2021 NFL season, Week 16: What we learned from Sunday's games

Around The NFL breaks down what you need to know from all of Sunday's action in Week 16 of the 2021 NFL season. Catch up on each game's biggest takeaways using the links below:

Dallas Cowboys
2021 · 11-4-0

Grant Gordon's takeaways:

  1. Dak is back and then some. The Cowboys clinched a playoff berth on Thursday, when the 49ers lost. Dallas dialed up an NFC East title prior to kickoff Sunday thanks to a Raiders win. And then, having received all kinds of help before taking the field, Dak Prescott and the 'Boys showed no assistance was needed, as they looked every bit a division champion and all the more like a Super Bowl contender on a stupendous Sunday night. All those worries about Prescott slumping were crushed right along with Washington's hopes during a first half in which the Cowboys QB posted 322 yards passing, four touchdowns and a 142.8 QB rating. Dallas went into halftime having so thoroughly pummeled Washington that WFT players started pummeling each other on the sideline. Prescott got Amari Cooper more involved. Ezekiel Elliott had a pair of touchdowns. An offensive lineman, running back, wideout and tight end all caught Dak TDs, and Dallas looked as dazzling as it has all year. With Dak at his best, this was Dallas at its best for all the world to see in prime time. Prescott left the game in the third quarter of a laugher, calling it an early night after providing more evidence that this could be a long season in all the right ways. If the Cowboys can keep on rolling as they were Sunday night, a Super Bowl run for Dallas will be as realistic a proposition as it has been in quite some time.
  2. Disaster goes to Washington. Tress Way had another excellent evening punting the ball. If there was any positive to pull from Washington's performance, that was about it. A disaster from the onset that played out as an example of why the mercy rule could be considered in the NFL, Washington's performance saw it struggle mightily in all facets to conclude a tragic and trying week. For a team clinging to minimal playoff hopes, those were all but stomped into oblivion in one of those catastrophic showings that plays out as a symbol of all that's going wrong. The Taylor Heinicke-led offense had just one scoring drive and the QB finished the game with a 28.8 rating. The Washington defense gave up five touchdowns and 389 yards of offense in the game's initial 30 minutes. A sideline skirmish between WFT defensive linemen Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne will be the clip replayed over and over that speaks to the Washington struggles and disharmony. But getting blown out on prime time against a hated rival for a third consecutive loss speaks louder than a disrespectful point and a right hand that didn't land all that well. This was an abysmal showing for the Football Team that commands myriad changes going forward.
  3. Big D is for defense. Rookie phenoms, interception leaders, Pro Bowl defensive ends returning to form ... oh my. The Dallas defense was a punchline a season ago and is now a driving force for the NFC East champions. Sunday night was a showcase of that, as cornerback Trevon Diggs snagged his league-leading 11th interception, Micah Parsons racked up another sack, Demarcus Lawrence and Chauncey Golston had defensive/special teams touchdowns and Dallas simply smothered Washington's offense. With so much postseason-award talk surrounding Parsons and Diggs, perhaps it's time for Dan Quinn to draw some conversation about being the top assistant coach. The turnaround for Dallas' D from last year to this has been astounding. The Cowboys defense makes game-changing plays and has held each opponent to 20 points or less during the team's current four-game winning streak. Dallas' defense is no longer a liability, but a prevailing reason as to why a lengthy postseason could lie ahead.

Next Gen stat of the game: On Demarcus Lawrence's 40-yard interception return for a touchdown, the Cowboys defensive end reached a top speed of 17.51 mph and traveled 58.1 yards. It's the fourth-fastest speed by a defensive lineman over the last three seasons and the fastest speed by Lawrence in the NGS era (since 2016).

NFL Research: Trevon Diggs notched his 11th interception of the season (more than 12 teams have in total) to tie the Cowboys' single-season record shared by Everson Walls. Diggs' total is the most in the NFL since Walls' 1981 showing.

