Week 16 of the 2021 NFL season provided some clarity to the playoff races in both conferences. On Thursday night, the Titans inched closer to an AFC South title with a win over the Niners, and Christmas Day brought a big Packers victory against the Browns and an impressive Colts showing against a Cardinals team seemingly headed in the wrong direction. (Arizona ultimately clinched a playoff berth on Sunday after the Vikings' loss.)
It continued on Sunday, with the Buccaneers clinching the NFC South by beating the Panthers on the road. The Bengals and Bills didn't clinch anything, but they each earned massive divisional wins to bring them closer to not only playoff berths but also their respective division titles. Cincinnati's Joe Burrow lit up the Ravens' defense for 525 passing yards and four touchdowns. The Texans upset the Chargers by hanging 41 points on their defense, and the Falcons held off the Lions, who were seeking their third win. Elsewhere, the Eagles blew out the Giants in Philadelphia, the Rams got past the Vikings to clinch a playoff spot and the Jets snuck past the Jaguars -- which actually helped Jacksonville's push for the No. 1 draft pick.
In the afternoon slate, the Chiefs secured the AFC West crown with a dominant victory over the Steelers. The Bears pulled off a comeback win against the Seahawks with Nick Foles under center, and the Raiders secured an important triumph for their playoff hopes in beating the Broncos.
The Cowboys clinched the NFC East title when the Raiders won, then crushed Washington on Sunday night.
Our NFL Nation reporters react with their 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.
What to know: It's a long season after all. What was once considered a lost season two months ago might now end in the Dolphins' first playoff appearance since 2016. This team has managed to claw its way back from a 1-7 record and is currently 8-7 and the No. 7 seed in the AFC. If Miami wins out, it will clinch a playoff berth -- that's impressive considering how poorly it played during the first eight weeks of the season. The Dolphins would become the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs after starting 1-7; it just has to beat Tennessee and New England to do so. -- Marcel Louis-Jacques
Is Miami's offense capable of carrying its weight in a high-pressure game? Miami dominated New Orleans in Week 16 thanks to another high-caliber effort from its defense -- which scored as many touchdowns (1) as its offense did Monday night. The Dolphins were intent on running the ball but averaged just 2.9 yards per carry on 30 attempts. It's a concerning performance against an undermanned Saints defense, and with two of the NFL's hottest defenses looming over the next two weeks. Tua Tagovailoa and this Dolphins offense will likely need to pull their weight against at least one of them. -- Louis-Jacques
Louis-Jacques' confidence rating (0-10): 8.7, up from 8.5. The Dolphins' defense has solidified itself as a top-three unit in the NFL -- that earns a high confidence rating -- but their offense keeps it from rising too much higher.
Next game: at Titans (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: The Saints looked every bit like a team that was down to its fourth quarterback and missing 20 eligible players because of COVID-19. Rookie QB Ian Book's pick-six on his third NFL play was the biggest dagger. But the entire offense fell flat -- gaining 164 yards, allowing eight sacks and going 0-for-12 on third downs. The only saving grace was that because this loss came against an AFC opponent, the Saints (7-8) still have a decent chance to win some playoff tiebreakers if they can finish 9-8 by beating the Carolina Panthers at home and Atlanta Falcons on the road. But they'll need a lot of bodies back, starting with a QB and OT. -- Mike Triplett
Can the Saints still realistically make the playoffs? ESPN's Football Power Index projected the Saints at 33% to make the playoffs after Monday's game. They could potentially win tiebreakers against the San Francisco 49ers or some multi-team scenarios that also involve the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings. But first things first -- they actually have to win two more games. We saw how dominant their defense can be just eight days ago when they shut out Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But they'll need to get either QB Taysom Hill or Trevor Siemian back from the COVID-19 list and one or both of their stellar OTs, Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, back from lingering knee injuries to have any semblance of an offense. -- Triplett
Triplett's confidence rating (0-10): 5, down from 5.5. The Saints land right in the middle after the latest saga in this yo-yo season. Has any team experienced more highs and lows on a week-to-week basis?
Next game: vs. Panthers (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: Welcome back, Dak Prescott. The quarterback on display in Sunday's romp over the Washington Football Team looked far different than the quarterback of the previous seven games (nine touchdowns, six interceptions) and maybe even better than the quarterback of the first six games (16 touchdown passes, four interceptions). For the first time since October, Prescott had at least three touchdown passes in a game, with TD throws to Ezekiel Elliott, Dalton Schultz, Terence Steele (an offensive tackle), and Amari Cooper. Oh, he did that in the first half. But he looked more like the Prescott folks know with 21 yards rushing and the ability to buy time with his legs to make big plays in the passing game. Prescott finished the first half with 322 yards, the most in a first half in the NFL this season, on 27-of-35 passing with four touchdowns, and that came after he was sacked twice on the opening series of the game. What about the second half? It didn't much matter. This one was over. -- Todd Archer
Will Micah Parsons set the NFL record for sacks by a rookie? He needs two in the final two games to break Jevon Kearse's mark set in 1999 with the Tennessee Titans. He dropped Taylor Heinicke for a 5-yard loss in the second quarter for his 13th sack of the season. Parsons was impactful from the beginning of the game and Washington's only touchdowns came with him on the sideline. Next up is Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, who has been sacked 25 times in 12 games. In Week 18, he gets to face Jalen Hurts, who has also been sacked 25 times. Parsons would hope to get the record in the 16th game to match Kearse's season, but there won't be an asterisk if he does it in 17. -- Archer
Archer's confidence rating (0-10): 9.3, up from 8.9. It doesn't matter which players Washington had or did not have Sunday. If the Cowboys play like this in their last two games, they will be a legitimate contender in the playoffs and can win in Green Bay or Tampa Bay if they need to travel in the postseason. The offense has its explosion back. The defense continues to take the ball away and make big plays at the big moments.
