Thursday night’s Chiefs-Chargers mega-clash has significant playoff implications and offers a chance for Justin Herbert to make history.
Justin Herbert is rewriting the NFL record books.
Thursday night might be the biggest hurdle of Herbert’s young career. It’s not just a divisional game, nor one that could dictate playoff seeding. It’s one that could be the start to a promising legacy for Herbert—so much as that can be accomplished in a regular-season contest.
Few quarterbacks have reached a level of stardom this fast as Herbert over the past decade. Patrick Mahomes is one. Andrew Luck is likely the other. Both players were labeled “limitless” due to their upside.
Where does Herbert fall?
“There may not be a ceiling for how good Justin Herbert can be,” Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts told FanSided by phone this week.
Ahead of Herbert’s Chargers aiming for a season-sweep of the Kansas City Chiefs that would propel the Chargers to the top of the AFC West and within striking distance of the conference’s No. 1 seed, the sixth-overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft is on the precipice of history.
Herbert enters Thursday night with 8,158 passing yards through his first 28 career games. He needs 38 passing yards to break Luck’s record of 8,196 yards in his first two full seasons.
With four games remaining, Herbert is seven touchdown passes shy of Dan Marino’s record of 68 through a quarterback’s first two seasons.
One career was cut short. The other never won a Super Bowl. Barring injury and lack of team chemistry, Herbert could surpass more than just Marino and Luck in the record books.
“He’s got that special thing like Brett Favre,” an NFC personnel executive tells FanSided, on the condition of anonymity to speak about a player on another team. “Where he can hit a 40 or 45-yard pass on the money, on the drop of a dime, and it’s like ‘wow … wow.’ You just can’t teach that stuff. It’s God-given talent.”
How did we get here? Where a quarterback chosen after Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa in his draft class goes from consolation prize to arguably the premier quarterback in the NFL in two short years?
FanSided reviewed a dozen big boards and final mock drafts from major outlets (Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and others), and found that none of them listed Herbert as the class’s top quarterback. Most listed the Oregon quarterback towards the bottom of the first round.
NBC Sports had Herbert No. 19 overall in its final big board. Matt Miller listed Herbert No. 27 overall, with a Round 2 grade.
Hindsight can sting.
Herbert has made those evaluations look about as silly as the quarterback-needy teams that passed on him after the Bengals made Burrow the No. 1 overall pick.
Maybe it’s a good thing Herbert fell. Burrow has the Bengals fighting for a playoff spot, but has been sacked 41 times. Tagovailoa has improved as of late, but rumors swirled around the trade deadline that general manager Chris Grier was nearing a deal for Deshaun Watson.
Instead, Herbert landed in the right location. Chargers general manager Tom Telesco made sure to build off the Rookie of the Year campaign by strengthening the offensive line. It’s only been a blessing.
“His size and arm strength are both off the charts,” the personnel executive says. “He’s got such a consistent release, and when he doesn’t have pressure on him his mechanics are always identical. That gives you the chance for really consistent accuracy.”
On Thursday night, Herbert has the chance not only to surpass Luck’s record but also become only the second quarterback to beat Mahomes twice in a season. Only seven-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady has accomplished such a feat, doing so in 2018.
It will be no easy task, and Herbert will see a far different Chiefs’ defense than the one he torched for 281 yards and four touchdowns in a 30-24 Week 3 victory inside Arrowhead Stadium.
Kansas City looks rejuvenated defensively, especially since the arrival of edge rusher Melvin Ingram in a Nov. 2 trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
One game separates the division-leading Chiefs from Herbert’s Chargers, but a Los Angeles win would give it the tiebreaker over the two-time defending AFC Champions.
Herbert and the offense will likely need to be prolific to put one in the win column.
Steve Spagnuolo’s defense has led a Kansas City renaissance, powering a six-game winning streak, and seven total wins over the last eight games. They currently are holding opponents to an average of just 13 points per game over that span. They’ve allowed a multi-offensive touchdown game just once since Ingram’s arrival.
“Justin certainly has the confidence of knowing how to beat Kansas City,” Fouts explains. “The Chiefs are better today than they were earlier in the season when the Chargers beat them, but still, that experience goes a long way.
“It’s tough to beat the same team twice in a season, but Herbert and the Chargers are playing with a lot of confidence right now. They get Keenan Allen back, and that will be a huge boost for Justin and that whole offense.”
This is the time of the season when real contenders rise to the top, and pretenders fall to the wayside. Both Mahomes’ Chiefs and Herbert’s Chargers seemingly fall into the former category.
On a national stage in a hostile environment, Herbert has an opportunity to enter the record books and lead L.A. one step closer to the road to the Super Bowl in its own backyard. Mahomes stands in his way.
Is it time to put him in the Mahomes category? Limitless?
“Quarterback is an important position when you’re talking about winning Super Bowls,” Fouts says. “The common denominator when you look at Super Bowl-winning teams is strong quarterback play, and the Chargers right now have an outstanding quarterback. They’ve at least got that piece of the puzzle solved.”
How far can Bill Belichick, Mac Jones lead the Patriots?
As the calendar has turned to December, and the winds are whipping, best believe Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots are mounting a charge.
If the season ended today, the AFC’s road to the Super Bowl would go through Foxboro.
“I don’t know if they’re Super Bowl good, yet,” an NFC position coach who played the Patriots earlier this season tells FanSided. “But they’re very good. And the quarterback, Mac Jones, he’s the real deal.”
Against Buffalo, Belichick played the conditions — steady 35 miles per hour winds with gusts upwards of 50 MPH off the banks of Lake Erie — to the Patriots’ advantage, taking the air out of the ball by asking Jones to attempt only three passes. Still, without even the threat of passing, the Patriots pounded Buffalo on the ground for 222 yards.
