NFL Week 15 takeaways: What we learned, big questions for every game and future team outlooks

ByNFL Nation via ESPN logo
Wednesday, December 22, 2021
ESPN

Week 15of the 2021 NFL seasonhad a different feel thanks to postponements resulting from a leaguewide COVID-19 outbreak. Three games were moved off the weekend, including two to Tuesday. TheRams topped the Seahawks-- despite placing up to 29 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list over the past 10 days -- and moved into a tie with the Cardinals for first place in the NFC West. The Eagles defeated the shorthanded Washington Football Team to stay in the NFC wild-card chase.

The Raiders at the Browns, originally scheduled for Saturday, was moved to Monday, with Las Vegas prevailing on a walk-off field goal.

Sunday saw one of the biggest upsets of the year, with the Lions beating the Cardinals 30-12. It was one of a few games on Sunday that shook up the race for the No. 1 draft pick, as the Texans also beat the Jaguars. Jacksonville now has the inside track to claiming the top selection. Elsewhere, the Bills piled on 31 points against the Panthers, while the Cowboys blew out the Giants. The Steelers kept their playoff hopes very much alive with a win over the Titans, who came up short on a last-minute fourth-down play, and the Dolphins hung on in a back-and-forth game with the Jets to move to 7-7.

In the afternoon slate, the 49ers and Bengals won to keep their playoff hopes intact. The Packers stopped a late 2-point try by the Ravens to keep the top spot in the NFC. Sunday night, the Buccaneers were shut out by the Saints.

On Saturday night, the Colts took an early lead and hung on, thanks to a lateJonathan Taylortouchdown, to beat the Patriots. And on Thursday, quarterbackPatrick Mahomeshelped the Chiefs force overtime against the Chargers and win their seventh straight.

Our NFL Nation reporters react with the takeaways and lingering questions. Plus, they each look at the bigger picture with their current team confidence rating -- a 0-10 grade of how they feel about a team's outlook coming out of the week. Let's get to it.

Jump to:

SEA-LAR | WAS-PHI | MIN-CHI

NE-IND | KC-LAC | CAR-BUF

DAL-NYG | TEN-PIT | ARI-DET

NYJ-MIA | HOU-JAX | CIN-DEN

ATL-SF | GB-BAL | NO-TB | LV-CLE

L.A. Rams 20, Seattle 10

Rams

What to know: Despite a week of uncertainty that included up to 29 players being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list and a division matchup against the rival Seattle Seahawks being postponed from Sunday to Tuesday, the Rams proved resilient in a team-effort win. The victory moves the Rams into a first-place tie with the Arizona Cardinalsin the NFC Westwith three games remaining in the regular season. And, with a Sunday matchup against the Minnesota Vikings now quickly looming, the Rams are continuing to trend in a positive direction with players returning from the reserve/COVID-19 list. -- Lindsey Thiry

Is the Rams' coronavirus outbreak over? The Rams have 16 players currently listed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, including three starters -- right tackle Rob Havenstein, safety Jordan Fuller and tight end Tyler Higbee. The Rams have not added any players to the list since this past Saturday, and coach Sean McVay said they continue to trend in a positive direction. -- Thiry

Thiry's confidence rating (0-10): 8.8, up from 8.2. The Rams deserve a generous bump after navigating a week of change and uncertainty, which included fluid game plans that couldn't be finalized given there was no telling which key playmakers could be placed on or taken off of the reserve/COVID-19 list.

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

Seahawks

What to know: The Seahawks aren't quite eliminated from playoff contention, but they effectively are, with ESPN's Football Power Index now giving them about a 0.1% chance of making it. At 5-9, they're assured of their first losing season since 2011, the year before they drafted Russell Wilson. They've been all but eliminated for a few weeks, and many of the warts that have marred this disappointing season doomed their offense again Tuesday. They went 3-of-11 on third down, lost the time-of-possession battle by 10 minutes and missed out on what would have at least been a huge gain -- if not the tying touchdown -- when Wilson underthrew a deep ball to an open DK Metcalf in the fourth quarter. Their defense missed cornerback D.J. Reed, one of 10 Seahawks placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list this week, but again played well enough to give them a chance to win. -- Brady Henderson

How badly did the Seahawks get hosed? Much of what happened over the past few days in terms of the Seahawks losing players to COVID-19 and the Rams getting guys back from it would have happened had the game been played Sunday as initially scheduled. The notable and clear exception is that the Rams wouldn't have had linebacker Von Miller had the game not been pushed to Tuesday. It's not clear whether they would have had star corner Jalen Ramsey. As far as gripes about the game itself, the Seahawks have a legitimate one about officials not flagging the Rams for pass interference on a fourth-down throw to DeeJay Dallas late in the fourth quarter. That would have given Seattle a fresh set of downs in Los Angeles territory and a chance to tie the game with a touchdown. -- Henderson

Henderson's confidence rating (0-10): 2.4, down from 3.4. Sunday's game against the Bears no longer looks as easy as it once did with the Seahawks on a short week and the possibility that they could lose more players to the COVID-19 outbreak that has hit their building over the past week.

