Each NFL team’s biggest question heading into home stretch

By Ethan Sears
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The weeks are counting down and the NFL season is nearly over. We have just a month left in the regular season, yet there are still so many questions to answer for every team.

Some need to figure out things for next season, or even the longer-term future. Others are in the midst of a playoff race and need just one thing to fall into place. This season, there is no consensus Super Bowl favorite — the field is wide open.

Here is each team’s biggest question to answer as we head down the home stretch.

Philadelphia Eagles: Can they keep the momentum and gain home-field advantage throughout the postseason?

There isn’t really an area in which the Eagles struggle. When it comes to the clutter of NFC teams with a real shot at a title, Philly has to be at the top of the list for that reason. The biggest thing they have to do from here on out is just keep going. If the Eagles can do that, they’ll get home-field advantage throughout the postseason and come into January as NFC favorites. Philly goes on the road for two tough games against the Rams and Seahawks in the next few weeks. Win those and home-field might be a given.

Dallas Cowboys: Can the offense move the ball without Ezekiel Elliott?

In the weeks since Elliott’s suspension has been definitively handed down, the Cowboys’ offense has been anemic. In three games, it has yet to crack double-digit points. A lot of that has to be put on Dak Prescott, who is going through a bad sophomore slump at the worst possible time. But that’s hardly all that’s doing on.

Dez Bryant’s prime looks to be over and Cole Beasley, Dallas’ security blanket last year, has just 28 receptions this season. Even the offensive line doesn’t look as good, especially with Tyron Smith out for the first two games of Elliott’s suspension. If the Cowboys are to get anything out of this season, the offense needs to start looking better, starting with Prescott.

Washington Redskins: Are they willing to shell out money for Kirk Cousins this offseason?

It seemed like a given that Cousins would go to the San Francisco 49ers this offseason, but after the Niners traded for Jimmy Garoppolo, they may have their quarterback. The door is open for Washington to keep Cousins, but they’ll have to shell out what could be a record contract to do so. The Redskins need to decide if he is worth it — they’ve been in quarterback purgatory before and know how hard it is to escape. But Cousins is no superstar and the offense hasn’t exactly been great this season. It’s a tough decision, and these next few weeks will likely determine the direction in which it goes.

New York Giants: Does Eli Manning have to be replaced in the draft?

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning in NFL Week 1

At this point, the main argument for keeping Manning is sentimentality. The Giants will likely have a top-five pick and a chance to draft a good rookie quarterback for the first time in years. If Manning finishes the year strong, however, it could be enough to deter New York from doing so.

It’s easy to put together an argument that the offensive line and receiving corps are what’s really in need of fixing. Manning isn’t the only problem on this offense, however, it’s clear he is a problem. The Giants should replace him, but the end of the year will likely be what decides whether they will.

Minnesota Vikings: Can Case Keenum pilot Minnesota to Super Bowl contention?

This feels like the question heading into every Vikings game. So far, Keenum has given us a resounding yes. He’s far from perfect — just look at his two picks against Washington for a reminder — but Keenum has shattered every expectation we could have had. It certainly helps that he has a better-than-expected offensive line and two of the best receivers in the game. But right now, it looks like he’s someone Minnesota can win with. All he has to do is sustain this level of play from here on out.

Detroit Lions: Will a run game emerge?

If the Lions can find any semblance of offensive balance, they’ll instantly have one of the most threatening offenses in football. Of course, we’ve been saying that for years on end and Detroit still doesn’t have a running game to speak of.

The closest thing they have to it involves screens to Theo Riddick. Ameer Abdullah continues to flash potential once in a while, but at some point that has to translate into production. Fumbles also continue to be an issue for the Nebraska product. If there isn’t more consistency from him in the next few weeks, the Lions may have to go back to the drawing board at the position.

Chicago Bears: Can Mitch Trubisky continue to develop?

The Bears aren’t making the playoffs, and that’s been clear from Week 1. However, they may have found something in Mitch Trubisky. It’s still hard to justify giving up as much as Chicago did to trade up for the UNC product, but Trubisky has beaten expectations so far. He seems capable of standing in the pocket and making throws now that John Fox isn’t rolling him out every chance he has.

The makings of a good offense are there in Chicago. If Trubisky continues to develop toward the end of this season and the Bears add some better pieces at wide receiver during the offseason, they could be a team to watch next year.

Green Bay Packers: Can Brett Hundley keep the ship afloat long enough for Aaron Rodgers to come back with playoff chances intact?

