What have we learned thus far in Week 14? FOX Sports’ staff of NFL writers joined forces to deliver insight and analysis from around the league.
In this weekly story, we’ll tell you what we noticed, what we heard and what to keep an eye on next.
1. Underrated 49ers WR Brandon Aiyuk deserves his flowers
While the explosive plays created by Deebo Samuel have been an understandable talking point nationally for the San Francisco 49ers this week, the team’s other top receiver reached a milestone during a 28-16 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
Brandon Aiyuk finished with six receptions for 126 yards on nine targets. Aiyuk now has a career-high 1,053 receiving yards on 56 receptions and six touchdowns, eclipsing 1,000 receiving yards for a second straight season.
Aiyuk became the fifth player in San Francisco’s storied franchise history to accomplish that feat, joining Jerry Rice (1986-96), Terrell Owens (2000-2003), Anquan Boldin (2013-2014) and fellow teammate George Kittle (2018-19).
“He’s one of our leaders in there,” San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan said about Aiyuk. “He’s come a long way. He gets so amped up for the games. Sometimes he won’t get a ball for a little bit, and then he gets it late. And sometimes it happens early, but with BA (Aiyuk) it really doesn’t matter this year with him. He plays the same way, down in and down out and it carries over to the run game and pass game.
“With the type of football player he is and how talented he is, you always felt it was matter of type before he gets his thousand (yards). He deserves it and he’s been great for us.”
The 25-year-old former first-round pick out of Arizona State is heading into the final year of his rookie contract. He will make $14.1 million on his fifth-year option, which the 49ers picked up earlier this year. Samuel is set to make $20.1 million in 2024 as one of the top receivers in the NFL.
The 49ers already re-signed George Kittle, Fred Warner, Nick Bosa and Samuel to new deals. Aiyuk is next in line. With $1.4 million in projected salary cap space next year, the 49ers will have to get creative to keep Aiyuk around long-term.
However, San Francisco showed a willingness to do that in building cap space for a lucrative, new contract for edge rusher Bosa in part by restructuring deals of foundational players like Trent Williams and Arik Armstead.
Along with that, having second-year quarterback Brock Purdy still under his rookie contract should also give 49ers general manager John Lynch some financial flexibility in paying other premium positions. —Eric D. Williams
2. Brandon Aubrey is one of the NFL’s best stories — and best kickers
Less than a year has passed since the Dallas Cowboys watched in horror as their kicker, Brett Maher, missed four extra points in a playoff game last January. No one was sure how much better things would be this season when they replaced Maher with a rookie who had spent most of the past five years as a software engineer.
It turns out, with Brandon Aubrey, things aren’t just better. They’re close to perfect.
“I have to pinch myself to think that it’s been less than 12 months that I didn’t think we were going to make the extra point,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told reporters after his team beat the Philadelphia Eagles 33-13 on Sunday night. “It just shows you that that thing can turn. And it has.”
It has turned in a very unexpected way. The 28-year-old Aubrey made four field goals in that game, including kicks from 50, 59 and 60 yards. He became the first kicker in NFL history to make two kicks in the same game from 59 yards or longer.
“I don’t know that I’ve witnessed any more impressive kicking exhibition than we had out there tonight,” Jones said.
But Aubrey has been pretty impressive all season long. He is now 30-for-30 on field goals this season, making him the first kicker in NFL history to make the first 30 kicks of his career (he’s also 39-of-42 on extra points). That includes 8-for-8 on kicks 50 yards or longer.
His teammates call him “Butter” because, as quarterback Dak Prescott said, “He’s smooth — super smooth — and makes them all. He makes it as easy as butter.”
“I mean, if you just watch him kick every day, he’s just so consistent,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy added. “He has tremendous strength. His ball flight is just so consistent, the way the ball comes off his foot, so obviously, we have great confidence in him.”