Next game: vs. Cardinals (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)
What to know: Washington was undermanned entering the game, with four defensive starters in its back seven sidelined. It was missing multiple key players on offense. It showed. But that's no excuse for how poorly the team played. It allowed itself to be fooled consistently on defense as Dallas tested Washington's communication skills all night. The defensive line did not recover from a poor showing Tuesday against Philadelphia. That group is supposed to be the anchor; instead, it's the one that featured two players -- Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne -- fighting on the sidelines. It was a terrible look, as was this game. Washington has some built-in excuses, but it was manhandled on both sides of the ball. The road back just got longer. -- John Keim
Is the losing streak just about injuries or something else? After a third straight loss, it's fair to wonder. Clearly injuries have played a role; it has finally caught up to Washington, especially on defense. But on offense, Washington has taken a step back and anyone wondering if it needs to find a quarterback this offseason should stop asking that question. Taylor Heinicke can still compete for a starting job next season, depending on whom the team acquires. But he's limited and needs a lot around him to succeed -- and struggles to play from behind. In fairness, Sunday night he was often under duress. Washington just hasn't gotten enough out of high-profile offseason acquisitions -- from free agents such as receiver Curtis Samuel, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and cornerback William Jackson III to draft picks such as linebacker Jamin Davis (first round) and receiver Dyami Brown (third). Washington had one good four-game stretch this season. It will need a stronger offseason in 2022 to have a much longer one next season. -- Keim
Keim's confidence rating (0-10): 4.9, down from 5.9. Losing players hasn't helped one bit, but it's even worse when you put up the effort Washington did Sunday night.
Next game: vs. Eagles (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: With Justin Fields and Andy Dalton both out with injuries, third-string quarterback Nick Foles made his first start of the season and led the Bears to an upset win over the Seahawks. More accurately, Foles directed a game-winning drive after managing his way through the first 3½ quarters. He drove Chicago 80 yards on six plays (with 15 yards coming via a roughing penalty on Seattle) and capped it with his lone touchdown pass of the game, a lob to ex-Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham to pull the Bears to within one point of Seattle. Matt Nagy, who is presumably coaching his final games with the Bears, went for two and got it, with Foles hitting Damiere Byrd in the back of the end zone. -- Brady Henderson
Does Foles deserve a shot to keep starting? He was hardly spectacular for most of the game but played his best when it mattered most. And he didn't turn the ball over while completing 24 of 35 attempts for 250 passing yards, though Chicago recovered his fumble on a late strip sack. The Bears are pinning their hopes on Fields, the rookie they drafted 11th overall. The chance to get two more games to evaluate Fields might supersede everything else, as long as his ankle allows him to play. -- Henderson
NFL Nation's confidence rating (0-10): 3, up from 2.5. The Bears aren't going anywhere this season, but winning on the road, in tough conditions and in that fashion, has to feel good.
Next game: vs. Giants (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: This was the worst and most inexplicable loss of the season. You could chalk up many of Seattle's defeats this year to Russell Wilson being on the sideline or not being fully recovered from his finger injury when he came back. Wilson still doesn't look like himself, though the snow and freezing temperatures might have been factors in some of his misses on Sunday. But even then, you can't explain losing at home to a four-win Bears team that was starting its third-string quarterback in Nick Foles. The loss eliminates the Seahawks from playoff contention, a long-assumed outcome that finally became official on Sunday. They have hit rock bottom. -- Henderson
Could Carlos Dunlap II and Rashaad Penny be playing their way onto Seattle's roster in 2022? As recently as a few weeks ago, both seemed certain to be playing elsewhere in 2022. Dunlap was hardly seeing the field, while Penny had suffered yet another injury, this one to his hamstring. They've been two of Seattle's most productive players since then. Dunlap's sack against Chicago gives him six in the past four games to go along with his win-saving pass breakup against the 49ers. That kind of production could easily justify the non-guaranteed $5.1 million he'd be owed next season, at age 32. Penny, meanwhile, has had his two best performances since Seattle drafted him 27th overall in 2018. That includes 135 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries on Sunday. Bringing him back on a one-year deal no longer seems out of the question. But with Chris Carson coming off neck surgery, the Seahawks will need at least one new running back whose health is not a question. -- Henderson
Henderson's confidence rating (0-10): 1.5, down from 2.4. The best thing the Seahawks have going for them at the moment is they have the two-win Lions coming to Lumen Field next weekend. But as this loss shows, you can't really take any win for granted with this team.
Next game: vs. Lions (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)
What to know: As long as Patrick Mahomes is in the lineup, the Chiefs have a chance. They blew out the Steelers without Travis Kelce, who is on the COVID-19 list. Tyreek Hill played, though he didn't practice all week. No matter. The Chiefs dominated as they wrapped up their sixth straight AFC West title while winning their eighth straight game. When Mahomes is on, as he was against the Steelers, the Chiefs can beat a playoff-contending opponent with their lesser receivers playing a starring role. -- Adam Teicher
Will the Chiefs wind up with the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed? They will if they win their next two games. Next weekend's matchup against the Bengals is shaping up to be a classic with the way the Chiefs are playing and the way Cincinnati's offense is rolling after Joe Burrow threw for more than 500 yards on Sunday. It's difficult to picture the Chiefs, a seasoned bunch, falling to the inexperienced Bengals, who have some losses to non-playoff teams. And it's even more difficult to see how the Chiefs would lose the final regular-season game to the Broncos. -- Teicher
Teicher's confidence rating (0-10): 9.6, up from 9.4. With eight straight wins and a sixth straight AFC West title, the Chiefs are looking like the AFC's best team.
