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WHAT WE LEARNED: NFL WEEK 17

BY Jonathan Willis

There’s too much to talk about this week, but today we’re focusing on the playoffs and a certain Denver Broncos quarterback.

There’s other stuff we have to get into this week and will, both with the NFL’s referee issues on full display in prime time and David Tepper being very David Tepper last Sunday, getting fined $300,000 by the NFL for tossing a drink on Jacksonville Jaguars fans.

There’s just so long this thing can be. I have to break it up and, frankly, this is a solid week to focus on some of these events in the Power Rankings. Like the fact that Zach Wilson’s time in New York is officially over that Mike Tomlin, in spite of fielding one of the worst offenses in NFL history and firing its coordinator, Matt Canada, still got the Pittsburgh Steelers to a winning record, keeping his non losing season streak going for the 17th season and once again, for the 17th straight year, is alive for a potential playoff spot heading into the final week of the season.

It’s a lot, but we’re focusing on DangerRuss and the playoffs in this one.

RUSSELL WILSON AND THE BRONCOS CONSCIOUSLY UNCOUPLE

After falling in consecutive games that all but realistically, if not officially, knocked the Denver Broncos out of playoff contention, last week head coach Sean Payton announced that starting franchise quarterback Russell Wilson, a man for which the team gave up a king’s ransom in draft picks and players to add, would hit the pine, replaced by Jarrett Stidham against the Los Angeles Chargers.

It was a surprise move, in spite of the two losses. Wilson, in the first year in Payton’s system, seemed to be finding his footing and, while not worth what the Broncos gave up to get him, looked very much like, at worst, a quality starting NFL QB, if not the franchise signal caller Denver thought it was bringing in before the 2022 season.

When asked about the benching after a 26-23 loss to the hapless New England Patriots, Payton, speaking to the press, was coy but almost told the whole truth.

“We’re desperately trying to win,” Payton said. “Sure, in our game today, there are economics and other things but the number one push behind this — and it’s a decision I’m making — is to get a spark offensively.”

That “economics” bean spillage was the key, as Wilson filled in the blanks when he got his chance to speak to the media, his divorce with the Broncos already well underway in his mind, I’d presume.

The benching had apparently been in the works for weeks, at least since Denver’s monster win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 8. The team wanted Wilson to remove his injury guarantee in his contract and he refused, according to the quarterback.

“They definitely told me I was going to be benched and all that,” Wilson said. “That whole bye week I didn’t know what was going to be the case, I was going to be ready to play, I wanted to go to Buffalo and beat Buffalo (on Nov. 13). … I wasn’t going to remove the injury guarantee. This game is such a physical game, I’ve played 12 years and all that. I want to be able to play, I want to be able to help this team win. … I know every time I step on the field it’s a physical game. I never play timid, I never play scared.”

Now, a handful of days later, no one seems to be disputing this fact. I’m sure Payton feels he’s covered by the consecutive losses and, while Wilson was better than he was last year, he was hardly playing up to the massive contract the Broncos gave him. There have been some in punditry floating that there could be some legal action from Wilson and the NFLPA over the benching, I can’t see how they have much an argument. This is a guy that’s won 11 football games in two seasons, ironically one win short of matching the number of bathrooms in his house. Something that haunted Wilson, and his touchdown pass mark, all last season.

Make no mistake, if Denver was 9-7 right now, still in the playoff mix, and hadn’t lost to the pathetic Pats, Wilson would still have his job. Denver would have wanted a contract re-work, but wouldn’t have sacrificed their first postseason appearance since 2015 to do it.

With Wilson under center, the Broncos went 11-19 in two years for three different head coaches. Wilson completed 66.4 percent of his passes this season for 3,070 yards, 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions, numbers that a solid contingent of NFL teams would accept from their starting QB.

