As the month of November draws to a close, crunch time is starting to hit across the NFL.
In these final seven weeks, teams will jockey for playoff position, coaches will fight to save their jobs, and players will try to secure long-term financial security.
With each passing week, the stakes seemingly rise.
Thanksgiving Day’s action should kick off one of the most hotly contested weeks of the season. Week 12’s slate features nine contests between teams with records of .500 or better, which is the most of any week this late in the season since 1970.
For many, both collectively and individually, the pressure is on.
Here’s a look at some of the teams, players and coaches under the most pressure as the homestretch of the season approaches.
Detroit Lions – No one wants to go winless, and few have. But the Lions seemingly have found creative ways to lose (or tie, once) each time out. Thursday's home game against Chicago could represent their best shot at victory this season as challenging matchups against the Vikings, Broncos, Cardinals, Falcons, Seahawks and Packers all await.
Las Vegas Raiders – Losers of three straight and now 5-5 after a 3-0 start, they badly need to stop the bleeding. But starting with a Thanksgiving meeting with Dallas, Las Vegas plays three of its next four games on the road. The Raiders, guided by Rich Bisaccia – who obviously would prefer to have that interim tag removed from his title – desperately want to resurrect their season. But they have had so much calamity that a turnaround could prove challenging.
Buffalo Bills – Long regarded as one of the elite AFC teams, Buffalo has plunged from second in the conference all the way down to seventh. The Bills also fell out of first place in the AFC East. They need a rebound in the worst way. A win over New Orleans seems manageable. But then the challenge intensifies against New England and Tampa Bay.
Cleveland Browns – Remember when they garnered potential Super Bowl contender talk during the offseason? Those vibes are long gone. Cleveland owns a 6-5 record and sits in the 10th spot in the conference while facing an uphill climb to crack that seven-team playoff field. Sunday night's date with host Baltimore is about as close to a must-win situation as it gets.
Seattle Seahawks – When the Seahawks smoothed things over with Russell Wilson this offseason, they envisioned contending within their division and beyond. But at 3-7, they're now in danger of missing the playoffs for only the third time in Pete Carroll's 12 seasons as head coach. Russell Wilson's finger surgery didn't help matters, but he's back now and hasn't looked good. The offense has mustered just 13 points in two games, and an expensive defense ranks 31st in the NFL in yards allowed. As owners of the second-worst record in the NFC, securing a playoff berth would require a miracle. Without a late-season surge, however, we very well could be witnessing the end of an era as a frustrated Wilson could again demand a trade this offseason.
Vic Fangio – Chicago’s Matt Nagy seemingly is on thin ice, but he’s not alone. After going 12-20 in his first two seasons as head coach, Fangio needed to guide the Broncos toward significant improvement in Year 3. But the results have been mixed for the 5-5 Broncos. Because everything is so crowded in the AFC, where 12th-seeded Denver is only one game back of fifth-seeded Cincinnati, not all hope is lost. But Fangio and his squad had better make some real strides if he hopes to save his job.
Dan Campbell – In this era of the NFL, where coaches receive very little time to turn teams around, Campbell can’t afford to go 0-16-1. He works for a franchise that already owns the distinction of being the first non-expansion team in league history to go winless. Lions brass doesn’t want their organization to become the first with two such campaigns. If unsuccessful in securing at least one win, Campbell could face questions about his future.
Matt Rhule – Rhule has thus far managed to fly under the radar, but he certainly deserves scrutiny for his handling of Carolina's quarterback situation. Since his arrival, the Panthers cut Cam Newton, gave Teddy Bridgewater a $63 million contract, traded him after one season, traded for Sam Darnold and brought back Newton. At 5-6, the Panthers have slipped out of the wild-card projections for now. Rhule had better hope that Newton can direct a late-season surge that has Carolina flirting with a postseason ticket. He may not be on the hot seat if not, but owner David Tepper is very hands-on and wants to win now. A failure this year would count as a big strike against the coach.
Sean McVay – He’s in lockstep with general manager Les Snead, and that helps. He isn’t on the hot seat, but the pressure to win is very intense, especially as his team exits the bye looking to snap a two-game losing streak. The Rams have invested heavily in this roster, doling out big contracts and mortgaging the future to acquire big-name veterans. But McVay’s squad has lost to divisional foes Arizona and San Francisco, whose rosters lack the same kind of star power. The Rams also suffered an embarrassing loss at home to Tennessee. McVay has to figure out how to get this team back on track, and he can take a big step in the right direction with an upset win at Green Bay this week.
Kyle Shanahan – Another coach with a strong relationship with his general manager but who is struggling to meet massive expectations, Shanahan and his 5-5 49ers need a strong surge to move from eighth in the NFC. Injuries have repeatedly derailed this team on Shanahan’s watch. Yet there’s something else off as well. San Francisco entered the year with expectations of contending for a Super Bowl. But this doesn’t even consistently look like a playoff challenger. The next three games – vs. Minnesota (another team desperate for a win streak), at Seattle, at Cincinnati – pose great challenges. If successful, however, Shanahan and Co. should manage to move into the playoff picture, which is where they need to be.
Baker Mayfield – Pressure is nothing new for Mayfield, who is trying to lead the Browns back to the playoffs and lock up a contract extension. But after a two-interception, 176-yard passing day in a skin-of-their-teeth win against Detroit, did Mayfield show signs of cracking? He dodged his media obligations on Sunday because he was too frustrated with his performance. The Browns nudged above .500 on Sunday, but they were expected to be much better, and Mayfield was supposed to help lead this franchise to new heights similarly to how peers Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen have for their teams. The quarterback is banged up, but Browns coach Kevin Stefanski says he hasn’t considered benching him. However, another poor performance from Mayfield could change the coach’s mind.
Derek Carr – His long-term status with the Raiders has been a topic of debate for the last two years. A strong 2021 campaign and the team's first playoff appearance since 2016 (and the second since 2002) could have helped solidify Carr’s future and prompted the Raiders to give him a new deal. But his team has been hit hard by off-field incidents, and with Jon Gruden gone, Carr draws even greater leadership responsibility and scrutiny.
Josh Allen – Unlike Mayfield and Carr, who are playing in the penultimate year of their contracts, Allen received his big pay day ($258 million over six years) in August. But that means he has to play like the franchise quarterback the Bills believe he is. Thus far, Allen has had an up-and-down season, and he has played poorly as of late while Buffalo has dropped two of its last three games. The Bills need smarter and more consistent execution from their quarterback so they can climb back up the rankings and regain that top spot in the division.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL scores, schedule: Which teams face most pressure in final weeks?