Team Notes week 16 2021

By Bob Harris
Bob Harris<

NEWS, NOTES, RUMORS AND OTHER GOOD STUFF

Directly from the desk of FlashUpdate Editor Bob Harris. The good; the bad; and yes. ... Even the Bears. There is no better way to jump start your weekend than browsing these always educational -- often irreverent -- team-by-team, Fantasy-specific offerings. ...
Access specific teams by clicking on a team name in the schedule appearing directly to your left or by clicking on a helmet below; return to the helmets by hitting the link labeled "Menu" following each teams notes. ...

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Arizona Cardinals

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

There would be no clinching of a playoff spot Sunday. There would be no moving closer to an NFC West title, or an eighth straight road win, or avoiding a losing streak in 2021.

As Darren Urban of the team's official website reported, the Cardinals played their worst game of the season at Ford Field in a 30-12 loss, and while coach Kliff Kingsbury has been emphasizing for his team to be playing its best football as the season comes to an end, the showing against the Lions was anything but.

Kingsbury said his team was "pissed," and quarterback Kyler Murray added that the Cardinals weren't prepared for a game where the Lions obviously were.

"We know who we are," Murray said. "We know the guys we have in the locker room, we've got the talent, we've got the coaches, we've got the leadership. It's about locking in and playing to our capabilities.

"Screw everything else, pretty much. We have to be how we were at the beginning of the season."

The Cardinals (10-4), less than a week removed from having a chance to take a chokehold on a division title, now could be tied in the standings on Tuesday if the Rams beat the Seahawks in Los Angeles. (The Cards will still officially be in first place by virtue of a better division record.)

"Momentum is real in the NFL, good and bad," tight end Zach Ertz said, adding, "it's up to the players. The coaching schemes are the same ones that we were freaking rolling with."

The Cowboys, leading the NFC East, also have a 10-4 record. The Cardinals play in Dallas in two weeks, following a Christmas night home game against the surging Colts (8-6).

It's that schedule that made Sunday's game so crucial, and disappointing. The Cardinals had been great on the road, not only winning their first seven but also doing it by double digits each time. The Lions (2-11-1) have played hard under first-year coach Dan Campbell, but are undermanned.

The Cardinals are missing top wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, likely out for the season with a knee injury, but they had overcome Hopkins' absence earlier in the season. They also had running back Chase Edmonds back.

But from a first quarter in which the Cardinals were outgained, 124-5, the Cards never could find their footing.

The decisive swing came late in the first half. Murray finally got the offense moving, and the Cardinals had a first-and-goal at the Detroit 6-yard line. But they could only reach the 3, and Kingsbury eschewed a field goal in order to go on fourth down. A slant to Antoine Wesley fell incomplete.

Trapped back at their own 3, the Lions -- with help from two Cardinals roughing-the-passer penalties -- went 97 yards to score on a 22-yard touchdown pass from Jared Goff to Josh Reynolds for a 17-0 lead with 19 seconds left.

The Cardinals couldn't climb out of that hole. There was a brief moment of hope in the third quarter. The Cards got a field goal and then forced a fumble. But on the second play, Murray tried a deep out route to A.J. Green that was picked off by cornerback Amani Oruwariye and returned all the way to the Arizona 6. The next play, the Lions got Goff TD pass and the game was all but decided.

"We've got to get a lead for our defense," Ertz said. "If we don't get a lead, we're not the team we should be."

There was never any rhythm on offense, Kingsbury said. Passes were uncharacteristically dropped, Murray was too often off target, and the QB was also running to avoid way too many pass rushers that got in with little resistance. Eventually, Kingsbury acknowledged, players started to press more than they should have.

"There's no such thing as a 17-point touchdown and we've got to approach it that way if we get in this situation again," Kingsbury said.

The Cardinals, now 3-4 in their last seven games, don't want to finish out the season struggling mightily, as they did a season ago in missing the postseason. But asked about avoiding the narrative building around the team, Kingsbury sees a simple solution.

"I don't think it's about narratives," Kingsbury said. "We just have to get better."

The truth is, as Associated Press sports writer David Brandt notes, all three seasons have been the same since the two came to Arizona: The offense is innovative and fresh during the first couple months of the season before the regression hits hard.

That's a narrative.

Murray, who struggled Sunday to his lowest completion percentage (56.1) on the season, has the faith the Cardinals will use the current situation to become a better team.

"I hope so," Murray said. "When you get beat like this in the fashion that we did today, it's an ugly taste. I know the guys in there will rally behind each other and we'll get it done."

Now the Cardinals have a fine line to walk between panic and urgency as they prepare to host the Colts on Christmas Day. Arizona still has the ability to be a good football team but things are definitely not trending in the proper direction. ...

Other notes of interest. ... As noted above, Edmonds returned after missing four games with an ankle injury and looks like he'll be able to help in the final month. He had six carries for 53 yards, averaging nearly nine yards per carry. The Cardinals' offense has been at its best when Edmonds and James Conner are both options in the backfield.

But Conner wasn't at his best in Detroit.

He rushed eight times for 39 yards and caught both of his targets for 31 yards.

Edmonds mustered 53 yards on six touches, as neither running back saw significant involvement due to a surprisingly negative game script.

The good news? As CBSSports.com nots, it doesn't appear the ankle injury he picked up at the end of the team's Week 14 loss doesn't appear to be an issue heading into this week's matchup with the Colts. ...

Kirk had nine catches for 94 yards and a touchdown. He's in a contract season so it would be good for the Cardinals -- and good for Kirk's pocket book -- if he continues to be productive over the season's final three weeks. ...

On the injury front. ... The Cardinals didn't hold a practice on Tuesday, but they did issue an injury report because they will be hosting the Colts on Christmas.

That report says that Conner would not have practiced because of a heel injury. That didn't change Wednesday, when the team actually practiced.

Wide receiver Rondale Moore (ankle) also would have sat out on Tuesday. Ertz (hamstring) and Wesley (ankle) would have been limited participants.

Moore injured his ankle early on in the third quarter on a kick return. He isn't expected to practice much to begin the week but the team hopes the rookie will ramp up his activity as the week progresses, per Kingsbury.

Moore caught all three of his targets for nine yards and added a rushing yard in the loss. He also notched two kick returns for 48 yards and two punt returns for 18 yards. He underwent an MRI on Monday, but the results have not been announced. ...

I'll follow up on all involved via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

And finally. .. Jim Gray, who hosts the SiriusXM podcast "Let's Go! With Tom Brady, Larry Fitzgerald and Jim Gray," knows everyone has been asking about Fitzgerald coming back. General manager Steve Keim said last week that Fitzgerald was content in his life. Sounds like Fitz agrees.

Gray said to the wideout that he "never announced an official retirement. We get the awful news about DeAndre Hopkins on your Arizona Cardinals team. He's going to be out for some time. May be able to come back for the playoffs. Uncertain right now and probably improbable."

Gray also brought up the ACL tear for Buccaneers receiver Chris Godwin.

"Will you reconsider now coming back to play football?" Gray asked.

"Nothing's changed on that front, Jim, for me," Fitzgerald said.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Kyler Murray, Colt McCoy, Trace McSorley
RBs: James Conner, Jonathan Ward, Eno Benjamin
WRs: A.J. Green, Marquise Brown, Antoine Wesley, Rondale Moore, Andy Isabella, DeAndre Hopkins
TEs: Zach Ertz, Darrell Daniels, Maxx Williams

Atlanta Falcons

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

According to Associated Press sports writer Charles Odum, the Falcons are leaning on the "crazier things have happened" justification for retaining playoff hopes following a loss at San Francisco that had the appearance of a postseason elimination game.

At 6-8, the Falcons still have a slim chance of making the playoffs. As Odum notes, "The emphasis is on slim."

The Falcons dropped to 11th in the NFC, and they are still looking for their first true home win.

With only three games remaining in the regular season, including Sunday's home game against Detroit, there's no remaining room for error if the Falcons are to avoid their fourth consecutive losing season.

Before Sunday's 31-13 loss at San Francisco, first-year coach Arthur Smith had the Falcons on the verge of reaching .500. Smith's determination to develop a running game appeared to be paying off before repeated red-zone failures against the 49ers exposed old weaknesses.

The Falcons were kept out of the end zone on 13 plays from the 10-yard line or closer, including five from the 1.

Smith kept showing faith in his team by keeping the offense on the field on fourth downs. His reward was constant disappointment. The Falcons were stopped on three fourth-down plays inside the 10-yard line.

The inability to capitalize on scoring opportunities shows the Falcons were not prepared to take advantage of their chance to swap spots with the 49ers as the No. 6 team in the NFC playoff standings.

There had been progress, especially in the running game, in recent weeks. But the Falcons were unable to maintain momentum gained by their 29-21 win at Carolina on Dec. 12.

"Certainly we had felt the last couple weeks we had been playing better," Smith said Monday. "I would argue Carolina has a pretty physical defense. I thought we went up there and played pretty well, especially up front. It was the polar opposite this week. ... So we've made progress, but yesterday certainly wasn't what we wanted."

The loss to the 49ers left Atlanta 0-5 against teams with winning records.

The Falcons' goal this week is winning their first true home game of the season. They beat the New York Jets in London on Oct. 10 when they were the designated home team but have not won a game in Atlanta.

The Falcons must win their last three games to have a winning record. They will cling to any playoff hope as long as possible.

"Usually, the last week of the season, you just want to have a mathematical chance," Smith said. "Crazier things have happened."

Meanwhile, Cordarrelle Patterson gained only 18 yards on 11 carries while being utilized in a traditional running back role. Patterson has played a key role as a dual threat, but he was targeted on only two passes.

Patterson has been most effective when given more opportunities as a receiver. He was hit behind the line on seven of his 11 carries.

Beyond that, the Falcons' offense struggled to move the ball down the field, and Matt Ryan was constantly under pressure, sacked three times on the day, including a strip-sack. Russell Gage was a bright spot in the offense -- along with Kyle Pitts, who had multiple big catches late in the game.

Gage finished with eight catches, 91 yards, and a touchdown.

In fact, Sunday's performance continued a stretch of standout performances for Gage. He has caught at least six receptions and had over 60 yards in his last four games, including the best receiving game of his career, where he reeled in eleven catches for 130 yards against the Buccaneers, both career bests.

The season has not been all smooth sailing for Gage, however.

With Julio Jones traded in the offseason, many expected Gage to have a breakout year. In his first game, however, he didn't catch a pass, and then two weeks later he suffered a high ankle sprain forcing him to miss three games.

When Gage returned, the ups and downs continued.

He finished without a reception in two of the following four games, including one without a target.

But now, in the final stretch of the season, the tide has turned for Gage. He has become a go to target for Ryan and he has evolved into one of the Falcons' most consistent offensive weapons.

"I understand I play a big role in this offense," Gage said. "So my confidence is already there. I'm just thinking about how we can win."

Meanwhile, after another week where Atlanta's offensive line (and tight ends and running backs) allowed Ryan to be hit 10 times and forced to scramble many, many others, ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein believes that until needs to be the off-season focus. Whether that's replacing starters or bringing in competition, the Falcons' line needs to be better in pass protection next year no matter the quarterback.

And while the offensive line remains a work in progress, Odum believes we shouldn't overlook the defense when compiling a list of offseason projects.

Through Sunday's games, only the Jets have allowed more points than the 384 given up by the Falcons. They have been outscored by 126 points, the biggest deficit in the NFC.

The Falcons, held without a sack against the 49ers, remain last in the league with 16. ...

On the injury front. ... Smith said the team is awaiting test results on WR Tajae Sharpe's foot injury suffered in the second half. DT Marlon Davidson was held out with a non-COVID-19 illness which Smith said developed on Saturday.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Marcus Mariota, Josh Rosen, Feleipe Franks
RBs: Cordarrelle Patterson, Qadree Ollison, Damien Williams
WRs: Damiere Byrd, Olamide Zaccheaus, Bryan Edwards, Frank Darby, Auden Tate, Christian Blake, Chris Rowland, Calvin Ridley
TEs: Kyle Pitts, Anthony Firkser

Baltimore Ravens

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

As ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley notes, the Ravens are squarely on the playoff bubble after doubling down on controversial and gut-wrenching defeats this month.

For the second time in three weeks, head coach John Harbaugh aggressively opted to go for a 2-point conversion in the final minute of regulation to win the game. And, for the second time in three weeks, Harbaugh defended his decision after the Ravens came up short again.

With 42 seconds left, Tyler Huntley's incompletion to tight end Mark Andrews on the 2-point try led to the Ravens' 31-30 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. The Ravens' third straight loss dropped them to 8-6 and out of sole possession of first place in the AFC North for the first time since Oct. 31.

"We were just trying to get the win right there," Harbaugh said. "I think our chances of winning right there were a little bit higher than overtime, maybe if you calculate it out. I felt good about it."

Harbaugh said his decisions are based on "mostly gut" over analytics.

"The numbers are the numbers, but the numbers aren't perfect," Harbaugh said. "I can tell you this; I've shot a lot of holes in the numbers with the numbers guys. They don't take everything into account, so you just make a decision. The numbers are part of it, but the numbers aren't the main decision."

The Ravens became the first team to try multiple 2-point attempts when down by a point in the fourth quarter, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau.

On Dec. 5, Harbaugh chose to go for 2 points after Baltimore had pulled to within a point of the Pittsburgh Steelers with 12 seconds remaining. But Lamar Jackson's pass bounced off Andrews' outstretched hands in a 20-19 loss in Pittsburgh.

With Jackson sidelined Sunday with a right ankle injury, Huntley faced a similar scenario and looked to Andrews as well. But, after rolling to his right, Huntley watched his pass get tipped by Packers safety Darnell Savage at the goal line.

Each time, the Ravens could've tied the game with an extra point by Justin Tucker, the most accurate kicker in NFL history.

Harbaugh chose to end the game with a 2-point attempt, which was publicly supported by his players.

"That was 'the' decision. I don't think there is anything else," said Andrews, who had 136 yards receiving and two touchdowns. "I told Coach that I wouldn't have it any other way. People that second-guess that are wrong. I think that was the right thing to do."

Asked if the two failed conversions would affect whether he would go for it in the future, Harbaugh said: "It goes by situation to situation. To me, in both of those cases, that gave us the best chance to win. Because we didn't win doesn't make it not true. It's still true now, just as true as it was then. So, it doesn't always work out."

The Ravens have failed on six 2-point tries this season, tied with the Minnesota Vikings for the most in the NFL.

On Sunday, Baltimore would've converted the 2-point attempt at the end of the game if Huntley had thrown the ball to an open Marquise Brown running in the back of the end zone. Brown had 4.41 yards of separation from the nearest defender, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

Asked if he saw Brown, Huntley said: "No, I didn't."

The loss ruined an admirable effort by the short-handed Ravens, who were 9.5-point underdogs playing with a depleted offensive line and secondary.

Baltimore fell one spot outside the seven-team AFC playoff race.

The Ravens play in Cincinnati with first place in the division on the line next week. Baltimore could also see the return of Jackson, who missed a game due to injury for the first time in his four-year career.

"We'll anticipate him being back next week," Harbaugh said. "But if he's not able to be fully ready, then we'll go with Tyler. So, we'll be ready to go either way."

Looking for positives?

The Ravens were hoping a full week of practice and preparation would give Huntley a chance to perform well, and that's exactly what happened. In his second career start, Huntley, who threw for 215 yards and ran for 73, became the first player in Ravens history to throw two touchdown passes and run for two touchdowns.

Andrews, who racked up 136 yards and two touchdowns, and Brown, who was held to just 43 yards, finished the game with 10 catches each. Huntley targeted them extensively and they mostly delivered.

"You look at Huntley over there," Andrews said. "When a guy plays like that, that's special. That's really special."

Baltimore scored 30 points after being held to 22 or fewer in six of its previous seven games.