So what was Aubrey doing spending all those post-college years as a software engineer? He was actually a first-round draft pick in 2017, but as part of Major League Soccer (Toronto FC drafted him 21st overall). When a soccer career didn’t work out, he took a conventional job until he watched an NFL game with his wife in 2019. When they saw a kicker miss an extra point, his wife turned to him and said, “You could do that.”
Yes, he could. So he hired a kicking coach, landed with the USFL’s Birmingham Stallions for two seasons, and now he’s doing it for a Super Bowl contender.
“Obviously, this is my wildest dreams,” Aubrey said Sunday night. “And they’ve come true.” —Ralph Vacchiano
Skip Bayless reacts to Cowboys win over Eagles in Week 14
3. He’s not a superstar anymore. But were we too quick to write off Russell Wilson?
It was so easy to write Russell Wilson off in September.
The Denver Broncos opened the year 0-3, and in that third loss they gave up 70 points to the Dolphins. So of course, people looked at Wilson’s $245 million contract and did the math on when Denver could move on.
Wilson had six touchdowns and two interceptions in those first three games, but still, Denver was 4-11 with him starting last year, and he had only 16 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. Hey, age catches up to everyone eventually, and he was about to turn 35, right?
The Broncos have now won six of seven, and at 7-6, they are a tiebreaker away from being a wild-card team with four games left. They play at Detroit next week, but their other three games are against the Patriots, Chargers and Raiders, all with losing records.
Wilson’s time as a star might be behind him. He went to nine Pro Bowls in 10 years. He led Seattle to a winning record in each of his first nine seasons, so that’s all we knew of him. It makes sense that pairing him with an offensive mind like Sean Payton should rekindle some of that. Wilson is completing 67.2% of his passes — well above his career average of 64.8% — and his quarterback rating is a solid 98.3, just a bit under his career number (100.1).
He’s on pace for a very respectable 30 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, and it’s not hard to see Denver going 3-1 down the stretch and making the playoffs at 10-7. That could mean opening the postseason at a place like Jacksonville or Houston, a winnable game. But we should appreciate Russ being a reasonable approximation of Russ again before that happens. —Greg Auman
4. Grand season ahead for Bucs’ Rachaad White in 2023?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2015, matching the New York Jets for the longest such drought in the NFL.
That could change in the next month.
Second-year back Rachaad White has emerged as a productive bell-cow back in the past three games. On Sunday, he rushed for 102 yards and caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from Baker Mayfield, a big part of the Bucs’ 29-25 win over the Falcons.
In his past three games, White has rushed for 284 yards, an average of 95 per game that puts him at 745 yards for the season. He only needs to average 64 over the final four games to get to 1,000 for the year, something the Bucs haven’t had since Doug Martin topped 1,000 in 2015.
White showed promise as a rookie last season, splitting time with Leonard Fournette, and the Bucs showed confidence in him by letting Fournette go and trusting him to be the primary back. He’s had three of the four best rushing games of his career in the past three weeks, and the Bucs are 2-1 in those games, with a close loss to the Colts.
Add in 48 catches for 419 yards, and he’s now fourth among NFL running backs in yards from scrimmage, behind only the 49ers’ Christian McCaffrey, the Jaguars’ Travis Etienne and the Bills’ James Cook. White is only 25 yards behind the last two, so he could easily finish second to McCaffrey if his recent production continues.
It’s been a while since the Bucs have had real contributions from their run game — they ranked last in the NFL in yards per game (76.9) and yards per carry (3.39) last season. That average is only 3.52 this season, but their commitment to the run game under new coordinator Dave Canales has taken some of the pressure off Mayfield and added some offensive balance.
The Bucs selected White in the third round last year, and his total production is ahead of that of division rivals investing much more in the position. His 1,164 yards from scrimmage is ahead of Atlanta’s Bijan Robinson (1,110, taken with the eighth overall pick in April) and New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara (966 in 10 games, making $15 million a year).
