Trevor Lawrence, Jared Goff rise; Tua, Tom Brady fall: NFL notes and analysis

The cream is rising to the top of the league with the NFL regular season hitting the stretch run. The contenders are beginning to separate from the pack with impressive wins against competitive foes in “must-win” scenarios. 

Given some time to assess and evaluate the games in Week 14, here are some thoughts and observations from a former NFL scout.

Three things I liked

1. Jared Goff is the real deal for the Lions

The jokes are on the rest of the football world after watching Goff flourish in Motown as the leader of the hottest team in football. The former No. 1 overall pick has not only displayed the talent and passing ability to elevate the Lions offense, but his leadership skills and winning pedigree as a quarterback with Super Bowl experience have helped Dan Campbell’s squad turn the corner. 

Goff has been a sensation over a six-game span in which the Lions have posted five wins. The veteran is completing nearly 68% of his passes with 10 touchdowns and only one interception. Although he has been cast as a “game manager” for most of his career, Goff has posted back-to-back 300-yard games while helping the Lions climb back into playoff contention, relying on a red-hot offense to spark the run. 

Lions are legit contenders after beating Vikings

Lions are legit contenders after beating Vikings

The Lions went into the game as slight favorites, but no one predicted Jared Goff and the Lions would perform as well as they did, putting the Vikings away 34-23. Greg Jennings tells Craig Carton why he believes the Lions are absolutely heading to the playoffs.

The veteran’s impressive play has squashed some of the talk about his role as a “bridge quarterback” and prompted some discussion about his long-term future as the Lions’ QB1. If Goff continues to post wins while displaying exceptional management skills and playmaking ability, the Matthew Stafford trade could turn into a rare “win-win” for the Rams and Lions. 

2. Trevor Lawrence is blossoming under Doug Pederson

The Jaguars might have hit the jackpot with the pairing of a “generational” quarterback prospect and a proven “quarterback whisperer.” It certainly appears to be a match made in heaven after watching Lawrence blossom into a franchise player under the tutelage of first-year Jacksonville coach Pederson. 

The former No. 1 overall pick topped the 300-yard passing mark for the third time this season, including the second time in three weeks, in a spectacular performance against the Titans. Lawrence completed 30 of 42 passes for 368 yards with three scores while displaying all the tools and traits that made him a consensus top prospect since his freshman season at Clemson. 

From his pinpoint passing skills to his athleticism and improvisational ability on the move, Lawrence was in his bag against the Titans. He not only played like a franchise quarterback against one of the AFC’s top teams, but he took over like blue-chip players are expected to in big games. 

Considering Lawrence is in the midst of a sensational five-game streak in which he has posted a passer rating of at least 100.0 four times while throwing 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions, he looks like he has found his groove operating Pederson’s quarterback-friendly offense in Jacksonville. 

3. Steve Wilks is the man for the Panthers‘ job

It is rare for a midseason coaching change to produce a playoff run, but the Panthers’ dismissal of Matt Rhule and the elevation of Wilks has completely reversed the fortunes of the franchise. Although it might be a little premature to anoint the interim head coach as a savior, it is hard to ignore Wilks’ impact on the team since taking over after Week 5. 

Wilks has quickly rebuilt the culture and tradition of the franchise by restoring some of the values that were in place under Ron Rivera. Although Wilks is not a clone, he certainly has taken some of the traditions that helped the team reach Super Bowl 50. 

From a strong commitment to the running game to a resurgent defensive effort, the Panthers look like the team that adheres to a “Keep Pounding” philosophy regarding the toughness, grit and resilience of the program. The Panthers have undergone a makeover in front of the football world’s eyes that suggests Wilks’ message has positively impacted the team. 

With three wins in the past four games and better overall play from most of their players, including the quarterback, the Panthers look new and improved under their new leader. If the Panthers continue to make their playoff push with Wilks pushing the right buttons, the team should drop the interim tag and elevate the super-sub to the full-time position. 

Three things I did not like

1. Tua comes up short

The matchup between Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa was viewed as a heavyweight title bout due to the impressive performances of each quarterback heading into the game. As the second and third quarterbacks selected in the 2020 draft, the Week 14 battle allowed the football world to compare and contrast the franchise QBs. 

After watching the game from beginning to end, there is a significant gap between Herbert and Tagovailoa as individual talents and players. Herbert is a super-sized athlete with A-plus arm talent. He blows the fastball past defenders on tight-window throws yet displays enough touch to throw over and around defenders down the field. The Chargers QB1 looks and plays like the prototype at the position, and few quarterbacks can match the tools within his toolbox. 

Tagovailoa is a rhythmic passer and playmaker from the pocket. As an undersized player, he relies on touch, timing and anticipation to pick apart defenses from the pocket. If the third-year pro is able to “catch, rock and throw” while executing timing-based routes, he is capable of playing at an MVP level, as evidenced by his overall numbers this season. 

That said, Tagovailoa struggles when the pocket is muddy, or he is unable to throw on time. Against the Chargers, the Dolphins QB1 wilted under constant pressure and harassment. In addition, he struggled to find completions against a defense designed to take away throws between the hashes. Tagovailoa finished with just 10 completions on 28 pass attempts for 145 yards. 

Tua Tagovailoa struggles in Dolphins’ loss to Chargers

Tua Tagovailoa struggles in Dolphins' loss to Chargers

In his past two games, both losses, Tua Tagovailoa has three touchdowns and two interceptions. Prior to that, he had 19 TDs to only three picks through 11 games. Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe recap Chargers vs. Dolphins and talk Tua.

Considering Herbert put up 300-plus passing yards while Tagovailoa struggled against the Chargers’ short-handed defense (Derwin James, Sebastian Joseph-Day and Bryce Callahan did not suit up), the debate between QB2 and QB3 of the draft certainly tips in No. 3’s favor. 

2. The Texans‘ quarterback rotation is weird 

Maybe Lovie Smith was attempting to channel his inner Dusty Baker when he decided to feature a quarterback rotation Sunday against the Cowboys, with Davis Mills and Jeff Driskel routinely shuttling in and out of the game. 

Although the baseball-like rotation helped ignite the Texans’ dormant offense, it is hard to imagine the team employing the radical plan on a full-time basis. The lack of rhythm and continuity would seemingly keep the offense from performing at a high level consistently, with so many moving parts incorporated into the game plan. 

Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton not only has to utilize multiple call sheets to feature the most effective plays for each quarterback, but he has to coordinate which personnel groupings are ideal for each player. The skill-position players must adjust to the different throwing styles and the ball spins from each passer while the offensive line adjusts to a different cadence and snap count rhythm. 

Considering the limited reps that offensive players receive in practice, it is hard to imagine the Texans continuing down this road with constant change involved in implementing such a plan. While it helped the offense break out of a slump, I cannot imagine the Texans running a two-quarterback system for the rest of the season due to the complexities and complications created by such an unorthodox plan. 

3. Tom Brady cannot save the Buccaneers

The seven-time Super Bowl winner is viewed as a superhero due to his ability to routinely save his teams with magical performances in the clutch. But I do not believe Brady can put on his cape this season and save the Buccaneers from falling out of the playoff hunt. 

Tampa Bay does not have the supporting cast or dominant defense to alleviate the pressure on Brady to carry the team to victory. From the offensive line’s woes due to injury to the lack of separation from a pedestrian wide receiver corps that does not appear to mesh with Brady’s preferred scheme to an underachieving defense that is not as good as advertised, the Buccaneers have too many flaws for the veteran quarterback to overcome at this stage of his career. 

49ers hold Brady’s Bucs to 1 TD, Brock Purdy shines

49ers hold Brady's Bucs to 1 TD, Brock Purdy shines

Tom Brady’s homecoming was spoiled when the Buccaneers were blown out by the 49ers and their third string quarterback, Brock Purdy. Craig Carton and Greg Jennings debate whether “Mr. Irrelevant” makes the Niners real contenders.

At this point in his career, Brady cannot make the hero throws or magical plays to mask the Buccaneers’ flaws repeatedly. Despite delivering an occasional highlight in the clutch, the veteran needs the team to help him win, and the Buccaneers’ supporting cast continues to come up short. 

My top 10 teams

1. Philadelphia Eagles: The most complete team in football can win by utilizing a variety of playing styles. Whether it is Jalen Hurts running rampant through the heart of an opposing defense or A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith whipping defenders on the perimeter on isolation routes, the Eagles have the potential to win with power or finesse on offense. With an opportunistic defense obsessed with taking the ball away, the Eagles look like the premier team in the league. 

2. Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs know how to win games due to their experience as perennial title contenders. As teams continue to falter, attempting to slow down the Patrick Mahomes-Travis Kelce connection, the emergence of productive backfield weapons could help the Chiefs make another run to secure the top seed in the postseason.

3. Buffalo Bills: Josh Allen’s heroics will keep the Bills in the hunt as a title contender. The MVP candidate is a “one-man show” with the potential to take over games as an improvisational wizard. If the defense can hold up without Von Miller, the Bills have more than enough to win it all with Allen playing like a five-star player. 

4. Cincinnati Bengals: The defending AFC champs are playing their best football heading into the final weeks of the season. Joe Burrow & Co. are humming on offense despite dealing with an ever-changing cast of playmakers on the perimeter. With the defense routinely coming up with turnovers and key stops, the Bengals are on the verge of swiping the No. 1 seed in the conference. 

5. Dallas Cowboys: Mike McCarthy cannot get his team to play to a championship standard each week, but the Cowboys continue to chalk up wins due to their superior talent. If the Cowboys bring their A-game down the stretch, they can overtake their division rivals as the team to beat in the postseason. 

Ezekiel Elliott’s late TD leads Cowboys to narrow win vs. Texans

Ezekiel Elliott's late TD leads Cowboys to narrow win vs. Texans

The Cowboys were the largest favorites of the season (-17.5) against the Texans, but it took an Ezekiel Elliott TD with under a minute left to secure a 27-23 win. Skip Bayless explains why Cowboys fans should be emboldened by America’s Team’s Week 14 performance despite a close win.

6. Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings are an enigma as a title contender. Despite an impressive record that has been bolstered by a number of one-score wins, the NFC North leaders have given up more points than they have scored and look vulnerable as a top seed in a competitive conference race. 

7. San Francisco 49ers: Brock Purdy might have the goods to keep the 49ers’ title hopes alive. The rookie quarterback shined as a game manager in his first start while directing an offense that continues to pummel opponents with a dynamic run-play pass combination that is nearly impossible to stop. With the defense rounding into form as a premier unit, the 49ers are quietly climbing the charts as a title contender. 

8. Baltimore Ravens: It is never pretty with the Ravens, but they find ways to win with or without their top playmakers. Despite missing Lamar Jackson and Tyler Huntley, the Ravens chalked up another division win to remain in the hunt for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. 

9. Miami Dolphins: Back-to-back losses have exposed the Dolphins’ warts on both sides of the ball. Mike McDaniel will need to adapt and adjust to the troublesome spots before Miami slides out of playoff contention. 

10. Washington Commanders: There is nothing flashy about Ron Rivera’s squad, but the wins keep piling up as the team embraces an old-school formula (running game + strong defense = wins) that continues to work in today’s game.

Week 14 Game Balls

Most Valuable Player of the Week

Lawrence is starting to play like a franchise quarterback for the Jaguars. The former No. 1 overall pick completed 30 of 42 passes for 368 yards and three touchdowns in the team’s 36-22 win over the Tennessee Titans. The spectacular performance is part of a five-game run in which Lawrence has completed 71.8% of his passes with 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He posted a passer rating of 100.0 or better in four of the past five games while helping the Jaguars creep back into the division race. 

Offensive Player of the Week

No one can guard Vikings WR1 Justin Jefferson in a one-on-one matchup. The Lions found out the hard way with the big-play receiver tallying 11 catches for 223 yards, while exhibiting the A-plus route-running skill and playmaking ability to torch any defender opposite him. Although the spectacular performance did not result in a Vikings win, it certainly helps Jefferson’s candidacy as the No. 1 wideout in the league. 

Defensive Player of the Week

Roquan Smith validated the Ravens’ decision to acquire him via a midseason trade with an impressive showing against the Steelers. The veteran notched six tackles, a sack and an interception to propel Baltimore to a hard-fought win on the road. With Smith settling in as the Ravens’ designated playmaker at linebacker, the defense is starting to round into form as an elite unit. 

Unsung Hero of the Week

The Lions’ playoff push has been sparked by the play of a former No. 1 overall pick. Jared Goff has played like a franchise quarterback in helping Detroit win five of its past six games to climb back into the playoff hunt. The veteran QB has completed 67.1% of his passes with a 10:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio during that span. After posting his second straight 300-yard game (completed 27-of-39 for 330 yards and three scores) to help the Lions knock off the Vikings, Goff deserves a game ball for his efforts. 

Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He regularly appears on “Speak For Yourself” and also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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