Who will Colin Kaepernick be playing for next season?
Matt Bowen, NFL writer:?49ers. Even after Kaepernick's dismal performance this past Sunday in the loss to the Bears, Chip Kelly's system is still the best fit for the quarterback. Given the designed run schemes and the route tree in San Francisco, Kaepernick has shown the ability to produce under Kelly's coaching. And although he should draw some interest on the market, re-signing with the 49ers is the best option here.
KC Joyner, NFL writer: San Francisco, if for no other reason than where else are they going to go for a quarterback. ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay says?the 2017 quarterback draft class, "is as bad a quarterback class as I can remember," and there is an incredibly thin 2017 free-agent quarterback roster. Kaepernick might be more valuable to the 49ers than he would be to any other team.
Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: Kaepernick has a better at shot at staying with the 49ers than landing with any specific team out there. We don't know how much his political stances will turn off prospective teams, but that will be a bigger factor in the absence of Kaepernick playing especially well down the stretch. Kansas City would be an interesting destination depending upon what happens with Nick Foles. Andy Reid and Brad Childress are adaptable.
Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders:?I realize the 49ers don't have a lot of alternatives, but I still don't see where a rebuilding team wants to blow $16.9 million in cap space on a veteran quarterback in whom they have no faith. Nobody is going to sign him as a starter, so he'll have to take a reduced make-good contract as someone's backup. Maybe somewhere quiet where he won't get a lot of media attention. He might fit the Bills' offense if they keep Tyrod Taylor as their starter. Tennessee is also an option.
Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: Even with a shortage of quarterbacks around the league, I don't see teams jumping at the chance to add Kaepernick. No matter his politics, he isn't close to being the player he once was, and he'll turn 30 next season. But I also question the 49ers' long-term interest after seeing their conservative game plan Sunday against Chicago -- and their decision to bench him in the fourth quarter. It is very possible that Kaepernick will find himself waiting for a call from a team that suffers an unexpected retirement or injury at the position.
Who will get the NFC's final wild-card spot?
Bowen: I'll take the Packers. Aaron Rodgers is playing much more consistent football lately, Green Bay is using multiple ball carriers to facilitate production on the ground, and the defense has made adjustments. Even with a tough schedule over the last month of the season, Green Bay has a shot to sneak into the dance over Washington and Tampa Bay.
Joyner: Washington's schedule includes matchups against Philadelphia, Carolina, Chicago and the Giants. Those first two teams went through the motions this past weekend, and Chicago is battling a ton of injuries. That favorable schedule and Washington's half victory as a result of its tie game will equal the playoff edge for this team.
Sando: Tampa Bay is my choice with a 10-6 record and second-place finish in the NFC South, one game behind the Falcons. Dallas and Seattle are the top seeds under this scenario, followed by Atlanta, Detroit, Washington and Tampa Bay. I could be underrating the Giants.
Schatz:?I still think the NFC East will grab three playoff spots this season. It will be hard to make up the Giants' one-game lead in the wild-card race. As for Washington, its next three games are winnable if the Eagles are folding up the way they seem to be. Washington then hosts the Giants in Week 17; not only will Washington have home field, but the Giants might be locked into the No. 5 seed by that point.
Seifert: I like the Packers, assuming they don't catch the Lions for the NFC North title. They have won consecutive games after a four-game losing streak, seem to be finding a groove in their passing game and have plugged some leaks in their pass defense. They face the Seahawks and Vikings at home and travel to the Bears and Lions. The Packers can win three of those four to sneak into the No. 6 spot, can't they?
What's your biggest upset for Week 14?
Bowen:?Cardinals over Dolphins. It's only a one-point spread, but David Johnson can produce on the ground versus the Miami defense. After watching Joe Flacco torch the Dolphins last week, Carson Palmer will have plenty of opportunities to expose matchups in the passing game.
Joyner:?Ravens over Patriots. Over the past four weeks, Tom Brady ranks 20th in yards per attempt (6.9). Since Baltimore's rush defense is one of the best in the league, it's not difficult to imagine a situation in which the Patriots' offense struggles to put up points. That could turn this into exactly the type of game the Ravens want and allow them to pull off the upset.