Entering Saturday night’s clash with Carson Wentz and the Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots boast the NFL’s No. 9 ranked rushing offense, No. 3 ranked total defense, and Jones is completing 70.3 percent of his passes for 2,869 yards with 16 touchdowns to just eight interceptions for a 97 passer rating.
Once the postseason rolls around, Jones is as suited as anyone to navigate it all.
“Mac Jones has been in pressured environments before and that shouldn’t phase him,” an AFC scout tells FanSided.
The formula is there for New England; run the ball, play sound defense, and don’t make mistakes.
“They’re a good team,” an NFC West evaluator tells FanSided. “Because they’re a disciplined team. And they don’t beat themselves, which this time of year, teams are doing that, but they aren’t.”
While some have anointed New England as the team to beat in the AFC, and to perhaps even win the franchise’s first Lombardi without Tom Brady behind center, not everyone inside the league is buying the hype.
“They’re getting the weather conditions they need right now to be able to win with their scheme,” the executive says. “They’ll get to the playoffs, they might win a game, but they’re going to run into some good teams, some explosive teams that will be ready for them.”
Just as it appears New England is playing the style of football that is rewarded in January and February, the blueprint to beating this version of the Patriots is painfully rudimentary.
“You have to stop the run,” the executive explains. “It’s plain and simple. Mac Jones isn’t going to beat you with his arm. He may pick up some first downs, but he isn’t going to beat you downfield.”
To that end, the teams that could most likely stand in the Patriots’ way from their first Super Bowl trip since 2018; the Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, and even the Bills, currently sit Nos. 2, 14, 31, and 15, respectively, in rushing defense.
For as successful as Jones has been as a rookie, and the fifth quarterback chosen in this spring’s NFL Draft, he’s not going to be the driving force behind New England lifting a Lombardi this February.
“I promise you this,” the executive says. “When you play New England, you aren’t scheming against Mac Jones. At all. You say ‘let him try to beat us, if it comes down to a throwing game, we’ve got it, he just can’t get the ball down the field.”
The hope for New England is that Jones’ consistency married with Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ scheme built around his best traits will be just enough to complement a stifling defense and bruising ground game.
“The one thing about Bill is,” the scout says. “He has a history of doing great things with average talent. He has enough players this year to mix and match based on who he plays. They have a defense with good players on each level.
“The key will be the running game and offensive line. But, are they a Super Bowl team? That’s hard to say.”
“It was miscommunication between me and the O-line. They thought it was a spike, but it was just a heat-of-the-moment deal. I don’t even remember the call, what was being said in the helmet, or anything like that.”
– Arizona Cardinals QB Kyler Murray, on the final play of Monday night’s game, a sack by Aaron Donald to seal the Rams’ 30-23 victory.
Monday night’s Cardinals loss might as well be a microcosm of Arizona’s last two seasons.
And for the second time this season brought some of the biggest concerns about Kliff Kingsbury’s team to the fore.
Kingsbury’s Cardinals infamously collapsed over the second half of last season, dropping five of their final seven to descend to 8-8 after blasting off to a 5-2 start to the campaign.
A major concern, even as the Cardinals vaulted to the top of the NFC West standings prior to Monday night at 10-2, was whether Arizona could close and whether they could close out top-tier competition.
But, much like Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas intercepting Kyler Murray on the game’s final play back in Week 8, Murray not spiking the ball as Donald barreled towards him Monday night shows how tenuous the Cardinals’ place among the NFC’s elite is.
It will be no easy road home for the Cardinals, either, who still have to face the Colts and travel to take on the high-flying Dallas Cowboys.
If Arizona somehow runs the table and finishes 14-3, it’ll have a real shot at the top seed. But we’ve seen little from the character of this team to inspire confidence it can rattle off that sort of run or play at its best against top competition.
COVID-19 will once again play the role of a spoiler in the NFL’s stretch run.
Monday, a league-record 37 players were added to the COVID-19/Reserve list.
By Tuesday, Rams wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. tested positive mere hours after catching six passes for 77 yards and a touchdown in Los Angeles’ pivotal win over the Cardinals. Also on Tuesday, 22 players were added to the COVID-19/reserve list across the league.
Two teams, the Cleveland Browns and the Rams were forced into intensive protocols this week, closing their facilities.
As the Omicron variant burns through the United States, pushing the nation’s seven-day moving average to 120,000 this week, the NFL was forced to act. A memo was sent making COVID-19 vaccine boosters mandatory for all Tier-1 and Tier-2 employees, which would include coaches and trainers.
For teams in the throes of a playoff race, such as the Rams, pushing the booster rate among players as close to 100 percent will be critical to surviving this stage of the pandemic and surviving a postseason push.
That’s because players who are fully vaccinated are eligible to return from the COVID-19 list, and play, after receiving two negative tests 24 hours apart. However, if an unvaccinated player tests positive, he is forced to isolate for 10 days before being eligible to return.
Even with the uncertainty surrounding their availability for Thursday night’s game, the Chiefs moved Tuesday to three-point favorites from being a four-point favorite against the Chargers before Josh Gordon and Chris Jones were added to the protocol.
In Cleveland, where the Browns’ facility is currently shuttered, the Browns went from opening as six-point favorites to a mere field goal edge against the reeling Raiders Saturday.
While vaccination status has become a political wedge in broader society, the vaccine is literally a tool to keep key players available for some of the biggest games of the year. The teams that can mitigate the risk, keep their key players healthy, and keep an outbreak at bay are bound to be the most successful over the next two months on the road to the Super Bowl.