The real Super Bowl might happen in January and feature the two best teams in the AFC.
There are at least five more weeks remaining in the NFL season, but on the AFC side of the playoff bracket, the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers are seemingly on a collision course for what has the chance to be an epic Conference Championship Game.
The Steelers enter the unprecedented Wednesday night Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree pre-game-game against the Baltimore Ravens at 10-0, boasting a defense that’s plenty capable of generating pressure without blitzing thanks to All-Pro talent at all three levels like T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and Minkah Fitzpatrick. This might be the most versatile set of receivers that future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has at his disposal, and head coach Mike Tomlin’s teams are nothing if not consistently dominant.
Pittsburgh has the personnel on defense to play the kind of style that the San Francisco 49ers deployed in Super Bowl LIV and had the game in hand for the first 40 minutes before Patrick Mahomes once again looked like Michael Jordan on the football field and brought the Chiefs storming back to claim the Chiefs’ first Lombardi Trophy in 50 years.
Chances are, the Steelers make it through their remaining schedule unscathed and join the 1972 Miami Dolphins and 2007 New England Patriots as the only unbeaten teams in NFL history.
But, even if the Steelers play host to the Chiefs, they’ll have to get through one of the most gifted rosters assembled in recent NFL history.
Mahomes finds new ways to amaze each week, including jumping out to a 17-0 lead over Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ menacing defense Sunday afternoon in the stadium that will host Super Bowl LV. On pace to pass for 5,086 yards with 43 touchdowns and 1 interception, Mahomes is the the face of the NFL, its brightest star, and the most gifted quarterback currently walking the planet.
But the Chiefs are the most electrifying and prolific team in the NFL because of the supporting cast they’ve built around their MVP caliber quarterback.
The Chiefs have paired Mahomes with wide receiver Tyreek Hill, tight end Jason Kelce, and rookie running back Clye Edwards-Helaire who have combined for 25 touchdowns this season. Defenses also need to contend with Sammy Watkins and Le’Veon Bell.
Good luck prying the Lombardi away from Chiefs Kingdom anytime in the foreseeable future.
Still, SportsLine Oddsmakers tell FanSided the Steelers would open as two-point home favorites if they hosted the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field.
So, who wins?
“The easy answer here is the Chiefs pull off the upset,” an NFL source tells FanSided. “Kings are kings until they’re knocked off, but I’d choose the Steelers in that game because of their defense.
“A great defense with Big Ben at quarterback and Mike Tomlin get the win. The offense has the ability to fit the opponent, so if they need to take the air out of the ball, that’s what they’ll do. The Steelers’ defense will be challenged, for sure, like any other team the Chiefs play. But, the Steelers have the weapons at receiver, too, so it’s not like they can’t keep up score-for-score.”
That seems to be the minority opinion throughout the league.
FanSided surveyed current and former coaches, general managers, and personnel executives to get their thoughts on how this potential dream conference championship game might play out. Here are their responses:
Current NFC coach: “Give me the Chiefs! They’re just too damn explosive!! Their defense is much improved, and seems to be getting better every week. Special teams are always very good, too. If there’s one thing about Kansas City, it’s that they play complementary football at its best.”
Former GM: “The Chiefs blow them out, and it’s because of the quarterback. That kid is special. I’ve been around Hall of Fame quarterbacks, and he’s every bit as good or better than my guys.”
NFC personnel executive: “Kansas City. They hands down and easily have the better quarterback.”
AFC Scout: “The Chiefs win that football game. Real easily. Pittsburgh won’t get enough stops on defense and won’t score nearly enough touchdowns. You can’t trade field goals for touchdowns with Patrick Mahomes. What makes it worse for the Steelers is they aren’t running the ball well enough to play keep away, either.”
The GM-head coach duo coming to a team near you
The dominoes have already begun to fall around the NFL, with five teams parting ways with their general managers after Dave Caldwell was shown the exit by the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday afternoon.
While there are many up and coming personnel directors likely to fill the jobs with the Detroit Lions, Los Angeles Chargers, Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans, and any other organizations that blow out their general mangers between now and January, there’s a good chance that a GM-head coach package deal is destined for one of them.
Executives and sources around the league tell FanSided that former Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns general manager John Dorsey will likely be among the most sought after GMs, and it’s highly likely that he’ll be bringing Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy with him as head coach.
