NFL 2023 Week 16: Biggest questions, risers and takeaways

ByNFL Nation ESPN logo
Sunday, December 24, 2023

Week 16 of the NFL season started Thursday night with the Los Angeles Rams strengthening their playoff hopes while putting a big dent in the New Orleans Saints'playoff aspirations.

To start off a two-game Saturday slate, the Pittsburgh Steelers routed the Cincinnati Bengals, whose playoff hopes also took a big hit. Later, the Buffalo Bills took control of their playoff destiny with a narrow victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, who were playing their first game since firing coach Brandon Staley and general manager Tom Telesco last week.

Games continued on Sunday with a Detroit Lionswin over the Vikings that locked up the NFC North title, a big game by Cleveland Browns QB Joe Flacco and WR Amari Cooper and a go-ahead TD by the Seattle Seahawksin the last minute to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Our NFL Nation reporters reacted to all the action, answering lingering questions coming out of each game and picking out who -- or what -- is rising and falling for every team. Let's get to it.

Jump to a matchup:




N.Y. Jets 30, Washington 28


Should Jets owner Woody Johnson give kicker Greg Zuerlein a wildly expensive Christmas present? Johnson owes Zuerlein -- big time. The owner's pregame proclamation that he's planning to retain coach Robert Saleh and GM Joe Douglas in 2024 looked embarrassingly premature when the Jets fell behind by a point after blowing a 20-point lead. But Zuerlein, having a career year, saved everyone with a 54-yard field goal in the final seconds. Johnson wouldn't have reneged on his commitment as he believes in his leadership team despite a 6-9 record, but it would've been a poor optic.

Stock up after the win: RB Breece Hall. Enjoying a late-season revival, Hall recorded the first multi-touchdown game of his career. He finished with 191 yards from scrimmage (95 rushing, 96 receiving), showing what the usually moribund offense can do when Hall is producing at an elite level.

Stock down after the win: The defense. After a dominant first half, the defense collapsed by allowing 21 straight points to fall behind. This was nearly a classic letdown, fueled by costly penalties and poor situational awareness. The Jets had no answers for backup QB Jacoby Brissett. -- Rich Cimini

Next game: at Browns (Thursday, 8:15 p.m. ET)


Should the Commanders start Jacoby Brissett next week? Brissett played well in relief of Sam Howell for the second consecutive week, leading touchdown drives on five of the six drives he has played. The offense has stagnated under Howell. In the past two games, he has completed a combined 17 of 48 passes for 158 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. It would help Howell to watch Brissett -- and it would help whomever the next coach is to determine whether the issues were on Howell or others.

Stock up after the loss: RBChris Rodriguez Jr. He ran hard, gaining 58 yards and scoring two touchdowns on 10 carries, and he showed that he could be a bigger part of Washington's future.

Stock down after the loss: Special teams. Washington had a punt blocked, lost a fumble at the end of a 24-yard run and committed a penalty on fourth-and-3, giving the Jets new life and leading to another touchdown. -- John Keim

Next game: vs. 49ers (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)

Seattle 20, Tennessee 17


IsGeno Smithgetting back to form? Smith was a bit off in the first half, throwing for only 69 yards with some suspect accuracy. Then he shrugged off whatever rust he was dealing with from the two games he missed with a groin injury, catching fire in the second half. Smith (25-of-36, 227 yards) led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives, including the game winner with a minute left. He has had such an up-and-down season that his future in Seattle beyond 2023 is in question, but this was the type of strong performance that will put that conversation on hold. And it keeps the Seahawks' playoff hopes very much alive, with two winnable games remaining vs. Pittsburgh and at Arizona.

Stock up after the win: WR DK Metcalf. Metcalf's one-handed touchdown catch in the fourth quarter gives him six scores in the past six games and eight for the season. He finished with four catches for 56 yards and also drew a pass interference penalty to set up the game-winning touchdown.

Stock down after the win: Seattle's discipline. The most penalized team in the NFL entering Sunday, the Seahawks were flagged six times for 47 yards against the Titans, including a pass interference (Tre Brown) and unnecessary roughness (Artie Burns) on Tennessee's go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. -- Brady Henderson

Next game: vs. Steelers (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET)


Should the Titans play for a better draft position? Plenty is on the line for the Titans, even though they are guaranteed a losing record. Approximately 20 potential free agents on the Titans want to show their value to the rest of the league, and other players like QB Will Levis want to spin momentum into next season. Ending the year on a high note can change the tone of the offseason. It also wouldn't hurt for the Titans to get a chance to make it harder for their AFC South rivals to make the playoffs with games against the Texans on the road and at home against the Jaguars.

Stock up after the loss: RB Derrick Henry. Henry had a much better day than last week, as he finished with 19 carries for 88 yards, along with his 89th career rushing touchdown. He also added his fifth career passing touchdown.