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

Washington 27, Philadelphia 17

Washington

What to know: Washington relied on running the ball and stopping the run to climb back into playoff contention. But it could do neither against Philadelphia. If it can't get back to that winning formula on Sunday in Dallas, its hopes of making the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since 1991-92 will be shot. The defensive line appeared gassed in the second half against the Eagles. While some players returned from the reserve/COVID-19 list, they did not play the way they had been for the second half of the season. It led to arm tackles and good cutback lanes for the Eagles. Offensively, quarterback Garrett Gilbert wasn't going to carry the team to a victory, so the lack of a run game -- Antonio Gibson injured his toe Tuesday -- was troubling. Gibson rushed 15 times for 26 yards and a touchdown in the loss. He needs to get it going for Washington to have any chance moving forward. -- John Keim

Is Washington finished? The Washington Football Team is now 6-8 and trails Minnesota, New Orleans and Philadelphia by a game for the final wild-card spot. That means Washington almost assuredly must win its final three games to perhaps earn a playoff berth. And that will be difficult with losses continuing to mount -- not just from COVID-19, but from injuries. Washington's secondary had two starters leave because of injuries Tuesday -- Landon Collins and William Jackson III. Two others remain on the COVID-19 list: Kendall Fuller and Kamren Curl. Washington needs all of them back to slow Dallas' offense. It should have quarterback Taylor Heinicke back, but will that be enough? Washington could win any of these three remaining games, but winning all three could be asking too much of this depleted team. -- Keim

Keim's confidence rating (0-10): 5.9, down from 6.3. There are just too many player losses for this team to overcome. A good comeback story was derailed by COVID-19 and injuries.

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

Eagles

What to know: Quarterback Jalen Hurts played one of his best games of the season, according to coach Nick Sirianni said, bouncing back from two early turnovers to rally the Eagles past the Washington Football Team. Hurts still didn't look 100 percent healthy in his first game since suffering a high ankle sprain on Nov. 28 against the Giants, but he was still effective both on the ground and through the air. With a pair of rushing scores, he passed Michael Vick for the most single-season rushing TDs by a quarterback in Eagles history with 10. With the win, Philadelphia increased its chances of making the playoffs to 46%, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. -- Tim McManus

Can the Eagles navigate their schedule crunch? With the Washington game moved to Tuesday, the Eagles will have just four days to rest before hosting the New York Giantsand will play three games in 12 days. That increases the degree of difficulty. Still, the Eagles entered the week with the fifth-easiest closing schedule in football, which includes just one road game (at Washington on Jan. 2) and matchups against the 4-10 Giants and 6-8 Washington. They're in a virtual tie for the final NFC playoff spot and have a good shot at securing it. -- McManus

McManus' confidence rating (0-10): 5.5, up from 4.7. The Eagles are crushing it on the ground: they became the first team to rush for 175-plus yards in seven consecutive games since the 1985 Bears. That style of play can be conducive to winning physical football games in December and January as the stakes go up and the temperature goes down.

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

Minnesota 17, Chicago 9

Vikings

What to know:We've been here before. The Vikings are back at .500 and in the postseason picture after bouncing in and out of the NFC's bottom two seeds for weeks. They're a playoff team for now, but their win over the Bears raises so many questions about their capabilities going forward. Minnesota couldn't capitalize on a Chicago defense that was heavily impacted by COVID-19 and struggled to counter the Bears' pass rush. The offense didn't move the ball well and sputtered as the game went on, which is a troubling trend as of late, with Kirk Cousins now 7-of-20 (35%) in the second half the past two weeks.-- Courtney Cronin

How big of an impact will Adam Thielen have when he returns?Thielen tested his injured ankle during a pregame warm-up, but the Vikings opted to be cautious with the receiver and made him inactive for the game. His return will undoubtedly help Minnesota's offense get back into attack mode and not allow teams to play bracket coverage as frequently against fellow wideout Justin Jefferson. Cousins needs his offense functioning at full strength to be successful during the Vikings' final three games against the Rams, Packers and Bears.-- Cronin

Cronin's confidence rating (0-10): 5.5, up from 5. Minnesota hosts the Rams on Sunday. One thing we've learned this season is that the Vikings play to the level of their competition. Los Angeles is a good football team. We should see the Vikings' best -- like they produced against the Ravens, Chargers and Packers -- in Week 16.

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

Bears

What to know: The Bears became the fifth NFL team to be eliminated from playoff contention this season. If it wasn't before, the external and internal focus for this team should be on the future of general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy. The NFL has a new rule that allows teams to start interviewing coaching candidates next Monday, and it's fair to wonder if the Bears will fire Nagy by then to give themselves a head start on the process. -- Kevin Seifert

Why are the Bears so bad in the red zone? They managed to move the ball well against the Vikings, racking up 370 offensive yards and 24 first downs. But they did not score a touchdown on four trips to the red zone. Overall, the Bears had six drives into Vikings' territory that led to no points, their most in a game since 2015.-- Seifert

NFL Nation's confidence rating (0-10): 2.5, down from 4. The Bears reminded us that they have some intriguing parts on defense, but overall they were so disorganized and undisciplined Monday night that it's hard to imagine they aren't headed for a major offseason overhaul.

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

Las Vegas 16, Cleveland 14

Raiders

What to know: The Raiders aren't done. Not yet, at least. Winning is the ultimate deodorant -- yes, even when you eke out a decision over a coronavirus-ravaged team playing second- and third-stringers. "It's one win; we're 7-7," defensive end Maxx Crosbysaid. "We are what our record is ... We've got Denver next week; got to lock back in. We've only got six days to recover. We're excited for the challenge." Beat the Broncos and the Raiders are in the thick of the playoff race. Again. -- Paul Gutierrez

Is it time to move on from Derek Carr at quarterback yet? Had the Raiders lost, then yes. A 6-8 record and playing out the string would have probably necessitated giving Marcus Mariota some run, just to see what he has entering what promises to be an eventful offseason of upheaval. Now? The Raiders' staff believes Carr gives Las Vegas its best shot at success. -- Gutierrez

Gutierrez's confidence rating (0-10): 4.5, up from 3.5. Yes, an uptick, but a slight one. The Raiders have a habit of playing to their competition, and despite dominating the stat sheet, they were in position to lose to a team of backups playing its practice squad quarterback. How the Raiders respond to a rival in the Broncos will be a better bellwether.