The Packers’ offense has been anemic since Hundley has taken over. More alarming, it’s seemingly gotten worse by the week, culminating in the Ravens shutting out Green Bay in Lambeau Field last week. Yet, the Packers still aren’t out of the NFC’s playoff race. As unlikely as it is, they could still make a run if they ever start scoring. If Hundley can pull together an offense, there may be a chance of an Aaron Rodgers return. That would only happen if playoff chances are still intact, of course, which would mean winning games — starting now. Green Bay doesn’t have much rope left to work with, but there’s still a chance.

New Orleans Saints: Will a run defense emerge?

Run defense is still a major weakness for New Orleans. Other than Cam Jordan, the Saints don’t seem to have anyone reliable on the defensive line. Going into the playoffs, teams know that the way to attack New Orleans is on the ground. The Saints need to fix that problem by January. Teams with glaring flaws tend not to survive the postseason, and the Saints aren’t going to create an exception to that rule.

Atlanta Falcons: Can the offense find a consistent rhythm?

In the last few weeks, Steve Sarkisian has started to find a playcalling rhythm for the first time since he’s been hired as offensive coordinator. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the early part of the season was defined by his playcalling struggles. Kyle Shanahan found what worked best for Matt Ryan and the rest of the offense last year. Sarkisian needs to stay with what works. The Falcons are still very much in the thick of things and could be dangerous if they get into the playoffs. But unless the offense keeps playing well, they won’t.

Carolina Panthers: Can the offensive line run block?

The Panthers’ run game has been godawful this season. Jonathan Stewart is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, while Christian McCaffrey isn’t much better at 3.0. That’s in part due to the backs themselves, but the line bears a significant portion of blame as well.

Matt Kalil hasn’t worked out at left tackle (a shocker, we know), nor has Darryl Williams on the right side. With some interior linemen missing time with injury as well, it’s easy to things why haven’t gone perfectly. But the ground game is still paramount to Carolina making a run. Everyone is (relatively) healthy now, so there are no excuses left.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Is Jameis Winston really the quarterback of the future?

It’s still unclear when Winston will return from injury, but when he does, the Bucs need to have a tough conversation about whether they can win with him under center. They have underperformed badly this year, and Winston bears the brunt of that weight. He’s averaging just 6.51 adjusted net yards per attempt and ranks 27th in QBR. In three years in the NFL, he’s shown little development as a passer. At some point, Tampa has to start thinking about whether he’s really the quarterback of the future.

Los Angeles Rams: Is the Super Bowl a realistic ceiling for this team?

The Rams got their biggest test of the year last week in Minnesota and failed, losing 24-7 without generating much offense in the second half. With games still to come against the Seahawks and Eagles, we’re going to have a good idea of what Los Angeles’ ceiling is by the time the playoffs start. Based on what we’ve seen so far, the Rams should be considered Super Bowl contenders, but the next few weeks will shape whether that’s realistic. Los Angeles needs to look a lot better than it did against the Vikings to have a chance come January.

Seattle Seahawks: Can they still make the playoffs with an offensive line made of plywood?

To call Seattle’s offensive line bad would be an understatement. Defensive lines tear through it like tissue paper on a weekly basis. It’s exceedingly rare that Russell Wilson has more than a couple seconds in the pocket, or the Seahawks’ running backs finding any sort of hole. Seattle has survived similar situations in the past, in large part because of Wilson’s escapability in the pocket and players like Marshawn Lynch being able to shake off defenders with ease. But Seattle doesn’t have a running back like that this season.

Wilson is playing well, but he’s struggled to do it all by himself. Blair Walsh’s struggles at kicker make things all the more difficult, as do injuries on the defensive side of things. It would be a testament to Wilson as a player if he could pull this team into the postseason, but that task seems harder and harder every week.

Arizona Cardinals: Is it time to tear everything down?

Arizona hasn’t contended for anything since 2015. Carson Palmer’s career might be over, Larry Fitzgerald may not be around the next time the Cards are competitive, which means David Johnson could be the only offensive player worth keeping in the long term. The defense has a couple more pieces, but it’s unlikely Arizona needs to hold onto many players other than Patrick Peterson in the long term. The next few weeks should be about evaluating everyone to see who’s worth keeping. And, for that matter, deciding how big a teardown should occur this offseason.

San Francisco 49ers: How does Jimmy Garoppolo fit into the offense?