Kansas City Chiefs
2021 · 11-4-0
Pittsburgh Steelers
2021 · 7-7-1

Nick Shook's takeaways:

  1. Rumors of the Chiefs' demise were greatly exaggerated. Kansas City is firing on all cylinders and maintained its speed Sunday even without Travis Kelce, racking up 30 points and over 375 yards of offense in a lopsided victory Sunday. Patrick Mahomes turned to Byron Pringle to replace some of Kelce's production, connecting with the receiver twice for touchdowns. Derrick Gore replaced Clyde Edwards-Helaire with contributions in the running and passing games, and Mecole Hardman even chipped in with a touchdown. Defensively, the Chiefs continue to roll, stifling Pittsburgh's offense while enjoying three takeaways. The Chiefs are right back where they were a year ago and don't appear to be going away anytime soon.
  2. Stick a fork in the Steelers. Pittsburgh gave its fans a fresh dose of hope with last week's win, but this week's game is an example of who the Steelers are. Its once-vaunted defense hasn't lived up to its billing for a significant chunk of this season, and no more than on Sunday, when the unit allowed Mahomes to pick it apart all afternoon. The offense has talented playmakers but too often can't get out of its own way, turning the ball over, dropping open passes, failing to convert on third- and fourth-and-short, and even backing itself up with penalties (i.e., a taunting flag following a long completion while trailing 30-0) after positive gains. Pittsburgh is what its record says: a .500 team playing .500 football. The Steelers still have a shot to make the postseason thanks to the morass that is the AFC North, but they aren't playing like a playoff team.
  3. The final weeks of 2021 could be a bittersweet finish for Ben Roethlisberger. We don't know for certain whether Roethlisberger is done after 2021, but we know it sure looks like that will be the case. Roethlisberger accounted for two ugly turnovers Sunday and needed a garbage-time touchdown to bring his passer rating above 70 in the latest game of what has been a tumultuous season for the quarterback. His final two games offer a chance to still find a way into the playoffs, but it'll come with a significant challenge in the form of two division opponents: Cleveland and Baltimore. Should the Steelers lay a couple more eggs like they did Sunday, Roethlisberger might end his NFL career the same way he finished 2020: disappointed by subpar performances. It wouldn't be the appropriate way to send Roethlisberger to retirement from a Steelers' perspective, while it would be a savory method of farewell for the rivals who await him. The Steelers owe it to Roethlisberger to play better in those games than they did Sunday, and he owes it to himself.

Next Gen stat of the game: Patrick Mahomes completed 4 of 4 passes against the blitz for 53 yards and one touchdown.

NFL Research: Mahomes is the first QB since 1970 to win 11 or more games in four of his first five seasons (has done it each year 2018-21).

Las Vegas Raiders
2021 · 8-7-0
Denver Broncos
2021 · 7-8-0

Kevin Patra's takeaways:

  1. Raiders ride Josh Jacobs to bulldozing win. Las Vegas nearly shot itself in the foot multiple times. The Raiders turned the ball over three times, including twice before halftime, to give Denver 10 points. However, Jacobs came out after halftime and ran over the Broncos. The powerful back ran through and around defenders. Jacobs authored several marvelous juke cuts to pick up chunk gains and keep the chains moving. The former first-round pick gobbled up 129 yards on 27 carries -- 104 in the second half -- in his first game of the season over the century mark. After a late first-half fumble, Jacobs came out in the final two quarters with a purpose. Credit coordinator Greg Olson, who called a good game, helping the Raiders generate 342 yards and 22 first downs. Vegas moved the ball up and down the field against a solid Broncos defense. If it weren't for the self-inflicted errors, the game wouldn't have been close.
  2. Drew Lock, Broncos offense author a dud. Facing a Raiders defense ranked 30th in points allowed, Denver couldn't move the ball with Lock under center. Vegas keyed on the Broncos' run game, holing Javonte Williams to 12 yards and a TD and Melvin Gordon to negative-4 yards on seven carries. The Raiders D bullied the Broncos up front, with Maxx Crosby wreaking havoc against the run and pass. Lock couldn't penetrate the Raiders secondary, generating just 153 yards on 15-of-22 passing, 60 yards of which came on two pass plays. Lock's ball placement was inconsistent, and he looked scatter-brained at times. Lock mixed in a couple of good throws, but they were immediately followed by misses. On the positive side, Lock didn't turn the ball over, but it wasn't an outing that will inspire Denver to believe that he's the answer at QB. Denver picked up a piddling eight first downs on the day, two coming via penalty. The 158 total yards by the Broncos were the fewest allowed by the Raiders since Week 15, 2012.
  3. Back-to-back nail-biting wins keep Raiders in AFC playoff race. The victory pushed Vegas to 8-7 on the season, keeping it in the mix for a playoff spot with two weeks to play. The Raiders sit at the No. 9 seed and are currently tied at 8-7 with the Ravens and Chargers in the battle for the final playoff spot. The road is tough with games against the Colts and Chargers left, but Carr and Co. still have a shot. For Denver, a back-breaking loss sent Vic Fangio's club to 7-8. While the Broncos are not mathematically eliminated, it was essentially a season-ending defeat with the Chargers and Chiefs still on the docket. Questions will start to swirl about Fangio's status, with Denver likely missing the playoffs for the third straight season under the coach.