Next game: at Bengals (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: On the night when the Chiefs clinched their division and staked an even bigger claim to the AFC's No. 1 seed, the Steelers' playoff hopes slipped further away with another disappointing loss. Now below a 15% chance to make the playoffs, the Steelers lost by more than 25 points for the second time this season -- the first time that's happened since 1991. The Steelers' run defense mostly held up, but every other phase of their game was abysmal. The offense's first-half woes continued, and with a 23-0 halftime deficit, the Steelers were held without a first-half TD for a fifth consecutive game for the first time since 1940, according to Elias Sports Bureau. In seventh place in the AFC entering Sunday's game, the Steelers had a chance to make a play for a wild-card spot against a team competing without significant contributors because of COVID-19 protocols. Instead, they laid an egg, and now their playoff chances are on life support, yet again. -- Brooke Pryor
How will the final two games of the Ben Roethlisberger era be remembered? The Steelers aren't completely out of the playoffs, but it's looking more and more likely that Week 17's Monday night game against the visiting Cleveland Browns and the Week 18 finale at the Baltimore Ravens will be the last times Roethlisberger suits up in a Steelers uniform. He told CBS reporter Tracy Wolfson prior to Sunday's loss that it was the first time his entire family traveled to an away game -- partly because it's Christmas and partly because he is soaking up the time he has left. Roethlisberger and the Steelers' offense were ineffective throughout the game, with the signal-caller completing 23 of 35 attempts for 159 yards with an interception and a fumble caused by a strip sack in the fourth quarter. Roethlisberger also had a garbage time touchdown throw to Diontae Johnson with less than three minutes to go, before Mason Rudolph replaced the QB with two minutes left. Roethlisberger, 39, has flashed shades of his old gunslinging self in spurts throughout the season, particularly when the offense uses more up-tempo, no-huddle plays, but the past two games have been marred by slow-developing, fruitless plays. It's becoming even more clear the Steelers won't send Roethlisberger out with a Super Bowl ring. But will he be able to cap a roller-coaster campaign with two AFC North triumphs against some of his fiercest foes? -- Pryor
Pryor's confidence rating (0-10): 2.1, down from 3.7. With the loss to the Chiefs -- a thorough four-quarter drubbing -- the recent close wins against the Ravens and Tennessee Titans appear to be death rattles rather than signs of life for a beleaguered Steelers team.
Next game: vs. Browns (Monday, Jan. 3, 8:15 p.m. ET)
What to know: The Raiders, despite all the adversity they have faced this season, kept their playoff hopes alive. So what if the inevitable might be around the corner in Indianapolis, but as Al Davis famously said, "Just win, baby." Sunday's victory against the Broncos was almost as ugly as last week's in Cleveland, but it's not a beauty pageant. They count the same. And as interim coach Rich Bisaccia said this week, it's nice for the Raiders to be relevant in December. Stay tuned. -- Paul Gutierrez
Is wide receiver Hunter Renfrow most deserving of a contract extension from the Raiders' 2019 draft class? Um, maybe? Could be? Possibly? Look, the Raiders had three first-rounders in DE Clelin Ferrell, RB Josh Jacobs and SS Johnathan Abram, a second-rounder in CB Trayvon Mullen Jr. and three fourth-rounders in DE Maxx Crosby, CB Isaiah Johnson and TE Foster Moreau. But it's Renfrow, a fifth-rounder and the Raiders' eighth player taken in that draft, who has caught 92 passes this season, good enough to tie Jerry Rice for second most by a wide receiver in a single season in franchise history. Wild. Tim Brown caught 104 passes in 1997. -- Gutierrez
Gutierrez's confidence rating (0-10): 6, up from 4.5. Hey, the Raiders are alive with two games to go and might get some injured players back, including tight end Darren Waller. At this stage, and with what the Raiders have gone through this season, Las Vegas is playing with house money.
Next game: at Colts (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: The list of this team's woes on offense goes so far beyond the quarterback. While quarterback will be a major question this offseason, it's really the biggest one on a longer list. Sunday's loss in Las Vegas was another load of frustration on the pile, as the Broncos had only 158 total yards. The Broncos needed two first-half takeaways from their defense in Las Vegas territory to produce their only touchdown and 10 of their 13 points. They struggle to get the ball to the playmakers they do have, in large part because the Broncos don't protect their quarterback well enough to allow him to get the ball into the intermediate and deep parts of the field. It gives them no margin for error even when their defense plays at a top level. And with a sixth consecutive playoff miss now almost mathematically assured, a playbook that matches their personnel is nearly as essential as finding the right quarterback. -- Jeff Legwold
The longer the postseason drought goes, how much tougher is it to get back to being a playoff team? The Broncos have no players, other than kicker Brandon McManus, who have played a postseason game with Denver. And it shows at times. Even when they receive the kind of inspired defensive efforts they have gotten over the past six weeks, they seem to lack the ability to perform in the big moment, especially on offense. Between drops in the fourth quarter and the inability to prevent a sack with four minutes to play, it's apparent how much this team needs a marquee player on offense or special teams to make a big play in a big spot. The Broncos didn't get those plays in losses to Kansas City, Cincinnati or Las Vegas over the past four weeks, and they are pretty much shut out of the postseason again because of it. -- Legwold
Legwold's confidence rating (0-10): 4, no change from 4. If the Broncos can only score when the defense hands the offense a takeaway in opposing territory, then confidence is as difficult to find as touchdowns.