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

Browns

What to know: With a depleted roster, the Browns put up a valiant performance. But ultimately, they couldn't deliver the game-clinching first down. And they couldn't come up with the game-ending stop. This could've been a galvanizing victory for a team hoping to make a playoff push. Instead, it was a demoralizing defeat that dimmed Cleveland's postseason hopes. -- Jake Trotter

Who will the Browns get back before their next game? The Browns now face a short week, with Saturday's game at Green Bay looming. But Cleveland should be getting several key players back in time. Quarterback Baker Mayfield, wide receiver Jarvis Landry and tight end Austin Hooper have been on the COVID-19/reserve list for a week now. Despite the short turnaround, the Browns likely will have many of their starters back for the Packers. -- Trotter

Trotter's confidence rating (0-10): 6, down from 6.1. At 7-7, and now in last place in the AFC North, the Browns' playoff hopes are looking like a long shot.

Next game: at Packers (Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET)

New Orleans 9, Tampa Bay 0

Saints

What to know: The Saints revived their season with an absolute masterpiece by a defense that has become Tom Brady's kryptonite in recent years. They became just the third team ever to shut out Brady -- on a night when defensive coordinator Dennis Allen was also serving as the replacement head coach while Sean Payton was home with COVID-19. And they needed every bit of it on a night when New Orleans' offense didn't fare much better. The Saints will obviously need more from the offense down the stretch, but they are back to being legitimate playoff contenders heading into next Monday night's home date with the Miami Dolphins. -- Mike Triplett

Will the Saints stick with Taysom Hill at quarterback? Hill's performance was pretty unremarkable, with way too many three-and-outs in the second half. And he was especially off-target on a handful of throws to RB Alvin Kamara -- something he absolutely must improve since Kamara is so vital to this offense. But he didn't turn the ball over. His running ability will be more effective against lesser defenses going forward. And, as we saw with Trevor Siemian, any QB will struggle when both OTs -- Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk -- are out. So, chances are Hill keeps his grip on the job for now -- mallet finger and all. -- Triplett

Triplett's confidence rating (0-10): 5.5, up from 4.5. A full-point jump for the Saints, who were double-digit underdogs Sunday for the first time since Payton arrived in 2006. Now, they should probably be favored in their final three games (vs. Miami, vs. Carolina Panthers, at Atlanta Falcons).

Next game: vs. Dolphins (Monday, Dec. 27, 8:20 p.m. ET)

Buccaneers

What to know: Death. Taxes. Losing to the Saints during the regular season. Those have been absolutes if you're Bucs quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bruce Arians, who are now 0-4 against them during the regular season. Sunday night's loss blew an opportunity to capture the NFC South title at home, as well. The loss also snapped a seven-game streak of scoring at least 30 points at home, the third-longest streak in NFL history. Brady also snapped his streak of 255 consecutive starts without being shut out. Brady lost three of his biggest offensive weapons: Wide receivers Chris Godwin (knee) and Mike Evans (hamstring) and running back Leonard Fournette (hamstring) with injuries, but even with them the Bucs lacked intensity, and it showed. Brady was sacked four times and turned the ball over twice. On top of that, Brady failed to connect with one of his favorite targets in tight end Rob Gronkowski on multiple instances. -- Jenna Laine

How does the loss impact the Bucs' playoff standing? The Bucswere overtaken by the Dallas Cowboys (10-4) for the second seed because of their 8-1 record in the NFC. The Bucs did beat the Cowboys head-to-head in Week 1. One wonders what kind of team will the Bucs field these next three games with Godwin, Evans and Fournette suddenly in jeopardy? -- Laine

Laine's confidence rating (0-10): 7.5, down from 8.5. The Bucs should be done playing the Saints unless they manage to squeak into the playoffs, and no other team has had their number like this, with the exception of possibly the Rams.

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

Green Bay 31, Baltimore 30

Packers

What to know: Three seasons, three division titles. That's Matt LaFleur's signature as theGreen Bay Packerscoach after his defense stopped theBaltimore Ravenson a 2-point play with 42 seconds left to seal it. Next up, another 13-win season -- if not better. If they win out -- and this might have been their toughest remaining game in the final month of the season -- they'll get to 14-3 in the 17-game schedule after back-to-back 13-3 seasons to start LaFleur's head-coaching career. With the COVID-19-ravaged Cleveland Browns, the inconsistent Minnesota Vikings and the two-win Detroit Lions remaining, the Packers have a manageable path to the finish line. And this will go down as a historic day in Packers history with quarterbackAaron Rodgers throwing his 442nd career touchdown pass to tie Brett Favre for the franchise record. -- Rob Demovsky

What's with the Packers' special teams? Well, they didn't have nine botched plays like they did last week. Only a few. But they were bad ones: Cornerback Isaac Yiadom was called for fair catch interference when he blatantly ran into a Ravens returner; Patrick Taylor let a squib kickoff go through his legs but got bailed out when Jonathan Garvin recovered it; a holding penalty wiped out a decent kick return; and there was a delay of game on a fourth-quarter punt with the Packers backed up. -- Demovsky

Demovsky's confidence rating (0-10): 8.5, up from 8. Not much can stop the Packers now. And they might even get some reinforcements back before the regular season ends in cornerback Jaire Alexander, outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith, left tackle David Bakhtiari and/or center Josh Myers.