Although Jackson is obviously still Baltimore's franchise quarterback, Huntley has played well enough that the Ravens can feel some confidence in him if Jackson is still limited. It's now a potentially tricky decision if Baltimore has to choose between Huntley and a slightly-less-than-100 percent Jackson.

"There's no definitive formula," Harbaugh said. "We're just going to have to see where we're at with all factors."

As of Monday, Harbaugh said no decision has been made regarding Jackson's availability for this week's game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Harbaugh said Jackson was making progress, and Harbaugh is "hopeful" Jackson will practice Wednesday after he didn't practice at all last week.

"We'll see how the ankle responds. It is getting better," Harbaugh said.

The Ravens also came out of the game with injuries to CB Tavon Young (concussion), WR Devin Duvernay (ankle) and OL Tyre Phillips (knee). ...

Jackson and Duvernay did not practice Wednesday.

I'll have more on all involved via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

Meanwhile, as Associated Press sports writer Noah Trister noted, it looked briefly as if the Ravens were going to establish their running game in the second half, but when they fell behind by two scores it was harder to continue that approach. Still, Latavius Murray had 48 yards on seven attempts, and Baltimore averaged 5.5 yards per rush as a team.

Devonta Freeman rushed six times for 22 yards and caught his only target for two yards against the Packers.

For what it's worth, the Ravens were 5-1 when they faced Cincinnati at home Oct. 24. The Bengals won 41-17, with Joe Burrow throwing for 416 yards. And Baltimore's secondary is in even rougher shape now.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Lamar Jackson, Tyler Huntley
RBs: Devonta Freeman, Mike Davis, Latavius Murray, Ty'Son Williams
WRs: Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay, Tylan Wallace, James Proche, Miles Boykin
TEs: Mark Andrews, Josh Oliver, Eric Tomlinson, Nick Boyle

Buffalo Bills

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

According to ESPN.com's Alaina Getzenberg, just minutes had passed after the Buffalo Bills' 31-14 win over the Carolina Panthers and it felt like the team had already turned the page.

Winning decisively is something the Bills were supposed to do -- that's why they were favored by double-digits. Just ahead, Buffalo (8-6) has a shot to decide its own fate when it comes to the AFC East when they travel to visit the New England Patriots (9-5) on Sunday.

"One down. We know who's up next," head coach Sean McDermott said in a team video of the postgame locker room. "We know who's up next. It's all about us, right? Stay humble."

With a win against the Patriots, the Bills would need to win out the rest of the season -- at home against the Atlanta Falcons (6-8) and New York Jets (3-11) -- to secure the AFC East crown, thanks to a better divisional record (Bills at 4-1 vs. Patriots at 3-2).

Beating the Patriots would give the Bills the lead in the division for the first time in over a month.

If the Bills lose, however, the Patriots could clinch the division this weekend. All they would need is a Miami Dolphins (7-7) loss to the New Orleans Saints (7-7) on Monday night, per ESPN Stats and Info. For the Bills, winning the final two games would remain the best way to secure a playoff spot, but a 10-7 record would not guarantee a berth due to the team's poor conference record (5-6) with a loss to New England.

Buffalo is looking to win a second straight division crown for the first time since it won four straight from 1988-1991.

"We've got to keep it about us," McDermott said. "And this will be a game, [the Patriots] came in here and beat us two weeks ago. ... So, obviously we have some adjusting to do and we've got to have a good week of preparation."

Preparation started a bit early this time around. The night before the Bills played the Panthers, McDermott was up watching the Patriots lose to the Indianapolis Colts, live with the rest of the country.

Getzenberg reminded readers that for two decades, the Patriots dominated the division, including winning it 11 straight times until the Bills won last year. The Bills appeared poised to win it again, but the team stumbled in close games this year (0-5) including the loss at home to New England two weeks ago.

In that game, the Patriots were able to control the flow, finishing with only three passing attempts and holding the Bills to 10 points. But the Colts found a way to stop the Patriots, holding them to 81 yards on the ground and forcing rookie quarterback Mac Jones to throw 45 times. New England is 0-4 when Jones throws the ball 39 or more times.

The takeaway from the Patriots loss to the Colts is obvious -- force Jones to try and win the game.

What can the Bills take from the win over the Panthers?

The Bills found success by blitzing quarterback Cam Newton on 65 percent of dropbacks, the second-highest rate of any game this season (No. 1 was the Ravens vs. Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater). Buffalo also sent a defensive back as a pass-rusher on 21 dropbacks, third-most in the NFL. Newton was sacked by two of his former Carolina teammates -- Efe Obada (twice) and Star Lotulelei.

Wide receiver Gabriel Davis has had a greater presence in the offense that started in the loss to the Patriots -- that game started a three-game touchdown streak for the receiver. With receiver Emmanuel Sanders dealing with a knee injury, Davis had his highest snap counts of the season by far in the last two games (83 percent and 90 percent).

Davis now has six touchdowns this season, and 13 overall on 64 career catches.

Getting creative with the offense was a positive, including incorporating rarely-used receiver Isaiah McKenzie more and trusting running back Devin Singletary with a career-high 22 carries, despite the team missing two starting offensive lineman on the COVID-19 list.

Ultimately, only so much can be taken from wins against struggling teams on their second or third quarterbacks. It's the big-time games that have been an issue for the Bills.

The real test is to come with the easiest path to the postseason and a home playoff game on the line.

"Every game from here on out for us is a playoff game and we've got to treat it as such," Josh Allen said.

One thing the team needs to work on: The Bills have not scored on their opening possession of each half in each of their past three games.

Buffalo is 5-0 when scoring a TD on its game-opening possession, and 4-0 when scoring a TD on its first possession of the second half. ...

On the health front. ... Receiver Cole Beasley was added to the reserve/COVID-19 list by the Buffalo Bills, becoming the fifth player on the active roster and seventh overall on the list.

Beasley tested positive, a source confirmed to ESPN's Field Yates, and remains unvaccinated. He will at minimum miss the game against the New England Patriots on Sunday and will be out for at least 10 days. In an Instagram post Tuesday evening, Beasley said he was "feeling fine with mild symptoms."

"Just to be clear COVID is not keeping me out of this game. The rules are," Beasley wrote Tuesday on Instagram. "Vaxxed players are playing with Covid every week now because they don't test. One of my vaxxed teammates is in the hospital missing games.

"I'm sure he didn't get the same energy. Thank you for those who support. Everyone else, if you don't get what's happening then there is nothing anybody can do for you."

Teammate Jon Feliciano, who also is on the COVID-19 list, posted on Twitter Tuesday that he "ended up in the ER on Sunday." He appears to be the teammate "in the hospital" Beasley referenced in his post.

Left tackle Dion Dawkins, guard Feliciano, defensive end AJ Epenesa and linebacker Tyrel Dodson have been placed on the list in the past week. All four missed the team's win over the Carolina Panthers, although Epenesa was out due to an ankle injury and placed on the list Monday.

Beasley was previously placed on the COVID-19 list in August after being designated a close contact with a member of the team's training staff, but tested negative at the time. He was also fined, along with receiver Isaiah McKenzie, for not wearing masks in the facility.

Although Sanders, was slated to take part in the team's Wednesday walkthrough, continues to deal with the knee sprain that kept him out of last week's game and has left him week-to-week, the Bills' passing offense still has weapons available beyond Beasley. McKenzie will likely see increased opportunities in the slot against New England without Beasley on the field.

Stefon Diggs is the top receiver and, as noted above, Davis has emerged as a front-line talent. In addition, tight end Dawson Knox is among Allen's top targets in the middle of the field.

Beasley has 76 receptions for 640 yards and one touchdown this year.

Sanders seems likely to miss another game -- at least -- with his injury; but I'll have more on that via Late-Breaking Update in advance of Sunday's game. ...

And finally. ... Both Diggs and Allen re-wrote the Bills record books on Sunday.

Diggs played in his 100th career game Sunday and had four receptions for 35 yards and one touchdown. He currently has 1,007 receiving yards this season and it is the fourth season of his career with 1,000-plus yards. He is now the second Bill ever with 1,000-plus receiving yards in consecutive seasons, joining Stevie Johnson (three-straight seasons, 2010-12).

Allen finished the game against the Panthers completing 19 of his 34 passes for 210 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception.

Allen made history on Sunday, becoming the only Bill with over 30 passing touchdowns in consecutive seasons.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Josh Allen, Case Keenum
RBs: Duke Johnson, Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, Taiwan Jones
WRs: Stefon Diggs, Jamison Crowder, Gabriel Davis, Isaiah McKenzie, Emmanuel Sanders, Jake Kumerow
TEs: Dawson Knox, O.J. Howard, Tommy Sweeney

Carolina Panthers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

Cam Newton's struggles have left Matt Rhule looking for answers at quarterback.

Rhule said Monday that he "can't speculate" on who'll be the team's starting quarterback this Sunday when the Panthers host Tampa Bay.

The Panthers' second-year head coach said he'll "continue working" with Newton, but added that he wants to see where Sam Darnold's shoulder is on Wednesday when the team returns to practice.

Where Darnold was on Wednesday, was the practice field.

According to Darin Gantt of the team’s website, Darnold has been cleared for contact and is taking part in practice with the team on Wednesday.

"We will find out about Sam and his health. I'm not going to look into the future, no hypotheticals," Rhule said of Darnold, who went on IR on Nov. 10 with an incomplete fracture of his shoulder blade. "If Sam is healthy we will practice him and see where he's kind of at. I think it is a good opportunity to shake some the rust off and see where he's at."

After Wednesday's session was over, Rhule reiterated Newton will start this week, but Darnold will play at some point.

Darnold is 4-5 as the team's starter, while Newton is 0-4.

Panthers.com's Darin Gantt noted that Newton has remained a force in the run game, but has struggled since the Washington game, going from a 120.5 passer rating that day to a combined 46.0 rating over the next three.

He threw for a touchdown and ran for another score in the team's 31-14 loss to Buffalo on Sunday, but he also tossed another interception and his poor decision-making and inability to consistently complete passes down the field continue to be an issue for the Panthers (5-9).

Rhule called Newton the "ultimate competitor" on Monday, and praised him for his hard work.

But that came one day after he criticized the team's lack of a downfield passing game and Newton's decision-making.

The Panthers only took one shot down the field, but Newton couldn't complete the ball to an open D.J. Moore.

Carolina's only pass play of longer than 20 yards came when Newton found running back Ameer Abdullah underneath for a 23-yard catch-and-run touchdown.

The Panthers are getting almost nothing down the field.

Carolina ran for 151 yards on Sunday, but Rhule said, "At the end of the day I think it really just comes down to our ability to throw the ball and create some explosive plays."

Newton was sacked four times, losing 32 yards.

"Certainly right now, our passing down the field is not one of our strengths," Rhule said. "Holding onto the football in kind of those duress situations is not really one of our strengths."

Rhule also questioned Newton's decision to throw to wide receiver Robby Anderson on a key fourth-and-1 zone-read play instead of running the ball as was designed.

"It shouldn't be thrown. It's a zone read. There's a bubble on there in case an unblocked blitzer comes," Rhule said. "The (linebacker), we had that guy blocked so that's just an error by the quarterback. It should be a handoff."

Newton has now lost 12 straight starts for Carolina going back to 2018 and it's become clear that he, like Teddy Bridgewater and Darnold before him, is not the answer at quarterback.

P.J. Walker, who is 2-0 as an NFL starter, doesn't appear to have Rhule's support either as a short-term or long-term starter.

Instead, Rhule said that, in general, they wanted to "keep building off the good things" Newton was doing, and they'd continue to evaluate the other quarterbacks.

Meanwhile, Rhule said he was also still waiting on word from the team's doctors on kicker Zane Gonzalez's MRI from Monday morning, but he began with the assumption the injury was serious.

That seemed likely given the speed with which they added a replacement. It became clear when Gonzalez was placed on injured reserve Wednesday.

According to multiple reports, the team is signing Lirim Hajrullahu to their active roster. Hajrullahu was on Washington's practice squad.

Hajrullahu spent time on the Panthers practice squad last year and their offseason roster this year, but his only regular season experience came with the Cowboys in Week 10 of this season. He hit all five extra points he tried while filling in for Greg Zuerlein.

Gonzalez suffered a right quad injury in pre-game warmups Sunday and wasn't able to kick against the Bills, forcing them to go for fourth-and-goals and have wide receiver Brandon Zylstra kick off. ...

A few final notes. ... Newton started and played 100 percent of the snaps at quarterback, scoring a rushing and passing touchdown.

Zylstra played a career-high 54 snaps on offense and another 16 snaps on special teams. He became the first wide receiver in NFL history to kick off three times in a game, averaging 48.7 yards per kick.

Chuba Hubbard started at running back and played 36 snaps, while Abdullah came off the bench to play 40 snaps and scored a fourth-quarter touchdown. ...

By the way, things aren't going to get any easier down the stretch for the Panthers. They'll host a highly motivated Tom Brady on Sunday after the Buccaneers were blanked 9-0 on Sunday by the New Orleans Saints. Carolina then finishes on the road at New Orleans and Tampa Bay.

And finally. ... Moore, who played through a hamstring injury last week, was limited by the same injury on Wednesday; I'll have more on the wideout and on the quarterback situation via Late-Breaking Update as the week progresses.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Sam Darnold, P.J. Walker
RBs: Chuba Hubbard, D'Onta Foreman, Christian McCaffrey
WRs: D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, Shi Smith, Rashard Higgins, Brandon Zylstra, Alex Erickson, Terrace Marshall Jr.
TEs: Ian Thomas, Tommy Tremble, Colin Thompson

Chicago Bears

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

According to ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert, as head coach Matt Nagy considered challenging a call in the second half of his team's 17-9 loss to the Vikings, one fan at Soldier Field spoke for many.

"After further review," the fan could be heard yelling, "we suck!"

It was that kind of night for the Bears, who wasted a relatively strong defensive performance in a mistake-filled defeat at the hands of their NFC North rival. In the process, the Bears became the fifth NFL team to be eliminated from playoff contention, a long assumed outcome that will shift the focus squarely on the future of general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy.

Nagy called offensive plays Monday night, with offensive coordinator Bill Lazor on the COVID-19 list. He received one of the Bears' five personal fouls for arguing with an official and acknowledged afterward it was an "emotional game."

He took responsibility for the Bears' offensive woes -- "It starts with me and it ends with me," he said -- but insisted he appreciated his players' investment in the game.

"It would be one thing if our guys came out and said, 'You know, we've got four wins and we're. ... At a point where we're going to check out,'" he said. "And our guys don't do that."

The NFL has instituted a new rule that allows teams to start interviewing 2022 coaching candidates on Monday.

Would that prompt chairman George McCaskey to make a move in the coming days? The Bears have had two playoff seasons since hiring Pace in 2015.

McCaskey has decisions to make, and now -- if he didn't know before -- he won't have to take into account a late-season playoff run.

Meanwhile, the Bears offense struggled on third down and in the red zone. The unit converted just 2-of-12 third-down opportunities (16.7 percent) and mustered only a field goal on its first four possessions inside the 20. The other three drives stalled at the 10 via a lost fumble in the first half and the 9 and 14 on downs in the second half.

They also turned the ball over on downs a third time at the Minnesota 21.

Seifert also notes that Justin Fields produced efficient passing numbers, completing 26 of 39 passes for 285 yards and a touchdown on the game's final play.

But he couldn't get the Bears into the end zone on four trips to the red zone, the team's worst performance in the red zone since 2010.

Fields added two more fumbles to his NFL-leading total of 12, losing one, and took a total of three sacks -- two of which lost 14 yards. He has had worse starts this season, but it's hard to imagine that anyone watched his performance Monday night and thought he was on his way to becoming one of the NFL's next great quarterbacks.

Fields threw for just 121 yards through the first three quarters before passing for 164 yards on three fourth-period possessions while the Vikings were protecting a 14-point lead.

