General manager Chris Ballard says there are no guarantees Carson Wentz will be the Indianapolis Colts' starting quarterback for the 2022 NFL season.

Wentz, who joined Indianapolis from the Philadelphia Eagles ahead of the 2021 campaign, endured a nightmare as the Colts missed out on the playoffs by losing 26-11 to the Jacksonville Jaguars last weekend.

He was sacked six times in a second successive defeat that brought Indianapolis' season to a halt with a 9-8 record.

Ballard on Thursday stated that it is too early to say what changes could be made after the Colts' failure to feature in the postseason.

"When we made the decision, after Philip [Rivers] retired and we made the decision to make a move on Carson, at the time of the decision we felt good about it and I still don't regret the decision at the time," Ballard said.

"Sitting here today, just so y'all know, I won't make a comment on who is going to be here next year and who is not going to be here next year. That's not fair to any player."

Ballard added: "I'd like to quit Band-Aiding it. I'd like for Carson to be the long-term answer or find somebody who will be here for the next 10-12 years.

"Sometimes it doesn't work out that way. I can dream about it, wish about it, do everything I can to figure out the solution, but you do the best with what you can do at the time."

Ballard suggested Wentz had been too eager to create moments of magic.

He said: "Make the layups. Make the layups. Make the layups. Carson wants to win. He has a will to win.

"Sometimes when you carry the burden where you think you have to make a big play all the time. Sometimes let the team help you, make the layups, make the layups."

Ballard stressed that Wentz is by no means the only player under scrutiny.  

"At the end of the day, I think we have a lot of really good players and really good pieces," Ballard said. "You have to get stability at the quarterback position.

"That position has to play up to his potential to help the team win. I'm not blaming this all on Carson. I'm not, because everybody else has to do their job, too.

"But the hyper-importance of that position, it's real. You have to get consistency there. The years we've gotten it we've been pretty good, and we thought we had it until the end of the season. Something we have to continue to work through."

Wentz ranked 18th in the league for completions (322) in the regular season, from 516 attempted passes (a completion percentage of 62.4, the 25th best in the NFL).

His tally of 27 touchdown passes was bettered by only nine other quarterbacks, though Wentz' total was six fewer than ninth-placed Kirk Cousins in that regard. His seven interceptions tied for 29th in the competition.

Wentz threw for 3,563 yards, the third-best total of his NFL career.

Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich says his side has been left with a "scar" after missing the playoffs following Sunday's shock 26-11 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Indianapolis needed only to beat a two-win Jaguars team to secure their place in the postseason but were humbled, allowing the Pittsburgh Steelers to clinch a playoffs spot.

Quarterback Carson Wentz was sacked six times in a game the Jaguars led the entire way, with the Colts having not won in Jacksonville since 2014.

The Colts finished the season with back-to-back defeats to slip to a 9-8 record and second in the AFC South behind the Conference-leading Tennessee Titans.

"It was hard to imagine after the Arizona game, we get to 9-6, we feel like we’re one of the two or three teams to beat, a team everybody’s talking about," Reich told reporters on Monday.

"When you think about how all this was going to end, certainly, no one including myself, really, ever thought it would end like it did the last two weeks.

"That’s something that can’t be undone. It’s part of our record. It’s part of my record. … It’s a scar."

Reich revealed that he met with team owner Jim Irsay and general manager Chris Ballard for several hours after the Jaguars defeat.

“It was a good conversation, a supporting conversation, but also demanding and wanting answers, [with Irsay] wanting to hold us accountable,” Reich said.

He added: "‘We’re going to get better.' … We walked out of there saying, ‘We’ve got a lot of the right pieces in place.'"

Matthew Stafford inspired the Los Angeles Rams to move one step closer to securing their second straight NFC West title with a 20-19 win over the slumping Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

The defeat for the Ravens, who were without quarterback Lamar Jackson for the third straight game, leaves them perilously close to slipping out of the Wild Card hunt after their fifth consecutive loss.

Justin Tucker's field goal had put the Ravens up 19-14 with 4:33 left but Stafford launched a game-winning 75-yard drive to overhaul the deficit.

Stafford completed a 15-yard pass to Tyler Higbee and a 24-yarder to Cooper Kupp, before finding Odell Beckham Jr twice in a row, with the latter being the decisive TD.

The Rams QB finished with 26 of 35 passes for two touchdowns but also two interceptions, including a Chuck Clark first-quarter pick six, as well as a sack.

Clark's TD was the Ravens' only for the game, as QB Tyler Huntley completed 20 of 32 passes for 197 yards.

Rams running back Sony Michel had 19 carries for 74 yards including a TD along with wide receiver Kupp with six receptions for 95 yards and one touchdown.

Over a month ago the Ravens had been 8-3 and looking good for the AFC top seed but now they are scrapping for a playoffs spot after a series of narrow defeats and desperate for Jackson's return.

Carlson field goal gives Raiders edge in Wild Card race

The Las Vegas Raiders claimed a crucial last-gasp win from Daniel Carlson's 33-yard field goal in the AFC Wild Card race with a 23-20 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

Colts quarterback Carson Wentz cleared protocols for the game but completed 16 of 27 passes for 148 yards and one touchdown, while running back Jonathan Taylor had one TD from 20 carries for 108 yards, with the defeat marking the first this season when he has rushed more than 100 yards.

The Raiders pipped the Colts in the final quarter, trailing 17-13 at the final break with QB Derek Carr hitting Hunter Renfrow on a fourth-down play for a TD, before Michael Badgley squared the game with a 41-yard field goal, only for Carlson to win it with one from 33 yards as time expired. The Raiders improve to 9-7, pulling ahead of the 9-7 Colts in the AFC Wild Card race.

 

Bengals clinch maiden AFC North title

The Cincinnati Bengals clinched their first-ever AFC North title as Evan McPherson kicked a late 20-yard field goal to secure a 34-31 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase set an NFL rookie record and franchise record with 266 yards and three touchdowns on 11 catches, while QB Joe Burrow threw 30 of 39 passes for 446 yards and four touchdowns.

Burrow got the better of opposing QB Patrick Mahomes who completed 26 of 35 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns as the Chiefs, who have already won the AFC West title, moved to 11-5.

 

Brady cool after Brown meltdown

Tom Brady was cool in a crisis after Antonio Brown stormed off the field as the NFC South-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers rallied to win 28-24 over the New York Jets.

Brady completed 34 of 50 attempts for 410 yards and three touchdowns, including leading them on a 93-yard drive in the final minutes to clinch the victory.

The game was marred after Brown's meltdown, storming off the field in the third quarter with the Bucs 24-10 down, with head coach Bruce Arians confirming "he is no longer a Buc" after the game.

Matthew Stafford inspired the Los Angeles Rams to move one step closer to securing their second straight NFC West title with a 20-19 win over the slumping Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

The defeat for the Ravens, who were without quarterback Lamar Jackson for the third straight game, leaves them perilously close to slipping out of the Wild Card hunt after their fifth consecutive loss.

Justin Tucker's field goal had put the Ravens up 19-14 with 4:33 left but Stafford launched a game-winning 75-yard drive to overhaul the deficit.

Stafford completed a 15-yard pass to Tyler Higbee and a 24-yarder to Cooper Kupp, before finding Odell Beckham Jr twice in a row, with the latter being the decisive TD.

The Rams QB finished with 26 of 35 passes for two touchdowns but also two interceptions, including a Chuck Clark first-quarter pick six, as well as a sack.

Clark's TD was the Ravens' only for the game, as QB Tyler Huntley completed 20 of 32 passes for 197 yards.

Rams running back Sony Michel had 19 carries for 74 yards including a TD along with wide receiver Kupp with six receptions for 95 yards and one touchdown.

Over a month ago the Ravens had been 8-3 and looking good for the AFC top seed but now they are scrapping for a playoffs spot after a series of narrow defeats and desperate for Jackson's return.

Carlson field goal gives Raiders edge in Wild Card race

The Las Vegas Raiders claimed a crucial last-gasp win from Daniel Carlson's 33-yard field goal in the AFC Wild Card race with a 23-20 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

Colts quarterback Carson Wentz cleared protocols for the game but completed 16 of 27 passes for 148 yards and one touchdown, while running back Jonathan Taylor had one TD from 20 carries for 108 yards, with the defeat marking the first this season when he has rushed more than 100 yards.

The Raiders pipped the Colts in the final quarter, trailing 17-13 at the final break with QB Derek Carr hitting Hunter Renfrow on a fourth-down play for a TD, before Michael Badgley squared the game with a 41-yard field goal, only for Carlson to win it with one from 33 yards as time expired. The Raiders improve to 9-7, pulling ahead of the 9-7 Colts in the AFC Wild Card race.

 

Bengals clinch maiden AFC North title

The Cincinnati Bengals clinched their first-ever AFC North title as Evan McPherson kicked a late 20-yard field goal to secure a 34-31 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase set an NFL rookie record and franchise record with 266 yards and three touchdowns on 11 catches, while QB Joe Burrow threw 30 of 39 passes for 446 yards and four touchdowns.

Burrow got the better of opposing QB Patrick Mahomes who completed 26 of 35 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns as the Chiefs, who have already won the AFC West title, moved to 11-5.

