A heck of a lot to be decided
As the NFL season hits its final quarter, there’s still a whole heck of a lot to be decided. Only the Los Angeles Rams have clinched a playoff spot. Meanwhile, the two Bay Area teams are the only squads to have officially been eliminated from playoff contention.
With everything still so wide open, numerous individual players are facing a ton of pressure over the final month of the regular season.
Can Kansas City’s new starting running back help the team overcome the loss of Kareem Hunt? Multiple quarterbacks are under a ton of pressure to succeed. That includes future Hall of Famers Tom Brady and Cam Newton.
And in the Big D, stud wide receiver Amari Cooper will be looking to help his Cowboys to a surprise NFC East title.
These are among the 10 players under the most pressure as the final quarter of the season plays out.
Spencer Ware, running back, Kansas City Chiefs
Sunday’s narrow win over the hapless Raiders proved one thing. These Chiefs are going to be tested more than ever before. Now that Kareem Hunt is no longer a member of the team, the onus is going to be on Kansas City’s rushing attack to provide some balance for Patrick Mahomes on offense. That’s only magnified by just how bad the Chiefs’ defense has been this season.
In his first post-Hunt start this past week, Ware gained just 47 yards on 14 attempts. This came against a Raiders defense that was yielding nearly five yards per attempt heading into Week 13. The good news? Ware has some track record of success. He put up nearly 1,400 total yards back in 2016, the year before Kansas City selected Hunt.
Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Minnesota Vikings
Cousins followed up a brilliant Week 12 win over Green Bay with one clunker of a performance in a lopsided loss to New England this past Sunday. The high-priced free agent acquisition completed 32-of-44 passes for just 201 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. While both picks came in desperation late in the final stanza, his inability to move the ball when this was actually a game has to be concerning.
Overall, Cousins’ first season in Minnesota has been up and down. He has the Vikings at just 6-5-1 and battling for a playoff spot with a plethora of other wildcard hopefuls. With games coming up against Seattle and Chicago to close out the season, Cousins must up his game big time. What we saw last week simply won’t cut it.
James Conner, running back, Pittsburgh Steelers
For as good as Conner has been in Le’Veon Bell’s stead this season, fumbles have been an issue. He’s put the ball on the turf four times on 253 attempts. Given Ben Roethlisberger’s turnover proneness, this isn’t a great recipe for success when it comes to January football.
Equally as important, Pittsburgh now finds itself just a half game ahead of the division rival Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North heading into the final quarter of the season. Not only will Conner have to continue producing at a high level, he must do better hanging on to the ball. Now out for Week 14 against a bad Raiders team with an ankle injury, the onus is on Conner to come back 100 percent for the final three games of the season. Given that two of those games are against the Saints and Patriots, this is magnified further.
Tyler Lockett, wide receiver, Seattle Seahawks
With his Seahawks having won three in a row and right in the thick of the NFC Playoff race, Lockett has been one of the primary reasons why. The fourth-year pass catcher leads Seattle in receptions (44), receiving yards (713) and touchdowns (nine).
This must continue if Seattle wants to make it to the playoffs and do some damage when January comes calling. That’s magnified by the fact that Russell Wilson’s favorite target, Doug Baldwin, remains somewhat of a non-factor. The Pro Bowler put up two catches last week against San Francisco and has tallied just 37 receptions this season. Wilson needs Lockett to remain a major force if Seattle is going to continue this strong recent run in the final quarter of the regular season.
Mitch Trubisky, quarterback, Chicago Bears
Once Trubisky does return to the field after his current two-game hiatus due to injury, he’s going to be taken over a Bears team that enters Week 14 with a 1.5-game lead in the NFC North. That was made possible by all four teams losing this past week. This is good news for the Bears, especially given that they were defeated by the lowly New York Giants. The bad news? Chicago will need Trubisky to continue playing at a high level in order to hold off the pack.
It became readily apparent that Chase Daniel can’t be that guy under center. Short of Trubisky being 100 percent and ready to continue his strong play as a sophomore, the Bears’ championship aspirations will be thrown completely out the window. Heck, let’s just hope Trubisky is prepared to remain completely healthy as the season hits its final quarter.
Amari Cooper, wide receiver, Dallas Cowboys
In the midst of a four-game winning streak, Dallas is clearly the class of the NFC East. If you had the “pleasure” of watching the Eagles and Giants go at it on Monday Night Football, this became pretty darn clear. One of the primary reasons for this team’s recent success has been the play of Cooper since he was acquired from Oakland back in October.
The two-time Pro Bowler has caught 30 passes for 424 yards and three touchdowns in five games. Equally as important, other Cowboys’ skill-position players have stepped up big time during this span. Dak Prescott has accounted for nine touchdowns compared to one interception in these five games. Meanwhile, Ezekiel Elliott has gone for 779 total yards and five touchdowns in as many outings. The onus is going to be on Cooper to continue helping his offense improve as the final quarter of the season plays out.
Andrew Luck, quarterback, Indianapolis Colts
Heading into Week 13, everything smelled like sweet roses for Luck and the Colts. They were on a five-game winning streak with Luck having tossed 16 touchdowns compared to three interceptions during that span. This had Indianapolis at 6-5 on the season and in playoff positioning.
Then, everything came undone this past weekend against a Jaguars team that had lost seven in a row. Indianapolis didn’t score a single point in a 6-0 loss to the last-place squad. What went wrong, did go wrong. Now one game out of the final playoff spot in the AFC, Luck must lift his Colts up during the final quarter of the season. That starts over the next two weeks with games against the two hottest teams in the NFL in the form of the Texans and Cowboys. Whew.
Aaron Jones, running back, Green Bay Packers
This is as much about Jones auditioning for an unnamed new Packers’ head coach than anything else. With Green Bay at 4-7-1 on the season and interim head coach Joe Philbin replacing Mike McCarthy, Jones has an opportunity to prove his worth moving forward. That’s something McCarthy failed to offer him through the first three months of the season.
When on the field, the second-year back from UTEP has more than proven himself capable. He’s averaging a robust 5.7 yards per attempt and has tallied 820 total yards in just 10 games. Unfortunately, Jones has yet to put up as much as 18 rush attempts in any game this season. We’re fully expecting that to change under Philbin. If so, Jones can prove himself to be the Packers’ long-term solution in the backfield.
Tom Brady, quarterback, New England Patriots
Brady’s Patriots are no longer the unquestionable class of the AFC. They head into Week 14 tied with Houston as the No. 2 seed in the conference. Should New England somehow fail to land the second seed, it would be forced to play in a wildcard game for the first time since all the way back in 2009. That goes to show us just how dominant this organization has been under the future Hall of Famer.
The same can’t be said this season. The Patriots’ three losses have come against teams with a combined 14-20 record. They are being outscored by six points in games against opponents outside of what is a bad AFC East. It’s simple. New England is going to go as far as Brady takes the team this season. That’s more evident than ever before. And yes, this places a ton of pressure on one of the game’s best-ever quarterbacks. We’re sure he’s more than up for the task.
Cam Newton, quarterback, Carolina Panthers
It’s pretty remarkable to see just how much Carolina has regressed over the past month or so. Losers of four consecutive games, the team is coming off a damning defeat at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It’s a game that saw Newton throw four interceptions. To put this into perspective, Tampa Bay had allowed 26 touchdowns compared to three interceptions to opposing quarterbacks heading into Week 13.
Now at 6-6 on the season, Carolina is on the outside looking in when it comes to the NFC Playoff race. With two more games against the Saints and a tough road outing this week in Cleveland, Newton needs to turn in an MVP-caliber performance through the final quarter of the season for Carolina to play postseason football. It’s that simple.