Tampa Bay’s four remaining opponents all rank 19th or worse in rushing defense, so if the Bucs are to make a four-game sprint for a third straight NFC South division title, White will continue to be a big part of that push. —Auman
5. Is the Browns’ Kevin Stefanski a frontrunner for Coach of the Year?
The Texans’ DeMeco Ryans has been a leading candidate for Coach of the Year, considering how Houston has become a playoff contender this year after three straight seasons as one of the worst teams in the NFL.
The Colts’ Shane Steichen is another popular choice. Indianapolis has been without rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson since Week 5, had star running back Jonathan Taylor miss several games, standout defensive tackle Grover Stewart miss six games thanks to a suspension and experienced season-long cornerback issues. Yet, the Colts are also in the playoff mix.
But the Cleveland Browns’ Kevin Stefanski deserves to be in the conversation as well.
According to NFL Network, the Browns are just the 13th team since 1950 to have four different quarterbacks start multiple games in a season. Stefanski has now won with all four of them — Deshaun Watson, P.J. Walker, Dorian Thompson-Robinson and 38-year-old Joe Flacco, who quarterbacked Cleveland’s victory Sunday over Jacksonville, one of the AFC’s top teams.
Stefanski, who won coach of the year in 2020, has a great defense to lean on. But the work he’s done to keep the offense afloat — In addition to the quarterback attrition, the Browns lost superstar running back Nick Chubb for the year and have sustained numerous offensive-line injuries — is impossible to ignore, especially considering Cleveland (8-5) holds the top AFC wild-card spot and still could be in the mix for the AFC North title if Baltimore (10-3) slips down the stretch. —Arthur
6. If Nico Collins misses time, C.J. Stroud and the Houston Texans could be in trouble
Overcoming the loss of Tank Dell was already a tough enough task for the Texans (the rookie receiver broke his leg in last week’s win over the Broncos).
Now, Nico Collins — their No. 1 receiver — could miss time, too.
Collins suffered a calf injury on the Texans’ opening possession in Sunday’s loss to the Jets and didn’t return. Rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud proceeded to have his worst game to this point: a 43.3% completion rate (10-of-23) for 91 yards and no touchdowns. The No. 2 overall pick is also in concussion protocol, putting his status in doubt for the Week 15 game at Tennessee. With 6:43 left, Stroud was driven into the ground by Jets defensive tackle Quinnen Williams on what appeared to be a late hit.
Whenever Stroud does return, Houston will have to figure out how to keep its passing attack performing at a high level. That becomes magnified if Collins is sidelined. It’s the strength of these resurgent Texans and what has made them a playoff contender.
They thrive specifically on the deep ball. Entering Week 14, the Texans led the NFL with 59 receptions of 20-plus yards, according to Sportradar. And Dell and Collins have accounted for the bulk of that production. Entering Week 14, the duo accounted for 61.3% of the Texans’ deep targets (20 or more air yards downfield) and 59.2% of the deep receptions, according to Next Gen Stats.
The absence of both of the Texans’ leading receivers could force Stroud to hold the ball longer, putting more pressure on the offensive line. On Sunday, he was pressured on 44.4% of his dropbacks, per NGS — just the fourth time this season he’s been pressured on more than 40% of his dropbacks.
And there’s uncertainty with the larger receiver corps. Their No. 3 wide receiver, veteran Noah Brown, has been a non-factor in consecutive weeks since returning from a knee injury. He has zero catches on seven targets over the past two games. Starting tight end Dalton Schultz, Houston’s third-leading pass-catcher, has also missed back-to-back games with a hamstring injury. —Ben Arthur
Zach Wilson outplays C.J. Stroud in Jets upset vs. Texans
7. Justin Herbert’s injury is a final nail in the coffin of Chargers’ miserable season
After a disappointing 24-7 loss at home to the Denver Broncos at SoFi Stadium over the weekend, the Los Angeles Chargers dropped to 5-8 overall and have finally reached the evaluation portion of their season.