David Montgomery rushed for 60 yards on 18 carries and caught five passes for 23 yards.

Cole Kmet led the Bears with six receptions for 71 yards. Darnell Mooney had five catches for 63 yards and Damiere Byrd added five receptions for 62 yards.

On the health front. ... Fields will be limited in practice with an ankle injury. Chicago removed offensive lineman Larry Borom, defensive back Eddie Jackson and practice squad linebacker Sam Kamara from the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Tight end Jesper Horsted was placed on the list. Allen Robinson remains on the list.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Justin Fields, Trevor Siemian, Nick Foles
RBs: David Montgomery, Khalil Herbert, Tarik Cohen, Darrynton Evans
WRs: Darnell Mooney, Byron Pringle, Marquise Goodwin, Equanimeous St. Brown, Dante Pettis, Tajae Sharpe
TEs: Cole Kmet, Ryan Griffin, Jimmy Graham, Jesper Horsted, Jesse James, J.P. Holtz

Cincinnati Bengals

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Mitch Stacy notes, the Bengals had to grind and scrape and outlast the Denver Broncos to stay in the playoff race.

They didn't look good doing it Sunday, but style points aren't important in December.

The Bengals (8-6) scored just one touchdown, a 56-yard catch and run by Tyler Boyd in the third quarter to put them up 15-10. That would stand as the final, with Cincinnati snapping a two-game losing streak.

"We've had a lot of nail-biters in the past and previous games, but we have a solid team all around," Boyd said.

The defense kept the Broncos in check, holding them without a touchdown until backup Drew Lock threw a scoring pass to Tim Patrick after Teddy Bridgewater left on a stretcher in the third quarter because of a head injury.

The key play was Khalid Kareem snatching the ball away from Lock on second-and-goal from the Cincinnati 9 in the fourth quarter that ended a potential Denver scoring drive.

The game might prove to be costly for the Bengals in terms of injuries. They came in already missing their best linebacker, Logan Wilson, and starting right guard Riley Reiff.

More guys were banged up Sunday, most notably Joe Mixon.

Mixon suffered an ankle injury in the fourth quarter. Early indications are that the injury isn't serious, but it raises the question of how close to 100 percent Mixon will be against the Ravens this weekend in Cincinnati.

Head coach Zac Taylor did not give an update on Mixon following Sunday's game.

"I really don't know," Taylor said via the team's website. "The guys are pretty excited in the locker room right now. I'll check on those injured guys when they're done."

On Wednesday, however, Taylor told reporters Mixon would take part in Wednesday's practice.

Mixon is second in the NFL in rushing (1,094 yards, 12 touchdowns, 4.2 yards per carry) and has also caught 29 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns. Against the Ravens in Week 7 when the Bengals prevailed, 41-17, Mixon had 59 yards on 12 carries with a touchdown.

If Mixon is hampered or unavailable, it could change Cincinnati's game plan and mean a bigger role for backup Samaje Perine (54 carries, 242 yards).

But the Bengals were fired up after Sunday's win, knowing they will have a chance to take control of the division if they can sweep Baltimore (8-6).

"We've still got two more division games left that are really going to decide the fate of the division," quarterback Joe Burrow said. "You know what kind of team Baltimore is, so we are going to enjoy this win tonight and watch the film tomorrow, and then we'll get right on to Baltimore."

Boyd, who's had big moments against the Ravens in the past, sounded confident about beating the Ravens again.

"I think all of the guys are going to buy in and come ready to go to war," Boyd said. "It's going to be a great fight, but I think we're going to pull it off."

Still, the offense behind Burrow started slow -- again -- and big plays were scarce and three field goals by rookie Evan McPherson saved the day.

Burrow was just 15 for 22 for 157 yards.

Boyd was the key receiver for Burrow on a day when Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase combined for just three catches and 26 yards. Boyd had his best game since Sept. 30, grabbing five passes for 96 yards and Cincinnati's only TD. Boyd also caught a critical 19-yard pass to set up a last-second field goal just before halftime. Linebacker Germaine Pratt had 15 tackles.

Chase already has more than 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, but this was his quietest game of the season. He caught one of four targets for just 3 yards.

Bottom line?

It's a familiar refrain, but Cincinnati has to start faster and better.

Beyond that, winning two of the last three might be good enough to get the Bengals to the playoffs. The playoff picture is still muddled. Once they get past the Ravens the day after Christmas, the Bengals host Kansas City before finishing the season at Cleveland.

"We still got two more division games left that are really going to decide the fate of the division," Burrow said. "We know what kind of team Baltimore is."

The good news this week is the Bengals will be playing at home as they go for a sweep of the season series, having routed the in October in Baltimore. They're coming off a massive road win.

The Ravens, on the other hand, have lost three straight games and five of their last eight while dealing with a run of major injuries and subtractions that never seems to cease.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Joe Burrow, Brandon Allen
RBs: Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, Chris Evans
WRs: Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, Mike Thomas, Stanley Morgan Jr.
TEs: Hayden Hurst, Drew Sample

Cleveland Browns

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Tom Withers reported, after all they endured over the past week, the Browns were seconds away from an unlikely leap into first place in the AFC North.

Instead, they're at the bottom.

Unable to overcome a COVID-19 outbreak that ravaged their starting lineup, sidelining their top two quarterbacks and coach, the Browns were beaten 16-14 on Monday night by the Las Vegas Raiders, who won on Daniel Carlson's 48-yard field goal as time expired.

A two-day postponement had raised the Browns' hopes that they could overcome long odds.

The Raiders dashed them.

"Just what we had to go through during the week and the guys that stepped up and put it all on the line, we were a play away and it did hurt," said Browns left guard Joel Bitonio, who moved to left tackle with two starters out.

"I've been a part of a few losses that have hurt, but that's definitely up there."

With a win, the Browns (7-7) would have moved ahead of Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh in a tight division race unlikely to be decided until the final weekend.

The loss damaged Cleveland's playoff chances further -- the Browns are currently in the No. 12 spot -- and will likely require them to string together wins at Green Bay and Pittsburgh and against Cincinnati in their home finale to have any shot at the postseason.

"It's completely up for grabs still," said star defensive end Myles Garrett, who played most of the fourth quarter with a groin injury. "We've just got to keep on working, keep on winning. The goal is still to win out, and our destiny is still in our favor if we continue to do the things we need to. "

Following a rough first half, it all seemed to finally be going the Browns' way in the fourth quarter.

Third-string quarterback Nick Mullens, who was on the practice squad until late last week, rallied Cleveland to a 14-13 lead with a 6-yard touchdown pass -- on fourth down -- to tight end Harrison Bryant with 3:45 left.

The Browns then got a turnover when cornerback Greedy Williams picked off a deep overthrow by Raiders QB David Carr with 2:47 left. Cleveland, though, couldn't pick up a first down as Nick Chubb was stopped on third-and-3, and burned only 57 seconds before punting.

Carr took it from there, setting up Carlson's winning kick, which felt like another gut punch to the Browns and their fans.

"It really hurts," said Mullens, who went 20 of 30 for 147 yards. "It was so cool, the stadium was rocking. I really believed in the fourth quarter this night was destined for Cleveland. But sometimes it doesn't work out like that."

There were moments Cleveland would like to have back.

Kicker Chase McLaughlin missed a 47-yard field goal on the final play of the first half. There were a couple drops, and running lanes that appeared to open for Chubb seemed to close off quickly on the Browns' talented back.

"We fought hard," said Chubb, who finished with 91 yards on 23 carries and a TD. "It wasn't enough in the end, but our guys, I think we did fight our (butt) off. It was tough coming into the situation that we were in.

"A lot of guys stepped up that needed to step up. At the end of the day, we've got to finish, and we weren't able to. Those guys finished on the other side, so that's what happens."

When the NFL postponed the game, moving it from Saturday to Monday, it appeared the Browns might catch a break and maybe get back quarterback Baker Mayfield and some of the other 21 players on the COVID-19 reserve list.

Beyond Mayfield, the team was without Austin Hooper, Jarvis Landry and both starting tackles.

Safety John Johnson III was the only player activated Monday, forcing Cleveland to use backups and players with little experience. Coach Kevin Stefanski was also unable to get back and watched from home.

In the end, it was too much to overcome as the offense, missing eight players and five starters, totaled 236 total yards.

"It was tough," Garrett said. "But I can't lie, I was excited before the game to attack another challenge. Something new, something different, and I know the guys who were next man up, they were ready to go, they were raring to go and get an opportunity to go out there and make some big plays, and they did.

"We just needed a couple more. ..."

Stefanski told reporters Tuesday that his 10th day in quarantine under the NFL's COVID-19 protocols, which falls on Christmas Day when the Browns play the Packers, won't prevent him from returning to the Browns sideline, per Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal.

Stefanski added that he expects to have Mayfield available for Week 16, as well.

However, he might be required to travel on his own to Green Bay if he doesn't test out of protocols by the time the team makes the trip on Friday. The coach added that separate travel also might be necessary Mayfield, depending on test results, according to Ulrich.

With two consecutive negative tests coming 24 hours apart, the coach and quarterback could test out of protocols before then. Stefanski said he's hopeful that some players on the reserve/COVID-19 list could return to practice as early as Wednesday.

Mayfield and Stefanski tested positive last Wednesday.

Beating the Packers with a head coach unavailable and key personnel unable to practice for part of this week, if not all of it, won't be easy. Stefanski declined to say whether Mayfield would even start if he's available to play but unable to be with the team until game day.

"We're all hopeful we test out sooner," Stefanski said, per the Beacon Journal.

It's a precarious situation, to be sure, but Stefanski and Hooper were cleared Wednesday and will definitely be back for Green Bay.

I'll have more on all that via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

A few final notes. ... With 91 rushing yards Monday, Chubb crossed the 1,000-yard plateau for the third straight season. He joined Greg Pruitt and Leroy Kelly in a tie for the third-most 1,000-yard seasons in franchise history.

Chubb also scored a touchdown on a 4-yard run, which brought his season touchdown total to eight. He and Jim Brown are the only two non-quarterbacks in franchise history with eight touchdowns in each of their first four years.

Chubb recorded 42 of his rushing yards in the fourth quarter, and all of them were necessary for the Browns to find their second touchdown of the game and stay alive late.

In a related note. ... Stefanski told reporters on Wednesday Kareem Hunt (ankle) is not expected to play against the Packers.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jacoby Brissett, Baker Mayfield, Kyle Lauletta, Deshaun Watson
RBs: Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, D'Ernest Johnson, Demetric Felton, John Kelly
WRs: Amari Cooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Jakeem Grant, Anthony Schwartz
TEs: David Njoku, Harrison Bryant, Miller Forristall, Stephen Carlson

Dallas Cowboys

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

As ESPN.com's Todd Archer noted, the transformation of the Cowboys from how people thought they would win games in 2021 and how they are winning games is staggering.

So much so that quarterback Dak Prescott and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence have come up with a bet between the offense and the defense for the rest of the season.

It's touchdowns scored versus takeaways created.

After Sunday's 21-6 win against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium, the Cowboys' defense has a 4-2 lead.

The Cowboys had four takeaways -- three interceptions and a fumble recovery -- to a touchdown run by Ezekiel Elliott and a Prescott touchdown pass to Dalton Schultz.

"They obviously won this one, but we'll make sure it carries over," Prescott said. "They're doing a great job getting the ball. Front seven's attacking, back end's getting their hands on balls and it's impressive. It's great to be a part of it."

Owner and general manager Jerry Jones was not aware of the wager, and Prescott did not say what is on the line.

"I love that," Jones said. "I've seen some of the most productive growth in teams when they've been doing a little wagering. Deion [Sanders] and Michael [Irvin] and the defense and the offense used to bet $50,000 a practice on 2-minute drills as to who won that practice. We had to stop that. ... [But] it's why they could say it was tougher out there at the 2-minute practice than it was in the game."

Entering the season, the Cowboys' success was thought to hinge on a high-powered, highly talented offense, but a defense that allowed a franchise-record 473 points last year has turned into one of the best units in the NFL.

Although cornerback Trevon Diggs, who intercepted his league-leading 10th pass Sunday, does not want the qualifier.

"We the best defense, that's for sure," Diggs said.

League statistics might not bear that out, but the defense was able to dominate New York even with rookie sensation Micah Parsons not making a solo tackle. In the official gamebook, he had a half-tackle and a pass deflection, ending his sack streak at six straight games.

"This is how we built our identity," Parsons said. "We pride ourselves on playing hard-nosed football, outhitting the other team. It's a better game when we make sure they score zero, and we held them out. I thought we did a great job today."

For the season, they have 31 takeaways, the most by a Dallas defense since 2014. They have 23 interceptions as a team, their most since 1999.

In five of the past six games, the Cowboys have allowed more than 20 points just once. In each game of their 3-0 start to December -- all road games -- the Cowboys have recorded at least four takeaways, their longest streak since 1994.

Jones could not remember a Cowboys defense playing as well as the current unit in the past 10 years, and it's a unit that is just now getting Lawrence back to speed after a broken foot, Randy Gregory going after missing four games with a calf strain and Neville Gallimore playing in just his second game because of an elbow injury over the summer.

Two defensive tackles did not play against the Giants -- Trysten Hill and Osa Odighizuwa -- after being put on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Saturday.

"My whole point about all this is if we can just stay healthy, keep bringing our guys that have been in rehab coming on back," Jones said, "and then we can get that offense, the nuances of that offense."

Jones did not finish his thought, but he remains confident the offense will find its rhythm again. The running game was better with Tony Pollard, who returned after a one-game absence with a foot injury, and Elliott both in the mix. The passing game was efficient but not explosive, and the offense scored on just two of five red zone trips.

Prescott, however, isn't so sure how to feel about the bet.

"This thing is ongoing; we'll catch up," Prescott said. "Well, hopefully not. Hopefully we don't catch up honestly because I hope they keep rolling them like that."

Still, as Associated Press sports writer Schuyler Dixon points out, the offense hasn't been right since he injured a calf in an overtime victory at New England in Week 6.

"I think it's OK we continue to play complementary football," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "Trust me, we know who's being productive and the things that we need to do a little better. I say it every week, they're very accountable."

Dallas scored on five possessions against the Giants. The three drives that ended in field goals (68, 58 and 37 yards) were longer than the two that ended in touchdowns (13 and 29).

In the first seven games, the Cowboys never had fewer than 380 yards on offense. In the past seven, they've fallen short of that five times.

Put another way, if Dallas is to get past the divisional round for the first time since the last of the franchise's five Super Bowl titles to finish the 1995 season, the offense will have to find its early-season form.

"I mean, we had some success," Prescott said. "Obviously, we want to be better and we want to get some touchdowns and I think if we got touchdowns, we'd feel a whole lot better about the overall performance."

One part of the problem for the Dallas offense lately is difficulty hitting big plays.

In the first six games with Prescott, the Cowboys averaged nine plays per game of runs of at least 10 yards and passes of at least 20 yards. The average is five in the seven games since then. In victories over Washington and the Giants the past two weeks, Dallas had one play of more than 20 yards.

In addition, receiver CeeDee Lamb had two dropped passes, including when he was open deep over the middle early in the second half with Dallas leading 15-6 and looking to all but put away the game. Drops by Lamb and other receivers have played a part in the offense's dysfunction.

All that said, McCarthy will officially talk about the playoffs now.

Sunday's win against the Giants was the Cowboys' 10th victory of the season and they are all but certain to win the division.

But this team wants more than a division crown. Now it is about playoff seeding.

The Cowboys have a rare quick rematch two weeks after beating Washington 27-20. More and more eyes are peeking ahead a week at Dallas' regular-season home finale against Arizona. The Cowboys and Cardinals are in a three-way tie with Tampa Bay for the second-best record in the NFC, a game behind Green Bay.

Dallas is in contention for the No. 1 seed but likely has to win out and needs the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to lose at least one more game since the Cowboys lost to the defending Super Bowl champion in Week 1.