 

Brady cool after Brown meltdown

Tom Brady was cool in a crisis after Antonio Brown stormed off the field as the NFC South-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers rallied to win 28-24 over the New York Jets.

Brady completed 34 of 50 attempts for 410 yards and three touchdowns, including leading them on a 93-yard drive in the final minutes to clinch the victory.

The game was marred after Brown's meltdown, storming off the field in the third quarter with the Bucs 24-10 down, with head coach Bruce Arians confirming "he is no longer a Buc" after the game.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Carson Wentz has been activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list ahead of Sunday's game against the Las Vegas Raiders.

Wentz had to be activated by 4pm eastern time on Saturday to be eligible for Sunday's game where the Colts can clinch a playoff spot with victory.

However, Wentz still has another hurdle to overcome, needing his COVID-19 symptoms to have resolved or improved by Sunday morning.

The unvaccinated QB tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week but under the new NFL protocols players can return after only five days if they are asymptomatic or demonstrate that their symptoms are lessening.

Wentz has thrown for 3,230 yards with 25 touchdowns and six interceptions for the Colts, who have a 9-6 record.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Carson Wentz could miss the Week 17 showdown with the Las Vegas Raiders after he was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Wentz is unvaccinated, so he will be out for at least five days if he is deemed to be a high-risk close contact with a positive coronavirus case.

The 28-year-old will not be available for 10 days if he returns a positive test, as per the NFL's protocols.

Rookie Sam Ehlinger looks set to make his first NFL start if Wentz is unable to face the Raiders on Sunday.

Offensive coordinator Marcus Brady says Ehlinger will be ready to step up if needed.

Brady said: "We go through the plan, [Ehlinger] goes through it and, like, okay, what are your top calls that you feel comfortable with? [It] Doesn't have to be all of them.

"And so, we have that separate call sheet for him ready to go. He goes through all the reads just like Carson does. He may not get the live rep, but he'll get it on the side. So, he's ready to go."

The Colts beat the Arizona Cardinals 22-16 on Christmas Day despite having several players on the COVID list.

Indianapolis had also added Jahleel Addae, T.J. Carrie, Malik Jefferson, Marlon Mack, Braden Smith and Chris Wilcox to the reserve-COVID list on Monday.

A win over Las Vegas at Lucas Oil Stadium would put the 9-6 Colts in the playoffs for the third time in four years under head coach Frank Reich.

Carson Wentz and Jonathan Taylor led the way as the Indianapolis Colts beat the lowly New York Jets 45-30 in a high-scoring NFL matchup.

Colts quarterback Wentz threw three touchdowns and team-mate Taylor rushed for a pair of TDs to fuel the Colts to victory on Thursday.

The Colts (4-5) became the first team in the Super Bowl era to have 250-plus rushing yards, 250-plus passing yards, two or fewer penalties and no turnovers in a game, according to Stats Perform.

After the teams traded touchdowns in the opening quarter – Nyheim Hines' 34-yard rushing TD was cancelled out by the Elijah Moore-Mike White combination – the Colts powered clear in the second period.

Wentz flexed his muscles with a pair of TD passes to Jack Doyle and Michael Pittman Jr. after a 21-yard run from Taylor had put the Colts 14-7 ahead.

Entering the third quarter leading 28-10, another touchdown throw from Wentz – this time to Danny Pinter – and Taylor's blistering 78-yard rushing touchdown sent the red-hot Colts 42-10 clear.

Taylor became the first player with 100-plus scrimmage yards and a rushing touchdown in six straight single-season games since 2006.

The Jets (2-6) scored 13 unanswered points and 20 of the final 23 to make things interesting after Josh Johnson (27-of-41 passing for 317 yards, three TDs and an interception) replaced injured QB White (seven-of-11 passing for 95 yards and a touchdown) and tossed three touchdown passes of his own, but the Colts held on.

Carson Wentz conceded he was beating himself up after a pair of interceptions doomed the Indianapolis Colts to an overtime defeat to the Tennessee Titans.

The Titans took command of the AFC South with a thrilling 34-31 victory on the road in overtime, which owed to two huge errors from Colts quarterback Wentz.

With the game tied 24-24 late in the fourth quarter, Wentz tossed a wobbly throw into the air as the pass rush surrounded him inside the Colts' endzone and Titans cornerback Elijah Molden leaped to bring it down and stroll in for a two-yard interception return and hand the Titans the lead.

Wentz responded by leading the Colts down the field, with the aid of a pass interference penalty that put them at the Titans' one-yard line, for the tying score to force overtime.