Next game: vs. Browns (Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET)

Ravens

What to know: The Ravens are no longer a near certainty to make the postseason. The short-handed Ravens showed no fear in going toe-to-toe with the NFC's best team -- without quarterback Lamar Jackson and with a depleted secondary and offensive line. Ravens coach John Harbaugh once again went for a 2-point conversion to win late in the fourth quarter, and the Ravens came up short for the second time in three weeks. The loss spoiled admirable performances by backup quarterback Tyler Huntley (215 yards passing and 73 yards rushing) and tight end Mark Andrews (136 yards and two touchdowns). Three weeks ago, Baltimore was projected to have a 91.3% chance of reaching the playoffs, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. Now, with three games remaining, the Ravens wouldn't be in the postseason if the regular season ended today. Baltimore is out of first place in the AFC North after an eight-week run atop the division and sits at No. 8 in the conference. -- Jamison Hensley

Will Jackson return next Sunday for a huge AFC North game at the Bengals? The Ravens have a decision to make for a game that could decide the winner of the AFC North. With Jackson missing his first game because of injury, backup quarterback Huntley showed toughness in nearly pulling off a monumental upset. He became the first player in Ravens history to throw two touchdown passes and run for two touchdowns. Now, Baltimore has to figure out whether to go back to Jackson, who might not be at full strength, or stick with Huntley. Harbaugh has said Jackson's injury isn't a major one, which means the 2019 NFL MVP has a shot at starting the biggest game of the season for Baltimore. -- Hensley

Hensley's confidence rating (0-10): 5, down from 6. Baltimore has lost three straight and is fading. The Ravens' season could come down to Sunday's game at Cincinnati.

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

Cincinnati 15, Denver 10

Bengals

What to know: It wasn't pretty, but the Cincinnati Bengals gutted out a much-needed victory over the Denver Broncos to keep pace in a crowded AFC playoff race. The defense held Denver at bay long enough for the Bengals to find a few bright moments on offense, including a 56-yard touchdown pass from Joe Burrow to Tyler Boyd with 30 seconds to play in the third quarter. It all sets up for a big AFC North showdown against Baltimore next week with both teams tied for the division lead. -- Ben Baby

Is this offense still a major issue? Without a doubt. Again, the offense sputtered early and got absolutely nothing going in the first half. Granted, Denver's defense is very good, but the Bengals finished with 250 yards for the game. Given the trend of Cincinnati's slow starts, the biggest issue surrounding this team remains a giant problem with three games left in the regular season. -- Baby

Baby's confidence rating (0-10): 6.7, up from 5. The offensive struggles are not inspiring much confidence.

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

Broncos

What to know: Hanging on by the slimmest of margins in the AFC's still-muddled playoff race, the Broncos might have to salvage their final three games without quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who suffered a head injury in Sunday's season-crushing loss to the Bengals. Bridgewater has been the emotional leader of the Broncos and has helped them cut down turnovers. If Bridgewater misses time, Drew Lock will get a chance to show he learned his lessons from 2020, when he tied for the league lead in interceptions and was last in the league in completion percentage. He didn't start well, fumbling on his second drive against the Bengals, a play that effectively ended the Broncos' chances for a win. -- Jeff Legwold

Can the Broncos ever find some points? The defense has been playoff worthy, especially over the past eight weeks. The Broncos have even cleaned up some unreliable special teams play in the past three weeks. Keeping their razor-thin playoff chances alive will be largely dependent on avoiding anything the offensive staff showed in the first half Sunday. -- Legwold

Legwold's confidence rating (0-10): 4, down from 6. This offense continues to be the anchor of progress in the team's fortunes.

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

San Francisco 31, Atlanta 13

49ers

What to know: The 49ers took care of business against an inferior opponent and are in the driver's seat for an NFC playoff spot. At 8-6, the Niners' chances of reaching the postseason jumped from 78% to 88%, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. That number would have dipped all the way to 43% with a loss. The Niners are now the sixth seed, but they also have another tiebreaker against a bottom-of-the-NFC contender. With a quick turnaround to Thursday night in Tennessee, the 49ers have a short week but a great opportunity to prove they should be taken seriously come January. -- Nick Wagoner

Is this version of Jimmy Garoppolo here to stay? Since Week 8, Garoppolo has been one of the league's most efficient quarterbacks, entering Sunday's game with the fourth-best QBR in the NFL in that span. He then had one of his most complete performances of the season, finishing 18-of-23 for 235 yards and a touchdown for a rating of 123.7. The Falcons are a mess defensively, but Garoppolo's recent run of consistency is an encouraging sign. That must continue if the Niners are going to make any noise in the playoffs, as teams undoubtedly will dare Garoppolo to beat them. -- Wagoner

Wagoner's confidence rating (0-10): 7.2, up from 6.5. The 49ers are 6-2 in their past eight games and have won five of six. They have their flaws, but in a wide-open NFC, they increasingly look the part of a team nobody will be excited to play in January.