Next Gen stat of the game: Derek Carr finished the game 8-of-8 for 133 yards and a TD on passes of 10-plus air yards. He became the only player in the NGS era to have two games in a season with a 100% completion percentage on downfield passes, minimum seven attempts (also Week 7 vs. PHI). Additionally, Carr was 7 for 7 for 77 yards vs. the blitz, his second game in the NGS era with seven-plus completions and 100 completion percent versus the blitz (also Week 7, 2019 at GB).

NFL Research: Melvin Gordon's -4.7 rushing yards over expected per carry were the lowest by any RB in a game in the past three seasons (minimum five rushes).

Chicago Bears
2021 · 5-10-0
Seattle Seahawks
2021 · 5-10-0

Chase Goodbread's takeaways:

  1. Nick Foles struggled for most of the game, but he came through late. Getting the start Sunday, the Bears' third-string quarterback took possession with 2:56 remaining, down 24-17, and blazed through the Seattle defense in just six plays to steal a game that Chicago trailed for nearly its entirety. To begin the march, Bears receiver Darnell Mooney took a pass over the middle and battled for 30 yards through contact, and a 15-yard flag for roughing the passer put the ball on the Seattle 35. A few plays later, disaster for Chicago was averted when Carlos Dunlap got a strip-sack for Seattle, but Bears offensive lineman Germain Ifedi made the recovery. From there, the disaster was all Seattle's. Foles hit former Seahawk Jimmy Graham for a touchdown, and Damiere Byrd made a spectacular leaping grab in the back of the end zone for a two-pointer and a Bears win. It was a stark contrast to Foles' first-half ineffectiveness, and it came just in time.
  2. Rashaad Penny is making good use of his late-season opportunities. Set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, Penny is putting on a nice audition that continued Sunday when he ran for 135 yards on 17 carries for the Seahawks. He set up Seattle's first touchdown with a 25-yard run, and later set up its third with a slippery 32-yard scoot to the right side. He did most all of his damage between the tackles (12 for 114, per Next Gen Stats) with all the toughness needed to get the job done in the snow. Two weeks ago in his most extensive action of the season to that point, he rushed 16 times for 137 yards against the Houston Texans with a pair of touchdowns. On Sunday, he basically duplicated the effort. Be it the Seahawks' money or someone else's, Penny can make himself a few extra dollars for 2022 if he keeps this up.
  3. The DK Metcalf- Tyler Lockett tandem was too quiet Sunday. That as much as anything prevented the Seahawks from a bigger scoring output on a day when Russell Wilson got all the help from his running game he could've asked for. Metcalf exploded for a 41-yard touchdown early, beating Thomas Graham for Seattle's first score, but he essentially wasn't heard from again. Lockett caught three passes for 30 yards, and his only grab of the second half came on Seattle's failed desperation drive to end the game. Credit the Bears defense, along with the higher difficulty of throwing in snowy conditions, for the two combining to catch just five of 11 targets. Metcalf, as explosive as he can be, is known to disappear for a half here and there. He's not had a 100-yard game since Week 3. Lockett, however, is finishing his third straight 1,000-yard season, and opponents will take a three-for-30 game from him any time.

Next Gen stat of the game: Bears defensive end Robert Quinn, fresh off his Pro Bowl nod, notched four pressures and a sack on 21 pass rushes (19%).

NFL Research: The Seahawks blew their second fourth-quarter home lead of 10-plus points this season (Week 2 vs. Titans was the other). Entering the season, they were 38-0 in the Russell Wilson era (2012-2020) in such games.

Los Angeles Rams
2021 · 11-4-0
Minnesota Vikings
2021 · 7-8-0

Kevin Patra's takeaways:

  1. Rams pick up Stafford on QB's ugly day, prove they're a well-rounded squad. Matthew Stafford authored his most hideous day in a Rams jersey, tossing three interceptions and a host of poor throws into the turf. Stafford couldn't find the range deep at all, completing just two passes of 15-plus air yards and zero of 20 yards. The veteran was rattled behind a backup offensive line and rushed several throws. But the rest of the Rams picked up their QB. Sony Michel galloped for 131 yards on 27 carries with a TD, plowing for first downs. Michel is the Rams' clear top back at this stage, shining in Sean McVay's scheme. When Stafford did need a play, Cooper Kupp (10/109) continued to be the go-to target, torturing Vikings defensive backs. The Rams special teams also helped out the struggling QB, with Brandon Powell returning a punt for a TD when Minnesota pulled close. L.A. showed it could win on the road even when the quarterback isn't at his best. Sunday marked the first time since 2005 the Rams won with their quarterback throwing three or more INTs.
  2. Hopefully voters didn't send in their Defensive Player of the Year ballots yet. Aaron Donald showed once again that he's the most dominant player in the NFL. The defensive tackle continuously discombobulated everything the Vikings offense tried to accomplish. Donald ripped through block attempts like they were wrapping on a Christmas present. The beast compiled three tackles for loss, three run stuffs, a whopping seven QB pressures, two QB hits and a big sack late. When Donald is hot like he was Sunday, offensive game plans go out the window. As for the Justin Jefferson-Jalen Ramsey matchup, the Rams CB got the better of the battle when the two were matched up. Ramsey allowed just four catches for 40 yards against Jefferson. The star receiver did most of his damage -- eight catches for 116 yards -- against other defenders.
  3. Rams clinch playoff berth; Vikings playoff hopes on life support. The win pushed the Rams to 11-4 on the season, clinching yet another playoff appearance under McVay. L.A. moved to the No. 3 seed with two games to play. The win also put L.A. in the catbird seat for the NFC West title as the Arizona Cardinals divebomb. Meanwhile, the Vikings fell out of playoff position with the loss. At 7-8, Mike Zimmer's squad needs to win out (at Green Bay, vs. Chicago) and get help if it hopes to make the postseason.

Next Gen stat of the game: Matthew Stafford was 0 for 2 with an interception on deep passes (NFL-high 1,040 yards on deep passes in Weeks 1-15).

NFL Research: With his 9-yard reception in the third quarter, Justin Jefferson passed Odell Beckham Jr. (2,755 yards) for most receiving yards in a player's first two seasons in NFL history.

Atlanta Falcons
2021 · 7-8-0
Detroit Lions
2021 · 2-12-1

Chase Goodbread's takeaways:

  1. Detroit's fourth-down nerve didn't show up when it was needed most. At 2-11-1 coming in, there was no reason for Lions coach Dan Campbell not to pull out every stop. It seemed like he recognized that with a fake punt in the first half that burned the Falcons for a 21-yard completion from punter Jack Fox to KhaDarel Hodge, resulting in a first down and ultimately keying Detroit's only touchdown drive of the first half. It was all the more curious, then, that a Lions staff that has been aggressive on fourth down all season chose to kick a 26-yard field goal with 2:38 remaining. The Lions were behind 20-13 and had driven to the Atlanta 8-yard line for a fourth-and-5 situation. Detroit's defense forced a turnover on the ensuing possession to give the Lions' offense another chance, but an interception by Tim Boyle sealed the win for the Falcons. Regardless of what analytics might or might not have suggested, the Lions had to have a touchdown at some point in the final minutes, and they passed on their best shot at it for three points that eventually meant nothing.
  2. Games like these demonstrate, in a subtle way, that Matt Ryan remains a quality NFL quarterback. Albeit against a bad defense, the long-toothed veteran operated with very little help and navigated a win with an 18-for-24 day (75%) for 215 yards with no turnovers. Atlanta couldn't run the ball at all, making the Falcons' offense one-dimensional and putting the game on Ryan's shoulders. Detroit absolutely shut down Cordarrelle Patterson as both a rusher and receiver (seven carries, 14 yards; one catch, minus-1 yard), which left Ryan with little more than rookie TE Kyle Pitts in terms of dangerous weapons. Pitts came through by catching 6 of 6 targets for 102 yards, including a 35-yard deep ball down the right sideline. It wasn't always pretty, but Ryan made the most of the circumstances and pulled Atlanta through for a win that keeps it alive for an outside shot at a playoff berth.
  3. There was no way around it for Amon-Ra St. Brown. The Lions rookie receiver had to carry more than his own load in his team's offense Sunday, with three key players -- quarterback Jared Goff, tight end T.J. Hockenson and running back D'Andre Swift -- all unavailable. He did just that, getting open for a 20-yard TD pass from Boyle that required some power at the end of the run to cross the plane of the goal line. St. Brown finished with nine catches on 11 targets for 91 yards -- all team-highs by far -- and two rushes for 19 yards. For a miserably bad team that's short on bright spots for the future, we offer St. Brown, whose productivity really spiked in December. In fact, the four best games of his rookie season have all come this month.