But the extra period was effectively decided by another Wentz miscue, as he was intercepted by safety Kevin Byard on the Colts' second possession of overtime, putting the Titans in position for Randy Bullock's game-winning field goal.

It means the Colts are 3-4 in second place in the division behind the Titans, who at 6-2 have a three-game lead and a tiebreaker over Indianapolis.

"Beating myself up over those ones at the end of the game there, for sure," said Wentz.

On the comedic pick-six to Molden, Wentz added: "They had it covered up pretty good, obviously.

"Terrible play, terrible play. One-on-one, trying to find a way to just get rid of the ball and next thing you know I'm about to go down.

"So, yeah. One I definitely want back. That one hurts a little bit."

Head coach Frank Reich, however, put the blame for that play on his shoulders.

"That was 100 percent my fault," said Reich. "It was a bad call. It was a screen to Mo [Alie-Cox] and they were sitting right on it.

"We hadn't thrown that. Didn't think they would ever be thinking that at that point in the game. I've been around too long to know that you don't call a screen backed up in that situation.

"I told Carson right after that play, he came over to the sideline, I said, 'That's 100 percent my fault. That's a terrible play call. Now, just go make it right. Go make it right.'"

Wentz was unable to do so and accepted full responsibility for the second and ultimately decisive interception.

"Probably tried to do too much," Wentz explained. "Tried to force that one there to Pitt [Michael Pittman], he had a step on the underneath coverage but Byard came out of the sky and make a heck of a play.

"I'm sure, in hindsight, I had the checkdown – probably wide open. Thought I had Pitt, Byard made a great play. Those two definitely hurt for sure."

Carson Wentz and the Indianapolis Colts shook off a slow start to win for the third time in four games, defeating the slumping San Francisco 49ers 30-18 on Sunday. 

After turning the ball over on two of their first three possessions, the Colts (3-4) steadied themselves and prevailed in wet, miserable conditions at Levi's Stadium in Week 7 of the NFL season.

The weather made things difficult on both teams, as both starting quarterbacks finished with fewer than 200 passing yards. 

While Jimmy Garoppolo outgained Wentz 181 to 150 through the air, he could not make the plays when the 49ers (2-4) needed them in his return from a calf injury. 

After hitting Deebo Samuel for a 14-yard touchdown that cut the Colts' lead to 20-18 early in the fourth quarter, Garoppolo threw interceptions the next two times San Francisco had the ball to seal a fourth straight defeat. 

Wentz ran for a touchdown and threw for two more, icing the game with a 28-yard lob to Michael Pittman with just under three minutes to play. 

Both teams' featured running backs for the night, Jonathan Taylor of Indianapolis and Elijah Mitchell for San Francisco, carried the ball 18 times for 107 yards and a touchdown. 

 

The Indianapolis Colts appeared destined for a lost season back in Week 3.

Indianapolis started the year with three successive defeats and the Colts' gamble on their ability to revive Carson Wentz's career looking misjudged.

Since then, the Colts have enjoyed wins over the Miami Dolphins and Houston Texans, sandwiched by a heartbreaking defeat to the Baltimore Ravens in which they let slip a 19-point lead and lost in overtime.

The performances in those last three games have led to renewed optimism around a team that has reached the playoffs in two of the last three seasons.

Should Indianapolis knock off the San Francisco 49ers on the road in primetime, then the hype around the Colts will only grow.

Yet the 49ers figure to prove a difficult matchup for a quarterback whose performances in recent weeks have perhaps been slightly overrated.

Sub-par accuracy

Ninth in the league in yards per attempt (8.01) and with nine touchdowns to one interception, the numbers through six games for Wentz are impressive.

Yet his completion percentage is 64.2, 21st among 32 qualifying quarterbacks and that is reflected by his accuracy numbers.

Wentz, per Stats Perform data, has produced an accurate, well-thrown ball on 77.7 per cent of his passes, below the league average of 78.8 for quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts.

And he is set to face a Niners defense that has once again been among the league's best this season.

An intimidating defensive line

While the 49ers are themselves an underwhelming 2-3 and riding a three-game losing streak, their defense is excelling under new coordinator DeMeco Ryans.

The 49ers rank sixth in the NFL by yards per game allowed (329.8) and eighth in yards per play (5.29) and, while they are 30th in the NFL with only 76 pressures, they boast defensive linemen who can get Wentz out of rhythm.

Defensive tackle Arik Armstead and edge rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford have each dominated in 2021 when it comes to winning their individual matchups.

Armstead has a stunt-adjusted win percentage of 52.63 from his 49 pass rush matchups this year. Ford is next on 45 per cent while Bosa has an adjusted win percentage of 41.54 from 60 matchups. The league average for defensive linemen is 22 per cent.