Remember, it was Dorsey who won the struggle with Andy Reid over whether to trade up to select Mahomes, and he forged a strong working relationship with Bienemy from their four years together in Kansas City.
Dorsey’s resume is an impressive one, having drafted Mahomes in Kansas City, Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb in Cleveland and pulling off the blockbuster trade to acquire wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. from the Giants.
Meanwhile, Bienemy’s stock has surged in recent years thanks to his experience on Reid’s staff, particularly after he was given some play-calling responsibilities.
Bienemy will likely once again be on the short-list of any team looking for a head coach. But, if and when Dorsey gets a job, Bienemy’s interview has the chance — for once — to be a mere formality.
Three situations that sources around the league believe could be ideal fits for a Dorsey-Bienemy partnership are the Houston Texans (the chance to work with quarterback Deshaun Watson), the Jacksonville Jaguars (stable, patient ownership, and the possibility of molding a team around Justin Fields), and the Atlanta Falcons (one of the NFL’s most respected owners, a dynamic offense, and quarterback who still has some upside).
Where do the Eagles go from here?
Monday night’s Eagles loss to the Seattle Seahawks might have been rock bottom for a franchise that hoisted its first Lombardi Trophy just 45 months ago.
Carson Wentz is a broken quarterback.
The only identity the Eagles have on offense if uncertainty of what style they want to play behind a patchwork offensive line. Jim Schwartz’s defense is at times brilliant, and others woefully undisciplined.
Something has to give.
At some point, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is going to make a change. It just might not be the one you’d expect.
“If anyone goes, it’s most likely Howie Roseman,” a former general manager tells FanSided. “The issue here is Jeffrey Lurie knows that if he fires Doug Pederson, he gets hired immediately. Maybe the next day. Jeffrey’s lived that before [with Andy Reid’s hiring by the Chiefs].”
Pederson has badly bungled the quarterback situation with how he’s mismanaged Jalen Hurts’ role. At one point Monday night, Pederson replaced Wentz to begin a series with Hurts and the rookie threw his first pass of the season one play after a handoff, only to look over his shoulder and see Wentz jogging back to the huddle immediately after the completion.
Later, Hurts ran onto the field with what appeared to be the wrong helmet, forcing a timeout.
While it seems Pederson can’t get a handle on his team’s strengths or how to best deploy his pair of quarterbacks, the Eagles’ descent from the pinnacle of the league to an operation mirroring a used outhouse in the Wells Fargo Center tailgate lots have Roseman’s fingerprints all over it.
But, Roseman made two fatal errors during April’s NFL Draft; choosing wide receiver Jalen Reagor over Justin Jefferson, and taking Hurts in the second-round, when most teams had the Oklahoma product pegged as a fourth or fifth-round prospect, at best.
Several coaches, scouts, and current executives have suggested Roseman chose Hurts as an insurance policy on Wentz following in Andrew Luck’s footsteps to an early retirement. After all, Wentz suffered a severe concussion in a playoff loss last January after having already sustained a torn ACL and fractured back in his first four seasons. .
“You have to remember, this is a guy with a family and interests outside of football,” said one executive.
But, at least one talent evaluator says that Hurts’ ceiling was always in the mold of how the New Orleans Saints use Taysom Hill in wildcat and gadget packages, and if Roseman had designs on choosing a quarterback capable of challenging or even replacing Wentz, the mistake was not choosing Jordan Love. Love was plucked by the Packers with the No. 26 overall pick out of Utah State, very much within the Eagles’ reach for a trade up scenario back into the first-round.
How much different would the Eagles’ outlook be with Wentz, Love, and Jefferson be today than it currently is with Wentz, Reagor and Hurts?
There are no easy answers in Philadelphia, where the franchise is spiraling. There are also no quick fixes as the Eagles currently sit $64 million OVER the projected cap this offseason.
“Howie survived everything that went on with Joe Banner,” a former GM tells FanSided. “He survived the Chip Kelly debacle. But, this looks like a bridge too far.”
Seattle needs to become Carson City …
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson might be the MVP, in part because of what the 32-year-old has been able to get out of his supporting cast in the most competitive division in football.
One member of Wilson’s supporting cast who should see an expanded role is running back Chris Carson.
Monday night, Carson averaged 5.1 yards per carry while rushing for 41 yards and a touchdown and also adding two catches for 18 yards. However, Carson only played 25 snaps while Carlos Hyde played 41, rushing for 22 yards on 15 carries.
It doesn’t make sense.
Carson missed five games due to a foot injury, but the Seahawks’ offense was at its best when he was healthy and one of its focal points. In seven games this season, Carson has rushed for 364 yards and four touchdowns while averaging a career-high 4.9 yards per carry an adding 24 receptions for 165 yards and three receiving touchdowns.
In the midst of a contract year, Carson is averaging just 14 touches per game. The Seahawks should be giving him 20-plus touches per game. If Carson breaks out, both sides will certainly be rewarded.
“This is as good as I’ve seen anybody play. Just his ability to go out there and get us in the right looks, and shoot, even when I make a bad call, he definitely makes us look good. So, that’s a credit to him. In my eyes, he’s an MVP player. No doubt about it. And I wouldn’t want any other quarterback on our football team.”
– Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur on quarterback Aaron Rodgers following Sunday’s 41-25 win over the Chicago Bears
LaFleur might be right, Rodgers might be the MVP.
Rodgers could teach a masterclass right now on how to make plays from and rolling out of the pocket. Sunday night was an emphatic dismantling of a division rival and a statement that the Packers are not to be forgotten in the Super Bowl chase. Rodgers, after completing 21-of-29 passes for 211 yards and four touchdowns also reminded the world why he’s in the MVP hunt.
Watching Rodgers playing at such a consistently dominant level this season, it’s arguable that he might be a better player than Tom Brady ever was. It’s also easy at this juncture to wonder how many more Super Bowl rings Bill Belichick might have collected had he had a different No. 12 behind center the past 15 years …
What I’ll be watching
Buffalo Bills at San Francisco 49ers *In Glendale, Ariz.
Josh Allen, Stephon Diggs, and the Bills have certainly circled the wagons.
A few weeks back, several sources told FanSided that the Bills are among the teams that they believe can play spoiler in the NFL Playoffs. Winners of four of their last five games, Buffalo came up two points shy of a five-game winning streak after being on the losing end of Hail Murray.
Monday, the Bills return to the scene of their most recent defeat, this time taking on the San Francisco 49ers at State Farm Stadium after Santa Clara Calif., shut down contact sports as a precaution against COVID-19.
This is put up or shut up time for the Bills who face the 49ers, host the Pittsburgh Steelers, and take on the division rival Patriots and Dolphins down the stretch.
Meanwhile, the 49ers went into Los Angeles and shocked the world, reminding the NFL that even at 5-6, the defending NFC Champions aren’t dead yet.
If San Francisco can knock off the Bills, Washington Football Team, and Dallas Cowboys ahead of a brutal closing stretch against the Cardinals and Seahawks, the 49ers might be positioned to steal an NFC Wild Card berth.
Needless to say, this game has massive implications on both sides of the playoff bracket, and we’re certainly going to get more games like it over the next month.
The Jaguars did wrong by Dave Caldwell.
For as patient as owner Shad Khan is, it makes little sense to fire Caldwell with five games left.
If Caldwell isn’t the answer long-term, and the Jaguars were only 37-86 during his eight-year tenure, so be it, deliver his pinkslip on the Sunday morning of Week 17, like a self-respecting organization.
But, for as much as the Jaguars struggled under Caldwell, this firing his major Sam Hinkie “Process” vibes.
Here’s the war chest of picks Caldwell leaves behind for his successor in Jacksonville in 2021:
Two first-round picks
Two second-round picks
Two fourth-round picks
Three fifth-round picks
Two seventh-round picks
At 1-10, the Jaguars are the leaders in the clubhouse of the Justin Fields sweepstakes, they have some young talent on both sides of the football and have the most cap space in the league, with at least $85.19 million to spend this offseason.
Caldwell tore it down, but similarly to Hinkie, he won’t have the opportunity to reap the riches the combination of draft picks and cap space he was able to sew in DUUUUUVAL.
With the right hire to replace Caldwell, though, the Jaguars are a worst-to-first candidate in a very mediocre division …
Matt Lombardo is the site expert for GMenHQ, and writes Between The Hash Marks each Wednesday for FanSided. Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattLombardoNFL.