Friday, December 8

NFL execs on Super Bowl favorites, plus Broncos woes and a Giants-Vikings predicament: Sando’s Pick Six

Cover 7 | Monday A daily NFL destination that provides in-depth analysis of football’s biggest stories. Each Monday, Mike Sando breaks down the six most impactful takeaways from the week.

The San Francisco 49ers entered Week 6 riding a 15-game winning streak and looking unstoppable with a young quarterback, Brock Purdy, who was making the game look easy. They exited with a 19-17 defeat at Cleveland, injuries to key players and, for the first time this season, a question mark or two.

With the previously unbeaten Philadelphia Eagles also losing ugly Sunday, this edition of the Pick Six column addresses key questions facing Super Bowl favorites with one-third of the 18-week regular season nearly complete.

So far this season, we’ve seen the Miami Dolphins set NFL records for offense, only to lose by four touchdowns in their lone game against a true contender. We’ve seen the Kansas City Chiefs win with defense, sometimes in spite of their offense. We’ve seen the Buffalo Bills incur devastating injuries. Here we’ll address 10 teams with the shortest Super Bowl odds, running through what I think and what NFL insiders have to say.

The full Pick Six menu this week:

Unanswered questions for contenders
When “playing to win” goes too far
Championship roster, rookie kicker
Do they make wristbands for coaches?
Giants, Vikings and winning too soon
Two-minute drill: Wackiest win in a while

1. Where do the top 10 current Super Bowl contenders stand one-third of the way through the season? Let’s hit key questions facing the Chiefs, Eagles, 49ers, Bills, Bengals, Cowboys, Ravens, Lions, Dolphins and Jaguars.

You can scroll through the latest Super Bowl future odds from BetMGM below.

 

San Francisco 49ers: What do they have in Purdy?

What I think: Let’s start with what the 49ers do not have in Purdy. They do not have an AFC North-certified, weatherproof Ben Roethlisberger clone able to overpower the elements, break away from defensive linemen and thrive in the conditions Purdy faced against Cleveland. What they do have is a good, young quarterback well-suited to run Kyle Shanahan’s offense at a high level by making quick decisions when given time to find open receivers.

Exec comment: “The 49ers knew they needed a good quarterback to win the Super Bowl, and they knew they could help Purdy be that. Give him a great receiving tight end, two good receivers and a great halfback who fits the system, and they’ll get someone open on every pass play. But then Deebo Samuel gets hurt, Christian McCaffrey gets hurt, and now we don’t have as many guys open. Especially when you face a defensive coordinator who says, ‘You show me you can beat me throwing the ball outside the numbers — best of luck, and to do that, you are going to have to take a five-step drop and I’m going to have Myles Garrett chasing you every play.’”

Kansas City Chiefs: Is the explosive passing game gone for good?

What I think: The Chiefs have never scored less per game on offense through six games or a full season since Patrick Mahomes became their quarterback. They have also never enjoyed larger average point differentials (9.8 per game), because their defense is so much better. I think the pass offense will become slightly more explosive as Mahomes gets reps with his receivers, but I’m not expecting a huge shift.

The Chiefs are averaging 9.5 plays per touchdown drive when starting at least 70 yards from the opponent’s goal line, per TruMedia. That figure was 7.8 in Mahomes’ first year as the starter and has climbed every season since. It’s a testament to the Chiefs’ adaptability, but also a reflection of plummeting explosive play rates.

Exec comment: “Yeah, it looks harder for them on offense until Mahomes finds (Travis) Kelce on every major third down, every major two-minute play, every major touchdown. Kansas City has the luxury of their best players being their toughest players. Chris Jones is a very tough player. Kelce is a very tough player. Mahomes is a very tough player. You wonder why they win the games? Because the games are won by the toughest teams most of the time.”

Philadelphia Eagles: Has Jalen Hurts regressed? Where are the explosive pass plays?

What I think: Explosive passing is down through most of the league, including for the Eagles. They are gaining more than 15 yards on just 11 percent of pass plays, down from 21 percent through six games last season and 19 percent for 2022 overall. Jalen Hurts, A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert are still on the team, so I’m inclined to trust the production will return. But there’s also a lingering fear defenses have caught up to aspects of the Eagles’ scheme. Does Philly have a counterpunch?

Exec comment: “People are going to crush Hurts and the offense. They are just churning the clock so much. It just feels like they are imposing their will on teams through the run game and through their short passing and it just hasn’t taken off from an explosive passing standpoint, so when they play a team that can move the ball on them through the air, it presents some challenges.”

Buffalo Bills: Are the defensive injuries too much to overcome?

What I think: The rest of the conference is the key variable. The Bills are diminished. They have imperfections. But Buffalo already defeated the Dolphins. The other AFC teams aren’t exactly peaking. Kansas City and Cincinnati appear easier to defend this season than in the recent past. We’ll see how well the Dolphins hold up. This can still be Buffalo’s season.

Exec comment: “Matt Milano and Tre’Davious White, those are huge injuries for that football team. The Bills are not as dominant as they felt going into it with so many injuries on defense. But the division they are in, they will still be able to slug it out and get to where they need to go. Nobody has really emerged in the AFC to unseat these teams at the top.”

Miami Dolphins: Has Tua Tagovailoa proven he’s built to last?

What I think: It was tough watching Tagovailoa last season without worrying for his physical well-being. I’ve never felt that way watching him so far this season, and will feel even better if he plays a full game against Philadelphia in Week 7. New England, Kansas City, the Jets (twice), Washington, Tennessee, Dallas, Baltimore and Buffalo will all get their shots at Tagovailoa. I’m cautiously optimistic, but think there will be games when defense muddy the picture sufficiently to create turnovers.

Exec comment: “Interesting team. They put up 70 on Denver and should have put up 70 on the Giants. No one can keep up with that kind of firepower. But they also haven’t really beaten anyone. They were down 14 points to Carolina. Do you think they are coming back from 13 down against Philly? In my opinion, no.”

• Dallas Cowboys: Is this team any better than previous Dallas teams that fell short?

What I think: It’s a tough time to evaluate the Cowboys fairly because they were so bad against San Francisco on a big stage in their most recent game. I just don’t see where Dallas is better or going to get considerably better, especially on offense. And every time they enjoy success, they seem to enjoy it a little too much. That is a reflection of their owner.

Exec comment: “Run defense and consistency on defense, and then offensively, what is their identity? They just are not very good. Their best games are when they play great defense and get turnovers, but that is not going to happen enough, especially against the good teams.”

Detroit Lions: Have they fixed their defense?

What I think: The Lions are 11.3 EPA per game better on defense from last season to this season, the second-largest gain for any team since last season. The schedule has something to do with that, but the 2022 defense was so bad, it couldn’t stop Carolina. Detroit will win the NFC North and return to the playoffs, which will make this season successful no matter what happens from there. But we won’t find out until the postseason just how much better the defense might be, because the remaining schedule features so many weak offenses. That includes Chicago twice, Green Bay, Denver and Las Vegas.

Exec comment: “Yes, I do buy them. This is a league full of teams who do not really know who they are week to week. Detroit knows who they are, and they play to their identity. Anytime you know who you are and play to that style, you have a chance to be dangerous.”

Baltimore Ravens: Are the Ravens better off shifting to more of a pass-oriented offense?

What I think: Baltimore has never scored fewer points or amassed less offensive EPA through the first six games of a season with Lamar Jackson in the lineup. The schedule and injuries have played roles, but with the Ravens shifting toward a more conventional pass offense, are the explosive quarterback runs mostly in the past? Jackson has one rush longer than 20 yards (he’s had four or five by now previously). He’s gaining at least eight yards on 15 percent of carries, half his previous rate. I’m not expecting a consistent precision passing game to suddenly materialize. Will this new offense be tougher to defend?

Exec comment: “The defense keeps them in it, but I don’t necessarily think this offensive change is going to make them any better when it counts. Lamar Jackson does not appear as dynamic as a runner, but in this offense, he does not need to be. He is regulated to pass from the pocket, but you are taking away the biggest weapon the offense had when you do that. Odell (Beckham) is not that guy anymore. Who are you truly afraid of on that offense? Nobody but Lamar, and if you are not using Lamar in a certain capacity, he becomes just like the rest of these quarterbacks around the league — hit or miss.”

• Jacksonville Jaguars: Are they ready for prime time?

What I think: Trevor Lawrence’s knee injury was the big concern coming out of Sunday. If he’s out, expectations shift dramatically. More than the other AFC contenders, the Jaguars seem early in their life cycle, still finding their way. That makes them a little harder to trust in big spots but also leaves greater space for growth. Let’s hope those test results on Lawrence’s knee come back clear.

Exec comment: “I like Jacksonville. Doug (Pederson) has a championship pedigree. This team is relatively young. They are scrappy. The fact that they have been there before gives them a chance. I think the quarterback is growing.”

• Cincinnati Bengals: Can Joe Burrow hold up for a full season?

What I think: Burrow is looking healthier over the past two weeks. The bye week comes at a great time for Burrow to get even healthier, but check out the schedule on the other side: San Francisco, Buffalo, Houston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. Cincy still has a second game with the Steelers, plus games against Kansas City and Cleveland. I’m worried Burrow will wear down against these defenses.

Exec comment: “You cannot always expect Joe Burrow to create magic with a bottom-half offensive line. The line is my concern all the way.”

2. Are teams sometimes going too far playing to win? The Eagles come to mind after falling 20-14 to the Jets.

Most would agree teams have gotten smarter in their handling of fourth-down situations, going for it when it makes sense, instead of punting almost out of habit. Making the aggressive play to win can absolutely be the smart play, regardless of results. It’s progress when teams seriously wrestle with these questions, not just on fourth down, but in all aspects of their strategy.

But when the Eagles tossed a killer interception on third-and-9 from their own 46-yard line while protecting a 14-12 lead against the Jets with two minutes left in the fourth quarter, a longtime NFL exec reached out with a question: “Have we come too far with coaches wanting to ‘win’ the game instead of sometimes being more traditional?”

His point: Philadelphia could have run the ball on third-and-9, then punted from around midfield. The Jets would have taken possession with barely more than a minute remaining, no timeouts and Zach Wilson behind center facing a ferocious Eagles pass rush. Was having Hurts pass in a situation when gaining a first down is unlikely the smart play under the circumstances?

“Are coaches not willing to go against the slight statistical benefit that WPA (win probability added) provides?” the exec asked. “Is it no longer OK to let your defense win the game when it clearly has a huge talent/performance advantage? This Eagles game was 14-12, not 37-35.”

Critics attuned to the trend toward aggressiveness pounce when teams pass up chances to go for the kill. Coaches know team owners tend to be fans, not football strategists. They know owners listen to these criticisms. That can provide an incentive to make the aggressive play, to go down swinging.

“Everybody thinks they are playing Brady, Manning or Rodgers in two-minute,” a veteran coach said. “If before the game someone offered Philly to put its defense against Zach Wilson on a need-field-goal drive starting inside his own 15 with no timeouts and a minute left, you think they would have taken it?”

In the situation Sunday, the Jets’ offense had netted 19 yards on its previous three possessions, producing one field goal on a drive that gained 16 of those yards. The Eagles had already suffered three turnovers. They knew Wilson would be taking over deep in his territory with very little time remaining.

“To me, these are exactly the type of factors that a coach needs to consider when deciding,” the exec said. “I think they were ignored here.”

The situation Philly faced against the Jets was the seventh time since 2000 that a team leading by 1-2 points in the final two minutes faced third down with 7-10 yards to go from the minus-40 yard line to midfield, with the opponent holding no timeouts.

Three of the seven teams passed, resulting in one first down, one sack and Hurts’ interception. Of these three teams, only the Eagles lost the game.

3. The 49ers lost Sunday when their rookie kicker missed from 41 yards. Is San Francisco wise trusting a championship roster to a rookie’s foot come playoff time?

The 49ers raised eyebrows among some when they used their second-highest pick in the 2023 draft — a third-round choice, 99th overall — for a kicker. The selection of Michigan’s Jake Moody gave the 49ers a cost-effective successor to veteran Robbie Gould. General manager John Lynch called Moody a potentially “foundational” player whose stock in the draft was so high, other teams were trying to trade ahead of San Francisco for a shot at him.

Who do you want lining up the potential winning kick in a Super Bowl? It’s an interesting question in a season that has seen Moody and Saints rookie Blake Grupe miss game-winning tries, but the data could be on the 49ers’ side.

FGA Dist Rookies Veterans

<33 Yds

97% [31-32]

94% [330-351]

34-44 Yds

75% [21-28]

82% [230-279]

45-50 Yds

78% [7-9]

73% [121-165]

51-55 Yds

100% [8-8]

59% [33-56]

56+ Yds

0% [0-1]

55% [6-11]

Totals

86% [67-78]

84% [720-862]

The table above shows field-goal make rates in the postseason since 2000 for rookie kickers vs. veterans. The numbers stack up pretty evenly across various distance cutoffs. Based on these numbers, there’s no statistical indication rookies are less effective in the postseason.

“Playoff teams have a different aura, different feel in the locker room,” a veteran evaluator said. “Percentages are one thing, but who is the guy who trots out there to try the game-winner? It’s a different pressure shooting free throws up by 20, down by 20, than in that type of situation.”

Fans might recall rookie kickers missing playoff kicks: Rodrigo Blankenship with the Colts in 2020, Harrison Butker with the Chiefs in 2017, Nate Kaeding with the Chargers in 2005. But the NFL has seen plenty of rookies kick effectively in the postseason as well. Evan McPherson made all 14 postseason tries with the 2021 Super Bowl Bengals. The 2017 Eagles won a Super Bowl with rookie Jake Elliott performing well. The 2012 Super Bowl champion Ravens had rookie Justin Tucker, while the 2006 Patriots trusted rookie Stephen Gostkowski.

4. Do they make wristbands for head coaches? That is not the only question facing the Broncos.

Denver Broncos coach Sean Payton has made clear his frustration with quarterback Russell Wilson in myriad ways, including when he suggested Wilson could at some point wear a wristband if it would help speed up communication in the huddle.

We joked on the Football GM Podcast that the head coach himself could have used a wristband to assist with game management after the Broncos called timeout before punting with 22 seconds left in the first half of a 19-8 defeat at Kansas City in Week 6. Payton said he thought Denver was heading into third down, not fourth, when he called timeout, helping the Chiefs’ drive to a field goal.

It wasn’t an isolated miscue. Denver has twice this season used all three timeouts with at least four minutes remaining before halftime. Payton suffered that fate only four times in 258 total games coaching the Saints, when his association with Drew Brees was one of the most successful partnerships in recent NFL history. Payton has had it happen twice in six games with Wilson as his quarterback.


Russell Wilson’s hold on the starting job in Denver seems more tenuous with every game. (William Purnell / USA Today)

Across the league, teams have used all their first-half timeouts above four minutes just 14 times since 2020. That includes six times by Carolina when Matt Rhule coached the Panthers. Payton is the only other coach with more than one such game over the past three-plus seasons.

The irony is rich in Denver, where Payton’s predecessor, Nathaniel Hackett, was mocked for his game management so thoroughly, the team made him hire veteran assistant Jerry Rosburg to help him after only three games (Denver was 2-1 at that point). The Broncos under Hackett had trouble getting out of the huddle on time.

Hackett took the hit for those issues, but when the problem recurred under Payton, the blame shifted to Wilson, the common denominator.

All of this is pointing toward a future in Denver that includes Payton but not Wilson. Payton’s game plans over the past two weeks were conservative enough to suggest the coach was publicly demonstrating he does not think he can run his offense as currently configured, despite some success on the ground. These game plans were conservative enough to signal a potential in-season quarterback change. Denver faces Green Bay and Kansas City over the next two weeks before heading into its Week 9 bye.

5. You play to win the game, but can you win too quickly? The Giants and Vikings are test cases.

The New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings exceeded expectations under first-year head coaches in 2022. Both reached the playoffs. Both are struggling in their second seasons, facing difficult questions about the future. Would they have been better off enjoying only moderate success early? That could depend on how well the football leadership has communicated with ownership.

Every head coach and general manager wants to win as much as possible, but the goal is to build for the long term, which can require time to do things with sustainability in mind. Bad teams that win right away can reset expectations for fans and ownership, making it less practical to take one step backward in the short term for a better shot at taking two steps forward down the line.

What do the Giants’ and Vikings’ ownerships think?

“The best first year can be that 7-10 season where you show some promise,” a veteran coach with experience on a half-dozen teams said. “The Giants won a bunch of games early, people were heaping praise on the head coach, people get the expectation of what the quarterback can be. But oftentimes, you know different internally because you know the house you are living in. You are inside the walls every single day and you know where the roof leaks, where the foundation is cracked.”

Buffalo managed such a situation well. The Bills surprisingly reached the playoffs in their first season under Sean McDermott, a euphoric moment after a 17-year playoff drought. They went 6-10 the next year, then began a steady rise behind Josh Allen and a top defense. There isn’t a Josh Allen on the Giants or Vikings.

Minnesota in particular finds itself in an interesting spot, with Kirk Cousins approaching free agency and playing well enough, most likely, to keep the Vikings from climbing too high in the draft order.

“They already gave a contract to (tight end) T.J. Hockenson, and they are going to give one to (receiver) Justin Jefferson,” an exec said. “Now, what? Are you going into the rookie pool and taking the fourth-best quarterback in the draft? You can look like Atlanta with (Desmond) Ridder pretty quick.”

6. Two-minute drill: There were already many ways to win a game before the Dolphins invented another one.

The Dolphins were one of 223 teams since 2000 to be favored by at least 13.5 points in a regular-season or playoff game. Seventeen of those 223 teams fell behind by 14 or more. Six of the 17 won anyway. The Dolphins were the only one of those 223 teams to win and cover the spread, which was 13.5 for this game.

Six catches for 163 yards and a touchdown against Carolina left the Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill with 812 yards through the first six games. That ranks second in NFL history to Hall of Famer Don Hutson, who had 819 yards through six with Green Bay in 1942.

Receiving Yards Through Six NFL Games

Rk Player Season Yds

1

Don Hutson

1942

819

2

Tyreek Hill

2023

812

3

Wes Welker

2011

785

4

Elroy Hirsch

1951

766

5

Santana Moss

2005

743

6

DeAndre Hopkins

2015

726

7

Raymond Berry

1960

725

8

Jerry Rice

1986

723

9

Bob Boyd

1954

718

10

Bobby Mitchell

1962

714

Jared Goff is enjoying the second-best start to a season for his career from a statistical standpoint, behind only his 2018 Super Bowl season with the Rams. With the Lions at 5-1 and Goff heading toward a likely contract extension, could another team come after his injured backup, former University of Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker?

Randy Mueller raised the thought last week, recalling examples from his career as a GM when offering a pick one round higher than a prospect’s actual draft round proved alluring. Detroit used a third-round choice for Hooker, who is recovering from ACL surgery. Hooker would have been valued higher if healthy. Could that be true again at some point in the future?

News that Indianapolis Colts rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson might undergo season-ending shoulder surgery could carry a silver lining. Richardson got to play enough for the Colts to evaluate where he stands, but if he shuts it down for the season, neither he nor the team would have to suffer through a full season of growing pains. Gardner Minshew’s three-pick game against Jacksonville on Sunday works against the idea Indy is better positioned to compete with the journeyman in the lineup, but most coaches and execs I’ve spoken with believe that to be the case in the short term.

(Top photo: Dustin Satloff / Getty Images)


The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.