They will each look to prosper against a Colts offense that has allowed the ninth-most pressures in the NFL (105) while the numbers suggest the Niners should excel at limiting the explosive plays on which Wentz has found joy in recent weeks.

Big plays not a guarantee

On passing attempts of 21 or more air yards, Wentz has the highest passer rating in the NFL (144.7).

He has completed 11 of 18 such attempts for 377 yards and three touchdowns and showed off his deep-ball prowess during last week's rout of the Texans.

Wentz hooked up with Parris Campbell for a 51-yard touchdown and connected with T.Y. Hilton for a 52-yard reception; however, such plays are partially a reflection of the struggles of a Texans defense allowing 7.6 yards per pass play.

The 49ers, despite a spate of injuries to their cornerbacks, have allowed 43 pass plays of 10 yards or more, the fewest in the NFL. San Francisco's defense has conceded 16 pass plays of 20 yards or more, the seventh-fewest in the league.

Wentz, therefore, may be forced into a more conservative approach in a game expected to take place in inclement weather. Helpfully, he may be able to lean more on the running game, with San Francisco 16th in yards per rush allowed (4.26) and running back Jonathan Taylor fifth in the NFL in yards per carry (5.43) for players at his position as he enjoys a superb start to his second season.

Indianapolis' signal-caller can also afford to at least have confidence in his ability to avoid turnovers. His pickable pass percentage of 1.68 is the fourth best among quarterbacks with a minimum of 10 attempts and the 49ers have a league-low two takeaways to their name.

A closer look at the evidence from his reunion with Colts coach Frank Reich indicates Wentz might find success difficult on Sunday should the Colts need to win the game on his arm. If he contradicts the statistics and thrives against a tough defense on the road, then the optimism around Indianapolis will be more justified.

The Buffalo Bills got their 2021 NFL season up and running with a sixth straight win over the Miami Dolphins, who lost Tua Tagovailoa to a rib injury.

Tipped by many to make the Super Bowl this year, the Bills endured an underwhelming start in defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but a 35-0 success in Miami got them back on track.

Buffalo benefited from Tagovailoa's departure early in the game, as he had to be carted back to the locker room after a hit from A.J. Epenesa when he attempted a short-range pass on fourth down.

By that point, the second-year Dolphins quarterback had been sacked twice on a three-and-out opening drive before seeing Devin Singletary run 46 yards for the Bills' first touchdown.

Josh Allen threw to Stefon Diggs for a second score, but Buffalo failed to add to their advantage in the remainder of a chaotic first half, epitomised by Levi Wallace's pick from back-up Miami QB Jacoby Brissett moments after receiving a penalty for taunting.

Allen found his range again at the start of the third quarter as Dawson Knox made a low catch in the end zone – this the QB's seventh consecutive start against the Dolphins with multiple TD passes. Only Philip Rivers (against the Houston Texans) had previously enjoyed such a run against a single team.

Miami were never in the game thereafter and Zack Moss added a pair of rushing scores with two bruising runs, the second after Allen was called just short.

Super Cooper rescues Rams

NFC West rivals the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers survived scares against the Indianapolis Colts and the Philadelphia Eagles respectively, each coming through to move to 2-0.

The Rams were grateful to Cooper Kupp for his nine catches for 163 yards and two TDs – following 108 yards and a score last week – after a botched snap for a punt had gifted the Colts their first lead early in the fourth quarter. Carson Wentz ended the game on the sideline.

Wilson woeful for Jets

Zach Wilson's home debut for the New York Jets was a miserable one as he threw four interceptions in a defeat to the New England Patriots.

Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Bengals paid the price for Joe Burrow's three interceptions from three consecutive passes – including a pick six – against the Chicago Bears, who were not punished for a shaky Justin Fields display after Andy Dalton's injury.

Wilson's Jets predecessor Sam Darnold threw for 305 yards, two TDs and a pick in the Carolina Panthers' win over the New Orleans Saints.

The 2021 NFL season began on Thursday as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers started their quest for a second straight Super Bowlw title with a thrilling victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

Having won his seventh ring in his first season with the Bucs playing in front of at best sparsely populated crowds amid the coronavirus pandemic, Brady and Tampa Bay claimed a 31-29 victory in front of a packed house at Raymond James Stadium.

While the return of fans and full stadiums will give this season a different look, once more it is the Bucs and the Kansas City Chiefs who go into the year as the teams to beat.

However, there are a host of other high-profile teams who could be set to improve on their 2020 win-loss records, as well as those who could be poised to decline from postseason contention.