Getting the No. 2 or 3 seed matters so they avoid a potential wild-card matchup vs. one of the better NFC West teams. The Jan. 2 meeting vs. the Cardinals will be major for the Cowboys. If the defense is playing as well as it is now and if the offense can get back into full rhythm, then the Cowboys can be a dangerous team. ...

A few final notes here. ... Pollard rushed 12 times for 74 yards and brought in all three targets for 13 yards in his return on Sunday. He also fumbled once but recovered.

The talk coming in was that the Cowboys would manage Pollard's workload carefully in his return from a one-game absence, but the 24-year-old's 15 touches were actually his fourth-highest tally of the season. Pollard looked explosive and unencumbered by the previously troublesome foot while accruing a team-high amount of rushing yards.

Elliott rushed 16 times for 52 yards and the above-mentioned touchdown and brought in three of four targets for 20 yards.

As CBSSports.com notes, Elliott's 13-yard scoring scamper in the first quarter served as the first points of the afternoon and qualified as his first trip to the end zone since Week 12 against the Raiders. The multi-time Pro Bowler still couldn't break the 60-yard mark on the ground, however, a feat he surprisingly hasn't accomplished since Week 6 against the Patriots. ...

Schultz's touchdown was his fifth of the season. That's a new career high for the fourth-year tight end.

And his game-best eight catches for 67 yards also set a new single-season career high in receiving yards (651), surpassing 615 last year.

Schultz now needs two catches to tie his career-best 63 catches from last season.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush, Will Grier
RBs: Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, Corey Clement, Ito Smith
WRs: CeeDee Lamb, James Washington, Simi Fehoko, Noah Brown, Michael Gallup
TEs: Dalton Schultz, Sean McKeon

Denver Broncos

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

The Broncos shared some good news Monday regarding their starting quarterback.

Teddy Bridgewater has been released from the hospital and is doing well, the team announced. Bridgewater was diagnosed with a concussion and is in the league's concussion protocol.

Bridgewater suffered the concussion while attempting to pick up a first down midway through the third quarter in Sunday's 15-10 loss, scrambling right and cutting upfield before getting upended by Bengals linebacker Joe Bachie.

As Bridgewater headed toward the ground, he was hit from behind by defensive tackle B.J. Hill, and the impact forcefully drove him into the turf where he landed on his shoulder and facemask.

Medical personnel immediately attended to Bridgewater and eventually brought out a backboard and cart for the quarterback. He was taken to a nearby hospital for evaluation and stayed overnight for observation.

Backup Drew Lock replaced Bridgewater for the remainder of the game. Bridgewater is in his first season with the Broncos, starting in all 14 games in which he's appeared.

Head coach Vic Fangio said Monday that Bridgewater is "highly unlikely" to play in Week 16 versus the Raiders.

Lock would start if Bridgewater is unable to play. The team will not consider having Brett Rypien start against the Raiders, Fangio said.

Meanwhile, as ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold noted, the Broncos are currently clinging to "wafer-thin mathematics" about their playoff chances after yet another loss without enough touchdowns.

They have three games remaining, all AFC West games, two of those on the road.

"We're not out," Fangio said. "We're just going to have to strap it up. ... And get ready for the next game."

All true, the numbers do say the Broncos are not quite eliminated from their sixth consecutive postseason, but the real math of this season is the same math that has derailed the previous five.

That with 10 different starting quarterbacks since the 2016 season, five different offensive coordinators and three different head coaches, the Broncos still don't seem any closer to solving their offensive riddle.

Or as Fangio said Sunday "you're not going to win many games in the NFL scoring 10 points."

Legwold went on to suggest that during a 16-game season the 400-point club was a reasonable expectation for a team with some playoff potential, the 425-point club in a 17-game football year.

That is a 25 points per game average and to this point of the season the Ravens (23.8 points per game) and the Titans (24.1 points per game) are the only teams in the league currently over. 500 and not averaging at least 25 points per game.

The Broncos haven't finished above the 400-point mark since 2014.

These Broncos are currently averaging 17.4 points per game and Sunday's loss was the sixth time in their seven losses when they've scored fewer than 20 points. Some opposing defensive coaches have privately told Legwold the Broncos don't win the line of scrimmage when they use their three-wide receiver set, and game video shows they don't repeat the things that do work.

Decades ago some coaches called it "Xeroxing" when teams kept pounding away at what works. The Broncos, especially in their seven losses, don't have enough copies of the things that did work and Sunday was another example. In the first half, the Broncos were in a three-wide receiver package all but eight snaps and trailed 6-3 at halftime.

Asked following the game if he would, or has, intervened during a game with the offensive staff, including offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, Fangio said: "There's times I do. I try to make my impact -- until it becomes the third-and-shorts, third-and-mediums like I told them to run it on the third-and-2 or -3 that we hit -- we do our talking during the week and you've got to follow that plan."

Legwold went on to suggest the all-will-be-well notion the Broncos will fix everything with a better long-term plan at quarterback is a little misguided.

The Broncos simply haven't matched their personnel with what they want to do on offense nearly well enough.

And even a unit that ranks fourth in total defense and second in scoring defense hasn't been enough to offset a bad offense. These Broncos have lost games in the last three weeks where they held Patrick Mahomes without a touchdown pass on 15 completions and Sunday held the Bengals to 249 total yards as Joe Burrow threw for 157 yards, 56 of those on one catch-and-run touchdown play to Travis Boyd.

These Broncos are now 1-6 when the opponent scores -- even a field goal -- first.

"Any loss is going to be upsetting, but losses in the middle to late December mean a lot," said Lock. "It's about these last three, winning these last three, it's what I can do if I'm out there, it's what Teddy can do if he's out there."

A winning season in 2021 would represent progress for the Broncos -- 2016's 9-7 finish is their last one -- and the defensive showing through a long list of injuries can't be ignored, but their math problem still stares them squarely in the face: They can't reach the playoffs until they build an offense with the same care and flexibility they built their defense with.

Some of that will depend on Lock, who had the Broncos threatening when he committed his second turnover of the season on a goal-to-go situation in relief of Bridgewater.

Against the Ravens in October, he threw an end zone interception with 3 seconds left, which allowed Baltimore to run one more play and extend its streak of 100-yard rushing games, much to Fangio's chagrin.

With their season possibly on the line Sunday, the Broncos put a key decision in Lock's hands on second-and-goal from the Cincinnati 9.

The old read option, which Tim Tebow brought back to the NFL a decade ago.

Instead of handing the ball off as he should have, Lock pulled the ball back from running back Javonte Williams' belly and was immediately face to face with unblocked defensive end Khalid Kareem, who snatched the ball out of Lock's hands.

Lock ended up completing 6 of 12 passes for 88 yards with a sack, a touchdown and a turnover.

"I hope after a week's worth of practice that he'll be much more comfortable and much more efficient in that operation," Fangio said. "His accuracy will be better. Everything will be better. ..."

Meanwhile, Williams recorded 15 rushes for 72 yards in Sunday's 15-10 loss to the Bengals. He added four receptions for nine yards.

Williams had another productive game as a rusher, averaging 4.8 yards per carry with big gains of 14 and 10 yards. Despite his explosiveness, the Broncos have continued to split the backfield evenly between him and Melvin Gordon.

One area where Williams has gained extra usage is in the passing game, as he's now recorded at least three receptions in three of his last four games. All told, Williams has played particularly well of late, but as CBSSports.com notes, there is little indication that the Broncos plan to turn over all -- or even a majority -- of the backfield work to him. ...

The Broncos activated running back Mike Boone from the COVID-19 reserve list, the team announced Tuesday.

Denver placed Boone on the COVID-19 reserve list Dec. 10, forcing him to miss games against the Lions and Bengals. The Broncos received a roster exemption for Boone, which means he will not immediately count against the 53-man roster.

Boone carried the ball four times for 35 yards and caught one pass for 19 yards in his last action.

The Broncos also announced they placed fullback/tight end Andrew Beck on injured reserve with an elbow injury, ending his regular season, and they waived running back Damarea Crockett.

The Broncos also activated receiver Seth Williams from the practice squad COVID-19 reserve list. They signed quarterback Anthony Gordon and tight end Caleb Wilson to the practice squad.

Gordon has not appeared in a regular-season game, but he spent time in the offseason with the Chiefs after going undrafted in 2020. Wilson previously spent a brief stint on the Broncos' practice squad this year. ...

Denver released receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El, outside linebacker Pita Taumoepenu, tackle Casey Tucker and running back Kerrith Whyte Jr. from its practice squad.

For what it's worth, Fangio is 1-4 against Las Vegas, including a 34-24 home loss this season when the Raiders were supposedly reeling from Jon Gruden's unceremonious exit.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Russell Wilson, Josh Johnson
RBs: Javonte Williams, Melvin Gordon, Mike Boone
WRs: Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, Diontae Spencer, K.J. Hamler
TEs: Albert Okwuegbunam, Eric Saubert, Andrew Beck

Detroit Lions

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

On Sunday, quarterback Jared Goff played arguably his best game with the Lions -- leading the team to a big 30-12 upset over the Cardinals.

Now he may miss Detroit's next game.

Goff was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the team announced on Monday.

The new COVID-19 protocols have changed when vaccinated players are eligible to return. If he is vaccinated and tested positive, Goff may rejoin the team as soon as he's asymptomatic and his viral load reaches a certain level. In theory, that could happen as soon as Tuesday.

Goff has completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,007 yards with 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions this year.

In an interview with 97.1 The Ticket on Tuesday, Goff said he's feeling OK and trying to stay prepared on Sunday if he's able to do so.

"I'm feeling good. It's pretty much a mild cold," Goff said, via Eric Woodyard of ESPN. "I'm feeling fine. I had some symptoms pop up really Sunday night after the game."

Goff admitted he didn't know the chances of being available for Sunday's game, but he's doing his best to stay hydrated and rested.

"I'll test every day and we'll find out," Goff said.

The sixth-year quarterback did note the difference in availability when it comes to testing positive for COVID-19 versus having the flu. The Lions had a flu virus run through the team a few weeks ago, and Goff was one of the players who came down with it.

"It is interesting though, I had the flu a couple weeks ago and they didn't have a problem with me playing but I'm not allowed to play with this," Goff said. "I tested flu positive and I was in the building the next day and there was no issue."

The NFL and NFLPA recently agreed to alter COVID-19 protocols to lower the threshold for vaccinated players, like Goff, to return to the building. Goff still has a chance to play in Week 16, but it remains to be seen if and when he'll be cleared.

The Lions made several other moves, including placing offensive tackle Matt Nelson on the COVID-19 list.

Linebacker Alex Anzalone has been placed on injured reserve. Head coach Dan Campbell said earlier on Monday that Anzalone is done for the rest of the season.

In more positive news for Detroit, running back Craig Reynolds has been signed from the practice squad to the 53-man roster.

The team has also activated cornerback Mark Gilbert and running back Jamaal Williams off the COVID-19 list.

Of course, Goff's first season in Detroit has been full of challenges, with the team being 2-11-1, and this is the latest one. He says the highs and lows have brought him closer to the game.

"It tests you. It really does. You say you love it until you lose however many in a row we lost, right? And then it's hard to continue to. But you do because you do love it," Goff said following Sunday's win. "I think it does test you and in that way, it has strengthened it [my love for the game]. You learn how hard it is to win, and then you win a game like today against arguably the best team in the league. On paper we don't match up with them, on paper we don't."

Meanwhile, as ESPN.com's Eric Woodyard notes, Amon Ra St. Brown became the first rookie in Lions history to catch at least eight passes in three consecutive games, finishing with eight catches for 90 yards and one touchdown.

He now owns the team record for most receptions in a season by a rookie with 65, topping former running back Jahvid Best's 58 in 2010.

He also became the third rookie in team history to register 70 or more receiving yards in three straight games, joining Dorne Dibble (1951) and Earl McCullouch (1968).

"I'm really confident right now. I think confidence is one of the biggest things in this sport," St. Brown said. "There's guys out there that you know can play but their confidence level isn't just up there, so I think confidence is huge, and my confidence is high right now and I'm going to keep going with it. Keep doing what they want me to do, keep making plays and keep getting these [wins]."

Although St. Brown was already confident entering the season, his game-winning touchdown catch against Minnesota on Dec. 5 has lifted him even more.

One of the Lions' biggest questions dating back to training camp was who would emerge among the receiving corps.

St. Brown has done just that.

The Lions will need St. Brown to continue his production, notably in the absence of Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson. St. Brown's timing on routes with Goff throughout the season, such as the "sneak" route against Arizona, is one of the main areas he's grown from training camp to now.

"I'll say it again, he's a stud," Goff said of St. Brown. "We've known it since training camp. Finally getting him involved quite a bit now. I thought the route on the touchdown was just so perfect. It's such a unique route that only some guys can run, and you have to have a good feel for the space and the game. He has all of that. We had him on a few choice routes today and we're constantly talking on the sidelines. He's really starting to learn. He's really starting to pick it up and understand coverage, and understand where the holes are, and it's really fun to play with him."

Meanwhile, as Associated Press sports writer David Hogg notes, it is difficult for any NFL player to give themselves a bigger boost than Reynolds has managed in the past two games.

He came to the Lions this season with one carry in two NFL seasons, and spent the first 12 weeks on Detroit's practice squad. Because of injuries and the pandemic, he was promoted to the main roster for the Dec. 12 game against Denver, and has rushed for 195 yards in two games.

Campbell confirmed Monday that he'll still be part of the running-back rotation after the return of starters Williams and D'Andre Swift -- which could happen this week.

Williams and Swift were both on the practice field on Wednesday. Josh Reynolds (thigh) was limited.

Beyond that, Godwin Igwebuike has lost a fumble in each of the past two weeks, costing him any chance to stay ahead of Reynolds. ...

Losing Anzalone and possibly Goff would be a significant blow, but the health situation will depend on how well they can contain the COVID-19 and flu ravaging the locker room.

I'll be following up on that via Late-Breaking Update in coming days as the Lions try to win a second straight game in Atlanta to keep some momentum going from the Arizona upset.

One last note here. ... Kicker Riley Patterson had a busy Sunday, but helped mightily in upsetting the Cardinals. Patterson made all three of his field goal tries (from 37, 47 and 45 yards) and all three of his point-after tries en route to earning NFC Special Teams Player of the Week.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jared Goff, Tim Boyle, David Blough
RBs: D'Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, Craig Reynolds, Jermar Jefferson, Godwin Igwebuike
WRs: Amon-Ra St. Brown, Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond, KhaDarel Hodge, Trinity Benson, Tom Kennedy, Quintez Cephus, D.J. Chark
TEs: Brock Wright, Garrett Griffin, Jared Pinkney, T.J. Hockenson

Green Bay Packers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

Now that they've clinched their third straight NFC North title, the Packers can turn their focus to claiming the conference's top seed and lone first-round playoff bye.

As Associated Press sports writer Steve Megargee notes, the Packers could use the extra week of rest at the start of the postseason. Star quarterback Aaron Rodgers is playing through a toe injury and several other notable players are sidelined as the Packers head into the stretch run of the regular season.

"Having an extra week, I think would be really great for my toe," Rodger said Sunday after the Packers' 31-30 road victory over the Ravens. "I mean, that would be fantastic -- to get another week. And then, the fact that we can win two home playoff games and make it to the Super Bowl."

Green Bay (11-3) has a one-game lead over Arizona, Dallas and Tampa Bay in the race to earn the NFC's top regular-season record.

The Packers host Cleveland and Minnesota and visit Detroit in their final three games.

"There are a lot of advantages to getting the No. 1 seed in terms of getting that week off and then having every playoff game come through your home stadium," head coach Matt LaFleur said Monday. "We all know the advantages of Lambeau and the climate that we play in."

The Packers know all too well that a No. 1 seed doesn't guarantee anything.

They had the NFC's top seed last season, but suffered their second straight NFC championship game loss, a 31-26 home setback against the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers.