We somehow have no indication of this yet because Garoppolo still hasn’t played. But given that C.J. Beathard clearly isn’t the answer, it’s hard to believe Jimmy G won’t get on the field at some point before the end of the year. The Niners paid a hefty price to get him, yet we have no idea how Garoppolo fits into Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Assuming he does play, that’s the most interesting thing to watch with San Francisco going forward.

New England Patriots: Can the defense hold up come playoff time?

The Patriots’ defense has been decent over the last month or so, but given how it played early in the season, it’s tough to have faith against some of the league’s better teams. Cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore have both struggled, and the Patriots don’t quite have a D’onta Hightower replacement at linebacker. Their Week 15 matchup against Pittsburgh will be the biggest indicator of just how much of a problem this is, but right now it’s hard to imagine New England won’t have trouble with Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and Co.

Buffalo Bills: Will Tyrod Taylor be in Orchard Park next season?

From the outside, it sure looks like the Bills have been looking for an excuse to get rid of Tyrod Taylor since the end of last season. Yet, as we saw last week when Nathan Peterman started over Taylor, Buffalo doesn’t have a viable replacement. Their draft pick will probably be too low to pick the top players coming out as well. Again, Taylor may be the best option, whether the Bills want him to be or not. The question is just how badly Buffalo wants to move on.

Miami Dolphins: Does Adam Gase deserve to keep his job?

The Dolphins have had every problem in the books this year, from motivation to bad quarterback play to trading their best running back to an utter lack of development for left tackle Laremy Tunsil. It’s hard not to point the finger at Gase. But at the same time, this team’s prospects were blown to bits when Ryan Tannehill got hurt before the season. Moreover, Gase is in only his second season and Miami overperformed last season in making the playoffs. In all likelihood, the Dolphins stick with him regardless of what happens, but there are certainly scenarios where the organization thinks about moving on.

New York Jets: Will their draft pick be high enough to take a top-tier quarterback?

At 4-6, the Jets may be playing too well. It appeared clear to everyone that New York wanted to tank before the season, but even if they lose out, a top-three pick could be out of reach (only the Jets could mess up tanking). If New York wins any more games, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen may be pipe dreams. The tank engine has to go full steam ahead for the last six games of the year.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Can Ben Roethlisberger win tough games on the road?

Roethlisberger’s performance — especially away from Heinz Field — is the biggest issue for Pittsburgh this season. The Steelers’ defense is one of the best in the league. Their offense is sixth in DVOA, but it could be better. Roethlisberger’s averaging 6.51 adjusted net yards per attempt, his worst mark since 2013. He’s thrown just 16 touchdowns in 10 games and will likely fall short of 4,000 yards for the third straight year. He isn’t playing badly, but Roethlisberger could undoubtedly be better. Pittsburgh will likely have to go on the road at some point in the postseason and has never been able to beat New England in January. It’s on Roethlisberger to flip that trend.

Cincinnati Bengals: Is a teardown necessary?

Andy Dalton was brutal in Bengals shutout loss to Ravens.

It feels like the Bengals are treading water. They’re 4-6 after a 6-9-1 mark last season. Marvin Lewis still has yet to win a playoff game despite being head coach since 2003. Ditto for Andy Dalton at quarterback. The defense isn’t especially talented and the offensive line lost all of its best players last offseason. In other words, it’s hard to see an upward trend in Cincinnati — 2015 might have been the ceiling for the Bengals. Cincinnati has to reckon with the question of whether it’s time to start over as the season winds down.

Baltimore Ravens: Does Baltimore have to rid themselves of Joe Flacco?

There’s no way around it, Flacco has been awful this season. He’s averaging a horrific 3.71 adjusted yards per attempt with more interceptions than touchdowns. Among qualified quarterbacks, he ranks only above DeShone Kizer in both DYAR and DVOA. The Ravens’ offense is 29th in DVOA, and the passing game is 30th. The Ravens are on the cusp of the postseason thanks to their defense, but Baltimore has no chance of winning playoff games if it can’t score. If the chance comes to get a new quarterback this offseason, the Ravens have to consider taking it.

Cleveland Browns: Will DeShone Kizer show signs of life?

Barring a true miracle, the Browns will have the first pick in the draft, which means their pick of the litter between Lamar Jackson, Sam Darnold, and Josh Rosen. Coming into this year, Kizer had a chance to grab the reigns at quarterback for the future. Suffice it to say, he’s failed in doing that so far. The Notre Dame product is dead last among qualified quarterbacks in both DYAR and DVOA. He’s had severe accuracy issues with a league-leading 14 interceptions as well. However, Kizer could still change some minds over the next few weeks. Consider it a tryout for next year and, based on what we’ve seen for 11 weeks, Kizer is unlikely to succeed.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Can the Jags beat good teams in spite of Blake Bortles?