With the help of Stats Perform data, here are some of the more intriguing teams to keep eye on as the NFL makes its much anticipated return.

With Dak back, Cowboys hope to contend

A gruesome ankle injury suffered by Dak Prescott in Week 5 ended Dallas' hopes of challenging last season.

As it turned out, further injuries on the offensive line and a miserable defense would have made it tough for the Cowboys to contend even if Prescott had been on the field to lead the offense, as their wait for a first Super Bowl since 1995 goes on.

But Prescott is back with the security of a lucrative new contract as Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup remain part of an explosive supporting cast and he delivered a compelling reminder of his upside in defeat to Tampa Bay, throwing for 403 yards, three touchdowns and an interception off the hands of Lamb.

Prescott has averaged 8.26 yards per attempt over the last two seasons, third best among NFL QBs, and there are huge hopes for the offense, particularly if the highly rated Lamb (74 catches for 935 yards in 2020) can kick on from a fine rookie season. Despite Lamb's drop leading to a turnover, the early signs were good as he caught seven passes for 104 yards and a touchdown, helping Prescott average 6.95 yards per attempt and post a 101.4 passer rating.

If new Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn can get the defense – which allowed 158.8 rushing yards per game last season (31st in the NFL) but just 52 against the Bucs - somewhere towards the middle of the pack, the Cowboys should soar well clear of their 6-10 mark from 2020 and will be justified favourites to win the NFC East.

Pats look to pressure Bills in AFC East

The Bills and Josh Allen were so good last season that they may decline from their 13-3 mark even without doing too much wrong.

Allen made an astonishing leap from year two to three – posting career highs in passing yards (3,089 to 4,544), passing touchdowns (20 to 37) and completion percentage (58.8 to 69.2), plus eight rushing scores - and was rewarded with a huge offseason contract extension.

Allen's numbers and rate of improvement are hard to sustain, and even a marginal decline could lead to a worse record in a competitive division.

Stefon Diggs was incredible with league-leading figures of 127 catches and 1,535 receiving yards, while Cole Beasley (82 catches for 967 yards) was a crucial complementary piece.

Allen and Diggs played all 16 games last season while Beasley only missed one, so there was good fortune on the health front, while the Bills were able to win close games last season – boasting a 5-1 record in one-score contests – a metric that often reverts to the mean.

Their divisional rivals, meanwhile, look threatening. The New England Patriots have spent big in free agency to revamp the supporting cast for rookie QB Mac Jones.

New England's tight end situation has been among the league's worst since the departure of Rob Gronkowski, but they doubled down at the position to land Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith.

Henry ranks sixth among tight ends with 1,265 yards since the start of the 2019 season, while only five TEs have more than the 11 TDs grabbed by the athletic Smith over that period.

Wide receiver Nelson Agholor arrived after a career year (896 yards) for the Las Vegas Raiders as the pass-catching options were significantly boosted.

A down year for the Patriots – in which their offensive weapons looked woeful and several defensive players opted out - still produced a not disastrous 7-9 record, with four of those losses coming by eight points or fewer.

The Miami Dolphins (3-4 in one score games) are another ascending team in the division after going 10-6 and allowing only 21.1 points per game (ried-fifth in the NFL).

Even the New York Jets, buoyed after selecting BYU QB Zach Wilson at number two overall, look poised to be more competitive than their 2-14 misery a season ago.

From worst to (somewhere nearer) first?

Trevor Lawrence has been billed as a generational talent at QB and there were few questions he would be selected at number one overall in the draft.

With Lawrence being paired with college coaching great Urban Meyer and an intriguing array of pass-catchers including Laviska Shenault (691 scrimmage yards, five TDs last year) and D. J. Chark (1,714 receiving yards since 2019), the Jags could be set for rapid improvement.

Even in their awful season that led to the chance to select Lawrence at the top of the draft, the Jags were 1-6 in one score games and slightly better than their 1-15 record suggested.

By the same metric, divisional rivals the Indianapolis Colts (5-2) and the Tennessee Titans (7-2) claimed many of their victories in close games.

With the Colts negotiating some uncertainty at QB as they look to revive the career of Carson Wentz – who is dealing with a foot injury – and the Houston Texans in disarray and full rebuild mode, the Jags could emerge as surprise challengers to the Titans.

Other teams who could rise and fall

Other teams who look likely to ascend include the San Francisco 49ers (6-10), who were ravaged with injuries last season and now have two viable options at QB with Jimmy Garoppolo and exciting draft pick Trey Lance. Five of their losses last season came by one score or less despite a depleted roster. 