Thanks to those two losses, even with Stidham leading the team to a cumbersome 16-9 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, Denver’s postseason missing streak officially continues as they were eliminated from AFC playoff contention. And while the Broncos owe Wilson a ton of money, they’ll still be on the hook for $39 million next season, Denver can split up his $85 million cap hit over 2024 and 2025 with a post June 1 cut designation.

So can they trade Wilson?

Sure, if he waves his “no trade” clause and there’s no way he will. Wilson rightly should want to go the Derek Carr route and become a free agent. All he does by agreeing to a trade is keep his present contract intact, which he’s already collected a huge chunk of, and let Denver off the hook on paying him the $39 million they owe him, Some other team would have to take that on.

And that would limit Wilson’s options on where he could end up.

As a free agent, still being paid nearly $40 million by Denver, Wilson can sign with whoever he wants for any cap-friendly deal he and his agent are willing to offer. At least for a single “prove it” season.

WHERE WILL WILSON END UP NEXT SEASON?

Needless to say, the odds have already been released on which team Wilson will take his talents to in 2024. Here’s what we’re looking at;

Minnesota Vikings +500

New England Patriots +600

Washington Commanders +700

Las Vegas Raiders +700

Atlanta Falcons +800

Pittsburgh Steelers +800

Chicago Bears +800

New York Giants _800

Arizona Cardinals +1000

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

New Orleans Saints +1100

Seattle Seahawks +3300

It’s a solid list, as those are probably every team in the quarterback market in 2024. What works against Wilson? Other than the film he put down in 2022 and the fact that, while he looked decent in 2023, he wasn’t the Pro Bowler he’d been in the past? The sheer number of talented quarterbacks that will be available, via the draft and free agency.

Now, there are plenty of people who are touting JJ McCarthy, Bo Nix and Michael Penix, Jr. as potential first round quarterbacks. And maybe they are, but I’m not counting on it. I’ll do a deeper dive when its mock draft and prospect player ranking time.

The three QBs that are guaranteed to go in the first are Caleb Williams, the 2022 Heisman Trophy Winner out of USC, Drake Maye from UNC and Jayden Daniels, your 2023 Heisman Trophy recipient from LSU. They could legitimately go 1-2-3 in April’s draft and that opens up another inexpensive (at the time) quarterback in the class, the Bears’ Justin Fields, who will then be available for a lower first round pick (or grouping of seconds, players and such).

Thanks to trading away the first overall pick to the Carolina Panthers last season, the Bears have clinched the top pick in this draft and Williams… there’s just no way you don’t take him. Not when you can add him, still have a first rounder and can add another while pushing the big QB contract down the road for another three seasons. If you keep Fields, it’s time to pay him. Everyone discussing Fields’ future in Chicago, even if the team retains Matt Eberflus as head coach (and I can’t understand why they would), needs to factor that in. You can lose out on Williams, who could be a generational Patrick Mahomes-Andrew Luck type prospect or you could pay an obviously rising, but still losing and relatively unproven and injury prone QB, $30 million for the next five years with probably $90 million guaranteed.

It’s an easy call to make. Especially if Chicago rightly sends Eberflus packing for an offensive head coach. And they should. Eburflus will be fine. He’ll land a defensive coordinator job somewhere. Yes, the team has fought hard and he’s improved too. But, don’t let a Lincoln Riley or Ben Johnson escape because you’re overly loyal to a guy. All you have to do is look at what the Washington Commanders could have been if they’d fired Jay Gruden and replaced him with any coach from their previous staffs before they were all hired away. We’re talking Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Mike Lafleur and Mike McDaniel here. Learn the lesson. Good coaches turn teams around quickly. How many guys like Eberflus do it in their third season after showing nothing in the first two? It’s a short list and one of the guys on it, Zac Taylor of the Cincinnati Bengals, used a QB taken No. 1 overall to get on it. Dan Campbell, even though the Detroit Lions didn’t make the postseason in his second year, should have and finished with a winning record. He doesn’t count.