Next game: at Chargers (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET)
What to know: Without the bulk of their star players -- wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, running back Leonard Fournette, linebackers Lavonte David and Jason Pierre-Paul and safety Antoine Winfield Jr., in addition to linebacker Shaq Barrett, who left in the second quarter with a knee injury -- the Bucs still managed to lock up the NFC South, grabbing their first division title since 2007 and securing back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time in franchise history. After missing the past eight games, wide receiver Antonio Brown led the Bucs with 101 receiving yards, with Cyril Grayson tacking on 83. The defense also notched a season-high seven sacks. Interestingly, for the second straight week, tight end Rob Gronkowski was a nonfactor in the passing game. Running backs Ronald Jones and Ke'Shawn Vaughn combined for two touchdowns while kicker Ryan Succop had four field goals, suggesting that perhaps they can survive this slew of injuries. -- Jenna Laine
How does Sunday's win impact the Bucs' playoff position? Not much, but they're in. After losing to the Saints last week, the Bucs dropped out of the No. 2 playoff seed. With the Los Angeles Rams' win over the Minnesota Vikings, and the Cowboys beating Washington, the Bucs are in a three-way tie for second, but fall to the fourth seed based on conference record (7-4) behind the Cowboys (9-1) and Rams (8-3). -- Laine
Laine's confidence rating (0-10): 7.5, no change from last week. The Bucs found a way to win without the bulk of their stars, but Barrett's injury is concerning. You simply can't replace a 10-sack player.
Next game: at Jets (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: One Tom Brady, even without most of his weapons, is better than two subpar quarterbacks. Stability at quarterback will help you overcome a lot, and Carolina doesn't have that with Cam Newton and Sam Darnold splitting reps. Each made a few nice plays, but neither was good or consistent enough to keep this one close. Neither showed they can be the answer as the Panthers are now officially out of playoff contention after their fifth straight loss. If anything, this game reinforced that. -- David Newton
Will Matt Rhule start Sam Darnold next week at New Orleans? He should. Rhule made a nice gesture letting Newton start Sunday in what likely was his final game at Bank of America Stadium for the Panthers. But he's not the answer moving forward. Despite being booed when he first took the field on the Panthers' third series, Darnold is under contract for next season, and Rhule has to get a better look at what the 24-year-old can do with new playcaller Jeff Nixon. Nothing may change. The answer to Carolina's quarterback situation still doesn't appear to be on the roster. -- Newton
Newton's confidence rating (0-10): 2.6, down from 3.9. The confidence level isn't close to what it was in Week 2, when the Panthers beat New Orleans handily, so with five straight losses and 10 in the past 12 games, there's really no reason to think the Panthers can beat anybody, much less the Saints on the road.
Next game: at Saints (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: Ugly wins count, too, and this one pushes the Eagles into the seventh and final NFC playoff spot. Maybe they were affected by the short rest after playing Washington on Tuesday night. Maybe there is something about the Giants' defense that throws coach Nick Sirianni and quarterback Jalen Hurts off. Whatever it is, the offense was a mess in the first half. But the Giants were terrible and stayed terrible, while Philadelphia kicked into gear to improve to 8-7. Couple that with Minnesota's loss to the Rams, and the Eagles are sitting in the NFC's No. 7 slot with two games to go. -- Tim McManus
Can the Eagles rely on Hurts' arm down the stretch? Hurts was 7-of-17 for 94 yards in the first half and was inches away from both an interception and a lost fumble. He rebounded to throw a pair of touchdowns, helping the Eagles pull away. But he was limited as a runner for the second straight game (two carries, 7 yards), an indication that his sprained left ankle is not yet 100 percent. In order to win out against Washington and Dallas and make any noise in the playoffs should they get there, Hurts needs to avoid the peaks and valleys in the passing game -- especially if his run game is limited due to injury. -- McManus
McManus' confidence rating (0-10): 6, up from 5.5. Philadelphia's defense has been playing at a pretty high level of late. If that holds up against Washington and Dallas, Sirianni has a real chance of leading the Eagles to the playoffs in his first season as head coach.
Next game: at Washington (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: This was next-level offensive incompetence for the Giants' offense. Coach Joe Judge wasn't kidding when he said of QB Jake Fromm's performance last week that starting an entire NFL game is different than coming in during two-minute/prevent-defense mode. Fromm, in his first NFL start, was benched in the third quarter for Mike Glennon. Fromm finished 6-of-17 for 25 yards with an interception. The Giants' offense finished with 192 yards. It doesn't matter the quarterback or offensive coordinator. Given their offensive line struggles and injuries, this offense has no chance. -- Jordan Raanan
Do the Giants let GM Dave Gettleman finish the season or start the process of finding his replacement immediately? There are two weeks remaining in the season and the fates of Gettleman and Judge appear to be decided. Gettleman will likely retire, be forced out, fired or whatever you want to call it. Judge is expected to return, league sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter. So why waste time? Make it official and start the general manager search immediately. The Giants appear likely to wait until after the new year to make the move, even if they have been doing back-channel work for months now. It's just delaying the inevitable to save Gettleman a little embarrassment. -- Raanan
Raanan's confidence rating (0-10): 1.2, down from 2.1. They have reached new lows with the offense under Fromm and Glennon. And you thought it wasn't possible!
Next game: at Bears (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: Whether the Ravens were healthy or not this year, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was too much for them. Burrow had another massive performance on Sunday, throwing for 525 yards and four touchdowns in Cincinnati's first season sweep over the Ravens since 2015. In the two wins over Baltimore this season, Burrow totaled 941 passing yards and seven touchdowns. -- Ben Baby
Is the Bengals offense as good as it looked on Sunday? Let's pump the brakes on that. Yes, the Bengals looked amazing. But this is a Baltimore defense that had no answer for Cincinnati. And frankly, Cincinnati has still looked too shaky on offense throughout the season to believe it is capable of these type of performances on a regular basis. -- Baby
Baby's confidence rating (0-10): 7.2, up from 6.7. After staring at a potential three-game losing streak, Cincinnati has ripped off back-to-back wins and is atop the AFC North with two games left.
