What did we learn in the 2023 season’s penultimate week? 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. Ugly Eagles loss was a terrible Philly finale for franchise’s ‘Core Four’
The run-up to last year’s Super Bowl felt like a storybook ending for the Philadelphia Eagles’ famed “Core Four”. What better way to go out for the four leaders and Philly icons than teaming up for what looked like one last championship run?
Then they surprised everyone when they all returned for one more shot at a Super Bowl trophy. But now it looks like their storybook is closed.
Barring a series of unlikely events, the Eagles’ crushing, 35-31 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday was probably the last home game for three of them — center Jason Kelce, linebacker Brandon Graham and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. The loss took their destiny out of their own hands and put the Dallas Cowboys on the brink of winning the NFC East, which would send the Eagles on the road for their entire playoff run.
And if that happens, that’s a sad ending for the 36-year-old Kelce, the 35-year-old Graham and the 33-year-old Cox. All three returned for 2023 on what are basically one-year contracts. Lane Johnson, their 33-year-old right tackle, is the only member of the group expected back in 2024.
That could change, of course. None of them have expressly said they’re ready to retire. Kelce, in fact, remains one of the best centers in football and it’s possible the Eagles will try to entice him to play again.
But the Eagles are probably looking at a rebuild on defense, and older players might be a luxury they can’t afford. Cox is still Pro Football Focus’ 20th-ranked defensive tackle — one spot below former teammate Javon Hargrave — and has five sacks, which isn’t far off the seven he had last year. But he cost the Eagles $10 million this season. And Graham, who cost $5 million, is a part-time player who had a huge drop off in production, from the 11 sacks he had last season to just three.
Kyler Murray, Cardinals shock Jalen Hurts, Eagles
Maybe the Eagles will make a storybook run through the playoffs. Maybe they’ll even get a miracle next Sunday and end up with another home game to play. Either way, they’ll all be back someday — probably together —to be celebrated by the crowd at Lincoln Financial Field.
Still, they deserved better than an unceremonious and unexpected home finale that was marked by disappointment and boos from the home crowd. It’s surely not the happy ending they envisioned when they got the “Core Four” back together for one more year. —Ralph Vacchiano
2. Kyler Murray showed up big – in a potential offseason showcase
Down by two touchdowns at halftime, Kyler Murray led the Arizona Cardinals to a shocking come-from-behind win on the road against one of the top teams in the NFC in the Philadelphia Eagles.
Murray had his best game since returning from a season-ending ACL knee injury in November, finishing 25-of-31 for 232 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception – a miscommunication between the quarterback and rookie receiver Michael Wilson that led to a 99-year return for a score by Philadelphia safety Sydney Brown. Murray posted a 116.7 passer rating.
With 2:33 remaining and his team trailing by a field goal, Murray led the Cardinals on a 70-yard, seven-play drive that culminated with a James Conner 2-yard touchdown run with 32 seconds left for a 35-31 victory.
Conner also had his best game of the season, rushing for 128 yards and finishing with two total touchdowns, including a deft, one-handed grab for a 5-yard touchdown catch on a scramble drill by Murray.
The Cardinals finished with 221 yards on the ground. Arizona didn’t punt once all game.
The victory was Murray’s eighth fourth-quarter comeback and 10th game-winning drive as a pro. Murray’s late-game heroics helped Arizona head coach Jonathan Gannon earn a victory against his old team, with the offseason tampering issues for the former Eagles defensive coordinator remaining a significant storyline heading into Sunday’s contest.
Murray missed two days of practice due to illness, yet still played well and is now 3-4 as a starter this season. Cardinals GM Monti Ossenfort and Gannon will have a difficult decision to make this offseason on whether to keep Murray and his $230 million contract on the roster or hit the reset button and select a new quarterback in the draft to lead the franchise in 2024.
The Cardinals currently have the No. 4 overall selection in the 2024 draft heading into regular-season finale matchup at home against the Seattle Seahawks, who remain in the postseason hunt.
Arizona also holds the first-round selection of the Houston Texans, currently slated to select No. 17.