So, one of these Jobs will go to Fields and rightly so, as he’s still got his entire career ahead of him and has proven he can play well for a bad team and, at best, mediocre head coach. Put him on a better squad with more offensive talent around him and a coach who can run an offense and let’s see what happens. And don’t give him a new contract yet. Pick up that fifth-year option and prepare to franchise him after if he works out. My guess on who that trade partner with the Bears will be? The Atlanta Falcons.

While they too would be a solid destination for Wilson, he’s a short term answer for a team that is loaded up in cap money, or about to bust the bank open in future cap costs, but can win right now. That makes the top team, the Vikings, the most likely choice. They could absolutely keep Kirk Cousins, who will need a new contract and cost over $40 million with a ton of guarantees. Or, they can add Wilson and toss him the league minimum (since Denver’s paying $39 million no matter what), get Justin Jefferson and everyone else they want to keep under long term contracts, and then decide what to do if Wilson performs to expectations in 2024.

How about the Patriots? It’s interesting, because if the draft were held today, they’d pick No. 3 overall. That’s Drake Maye or Jayden Daniels territory and those guys are both potential franchise quarterbacks. And, if Bill Belichick really does hit the bricks and is replaced by a new head coach (probably Bill O’Brien), then they’ll stick with it and take one of those guys.

But if Belichick stays? He’s not going to want to rebuild with a rookie if he can help it. He gave that a go already with Mac Jones and all its done, three seasons in, is land him the first consecutive losing seasons of his New England tenure.

You bring in Wilson? Pay him pennies on what he’s worth and draft Marvin Harrison, Jr.? That sounds like a serious option for me.

The New York Giants, with their Daniel Jones cap situation, also should be a serious contender for all the financial reasons I’ve already gone through. They could go ahead and cut Daniel Jones, eat his contract, and start over with Wilson for the one-year prove-it deal. Same with the Saints if they wanted to boot Derek Carr after a single season.

The Commanders are drafting a QB, so count them out. Arizona is way more interested, at this point, in nabbing Harrison, Jr. if he makes it to No. 4 than replacing Kyler Murray, who’s played well enough to keep his job in his shortened season. The Buccaneers are probably going to sign a long-term deal with Baker Mayfield, who’s played better than Patrick Mahomes (statistically) this season and seems to fit their team well. There’s no chance at all at a Seahawks reunion, so I don’t understand why that’s there.

What about the Steelers and the Raiders? Well, you’ve got an issue there and it’s Kirk Cousins. Both those teams could have the cap numbers available, even if they technically don’t as of this writing, to make signing Cousins feasible and he will, without question, be the top quarterback available on the market in 2024.

I don’t think Pittsburgh is ready to toss Kenny Pickett into the closest dumpster just yet, but they might still turn in a card on Day Two of the draft with Penix, McCarthy or Nix’s name on it. And that’s probably the smart move for them.

So that leaves the Raiders and, honestly, Wilson would fit in there perfectly, but I still like the Vikes’ odds to land him, with the guys they have to get signed this year and what it would cost them to keep Cousins.

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

Alright, we’re here. Heading into the final week of the regular season, this is the table we have set before us.

AFC

1. Baltimore Ravens 13-3

2. Miami Dolphins 11-5

3. Kansas City Chiefs 10-6

4. Jacksonville Jaguars 9-7

5. Cleveland Browns 11-5

6. Buffalo Bills 10-6

7. Indianapolis Colts 9-7

In the mix: Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7), Houston Texans (9-7)

Clinched: Baltimore Ravens (AFC North and Top AFC Seed), Kansas City Chiefs (AFC West), Miami Dolphins (playoff spot), Cleveland Browns (playoff spot)

Eliminated: New York Jets 6-10, New England Patriots (4-12), Cincinnati Bengals (8-8), Tennessee Titans (5-11), Denver Broncos (8-8), Las Vegas Raiders (7-9), Los Angeles Chargers (5-11)

Key games this week: Steelers at Ravens, Texans at Colts, Jaguars at Titans, Bills at Dolphins

Playoff scenarios: If the Bills beat the Dolphins, they’re AFC East champions and in the playoffs. They can still make into the bracket if they tie with Miami or they lose with a Steelers loss or tie, Jags loss or tie or a Texans vs Colts tie. If Miami wins, they get the AFC East title.

The Texans are AFC South champions with a win over the Colts and a Jaguars loss or tie. Houston makes the playoffs with a win or a tie with a Jaguars loss and a Steelers loss or tie.

Indianapolis is AFC South champ with a win and a Jacksonville loss or tie. Or a tie with the Texans and a Jags loss. They make the playoffs with a win or a tie coupled with a Steelers loss or tie.

The Jaguars clinch the AFC South with a win over the Titans or a tie paired with a Texans and Colts tie. They can make the playoffs with a tie and a Pittsburgh loss. If the Steelers lose, the Broncos lose (this is the math) and as long as the Texans vs Colts doesn’t end in a tie, the Jaguars can still make it to the postseason with a loss.

Lastly, the Steelers can get into the postseason with a win over the Ravens, who will be resting starters, and a Bills loss or a win and a Jaguars loss or tie (as long as Houston vs Indy doesn’t end in a tie). They also slide in with a win and a Texans vs Colts tie. They can lose and make it if the Jags lose and a Broncos win (again, my old enemy math) as long as the Houston and Indianapolis don’t end in a tie.

NFC

1. San Francisco 49ers 12-4

2. Dallas Cowboys 11-5

3. Detroit Lions 11-5

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 8-8

5. Philadelphia Eagles 11-5

6. Los Angeles Rams 9-7

7. Green Bay Packers 8-8

In the mix: Minnesota Vikings (7-9), New Orleans Saints (8-8), Atlanta Falcons (7-9), Seattle Seahawks (8-8)

Eliminated: New York Giants (5-11), Washington Commanders (4-12), Chicago Bears (7-9), Carolina Panthers (2-14), Arizona Cardinals (4-12)

Clinched: San Francisc 49ers (clinched NFC West and NFC top seed), Detroit Lions (clinched NFC North), Dallas Cowboys (clinched playoff spot), Philadelphia Eagles (clinched playoff spot), Los Angeles Rams (clinched playoff spot)

Playoff scenarios: The Dallas Cowboys clinch the NFC East and the No. 2 seed with a win. They can clinch the NFC East with a tie and Eagles tie or an Eagles loss. Philly wins the NFC East with a victory and a Cowboys loss or tie. They can also take it with a tie and a Dallas loss.

Green Bay keeps their spot with a win or a tie with a Seahawks loss or tie plus a Saints loss or tie. They can also make it with a tie and a Seattle loss and a Tampa Bay loss. And, here we go…. they tie and the Seahawks tie, plus a Bucs loss or tie. A Vikings loss or tie plus a Seattle loss and a Buccaneers loss. Or, lastly, a Minnesota loss, Seahawks loss and Saints loss.

The Vikings can make it with a win and a Packers loss with a Seahawks loss and a Bucs loss. They can also et in with a win and a Green Bay loss, Seattle loss and a Saints loss.

New Orleans wins the NFC South with a win and a Tampa Bay loss or tie. They can make it with a tie and a Bucs loss. They can make the playoffs with a win and a Seahawks loss or tie and a Packers loss or tie. A tie can get them in with a Seattle loss and a Green Bay loss.

The Seahawks are looking at a win and Green Bay loss to get in. A tie can land them in the bracket with a Packers loss and Tampa Bay loss or tie or a Packers loss and Saints loss or tie.

Tampa Bay claims the NFC South with a win or a tie and a Saints loss or tie. They get into the playoffs with a tie along with a Seahawks loss and a Green Bay loss or tie.

And, to wrap it all up, the Falcons win the NFC South with a win over the Saints and a Buccaneers loss.

Follow Adam Greene on Twitter @TheFirstMan.

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