NFL insider notes: Justin Fields set for a second-half breakout, COVID-19 already impacting playoff race, more

NFL insider notes: Justin Fields set for a second-half breakout, COVID-19 already impacting playoff race, more
NFL insider notes: Justin Fields set for a second-half breakout, COVID-19 already impacting playoff race, more

Justin Fields is going to be a handful in the second half of the season. He is starting to get confident and comfortable. He is developing by the week.

I'm not sure if he's going to end up being transcendent enough to save jobs in Chicago. But he has every chance of being special. And I expect he picks up Sunday against Baltimore right where he left off in Pittsburgh prior to the Bears' Week 10 bye, where he played well enough to win and only persistent officiating errors prevented that outcome. Fields is becoming more assertive and more direct with his downfield intent, and despite a suspect offensive line and despite being deprived of so many snaps this summer, I believe he is going to be as exciting as any rookie in this league in the final few months of the season.

In their last four games, the Bears are averaging a gaudy 5.09 yards per carry, and the dynamic quarterback has much to do with that. Fields is averaging 7.15 yards per carry himself over those four games; that is a pace in excess of Lamar Jackson's MVP season from 2019, and the kind of game-changing aspect that any defense gives much respect and attempts to account for.

And, quietly, the more strident run game has brought out more depth and diversity in the passing game. Fields has averaged at least 10 air yards per attempt in three of his last four games, something that would have been relatively unfathomable in late September or early October with this outfit. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has brought him along slowly and gradually catered more things to him, and they now have the ability to strike quickly to quadrants of the field that were not really in play previously. And Fields has completed a perfectly respectable 64 percent of his passes over his last four starts as well, yet another positive trend from the start of the season.

The question is, can the Bears protect him even a little bit? Can they cut down on the amount of pressure he is facing and buy him just a little time to operate before he has to take things into his own hands? Twenty-seven sacks (yes, some due to his lack of experience) are far too many, and the fact he has been sacked four or more times in four of his games is troubling, to say the least.

But the Bears are in good hands. This kid is just getting started and the best is yet to come. He does five to seven things every week that hint at his promise; making throws that few would consider let alone execute and plunging forays with his feet that most would not consider. Suddenly the Bears are much more interesting a watch than they have been in a long time. Because of the quarterback.

COVID-19 already impacting playoff race

I have no idea what the winter holds, and I am not a scientist of any kind, but COVID-19 isn't going anywhere, it seems, and you would have to be pretty naïve to think it's not going to impact the playoff chase … It already is.

Consider that the Steelers and Chargers are preparing for a potential playoff tiebreaker – a result that could put one team in the postseason and keep another out – and they are doing so with the potential for Ben Roethlisberger, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joey Bosa and Jerry Tillery all being on the COVID list and out for the game. A week ago, Big Ben's absence played a major role in the Steelers' bizarre, 16-16 tie with the winless Lions. The Browns' ground game came crashing down without Nick Chubb, as he was on COVID/reserve for their 45-7 loss to New England; another massive potential playoff tiebreaker.

The Packers held off the Seahawks with Aaron Rodgers back from testing positive, but we tend to forget the impact this can have on even a very healthy body. Rodgers wasn't quite himself. It was far from his best game, while Green Bay's loss the previous week had everything to do with the Hall of Famer's absence -- and if Russell Wilson wasn't coming back from a month-long absence after hand surgery, that may have been Seattle's game. It's easy to forget what COVID did to Myles Garrett, for instance, a year ago, as he was nowhere near his Defensive Player of the Year form after returning from COVID.

It will impact players in different ways. It seems inevitable that some teams will be hit with periodic instances where they are short at a key position or positions because of the virus, and depth will be tested. There is no way to predict it, and it can fluctuate wildly from week to week. But it will undoubtedly emerge as a critical factor in how the playoff field shakes out.

Relax, Eagles fans: Hurts will be just fine

Jalen Hurts has endured a lot of over-analysis as he adapts to the NFL. He was thrust into a most difficult situation a year ago with former MVP candidate Carson Wentz crashing out of Philly, and this season he was faced with a new staff and new offense with a rookie head coach and a fanbase that was quickly growing restless.

To whom I would say: Relax.

Hurts has a lot going for him, including a strong work ethic, ample humility and a desire to compete and win. And he has stabilized their season and given them some hope, and while the passing attempts are being limited – which makes all the sense in the world given how raw he is and how well the Eagles are running the ball (because of him) – there are signs with him, too, that things are starting to come together.

Like Fields, he is making more splash plays every week, and also cutting down on some of the egregious mistakes that can stunt growth. Hurts is 2-2 in his last four games, completing 54-of-88 passes for 679 yards and a solid 7.72 yards per

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