Murray is making the decision to move on a tough one for the franchise. He is only 26 years old, with plenty of tread left on his proverbial tires. And while durability and overall fit in Arizona’s offense are concerns, whether the Cardinals can find a comparable replacement for the Oklahoma product in the draft also is a legitimate issue.
For now, Murray remains focused on the present.
“The guys played great today,” Murray said after the game. “We executed and we did our thing. It was good to feel that. Obviously, with everything that happened, there was a lot of disappointment this year. A lot of tough losses. But we’re trying to finish the season off the right way.” —Eric D. Williams
3. Jets leaders keep building the case against themselves
For those who didn’t see or don’t remember, the New York Jets’ loss to the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night was brutal. There were so many layers to why the loss was an abomination for New York.
First and foremost, let’s look at the score. Head coach Robert Saleh’s vaunted defense allowed 37 points to the Browns. Yikes.
The next issue for the Jets was quarterback Joe Flacco, who finished with 309 passing yards, three touchdowns and an interception. He was a free agent when Aaron Rodgers went down with a season-ending injury. Flacco was a free agent when the Jets benched Zach Wilson. And Flacco even has familiarity with the Jets organization, having been there last year. But the Jets never signed him. Cleveland did. Yikes, again!
The Browns clinched a playoff berth after losing their starting QB, Deshaun Watson, for whom they traded major draft assets and extended on a big deal. (Sound familiar to what the Jets did!?) The Browns made things work with Flacco, Dorian Thompson-Robinson and P.J. Walker. They basically proved — at a time when starting QBs are the most valuable thing in the NFL — that they could win no matter who they played at quarterback.
The Jets, meanwhile, put together a tremendous flop of a season, unable to support their QB to the point where Wilson is unlikely to play for the team even if he is healthy in Week 18. Yep, he has given up. Triple yikes!
The Jets have received the benefit of the doubt for their 6-10 season because they went all in on Rodgers — only to lose him. Well, the Browns didn’t let that excuse get in the way of a playoff appearance. They did what had to be done. The Jets didn’t.
“They have a lot of juice and a lot of energy right,” Saleh said when asked about Flacco’s performance.
(I’m wondering: Why don’t the Jets?)
“Flacco — he is just going to get better and better. I think this is the fifth game that he’s had and you can see that he’s getting more confidence with the offense. Again, credit to them. Hats off to them,” Saleh said.
(I’m wondering: Why don’t the Jets have Flacco?)
Joe Flacco, Browns CRUSH Trevor Siemian, Jets – Dave Helman reacts
It was just last week that owner Woody Johnson said he intended to keep Saleh and GM Joe Douglas in their positions. No one was getting fired. But I’m not sure — after seeing that Browns’ loss — it makes sense to simply run it back and expect something different. Maybe New York will see it needs to make a change. —Henry McKenna
4. What is the worst offensive team in the NFL in 2023? It’ll come down to the wire
Since Carolina traded its first-round pick to Chicago as part of the deal to add Bryce Young, they’ve lacked the consolation that normally goes to the worst team in the NFL, in knowing they’d at least get the top pick in the upcoming draft. They clinched the worst record Sunday, thus clinching the top pick for the Bears.
But Carolina still has a shot to finish first in something, as the Panthers are in down-to-the-wire battles for the NFL’s worst offense of 2023, both in yards and points scored.
Lowest total offense in the league? Carolina managed just 124 yards in Sunday’s shutout loss to the Jaguars, and that gave them the league’s worst total yardage, by a single yard on the Jets. The Panthers have 4,311 yards — that’s 269.44 yards per game — and the Jets have 4,312, which is 269.50 per game. One yard over 16 games separates them, though the Jets are facing the Patriots (sixth in total defense) so they might have an advantage in terms of ending up worst.
Lowest scoring total in the league? Even with a Week 17 shutout, the Panthers have scored three points more than the Patriots in 2023. Carolina is at 14.8 points per game (236 points) and New England is at 14.6 points per game (233).
If the current averages hold up, the Panthers or their challengers would be not only the NFL’s worst offense this year, but in five full seasons — you have to go back to the Josh Rosen-led 2018 Cardinals to find a team averaging so few yards (they averaged 241.6) or points (14.1). At least those Cardinals earned a No. 1 overall pick (Kyler Murray) for their struggles.