Next Gen stat of the game: Matt Ryan was pressured on 23.1% of his dropbacks.

NFL Research: Kyle Pitts' 949 receiving yards are the second-most all-time by a rookie tight end. He needs 128 to pass Hall of Famer Mike Ditka for the record.

Cincinnati Bengals
2021 · 9-6-0
Baltimore Ravens
2021 · 8-7-0

Nick Shook's takeaways:

  1. You can keep your interception total criticism -- Joe Burrow is a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback. The second-year passer missed out on making it to the league's Las Vegas showcase this week, but responded emphatically with a 525-yard, four-touchdown performance. Cincinnati wasn't able to find success on the ground as it has in recent weeks, shifting the onus to Burrow, who accepted responsibility and shredded a banged-up Ravens secondary. Burrow teamed up with Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase for a combined 19 receptions for 319 yards and two touchdowns, and a 68-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd helped the Bengals build a double-digit lead in the first half. Baltimore had no answer for Burrow, who continues to trend toward an elite future. In just his second season, he's taken significant steps and is a primary reason the Bengals are sitting atop the AFC North.
  2. We may have fallen below the point of critical mass for Baltimore. First off, we have to credit the Ravens for their fight, even when the odds are stacked significantly against them. Baltimore battled to make it a 10-point game inside two minutes in the first half, but just didn't have the personnel to keep up with the Bengals. The Ravens' secondary is nothing more than a sieve at this point, and losing Anthony Averett to injury only worsened the situation for Baltimore. Burrow had no problem with picking on Daryl Worley in the second half, and the Ravens just didn't have an answer, giving up first downs even in third-and-long situations. With all of the injuries and COVID-19 issues, the Ravens are just a shorthanded squad fighting above its weight class. The latest losses -- in personnel and record -- might be the ones that finally break them.
  3. The Bengals are the strongest candidate to win the AFC North. Cincinnati is playing the most complete football of any team in the division at this point and put together a total team victory Sunday, gaining 575 yards, converting 50% of third-down attempts and dominating time of possession 37:03 to 22:57. The Bengals have won four of their last six in almost every fashion possible and dominated their greatest threat in the division race Sunday. Burrow is playing with confidence, Higgins and Chase are flourishing, and Cincinnati's defense is doing enough to win games. A sprint from last to first is very possible.

Next Gen stat of the game: Joe Burrow racked up 314 passing yards targeting receivers aligned wide, the most by any quarterback in a game since the 2018 season.

NFL Research: Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins have each broken 1,000 receiving yards in 2021, making the Bengals the first team in NFL history to have multiple players with 1,000 receiving yards before turning 23 years old.

Philadelphia Eagles
2021 · 8-7-0
New York Giants
2021 · 4-11-0

Nick Shook's takeaways:

  1. The Eagles are a little wacky, but they sure can be fun. Philadelphia lost Miles Sanders to an injury in the second half, but not before he gained 45 rushing yards on just seven attempts. Boston Scott was able to replace him in the second half with a rushing touchdown, and Jordan Howard pitched in 37 yards on nine carries, while Jalen Hurts tossed the ball around the yard for 199 yards and two touchdowns. His favorite target, DeVonta Smith, caught five of Hurts' 17 completions for 80 yards and a nice toe-tapping touchdown, and the combination of the run and pass made for an enjoyable second half when the Eagles possessed the ball. Opportunistic defense turned the game into a blowout via an Alex Singleton pick-six, and the touchdown pass to Lane Johnson moved the runaway win into fun territory. If the Eagles can continue to move the ball as they did Sunday -- and avoid the mistakes that took points off the board in the first half -- they'll be an entertaining watch in the final weeks of the season. They just might end up being good enough to make the playoffs, too.
  2. It's a good thing Giants ownership has patience, because this is getting ugly. New York managed to keep things close through two quarters Sunday, then had its doors blown all the way back to the Meadowlands. The Giants got essentially nothing out of Jake Fromm in the first half, then replaced him with Mike Glennon following an interception early in the third quarter. Glennon wasn't much better until the game reached garbage time. As a whole, New York lacked any semblance of a punch Sunday, getting boat-raced in the second half. Joe Judge can spend his media sessions talking about how the culture has already changed internally, but it isn't close to showing up on Sundays. He'll have to hope his team brings more of a fight to the field in the final two weeks to conjure any belief in the future heading into the offseason.
  3. Philly can't bring the penalties to the playoffs. The Eagles created opportunities to gain an advantage in the first half, but repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with penalties to wipe out any chance of building a significant lead before the intermission. Philadelphia turned things around in a lucrative second half that included Johnson's first career reception and touchdown, but the 11 penalties the Eagles racked up Sunday are simply too many. In a game against a legitimate team -- perhaps in the playoffs, if the Eagles can make it there -- these kinds of mistakes will sink them.

Next Gen stat of the game: Giants quarterback Jake Fromm went 0 for 4 on passes of 10-plus air yards, and completed just 1 of 5 attempts for negative-2 yards against the blitz.

NFL Research: The Eagles have rushed for 130-plus yards in nine straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL. Sunday's game pushed their team rushing total to 2,448 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2021, the first Eagles team to do so since the 1949 Eagles, who were led by Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Steve Van Buren.

Houston Texans
2021 · 4-11-0

Jelani Scott's takeaways:

  1. Texans wreck shop thanks to unlikely duo. Outside of their starter designations, Davis Mills and Rex Burkhead don't exactly strike fear into the hearts of opposing defensive coordinators. But, for the better part of Sunday's contest, the Texans' QB-RB tandem terrorized L.A. with a performance that belonged in a Ripley's Believe or Not exhibit. Behind Burkhead's power running and Mills' precision, Houston scored a season-high 41 points; the club has eclipsed 24 points only two other times this season (both versus the Jaguars). Burkhead, the last man standing in a decimated backfield, ran roughshod over a Joey Bosa-less defense, finishing with two touchdowns and a career-best 149 yards on 22 carries. Mills once again continued his solid play over the last couple weeks with a 254-yard, two-TD effort. The oft-criticized rookie displayed improved patience and mechanics despite playing without top option Brandin Cooks (COVID-19). Mills contributed two signature plays in the signature win on a pair of 35-plus yard completions -- including a 41-yard TD to Chris Conley -- on a game-best 94-yard drive in the second quarter. Hats off to the Texans, coach David Culley and his staff for overcoming their own variety of issues to pull off Week 16's most shocking upset.
  2. Chargers' skeleton crew falls short. For all the praise Houston will receive for showing heart, the story of this game will be about the Chargers' depleted lineup. Playing without Austin Ekeler, Mike Williams, Jalen Guyton and Corey Linsley (reserve/COVID-19), the Chargers turned in a promising start with three straight scoring drives. Two of those ended in field goals, which makes you wonder if the absences played a role. From there, the Bolts' zippy attack went from vibrant to dull in short order as a Justin Herbert pick just before the half set up a Houston TD that spelled the beginning of the end. Save for a garbage time TD, L.A. mustered just 11 second-half points to Houston's 24. Justin Jackson shined bright as Ekeler's stand-in -- game-high 94 receiving yards, 64 rushing yards, two TDs – but his fourth-quarter lost fumble (recovered by Jonathan Owens) helped Houston score a FG and increase a nine-point lead to 12. A struggling Herbert completed 27 of 35 passes for 336 yards, a TD and two INTs (including a pick six); a quiet Keenan Allen hauled in four passes for 35 yards.
  3. Missing pieces help Texans puzzle Bolts. Let's be real, the Chargers who took the field Sunday were not the same risk-taking crew we've gotten used to seeing. Their zero fourth-down conversion attempts are proof of that. But that's no excuse for a team with playoff aspirations. Truth be told, the writing may have been on the wall coming into Week 16 as the Chargers were 2-5 when allowing 24-plus points. They are also 3-6 in games where Herbert has one or more giveaways; he had two Sunday, the first of which gave Owens a spot in the headlines next to a special gold medal-winning supporter in attendance. Blame the roster losses, blame the reported helmet issues that plagued Herbert in the first half; regardless of how you slice it, Herbert and the Chargers did not play well. And it could come back to haunt them.

Next Gen stat of the game: Rex Burkhead logged +62 rushing yards over expected, the most by a Texans player and the third-most by any player in a game this season.

NFL Research: Rookie QBs are now 3-0 vs. Brandon Staley as a head coach or defensive coordinator (as DC: Tua Tagovailoa vs. Rams, Week 8, 2020; as HC: Mac Jones, Week 8, 2021).

Buffalo Bills
2021 · 9-6-0

Kevin Patra's takeaways:

  1. In the biggest game of the year, Josh Allen shines. Playing without two of his top targets and a reshuffled offensive line didn't matter to Allen. The star quarterback put the team on his back, making play after play to pick up a massive road win in Foxborough. Allen tossed lasers, made a few touch throws and picked up big first downs with his legs. Allen threw the ball 47 times, completing 30 for 314 yards and three touchdowns and, importantly, didn't turn the ball over. Allen added 12 rushes for 64 yards, including a massive fourth-down run late in the contest when the Patriots closed it to five points. Playing without Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis didn't matter to Allen. Instead, it was an Isaiah McKenzie sort of day for Buffalo. Patriots defensive backs had zero answers for McKenzie's speed, as he got open on crossers all day, earning a career-high 11 receptions for 125 yards and a TD. Outside of continued red-zone struggles, it was a sterling day for Buffalo. On a day the Bills absolutely needed a W, Allen played his best despite difficult surroundings. It was an MVP sort of game from Allen that should give Buffalo confidence it can hang with anyone come January.
  2. Bills D dares Mac Jones to beat them, and rookie struggles. Following its embarrassment against New England three weeks ago, Buffalo wanted to force Jones into obvious throwing situations. While the Pats still generated 149 rushing yards, including 103 yards from Damien Harris (5.7 yards per carry), it wasn't as dominant or consistent as the previous meeting. The Bills offense churning out points put New England in a position to try to keep up. Jones struggled for most of the game, missing passes high and wide against the Bills' stingy D. The rookie completed just 43.8 percent of 32 attempts for 145 yards and two INTs. Jones looked rattled at times, and the Pats were particularly woeful on third downs, converting just 1 of 10 attempts. Jones made a few plays in the second half to keep New England in the game, and the Pats converted five fourth downs. But with the defense giving up 428 yards, the Pats offense couldn't keep up.
  3. Bills overtake lead in AFC East. The big Buffalo win flipped the script in the division. Instead of the Pats taking a stranglehold of the AFC East, the 9-6 Bills now sit atop the 9-6 Pats by virtue of a better division record. It was the type of victory that could propel the Bills into a January run. With games against the Falcons and Jets on tap, Buffalo is coming together at the right time. The Patriots fell to the No. 6 seed, with bouts versus the Jaguars and Dolphins remaining.

Next Gen stat of the game: Isaiah McKenzie made the game's two most improbable catches (36.5 percentage completion probability on 18-yard reception; 39.2 percentage completion probability on 28-yard reception).

NFL Research: With two passing TDs in the first half Sunday, Josh Allen became the first player in NFL history with 100-plus pass TDs and 20-plus rush TDs in his first four seasons.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2021 · 11-4-0
Carolina Panthers
2021 · 5-10-0

Chase Goodbread's takeaways:

  1. Tom Brady got the job done with backup personnel. Minus key weapons in every direction -- namely wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, plus running back Leonard Fournette -- Brady more or less conducted the orchestra right through some missed notes, and still got the audience (metaphorically speaking, as this was a road game) out the door satisfied. Filling first chair was Antonio Brown, who posted game highs in targets (15), catches (10) and receiving yards (101) in his return from suspension. Running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who made three tacklers miss on a 55-yard touchdown run, also picked up some slack. Depending on the timing of Evans' return, this could be the band Brady has to play with for the time being. So far, he's 1-0 with it, and clinched the NFC South in so doing.
  2. Musical quarterbacks didn't sound as good for Carolina. The QB shuffle Panthers coach Matt Rhule promised came to fruition in the second quarter when Sam Darnold, who hadn't played since Week 9, entered after starter Cam Newton banged his throwing elbow on the helmet of teammate Taylor Moton, resulting in an interception. He sure started with a bang, finding Shi Smith for 63 yards on his first throw. But the Darnold thrills were predictably short-lived. He finished 15 of 32 and took four of Tampa Bay's seven sacks on the day. Rhule rolled Darnold and Newton in and out with little apparent rhyme or reason, and Newton, notwithstanding an early designed run of 33 yards, wasn't effective either.
  3. Buccaneers safety Jordan Whitehead was all over the field. Carolina couldn't account for the former Pitt star, who made his mark against both run and pass for his most impactful game of the season. When Newton was in the game for the Panthers, Whitehead tracked him down on scrambles, and came up with an interception off a deflection, as well. He broke up two passes on the day, one of them coming immediately after a third-quarter stuff of a Newton run. Whitehead also dropped running back Ameer Abdullah on a flare pass near the Bucs goal line. His three total pass defenses were a season high. The Bucs defensive front gets a lot more credit than its secondary, and rightfully so -- pass pressure on Carolina quarterbacks was suffocating Sunday -- but for this game, put the Bucs safety on the defensive pedestal, too.

Next Gen stat of the game: Buccaneers DE William Gholston had six QB pressures to go with his 2.5 sacks.

NFL Research: With one TD pass Sunday, Tom Brady is now three short of joining Drew Brees (2011, 2012) as the only two quarterbacks in NFL history to throw 40-plus TD passes in back-to-back seasons.

New York Jets
2021 · 4-11-0
Jacksonville Jaguars
2021 · 2-13-0

Adam Maya's takeaways:

  1. What is wrong with Trevor Lawrence? Rookie quarterback seasons come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and involve too many variables beyond a signal-caller's control to draw any sweeping conclusions before Year 1 is over. Even the biggest cynic of Lawrence, however, must be surprised with how much he's struggled. Lawrence failed to throw a touchdown for the fourth game in a row and the seventh time in eight contests. The 2021 No. 1 overall pick did manage to lead three scoring drives of 70-plus yards and guided the offense 74 yards in the final minute, thanks in part to a 26-yard scramble, only for things to stall at the 1-yard line. While he flashed the sterling physical tools, he often wasn't poised or careful with the football. He also hasn't been particularly accurate this year. These are all areas in which he excelled at Clemson. That's concerning, and it goes beyond subpar pass protection and receiver play. A date with one of the worst defenses in the league was a prime opportunity to demonstrate growth, but Lawrence appears to be regressing.
  2. Zach Wilson will remember this one. As poorly as Lawrence has played, Wilson has often been worse. His Sunday stat line (14 of 22, 102 yards, TD) wasn't anything to write home about, but the fellow rookie can look at the tape knowing he made more than a few winning plays. It started with a 52-yard TD run that Wilson improvised after he couldn't find an open target on a third-and-5. His 1-yard TD toss to backup offensive lineman Conor McDermott in the fourth quarter was one of a few throws resembling those that made Wilson a top prospect. The No. 2 pick in 2021 also ran for 91 yards (on four attempts), and he continued making real strides in protecting the football. He hasn't thrown an INT in four games now and has been mostly avoiding potential picks, as well. The Jets still have a lot to address in the offseason on offense, though rookie running back Michael Carter (16 carries for 118 yards) has been a revelation. Wilson won't walk away with many wins in Year 1 -- this was just his third -- but his signature moment thus far came against the team who drafted a QB one spot ahead of him.
  3. Who wants the top pick? It would be unfair to say New York or Jacksonville exhibited any concern with such matters in what was actually a really competitive, exciting game. They both wanted to win this one, and the Jaguars fell just one yard short of doing so. Jets acting coach Ron Middleton, serving in place of Robert Saleh because of COVID-protocols, fittingly received the game ball. But the big picture between these two teams, aside from the development of the QBs, is their draft position. The Jets are officially out of contention for No. 1, while the Jaguars maintained pole position over the Lions (2-12-1). With dates against the Buccaneers and Bills looming, Gang Green is still a good bet to land in the top five. That would be a great range to nab the top cornerback or offensive tackle. The Jags are probably done winning, as well, what with games remaining against the Patriots and Colts. Jacksonville will also be looking for upgrades at cornerback and on the offensive line. Given that a pair of pass rushers are at the top of several early big boards, the Jaguars might be in the market to trade down for more draft capital. Their roster could really use it.

Next Gen stat of the game: Jets RB Michael Carter averaged 6-plus yards per rush versus each box count (light, neutral & stacked).

NFL Research: Zach Wilson's 52-yard rushing TD is the longest rushing TD by a QB in Jets history. Wilson (the No. 2 pick in the 2021 draft) scored the longest rushing TD by any QB since Marcus Mariota (the No. 2 pick in 2015) had an 87-yard rushing TD while with the Titans in Week 13, 2015 -- also as a rookie against the Jaguars.

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