The playoffs are on the horizon, and the contenders are beginning to separate from the pack heading down the stretch. With Week 16 providing the football world with a glimpse at which teams could make a deep postseason run, the tournament should be “must-see” TV for fans coveting great football. Given some time to process the action over the holiday weekend, here are some thoughts and observations from a former NFL scout.Three things I liked1. The 49ers offense is unstoppable Good luck to defensive coordinators attempting to slow down the 49ers offense if Kyle Shanahan continues to dip into his bag of tricks as he has over the past eight weeks. The offensive wizard has befuddled opponents with a balanced offensive attack that mixes runs with complementary passes utilizing misdirection and deceptive tactics. Moreover, Shanahan has tapped into the talents of his collection of explosive playmakers to keep defenders guessing as to which player is the star of the day. Against the Commanders, the offensive architect quickly adapted to the extra attention paid to Christian McCaffrey (15 carries, 46 rush yards, and a score) by putting the ball in the hands of George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, and Ray-Ray McCloud on a variety of plays that took advantage of the “plus-one” boxes and single-high coverage utilized to slow down the five-star running back. Considering how quickly Shanahan adapted to the Commanders’ tactics by relying on the 49ers’ complementary weapons, it will be hard for opponents to devise a plan to neutralize an offense with so much firepower. With another weapon (Deebo Samuel) poised to return before the playoffs, the 49ers have a collection of talent and a call sheet that will give opposing coaches headaches in the tournament. 2. The Packers’ young wideouts are coming onIt might be time to hold off on the jokes and barbs on the Packers’ “draft-and-develop” approach regarding wide receivers. Young duo Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs are beginning to make their mark as key contributors to an offense that has seemingly found its identity down the stretch. Although the numbers against the Dolphins are not impressive (Watson totaled six catches for 49 receiving yards; Doubs finished with three catches for 36 yards), their individual and collective improvement has helped the Packers become a more efficient and effective offense during the team’s three-game winning streak. Watson and Doubs are gaining the trust of Aaron Rodgers, as evidenced by his willingness to throw them the ball in key moments (third down and red zone). Aaron Rodgers outperforms Tua Tagovailoa
Aaron Rodgers threw for a touchdown and 238 yards to help the Packers pick up a 26-20 victory against the Dolphins.
In addition, the young duo has shown the requisite “catch-and-run” skills that enable Rodgers to rely on the quick-rhythm passing game to mask some of his deficiencies as a thrower. With the youngsters beginning to play up to the standard as starters, the Packers are heating up as a playoff contender with the capacity to do some damage in the tournament. 3. Mike Tomlin can coach Despite the one-time Super Bowl winner carrying a Hall of Fame résumé heading into his 16th season as the leader of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Tomlin draws the ire of a section of fans who question his leadership ability, game management skills and tactics. While I have never understood the constant criticism and negativity spewed in his direction, I think it is hard to deny his coaching talent after watching Tomlin squeeze out seven wins in 15 games with the roster at his disposal. The veteran coach has brilliantly mixed in newbies with veterans to help the team overcome a 2-6 start to reel off five wins in the Steelers’ past seven games to climb back into the playoff picture. The coach helped the team find its identity by returning to the basics that have always helped the Steelers win games: physicality and toughness. Although the Steelers’ style is not glamorous or flashy, it is effective in the division in which they play in, and it is effective because they force opponents to play on their terms. Tomlin has put the onus on his experienced defense to lead the charge while a young offense worked through its growing pains. The defense has held six of its last seven opponents to 17 points or fewer, making nearly every contest a one-score game. Keep in mind that the defense surrendered 20-plus points in five of Pittsburgh’s first seven games; the dramatic turnaround speaks volumes to Tomlin’s ability to make corrections and adjustments. The tinkering has not only resulted in improved performance, but it has given the 2022 Steelers an identity that works for this unit. With the offense finding its way behind a rookie quarterback surrounded by several inexperienced pass-catchers and playmakers, Tomlin deserves credit for helping the Steelers turn around a season that appeared lost at the start. Three things I did not like 1. The Jets bungled the Zach Wilson situationThe former No. 2 overall pick might end up being one of the biggest busts of all