Quarterback Justin Herbert had to leave the game with a broken index finger on his throwing hand, putting his availability for the rest of the season in jeopardy. The Oregon product has not missed a game since taking over as the team’s starter his rookie season in 2020, playing through painful broken ribs last season.
With four games left, the Chargers are essentially out of the playoff race. Head coach Brandon Staley and the organization will have to determine if it’s worth putting Herbert in harm’s way for meaningless games in December.
Herbert is following in the footsteps of one of the NFL’s iron men in Philip Rivers, so it will be hard for him to not want to take the field if he’s deemed healthy enough to play.
But with the likelihood that the Chargers will be looking for new leadership to run the team next year, the Bolts should be more concerned with getting a good evaluation of back-end players heading into the offseason and making sure Herbert is healthy for 2024.
On a day in which the Bolts celebrated the career of future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates by inducting him into the Chargers Hall of Fame, the loss to the team’s AFC West rivals in the Broncos was just another harsh reminder at how far the Bolts are from competing for a Super Bowl, even though they have one of the most talented quarterbacks in the league. —Williams
8. The Detroit Lions‘ issues are adding up, and may derail one of NFL’s best stories
Detroit has now lost two of its past three games — both to division teams — and in Chicago on Sunday the Lions’ weaknesses were glaring. After Detroit’s shaky win over the Saints last week, we wrote about how offensive-line health affects quarterback Jared Goff’s success, and that was never more evident with center Frank Ragnow out against the Bears.
Goff completed 20 of his 35 pass attempts on the day for just 161 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. His passer rating of 54.6 was not only the lowest it’s been all season, but the lowest it’s ever been as a member of the Lions. Even with 140 yards on the ground, Detroit’s offense couldn’t sustain any success against a Bears defense that may be better than we thought.
The Lions’ issues aren’t just Goff and their offensive line, either. Defensively, they still lack depth. The secondary is rotating extra corners to make up for a lack of safety depth, which in turn is affecting the actual corner rotation. Cornerback Cam Sutton played 100% of the team’s defensive snaps yet again. Cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu and safety Kerby Joseph played all but one snap.
The Lions do already have nine wins. With how far back the Bears still are and the Vikings trending downward, Detroit’s only real challenger for the division is (incredibly) the Packers. They’d have to win three of their final games to match the Lions’ win total if Detroit doesn’t win another game. With the Giants, Buccaneers, Panthers, Vikings and Bears to finish out Green Bay’s season, that’s entirely possible. If the Lions and Packers finish with the same record, they’d have to go to at least the second tiebreaker after splitting the season series.
Don’t count out the Lions adding to their win column, either. They have the Broncos next and two games against the Vikings and a Week 17 matchup with the Dallas Cowboys left. There’s a possibility of Detroit getting significantly healthier too by the end of the season. Safety CJ Gardner-Johnson could yet return. Defensive tackle Alim McNeill said last week he should be ready to go as soon as he’s eligible to come off IR in Week 18. It doesn’t sound like Ragnow’s injury is season-ending.
There’s hope yet for the Lions to not only make the postseason but win a playoff game for the first time since 1993. It’s just not as much of a given as it seemed earlier in the season. —Carmen Vitali
Justin Fields, Bears stun Jared Goff, Lions
9. Is Bears’ rebuild further along than we thought?
Ask any Chicago Bears fan; they are now in the hunt for the postseason with five wins on the season. There is a lower bar in the NFC, which has kept playoff possibilities open for teams like the Bears, the Giants, the Commanders and even the Cardinals. None of them is out of contention.
But realistically, it looks very possible for Chicago to double its win total from last season coming off the first back-to-back victories of Matt Eberflus’ tenure. All of that would be right on schedule.
