What N.F.L. Teams Do When the Playoffs Are Out of Reach

There are 48 games left on the 2022 N.F.L. schedule, but most of them do not matter very much.

Only five teams have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but many others face implausible postseason scenarios that read like LSAT trick questions. Much of the league will spend the next three weeks playing for microscopic playoff hopes, pride and (of course) colossal sums of money.

A meaningless end-of-season, however, does not need to be a pointless one. Here are some things that down-and-out N.F.L. teams are doing to make the best use of their time on dreary winter weekend afternoons:

Showcasing a New Superstar. Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields spent Sunday spinning free from the clutches of defenders, transforming would-be sacks into breathtaking highlights and coming just short of single-handedly upsetting the 12-1 Philadelphia Eagles in a narrow 20-15 loss. Fields has rushed for precisely 1,000 yards so far this season; Michael Vick and Lamar Jackson are the only other quarterbacks in N.F.L. history to reach that milestone.

Justin Fields’s athleticism at quarterback keeps the Bears competitive each week. But he has little help.Credit…Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

Fields’s running and improvisational skills keep the Bears competitive almost every week. Unfortunately, Fields plays behind a coffee-filter offensive line and throws to wide receivers culled from better teams’ practice squads. The Bears also traded away their best defenders for future draft picks. As a result, Bears games are like John Wick movies, except that Fields cannot quite triumph in the final reel. 

Fields sustained a separated shoulder earlier in the season and endured six sacks in the Eagles loss. There’s a fine line between showcasing and recklessly endangering a dual-threat quarterback in meaningless games. The Bears must strive to stay on the proper side of that line when they host the Buffalo Bills (11-3) on Saturday.

Auditioning a Rookie Quarterback. Despite their 5-9 record, the Atlanta Falcons remain in the playoff chase. Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers top the standings at 6-8, and no team has deemed itself worthy of overtaking them. After a 1-4 stretch in which the Falcons scored just 17.6 points per game, however, head coach Arthur Smith pulled veteran stopgap starter Marcus Mariota in favor of Desmond Ridder, a third-round pick in the 2022 draft.

Ridder, like Fields, has almost no one to throw to. Roughly 40 percent of the Falcons’ cap space is devoted to leftover compensation for departed players like Matt Ryan, forcing the team to field a budget-friendly roster. Making matters worse, the rising-star tight end Kyle Pitts was lost for the season with a knee injury in November. 

Ridder threw for just 97 yards in his starting debut, a 21-18 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Smith ordered handoffs for most of the game, even when trailing, as if he plans to run out the clock for the next 180 minutes.

It will be difficult to evaluate Ridder under such dire circumstances. Unfortunately, teams in less-than-dire circumstances rarely offer late-season opportunities to young quarterbacks.

Defensive end Brian Burns, right, is seen as a key to the Carolina Panthers’ future.Credit…Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Reinvigorating the Team Culture. The Carolina Panthers fired head coach Matt Rhule in October, then traded the former Pro Bowl running back Christian McCaffrey and benched (and later released) quarterback Baker Mayfield. The defensive assistant Steve Wilks took over as interim coach for a franchise that some expected to trade away even more veterans for draft picks so it could enter a rebuilding phase longer than the development cycle for an Avatar film.

The Panthers instead chose to hold onto remaining building blocks like the edge rusher Brian Burns and receiver D.J. Moore, and Wilks has turned a squad that looked listless in September into scrappy spoilers. The Panthers have won three of their past five games and retain slim playoff hopes (see the Falcons), with top prospects like cornerback Jaycee Horn and the rookie tackle Ikem Ekwonu blossoming on Wilks’s watch.

Wilks led the talentless 2018 Arizona Cardinals to a 3-13 record in his lone full season as a head coach. The Cardinals brusquely fired him in favor of Kliff Kingsbury, who has spent four seasons turning them into a team almost capable of winning the Big 12. Wilks, by contrast, has arguably earned the opportunity to shed his interim label and become the Panthers’ permanent head coach.

Securing the First Overall Pick. In a season defined by widespread mediocrity, only the Houston Texans have had the courage to be truly terrible. Their 1-12-1 record gives them a healthy “lead” in the race for the league’s worst record, and, more important, the first overall pick in the 2023 draft.

Quarterback Davis Mills of the Houston Texans fumbled the ball in overtime on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs.Credit…David J. Phillip/Associated Press

At least the Texans keep things entertaining. They led the Dallas Cowboys 23-20 late in the fourth quarter in Week 14 before getting stopped at their own goal line and surrendering a 98-yard game-winning touchdown drive. They forced overtime against Kansas City, only to have quarterback Davis Mills fumble at his own 15-yard line. It’s tempting to accuse the Texans of taking late-game dives in order to clinch the top pick, but they are so hapless they would probably win by 40 points if they purposely tried to lose.

The Texans will probably select a quarterback if they secure that top draft pick. Review the Fields and Ridder segments to discover what happens next. 

Bottoming Out Completely. The Indianapolis Colts became the victims of the biggest comeback in N.F.L. history when the Minnesota Vikings overcame a 33-0 halftime deficit to defeat them 39-36 in overtime Saturday. Two weeks earlier, the Colts allowed 33 fourth-quarter points against the Cowboys in an embarrassing 54-19 rout.

The Colts fired head coach Frank Reich in November and replaced him with Jeff Saturday, a former All Pro center and television sports analyst with no college or pro coaching experience in any capacity. The Colts have been outscored 83-9 in the fourth quarters of games that Saturday has coached, and they lost a close Week 12 contest to the Pittsburgh Steelers in part because Saturday did not use his timeouts properly, which quashed a possible game-winning drive. Perhaps experience matters a tiny bit.

Some early-season victories leave the Colts with slim hopes for the top draft slot, the scrambling backup quarterback Sam Ehlinger already flunked a starting audition, and Saturday appears to be doing the opposite of what Wilks has done for the Panthers. The best the Colts can do over the next three weeks is maintain a little dignity and aspire to become next year’s version of the Houston Texans.

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