But that No. 1 seed and first-round playoff bye certainly would help a team that has needed to withstand major injuries all season.

Rodgers has thrown 13 touchdown passes without an interception over his past four games despite playing with the injury that has dramatically reduced his practice time. Rodgers says he fractured his left pinkie toe while working out at home last month during his quarantine after a positive COVID-19 test.

He's working behind a line missing most of its usual starters.

Knee injuries have sidelined 2020 All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, 2020 Pro Bowl selection Elgton Jenkins. Rookie center Josh Myers and right tackle Billy Turner. Bakhtiari hasn't played all season.

The receiving group is missing wideout Randall Cobb (core) and tight end Robert Tonyan (knee).

Green Bay's defense has played most of the season without outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith (back) and cornerback Jaire Alexander (shoulder).

All those players other than Jenkins and Tonyan are still hoping to return as the Packers chase their first Super Bowl berth since their 2010 championship season.

Nonetheless, the Packers have averaged 38.7 points during their three-game winning streak and scored at least 31 points in each of those games. That follows a seven-game stretch in which they never exceeded 27 points.

The emergence of Marquez Valdes-Scantling on Sunday and Allen Lazard the previous week show the Packers have other receiving options when defenses focus on containing Davante Adams.

Valdes-Scantling had five catches for 98 yards and a touchdown.

Unfortunately, coming off that big game, Valdes-Scantling will now have to isolate from the team.

The Packers announced Tuesday that they placed Valdes-Scantling on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Although the new NFL protocols make it easier for players to return, the Packers play the Christmas afternoon game in four days, and it's unlikely that he'll be cleared in time to play against the Browns.

Beyond that, LaFleur said he doesn't anticipate left tackle David Bakhtiari or cornerback Jaire Alexander playing in Week 16 versus the Browns. Running back Aaron Jones (knee) was listed as limited on the estimated injury report; Rodgers (toe) did not practice.

I'll have more on all involved via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

For the record, Rodgers, the NFC Offensive Player of the Week, was sensational to the tune of throwing three touchdowns and no interceptions on Sunday. He threw for 268 yards and tallied a 132.2 QB rating as he completed 74.2 percent of his passes. ...

According to Packers.com senior writer Mike Spofford, the Packers' running game against the Ravens was better than the raw numbers might suggest, but there was also more than meets the eye regarding the late-game defensive breakdowns.

LaFleur touched on both topics Monday as the Packers began quickly turning the page on a short week to their Christmas Day home game against the Browns.

Baltimore came into Sunday's game ranked first in the league against the run, with opponents averaging just 85 yards per game, and Green Bay's combined 21 handoffs to Jones (13 rushes, 58 yards), A.J. Dillon? (7-22) and Lazard (one jet sweep for 5) produced exactly that, 85 rushing yards.

The Packers' efficiency on the ground is what stood out, though.

The coaching staff defines an efficient run as gaining at least 4 yards on first down, at least half the yards needed to move the chains on second down, and converting on third down.

By that metric, 14 of the aforementioned 21 designed runs got the job done. Jones was particularly productive on first down, gaining at least 4 yards on seven of his initial eight first-down carries before his last two were stopped cold. Four of Jones' first-down carries produced 7, 9, 11 and 9 yards.

In short, even though the ground game didn't produce any eye-popping statistics, its steadiness against the top rush defense in the league played a big part in the Packers scoring four touchdowns in a span of five possessions.

"We were getting positive gains," LaFleur said. "I don't think we had any explosives in the run game, which we always would like, but for the most part I thought it was a productive day on the ground. ..."

Expect the Packers to continue leaning on both backs down the stretch. ...

Beyond that, Green Bay's special-team woes continue. The Packers committed three special-teams penalties with interference on a fair-catch attempt, a hold on a kickoff return and a delay of game on a punt.

The defense struggled to contain Baltimore quarterback Tyler Huntley, who threw two touchdown passes and rushed for 73 yards and two more scores while filling in for an injured Lamar Jackson.

Now, as noted above, Green Bay has a short week to prepare for Saturday's game with Cleveland, which marks the Packers' first Christmas Day game since a 35-21 victory over the Chicago Bears in 2011. The Browns will have even less time to get ready, as they'll be coming off a Monday game against the Las Vegas Raiders. ...

One last note here. ... As ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky wrote, "Three seasons, three division titles. That's LaFleur's signature as the Green Bay Packers coach" after Sunday's win.

Next up, another 13-win season -- if not better.

If they win out -- and Demovsky notes this might have been their toughest remaining game in the final month of the season -- they'll get to 14-3 in the 17-game schedule after back-to-back 13-3 seasons to start LaFleur's head-coaching career. With the COVID-19-ravaged Browns, the inconsistent Vikings and the two-win Lions remaining, the Packers have a manageable path to the finish line.

And the Sunday win in Baltimore will go down as a historic day in Packers history with Rodgers throwing his 442nd career touchdown pass to tie Brett Favre for the franchise record.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Aaron Rodgers, Kurt Benkert, Jordan Love
RBs: Aaron Jones, A.J. Dillon, Kylin Hill
WRs: Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins, Amari Rodgers, Malik Taylor, Randall Cobb
TEs: Marcedes Lewis, Josiah Deguara, Robert Tonyan

Houston Texans

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

Davis Mills got his first NFL win this weekend with a victory over the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars.

Now he and the Texans (3-11) will look to improve as they close out a disappointing season with three games against playoff contenders. They'll host the Los Angeles Chargers Sunday followed by games against San Francisco and Tennessee.

Mills, a third-round pick from Stanford, opened his NFL career with seven consecutive losses before throwing two touchdown passes Sunday to help the Texans snap a three-game skid with the 30-16 victory.

"It's awesome," Mills said. "It's a really good feeling, a great feeling for the guys in the locker room. ... So, we're ready to build on it."

Houston's victory was aided by a kickoff return for a touchdown and a solid defensive performance that came despite missing several starters to COVID-19 protocols.

Mills had TD passes of 22 and 43 yards for the third multi-score game of his career.

"He's making quick decisions," head coach David Culley said. "He's not back there holding the ball and when he is holding the ball, he's stepping up in the pocket and finding his check-downs. That's something he wasn't doing as well earlier when he was playing. ... His clock is starting to tick a lot better now than it was earlier in the year."

Indeed, Mills is getting better as he gets more experience, and as Associated Press sports writer Kristie Rieken suggests, his growth has been helped by the chemistry he has with veteran receiver Brandin Cooks. The eight-year pro caught both of Houston's touchdown passes Sunday and had 102 yards receiving for his second consecutive 100-yard game and fourth this season.

"(He's) been extremely consistent all year and that's why he's very easy as a target to find because you know he's going to be in the right spot at the right time," Mills said.

Cooks has been the team's top offensive performer this season and has been productive with Mills and Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. He leads the team and ranks 16th in the NFL with 947 yards receiving, putting him within striking distance of his sixth 1,000-yard season.

As important as his play on the field, Culley lauded him for his leadership on this young team.

"He's so important in understanding. ... How things are supposed to go," Culley said. "When things weren't right in the locker room he's someone that I could always lean on."

Despite focusing on improving the run game week after week, the Texans continue to be ineffective on the ground. Houston managed just 75 yards rushing against Jacksonville and remains last in the NFL by averaging just 77.4 yards rushing a game.

David Johnson returned Sunday after missing two games, but he did little to help the problem, finishing with just six carries for 24 yards.

Rex Burkhead, playing through hip and quad injuries even though Culley all but ruled him out the middle of last week, rushed 16 times for 41 yards and brought in one of three targets for six yards on Sunday.

Burkhead managed to play through his multiple injuries and once again was the clear leader of the ground attack, though, as usual, the solid volume didn't lead to much production.

The veteran back has logged double-digit carries in four of the last five contests, yet he hasn't topped the 41 rushing yards he posted Sunday all season.

Mark Ingram remains the team's leading rusher with 294 yards this season despite being traded to the Saints after seven games.

The Texans will keep trying to improve their running game and look for Mills to take another step in his development this week. He's been great on short passes in his two starts since Taylor was benched, and offensive coordinator Tim Kelly could open the playbook more in these last three games to look for more opportunities downfield. ...

Meanwhile, ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop notes the Texans have likely blown their chance for the No. 1 pick.

Because the Lions, who came into the day with a 1-11-1 record, beat the Cardinals, the loser of Texans-Jaguars jumped into the top spot. That was Jacksonville, whose 2-12 record is the worst in the NFL. Even at 3-11, the No. 2 pick is still in play for the Texans, because they are still only a half-game back of the Lions.

The Texans are of course not trying to tank, but a big special teams game (three field goals from kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn and the above-mentioned 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown) helped give the Jaguars the inside track at the top pick for the second year in a row.

Now for the bad news: The Texans placed Fairbairn, Cooks and LB Eric Wilson on the COVID-19 reserve list Wednesday.

Culley said last week Wilson is their only unvaccinated player. That means he’s out on Sunday, while Cooks and Fairbairn could be cleared in time to play.

I'll be watching for more on that in coming days; watch the Late-Breaking Updates section for the latest.

Also. ... The Texans placed quarterback-turned-TE Jeff Driskel on injured reserve. He has a broken collarbone, according to SportsTalk 790 Radio's Aaron Wilson.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Davis Mills, Kevin Hogan, Kyle Allen
RBs: Dare Ogunbowale, Rex Burkhead, David Johnson, Marlon Mack, Royce Freeman, Scottie Phillips
WRs: Brandin Cooks, Nico Collins, Phillip Dorsett, Chris Conley, Chris Moore, Danny Amendola, Davion Davis, Jordan Veasy
TEs: Brevin Jordan, Jordan Akins, Pharaoh Brown, Jeff Driskel

Indianapolis Colts

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

As NFL.com's Michael Baca framed it: "The Colts left the door open for a Patriots comeback on Saturday night. But that was until Jonathan Taylor closed the show."

Needing a first down or two with a three-point lead and a little over two minutes to play, Taylor instead ripped off a 67-yard touchdown run to help put the game out of reach and secure a 27-17 victory over the Patriots.

"I think it just says that we're a team that's gonna come in, wherever we're at -- home or away -- we're going to play 60 minutes, four quarters of hard-nosed football," Taylor said in a postgame interview. "And we're not going to let up, we're going to continue pressing until the clock strikes zero."

Taylor's final run of the night concluded a 170-yard rushing night for the stellar second-year back, who averaged 5.9 yards per carry off 29 attempts.

The late-inning home run also kept Indianapolis in the AFC South chase with the Tennessee Titans and moved the Colts up one spot within the playoff picture, where they currently sit at the No. 5 seed.

The Colts put it on the Patriots in the first half, going into the locker room with a 20-0 lead having dominated on defense and scoring a TD on a blocked punt. Patriots quarterback Mac Jones made several miscues early on but rallied back in the second half thanks to mistakes by his contemporary Carson Wentz, whose second-half interception helped spur a comeback.

Wentz completed just 5 of 12 pass attempts for 57 yards (TD, INT) on the night, but the scare of what would've been a harrowing letdown was quickly forgotten by virtue of Taylor's 67-yard scamper.

Said Taylor: "It was just an all-out effort -- offense, defense, special teams -- being able to come together and play a complete game."

Taylor leads the league with 1,518 rushing yards and 18 total TDs (16 rushing, two receiving), and is closer to achieving Colts history with three games remaining. Taylor now needs just 192 rushing yards to eclipse the single-season franchise record of 1,709 yards set by Edgerrin James, who applied that mark in his second season (2000).

The second-year running back has topped the 100-yard mark eight times in 11 games and showed just how dynamic he can be.

As Associated Press sports writer Michael Marot notes, if Taylor has a scoring run in his 12th consecutive game against the Cardinals, he'll break Lenny Moore's franchise record. He needs two total TDs to break the Hall of Famer's single-season franchise mark (20), which was set in 1964.

Chants of "MVP" resonated in Lucas Oil Stadium as Taylor walked off the field. But all the 22-year-old could really think of was getting the Colts into the playoffs as they approach the final three-game stretch that begins in Arizona on Christmas Day.

"It's just a blessing that people feel as though my name should be in that conversation," Taylor said. "The only thing that's on my mind is to continuously be available for my team each and every single week. Because it's going to take our best every week in order to win these games."

Defensively, the Colts continue to lead the league with a plus-14 turnover margin and are tied with Dallas for the most takeaways (31).

Add an offensive line that has allowed 94 sacks since 2018, and a team gaining more confidence by the week and the Colts are primed to continue ascending.

All they must do now is demonstrate Saturday's victory was no fluke.

"We've got to win every one of these games," head coach Frank Reich said. "What we said in there was, 'Hey, this is a great team win, but this counts for one. It counts for one, that's it.' We've got to dial it back in and get ready to play."

Meanwhile, as ESPN.com's Mike Wells notes, the Colts have gone from being the eighth seed, which was on the outside of the AFC playoff picture, to now the fifth seed in the conference.

The next question: Can they rely on Wentz?

While Taylor has shown he can carry a hefty-sized workload, the Colts probably need Wentz to be more effective through the air than he was against New England.

Wells was more direct, writing: "Wentz, outside of having three quarterback sneaks for first downs, didn't play well. He threw one interception, and the Patriots dropped two other interceptions.

"Those types of mistakes will hurt the Colts down the stretch."

Meanwhile, Michael Pittman Jr.'s productivity has been fine. But after Pats safety Kyle Dugger ripped off Pittman's helmet, the two were involved in a scuffle that led to the ejection of both. Without Pittman, Indy struggled to preserve the 20-0 lead it built before he was tossed.

Pittman is Indy's top receiver and he can't afford to lose his composure.

As for this week's Christmas night game in Arizona, it's worth noting the Colts' short-handed secondary has had trouble against some of the league's top quarterbacks. Expect Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray and productive running backs James Conner and Chase Edmonds to test Indy's pass defense.

If the Colts defense holds up, it would be another big step. ...

On the injury front. ... While safety Andrew Sendejo has gone into the concussion protocol, starting center Ryan Kelly could return this week after missing the past two games. He sat out Saturday after his newborn baby girl, Mary Keto, died. She was born Friday and Kelly confirmed the death in a Twitter post Monday afternoon.

Following the game everyone from Reich and Kelly's teammates to Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Patriots players offered condolences.

"Nothing made me happier than being your Dad. You gave your mom and I that gift," Kelly wrote. "You were simply a miracle and always will be. I'm sorry you never got to open those sweet eyes and see us or take your first steps but you have angel wings now."

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Matt Ryan, Sam Ehlinger
RBs: Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines, Deon Jackson
WRs: Michael Pittman Jr., T.Y. Hilton, Ashton Dulin, Parris Campbell
TEs: Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox, Kylen Granson

Jacksonville Jaguars

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

According to ESPN.com's Michael DiRocco, interim head coach Darrell Bevell is turning over the playcalling duties to passing game coordinator Brian Schottenheimer for the final three games of the season.

Bevell was the Jaguars' offensive coordinator and was tapped to replace Urban Meyer after the team fired Meyer shortly before 1 a.m. ET Thursday. Bevell still called plays in Sunday's 30-16 loss to the Houston Texans because of the quick turnaround and said he would evaluate any potential changes this week.

He's hoping Schottenheimer, who has 12 years of experience as an offensive coordinator in the NFL with the New York Jets, St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks, will be able to spark an offense that hasn't scored more than 23 points in any game this season.

"It lets me take more on of the head coach role that I'm being asked to do with that added responsibility, but also we have another accomplished playcaller in our midst," Bevell said Monday. "And be able to let Brian take an opportunity at it and put his own personality into the offense as well. We'll be obviously in constant communication. We game-plan together a lot anyway, so I'm really confident and happy I'm going to be able to turn that to him."

Profootballtalk.com's Myles Simmons reminded readers this is a bit of a change for Bevell. When he took over as interim head coach for the Lions last year after Matt Patricia was fired, he kept the play-calling duties for the rest of the season.