It was a total rebuild that began when the Bears cleaned house in 2022, bringing in Eberflus and general manager Ryan Poles. They had a young roster, too. These things take two to three years, at least. In the second season, after two offseasons of being able to build the team through the draft and acquire veterans through free agency and even in-season trades, Chicago is starting to see real, sustainable improvement.
Since the arrival of defensive end Montez Sweat at the trade deadline, the defense has skyrocketed to the league’s top five. Since Week 9, the Bears have 11 sacks. They had only 10 in the first eight weeks of the season. The defense also has the second-most takeaways in that span and has three straight games with three or more takeaways. Chicago’s 11 takeaways since Week 11 are the most in that span.
Now, trading future assets for the right to negotiate with an edge rusher like Sweat was a controversial decision, but the Bears made certain to extend him for years to come and didn’t have to bid on the open market to do it.
The biggest question that still looms is what to do at quarterback. The Bears will have Carolina’s first pick in the draft, which looks increasingly likely to be first overall. If Chicago keeps winning, its own first pick will continue to fall but should still be valuable. The Bears have an opportunity to reset the clock with a young quarterback who could now land in a pretty good situation. Another offensive and defensive lineman, along with a couple more weapons, should just about complete this Bears team.
It may seem like all of a sudden that Chicago only has a few holes left, but this has been a slow and steady rebuild by Poles the past couple of seasons. For Bears fans, the results can’t come soon enough. —Vitali
‘We’re getting better every week’ —Justin Fields after upsetting the Lions
10. Time is running out on the Kansas City Chiefs‘ offense
We have reached the fourth quarter of the season, and we are still waiting on the Chiefs’ offensive explosion. A unit led by a two-time MVP with exceptional arm talent and playmaking ability, and directed by one of the best playcallers in the business should not have a problem scoring points.
Yet, the Chiefs will head into Week 15 reeling after another pedestrian performance from an offense that somehow lacks big-play potential. Perhaps we should have expected the Chiefs’ offense to take a step back after Tyreek Hill’s departure in 2022, but the loss of the All-Pro (and 2023 MVP candidate) was supposed to be offset by the arrival of a mix of veterans and newcomers with complementary skills.
To say that Marques Valdes-Scantling, Kadarius Toney, Skyy Moore, Justin Watson and Rashee Rice have fallen short of the standard is an epic understatement that would make even a casual observer snicker. The Chiefs’ receiving corps is a hodgepodge collection of inconsistent playmakers and underachievers on the perimeter. Despite their impressive athletic attributes and former draft status, the unit lacks a blue-chip player in their group.
While the buzz centered on Toney and Moore in the offseason as WR1 candidates based on their OTA and mini-camp showings, the duo has failed to deliver on the promise many expected after watching them shine in Super Bowl LVII. MVS was brought over from Green Bay to add a vertical dimension to the offense, but the rangy pass catcher has failed to produce the explosive plays that have been missing on the perimeter since Hill’s departure.
Rice has flashed potential as a crafty slot receiver with wiggle and burst, but his inconsistent hands makes it hard for Mahomes to count on him in key moments. As a result, the passing game continues to run through Travis Kelce despite his gradual decline as a 34-year-old pass catcher.
In searching for a solution, Reid could scrap his perimeter-oriented playbook and rely on an inside-out approach that makes the tight ends and running backs the primary options. The Chiefs could reintroduce the screen game and a ball control approach with Jerrick McKinnon, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Isaiah Pacheco featured as top options.
Against the Bills, the running backs and tight ends accounted for 17 of 39 targets, with the group combining for 130 receiving yards on 11 catches. Although the effort didn’t result in a win, it might have provided the blueprint for how Reid could attempt to fix his broken offense down the stretch.
This story was compiled by:
AFC South reporter Ben Arthur (@benyarthur)
NFC South reporter Greg Auman (@gregauman)
NFC West reporter Eric D. Williams (@eric_d_williams)
NFC East reporter Ralph Vacchiano (@RalphVacchiano)
NFC North reporter Carmen Vitali (@CarmieV)
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