The Jaguars have managed to seat themselves atop the AFC South in spite of Bortles — one of the worst quarterbacks in the league — dropping back to throw. Things will only get tougher from here. Jacksonville has the best defense in the league, but eventually, the Jaguars will have to play from behind. That means Bortles will be forced to run the offense from the pocket at some point and it’s hard to see him being successful.

Tennessee Titans: Can the passing game find a rhythm?

The Titans have quietly struggled to throw the ball this season. They rank 24th in passing DVOA. Marcus Mariota has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns and is averaging a career-low 5.63 adjusted net yards per attempt. A lack of a true No. 1 receiver has hurt, but there are schematic elements as well. Mike Mularkey’s focus on running the ball has done good things for the run game, but not much in the way of helping out Mariota. There’s also the simple fact that Mariota hasn’t played as well as expected. Tennessee is likely to make the playoffs, if only because the AFC is so terrible, but the Titans won’t get far if the passing game continues to struggle.

Houston Texans: Should Lamar Miller be the running back next year?

The Texans’ season ended with Deshaun Watson’s injury, that much is clear. From here on out, it’s about finding things that need to be fixed this offseason as Houston gears up for a Super Bowl run in 2018. Perhaps none of those questions are bigger than running back. Neither Lamar Miller nor D’Onta Foreman has set themselves apart. Foreman got 10 carries last week and looked good, but he tore his Achilles, ending his season. Miller has always struggled in terms of consistency and this year is no exception. He’s averaging just 3.7 yards per carry, which simply isn’t viable in the long term. Without improvement, it’s hard to see why the Texans shouldn’t go to Foreman come 2018.

Indianapolis Colts: What’s worth keeping for next year?

The Colts may have the worst roster in football from top to bottom. Andrew Luck (presumably) will be back next season, which means Indy can probably win eight or so games even with a horrible roster. But that shouldn’t be the goal. The Colts have wasted what should be his prime, and next year starts their chance to rectify that. There’s no way any team with Luck under center shouldn’t be contending for the Super Bowl, which makes this offseason massive for Chris Ballard. As the season comes to a close, he has to be evaluating every player and coach to see who’s worth keeping.

Kansas City Chiefs: Can the offense snap out of its funk?

The Chiefs’ offense hit the ground running and sputtered out. In the last few weeks, teams have started to catch up to Andy Reid’s schematic wrinkles and Kansas City hasn’t had an answer. Last week, Alex Smith looked like Captain Checkdown again. Reid needs to adjust the scheme to account for teams adjusting to him. Football is an eternal chess game and the rest of the league has Kansas City in check right now. It’s on Reid to get out of it.

Los Angeles Chargers: Will the team stop blowing close games and make a playoff run?

If not for the close games L.A. lost, especially at the beginning of the year, the Chargers would be squarely in the playoff race right now. As evidenced by their dominance of the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, Los Angeles has the talent to get into the race anyway. The defense is dominant across the board, Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen have a great connection in the passing game and there are two good running backs in the backfield. This team is good enough to win. It just has to get over the hump and stop blowing close games.

Oakland Raiders: Will Derek Carr start playing like an MVP candidate again?

The Raiders were due for some regression this year, but nobody saw Carr struggling this much. It was always true last season that much of Carr’s yardage came after the catch and because of a good scheme and supporting cast, but he was also capable of engineering a drive or throwing deep when necessary. That simply hasn’t been the case in 2017. We’re starting to wind down the part of Carr’s career where there’s still development left to happen. He’s 26 years old and been in the league since 2014. At some point, he is what he is. The close of this season will tell us a lot about exactly what that means for Oakland.

Denver Broncos: Is there any value in having Paxton Lynch at quarterback?

The Broncos have finally shrugged their shoulders and turned to Lynch to try and spark the offense into competency. If the little we saw of him last season is any indication, that’s a pipe dream. Obviously there’s been a lot of time since then, so maybe Lynch has developed a little bit. We tend to forget it, but there is talent on Denver’s offense. The pieces are there for a quarterback to succeed without carrying the team — Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl in 2015 despite being at the end of the line and one of the worst signal-callers in football. The personnel hasn’t changed a ton since then, at least at the skill positions. If Lynch doesn’t show any potential, John Elway has to go back to the drawing board at his old position.