Stock down after the loss: QB Ryan Tannehill. Making his first start since Week 6, Tannehill completed 18 of his 26 pass attempts for 152 yards on Sunday. But it was clear that he was rusty, as shown by how he frequently threw behind his receivers, forcing them to take big hits at times. -- Turron Davenport

Next game: at Texans (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)

Green Bay 33, Carolina 30


How good can the Packers' offense be now that Aaron Jones is healthy? Sure, it was against the lowly Panthers, but Jones showed the dynamic that the Packers have missed since the opener. That was the last time an individual player had a 100-yard game from scrimmage, and it was Jones on that day, too. On Sunday, Jones (who has dealt with hamstring and knee injuries) went for 135 total yards (including 127 rushing for Green Bay's first 100-yard rushing game this season). The Packers were the only team entering Week 16 that did not have multiple 100-yard individual games this season.

Stock up after the win:TETucker Kraft. Kraft hasn't let the injury to Luke Musgrave slow down the Packers' tight end production. Kraft caught four passes for 60 yards, including a 20-yarder that set up the game-winning score in the final minute.

Stock down after the win: All aspects of the defense. A week after allowing the Bucs' Baker Mayfield to carve them up, the Packers let rookie Bryce Young throw for 311 yards, while the Panthers' offense totaled 393 yards and four touchdowns following a two-week stretch in which they hadn't scored a single offensive TD. -- Rob Demovsky

Next game: at Vikings (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET)


Did Bryce Young prove he can be effective under center, including on a quarterback sneak?It's still baby steps, but yes. Young hadn't gotten a chance on a sneak before Sunday for fear his size (5-foot-10, 204 pounds) would be a hindrance. The Panthers had used Andy Dalton (6-foot-5) instead. However, Young showed against the Packers he's fully capable, gaining 2 yards on fourth-and-1 to keep a drive alive. Carolina has used Young more under center of late, which opened up play-action passing that led to a career-high 311 yards Sunday.

Stock up after the loss:TETommy Tremble. The third-year tight end had four catches for a career-high 59 yards after having 16 catches for 118 yards over the first 14 games -- and no more than 35 yards receiving in a game his first three seasons.

Stock down after the loss:KEddy Pineiro. Carolina's kicker missed two extra points a week after kicking three field goals (including the game winner as time expired) to earn NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. -- David Newton

Next game: at Jaguars (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)

Cleveland 36, Houston 22


Can the Browns keep airing it out like this? With Joe Flacco's big, accurate arm, absolutely. Flacco set the tone in Houston with a 53-yard completion to Amari Cooper on the opening drive, the most air yards (45) on a Browns completion this season. Flacco came back in the second quarter with a 75-yard scoring strike to Cooper off play-action and a 21-yard touchdown dime to tight end David Njoku through traffic. The Browns are suddenly a dynamic downfield passing team, with Cooper, Njoku and others making plays -- and Flacco, 38, zinging the ball around like it's 2012 all over again.

Stock up after the win: WR Amari Cooper. Cooper joined Terrell Owens as the only other NFL player with 200-yard receiving performances for three different franchises, while becoming the first Cleveland player to post back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons.

Stock down after the win: Special teams. The Browns gave up a 98-yard kickoff return touchdown to Dameon Pierce and lost reliable kicker Dustin Hopkins to a hamstring injury on the same play. They went for two points following every touchdown after Hopkins departed. -- Jake Trotter

Next game: vs. Jets (Thursday, 8:15 p.m. ET)


Should the Texans switch to Davis Mills if C.J. Stroud is out any longer? Yes. Case Keenum's run has been shaky at best, as the offense in two games averaged 9.5 points, and three of those points came in their overtime win against the Tennessee Titans. Keenum went 11-of-17 for 62 yards with two interceptions before coach DeMeco Ryans put Mills in to finish the game with the score out of hand. The Texans (250 yards) were outgained by Browns receiver Amari Cooper, who had 265 receiving yards. As long as Stroud is out, they have to at least try Mills.

Stock up after the loss: CB Derek Stingley Jr. Stingley had another interception, his fifth of the season. That's five in eight games.

Stock down after the loss:The pass defense. Browns quarterback Joe Flacco passed for 368 yards and three touchdowns, and Amari Cooper had two TDs. -- DJ Bien-Aime

Next game: vs. Titans (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)

Detroit 30, Minnesota 24


What does winning the NFC North mean for the postseason?The offense looked strong behind a solid ground attack, and the Lions have won their first division crown since the 1993 season. With two games remaining before the postseason, Detroit has to tighten up on defense. Nick Mullens is the fourth QB to start for the Vikings this season, and he was letting it fly against the secondary, which should cause concern for the Lions since they will face better competition in the playoffs.

