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A Jalen Hurts MVP Campaign, Justin Jefferson Chasing 2,000 Yards and NFL Final-Month Story Lines

Here are the players, coaches and teams with the most to gain in the next four weeks.

Five years ago, entering Week 14, the Eagles sat atop the NFC standings and their young quarterback sat atop the MVP race. Sound familiar? Surely you know what happened next. Carson Wentz tore his ACL against the Rams, and his team went on to win the Super Bowl without him. Wentz’s career has gone downhill since then for a variety of reasons, but countless articles and TV broadcasts have since included the unfortunate sidebar, “Wentz, who probably would have been the MVP in 2017 if he hadn’t gotten hurt …”

There is a lot at stake across the league over the final four weeks of the season—from player awards and records to coaches’ job security and playoff seeding. And it can all have a lasting impact. Exactly one year ago, Wentz’s Colts were in control of a playoff spot and the scuffling Bengals were on the outside looking in. The former choked in Weeks 17 and 18; the latter stormed all the way to the Super Bowl. Think about how much each franchise has transformed since then.

With that in mind, here are the players, coaches and teams with the most to gain in the next four weeks. One important ground rule: Let’s stick specifically to the rest of the regular season. Obviously there will be 14 teams with plenty at stake when we get to the postseason (you know, the Super Bowl and all that). We can worry about weighty questions of postseason legacies when we get there.

But here’s what’s on the line between now and Monday, Jan. 9.

Separate photos of Jalen Hurts and Justin Jefferson, both pointing.

Hurts and Jefferson will be two of the most notable players to watch down the stretch run.

Jalen Hurts

Hurts and Patrick Mahomes are the current front-runners for the MVP award, and I’ll start this list with Hurts because Mahomes already won it in 2018. I’ve written the same about Super Bowls, but when you are considering a major accomplishment like this, there’s a significantly bigger difference between having zero or one than there is in the gap between any other numbers. There is a club of people who have won MVP, and you’re either in it or you’re not. Entry to that club is more important—in the way we talk about these players—than getting a second one.

Hurts, who has exploded for 3,157 yards, a 22-to-3 TD-to-INT ratio and another 10 touchdowns as a runner, has led the Eagles to a league-best 12–1 record and may never have a better chance to win an MVP. This is not a commentary on his career ceiling, or his potential to remain perennially in the conversation regarding elite quarterbacks. It’s just a statement of fact that it’s hard to win this award. Dan Marino won it in his second season in 1984. John Elway won it in his fifth season in ’87. Neither captured it again, despite both being all-time greats and no-doubt Hall of Famers. Players like Matt Ryan and Cam Newton won the award and never came close again, but think about how many times you read “the former MVP” as people discussed Ryan’s move to Indianapolis, even six years later, as a shorthand for what kind of run he had with the Falcons.

A lot of the focus on Hurts and the MVP race has been spent talking about whether he deserves it. There are still four weeks to sort that out. Instead, I’ll just note what an opportunity he has to put the finishing touches on a memorable season and be thought of as an MVP forever.

The Dallas Cowboys

Some teams will spend the next four weeks playing for a chance to make the playoffs, while others will fight to improve their seeding. Given how the field shakes out right now, no team can improve its standing as dramatically as the Cowboys, who currently own the NFC’s second-best record (thanks to a tiebreaking win over the Vikings) and occupy its fifth seed. The Cowboys will win the No. 1 seed if they win out, including a rematch with Philadelphia on Christmas Eve, and the Eagles lose one additional game.

Yes, you can make your jokes about how the fifth seed will get to play a lowly, possibly below-.500 NFC South champion in the first round. But obviously any team would rather have the top seed in the whole conference, and a first-round bye to boot. Thinking beyond the first round, a No. 5 seed would set Dallas up to go on the road to Philly, Minnesota or San Francisco, and likely in two straight weeks (if that first game is a win), instead of staying home for all of January.

Meanwhile, expanding the wild-card round to a Monday game opens up added possibilities of rest inequality, so it’s easier to just do things the old-fashioned way—by being the best regular-season team. And, of course, we don’t have to remind you that this franchise hasn’t been to the Super Bowl in 27 years. (But we will anyway.)

Justin Jefferson

There’s a lot on the line for anyone with a chance to lead the league in a statistical category, but let’s circle Jefferson specifically. The Vikings’ star has an even 1,500 yards through 14 games, putting him in striking distance (though behind pace) of Calvin Johnson’s record 1,964 in 2012. It’s kind of stunning this mark hasn’t fallen, given the league’s passing explosion over the decade since, but it feels destined to drop repeatedly now that the schedule has also been expanded to 17 games. Last year, Cooper Kupp fell 17 yards short, though he admitted to reporters “it wouldn’t hold the same weight” because of the extra game.

Putting aside all caveats about what the record means with the extra game, or how long a new record might even hold up, the cool thing about chasing this record is our collective fascination with round numbers and the bragging rights available for the first player ever to break the 2,000-yard mark. Jefferson would need to average 125 yards against the Colts, Giants, Packers and Bears. It won’t be easy, for a guy who has averaged 115.4 yards per game to this point. But it’s certainly possible, considering he posted 223 yards last week.

Dan Campbell

Everyone loves Dan Campbell, and for the first time since he arrived in Detroit last year, the results on the field are living up to the praise he has received for the way he’s gone about his job. The Lions are now 6–7, having won five of their last six games, hovering 1.5 games behind the Commanders and Giants, who occupy the NFC’s final two wild card spots.

A playoff berth would be a significantly more concrete achievement to show for this turnaround than a string of moral victories last year or the run of actual Ws that started halfway through this year.