Schottenheimer was Seattle's offensive coordinator the previous three seasons, and the Seahawks finished in the top 10 in scoring each season and led the NFL in rushing in 2018. However, he was fired after last season after the Seahawks failed to average 300 yards of offense, including a season-low 278 yards in a wild-card loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

Schottenheimer's rush offense ranked in the top 10 in three of his six seasons with the Jets, but he has never had a pass offense rank higher than 14th in his 12 seasons as a coordinator.

The Jaguars are last in the NFL in scoring (14.0 points per game), and rank 27th in passing, 23rd in rushing and 30th in third-down conversions. Rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence has completed just 58 percent of his passes for 2,945 yards with nine touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

Lawrence's receiving corps is one of the least dependable in the NFL.

The Jaguars lead the league in drops with 29, more than four times as many as league-leading New England. They had five against Houston on Sunday, including egregious ones by Robinson and receiver Laviska Shenault.

So it comes as no surprise that, as much of a problem as coach Urban Meyer was, firing him had no impact on the team's offensive woes.

While the Jaguars did score 16 points -- nearly a full touchdown more than what they had been averaging over the past seven games (9.1) since the bye -- they still only managed one touchdown drive.

Since the bye week, the offense has scored just seven TDs (including one against the Texans, who were missing five defensive starters.).

Fixing the offense, Lawrence's development and the franchise's chances for success over the next decade depends on owner Shad Khan making the correct hire to replace Meyer. It needs to be someone with previous NFL head coaching experience and a background in offense.

The Jaguars owner has gone through four head coaches, three general managers and even brought back two-time Super Bowl winner Tom Coughlin to oversee one regime.

There was a sliver of hope in 2017 when the Jaguars made it to the AFC championship game, but even that star-studded team flamed out and now looks more like a one-year fluke than a timeless masterpiece.

"It's hard to believe four years ago, but it seems like an eternity," Khan said last week. "But we were there, very, very close."

During Khan's decade of dysfunction -- he is 43-118 as Jacksonville's owner -- he has avoided the most obvious approach to fixing it: A total tear down and full-blown restoration.

"It's time," Associated Press sports writer Mark Long wrote, "and arguably long overdue."

General manager Trent Baalke's "value approach" to free agency delivered more mediocrity to the league's worst roster. And the NFL draft, in which the Jags had five of the first 65 picks, landed more backups than starters. How does that happen to team coming off a 1-15 season?

Meanwhile, the on-the-field product continues to suffer.

The offensive issues are clear. And while Jacksonville's defense has been better at times in 2021, it allowed Texans rookie quarterback Davis Mills to throw two touchdown passes to Brandin Cooks and help Houston reach 30 points for the first time since the season opener against, of course, Jacksonville.

And the Jaguars' special teams have been a debacle most of the year, never more evident than Houston scoring 17 points off special teams gaffes Sunday.

Khan has tried to change his team's direction several different ways, but never with a complete house cleaning. At this point, what could it hurt to try something new after giving the franchise's starved fan base nine seasons with double-digit losses in 10 years?

"I feel their pain," Khan said. "I mean, believe me, I know it because I'm living it. Regardless, I think we're going to do better."

Thanks to new NFL rules, Khan can start interviewing coaching candidates working in other jobs during the last two weeks of the regular season.

For what it's worth, Long notes that even though Lawrence seems to be regressing on the field, he's making leadership strides off it. Lawrence openly questioned coaches for how little they were using running back James Robinson and then told anyone who would listen that all the drama surrounding Meyer had to stop.

"I think you have to be wise," Lawrence said. "You can't ever take things back that you say, especially publicly. But yeah, within the team, coaches, locker room, players, you have to speak your mind."

Looking for positives?

The Jaguars are now in the driver's seat for the first pick overall in the 2022 NFL Draft after getting swept by the Texans for the ninth time in the last 11 seasons, which gives them the worst record in the NFL. They're helped, or hurt depending on your point of view, by the Lions' tie with Pittsburgh.

It's not a lock yet because the Jaguars do play the New York Jets Sunday, but they're final two games after that are at New England and home against Indianapolis -- two teams fighting for playoff positioning. ...

On the injury front. ... Shenault (shoulder, foot) did not practice Wednesday.

Finally. ... The Jaguars have made a pair of roster moves on Tuesday that will end the 2021 season for a pair of players.

Jacksonville has placed running back Carlos Hyde and safety Rayshawn Jenkins on injured reserve. With just three weeks left in the season Hyde and Jenkins are done for the year.

Hyde suffered a concussion in the Week 14 loss to Tennessee and missed Sunday's loss to Houston. He finished 2021 with 253 yards on 72 carries along with 12 catches for 65 yards.

In corresponding moves, the Jaguars signed Ryquell Armstead to active roster and designated tight end Dan Arnold for return from injured reserve.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Trevor Lawrence, C.J. Beathard
RBs: Ryquell Armstead, Devine Ozigbo, B.J. Emmons, James Robinson
WRs: Marvin Jones, Christian Kirk, Laquon Treadwell, Zay Jones, Laviska Shenault, Tavon Austin, Jamal Agnew
TEs: James O'Shaughnessy, Evan Engram, Chris Manhertz, Luke Farrell, Dan Arnold

Kansas City Chiefs

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

Tight end Travis Kelce was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Monday.

Kelce is vaccinated, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, so he has a chance to return in time for the Chiefs' next game on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Arrowhead Stadium.

Kansas City kicker Harrison Butker and cornerback Charvarius Ward also were placed on the COVID-19 list.

It got worse on Tuesday, when receiver Tyreek Hill, cornerback Rashad Fenton and tight end Blake Bell were placed on Reserve/COVID.

The Chiefs host the Steelers on Sunday for their final home game of the regular season.

Other players likely coming but as one source told Schefter and ESPN.com's Adam Teicher, "it's a mess."

Butker, who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week, is out on Sunday because he’s unvaccinated, a source NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. The Chiefs signed kicker Elliott Fry to their active roster off the practice squad. He'll handle the placement work this week.

Hill and Kelce are and have been Patrick Mahomes' top weapons since he became the Chiefs' starter in 2018.

Hill is second in the league with 102 catches and fourth with 1,178 yards to go along with nine touchdown catches. He had 12 catches for 148 yards and a touchdown in his most recent game against Los Angeles, breaking a tie with Chris Burford for third place in franchise history with 56 touchdown receptions.

Hill needs just six more catches to pass Kelce's single-season franchise record of 105 set last year.

Meanwhile, Kelce is coming off a game against the Chargers in which he caught 10 passes for a career-high 191 yards along with the tying TD late in the fourth quarter and the winner in overtime. On Wednesday, he was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for those efforts.

Kelce has 1,066 yards receiving this season, the sixth straight of at least 1,000 -- a record for both the Chiefs and for NFL tight ends.

"I think this year has been big for him where he hasn't put up the same numbers, but his mentality has never changed. He's been a leader on this team," Mahomes said. "When his number gets called, he goes out there and makes plays in big moments. That's what special players do. He's a special player. I'm glad he's on my team."

Together, Hill and Kelce have half of the Chiefs' receptions and more than half of their yards receiving this season.

If Hill is unable to play Sunday, the Chiefs will be forced to rely more heavily on inconsistent Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson along with Byron Pringle as they try to keep the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff race.

Hardman is third on the team in receptions (47) and yards (506). Pringle is fourth in yards (402) and running back Darrell Williams is fourth in receptions (38).

Kelce and Bell on the COVID-19 list would leave rookie Noah Gray as the only tight end on the active roster.

Kansas City placed defensive tackle Chris Jones, linebacker Willie Gay and wide receiver Josh Gordon on the COVID-19 list last week, and all three players missed the game against the Chargers.

Gordon was activated from the reserve/COVID list on Wednesday.

For the record, per the NFL's updated COVID protocols, fully vaccinated players who test positive can clear protocol within one day if they register two negative tests and are asymptomatic.

I'll be following up on all this via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

Meanwhile, the Chiefs (10-4) are now a half-game ahead of New England and Tennessee, both of whom play this weekend, for the best record in the AFC. Perhaps more importantly, they now have a two-game edge on the Chargers (8-6) in the division race, and they wiped out the tiebreaker the Chargers had by virtue of their victory in Kansas City earlier this season.

That suddenly stingy defense held Justin Herbert to 236 yards passing with two touchdowns and an interception. They forced a fumble near the goal line late in the game, holding Los Angeles to 4 for 7 in the red zone. And they stopped the uber-aggressive Chargers three times on fourth down, including a couple times near the goal line.

On offense, Patrick Mahomes merely threw for 410 yards and three touchdowns. Kelce had a career-best 191 yards receiving along with the tying touchdown in regulation and the winner in overtime. Hill added 12 catches for 148 yards and another score.

And the Chiefs did just enough on the ground to keep the Chargers honest on defense.

"We didn't win those games kind of at the early part of the year," Mahomes said, "but we always had the confidence that we knew we had the guys in the locker room to win them. I think we're still building on trying to become great, but I think we got the guys to do it, so I'm excited for these last few weeks and the playoffs. "

Now the Chiefs turn their attention to a tough finish.

They play Pittsburgh the day after Christmas in their regular-season home finale, then head to Cincinnati and Denver, giving them three straight games against wild-card contenders.

How the COVID situation plays out will be a huge factor this week.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Patrick Mahomes, Chad Henne
RBs: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Jerick McKinnon, Darrel Williams, Derrick Gore, Ronald Jones
WRs: Mecole Hardman, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Marcus Kemp, JuJu Smith-Schuster
TEs: Travis Kelce, Noah Gray, Blake Bell

Las Vegas Raiders

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

According to ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez, the Raiders were not happy about Monday night's game being delayed 49 hours due to the Cleveland Browns' COVID-19 issues.

Raiders linebacker K.J. Wright took to Twitter to say the game should have kicked off as scheduled or the Browns should have forfeited. Casey Hayward Jr. wondered if Browns center JC Tretter being the NFL Players Association president had something to do with negotiations to delay the game.

"My teammates said things that I agreed with, but at the end of the day, just how I was taught, life's going to throw you curveballs," said quarterback Derek Carr. "There's going to be adverse times, and I'm going to show up whenever they let us play, and we're going to play. Whether I agree or I don't agree …we've got to play at some point, and after that game, we're going to stand there -- we either won or lost."

Raiders owner Mark Davis told ESPN.com the delay was a "competitive disadvantage" to his team, given that Las Vegas, off a long trip to Kansas City the previous week, was prepping for a short week and a cross-country trip to Cleveland but instead had a shift in schedule and now has a short week with a divisional game up next against the Broncos.

Davis thought the NFL should have made the Browns fly to Las Vegas instead. It didn't happen.

The Raiders were able to translate some of that anger into on-the-field production to beat Cleveland 16-14 and improve to 7-7 while keeping their slim playoff hopes alive.

"I learned a long time ago, if I can't control it, it's nothing to get too worked up about," said interim coach Rich Bisaccia. "We tried to convey that to our players … I thought they did a great job of resetting their focus, getting on a plane and getting ready to come and play a game."

It's fair to wonder how ready they were as an undermanned Browns squad took the lead with under four minutes remaining after a Nick Mullens fourth-down touchdown pass to Harrison Bryant put Cleveland ahead by a point.

Getting the ball back while trailing for the first time, Carr got greedy, taking a first-down deep shot that Cleveland's Greedy Williams intercepted. It was an ill-advised throw from the veteran quarterback that could have all but ended his team's playoff chances.

"After that interception, I told the guys, 'Please, I promise we'll win it, just get the ball back,'" Carr said, via The Associated Press.

The defense indeed got the ball back, stuffing Nick Chubb on third-and-3 for no gain after the Raiders used their final timeout before the two-minute warning.

With new life and 1:50 to play, Carr engineered an 8-play, 51-yard drive -- including overcoming a big holding call -- to set up Daniel Carlson's game-winning 48-yard field goal as time expired in the Raiders' 16-14 win. The QB went 5 of 6 on the drive with a big 15-yarder to Zay Jones to get into field goal range at the end.

Carlson, with ice water in his veins, nailed the no-doubter down the middle, and the Raiders moved to 7-7, in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt.

"It's been a long time coming to win a game like that in the end," Bisaccia said. "We understand the situation we're in and what the playoff race looks like."

Las Vegas sits in the No. 10 seed with three to play, one game back of the final playoff spot with matchups against the Broncos (7-7), Colts (8-6) and Chargers (8-6) remaining. It's a daunting schedule ahead, but Monday night's win gives Carr and Co. the chance that they've been clinging to.

Meanwhile, as Gutierrez notes, Carr started hot, going 9-for-9 on his first-quarter attempts (tied for the most attempts without an incompletion in any quarter this season) and to eight different receivers (becoming the first Raiders QB to hit eight different players in an opening quarter since at least 1978).

Carr was shaken up midway through the third quarter on a strip-sack, grabbing at his lower right leg, the same leg he broke in 2016.

It was the eighth-year veteran's 35th career lost fumble, the most in the NFL over the past 10 seasons.

Carr finished 25-of-38 for 236 yards and one TD with one INT.

Meanwhile, we saw more Marcus Mariota in short-yardage situations than we have all season, but the Raiders need more creativity inside the red zone, in general, and inside the 10-yard line, in particular.

The Raiders had to settle for a 24-yard Carlson field goal at the end of the first half with Carr scrambling but not fooling anyone on third down. Mariota needs to be more involved in such situations against the Broncos. ... Just to keep a more rested Denver squad honest.

Also of interest. ... Jones, with six receptions for a team-high 67 yards, had his best outing since a six-catch, 93-yard performance on Dec. 30, 2018, as a member of the Buffalo Bills.

He only had seven receptions from Week 2 to Week 11 and wasn't targeted more than four times in a single game during that stretch. He had 59 receiving yards in a Thanksgiving victory over the Dallas Cowboys -- and 46 combined yards in subsequent losses to Washington and the rival Chiefs.

But Carr maintained faith in Jones, with whom he has a close personal friendship separate from football. Minus star tight end Darren Waller and facing a Browns defense determined to stop top target Hunter Renfrow, Jones emerged as a viable option on the perimeter.

"It's not perfect. We're still working on all those good things, but our chemistry is -- I trust the guy," Carr said of Jones. "I knew I needed him. And I wanted him to know 'Not only do I need you. But I believe in you.'"

Carr backed that belief in Jones by targeting him nine times Monday, equaling tight end Foster Moreau for tops on the team.

No two targets -- or receptions -- were more crucial than those on the game-winning drive.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Derek Carr, Nick Mullens
RBs: Josh Jacobs, Brandon Bolden, Ameer Abdullah, Peyton Barber, Jalen Richard, Kenyan Drake
WRs: Hunter Renfrow, Davante Adams, DeSean Jackson, Demarcus Robinson, Keelan Cole, Dillon Stoner, Mack Hollins
TEs: Darren Waller, Foster Moreau, Jacob Hollister, Nick Bowers, Daniel Helm, Derek Carrier, Matt Bushman

Los Angeles Chargers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

Los Angeles Chargers outside linebacker Joey Bosa was among several players put on the reserve/COVID-19 list Monday, and coach Brandon Staley said Bosa will miss Sunday's game against the Houston Texans.

Defensive back Kemon Hall also will miss Sunday's game after going on the COVID list, Staley said.

Other players said to be going on the team's COVID list include leading rusher Austin Ekeler and starting center Corey Linsley. Staley described both players' statuses as "day-to-day."

Ekeler was officially added to the list on Wednesday. Receiver Jalen Guyton joined him.

Instead, the placed quarterback Chase Daniel and defensive end Joe Graziano on the COVID list Tuesday.

This is the second time Bosa, who is unvaccinated, has been placed on the COVID list. He had previously been placed on the list as a high-risk close contact and didn't miss any games. He leads the Chargers with 9.5 sacks this season.

