Topics this week include the top Coach of the Year candidates, the quarterbacks who will draw the most interest this offseason, how the histories of Joe Thomas and Jason Peters are connected, the Texans' amazing staying power despite QB woes and Blake Bortles' uncertain future in Jacksonville.
The Coach of the Year leaders
While everyone is debating the NFL's MVP award, which is presented by the Associated Press, the Coach of the Year candidates are plentiful, as usual. The probable top five with two games remaining are:
Jack Del Rio, Oakland Raiders. Del Rio has guided the Raiders to their first playoff appearance since 2002. Oakland's 11-3 record has included five road wins and a few gutsy calls along the way.
Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys. Garrett has overseen their 12-2 season with Dak Prescott, a fourth-round rookie, at quarterback. The coach also calmed the storms of another Tony Romo injury and a Romo return to health.
Bill Belichick, New England Patriots. Belichick did not have to prove he is the best coach of his era, but he reminded everyone again when he led the Patriots to a 3-1 start with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett each under center during Tom Brady's four-game suspension.
Adam Gase, Miami Dolphins. The first-year coach has shown he is more than just a so-called quarterback whisperer. The 37-year-old Gase has instilled discipline and grit into the Dolphins, who are gunning for a playoff spot at 9-5. They will presumably have to play at Buffalo and at home against New England without injured quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions. Think about it: The Lions started the season 1-3, and Caldwell's future was the subject of speculation. Now? They are 9-5, and a road win over the Cowboys on Monday night could set up a de facto NFC North title game at home against Green Bay in Week 17.
-- Chris Mortensen
QBs that will draw most interest this offseason
Quarterbacks expected to be available this offseason include Colin Kaepernick, Jay Cutler and Romo. Yet the quarterbacks who likely will draw the most interest are New England's backup Jimmy Garoppolo, Cincinnati's backup AJ McCarron and Tampa Bay's backup Mike Glennon, none of whom were first-round picks. Garoppolo, McCarron and Glennon are all 27 or under and possess what personnel people perceive to be great upside.
Glennon is an unrestricted free agent and could fetch $13-15 million per year on his next deal -- maybe more depending on the number of teams bidding. Both Garappolo and McCarron are under contract for 2017, so interested teams will have to broker a trade, which might not be easy with the Vikings and Eagles establishing a steep quarterback trade market this past offseason. The Patriots will want a lot, as will the Bengals. And just last week, one person close to the Patriots said he would be "stunned" if New England traded Garoppolo. The interest from other teams will be there, but so will the interest to retain him to try to ensure a successful transition from Brady to Garoppolo.
So maybe Garoppolo will not be available. But if this season has proved nothing else, it's that you don't always find quarterbacks in the most obvious places. Some of this season's top passers were neither top draft picks nor free-agent prizes.
Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott, whose 12 wins as a rookie starting quarterback are second only to the 13 that Ben Roethlisberger had in 2004, was drafted with the 135th overall pick in the fourth round of last April's draft.
Oakland quarterback Derek Carr, who has the Raiders back in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, was drafted with the 36th overall pick in the 2014 second round.
Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, with one world championship and two conference championship wins on his resume, was drafted in the 2012 third round.
Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, who led Washington to the playoffs last season and is trying to do the same this season, was drafted in the 2012 fourth round.
And, of course, New England quarterback Brady is and will likely always be the most famous 199th overall pick.
All five of these quarterbacks are squarely in the NFL's MVP discussion this season. Chances are, one will win it. And it will reaffirm that as challenging as it is and as much good fortune as it requires, teams can find quarterbacks beyond the most obvious spots.
-- Adam Schefter
How the Pro Bowl runs of Joe Thomas and Jason Peters got started
Both left tackles now have 19 Pro Bowl selections between them -- Thomas got his 10th and Peters his ninth when the teams were announced Wednesday.
Thomas' 10th Pro Bowl broke a three-way franchise tie with Browns Hall of Fame greats Jim Brown and Lou Groza, who each had nine Pro Bowl game selections.
Thomas actually owes that impressive distinction to Peters.
Peters made his first Pro Bowl in 2007 with the Buffalo Bills but was forced to scratch from the game because of a late-season injury. The rookie Thomas replaced him on the AFC roster.
Thomas' success has not been a surprise. He was the No. 3 overall pick by Cleveland in the 2007 draft. But Peters has had a more remarkable journey after the low point of his career came when he went undrafted in 2004 out of Arkansas as a 315-pound tight end.
After the draft, a disappointed Peters signed with Buffalo, where he eventually came under the tutelage of veteran offensive line coach Jim McNally, who had coached Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Peters made an impression on McNally and other Bills staffers during that first training camp in tight end pass-blocking drills. It still wasn't enough to allow Peters to make the season-opening 53-man roster, but he was promoted from the practice squad at midseason when then-GM Tom Donahoe began to get nervous about possibly losing the rookie to another team.
Peters was athletic enough to be deployed on special teams, which included a role as a massive "wedge-buster," a frightening and mind-blowing sight for opposing kick-return units. The conversion from tight end to right tackle was also in the works, followed by a switch from right tackle to left tackle.
McNally eventually called Peters' potential as a tackle "limitless" and invoked Munoz's name for a comparison.
Peters was voted to his first two Pro Bowls in Buffalo before a contract dispute got him shipped to Philadelphia in a trade before the 2009 season.
Seven more Pro Bowl selections as an Eagle has him knocking on the door of franchise history, too. Only Hall of Fame legend Chuck Bednarik has been named to more Pro Bowls (eight) in an Eagles uniform.
-- Chris Mortensen
The Texans' amazing staying power
Brock Osweiler's contract was a big story last offseason, and it looks like it's going to be a big story again.
The benched Texans quarterback has a $16 million fully guaranteed base salary for 2017, making him virtually unable to be traded. If Houston decided it wanted to flat-out release him, the Texans would be forced to absorb a $25 million salary cap hit. With Tom Savage on a contract that pays him $600,000 this season and $690,000 next season, he can help offset the money Houston has invested in Osweiler before the issue is addressed later.
But no matter what the Texans decide to do, here's one of the most amazing developments over the past two NFL seasons: Houston has either shared first place in the AFC South or held first place in the AFC South outright in 25 weeks over the past two seasons, including all 15 weeks this season. The Texans have won 10 straight AFC South games.
Yet they have started five different quarterbacks over the past two seasons -- Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden, T.J. Yates, Ryan Mallett, Osweiler -- and will add a sixth to that list when Savage starts Saturday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Weeden has the highest Total QBR of any Texans quarterback the past two seasons, 81.1 on 42 attempts. Savage is next at 76.2 on 36 attempts, followed by Hoyer at 57.1, Osweiler at 54.5, Yates at 54.2 and Mallett at 52.1. No one has shined, yet the team has.
Somehow, in a credit to the front office and coaching staff, the team keeps winning -- and keeps having a muddled quarterback situation.
-- Adam Schefter
Bortles' uncertain future in Jacksonville
One of the biggest decisions Jacksonville's next head coach will have to make is whether to keep quarterback Blake Bortles.
Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell weighed in this week, saying, "I still believe in [Bortles], very much." But Caldwell also said there will be no mandate for the Jaguars' new coach about what to do at quarterback, so that leaves Bortles' future uncertain.
Bortles has more support in Jacksonville than he does elsewhere around the league. Some have scoffed at his skills and believe Jacksonville would be better off finding another option. But again, options are not abundant. If Jacksonville's new coach can't land Garoppolo, McCarron or Glennon, then there might not be a better option than taking Bortles' fifth-year option year and working with him to see if he can be saved and developed.
But as usual, teams that have coach questions usually have quarterback questions. Caldwell still believes in Bortles; the question is whether Jacksonville's new head coach also will.
-- Adam Schefter
Emptying the notebook
The most amazing thing about Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis being named to the Pro Bowl is that it was only his second selection. One GM on Davis: "Remarkable player, considering three ACL surgeries and his age (33). Actually, forget the the injuries and the age. He's just a remarkable player."
When the 49ers re-signed Vance McDonald to a new contract two weeks ago, it meant the two top tight ends on the free agent market this winter now are expected to be New England's Martellus Bennett and Indianapolis' Jack Doyle. The Patriots would like to keep Bennett, and if they re-sign him, it would leave Doyle as the best tight end available. Quite a rise to prominence for a player who was an undrafted free agent from Western Kentucky.
It's not often a 3-11 team gets some respect, but there have been a fair amount of compliments about Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. That's because Loggains has overseen an offense in which backup quarterbacks Matt Barkley and Hoyer have performed surprisingly well during Cutler's absences. The Bears didn't let significant offensive line injuries get in the way of rookie Jordan Howard eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark.
If the Browns hadn't beaten the 49ers last December, they now would have 25 straight losses and would be facing the Chargers on Sunday with the possibility of tying the NFL record for consecutive losses that the 1976-77 Buccaneers have. The Browns are now 1-24 over their past 25 games; their only win came with Johnny Manziel as starting quarterback.
-- Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter