One holiday wish each NFL contender needs to come true

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The best still have big holes to fill

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

As the NFL season comes into the home stretch, we know who the contenders are. But even the best of the best still have big holes to fill.

For teams like the Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins, Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys, everything seems to revolve around the quarterback. For the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints, it’s more about the quarterback’s favorite target. Other contenders, like the Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams, have some holes on defense that just need to be filled.

With the trade deadline gone and no big help on the free agent wire, these contenders have to hope that the holiday season brings them the help they need.


Philadelphia Eagles: A time machine

Nick Foles

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With the Redskins and Cowboys both dealing with consistency issues in 2018, the Eagles have managed to stay within striking distance in the NFC East. Facing a challenging final stretch, they’re going to need a time machine from Santa if they’re going to stay in contention. With a time machine, Philadelphia could maybe go back to last February. If nothing else, it could go back a matter of weeks to a time when essentially the entire secondary wasn’t ravaged by injuries. Other contenders are looking for something a little more practical. But with the Eagles, practical isn’t going to cut it.


Houston Texans: Protection for Deshaun Watson

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Even during this eight-game winning streak, Watson has taken far too many hits. This creates glaring problems, both short term and long term. The pressing immediate issue is that it’s hard to win in the playoffs if your quarterback is constantly under fire.

In the long term, Watson getting hit so much is detrimental to his health. That’s a problem for any player, especially the unquestioned face of the franchise. Houston has managed to skate so far. But Watson constantly getting hit is a recipe for disaster.


Minnesota Vikings: A running game

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While Kirk Cousins can be frustrating, he’s not a bad quarterback. But as good as Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are, this team can’t be so dependent on the pass. The Vikings average 3.9 yards per rush, the third-worst total in the league. That’s not going to cut it. It’s going to leave Cousins vulnerable to mistakes. Even if those don’t happen, the Vikings will find themselves in shootouts with the likes of the Saints and/or Rams. Those won’t go well. For Minnesota to realize its Super Bowl dreams, Dalvin Cook and company will need to be more consistent on the ground.


Washington Redskins: One good month from Colt McCoy

Colt McCoy

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While the injury to Alex Smith seems to have ended Washington’s playoff hopes, the fight is not over. Entering Week 13, the Redskins are tied for the division lead and occupy the NFC’s final playoff spot. The good news is that the remaining schedule is manageable.

McCoy had a rough Thanksgiving (24-for-38, two touchdowns, three interceptions). He isn’t going to win any games for Washington. But if he’s throwing three interceptions, he’ll be a huge reason that the Redskins lose games. For Washington to go to the playoffs, the struggle on Thanksgiving simply cannot repeat itself.


Los Angeles Chargers: Reliable kicking

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Los Angeles has missed seven extra-points on the season. The next worst team in the league is the Cleveland Browns, who have missed four. Naturally, the Chargers are also dead last in the league in PAT percentage at 78.1. To give you a sense of how bad that is, only eight teams have a lower percentage on field goals. Each of those teams has at least three misses from outside of 40. In past years, the poor kicking has gone a long way towards keeping Los Angeles out of the playoffs. That probably won’t happen this year. But in the playoffs, the Bolts will need to be more reliable on these tries.


Indianapolis Colts: A pass rush

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While this season has gone well in Indianapolis, the pass defense leaves much to be desired. The Colts are 20th in passing yards allowed per game (254), 21st in yards per attempt (7.7), and 21st in opponent’s passer rating (97.9). And as is so often the case, the lack of a quality pass rush seems to be the culprit.

The Colts have logged only 27 sacks on the year (T-20 in the league) and have generally had a problem getting to the quarterback. Finding some way to change that will be quite necessary for Indianapolis going forward.


Dallas Cowboys: Continued improvement from Dak Prescott

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Jerry Jones recently credited the acquisition of Amari Cooper with an uptick in Ezekiel Elliott’s game. Cooper’s presence has also helped Presott. In the seven games prior to acquiring Cooper, Prescott completed 62.1 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns, four interceptions, and an 87.4 rating. In the last four games, he’s completed 70 percent of his passes with five touchdowns, one interception, and a 102.4 rating. If Prescott continues to get better, the Cowboys get hard to beat. They’re 3-1 over that four-game stretch. But if he regresses, Dallas — who was 3-4 over the first seven games — gets quite beatable.


New Orleans Saints: Consistent secondary play

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As good as New Orleans has been, a real cause for concern has been the play of the secondary. The Saints have allowed 3,143 passing yards, the third-worst total in the league. This isn’t a matter of New Orleans always being ahead.

The Saints allowing 8.4 yards per catch, the fourth-worst total in the league. If that can’t get tightened up, it will likely sacrifice the strong New Orleans run defense. That will go a long way towards keeping Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas on the bench. That makes the chances of someone upsetting the Saints much better.


Baltimore Ravens: A more consistent rushing attack

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Much of the attention in Baltimore will revolve around Lamar Jackson. That’s fine. But much of Jackson’s success will hinge on whether the Ravens can run the ball better. At 122.1 rushing yards a game, Baltimore ranks 11th in the NFL in rushing yards a game, but hasn’t been very efficent. The Ravens have gone for only 4.1 yards a carry, the seventh-worst total in the league. Getting to the playoffs will depend very much on the play of Jackson. A good running game will open things up for Jackson (with both his arm and legs), making success much easier to come by.


Kansas City Chiefs: A better run defense

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Overall, the Kansas City defense has been concerning this season. But nowhere has that been more apparent than in the running game. Opponents are rushing for five yards a carry, the fourth worst total in the league. The good news is that the Chiefs are allowing 117.5 rushing yards a game. That’s below average, but it’s not awful.

Generally, Kansas City has managed to get big early leads, somewhat nullifying the opposing running game. But in the playoffs, the games are tighter. And if teams are staying close and able to run on the Chiefs, which means Patrick Mahomes and the mighty offense will be on the bench.


Seattle Seahawks: A healthy Doug Baldwin

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With Baldwin dealing with injuries all season, Tyler Lockett has stepped up quite well into the role of Russell Wilson’s go-to man. But this isn’t a vintage Seattle team that can win with an overpowering defense and a serviceable offense. Should the Seahawks make the playoffs, they’ll need to outscore some incredibly potent offenses to do any damage once there. That’s going to be a highly difficult challenge if Baldwin is out or playing hurt. Getting him back and playing well is essential for Seattle’s hopes at further success in 2018.


Pittsburgh Steelers: Consistency from Ben Roethlisberger

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When the Steelers routed the Carolina Panthers in Week 10, this didn’t seem to be a problem. In that game, Roethlisberger had five touchdowns, no picks, and a perfect 158.3 passer rating. On the season, he had 21 touchdowns against seven interceptions. Things have changed.

Over the last two games, Roethlisberger has thrown three touchdowns and five interceptions. His season passer rating has fallen five points. The Steelers struggled in those games, barely beating the imploding Jacksonville Jaguars and losing to the Denver Broncos. Big Ben can throw whoever he wants under the bus. He needs to be better.


Carolina Panthers: The old Graham Gano

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Through Week 10, Gano was having a great season. He was 11-for-11 on field goals and 24-for-26 on PATs. The Panthers were also sitting pretty at 6-3. But in Weeks 12 and 13, Gano combined to go 2-for-4 on field goals and 4-for-5 on PATs. Making matters worse is that Carolina lost both of those games by a combined four points. Over those two weeks, the Panthers went from a virtual postseason lock to on the outside looking in. Carolina is no stranger to the close game. If the Panthers are going to get into the playoffs, they’ll need Gano to find the form that he had in the season’s first 10 weeks.


Los Angeles Rams: Even a mediocre run defense

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There’s not much that we don’t like about the Rams. Unfortunately for Los Angeles, the one problem is a big one. Teams have gashed the Rams for 5.2 yards per attempt, the second-worst total in the league.

This does two things. One, it keeps Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, and rest of the offense off of the field. Two, it keeps Aaron Donald and the phenomenal Los Angeles pass rush off balance. That makes atacking the defense much more plausible. We’ve already seen some of the league’s best teams exploit this. Come postseason time, it’s likely to happen again.


Chicago Bears: A less turnover prone Mitchell Trubisky

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Entering Week 13, Trubisky has nine interceptions, the 12th worst total in the league. That may not seem like a big problem. But we must remember that he’s only 23rd in passing attempts. With most young quarterbacks, that’s fairly expected. But when we’re talking a potential Super Bowl contender, it’s hard to be dismissive of the mistakes. If Trubisky cuts the turnovers down, it’ll force opponents to sustain drives against Khalil Mack and company. Good luck. If he’s still turning at a high rate when he returns from injury, that’s a potential equalizer against the best defense in the league.


New England Patriots: A healthy Rob Gronkowski

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While New England sits at a solid 8-3, this team has lacked the punch that we’ve grown used to seeing over the years. A lot of that has to do with Gronkowski’s health. He’s missed three games in 2018 and when he’s played, has all too frequently looked hobbled. If Gronkowski is healthy (and we did see signs in Week 12), the Patriots will fall right into the familiar role of favorites in the AFC. But if Gronk is out or playing hobbled, New England’s streaks of eight straight years with a first-round bye and seven consecutive AFC Championship appearances will be in serious jeopardy.


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