Ekeler leads the Chargers with 789 rushing yards and has 17 total touchdowns (10 rushing, 7 receiving).

The Chargers placed starting left tackle Rashawn Slater on the COVID list last week and he missed the team's loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last Thursday.

I'll obviously be following up on Ekeler via Late-Breaking Update as the week progresses. ...

Meanwhile, as Associated Press sports writer Joe Reedy reminded readers that Staley has preached two things since being hired in January: Consistency in his message and playing aggressively.

That isn't going to change despite plenty of second guessing by many after a 34-28 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday night.

The Chargers came up empty in three red-zone trips -- with two being on decisions to go for it on fourth down -- and were 2 of 5 overall on fourth downs. All four of Staley's fourth-down calls were correct according to analytics, but has the first-year coach been too driven by analytics instead of relying on instinct from time to time?

Staley said he has tried to blend both as best he can.

"Personally, I didn't make it here by going with the math. The math says that I'm a long shot to make it where I'm at. The math, the odds are not good," said Staley, who was a Division III defensive coordinator five years ago. "The only reason why I made it here is because of calculation. We're being calculated on how we play and we are playing to the strength of our football team.

"What I'm doing is I'm trying to make the decisions that I think are going to win us the game. I'm ready to live with all that smoke that comes with it. You need to be able to live with the decisions and your team needs to know why you're making these decisions so that they can live with them, too."

The decision when Staley was second guessed most came on the final play of the first half. The Chargers had fourth-and-goal at the Kansas City 1-yard line and elected to go instead of taking the field goal and a 17-10 lead into the locker room. Justin Herbert's pass to Keenan Allen was incomplete, broken up by Daniel Sorensen.

Staley said he wanted to make it a two-possession game.

"I knew that if we didn't get it, then it's 14-10. Even if Kansas City scores to open the second half, it's still a one-possession game," he said. "I wanted to be of that mindset, to separate from them because I felt like it was a great opportunity."

While taking the points might seem a no-brainer, Staley didn't deviate from the norm. According to Stathead, there have been seven second-quarter fourth-and-goal plays from at least the 2-yard line with 3 seconds or fewer. Teams have opted to kick the field goal only three times while teams that have gone -- including the Chargers -- are 1 for 4.

Even though the Chargers' hopes of winning the division took a major hit, they are still in the mix for a wild-card spot at 8-6.

Other notes of interest. ... Joshua Kelley had a costly fourth-quarter fumble at the KC 3-yard line, marking the third red-zone drive during Thursday's game in which the Chargers produced zero points.

"It's one thing to go up and over and it's another thing to reach it out when you go up and over," Staley said. "It was third down, not fourth down. That's not what we coach around here. We need to learn from that and make sure that that doesn't happen again."

On the injury front. ... Tight end Donald Parham Jr. was released from the hospital last Friday after being diagnosed with a concussion. Parham left the field on a stretcher after his head slammed to the turf while trying to catch a pass during the first quarter.

Derwin James aggravated a hamstring injury during the second half and did not return. Staley is hopeful the extra days off will allow James to further recover in time for Sunday's game at Houston.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Justin Herbert, Chase Daniel, Easton Stick
RBs: Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, Joshua Kelley, Larry Rountree III
WRs: Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Jalen Guyton, Josh Palmer, DeAndre Carter, K.J. Hill, Josh Reed, Maurice Ffrench
TEs: Jared Cook, Gerald Everett, Stephen Anderson, Tre' McKitty, Donald Parham

Los Angeles Rams

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

As NFL.com's Kevin Patra pointed out, Cooper Kupp is well on his way to winning the wide receiver triple crown, leading the NFL in catches, yards and touchdown receptions.

The star receiver tortured the Seattle defense Tuesday night, pulling in nine catches on 13 targets for 136 yards and the only two Rams TDs of the game in a 20-10 victory over the Seahawks.

No other receiver had more than 42 receiving yards and all others combined for 108 yards.

In the process of destroying Seattle, Kupp set the Rams' single-season record with 122 catches in just 14 games, passing Hall of Famer Isaac Bruce (119). Doing it in two fewer games is wild.

"I had no idea," Kupp said when asked about setting the record. "Obviously, that's a great honor considering the receivers that have come through this organization."

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Tuesday night, Kupp also broke a tie with Michael Irvin and teammate Odell Beckham for the longest streak of games with 90-plus receiving yards since 1950. Kupp has now breached the mark in 10 straight games.

Kupp generated his fourth game this season with 100-plus receiving yards and two receiving TDs. Only Randy Moss (2007), Terrell Owens (2005) and Lance Alworth (1966) had more in a season.

"I think he has an idea of how well he is playing, but he is truly one of the most humble, special players I have ever been around," head coach Sean McVay said of Kupp. "He doesn't need all the accolades. I think it's great he gets his first Pro Bowl recognition. I don't know how he's not going to be a first-team All-Pro prayer. I think he's a legitimate candidate for a lot of awards, but he is about our team. He's interested in leading the right way, making the plays that are instrumental and vital to the outcomes of our team's success and he does a lot of stuff without the football as well. But he's so special. You and I both know that. Pretty cool."

One award Kupp probably won't win is Most Valuable Player. No WR in NFL history has won the MVP award. Only 19 non-QBs have ever been so honored, per Pro Football Reference, most of them running backs. Lawrence Taylor and Alan Page on defense won the award and kicker Mark Moseley was honored in the strike-shortened 1982.

That's a stinger: A kicker won an NFL MVP, but never a WR.

It would take a ton for any wideout to make the leap, given that it's essentially become a QB award, and it takes a signal-caller to throw the ball to said receiver.

But maybe, just maybe, in a year in which no quarterback has consistently played otherworldly, Kupp has a shot.

He leads all receivers with 122 catches (next closest Tyreek Hill at 102), 1,625 yards (next closest Justin Jefferson at 1,335), and 14 TDs (next closest Mike Evans at 11).

To have any consideration for the MVP, Kupp would most assuredly need to break Calvin Johnson's single-season receiving record, which sits at 1,964 yards. Kupp needs 339 more yards over the final three weeks. If he continues on his 116.1 yards per-game average, he will best Johnson's record with nine yards to spare in Week 18. Kupp would need to average 169.5 yards over the next two weeks to match Johnson in 16 games.

"I mean, he's a great player," quarterback Matthew Stafford said of Kupp. "He's having a fantastic season. He's such a huge part of what we do as a team. You know, not only on offense, he's back there catching a bunch of punts for us on special teams. Does a great job leading that group. I'm just happy that I get the chance to play with a guy like that. I know a lot of guys on our team feel the same way. We all take a hand in his success and that's really fun. We're just proud of him. Just proud of him watching him do his thing."

It's no surprise that Stafford quarterbacked Johnson's record-setting season and now has Kupp in a position with a chance to best his former teammate. The big-armed QB always believes he can fit the ball into tight windows to WRs he trusts. The mind-meld between Stafford and Kupp has been evident since Day 1.

Kupp's importance to the Rams offense can't be overstated. Without the receiver making double coverages moot, L.A. wouldn't be close to the division lead.

It might not be enough to get receivers their first-ever MVP, but it's been enough to carry McVay's offense. ...

Meanwhile, despite a week of uncertainty that included up to 29 players being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list and a division matchup against the rival Seattle Seahawks being postponed from Sunday to Tuesday, the Rams proved resilient in a team-effort win.

As ESPN.com's Lindsey Thiry notes, the victory moves the Rams into a first-place tie with the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West with three games remaining in the regular season. And, with a Sunday matchup against the Minnesota Vikings now quickly looming, the Rams are continuing to trend in a positive direction with players returning from the reserve/COVID-19 list.

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

I'll be following up on that as needed in coming days; watch the Late-Breaking Updates section for more.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Matthew Stafford, John Wolford, Bryce Perkins
RBs: Cam Akers, Jake Funk, Darrell Henderson, Javian Hawkins
WRs: Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham, Allen Robinson, Van Jefferson, Ben Skowronek, Tutu Atwell, Landen Akers
TEs: Tyler Higbee, Kendall Blanton, Brycen Hopkins, Jacob Harris

Miami Dolphins

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

As ESPN.com's Marcel Louis-Jacques framed it, "This season was over, remember?"

The Dolphins were 1-7, and no NFL team has made the playoffs after being six games under .500 at any point in a season. They weren't as close to contending for an AFC East title as their 10-6 record last season suggested, and they would need drastic changes on both sides of the ball (and perhaps even on the sideline and in the front office).

But that was all before the streak. The Dolphins have gotten hot just in time to keep their playoff hopes alive, winning six straight -- including Sunday's 31-24 decision over the New York Jets -- to bring their record to 7-7 with three games left in the regular season. According to ESPN Stats and Information research, they are just the second team in NFL history to win six straight games and lose seven straight in the same season.

If they finish with a winning record, the Dolphins will become the first team in NFL history to do so after starting 1-7; and with a little help, they also can become the first such team to make the playoffs.

"We're just trying to take it one day at a time. Get better," head coach Brian Flores said. "That's the approach we've taken the entire season. These guys, they play hard for one another. They work hard. ... They support one another. It's a great group to coach."

It's been an incredible turnaround for what was arguably the most disappointing team in the NFL during the first half of the season.

The Dolphins were 30th in yards per game during the first half, and they are a slightly better 20th during their winning streak. But it's what they have done on the other side of the ball that has ignited their playoff aspirations.

What was once the league's worst defense in terms of yards allowed per game now ranks second in that category over the past seven weeks. Miami's minus-57.41 defensive expected points added (EPA) ranked sixth worst in the league through the first eight weeks of the season; its 56.53 defensive EPA since Week 9 is second only to New England's 69.3.

According to Louis-Jacques, the Dolphins made this about-face because they refused to believe what the rest of the football world had accepted after eight weeks: That their season was over.

"Just being around the guys," quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said. "I really think it's just the communication, just guys being in the building when we have off days. Guys wanting to work, stay back extra. I think all those play factors into our success on the field."

Miami's mission as it looks to clinch its first playoff berth since 2016 is simple: win out.

Lose on the road against either the New Orleans Saints Monday or the Tennessee Titans on Jan. 2 or at home versus the New England Patriots on Jan. 9 and Miami can start looking ahead to this offseason, because the odds of it making the playoffs will plummet.

The simplest scenario for the Dolphins is to win out while the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts win their respective divisions.

None of that matters if Miami comes out flat against the Saints, like it did in Sunday's win when it trailed the Jets 10-0 in the first half.

Meanwhile, running back Duke Johnson had a big day in Sunday's win over the Jets and he earned himself a permanent spot on the team's active roster on Monday.

Johnson had been elevated from the practice squad for the game and posted 22 carries for 107 yards and two touchdowns in the 31-24 victory. The Dolphins announced that they signed Johnson at the same time as they officially activated Phillip Lindsay from the COVID-19 reserve list.

Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed join Johnson and Lindsay as backfield options in Miami.

So is Johnson the Dolphins' RB1 moving forward?

It's the question every running back-needy fantasy manager is asking this week. Sunday was the first time in his career that Johnson has received a 20-carry workload, and he did not disappoint, running with purpose for all four quarters. Gaskin was no slouch, rushing for 54 yards on 10 carries, but Louis-Jacques believes Johnson did enough Sunday to earn himself another start.

For what it's worth, co-offensive coordinator Eric Studesville said Dolphins want to continue with competition in the RB room. "All those guys are going to play and participate in the game plan. ..."

The Dolphins also activated wide receiver Jaylen Waddle from COVID reserve, but they don't plan on getting Will Fuller back this season. Head coach Brian Flores said, via Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, that Fuller suffered a setback with his fractured finger and is not expected to play again.

Fuller signed a one-year, $10.6 million deal with Miami this offseason after spending five seasons with the Houston Texans. He missed the first two games of the 2021 season due to a league-induced suspension and personal reasons, but returned for the games against Las Vegas in Week 3 and Indianapolis in Week 4.

He broke his finger during Miami's game against the Colts, however, and was placed on injured reserve the following week.

Flores said this month that Fuller broke "several" bones in his finger but finally shut the door on his potential return this week.

"Will's had some setbacks in his rehab," he said. "I don't expect him this week and I don't expect him back this season."

Fuller's season ends with 26 yards on four catches.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Tua Tagovailoa, Teddy Bridgewater, Reid Sinnett
RBs: Sony Michel, Chase Edmonds, Phillip Lindsay, Myles Gaskin, Salvon Ahmed, Malcolm Brown, Raheem Mostert
WRs: Jaylen Waddle, Tyreek Hill, Cedrick Wilson, Trent Sherfield, Albert Wilson, Preston Williams, Isaiah Ford, Will Fuller
TEs: Mike Gesicki, Durham Smythe, Adam Shaheen, Hunter Long

Minnesota Vikings

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

As ESPN.com's Courtney Cronin framed it, "Soldier Field offered up its usual platter of occurrences that take place annually when the Minnesota Vikings play the Chicago Bears: Lackluster quarterbacking, penalties, turnovers and brutal all-around play.

"Fortunately for Minnesota, the Vikings had fewer mistakes than the Bears and got back to .500 for a third time this season with a 17-9 win. ..."

Cronin went on to explain the Vikings' seventh win of the season confirmed what many already knew, that this group tends to play down to its level of competition, in this case a Bears team that was eliminated from the postseason on Monday night.

Chicago's own level of ineptitude was more costly to the Bears -- who have now committed at least three turnovers in three straight games -- than Minnesota's ability to establish its dominance over a team that was without its starting secondary and had 14 players along with its offensive and special-teams coordinators on the COVID-19/reserve list.

On top of that, Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields turned in a terrible performance -- part of which falls on Fields' development, the rest of which can be credited to the Vikings' defense. Chicago walked away with just one touchdown after five trips inside the red zone, the result of the final play of the fourth quarter when Fields threw up a deep ball to Jesper Horsted for a 19-yard score.

The game was over by that point, but Minnesota has now had 11 straight games decided by one score. This team still needs to learn how to close out opponents far sooner than the last play of the game.

"We had some moments where it wasn't very good, but they fought," head coach Mike Zimmer said. "I was very, very hard on them this past week. Very demanding. I'm not saying that's the reason why, but these guys have a lot of pride too. We just have to keep grinding on them, keep trying to get them better, keep working on the things that they need to improve on.

"But that's the important thing, is that we try to get better these last three weeks. Not just show up and roll the balls out. Let's get better."

The Vikings' final three games are at home against the Los Angeles Rams and at NFC North champion Green Bay before they host Chicago in the finale.

The result in this one was hardly a surprise given the state of the Bears (4-10). The two between now and the next matchup against Chicago will obviously require better play. ...

Meanwhile, as Cronin points out that Kirk Cousins' trend of not playing well in Chicago continued in his fourth trip to Soldier Field as a Viking.

His 87 passing yards were his fewest in 118 career starts. He threw two touchdowns in the win but completed 50 percent of his passes and took a season-high four sacks. Minnesota's offensive line contributed to Cousins' struggles and led to the quarterback looking rushed and throwing shy of the sticks on a handful of third-and-longs. (The Vikings were 5-of-16 on third down.)

After the first quarter, in which he went 2-of-3 for a touchdown on passes traveling at least 10 air yards, Cousins went 1-of-8 with an interception on such throws.

He also threw five straight incompletions to Justin Jefferson until late in the fourth quarter, after opening the game 3-of-3 with a touchdown when targeting his top receiver. ...

On a more positive note, if we've learned one thing, it's to never count out Dalvin Cook.

Just 11 days after being carted off the field at San Francisco with a shoulder injury, the Vikings running back racked up 205 yards rushing and two touchdowns against the Steelers.

The Thursday Night Football outing set up Cook for a milestone on another prime-time stage, as he surpassed 1,000 yards rushing on the season at Soldier Field in Chicago -- and is counting.