Next game: vs. Chiefs (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: The battle for first place in the AFC North wasn't a fair fight. Even the overachieving Ravens couldn't overcome these steep odds. Baltimore was forced to start its No. 3 quarterback (35-year-old journeyman Josh Johnson who was signed 11 days ago) and suit up 11 practice squad players because of a growing COVID-19/reserve list. The short-handed defense couldn't make a stop, allowing points on its first eight series for the first time in franchise history. Last season, the Ravens held the Bengals to a total of two field goals in two meetings. On Sunday, the Ravens allowed 40 points to the Bengals for the second time this year, which is no surprise. The Ravens were without their top five cornerbacks, a starting safety, a top pass-rusher and two starting defensive linemen. What had been a surprise was Baltimore winning eight games this season despite having seven starters on injured reserve. But, right now, the Ravens are officially running on fumes. -- Jamison Hensley
Do the Ravens still have a shot at the postseason? It's certainly not looking good. Baltimore realistically has no shot at winning the AFC North after leading the division for most of the season. The Ravens fell one game back of the Bengals with two remaining, and they have lost the head-to-head tiebreaker after getting swept by Cincinnati for the first time since 2015. Baltimore is going to need help to secure a wild-card berth and reach the postseason for a fourth straight season. The Ravens' chances of making the playoffs have dwindled to 32%, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. -- Hensley
Hensley's confidence rating (0-10): 4, down from 5. The Ravens have lost four straight games for just the second time in coach John Harbaugh's 14 seasons. Baltimore finishes at home but it has to beat the NFC West-leading Los Angeles Rams and the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, who could be playing their final game with Ben Roethlisberger as their quarterback.
Next game: vs. Rams (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)
What to know: The defense locked in as the Rams overcame quarterback Matthew Stafford's three interceptions to depart Minnesota with a win over the Vikings and a playoff berth while moving into first place in the NFC West. The Rams proved resilient in the month of December as they bounced back from a three-game losing streak in November to win four straight, and they did so despite at one point having as many as 29 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list. With two games remaining in the regular season, the Rams now have the chance to win a third division title under Sean McVay. -- Lindsey Thiry
How can Matthew Stafford cut down on the multiple-turnover performances? The Rams' defense and special teams helped dig Stafford out of a hole Sunday after he threw three interceptions. But for the Rams to make a deep playoff run they must find a way to help Stafford avoid multiturnover games. He has four this season, including three that resulted in losses. -- Thiry
Thiry's confidence rating (0-10): 9, up from 8.8. The Rams earn a slight bump because of a stout defensive performance and also a new bright spot on special teams after Brandon Powell returned a punt 61 yards for a touchdown, proving that unit isn't long lost, after all. The bump would have been bigger, especially given the raucous road circumstances, if Stafford hadn't produced another mistake-riddled performance.
Next game: at Ravens (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)
What to know: Matthew Stafford threw three interceptions and Rams coach Sean McVay strayed from an effective run game with Sony Michel, but the Vikings didn't do anything with these belated Christmas gifts. Offense and special teams ultimately lost this game for Minnesota. K.J. Osborn tipped a would-be touchdown into the hands of Rams linebacker Travin Howard for an interception, and the Vikings scored just one TD off Stafford's three picks. Minnesota went 2-of-12 on third down and 2-of-5 in the red zone. The Vikings allowed the NFL's second punt-return touchdown this season as they failed yet again to get one game above .500 while watching their playoff hopes take a nosedive. -- Courtney Cronin
How are COVID-19 concerns affecting the Vikings' QB room? Hours before Sunday's game, backup quarterback Sean Mannion, who is vaccinated, popped up on the COVID-19/reserve list. Rookie Kellen Mond was active for the first time all season as Cousins' No. 2 as the Vikings were down to two quarterbacks on the active roster. Cousins, who is unvaccinated, is out automatically for 10 days if he winds up on the COVID list, so the Vikings need to make sure they're extra cautious with their starting quarterback. Minnesota had moved its QBs to a larger meeting room to avoid close contacts, and the same outdoor rules apply to when the Vikings practice indoors. Coach Mike Zimmer said last week that they weren't quarantining a QB as a precautionary measure when asked specifically about Mannion. Minnesota might want to alter course the final two weeks of the regular season. -- Cronin
Cronin's confidence rating (0-10): 4, down from 5.5. Minnesota's chances of making the postseason dropped to 16% with the loss to the Rams. The Vikings are now behind the Saints and Philadelphia in the race for the NFC's seventh seed and have to face a red-hot Green Bay team and Aaron Rodgers, who has thrown 16 touchdowns and no interceptions in his past five games, on the road in Week 17.
Next game: at Packers (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET)
What to know: Zach Wilson was outplayed by Trevor Lawrence in the battle of the top two draft picks, but Wilson pulled out the victory because of his athleticism and resourcefulness. He set two franchise records for a quarterback -- longest touchdown run (52 yards) and most rushing yards in a game (91). On the biggest play of the game, fourth down from the Jaguars' 1, Wilson -- under mild pressure -- calmly tossed a touchdown pass to tackle-eligible Conor McDermott, his first career catch. Wilson (14-for-22, 102 yards) didn't have a good throwing day, but he played without his top three wide receivers. He also played behind a patchwork offensive line. Wilson managed the game, rode a 273-yard rushing attack and didn't cause his team to lose. In a rocky rookie year, that's progress. He extended his streak of three straight games without an interception, although he had a couple of close calls. Lawrence won the stat-sheet battle, but Wilson prevailed where it mattered most. -- Rich Cimini
How did the Jets handle their COVID-19 outbreak? All things considered, pretty well. Coach Robert Saleh and seven starters, including defensive tackle Quinnen Williams (a Sunday morning scratch), were out because of COVID-19 protocols. All told, 20 players were on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The Jets also dealt with a handful of in-game injuries that forced them to adjust. The opponent was weak, but the Jets showed character in handling the adversity. Interim coach Ron Middleton made some questionable decisions, costing them at least six potential points, but they managed to survive a scary ending. -- Cimini
Cimini's confidence rating (0-10): 4, up from 3.5. The Jets needed the win for morale, but it probably eliminated any chance of securing a top-two pick in the 2022 draft. That could mean no Aidan Hutchinson or Kayvon Thibodeaux.