Next game: at Titans (Thursday, 8:20 p.m. ET)

Falcons

What to know: Going into this season, there were major questions about the Falcons in a lot of areas. And each time Atlanta has run into a true playoff-type team, those issues have arisen. For the sixth time this season, the Falcons lost by double digits. Almost all of those losses, except to Philadelphia, have come to likely playoff teams, which shows the obvious: While the Falcons have been as competitive as they can be this season, they don't have enough to be in games against contenders. And when you look at Atlanta's 2021 season, one that's not mathematically over from a playoff perspective but certainly feels like it, that's the bottom line. -- Michael Rothstein

What's the biggest area of need for 2022? After another week in which Atlanta's offensive line (and tight ends and running backs) allowed quarterbackMatt Ryan to be hit 10 times -- and he was forced to scramble many, many other times -- it has to be on the offensive line. Whether that's replacing starters or bringing in competition, the Falcons' line needs to be better in pass protection next year no matter the quarterback. Atlanta has a lot of other holes -- pass rush is a big one, too -- but nowhere is the problem more evident than the OL. The line's play also contributed to three drives in which Atlanta reached goal-to-go and didn't score a touchdown -- the first time the Falcons have managed that since 2004. -- Rothstein

Rothstein's confidence rating (0-10): 3.5, down from 4. The Falcons are what they've shown all season -- a team that doesn't have the personnel to truly compete.

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

Detroit 30, Arizona 12

Lions

What to know: The Lions are the first team to beat the Cardinals on the road all season. Quarterback Jared Goff said the team continues to play for "pride" and has embraced the "spoiler" role with the playoffs clearly out of the picture. The Lions were able to register their second regular-season victory of the season with another upset. The Lions continue to play hard for first-year coach Dan Campbell. -- Eric Woodyard

Can rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown continue his streak of seven-plus receptions in three straight games? Yes. This kid is legit. Although St. Brown was confident entering the season, the game-winning touchdown catch against Minnesota on Dec. 5 lifted him even more. He knows he belongs on this stage, and Goff continues to target him more with Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson notably out for the season. One of the biggest questions, dating to training camp, was who would emerge as a legitimate threat among the receiving corps, and St. Brown has arrived. He's not only the first rookie in Lions history to post seven-plus receptions in three straight games, but also the third rookie in team history to have 70 or more receiving yards, which he achieved over that three-game stretch, too. -- Woodyard

Woodyard's confidence rating (0-10): 3, up from 2. Coming off their second-largest loss of the season last week in Denver, the Lions aren't interested in tanking; they remain competitive no matter who is on the field, and they showed that against Arizona.

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

Cardinals

What to know:It's starting to feel a lot like last season. The Arizona Cardinals played their worst game of the year against the worst team in the NFL, the Detroit Lions. Their loss was their second in a row, and they are now 3-4 in their past seven after starting 7-0. Last season, they started 5-2 and finished 3-6 and out of the playoffs. Missing the postseason is unlikely at this stage, at 10-4, but finishing the year poorly might start putting coach Kliff Kingsbury's ability to take a team deep in the postseason in question. Arizona was doomed from the start on Sunday when the Lions ate 8 minutes, 50 seconds of the clock on their opening possession. Detroit was in control from there, keeping the Cardinals' offense off the field for long periods. When Arizona's offense was on the field, it hardly produced, gaining 84 yards in the first half -- a product of off passes by quarterback Kyler Murray and questionable playcalling by Kingsbury. -- Josh Weinfuss

Can the Cardinals right the ship with three games left? It doesn't look like it will be easy. Arizona will have to face a hot Colts team on Christmas and then a good Cowboys team before closing the season out against the Seahawks. The Cardinals will face all of them without wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, whose absence could be felt all over the field Sunday in Detroit. If they can't fix their run defense (which allowed 3.7 yards per carry vs. Detroit) and get their offense to start producing touchdowns again, the ship will continue to sail off course. -- Weinfuss

Weinfuss' confidence rating (0-10): 6, down from 7.9. Sunday's performance was enough to cause major concern about whether the Cardinals can close out a season and get to the playoffs playing decent-to-good football.

Next game: vs. Colts (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET)

Dallas 21, New York Giants 6

Cowboys

What to know: Coach Mike McCarthy will officially talk about the playoffs now. Sunday's win against the Giants was the Cowboys' 10th victory of the season. They can clinch a playoff spot in a matter of hours if New Orleans or San Francisco loses. They can clinch the NFC East if Washington and Philadelphia tie on Tuesday or if Washington loses and they gain a strength-of-victory tiebreaker over the Eagles. Before heading down that rabbit hole, just know the Cowboys are all but certain to win the division. But this team wants more than a division crown. Now it is about playoff seeding. Dallas is in contention for the No. 1 seed but likely has to win out and needs the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to lose two games since the Cowboys lost to the defending Super Bowl champion in Week 1. Getting the No. 2 or 3 seed matters so they avoid a potential wild-card matchup vs. one of the better NFC West teams. The Jan. 2 meeting vs. the Arizona Cardinals will be major for the Cowboys. If the defense is playing as well as it is now -- four more takeaways, no touchdowns allowed -- and if the offense can get back into full rhythm, then the Cowboys can be a dangerous team. -- Todd Archer

What is up with the red zone offense? To be successful in the playoffs, teams can't settle for field goals. In their past two games, the Cowboys have scored touchdowns on three of 11 red zone trips. To be fair, one trip inside the 20 last week came when the Cowboys were taking a knee to seal the win vs. Washington. One trip Sunday was an end-of-half scenario in which McCarthy settled for the field goal. But there are far too many inconsistencies for an offense that has this many tools at its disposal. On the road this year, the Cowboys have scored touchdowns on 10 of 29 red zone chances. The good news: They have one more road game in the regular season. The bad news: They are likely going to have play two road games in the playoffs to make it to the Super Bowl. -- Archer

Archer's confidence rating (0-10): 8.9, up from 8.7. The Cowboys did what they needed to do against a bad team that has been hit hard by COVID-19. They won a game they were supposed to win. It wasn't pretty, but it was a victory that inched them closer to winning the division and a playoff spot.

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

Giants

What to know: The Giants' offense is incompetent. They're averaging 11.8 points in their past five games. Coach Joe Judge has talked about doing whatever is necessary in regards to the offensive game plan to win. Well, this isn't it. Not that they have much chance. Anytime the Giants are in a passing situation, their quarterback has no chance. The Giants had 99 yards passing in Sunday's loss to the Cowboys. The Giants could realistically lose out and finish 4-13. Who are they going to beat? Maybe Washington at home. Possibly win in Chicago? This is ugly. -- Jordan Raanan

Is it even worth bringing quarterback Daniel Jones back this season? There are three games left in a lost season. Bringing Jones back at this point makes less and less sense each week. There is obvious concern about whether his injured neck can handle contact. He hasn't been cleared each of the past three weeks. Why take any risk at this point? A source told ESPN last week that the team was losing hope that Jones would return this season. Better safe than sorry with the young quarterback at this point, even if the Giants would like to see him gain more experience. -- Raanan

Raanan's confidence rating (0-10): 2.1, down from 2.8. It's painful to watch the Giants' offense.

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

Miami 31, New York Jets 24

Dolphins

What to know: Who cares whom the Miami Dolphins have beaten during this six-game winning streak? Good teams find a way to win in tough conditions, and Miami faced adversity in Sunday's win against the New York Jets, rallying from an early 10-0 deficit. It outscored its division rival 21-7 in the second half. Overcoming adversity is not something the Dolphins had to do during the first five games of their winning streak; the win marked their first of the season when trailing by more than a field goal. Overcoming a multiple-score deficit without receiver Jaylen Waddle or safety Jevon Holland should be a point of pride, as should the ability to overcome a shaky performance from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. -- Marcel Louis-Jacques

Is Duke Johnson the Dolphins' RB1 moving forward? It's the question every running back-needy fantasy manager is asking this week. The former University of Miami product earned his first start of the season and turned it into 107 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries. It's the first time in his career that Johnson has received a 20-carry workload, and he did not disappoint, running with purpose for all four quarters. Myles Gaskin was no slouch, rushing for 54 yards on 10 carries, but Johnson did enough Sunday to earn himself another start. -- Louis-Jacques

Louis-Jacques' confidence rating (0-10): 8.5, up from 8.3. Tagovailoa was not good in this game, but he gets a pass without Waddle; at full strength, Miami is capable of winning out.

Next game: at Saints (Monday, Dec. 27, 8:15 p.m. ET)

Jets

What to know: Let's take a silver-lining view of quarterback Zach Wilson's performance: It was a great learning experience. He hung tough under adverse circumstances but ultimately failed to rally his team. Overwhelmed by the Miami pass rush, Wilson was sacked six times, including a fumble on a strip sack. He managed the game well in the first half, helping the Jets to leads of 10-0 and 17-10, but he failed to deliver any big plays in the second half. His pass protection, sans left tackle George Fant, was a mess. At times, Wilson had that deer-in-the-headlights look. The trick plays and dink-and-dunk passing, which carried the offense in the first half, fizzled. The Jets managed three first downs in the second half. Wilson had two drives in the last five minutes with a chance to tie the game and quiet his critics, but he failed to get it done. Tough rookie year. -- Rich Cimini

What happened to the Jets' run defense? The Jets struggle with pretty much everything on defense, and you have to put their run defense high on the list of issues. Facing the 31st-ranked rushing offense, the Jets allowed 183 yards on the ground -- by far Miami's season high. The Jets played without nose tackle Folorunso Fatukasi, but that was no excuse. Their front four is supposed to be the strength of the team, but Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers & Co. were invisible. When your best unit can't get it done, you've got problems. But that has been the story of the Jets' rotten season. Their tackling was awful, as usual. Coach Robert Saleh seemed more upset by that than anything else, saying, "It is disappointing. A lot of missed tackles in the run game. It's clearly not good enough." -- Cimini

Cimini's confidence rating (0-10): 2.5, up from 2. The Jets played a gutty game on the road, but they came unglued in crunch time. But at least they made it a 60-minute game against a playoff-contending opponent.

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

Pittsburgh 19, Tennessee 13

Steelers

What to know: A tackle by Joe Haden, playing in his first game since injuring his left foot against the Detroit Lions, kept the Titans from converting on fourth down by an eyelash and kept the Steelers' playoff hopes alive. Timely defensive plays -- including three fumble recoveries and an interception -- helped Pittsburgh win the turnover differential for the third game in a row. And three of those turnovers came in a stretch of 10 plays late in the second half. But the offense managed 12 points off those turnovers. Still, Haden and the defense made a play when it mattered most and gave the Steelers a crucial AFC win. -- Brooke Pryor

What's keeping the Steelers from starting faster? For yet another week, Pittsburgh looked sluggish and uninspired in the first half and was trailing 13-3 at halftime. It has been outscored by 62 points in the first half this season. Sunday, the Steelers lost the time of possession battle 21:19 to 8:41 in the first half, and no phase of the game looked good. They had 16 rushing yards in the first half, their third fewest of the season, while the defense allowed a rushing touchdown for the ninth consecutive game, their longest streak since allowing 12 straight over the 1967-68 seasons. And on special teams, Pittsburgh had a 27-yard punt, gave up a 55-yard return and then had a 32-yard punt. The Steelers have a pesky habit of getting hot after halftime, but the slow starts force them into an almost doomed game of catch-up. -- Pryor

Pryor's confidence rating (0-10): 3.7, up from 2.3. Haden saved the Steelers' season, but there are still significant problems the Steelers must address to keep the momentum going.

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

Titans

What to know: The Titans jumped to a 13-3 lead by dominating the first half. Things changed drastically in the second half because of turnovers. Three of Tennessee's four turnovers came in the second half, and two of them were in the fourth quarter. That opened the door for the Steelers to roar back by scoring 16 unanswered points. QuarterbackRyan Tannehill has five games with multiple turnovers this season, which is more than he had in his first two seasons with the Titans combined. Tennessee turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions at one point. That was the Titans' longest streak in a game since 2017. Despite their poor showing, they are still in the hunt for the top seed in the AFC. -- Turron Davenport

What's wrong with the Titans' offense? Everything. The offensive line gave up pressures. Tannehill was sacked four times and was inaccurate for the most part. Wide receiverJulio Jones was targeted only once in the first half, which is far too few times for a player expected to be such an impactful weapon. Jones was ruled out with an injury early in the third quarter. The lack of game-changing playmakers hindered the Titans' ability to find any rhythm on offense. Ultimately, it cost them on the final drive when they came up just short on fourth-and-6. -- Davenport

Davenport's confidence rating (0-10): 8, no change from 8. The biggest issue is health. GuardRodger Saffold wasn't able to play this week. Jones went down again with a hamstring injury. The offense struggled once again. The possibility of getting WRA.J. Brown back on Thursday is promising. But a lot of progress is still needed from the offense, which at this point has no true strength.

Next game: vs. 49ers (Thursday, 8:20 p.m. ET)

Houston 30, Jacksonville 16

Texans

What to know: The Texans have likely blown their chance for the No. 1 pick. Because the Lions, who came into the day with a 1-11-1 record, beat the Cardinals, the loser of Texans-Jaguars jumped into the top spot. That was Jacksonville, with its 2-12 record the worst in the NFL. Even at 3-11, though, the No. 2 pick is still in play for the Texans because they are a half-game back of the Lions. The Texans are of course not trying to tank, but a big special teams game (three field goals from kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn and a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown) helped give the Jaguars the inside track at the top pick for the second year in a row. The Jags have a 55% shot at the top pick, followed by the Lions (24%), Jets (11%) and Texans (10%).-- Sarah Barshop

Have the Texans seen enough from Davis Mills to count on him next year? Although coach David Culley said he chose to replace quarterback Tyrod Taylor with Mills because the rookie gave the team the best chance to win, the final five games of the season are serving as an audition of sorts for the third-round draft pick. Unlike during his first stint as a starter while Taylor was injured, Mills has done a better job protecting the football in his two starts since the switch, with one interception in the three games. For a second week in a row, Mills had a strong first half before slowing down in the second, but he did throw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to ice the game for Houston. While Mills has been an upgrade over the way Taylor was playing in his return from injured reserve, the team likely sees him more as a backup quarterback than as its clear-cut starter in 2022. -- Barshop

Barshop's confidence rating (0-10): 0.6, up from 0.4. Two of the Texans' three wins this season have come against the Jaguars, but Houston hasn't shown much competitiveness against the rest of the NFL.

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

Jaguars

What to know: As much of a problem as coach Urban Meyer was, firing him had no impact on the team's offensive woes. While the Jaguars did score 16 points -- nearly a full touchdown more than what they had been averaging over the seven games (9.1) since the bye -- they still managed one touchdown drive. Since the bye week, the offense has scored seven TDs (including one against the Texans, who were missing five defensive starters). Fixing the offense, rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence's development and the franchise's chances for success over the next decade depend on owner Shad Khan making the correct hire to replace Meyer. It needs to be someone with previous NFL head-coaching experience and a background in offense. -- Mike DiRocco

Did the Jaguars just lock up the No. 1 pick (again)? They're in the driver's seat after getting swept by the Texans for the ninth time in the past 11 seasons, which gives them the worst record in the NFL. They're helped, or hurt depending on your point of view, by the Lions' tie with Pittsburgh. It's not a lock yet because the Jaguars do play the New York Jets next Sunday, but their final two games after that are at New England and home against Indianapolis -- two teams fighting for playoff positioning. -- DiRocco

DiRocco's confidence rating (0-10): 0.4, down from 0.5. Still the same problems every week and hard to see it getting any better until 2022.

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

Buffalo 31, Carolina 14

Bills

What to know: Wide receiver Gabriel Davis was expected to see the field more with Emmanuel Sanders out because of a knee injury, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. Davis finished the game as the team's leading receiver with five receptions for 85 yards and two touchdowns, the first multiple-touchdown game of his career. He now has scored at least one touchdown in three straight games. In both the game against the Buccaneers and this win vs. Carolina, the offense has been at its best when Davis is a major contributor and reliable option for quarterback Josh Allen. After playing roughly half of the snaps or less in most games this season, Davis should end the year with more time on field. Not only has he proved himself as a receiving weapon, but he's also one of the team's better blockers. Allen should continue to look for him downfield. -- Alaina Getzenberg

Can the Bills use this win and stack victories for the first time since Weeks 4 and 5? This game against the Panthers was a must-win for the Bills. Next up is arguably the most important game of the season. The AFC East will be on the line with a trip to New England, and Buffalo will have plenty to prove after a 14-10 loss to the Patriots in Week 13. Putting back-to-back wins together is something that the Bills haven't done since a four-game winning streak early in the season. The biggest test of the year is still to come. -- Getzenberg

Getzenberg's confidence rating (0-10): 7.8, up from 7.2. This was a needed win against a Panthers team with plenty of issues, but the Bills let Carolina linger for too long to allow this rating to go up much.

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

Panthers

What to know: Losing kicker Zane Gonzalez (quad) during pregame warm-ups added another layer of uncertainty to a bad Carolina team. Could a healthy Gonzalez have made a difference? Maybe. Not having him took at least six points off the board. That the score was as close as it was for most of the game is a testament to the defense continuing to play hard while the offense continues to struggle, particularly in the passing game, providing further evidence the offense needs a complete overhaul during the offseason. -- David Newton

Will quarterback Sam Darnold play again this season? Yes. Darnold will have his shoulder examined on Monday. If cleared, he will be eligible for Sunday's home game against Tampa Bay. With Cam Newton 0-4 as a starter for the Panthers this year and having lost 12 consecutive games as a Carolina starter, the Panthers need to find out what they have for next season since Darnold is the only quarterback under contract. Whether coach Matt Rhule will turn the offense completely over to Darnold, who lost five of his last six starts before going on injured reserve, is the biggest question. -- Newton

Newton's confidence rating (0-10): 3.9, up from 3.8. Next up are Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, not exactly a recipe for success for a Carolina team that has won twice in the past 11 games.

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

Indianapolis 27, New England 17

Colts

What to know: The Colts have gone from being the eighth seed, which was on the outside of the AFC playoff picture, to now the fifth seed in the conference. Indianapolis ended its eight-game losing streak to the Patriots with defense, forcing two turnovers and blocking a punt. -- Mike Wells

Can the Colts rely on quarterback Carson Wentz? Wentz, outside of having three quarterback sneaks for first downs, didn't play well. He threw one interception, and the Patriots dropped two other interceptions. Those types of mistakes will hurt the Colts down the stretch. -- Wells

Wells' confidence rating (0-10): 6, up from 3.7. The Colts will be favored in two of their final three games -- Las Vegas and Jacksonville. They've positioned themselves to get in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons under coach Frank Reich.

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

Patriots

What to know: The Patriots dug themselves too big of a hole, and their late comeback bid fell just short. A disastrous first half, and falling behind 17-0, proved too much to overcome. In that first half, the Patriots made too many mistakes and were controlled at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Meanwhile, the Colts had made their defensive intentions clear leading into the game: Take away the run game, put the ball in quarterback Mac Jones' hands and see how he responds. As it turned out, Jones had his worst first half as a pro. He threw his first red zone interception of the season (late in the second quarter) and then opened the third quarter with a pick deep in the Patriots' own territory. Jones had a total of two interceptions during the Patriots' seven-game winning streak. He rebounded a bit in the second half, but it was too late. -- Mike Reiss

How costly is the loss for playoff seeding? The Patriots had been in control of possibly earning the No. 1 seed, but now they no longer are in that position. Dropping to 9-5, they are behind the Chiefs (10-4) and have games remaining against the Bills (home), Jaguars (home) and Dolphins (road). So they are still in the driver's seat in the AFC East, with the Dec. 26 game against the Bills an obvious biggie. Then there is the short-term picture: Is this a sign of trouble ahead? -- Reiss

Reiss' confidence rating (0-10): 6.8, down from 7. Every team gets a mulligan over the course of a season. The Patriots had slowly been rising up the ranks, but this sets them back a bit.

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

Kansas City 34, L.A. Chargers 28

Chiefs

What to know: Travis Kelce still has it. There was some concern about the 32-year-old tight end, who has four games with 30 yards or less this season. But he delivered for the Chiefs on Thursday night against the Chargers in the biggest game of the season with a huge fourth quarter and overtime. -- Adam Teicher

Should the Chiefs be concerned about their defense? The Chiefs, who allowed 27 points total in their previous three games, gave up 28 against the Chargers. But the Chiefs not only played against a top-level quarterback and a strong offensive opponent, but they also did so without three key defensive players, including defensive tackle Chris Jones. Jones would have made a difference in a pass-rush that struggled much of the game in getting pressure on Justin Herbert. So it's premature to lose confidence in the defense. -- Teicher

Teicher's confidence rating (0-10): 9.4, up from 9.1. The Chiefs weren't great for the full game against the Chargers, but they looked like a championship team when it truly counted.

Next game: vs. Steelers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)

Chargers

What to know: The Chargers are almost there. Almost. If they had scored after making it to the 5-yard line, they could have won this game. Coach Brandon Staley insists going for it on fourth down (even though they failed three times) is the right course of action and is "how this team will play" because he believes in it. So do his players. -- Shelley Smith

Can they win a tough game by going for it on fourth down?We shall see. They came close Thursday, but what about the next three games against at the Houston Texans, vs. the Denver Broncos and at the Las Vegas Raiders? -- Smith

Smith's confidence rating (0-10): 7, no change from 7. The Chargers are still in the playoff hunt but likely lost their shot at the AFC West title.

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