Stock up after the win:WRJameson Williams. The second-year receiver has continued to improve from week to week and posted his first career game with at least five receptions. He could be a key player down the stretch for the Lions.

Stock down after the win: Special teams. Kicker Michael Badgley's extra point attempt was blocked in the third quarter. -- Eric Woodyard

Next game: at Cowboys (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET)


Is this it for the 2023 Vikings? Almost certainly. According to ESPN's Football Power Index, Sunday's loss brought the Vikings' chances of making the playoffs down to 25%. They certainly have a built-in excuse, having lost their two most important players -- quarterback Kirk Cousins and receiver Justin Jefferson -- to injuries for large portions of the season. But they'll almost certainly rue the nature of some of their losses, almost all of which were by one score. Many of them were aided by turnovers; they entered the week ranked third in the NFL with 29. In the end, the Vikings will wind up about where everyone figured they would be -- out of the playoffs -- but they missed the opportunity for a special season.

Stock up after the loss: WR Justin Jefferson. When the Vikings targeted him, he was back to his old electric self, including a diving 29-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter that NFL Next Gen Stats recorded as the lowest-probability scoring reception (21%) of his career.

Stock down after the loss: RB Ty Chandler. A week after thrilling Vikings fans with a 132-yard breakout game in Cincinnati, Chandler couldn't get going against a Lions defense that has been vulnerable against the run and finished with 17 yards on eight carries. -- Kevin Seifert

Next game: vs. Packers (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET)

Atlanta 29, Indianapolis 10


Can the Atlanta Falcons run the table? If Atlanta plays like it did Sunday -- a balanced run/pass attack with 406 yards of offense and a defense that had six sacks and held the Colts to 262 yards -- it's possible. It is the best total game Atlanta has played this season, and while the Falcons will have to do it on the road, facing the under-.500 Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints is manageable. Playoffs or not, this would show legitimate progress, including Atlanta's first over-.500 record since 2017 and the first three-game winning streak in the same season in Arthur Smith's three years as coach.

Stock up after the win: QB Taylor Heinicke. In the first start of Heinicke's second stint as the Falcons' starter, he was efficient, completing 23 of 33 passes for 229 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a passer rating of 99.2.

Stock down after the win: CB Jeff Okudah. The fourth-year pro appears to have been displaced by rookie cornerback Clark Phillips III in the starting lineup after Okudah barely played defensively and Phillips recorded three tackles with a pass defended. -- Michael Rothstein

Next game: at Bears (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)


What does recent inconsistency say about the team? The Colts showed up flat one week after easily disposing of the Steelers in a critical win. This came after a blowout loss the previous week in Cincinnati. The Colts have been overachieving, and their disparate results might be an indication of who they really are. One example of how they've gotten the most out of their season: The Colts entered with a takeaway in 19 straight games, but they saw that streak snapped Sunday. They'd also won five of six prior to Sunday -- the best record in the NFL during that span. Now, Indianapolis has lost two of three at the wrong time and its playoff chances dropped to 42%.

Stock up after the loss:LB.E.J. Speed. Although the defense was disappointing, Speed was all over the field Sunday, recording a career high in tackles for the second straight week. He recorded 13 total stops after netting 10 against Pittsburgh last week.

Stock down after the loss:Pass rush. The unit entered the game on fire, netting 25 sacks in the past six games. But was stymied Sunday, recording just a lone sack and creating little pressure on Heinicke. -- Stephen Holder

Next game: vs. Raiders (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)


Buffalo 24, L.A. Chargers 22


How concerning was this performance as the Bills continue their playoff push? It's a reminder of what this season has been. Of the Bills' 14 games, 10 have been one-score affairs. Adequately closing out opponents has been an issue all season. James Cook's ball security is an issue, and the defense is allowing too many drives. Winning is ultimately what matters at this point in the season, but Saturday showed this team still has things to work on despite now controlling its playoff destiny.

Stock up after the win: Sam Martin. The Bills punter has had some up-and-down games lately, but he was key to giving the Chargers a long field. Three of his four punts went inside the 20-yard line, and he averaged 52.3 yards per punt. That's a good sign for this special teams unit moving forward.

Stock down after the win: Passing game. Josh Allen & Co. got things going when they needed to, but the Chargers came into this game with one of the worst pass defenses in the league. Allen completed just 15 of 21 passes for 237 yards, a touchdown and a pick with miscues throughout the game in connecting with receivers. It remains inconsistent. -- Alaina Getzenberg

Next game: vs. Patriots (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)


Is there reason to be concerned about Derwin James? James has been one of the Chargers' best players since he was drafted in 2018, establishing himself as one of the league's best safeties. But in James' first game since the Chargers fired coach Brandon Staley, James played two snaps at safety and 40 for the game, both season lows. He played most of the game as a nickel cornerback. Under Staley, James played the nickel role in spots, but his main home was at safety, making Saturday's game particularly surprising.