Next game: vs. Buccaneers (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: This was the best QB Trevor Lawrence has looked since the team's 23-20 victory over Miami in Week 6. The pass protection was pretty good, which gave Lawrence plenty of time -- and also gave the Jaguars' receivers, which have had trouble getting separation all year, time to get open. The Jets were down five defensive starters (including the entire defensive line), which was a factor, but Lawrence didn't hesitate with throws, which has been an issue the past few weeks. He missed a few throws, but also was hurt by four drops, and he had a bad fumble while trying to scramble away from a sack. But overall a good day and it offers a peek into what we could see out of him and the offense (with offseason additions) in 2022. -- Mike DiRocco
What do the Jaguars do without RB James Robinson? Dare Ogunbowale stepped into the lead back role against the Jets, and that's likely to hold in the final two games. The Jaguars also used receiver Tavon Austin on some jet sweeps and lined him up as a back, too. When receiver Laviska Shenault comes off the COVID-19 list, he'll get more work as a ball carrier, but recently signed Ryquell Armstead (who was inactive Sunday) should also get some carries. He's a tough, physical runner in the same style as Robinson and Carlos Hyde. -- DiRocco
DiRocco's confidence rating (0-10): 0.7, up from 0.4. The Jaguars' offense surpassed 300 yards for just the second time in six games, but it comes with a bit of a caveat: The Jets were down five defensive starters, including the entire starting defensive line.
Next game: at Patriots (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: When it mattered most, the Bills had a winning performance against the Patriots and put the AFC East in their hands. It was far from perfect. The defense allowed New England back into the game in the second half and was unable to stop the run but hung on when it mattered. Quarterback Josh Allen and the offense put together a crucial 13-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter to take needed time off the clock and again take a two-score lead. Despite playing behind an offensive line that shifted early in the game because of an injury to guard Ike Boettger, Allen completed 30 of 47 passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns. He joined Peyton Manning (three times) as the only players with multiple three-passing-touchdown games at New England under Bill Belichick (since 2000). A big role in the offensive success came from coach Sean McDermott being unusually aggressive and going for the most fourth-down attempts of his career (3-4). -- Alaina Getzenberg
Should Isaiah McKenzie play more of a role in the slot going forward, even when Cole Beasley returns? Yes. Beasley was unavailable for Sunday's game after the unvaccinated slot receiver tested positive for COVID-19 early in the week. In his absence, McKenzie took over most of the slot role and had a career day, catching 11 passes for 125 yards and one touchdown. He offers more speed than Beasley and gave Allen an option that had been missing in many games this year. That's not to say Beasley shouldn't be involved in the offense going forward, but McKenzie has made a case to have a larger role than the 17.2% of offensive plays he was in this season coming into the game. -- Getzenberg
Getzenberg's confidence rating (0-10): 8.4, up from 7.8. With the division lead on the line, the Bills stepped up and got the big-game win that their second half of the season had been lacking.
Next game: vs. Falcons (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: The Patriots no longer have control of the AFC East, and even more concerning, they aren't playing consistent winning football, with back-to-back losses to the Colts and Bills. Things have looked much different since they returned from their bye week on a seven-game winning streak. The formula has been similar: Falling behind early, costly penalties, dropped passes and late comebacks falling short. The running game, which is the strength of the offense, can carry them only so far when they get behind. More will be needed from rookie QB Mac Jones early in games. The Patriots (9-6) finish with a home game against the Jaguars and then a road finale against the Dolphins. They might still qualify for the playoffs, but if they don't play more consistently, it will likely be a quick exit regardless. -- Mike Reiss
What can the Patriots do to fix their defense? The stout unit that was helping dictate games at times earlier this season has sprung some major holes in recent weeks -- unable to consistently stop the run (226 yards vs. the Colts last week) and the pass (Bills QB Josh Allen throws for 314 yards, 3 TDs). The Patriots hung in against the Bills due to some timely red zone play, but a lack of pass rush on a regular basis and the inability to corral Allen as a rusher were fatal flaws. There were no turnovers forced, despite some golden opportunities, which was also telling. -- Reiss
Reiss' confidence rating (0-10): 6.8, down from 7.2. Slow starts in each of the past two games, and an uncharacteristic loss of composure at times, have been quite un-Patriots-like.
Next game: vs. Jaguars (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: Facing the 29th-ranked rush defense, the Texans finally found success on the ground. Houston ran for a season-high 189 yards, just the third time it has run for more than 100 yards in a game this season. Despite an offensive line that lost two starters to the reserve/COVID-19 list, running back Rex Burkhead had his best game of the season, rushing for 149 yards on 22 carries and two touchdowns. It took only three quarters for the Texans to accumulate 70 rushing yards after first contact, their most in a game this season. -- Sarah Barshop
Has Nick Caserio seen enough from rookie quarterback Davis Mills to give him a legitimate chance to compete for the starting job in 2022? Houston has been conservative with Mills this season, with coach David Culley emphasizing turnover avoidance with the third-round pick. On Sunday, Mills completed 21 of 27 passes for 254 yards with two touchdowns. He did not throw an interception for the third time in his four games since replacing Tyrod Taylor. Mills made some impressive throws against Los Angeles, including a 41-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Conley. The catch had a completion probability of 23%, the lowest completion probability on a Mills touchdown throw this season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. -- Barshop
Barshop's confidence rating (0-10): 1, up from 0.6. Despite having 16 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the Texans played one of their best games of the season against a team in the thick of the playoff hunt.