Sando:?Ravens over Patriots. Yes, it's on the road, but the Patriots are diminished after losing Rob Gronkowski. They have lost twice at home already. The Jets played them tough recently. The Ravens' defense should travel well. Baltimore also showed an ability to open up its offense against the Dolphins.
Schatz: Jaguars over Vikings. I know this doesn't seem like a close?matchup, but the Jaguars' defense is better than people realize (10th in DVOA) and neither offense is any good right now. A low-scoring battle like that is the kind of game that can easily turn into an upset on one big play or a random bounce of a fumble or tipped pass. It also turns on field position, so the Jaguars will have to neutralize Minnesota's advantage on both punts and punt returns to pull off the upset.
Seifert:?Ravens over Patriots. The Ravens have an institutional memory of winning at Gillette Stadium, and there is no doubt coach John Harbaugh will have them at their best for this game. It has been a struggle for Tom Brady and the Patriots without Rob Gronkowski. They're still an excellent team but more vulnerable to strong opponents than they had been.
What effect will Earl Thomas' injury have on the Seahawks' ceiling?
Bowen: Seattle still has playmakers in the secondary, and the pass rush has the ability to take over games in January. But the Seahawks won't be able to replace Thomas' rare range, ball skills and high football IQ. He's the best safety in the game and a key player in the Seahawks' single-high safety scheme. That ceiling has to drop a bit when he's not on the field. This isn't a player you simply replace.
Joyner: Only eight defenses have loaded the tackle box more than Seattle this season (defined as having one or more defenders in the tackle box than the offense has blockers). Thomas' deep coverage skill is one reason the Seahawks are able to do this, but Seattle does rank fourth in rush yards per carry when they don't load the tackle box (3.6). That means the rush defense should be fine if they decide to shift their strategy to give Steven Terrell more help in coverage. Add it up, and this is still a Super Bowl-caliber defense.
Sando: They can still win the Super Bowl as long as the rest of their defensive core remains available, especially the pass-rush rotation. Inconsistencies on offense -- specifically in the running game -- are the biggest concern for Seattle at this point.
Schatz:?Thomas' huge range allows the rest of the defense to play tight coverage without much fear of big plays downfield. Without Thomas around, the Seahawks' chances of giving up huge downfield pass plays went up significantly. That makes it more likely the Seahawks will win or lose a close game in the postseason, rather than having dominant wins in which they completely shut down the opposing offense.
Seifert: It lowers their margin for error on defense and puts a premium on the health of their remaining stars. Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Bobby Wagner all need to stay on the field for the Seahawks to continue functioning as an elite defense.
Who will be the most coveted player who actually hits the free-agent market in 2017?
Bowen: The Browns desperately need defensive playmakers, so failing to re-sign Jamie Collins would be a mistake. But if Collins does hit the market, he'll have plenty of suitors. The linebacker is still in his prime (27 years old), and he brings unique versatility to the position.
Joyner: Eric Berry is tied for the league lead in interception-return touchdowns (2). He's a key reason Kansas City ranks tied for third in the league in interceptions on passes thrown 11 yards or more downfield, and the Chiefs just won a game with Berry's PAT interception return for a two-point conversion. If the Chiefs don't meet his price this offseason (they ended up having to franchise him last year), another team will.
Sando: Calais Campbell could be an interesting one to watch among big-name players. The Cardinals prioritized Tyrann Mathieu over Campbell last offseason. Chandler Jones could leapfrog Campbell in the contract line this coming offseason after the Cardinals gave up a second-round choice to acquire Jones from New England. Coach Bruce Arians has criticized Campbell for being inconsistent. The 30-year-old defensive end could be on his way out.
Schatz:?Nothing changes your defense like a top pass-rusher, and Chandler Jones is going to be only 27 years old next year. Look at what Olivier Vernon received last year on the open market. Arizona better be prepared to give that to Jones, or somebody else will.
Seifert: Alshon Jeffrey's four-game suspension could dissuade the Chicago Bears from franchising him for the second consecutive year. That would make Jeffrey a strong candidate to be available on the market, and some team would jump to add a big, 6-foot-3 playmaker who is still only 26 years old. Jeffrey hasn't been able to stay on the field consistently the past two seasons, but his previous production (17 touchdowns in 2013-14) is notable given the Bears' quarterback uncertainty over that period.