Plus, making the playoffs would actually decrease some of the pressure on him in Year 3. Growth is not always linear, as we’ve seen from plenty of other rebuilds around the league. The team may overperform expectations in the second half this year but still fall short of the playoffs next year. And it can be hard to survive as an NFL coach with three straight years out of the playoffs, no matter how likable you are. So knocking that off the to-do list this year could go a long way in buying him more at the forefront of what’s building in Detroit.

But even pointing that out feels like a positive spin on the worst-case scenario. Why be negative at all? The best-case scenario is that the Lions can charge into the playoffs as one of the feel-good stories of the NFL season, with two first-round picks, including a valuable one from the Rams, and lots of momentum heading into next year. That’s a lot to be gained, though the margin for error is slim and it would require some help.

Steve Wilks

While we’re talking coaches, let’s include Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks. Both Conor Orr and Albert Breer wrote this week about the job Wilks has done in Carolina since taking over as interim coach after Matt Rhule’s firing, so I won’t belabor the point. An above-.500 record for his part of the season and a surprise NFC South title could extend his time in charge.

It might not, as we saw the Raiders move on from Rich Bisaccia after he took over for Jon Gruden and led them to the playoffs last year. But the fact that anyone is even talking about him keeping the job means he has a lot to gain if the next four weeks go well.

Baker Mayfield at the line of scrimmage during his first game with the Rams.

Mayfield will get four more weeks to show what he can do.

Baker Mayfield and or other free-agent-to-be quarterbacks

Any list of players with the most to gain should skew QB-heavy, because they have the most to gain financially. Several current starters are set to become free agents, though I think guys like Daniel Jones, Taylor Heinicke and probably even Geno Smith have put enough tape into the world not to be judged too much on just the next four games.

The same is true of third-year players who are eligible for extensions: Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa and Hurts.

But Baker Mayfield is another story. Getting a chance to play out the string for the Rams means his next contract has a chance to look wildly different than it would have if he had just spent the final month of the season buried on the Panthers’ depth chart. If he can keep up the level of performance he showed in his dramatic prime-time win over the Raiders he has a chance to be viewed as a starter (possibly in L.A. if Matthew Stafford retires), whereas a mere eight days ago everyone probably thought he might not even have his pick of backup jobs.

Looking at the landscape for other players who could be given unexpected playing time, Tyler Huntley stands out as an unrestricted free agent with a chance to show what he can do while Lamar Jackson is out (if Huntley is healthy enough to play). And every rep appears valuable for Jordan Love, if the Packers turn things over to him, given the never-ending questions around Aaron Rodgers’s future.

Watch the Rams, Packers on Christmas Day: NFL Tripleheader Schedule.

Players with specific contract incentives

When I started thinking about this list last week, Deebo Samuel was one of my players on it. Remember the story around his contract this offseason, following conflicting reports about whether he was unhappy with his usage as a hybrid running back/receiver? Well, the solution was found in his new contract: The 49ers gave him the chance to earn a $150K bonus for three rushing TDs, with the chance to upgrade to $650K with 380 rushing yards. He cashed in the first one with a highlight-reel run Sunday, though he remains behind last year’s pace for yards and was unlikely to cash in the second bonus even before an injury suffered later in the win over the Buccaneers.

Hienicke’s weekly victory bonuses have gotten attention all year, and Spotrac has a list of players who have already earned bonuses. JuJu Smith-Schuster has earned seven figures in extra income thanks to his catches and yards. I haven’t personally looked through every player’s deal, but we will no doubt learn about more contract incentive clauses as they are publicized during the stretch run. They will likely lead to some more funny scenes, like Rob Gronkowski on the sideline last year joking about cashing in his million-dollar incentives.

Getting a fat signing bonus in the offseason may be more lucrative. But as anyone who has ever written down a goal and then crammed to hit it toward the end of December can tell you, there’s something satisfying about doing it this way.

The New York Jets

There are many teams on the fringe of playoff contention, but the Jets have something no other team does: the longest active playoff drought in the NFL. The Jets haven’t played a postseason game since Jan. 23, 2011, when Rex Ryan, Mark Sanchez & Co. dropped their second straight AFC championship game, this one against the Steelers.

Does that put any added pressure on the players and coaches, who are 7–6 in Year 2 of a rebuild under Robert Saleh? Maybe not. But the fans would surely love to get that monkey off their backs.

One other concern: Now that the Seattle Mariners snapped their 21-year MLB playoff drought, the longest streak in the major North American pro sports leagues is there for the taking. That honor currently belongs to the Sacramento Kings, who haven’t reached the NBA playoffs since 2006. The Kings are off to a surprisingly good start this year, sitting sixth in the Western Conference at 15–12. (Keep in mind seeds No. 7 through 10 would have to survive a play-in round for it to officially count as a playoff berth.)

Beyond that, the Buffalo Sabres reached the NHL playoffs in April 2011, technically a few months after the Jets’ last postseason game, even if it’s the same number of seasons.

QB draft prospects

Yes, this list includes people with zero agency over how the final four weeks of the NFL season will actually play out. Cold world. But I think we should all realize by now that the degree to which a QB making it big or flaming out depends on the environment into which he is drafted.

Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Will Levis and Anthony Richardson all project as first-round picks. The order at the top of the draft will go a long way in determining which of those players end up in stable organizations, with coaches ready to bring out the best in them. And which, unfortunately, won’t.

We could see a situation where one QB goes to the Texans at No. 1, and another goes to whichever team forks over a bunch of picks to the Bears—putting the latter on a team with a dearth of draft capital to help build around him.

There are too many unknown variables left to play out in the lead up to the draft, but the shakeout of the final draft order will have massive ramifications on every player at the top of the board, QB or otherwise.