Next game: at 49ers (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET)
What to know: The Chargers have a Pro Bowl, superstar quarterback in Justin Herbert, but they weren't able to overcome the losses of top running back Austin Ekeler, top receiver Mike Williams and Pro Bowl defensive end Joey Bosa, all of whom missed Sunday's game because they are on the reserve/COVID-19 list. And with an unexpected loss to the Texans, who entered the game with a 3-11 record, the Chargers now find themselves in danger of not making the playoffs. They clearly need Ekeler, Williams, Bosa and safety Derwin James Jr., who was available but held out Sunday due to a hamstring injury, back to make that playoff push. -- Shelley Smith
Can they rebound from this loss and the COVID-19 surge and get into the playoffs? They need to get healthy fast. Herbert has carried this team this season and running back Justin Jackson scored two touchdowns in Ekeler's absence, but it wasn't enough, as Herbert threw two interceptions and Jackson lost a fumble. The Chargers need everyone back and a great week of practice before entering the closing stretch against the Broncos and Raiders. Getting the defense right is key after giving up 437 yards to Houston on Sunday. -- Smith
Smith's confidence rating (0-10): 6.4, down from 7. Health and hamstrings. They need both to get back to full strength to make this thing work.
Next game: vs. Broncos (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET)
What to know: Kyle Pitts lined up outside and took off down the sideline. Lions rookie CB Ifeatu Melifonwu tried to catch up, but really had no chance. Matt Ryan let the ball go, and 35 yards later, Pitts extended just enough to make the grab. Plays like this have become more routine now for the rookie Pro Bowl tight end -- the first one in 19 years. And weeks like this -- his third 100-yard game of the season (102) -- are what so many expected from him this season. He has gotten better each week the past month, more evidence of the type of player Pitts can become. Pitts, now with 951 yards this season, set the single-season yardage record for a Falcons tight end (besting Tony Gonzalez's 930). He's now second all time in yards for a rookie tight end, behind just Mike Ditka's 1,076 yards in 1961. He has become Atlanta's most consistent, and best, offensive option in the present and the future. -- Michael Rothstein
What's been going on with Cordarrelle Patterson? Patterson, the team's most effective offensive option for much of the season, scored a touchdown Sunday against Detroit -- his fourth in the past six games -- but the explosiveness from earlier this season has waned. Patterson hasn't caught more than three passes in a game since Nov. 7 and hasn't averaged more than 3 yards a carry since Dec. 5 against Tampa Bay. Some of this can be explained by a bad game by the offensive line against San Francisco. But against Detroit, the Falcons just couldn't find ways to get Patterson into space. For Atlanta to have any shot at the postseason, it needs to figure out how to unlock Patterson again. -- Rothstein
Rothstein's confidence rating (0-10): 3.6, up from 3.5. The Falcons beat the Lions -- barely -- but still have a long way to go and need a lot of help to earn a postseason berth.
Next game: at Bills (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: The Lions remain winless on the road, but competing with grittiness and toughness continues to be the theme of the 2021 season. Even with a disappointing 2-12-1 record, Detroit put up yet another spirited performance on the road against Atlanta. On paper, the Lions had no business competing against the Falcons -- without quarterback Jared Goff, running back D'Andre Swift, cornerback Amani Oruwariye or tight end T.J. Hockenson -- but their effort made it clear that they haven't given up on the season. -- Eric Woodyard
Has Amon-Ra St. Brown evolved into the Lions' best player? Woah, this is bold. And I won't go that far just yet, but I will say this: Over the past four weeks, he has certainly been the most reliable offensive weapon -- and that's not up for debate. While Swift, Hockenson and Goff have all been out of the lineup at some point with injuries or illness, the rookie wide receiver has brought his hard hat weekly. St. Brown is only the second rookie this century to register eight or more receptions in four straight games, joining Odell Beckham Jr., who did it in six straight his rookie season. His consistency stems from getting his timing down on routes, which has resulted in more targets and ultimately more catches. His future is bright. -- Woodyard
Woodyard's confidence rating (0-10): 3, no change from last week. It's beginning to sound like a broken record, but my confidence in this team hasn't changed because it continues to leave it all on the field, no matter who is in the lineup, and I respect that competitive spirit.
Next game: at Seahawks (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)
What to know: The Colts moved a step closer toward making the playoffs by going on the road to beat Arizona despite being without nine starters by halftime because of injuries and players being on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The Colts have won six of their past seven games. To win the NFC South, they'll have to win their final two games and have Tennessee lose its last two. But no matter what, the Colts are looking at making the playoffs under Frank Reich for the third time in four years. -- Mike Wells
Can the Colts avoid having any more key players going on the reserve/COVID-19 list? It may be tough, as starting linebacker Darius Leonard, offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Mark Glowinski, and safety Khari Willis went on the list in the past few days. -- Wells
Wells' confidence rating (0-10): 7.5, up from 6. The Colts have figured out how to beat teams with a winning record by getting victories over Arizona and New England in back-to-back weeks.
Next game: vs. Raiders (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: The Cardinals are in the middle of another late-season slide due to self-inflicted mistakes -- something they thought they fixed this past offseason. The frustration they're causing -- 11 penalties for 85 yards, for example -- is starting to take its toll, even for a team that's 10-5. In Saturday's loss to the Colts, the Cardinals looked like a team that will be limping into the playoffs. -- Josh Weinfuss
When will their slide stop? It might not. Arizona has some serious issues to fix with two games left before the playoffs. It needs to cut down on penalties, score touchdowns in the red zone and stop missing kicks. It might all be too much to fix and overcome in the next couple of weeks, which doesn't bode well for the playoffs. But this team still has Kyler Murray at quarterback, and as he's shown time and time again, he can put a team on his back and carry it. He just needs a little help. -- Weinfuss
Weinfuss' confidence rating (0-10): 5.2, down from 6. Penalties, mental errors, missed kicks and inefficient offense -- it all contributed to a loss that was the latest example of a team trending the wrong way at the wrong time of the season.
Next game: at Cowboys (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)
What to know: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers might have a late Christmas wish: for people to stop stepping on his toe. It happened twice in the first half -- once by Browns defensive end Myles Garrett and once by his teammate, right guard Royce Newman, who got pushed into Rodgers by Malik Jackson. Two plays after that, Rodgers took a shot from Ifeadi Odenigbo that had him limping off the field at the end of that series. Seemingly every time Rodgers' fractured left pinkie toe starts to feel better, it gets stepped on or kicked. If this keeps happening, Rodgers might have to consider surgery. He has said he could have surgery as a last resort and could do so without missing any games. It's another reason the Packers would love the No. 1 seed, to get a bye on wild-card weekend. -- Rob Demovsky
Can the Packers' defense live by the takeaway when it really counts? The Packers won't be playing Baker Mayfield every week in the playoffs. So their pattern of giving up a touchdown (twice) or getting an interception (three times) on the Browns' first five possessions might not be a great way to live against a quarterback who takes care of the ball better. All three of Mayfield's first-half interceptions were considered "off-target" throws. He entered the game with the fourth-highest off-target rate in the NFL this season. Sure, the Packers loved to see Darnell Savage, Chandon Sullivan and Rasul Douglas all come up with interceptions (Douglas had two, including the one that sealed the game in fourth quarter), but good old-fashioned third-down stops to end drives might be more important when playing a quarterback who doesn't gift wrap interceptions. The Packers are the first team over the past two seasons to record at least five sacks and four interceptions in a game. The last team to do it was the Falcons at the Panthers in Week 11 of 2019. -- Demovsky
Demovsky's confidence rating (0-10): 9, up from 8.5. About the only way a team can take down the Packers now is by running the ball. The Packers came into the game allowing 4.5 yards per rush, better than only seven other teams. One reason they still rank 13th in rushing yards allowed is that some teams have abandoned the run because they've played from behind. Browns running back Nick Chubb averaged 7.4 yards per carry on Sunday, finishing with 17 attempts for 126 yards.
Next game: vs. Vikings (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET)
What to know: Aaron Rodgers turned all three of Baker Mayfield's first-half interceptions into touchdown passes. The Packers then clinched the 24-22 victory on Saturday by picking off Mayfield a fourth time in the final seconds, as Cleveland's once-promising playoff hopes continue to fade. -- Jake Trotter
Can the Browns still make the playoffs? At 7-8, their only hope at this point is to win the AFC North. Cincinnati beating Baltimore on Sunday would help, since the Browns already defeated the Bengals this season, and they face Cincinnati again at home in the season finale. But even then, the Browns will need a lot of help. And they will have to win their final two games, including on Monday Night Football in Pittsburgh in Week 16, to have any chance. -- Trotter
Trotter's confidence rating (0-10): 5, down from 6. The Browns can't win close games in the fourth quarter, as they lost their sixth contest this season by six or fewer points.
Next game: at Steelers (Monday, Jan. 3, 8:15 p.m. ET)
What to know: The Titans' offense is back with wide receiver A.J. Brown in the lineup. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw for more than 200 yards for the first time in five games on Thursday. Tannehill also had a touchdown pass for the first time in three games. It snapped a streak of 102 passes without a touchdown. The Titans were the first team with at least five conversions on third-and-10 or longer in a game this season. Brown emerged as a third-down converter, catching eight passes -- the most in a game over the past 30 seasons. -- Turron Davenport
Can Julio Jones be a complementary receiver to Brown? Yes. Jones isn't the same player he was two years ago. The Titans need him only to be a presence who can beat single coverage when defenses home in on Brown. Jones finished with one reception for 7 yards, so there's a lot left to be desired. Tannehill mentioned how Jones attracted coverage when he connected with Brown to convert on a third-and-26. It would be great for the Titans if they could get a productive game from Jones heading into the playoffs to make defenses think twice about paying all of the attention to Brown. -- Davenport
Davenport's confidence rating (0-10): 8.5, up from 8. The signs of life the offense showed were encouraging, considering recent struggles, and pairing that with what has become a very stingy defense will make the Titans a tough out down the stretch.
Next game: vs. Dolphins (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: For as good as the 49ers have been over the past month and a half, they offered a reminder on Thursday of the narrow margin for error. This isn't the 2019 49ers, a team capable of overwhelming anyone with its front four and a dynamic running game. Like most teams, the Niners can't afford to turn the ball over in key situations and have to find a way to get off the field on third down consistently. They did neither against Tennessee, and it cost them a game they should have won. San Francisco should make the postseason, but it has to take care of business against the lowly Houston Texans on Jan. 2. -- Nick Wagoner
Which version of Jimmy Garoppolo will the Niners get the rest of the way? Thursday's loss to the Titans was, in many ways, the full Garoppolo experience. He started out hot, marching the Niners down the field for an opening touchdown. Then he threw a bad pick in the end zone, missed a wide-open Kyle Juszczyk for a would-be score and threw another bad interception that led to an easy Tennessee TD. Bad Jimmy hadn't been seen much in the Niners' recent surge, but he appeared at a terrible time in Nashville. If the Niners are going to make the postseason and make any noise when they get there, they need Bad Jimmy to go back into hiding. -- Wagoner
Wagoner's confidence rating (0-10): 6.8, down from 7.2. It's not so much that the Niners lost but how they lost, which doesn't inspire confidence because there will be teams as talented as Tennessee in the postseason that will try to follow a similar plan.
Next game: vs. Texans (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET)