its already won the game.

Maybe I’m being a worrywart. Time will tell. But it’s something to watch down the stretch.

Some love for Green Bay

While I’ve been focusing all of my attention on the AFC this weekend, as there were at least four matchups directly involving playoff-caliber teams, the Packers quietly took down the Detroit Lions and clinched the NFC North.

Since Matt LaFleur took over before the start of the 2019 season, the Packers are now 23-6 in 29 regular season games. That’s outstanding. Aaron Rodgers is playing like an MVP candidate, having better advanced numbers than Mahomes after this weekend.

The defense – well, it’s not good, but it’s just two spots below the Chiefs in DVOA. So the Packers defense, just like the Chiefs, does enough to help the team win. The reason why the Packers should be considered a threat to the Chiefs is their ability to score on offense.

There are two ways to beat Kansas City and one of the two is to go toe-to-toe with its offense. Green Bay can do it.

Maybe it’s time we pay attention to the Packers as legit Super Bowl contenders. 

Over the (Taysom) Hill

The Taysom Hill experiment is over after a lackluster performance in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Hill was starting his fourth game this season at QB, and only his second against a team other than the Falcons. This was by far the toughest situation he had to play in, and it was clear he’s not the guy to lead a team from behind.

Unlike the Denver Broncos, who have a top 10 defense but were playing with a wide receiver at quarterback, the Eagles had an actual quarterback who was able to lead the Eagles to an early lead.

When the Saints get behind with Hill, they can’t generate an offense that has enough explosive pass plays to play catch up. This is always the concern with “running” quarterbacks. It’s why Taysom Hill has no chance to be a superstar in the NFL at quarterback.

Next weekend, the Saints are back home to face the Chiefs, and I expect Drew Brees back under center. Early thought: I’d take the Saints with the points at home. Must win for them, not for the Chiefs. 
    
Watch out for Washington

How about the Washington Football Team!

WFT is currently sitting in first place in the NFC East after 14 weeks, which is something we all predicted. Not only that, but they’ve done it with three starting quarterbacks.

Dwayne Haskins started the first four games of the season. Kyle Allen started the next four before being injured, and now Alex Smith has started five in a row. 

He left Sunday's game with calf tightness. Through all of that change on offense, the defense has been consistent. They are good enough to scare and even win a home playoff game.

Chase Young, Jon Allen & Co. are relentless. They rush the passer with force. They clog up rushing lanes and are exactly where they need to be all the time. If they win the NFC East and host a playoff game, I’d absolutely put money on the Washington Football Team as an underdog in that game.

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