time, but the New York Jets certainly have not helped Zach Wilson reach his potential. The second-year pro has been jerked in and out of the lineup by a coaching staff that has not put the young quarterback in a position to succeed. Wilson has made some egregious errors between the lines and shown immaturity as a leader, but the Jets should have known what they were taking on when they drafted the BYU product. As a young player with limited playing experience, Wilson was bound to struggle on and off the field while adapting and adjusting to the NFL game. In addition, he joined a franchise that has been a cellar-dweller for years. Considering the team’s state at the time of his arrival, the second-year pro should not have been viewed as a savior or treated as a “one-man” turnaround specialist. Moreover, Wilson should not have been expected to make a significant jump unless the team crafted a scheme specific to his talents while surrounding him with experienced playmakers on the perimeter. Although Garrett Wilson and Elijah Moore are spectacular young receivers, it is not a coincidence that Josh Allen (Stefon Diggs) and Justin Herbert (Keenan Allen and Mike Williams) had veteran pass-catchers to foster their development. Not to mention, the team surrounded those passers with competent offensive lines to protect them from the pass rush. Those miscues pale in comparison to how the Jets treated Wilson in a primetime game against the Jaguars last Thursday. He pro was pulled in favor of a CFL journeyman in the second half of a 19-3 loss. While Chris Streveler sparked the offense as a runner, the benching undermined Wilson’s position with the Jets and made it nearly impossible for the team to bring him back as a starter. As a young passer with shaky confidence surrounded by teammates who lack belief, as evidenced by their comments and donning of Mike White T-shirts, Wilson will never become the player the franchise expected him to become when they drafted him as the franchise quarterback. 2. The Russell Wilson experiment bombs Russell Wilson was expected to fix nearly a decade-long quarterback problem for the Denver Broncos, but the perennial All-Pro has bombed in a new environment. The veteran has struggled with his judgment, accuracy and playmaking ability while failing to add the leadership skills that many expected in the locker room. Wilson’s numbers are subpar across the board, and his poor performance has drawn the ire of teammates, as evidenced by the sideline outburst and tantrums we have witnessed from the Broncos this season. While we can attribute Wilson’s poor play to a fired head coach/offensive architect who was out of his element, it is hard to put the blame elsewhere when the franchise QB has failed to perform to the standard. The Broncos can change the head coach and surround the quarterback with an upgraded supporting cast, but it will be hard for the team to win at a high level until Wilson’s game and leadership skills improve. Russell Wilson, Broncos struggle in blowout loss
Russell Wilson threw three interceptions and completed only 15 of 27 passes for just over 200 yards in Denver’s 51-14 loss to the Rams. Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe talk Rams-Broncos.
For a beloved player who has always won utilizing a particular style, Wilson’s dramatic decline will require the veteran to do some soul-searching and undergo a stylistic makeover to return as a winning quarterback in Denver. 3. Malik Willis not ready to lead the TitansIt is unfair for the Titans to need their young quarterback to lead them on a playoff run, but Ryan Tannehill’s injury puts the pressure on Malik Willis to take on the challenge before he is ready. The rookie is still a year or so away from being a starting quarterback and his inexperience is showing up during a critical stretch. Willis’ lack of accuracy, touch and timing derails the passing game, and the Titans have yet to find a set of running concepts that enable the rookie to add a dimension to the offense. Without a dramatic offensive makeover, the Titans will be hard-pressed to reverse their woes with Willis under center. Maybe offensive coordinator Todd Downing can come up a plan that enables the young quarterback to hit a few layups that build confidence and add some balance to a one-dimensional attack. My top 10 teams1. Philadelphia Eagles: If the Eagles can nearly knock off an NFC heavyweight with backup quarterback, the rest of the league should be on notice for when Jalen Hurts returns to the lineup. The Eagles have an A-plus collection of playmakers, pass rushers and cover men, enabling them to match with any opponent in any environment. 2. Kansas City Chiefs: After winning the AFC West for the seventh straight time, the Chiefs are peaking heading into the playoffs. With an offense capable of hitting the 40-point mark against any opponent and a defense starting to heat up, the Chiefs are primed to make another run at the Lombardi Trophy. 3. Buffalo Bills: Josh Allen & Co. are an explosive outfit with big play potential and an emerging running game. If Devin Singletary and James Cook continue to complement Allen as a competent 1-2 punch in the backfield, the Bills will be able to switch up styles to defeat opponents utilizing various approaches. 