The First Read, Week 12: Stellar defense driving Cowboys; Eagles in a lull; updated MVP rankings

In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 12 of the 2022 NFL season, including:

— The AFC contender with a QB problem.

— Who’s up and who’s down after Week 11?

— Will Fields be the best QB from the 2021 class?

But first, examining the unit powering Dallas’ hopes in 2022 …

FRISCO, Texas — If the Dallas Cowboys end up reaching the Super Bowl, their blowout win over the Minnesota Vikings will be the critical turning point of that journey. There was plenty to like in the 40-3 beatdown, from Dak Prescott’s efficient passing to Tony Pollard’s electric ability with the ball in his hands to the complete dominance of an opponent that had lost only once previously all year — but it was the defense that people should be talking about most today. The Cowboys are at their best when that unit is performing at its best. The win over Minnesota exemplified how much this team’s championship hopes rest on how relentless that defense can be.

Dallas has relied heavily on its defense pretty much all season. It was there when the Cowboys lost Prescott for five games with a thumb injury, and it was all over Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins and his offensive teammates from the moment their Week 11 showdown kicked off. The Cowboys sacked Cousins seven times, the most he’s ever been taken down in his 11-year career. Dallas also held the Vikings to 183 total yards, Minnesota’s lowest output since Week 2 of the 2020 season.

Two weeks ago, there were skeptics questioning whether the Dallas defense could hold up against the run, as the Green Bay Packers used their ground attack to overcome a 14-point deficit in a 31-28 Cowboys overtime loss. This latest showing revealed what the Cowboys can do when everything truly is clicking. “We knew we were going to be the heart and soul of this team,” said Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons earlier this month, when I spoke with him and several other Dallas defenders. “Defense wins championships, and we know the talent we have in this room. Whether the offense scores zero or 100, we still have to come out and play. Offense has nothing do with how we drive ourselves. Even if their energy is down, it doesn’t reflect what we do.”

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No defense in the league is a better representation of what it takes to deal with modern offenses than the Cowboys. They pride themselves on athleticism and versatility, and they rank first in the league in points allowed because of their ability to mix and match personnel depending on situations. Parsons — who recorded his fifth game with at least two sacks this year — is the most glaring example of that, as he frequently moves from linebacker to edge rusher during games. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has been just as creative in utilizing other defenders to frustrate defenses.

When asked about that flexibility, Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said Quinn “puts us in the right position to make plays. He’ll move me from end to the 3-technique (defensive tackle). He’ll move Micah from linebacker to end. There are so many different positions that when the quarterback is trying to identify the Mike linebacker, he might look down and see him at defensive end and say, ‘Damn, the Mike is there?’ It throws a lot of confusion into a play.”

The chemistry within this unit means just as much as the talent. Lawrence talked specifically about how much time the players spend together away from the facility and how easily their personalities mesh. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch talked about “the brotherhood” of this defense and the culture that Quinn has created, saying, “He knows what kind of players he has around him, but he also has a way of capturing the room whenever he walks in. When you talk about his energy, nobody brings it better than he does every single day.”

That dynamic explains how the defense could feel so emboldened when Prescott sustained that thumb injury in the season opener. Parsons was one of the defenders who openly talked about how this team wasn’t going to implode after losing its leader. The Cowboys then held all but one opponent to less than 20 points for the next five games (the exception being Philadelphia in a 26-17 loss in Week 6). In fact, only two other teams have scored more than 20 points against Dallas this season.

It’s no secret what the Cowboys want to do. They want a lead, and they want long-yardage situations, so pass rushers like Lawrence and Parsons can get home, and ballhawks like All-Pro cornerback Trevon Diggs can hunt for interceptions. “It’s a passing game nowadays, and that’s our game,” Diggs said. “We want the ball to go in the air because we want to create turnovers. We’re at our best when teams are passing. If we can get a team to do that, I feel like we can win the game.”

The Cowboys, currently 7-3, are about to see plenty of teams that aren’t going to scare anybody with their passing attacks. Their next three games come against the Giants, Colts and Texans, all of whom rank toward the bottom of the league in passing yards. Dallas also will travel to Jacksonville on Dec. 18, which means three of their next four contests will involve teams with losing records. There literally is no better time for the Cowboys to make a run at the NFC East crown.

Whether or not they achieve that goal will come down to how this team plays defense. The Cowboys learned some valuable lessons during Prescott’s absence that they continue to apply today, most notably the importance of playing to that unit’s strength. That means relying more on a two-headed backfield tandem of Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott and not being as pass-happy as this team was in 2021. The Cowboys just might add free agent wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to an offense that could use more weapons, but that shouldn’t change the overall formula for success.

Dallas has gotten to this point by riding a talented defense. They did it when their quarterback was down, and they did it again when a huge game followed a crushing defeat. The mystery now is whether the Cowboys can maintain what they displayed on Sunday. If you ask the people on that side of the football, it’s a question they truly can’t wait to answer.

HOT READS

Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.

1) Mahomes’ return to the throne: The discussion of who’s winning this year’s MVP award likely went a long way toward being settled inside SoFi Stadium on Sunday Night Football. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is playing on that high of a level right now. He’s thrown for at least 300 yards in five straight games and surpassed the 400-yard mark twice during that stretch. He’s thrown 13 touchdown passes in that span. He came into Sunday’s game against the Chargers missing two of his best receivers (JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman) and then lost one during the contest (Kadarius Toney went down with a hamstring injury). All Mahomes did when faced with that challenge was throw for 329 yards and three touchdowns while rallying the Chiefs with a game-winning drive in the final two minutes of regulation. Forget the narrative about how Mahomes has played in the wake of former star receiver Tyreek Hill’s offseason trade to the Dolphins. Mahomes is surrounded by an inconsistent offensive line, a mediocre running game and a pass-catching corps that isn’t overwhelming, aside from tight end Travis Kelce. The Chiefs have the best record in the AFC and a vise grip on the AFC West for one reason and one reason alone: Their quarterback is proving once again why he’s the best player in the league.

2) Sigh, Eagles, sigh: Let’s start with a reality check. The Philadelphia Eagles weren’t going to roll through the entire season playing impressive football week in and week out. That winning streak they opened the year with would end eventually — as it did after eight games — and they would be tested more than a few times. That’s what we’re witnessing now. A week after committing four turnovers in a Monday Night Football loss to Washington, the Eagles barely escaped Indianapolis with a 17-16 win. Philadelphia lost the turnover battle once again (committing two to the Colts’ one), and quarterback Jalen Hurts delivered the win with 7-yard touchdown run with 1:20 left in the contest. The Eagles actually trailed by 10 points when the fourth quarter began. So, there are two ways to look at this. One is that Jeff Saturday is doing a hell of a job leading the Colts after being named interim head coach a couple weeks ago. Indianapolis beat Las Vegas in his debut and nearly defeated the NFC’s best team as an encore. The other, which is more likely to be accurate, is to say the Eagles are coming back to earth. They’re still the most dangerous team in the NFC, but they’ve become sloppy of late and were stagnant offensively for most of Sunday’s effort. The most impressive aspect of this team is its ability to win in a variety of ways. That will undeniably help the Eagles in the postseason, but they also seem far more vulnerable today than they did two weeks ago.

3) Jets in jeopardy: Jets quarterback Zach Wilson picked the wrong time to lash out at his critics. You had to appreciate his agitation when he said last week that nobody outside of the Jets’ facility “knows what they’re talking about.” The problem was that Wilson didn’t back up his bravado when it came time to deliver in a critical matchup with the New England Patriots. Bill Belichick has owned Wilson. That didn’t change in the Jets’ 10-3 loss on Sunday. For all the excitement that was generated by a game-winning punt return by New England’s Marcus Jones, the bigger story in this contest was the inability of Wilson to help his team in any discernible way. Wilson completed nine of 22 passes for 77 yards. He didn’t throw an interception — after having seven of those in three previous games against the Patriots — but also couldn’t assist in a dominant defensive effort by his team. This is the problem the Jets face as they compete for a playoff spot down the stretch. Every other team in serious contention in the AFC has a quarterback who has either earned a Pro Bowl nod or should be in consideration for one. The Jets have a quarterback who has thrown four touchdowns and completed 55.6 percent of his passes this season. This isn’t merely about an issue when facing Bill Belichick. This is the reason why the Jets may very well be on the outside looking in when the postseason arrives. Wilson’s status as the starter — which head coach Robert Saleh refused to confirm Monday — bears watching.

THREE UP

Yes, we know — the Raiders are a disaster. That is true on so many levels, except when it comes to Adams. He’s battled through some frustrating moments, but he’s been on fire lately. Adams has averaged 137.7 receiving yards over the last three games. He had seven receptions for 141 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday’s 22-16 win over Denver, including the game-winning 35-yard grab in overtime. The Raiders are playing without Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow, both of whom are on injured reserve. Adams is showing what he can do when the entire passing game rests on his shoulders.

Atlanta’s Swiss Army knife is finding his groove once again. Patterson hadn’t been that impactful in his two previous games — following his return from a knee surgery — but he was back to being a difference-maker in Sunday’s win over Chicago. Patterson’s 103-yard kickoff return set an NFL record for career kick returns for a touchdown (nine), and he added another 52 rushing yards on 10 carries. The Falcons (5-6) are doing everything possible to stay in playoff contention. Patterson heating up would make those hopes more realistic.

The Titans have been searching for dependable production from their wide receivers all season, and Burks gave them plenty of hope this past week. It wasn’t just that he had seven receptions for 111 yards against the Packers on Thursday Night Football. It was that the rookie first-rounder exploded a week after fellow wideout Nick Westbrook-Ikhine delivered a 100-yard game of his own. The Titans have missed A.J. Brown for a good part of this season following his trade to Philadelphia. The rise of Burks could make them more optimistic about their play-action passing moving forward.

THREE DOWN

This space is usually reserved for a specific player, coach or unit. Not this time. There’s plenty of blame to go all around for the Vikings after what the Cowboys did to them on Sunday. The offense? Utterly dominated. The defense? Humiliated. They did get 3 points out of the kicking game, but that didn’t matter one bit. The Vikings came into that contest feeling themselves after a miraculous win in Buffalo. They left it facing all the same questions about how legitimate their record (now 8-2) really is.

It’s not often that a team silences a runner as talented as Chubb, but that’s exactly what Buffalo did on Sunday. The same player who came into the game leading the league in total touchdowns (11) and averaging 5.7 yards per carry wound up with 19 yards and zero scores on 14 carries in a 31-23 loss for Cleveland. It’s the second straight week that Chubb has been held below 65 yards. It’s also an ominous sign for a team that had been hoping to hang around until quarterback Deshaun Watson returns from an 11-game suspension. It just feels like the Browns are fading away with each passing week.

The Rams were excited to have their star quarterback back after he missed last week’s loss to Arizona while in the concussion protocol. However, before he could even finish three full quarters of Sunday’s loss to New Orleans, Stafford was sidelined yet again, to be evaluated for a concussion. The Rams will know more in the coming days about his availability this coming week, but an extended Stafford absence would be yet another tough blow for this franchise. Stafford actually looked sharp in his limited appearance. Without him, the foundering Rams are pretty much done.

SCOUT’S READ

One question answered by an unnamed front office source.

Will Justin Fields be the best QB from the 2021 draft class?

NFC SCOUT: “The jury is still out. Right now, he feels like the flavor of the month. The running stuff they’re doing isn’t new and it usually doesn’t last for a long time. Sooner or later, it gets figured out once the division adjusts to the personnel, and there’s always the greater risk of injury (Fields suffered a dislocation in his non-throwing shoulder in Sunday’s loss to Atlanta, after this quote was provided). It still comes back to quarterbacks with that kind of talent being able to beat teams with their ability to pass. The same thing has been true for all those guys, whether it was Robert Griffin III, Marcus Mariota, Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray. When they say, ‘They figure you out,’ they’re really talking about teams adapting their personnel to where they have the right people to package against that skill set. There just aren’t enough of those players who have sustained success doing what Fields does unless they become elite throwers like (Buffalo’s) Josh Allen. Allen can beat you throwing the ball 40-plus times in a shootout. You can’t be a one-trick pony in this league if your main talent is running.”

MVP WATCH

A simple ranking of the top five candidates as I see them, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 12 (odds courtesy of FanDuel were current as of 8 p.m. ET on Nov. 21):

Odds: -160

Weeks in Top 5: 11

Next game: vs. Rams | Sunday, Nov. 27

Odds: +600

Weeks in Top 5: 9

Next game: vs. Packers | Sunday, Nov. 27

Odds: +650

Weeks in Top 5: 4

Next game: vs. Texans | Sunday, Nov. 27

Odds: +7500

Weeks in Top 5: 3

Next game: vs. Texans | Sunday, Nov. 27

Odds: +2600

Weeks in Top 5: 3

Next game: at Titans | Sunday, Nov. 27

EXTRA POINT

My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Bills over Eagles.

Previous picks …

  • Week 11: Eagles over Bills
  • Week 10: Bills over Eagles
  • Week 9: Bills over Eagles
  • Week 8: Bills over Eagles
  • Week 7: Bills over Eagles
  • Week 6: Bills over Eagles
  • Week 5: Bills over Eagles
  • Week 4: Bills over Eagles
  • Week 3: Bills over 49ers
  • Week 2: Bills over Buccaneers
  • Week 1: Bills over Packers

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