Stock up after the loss: Kicker Cameron Dicker. Staley earned the nickname "fourth-and-Staley" for his willingness to go for fourth-down conversions, often leaving Dicker on the sideline. In the first game since Staley's firing, Dicker made a career-high five field goals, almost winning the game for the Chargers himself. It was the first time the Chargers made five field goals since 2012.

Stock down after the loss: Running back Joshua Kelley. Kelley played a season-low 12 total snaps, including seven on offense. Kelley was the Chargers' backup running back coming into this season and started two games while Austin Ekeler was out with an injury, but he appears to have fallen out of favor in the Chargers' backfield. -- Kris Rhim

Next game: at Broncos (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)

Pittsburgh 34, Cincinnati 11


Who will start at quarterback against the Seattle Seahawks? After the game, Mike Tomlin told reporters it was too early to ask. Maybe so, but it's certainly not too early to consider the possibility that Mason Rudolph has earned the opportunity to start again after throwing for 279 yards and two touchdowns. QB Kenny Pickett was a limited participant in practice this week after having TightRope surgery on his right ankle on Dec. 4. He was inactive against the Bengals but could be ready to play the Seahawks. Still, Rudolph played a smart game and earned his first game ball for the performance -- and maybe another start.

Stock up after the win: Wide receiver George Pickens. Pickens had a career performance with 195 receiving yards and two touchdowns on the heels of a week in which he was heavily criticized for immaturity and a lack of effort, showing that he has an impossibly high ceiling when he's at his best.

Stock down after the win: Fire Mike Tomlin chants. Hard to find much that went wrong in a resounding win. But it was a tough game for any disgruntled fans who came into Acrisure Stadium ready to unleash Fire Tomlin chants. Instead, the fourth quarter had four Mason Rudolph chants and one for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, something Steelers players agreed was a welcome change. -- Brooke Pryor

Next game: at Seahawks (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET)


Does this loss end Cincinnati's playoff chances? Well, it certainly puts a massive dent in them. The Bengals' playoff chances are down to 14% after the loss, per ESPN Analytics. But if the Bengals miss the postseason, they can squarely point at their AFC North record. After Saturday, the Bengals are 0-5 in divisional play. Cincinnati was swept by Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Depending on what happens over the next two weeks, even a win against the Browns on Week 18 might mean nothing for the Bengals.

Stock up after the loss:WR Tee Higgins. With Ja'Marr Chaseout, he racked up five catches for 140 yards and a touchdown, including an 80-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

Stock down after the loss: QBJake Browning.Browning forced the issue too often and threw three interceptions in his worst performance as a starter in place of the injured Joe Burrow. -- Ben Baby

Next game: at Chiefs (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)


L.A. Rams 30, New Orleans 22


Does the offense make the Rams a serious threat to make a playoff run? The Rams aren't in the playoffs yet -- they've got a 78% chance, per ESPN Analytics -- but they are playing like a team that could make a run. Since RBKyren Williams returned in Week 12, this Rams team has looked like a different group than the one that sat at 3-6 during its Week 10 bye. There's "no doubt," coach Sean McVay said, "we're different when he plays." Los Angeles has scored at least 28 points in the five games since Williams returned and has won six out of its past seven games, the lone loss coming against the AFC-leading Baltimore Ravens.

Stock up after the win:QB Matthew Stafford. The Rams quarterback has thrown multiple passing touchdowns in five straight games, his longest streak since joining the Rams, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He's also gone four straight games without an interception, which is tied for his longest streak with Los Angeles.

Stock down after the win: Kicker Lucas Havrisik missed a 47-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter. Los Angeles has missed a league-high 11 field goals this season. It's the most by any team since the 2015 Buccaneers (11), according to ESPN Stats & Information. -- Sarah Barshop

Next game: at Giants (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)


Can the Saints regroup with playoff hopes dwindling? The Saints now have to win out and get some help to make the playoffs. Their loss exposed issues all around both defensively (tackling) and offensively (they struggled to convert on third and fourth down). The Saints now have to travel to Tampa Bay for a divisional game after the disappointment of such a pivotal loss. How they respond will likely dictate any decisions made about the coaching staff or personnel once the season ends.

Stock up after the loss: WR Chris Olave. Olave battled through an ankle injury that caused him to miss Sunday's game and responded with a season-best nine catches for 129 yards to get him over 1,000 receiving yards for the season.

Stock down after the loss: CB Alontae Taylor. Taylor was benched for Ugo Amadi late in the game, and Saints coach Dennis Allen said the Rams got Taylor "a couple of times with his eyes." -- Katherine Terrell

Next game: at Buccaneers (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)

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