4. Cincinnati Bengals: The defending AFC champs might be the best team in football by the time the postseason starts. Joe Burrow is on a hot streak that has put him squarely in the MVP conversation. If the third-year pro continues to torch opponents with his pinpoint passing, it will be hard to keep the Bengals from making another appearance in the AFC Championship Game. 5. San Francisco 49ers: Kyle Shanahan is starting to whip the 49ers offense into shape with a QB3 (Brock Purdy) at the helm. With Christian McCaffrey starting to settle into his role as the 49ers’ No. 1 offensive weapon and George Kittle reemerging as a dominant force in the passing game, the NFC West champs are poised to make a run at the title. 6. Minnesota Vikings: It is hard to dismiss a 12-win squad with 11 one-score victories on its résumé, but the Vikings’ roller-coaster ride makes the team a bit of an enigma heading into the playoffs. The team’s resilience and never say die attitude is admirable, but the Vikings’ vulnerabilities make it hard to count on them as a heavyweight contender in the NFC. 7. Dallas Cowboys: The ultra-talented Cowboys have enough pieces to form a championship puzzle if they play to their potential. However, the unit plays up or down to their level of competition, and the coaches occasionally forget the team’s identity. Mike McCarthy’s experience as a Super Bowl winner could come in handy as the Cowboys look to make a run in the tournament. Dak Prescott, Cowboys win nail-biter over Eagles
The Cowboys pulled out a 40-34 win over the Eagles on Christmas Eve. Skip Bayless rates how impressive the Cowboys were on a 1-10 scale.
8. Baltimore Ravens: With or without Lamar Jackson, the Ravens’ unorthodox offense gives them a puncher’s chance against any opponent. With run-centric game plans that feature power runs, various option plays and RPOs, the Ravens’ “ground and pound” approach could make them a hard out in the postseason. 9. Los Angeles Chargers: Brandon Staley is pushing the right buttons for a team playing its best down the stretch. The return of Mike Williams and Keenan Allen has given the offense a spark as Justin Herbert gets reacquainted with his top playmakers on the perimeter. The defense has played better in recently, and the highly anticipated return of Joey Bosa in the next few weeks could make the Chargers downright scary in the postseason. 10. Jacksonville Jaguars: Doug Pederson has the Jaguars believing in their chances as a potential playoff squad. The improved play of Trevor Lawrence has ignited a multifaceted offense that features a smorgasbord of playmakers. With an opportunistic defense specializing in creating turnovers, the Jaguars have become a problem in the AFC. Week 16 Game BallsMost Valuable Player of the WeekJustin Jefferson continues to amaze as the NFL’s No. 1 wideout. The third-year pro routinely defeats double coverage and loaded zone tactics to snag passes at key moments. Jefferson outmaneuvered defenders against the New York Giants to finish with 12 catches, 133 receiving yards and a score. The spectacular effort helped Jefferson set a new single-season receiving yardage record (1,756) for the Vikings while giving the young star his 24th 100-yard game in 48 appearances. Offensive Player of the WeekAfter watching the Carolina Panthers rush for 300-plus yards against the Detroit Lions with D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard posting 100-yard games, the Panthers offensive line deserves the award. The quintet (Ikem Ekwonu, Brady Christensen, Bradley Bozeman, Austin Corbett and Taylor Moton) mauled and mashed the Lions at the point of attack while creating space for Freeman and Hubbard between the tackles. The dominant performance within the trenches reestablished the ultra-physical identity Steve Wilks has created since taking over as the Panthers’ interim head coach. Defensive Player of the WeekNick Bosa continues to make a compelling case to win Defensive Player of the Year with a spectacular performance against the Commanders. Bosa finished with seven tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble while wreaking havoc off the edge. Bosa’s persistent pressure and consistent disruption wrecked the Commanders’ game plan as the 49ers dominated the game for most of the day. Unsung Hero of the Week It’s a shame that the Patriots’ disappointing season will overshadow the emergence of a potential three-way star in Marcus Jones. The second-year pro showcased his versatility as a cornerback-return specialist with 14 total tackles and a pick-six against Cincinnati, and he also flashed intriguing offensive skills with a 15-yard reception in spot duty. Considering Troy Brown and Julian Edelman once occupied the Swiss Army knife role for New England, Jones is unquestionably the next utility man for the Patriots.Top stories from FOX Sports: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. Get more from National Football League Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more