We don’t want to leave out the worst defense in the league in this note – by scoring, it’s all but locked up for the Commanders, who are giving up 30 points per game. Arizona would have to give up 47 more points than Washington this week for the Commanders not to clinch the worst scoring defense — they could be the first NFL team to give up 30 a game since 2020, when the Lions and Jaguars both did. Washington also has given up the most yards in the league (385.8 per game) though they have just a 48-yard lead on Cincinnati, so there’s drama there. —Greg Auman
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5. Bills CB Rasul Douglas was the steal of the NFL trade deadline
When the Buffalo Bills acquired former Green Bay Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas at the trade deadline, it looked like a stop-gap fix. Douglas might have been having a great season for the Packers, but you never know whether that hot streak could cool in a different system. After all, Douglas hasn’t exactly been a lockdown corner for his entire career.
It looked like the Bills were chasing a flash in the pan — an outlier season from Douglas. Even if Douglas played as well as he did in Green Bay, his efforts wouldn’t be enough to reverse the course of a Bills defense that was on a downward trend — due to injuries and age.
I thought all of that. And I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
In Buffalo, Douglas has been even better than he was in Green Bay. He is suddenly the centerpiece of a solid defense on one of the NFL’s hottest teams. He might even be their hottest player. Douglas logged two interceptions — including a pick-six — in the team’s 27-21 win over the Patriots on Sunday. What’s more, Douglas managed a pass deflection that he might have intercepted if Bills defensive tackle Ed Oliver hadn’t managed to make the diving grab.
It was an all-around sensational game for Douglas.
His takeaways played a crucial role in keeping the Bills in their game against New England. Quarterback Josh Allen didn’t play his best, with an interception of his own. But because of Douglas, Buffalo won the turnover battle four to one.
He explained how the pick-six came together.
“When we send a weak-side pressure, watching on film, he usually throws it quick to the receiver that’s usually on the X,” Douglas said postgame. “So I seen a blitz and I was like, ‘he gotta throw it hot or he’s gonna get sacked.'”
“As soon as I got the ball, I’m like, I gotta try to score.”
The cornerback has four interceptions and eight pass breakups with Buffalo. He has the most takeaways by any NFL player (six) since the trade. How has he become such a crucial member of the defense in such short time?
“Just instincts, and film study and just his confidence within himself,” Bills linebacker Terrel Bernard said postgame. “He understands what we’re trying to get done and he understands how offenses are trying to attack him more than anything.”
The Bills are now likely to make the postseason after a disappointing start to the postseason. And in part because of Douglas, they are one team that no one will want to face. So it’s a credit to Bills general manager Brandon Beane, who has made a few impressive additions like Douglas (see: TE Dalton Kincaid, edge rusher Leonard Floyd, RB Ty Johnson). Beane has had mixed success in the draft in recent years, but his free agency and trade acquisitions have patched the holes to the point where the Bills — yet again — will be relevant in the AFC playoffs. —McKenna
6. The Titans got Will Levis hurt again. Revamping O-line must be their top priority
For the second time in three weeks, the Titans offensive line got Will Levis hurt.
Early in the second quarter of Sunday’s miserable loss to the Texans, rookie offensive tackle John Ojukwu got beat by veteran defensive end Jerry Hughes, who stepped on Levis’ right foot as he delivered a big hit that resulted in a sack fumble and 13-yard scoop and score that gave Houston a 17-0 lead. Levis was unable to return with the foot injury, eventually carted to the locker room from the Titans sideline.
That visual served as a reminder of what’s been obvious for months in Tennessee: the offensive line needs a makeover … again.
The team tried to improve up front last offseason, prioritizing youth, athleticism and versatility in acquiring three new offensive-line starters (Andre Dillard, Peter Skoronski, Daniel Brunskill) and moving one starter from last season to a different position (Aaron Brewer moved from left guard to center). But it’s been a failure.
The Titans are allowing a 44.2% pressure rate, up from 42.2% last year. In the nine games he’s played (Weeks 8-15, 17), Levis has been sacked 28 times, more than all but two quarterbacks, according to Next Gen Stats: the Panthers’ Bryce Young (sacked 41 times) and the Giants’ Tommy DeVito (35).
The protection on Levis’ blind side has been particularly awful, which is why the Titans’ top pick in the upcoming draft should be used on their hopeful left tackle of the future. Tennessee took a gamble signing former Eagles first-round pick Andre Dillard to a three-year, $29 million deal, hoping a change of scenery would pay dividends. Instead, he’s been one of the worst offensive tackles in football. He’s allowed 10 sacks this season, which is second-worst among offensive tackles that have played at least 224 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Others the Titans have played at the position haven’t fared much better.
With Levis sidelined, Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback on Sunday and was under just as much duress. He was sacked five times. He acknowledged postgame that there were “definitely” plays where he had no chance to make something happen.
Skoronski is a building block for the Titans at left guard, and as a first-round offensive lineman, the hope is that he’ll only get better as his career progresses. But Tennessee has a lot of work to do on the offensive line overall to make sure Levis, who’s flashed as a franchise quarterback, has the protection he needs to be successful in 2024 and beyond. — Ben Arthur
7. Aidan Hutchinson leveled up against the Cowboys
Two games had passed since Aidan Hutchinson had gotten to the quarterback. He had recorded just one sack in his last five games, in fact. Detroit’s defense was suffering from a domino effect of a thin secondary and the absence of defensive tackle Alim McNeill, who went on IR before Week 14. But in one of the biggest games of Week 17 (certainly the most controversial, in hindsight), Hutchinson showed up. He sacked Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott three times on the night.
Hutchinson spends most of his time on the left side of Detroit’s defensive line but the Lions do move him around, knowing the skillset and athleticism he possesses. For much of the first half, Hutchinson manned the outside gaps over Dallas right tackle Terence Steele. But as soon as Lions defensive coordinator moved Hutchinson to the other side of the line, Hutchinson was able to pull an inside move on left tackle Tyron Smith, who has been playing at an elite level despite a knee injury. That was Hutchinson’s first sack of Prescott.
His next two reflected that versatility, coming from different alignments all along the defensive line. Hutchinson’s second came over center Tyler Biadasz through the A-gap, which wasn’t the first time Glenn decided to try him inside during the game. The punctuation mark came in the fourth quarter when Hutchinson pulled a nasty spin move to get inside of Steele on third and five. It stopped a Cowboys drive with the Lions down four, giving the offense another chance.
Hutchinson should get the benefit of McNeill returning as soon as this week (he’s eligible to come off IR) and ride this momentum into the playoffs, where his services will be crucial to the Lions making any sort of noise in the postseason. —Carmen Vitali
Were the Cowboys lucky to escape game against Lions with a win?
8. Bears’ young DBs shine in win over Atlanta
Reports surfaced last week that barring a complete meltdown, Chicago Bears head coach Matt Eberflus was expected to return in 2024. With 16 interceptions over the last six games, Eberflus’ defense is justifying that decision and more.
General manager Ryan Poles and Eberflus entered a full rebuild in Chicago in 2022. And though there have been more lows than highs for much of that, the 2023 season is shaping up right on schedule. With the addition of edge rusher Montez Sweat, the Bears’ defensive puzzle seems nearly complete. It has transformed the defensive side of the ball. The front is getting pressure, forcing opposing quarterbacks into errant throws that Chicago defensive backs are capitalizing on.
It’s a testament to the personnel.
Rookie Tyrique Stevenson had two interceptions against the Falcons on Sunday. Second-year corner Kyler Gordon had another. Free-agent linebacker T.J. Edwards had the fourth. These are all players Poles brought in with Eberflus’ vision in mind. Now, nearing the end of their second season in charge, the Bears have quite the reputation on defense and have a sneaky-good roster all around. That was a lot to accomplish in two offseasons — and they aren’t done yet. —Vitali
Justin Fields future with Bears uncertain despite ‘improvements’
9. Giants’ offensive decline may lead to Brian Daboll calling his own plays next year
Mike Kafka was one of the hottest names on the head-coaching carousel last offseason, interviewing for four different vacant jobs. He was praised for the way he helped develop Daniel Jones and build the Giants a productive offense.
One year later, he’s not likely to have any interview offers. He might even be out of a job.
Though no one is sure what Brian Daboll is planning, several people in the organization said they would not be surprised if Daboll takes over the offensive play calling himself in 2024. It’s what many believe he initially planned to do when the Giants hired him two years ago. After all, one of the big reasons the Giants hired him away from Buffalo was because of his offensive mind.
And it clearly has bothered him that the offense has collapsed — though that’s hardly surprising given the injuries they’ve had at quarterback and along the offensive line. There was a time this season when he was so involved with the offense it appeared to many as if he was already calling the plays. And at other times, during his postgame press conferences, he’s seemed to be bothered by the choices of offensive plays.
One point of contention happened on Sunday when, with the Giants trailing by a point, a 31-yard run by quarterback Tyrod Taylor got the Giants to the Rams 34 with 43 seconds remaining. The Giants had no timeouts left, but they needed to get a little closer on a windy day to give Mason Crosby a better shot at a game-winning field goal.
But Kafka called a draw play to Saquon Barkley that resulted in a 2-yard loss.
Even if that had worked, it would’ve meant the Giants would have probably had to kick on the next play. A pass towards the sidelines had a better chance to pick up yards, and would have stopped the clock and given them another shot if it fell incomplete.
Asked to explain the call, all Daboll would say was “Yeah, I’d like to have it back.”
Daboll doesn’t say much in his press conferences, ever, so it’s hard to say for sure that he disagreed with the call. Presumably he could have overruled it if he wanted. There was time, since Taylor spiked the ball on the previous play so the clock was stopped.
But with the Giants’ offense ranked 30th — and dead last through the air — plus the way franchise quarterback Daniel Jones seemed to regress at the start of the season, plus the ongoing issues with the offensive line, it’s clear there are changes coming next month. Kafka and Giants offensive line coach Bobby Johnson are the most obvious likely casualties.
Then maybe Daboll can run the offense the way he wanted to all along. —Vacchiano
10. Mason Rudolph fitting in as QB of the present for run-happy Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin initially declined to give Mason Rudolph, the team’s third starting QB this season, the nod as the team’s top signal caller right after the game. But he told reporters on Monday that the Oklahoma product would remain the team’s starter heading into the final game on the road against the Baltimore Ravens
“We’re going to leave the ball in Mason’s hands,” Tomlin said on Monday. “He’s done a good job in the most recent two weeks. We’ve taken care of the ball. He’s taken care of the ball. And we’ve scored points at a rate at which we hadn’t done to this point this year.”
Rudolph improved to 2-0 as a starter after taking over for an ineffective Mitch Trubisky. The Steelers have averaged 32 points per contest in the last two games, compared to 16 points a contest without him as the starter.
While the Steelers leaned on the running game, rolling up 221 yards on the ground in a 30-23 road victory over the Seattle Seahawks, Rudolph provided balance in the offense by dialing up big plays in the passing game.
Rudolph finished 18-of-24 for 274 passing yards, with no touchdowns and more importantly, no interceptions. His favorite target was deep-ball threat George Pickens, who torched Seattle’s secondary for seven receptions yielding 131 yards on nine targets.
Those numbers included Rudolph connecting on a surprising pass to Pickens on a slant route for 24 yards instead of salting away the clock on the ground to ice the game late on the team’s final drive against the Seahawks.
“A lot of play callers want to just be conservative there and just run it out,” Rudolph said after the game. “But we’ve got a very aggressive head coach … it paid off.”
Rudolph said he’s appreciative of the chance to play meaningful games late in the year.
“Just a lot of gratitude,” Rudolph said after the game. “I thought I’d be riding the pine the whole year. Things happen. And I’m thankful for God for giving me the opportunity.” —Williams
This story was compiled by:
AFC South reporter Ben Arthur (@benyarthur)
NFC South reporter Greg Auman (@gregauman)
AFC East reporter Henry McKenna (@McKennAnalysis)
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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