The Denver Broncos (5-11)  have a stacked roster with their only concerns coming at the QB position, where they hope Teddy Bridgewater can provide more stability than the volatile Drew Lock (16 TDs and 15 INTs in 2020), despite coming off a poor season with the Carolina Panthers, who opted to replace him with Sam Darnold.

The New Orleans Saints (12-4) could be trending in the opposite direction, though. While Drew Brees was not at his peak in his final NFL season, a combination of Jameis Wilson and Taysom Hill must now try to replace the future Hall of Famer while keeping pace with the formidable Bucs and an Atlanta Falcons team that has added dynamic tight end Kyle Pitts.

New Orleans' offseason was defined by a roster overhaul enforced by the Saints' salary cap woe, leaving them with a wide receiver depth chart that looks alarming with Michael Thomas (missed nine games in 2020) starting the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list.

There will be plenty of nerves around NFL locker rooms this week, with career-altering seasons lying ahead.

Many players will get second chances if the coming year does not go as planned, but some will not.

In a league where there are only 32 starting berths for quarterbacks and a further 32 openings for head coaches, the competition is brutal.

Coming off testing campaigns, Stats Perform picks out the QBs and coaches who cannot afford another slip-up in a make-or-break 2021.

Sam Darnold

New Carolina Panthers QB Darnold is still just 24, but so poor were the former third overall pick's performances across three years in New York that the Jets moved him on to take Zach Wilson with the second selection in 2021.

In Darnold's third and final miserable season with the Jets, he threw just nine touchdowns to 11 interceptions – numbers that could have been even worse as he threw 22 pickable passes, his pickable pass percentage of 6.51 the fifth-worst among QBs with 100 or more attempts.

Only the run-heavy Baltimore Ravens averaged fewer net passing yards than the Jets last year (174.8 per game), a metric in which the Panthers ranked a mediocre 18th led by Teddy Bridgewater.

If Darnold cannot even reach those standards, his career as a leading man could be over already. Of course, Carolina start against Wilson and the Jets.

Daniel Jones

Playing in the same city as Darnold, Jones might have got off a little lightly. He is after all eight days older than Darnold, albeit he came into the league a year later.

There were signs of promise for the New York Giants in 2019, but Jones has not progressed as hoped. The clock is ticking, with opportunities elsewhere likely to be scarce given he was a surprise pick at number six two years ago.

Sacked 45 times in 2020, Jones might argue he has lacked protection from a poor Giants offensive line.

Sadly, the QB has looked best running for his life, averaging a league-leading 9.70 yards when the designated ball-carrier – and a slightly above average 4.62 when scrambling – but still scoring only a single rushing TD last year.

Kliff Kingsbury

Appointed in 2019 and handed first overall pick Kyler Murray, Kingsbury's first task in Arizona was to make the Cardinals more effective and exciting on offense – something he achieved by delivering the second-highest season-to-season improvement in total net yards in franchise history (+1,602).

But the Cards still finished last in the NFC West with only five wins, missing the playoffs for the fourth successive season. A further year down the line, that drought is ongoing thanks to a desperate 2020 collapse from 6-3 to finish 8-8.

With the talent on this team, 2021 needs to bring tangible results. Failure to deliver again could spell trouble for Kingsbury or general manager Steve Keim – an unenviable position to be in at the helm of still the worst team in football's best division.

Carson Wentz

Wentz is slightly different to the other names on this list in that he has enjoyed success in the NFL already. A Week 14 ACL tear in 2017 meant he watched the Philadelphia Eagles' Super Bowl win from the sidelines, but his 33 passing TDs had already set a franchise record.

Those performances felt a long way away in an awful 2020 campaign, though. Statistically, he could hardly have been worse.

Wentz threw a joint-high 15 picks and led the way with 28 pickable passes, making up 6.78 per cent of his attempts while just 68.8 per cent were accurate, well-thrown balls – a league low among QBs with 100 or more passes. Given he also lost 326 yards to his NFL-leading 50 sacks, there was very little that went well when Wentz had the ball in his hands.

The 28-year-old is now on the Indianapolis Colts, reunited with the man who helped inspire his superb 2017 campaign in Frank Reich, but has already suffered with a foot injury and a COVID bout. With Reich as his head coach, Wentz has to return a better player or his days as a starter in this league are done.

Matt Nagy

The mood music around Chicago is not great heading into the new season. The arrival of Justin Fields in the 2021 draft should provide cause for optimism, but it appears unlikely the rookie will play right away to the frustration of fans.

Mitchell Trubisky is at least gone after a dismal run as the Bears' QB – last year comparable to Wentz by a number of advanced metrics but also averaging a below-par 7.94 air yards – but coach Nagy is starting with Andy Dalton, rather than Fields.

Nagy is also calling plays again, having given up that duty as the offense failed last year.

There has been plenty wrong on that side of the ball for the Bears in recent years, but Nagy is running out of excuses. Either his approach has to work or he must adapt fast.

Jameis Winston

Nobody on this list can be as motivated as Winston, who must have feared he had already used up his NFL lives as he watched the versatile Taysom Hill fill in for Drew Brees last season. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Winston's former team, won the Super Bowl.

But the erratic deep passer has won the New Orleans Saints' starting job ahead of Hill this year. His haphazard style might have to change if he is to keep the role, however.

Winston threw 33 TD passes in 2019, but he also had 30 interceptions – that combination a league first. His 10.70 air yards ranked second, yet 46 pickable passes led the NFL by some distance.

His play is at complete odds to the safer approach from the retired Brees, who last year threw to an open target with 81.8 per cent of his attempts and dispatched an accurate, well-thrown ball 81.0 per cent of the time but only averaged 6.41 air yards.

As in Tampa, Winston should be fun to watch. As in Tampa, he will do well to stick around... and a third chance feels unlikely.

Carson Wentz returned to Indianapolis Colts practice on Thursday after being activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list but remained non-committal about getting vaccinated. 

Wentz, center Ryan Kelly and wide receiver Zach Pascal had to spend five days away from the team under NFL protocols because they are unvaccinated and came into close contact with a Colts staffer who tested positive.

The absence was especially unwelcome for Wentz, who missed three weeks of training camp after having foot surgery to address an injury suffered in practice on July 29. 

The 28-year-old quarterback took most of the first-team snaps in Thursday's practice, the team's last workout before reconvening on Monday ahead of their September 12 opener against the Seattle Seahawks. 

"I was frustrated, just like the other guys," Wentz told reporters. "Nobody wants to be out, especially when you're coming in here every day testing negative. I want to be out there, and I'm at home watching meetings from my office and all those things.

"It was frustrating, but I used the time to still get better with my foot, to stay locked in and watch some extra film. I was really excited to get back out there, finally."

Per NFL protocols, if Wentz and the others had been vaccinated, they would have had to sit out only if they also tested positive. 

Most of the questions directed to Wentz were about his vaccination status, and he repeatedly called it a "personal decision" and an "ongoing process". 

"This has been a fluid process for me this whole time," he said. "As a family, we've just been kind of monitoring everything we can, letting it play out as long as we can.

"This is where we're at today. Things could change in the next coming weeks. Who knows? Who knows where this world's going? Who knows where the protocol's going, if that'll change?

"I'm not going to act like I'm an expert on a vaccine or a virus, so that's just where we're at."

His remarks came a day after Colts general manager Chris Ballard said he "absolutely" believes everyone on the team should be vaccinated.

Wentz said that although Ballard and head coach Frank Reich have advocated for the vaccine, they have not pressured anyone. 

"They've been great," Wentz said. "We're all smart. Competitively, of course they all want everyone to get it, and I respect the heck out of both of those guys for trusting me, bringing me in here, all of those things, but it's been a very healthy [conversation].

"They tell us the facts, they tell us their opinion, but there’s no pressure. It's said in the right way.

"We know what's at stake. We know as a team where we want to go, and we do know some of these things can hinder if we let them.

"That's why we've got to do everything we can to not let it be a distraction and be on top of the protocol."

Carson Wentz is one of three players to be placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list by the Indianapolis Colts, the team announced on Monday.

Quarterback Wentz had only returned to practice last week following surgery to deal with a broken bone in his left foot, an injury that initially seemed set to rule him out for the start of the new NFL season.

"I'm optimistic, but we'll see how it responds," Wentz said after his first appearance on the practice field since July 29, having undergone the procedure on August 2.

"It's going to be up to the doctors, for sure. At the end of the day, as long as there's nothing that I can do to injure myself and make it worse, I know I've played through a lot worse. But it's going to come down to what the doctors say."

The former Philadelphia Eagles signal-caller was due to begin full-team reps as he stepped up his recovery, with the Colts aiming to get a better indication over his health ahead of Week 1 of the regular season, but that plan has now been scuppered.

When exactly Wentz will be available again, along with center Ryan Kelly and wide receiver Zach Pascal, who are the others to be placed on the list, is unclear.

Those players or members of staff who have been vaccinated can return after two negative test results 24 hours apart from each other, per NFL's health and safety protocols.

However, if someone from an NFL team tests positive having not received the vaccine, they will have to serve a 10-day isolation period. Anyone unvaccinated deemed to be a high-risk close contact must isolate for five days, as well as continue to return negative test results.

The Colts start the new season with a home game against the Seattle Seahawks on September 12.

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