He hit 1,000 on the dot with a 10-yard gain on his fourth carry of the night. Minnesota brought in Blake Brandel as an extra lineman/tight end for the play before that gained 7 and kept him in for the 10-yarder that moved the ball to the Chicago 17-yard line.

Cook's gains helped set up a 12-yard touchdown pass from Cousins to Jefferson for a 7-0 lead with 5:03 remaining in the first quarter.

Cook has now broken the 1,000-yard benchmark in three straight seasons.

Cook totaled 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2019, earning his first career Pro Bowl nod. He was voted to the all-star game again following the 2020 campaign in which he notched a career-high 1,557 yards and 16 rushing scores. He also added a receiving touchdown.

The NFL announced earlier today that Cook, Jefferson and Harrison Smith garnered selections to the 2022 Pro Bowl.

And finally. ... Adam Thielen (ankle) was inactive Monday at Chicago.

Thielen was considered a game-time decision, despite not practicing since suffering a high left-ankle sprain in a Week 13 loss at Detroit. Per Andrew Krammer of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Thielen fit in a pregame workout, went to the locker room and then didn't run routes with his teammates, signaling he was poised to miss a second straight contest.

With Thielen sidelined and Dede Westbrook and Dan Chisena on the reserve/COVID-19 list, Jefferson, K.J. Osborn and Ihmir Smith-Marsette were the team's primary downfield options.

Jefferson and Smith-Marsette pulled in Cousins' two touchdown passes.

Westbrook was activated from the COVID list Tuesday. Minnesota announced on Wednesday that running back Alexander Mattison has been activated off of the reserve/COVID-19 list.

He’s second on the team with 432 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns.

Mattison has started three games this season, replacing Cook when he was injured. Mattison rushed for 100 yards in two of those three games, reaching 90 yards in the third.

I'll have more on Thielen via Late-Breaking Update in coming days.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Kirk Cousins, Sean Mannion, Kellen Mond
RBs: Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, Kene Nwangwu, Wayne Gallman
WRs: Justin Jefferson, K.J. Osborn, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Dede Westbrook, Adam Thielen
TEs: Chris Herndon, Brandon Dillon, Ben Ellefson, Irv Smith Jr., Johnny Mundt

New England Patriots

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Jimmy Golen framed it, "What's more surprising than Bill Belichick's team making sloppy mistakes?

"How about the longtime Patriots coach apologizing for his surly attitude in the post-game media availability."

The coach told reporters on Monday that he was sorry for being curt after the 27-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts that dropped New England from the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Belichick's answers on Saturday night ranged from surly to argumentative, but the new week brought a new attitude.

"Look, fellas. I apologize. I seemed like I was a little short with you after the game," Belichick said. "Not really trying to be short, but honestly, there wasn't too much to say. I don't know there's a whole lot more to say now, but it's not your fault. It was a frustrating game."

The Patriots had won seven in a row to propel themselves to the top of the conference, but things fell apart quickly in Indianapolis.

New England was pushed around on the Colts' first possession, with Jonathan Taylor running six straight times for 33 yards to help set up a touchdown.

Then Indianapolis blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone to make it 14-0.

A field goal made it 17-0 before Mac Jones was picked off after driving New England to the Indianapolis 15 at the end of the first half. Jones threw his second interception to start the second half, setting up the Colts' 46-yard field goal attempt; it missed, but an offside penalty gave them another chance, which was successful to give Indianapolis a 20-0 lead.

In all, the Patriots committed eight penalties, including three false starts, and another that got Kyle Duggar kicked out of the game.

So it's no wonder that Belichick, never a ray of sunshine, was especially grouchy. Asked about Taylor, who finished with 170 yards, Belichick said, "I've said it like five times, I could just say it another five times. We didn't do anything well enough to win tonight, including giving up 225 yards rushing."

The loss cost the Patriots pole position for the conference's No. 1 seed and a first-round bye. Next up: Buffalo, their closest pursuer in the AFC East.

"If we don't handle it well, it'll be our season," defensive back Devin McCourty said. "Guys in here have all lost games. We started the season off losing games, so we know what we need to do, and we know how we need to practice against a team we know well."

Meanwhile, the Patriots still hold a one-game lead over Buffalo in the AFC East; they could clinch a playoff berth and all but wrap up the division by beating the Bills this weekend. And New England has the second-easiest remaining schedule in the conference (to the Chargers), with its last two games against Jacksonville and Miami.

This week's game is a rematch of the windy Dec. 6 game when Jones threw just three passes in a 14-10 victory.

In fact, Jones looks like a longtime solution at quarterback some weeks, and others the rookie makes rookie mistakes.

While the three-pass outing against the Bills wasn't on him, the poor showing in Indy was. Jones blamed that performance on a week of bad practices after a bye.

"Starting with me, the energy was kind of low, maybe like feeling a little sorry for ourselves because we're coming off the bye and stuff," he said. "We just didn't practice well, and that just reflects how we played. And I didn't practice good, and I know a lot of guys on our team felt the same way."

Jones wasn't alone when it comes to disappointing outings.

Rhamondre Stevenson carried the ball 10 times for 36 yards and caught his lone target for four yards against the Colts.

It wasn't what we hoped for given the circumstances.

With Damien Harris (hamstring) inactive, Stevenson took on lead back duties for the Pats but was mostly held in check and then saw his workload dwindle in the second half after New England fell behind early. As CBSSports.com suggested, it was a disappointing performance for Stevenson after the rookie had topped 60 rushing yards the last four times he saw double-digit carries.

Even if Harris returns to the lineup in Week 16, both backs could be busy in a rematch with the Bills.

On a more positive note. ... Hunter Henry caught two touchdown passes and now leads all NFL tight ends with nine for the season; it's also a career high. Nick Folk got a personal high with his 34th field goal of the season. He has made 53 in a row from inside 50 yards, and his 133 points this year are also a personal best. ...

On the health watch. ... The Patriots placed four players on the reserve/COVID-19 list, but only one of them is currently active.

Per the transaction wire, receiver Kendrick Bourne, linebacker Harvey Langi, linebacker Cameron McGrone, and linebacker Ronnie Perkins.

Bourne has appeared in all 14 games this season with four starts, recording 45 catches for 667 yards and five touchdowns.

Langi and Perkins are both on injured reserve and McGrone is on the non-football injury list.

In addition, receiver Nelson Agholor went out with a possible concussion while Stevenson is dealing with an illness.

I'll have more on Harris, Stevenson and Agholor -- all of whom sat out Wednesday, and Bourne via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

A few final notes. ... Belichick is set to hit a notable coaching milestone.

His record is now 461-274-1 in the regular season, and 43-20 in the playoffs. That makes Sunday's home game against the Buffalo Bills his 800th.

The 800 games span Belichick's first year in the NFL as a special assistant with the Baltimore Colts in 1975, through his time with the Detroit Lions (1976-77), Denver Broncos (1978), New York Giants (1979-90), Cleveland Browns (1991-95), New York Jets (1997-99) and Patriots (1996, 2000-present).

No one is believed to have coached in more games, and his 47 consecutive years as an NFL coach are the most in NFL history, passing the 45 by Dick LeBeau. The only other coach with at least 40 consecutive NFL coaching seasons is Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant Tom Moore (41).

Belichick's knack for pulling from any of those 799 games (the tie came in 1983 when he was the Giants' linebackers coach) has made an impression on his players.

"I remember last year, we were watching some old Giants tape. I think it's also cool when he brings out tape of older guys that played here," center and longtime captain David Andrews said. "When he does that, and guys go into the Hall of Fame or whatever it may be, he brings up their plays and it's fun to see. You remember those games as a kid, but seeing it from the different angle now is pretty awesome."

Belichick's 22 seasons as Patriots coach is the longest tenure of any current NFL coach, followed by the Saints' Sean Payton (2006), Steelers' Mike Tomlin (2007) and Ravens' John Harbaugh (2008).

Henry noted how Belichick being able to reference two-plus decades in the same system shows up in the team's preparations.

"Obviously, he's been here and a good amount of the coaches have been here, so it's nice to be able to relate things back. They've been very successful for a long time, and done things well, and we need to do those same things well. So you can look back and see how other guys did it in this system," Henry said.

"I just feel ready to go every time I'm out there, because of him. He also just holds us all to a high standard and has built a great culture around here that we all need to live up to."

Of course, the most notable milestone Belichick is approaching is all-time victories for a head coach.

He has 320, which means he's in striking distance of George Halas (324) for the second spot behind Don Shula (347).

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Mac Jones, Brian Hoyer, Jarrett Stidham
RBs: Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, J.J. Taylor, James White
WRs: Kendrick Bourne, DeVante Parker, Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, Kristian Wilkerson, N'Keal Harry, Ty Montgomery
TEs: Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Devin Asiasi

New Orleans Saints

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

Replacement head coach Dennis Allen couldn't exactly give the game ball to his defensive coordinator Sunday night after the New Orleans Saints delivered a stunning 9-0 shutout over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers while Sean Payton was sidelined by COVID-19.

Because, well, Allen himself is the defensive coordinator.

But, as ESPN.com's Mike Triplett suggested, Allen deserved one after a masterpiece by a Saints defense that has repeatedly stymied quarterback Tom Brady since he joined the NFC South. This was just the third time Brady was shut out in his career -- the first since 2006.

And the Saints are now the only team to ever beat Brady in four consecutive regular-season games -- though Brady and the Bucs did beat New Orleans in the playoffs last season.

Saints are now 3-0 against Brady and Aaron Rodgers this year after beating the Green Bay Packers 38-3 in Week 1 and Tampa Bay 36-27 in Week 8.

"He's one of the smartest coaches I've ever been around," linebacker Demario Davis said of Allen. "He puts in game plans that are simple enough to execute but complex enough to keep other teams on their toes a little bit."

"He lets us be us," added safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who intercepted Brady in both games this year -- and was captured on the broadcast gleefully smiling in Brady's face Sunday. "I feel like we've got the best secondary in the league right now, regardless of stats. If you can just go out there and pitch a shutout against one of the best quarterbacks in the league, I don't know what you want me to tell you."

Allen actually gave the game ball to the entire team of coaches and players, crediting everyone for the way they stepped up after finding out Friday morning that Payton wouldn't be available.

But Allen did say he "relished" the opportunity to fill in.

Allen went just 8-28 as head coach of the Oakland Raiders before being fired during the 2014 season. But his success in New Orleans over the past five years could help him emerge as a candidate once again.

The victory also revived the Saints' playoff hopes at 7-7 as they prepare to host the Miami Dolphins Monday night.

Meanwhile, the Saints found their latest triumph particularly gratifying because they overcame not only the absence of their head coach, but also several key players including starting offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk.

But there were obvious issues as the Saints managed just three field goals on offense,

As Associated Press sports writer Brett Martel suggested, quarterback Taysom Hill needs to develop more trust in his pass protection. He often appeared apprehensive about stepping up in the pocket, and as a result found himself either making difficult throws off his back foot or scrambling outside where he had to throw the ball away as defenders swarmed around him.

Hill completed 13-of-27 passes for 154 yards on the day. He also led the team in rushing with 33 yards on 11 carries.

It was a tough slog as the Saints went conservative on offense and let their defense do the heavy lifting in this one.

While Hill's rushing ability will continue to provide a solid floor, we got an idea of how low it might be and how much his struggles as a passer limit the offense.

Receiver Marquez Callaway had six catches for 112 yards, making him the first Saints player to cross the 100-yard receiving threshold in a game since Michael Thomas -- who has missed this entire season with an ankle injury -- had 105 yards against Atlanta on Dec. 5, 2020.

Adam Trautman caught 1-of-2 targets for four yards against the Bucs. Although it was his first game back after a stint on injured reserve, Trautman was on the field for more than half the team's offensive snaps, matching Nick Vannett in that snap count.

While Vannett had played well in recent weeks, he regressed at Tampa Bay. Hill seemed to have trouble getting him the ball, throwing to him only once. On that play, the ball bounced off Vannett's hands on what could have been a substantial gain into Bucs territory.

The Saints' running game managed just 61 net yards rushing against Tampa Bay without Armstead and Ramczyk in the lineup. Both are adept at blocking on the types of outside running plays and screens at which dynamic running back Alvin Kamara thrives.

Ramczyk (knee) has missed five straight games, while Armstead has been in and out of the lineup in recent weeks.

Kamara carried the ball 11 times for 19 yards and caught 2-of-6 targets for 16 yards.

With Kamara coming off a 27-carry outing in Week 14, this was a disappointment. Adding to that, Hill and Mark Ingram both got 11 carries. While their presence could be a limiting factor going forward, Kamara remains a locked in RB1 against the Dolphins. ...

One last note here. ... The New Orleans Saints placed tight end Juwan Johnson on the COVID list.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Taysom Hill, Andy Dalton, Ian Book, Jameis Winston
RBs: Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, Tony Jones Jr., Dwayne Washington
WRs: Jarvis Landry, Marquez Callaway, Tre'quan Smith, Lil'Jordan Humphrey, Michael Thomas, Deonte Harris
TEs: Adam Trautman, Nick Vannett, Juwan Johnson

New York Giants

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

The Giants shut down quarterback Daniel Jones for the remainder of the season because of his neck injury, the team announced Monday.

It prematurely ends what many considered a make-or-break year for the young quarterback.

Jones, 24, was officially placed on injured reserve Monday. He was hurt early in a Week 12 win over the Philadelphia Eagles but managed to finish the game. He will end up missing the final six games of this season with what is being called a sprained neck.

The Giants still remain optimistic about Jones' future after he completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 2,428 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

"Over the course of the past few weeks, Daniel has been examined by Dr. Frank Cammisa of Hospital for Special Surgery and Dr. Robert Watkins of the Marina Spine Center at Marina Del Rey Hospital," Giants head trainer Ronnie Barnes said in a Monday statement released by the team. "Our medical team has continued to consult with Dr. Cammisa and Dr. Watkins regarding Daniel's condition and symptoms, and at this point, Daniel has not been cleared for contact.

"We felt the prudent decision was to place Daniel on injured reserve for the remainder of the season. With continued rest and treatment, we expect a full recovery."

The Giants do not believe the injury is something Jones will have to worry about in the future; all he needs is time and rest, and surgery is not an option.

"I've been adamant in saying with all the information we've been given from the doctors involved and the medical team, that there is no, at this moment, concern for a long-term injury," head coach Joe Judge said on a Monday conference call. "That this is more of a precautionary measure to make sure something isn't aggravated or agitated before it is healed and doesn't turn into something that is chronic and long term."

As ESPN.com's Jordan Raanan suggested, it's almost as if Jones ran out of time.

The Giants are 4-10 and have three weeks remaining in this lost season.

New York plays on the road Sunday against the rival Eagles. Mike Glennon or Jake Fromm is expected to start in Jones' place.

While the injury isn't expected to affect Jones' playing future, it could affect his future with the team. The Giants have to make a decision on the fifth-year option on Jones' rookie contract this offseason. That would guarantee him in the range of $20 million for 2023.

Any uncertainty with the neck or Jones' health would make that a hard number to swallow. This is the third straight season that the No. 6 overall pick in 2019 will miss time because of an injury.

Jones had a high ankle sprain his rookie season, a hamstring injury last year and now the neck problem.

The Giants still seem to have confidence in him moving forward.

"Yeah, I've seen enough growth from Daniel to tell us he's a guy we want to go ahead and play with," Judge said. "In terms of the business aspect of it and different things, I'll let different departments in this organization handle that stuff. I'll coach the players.

"When it comes down to Daniel our concern right now is getting him back and healthy and getting him prepared for next year."

The last-place Giants, mired in a three-game losing streak, have struggled mightily without Jones. In those three losses, Glennon failed to top 200 yards passing in any of them, and was picked off three times Sunday in a 21-6 home loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

Fromm, signed three weeks ago off the Buffalo Bills' practice squad, finished the game against Dallas. He went 6-of-12 for 82 yards in the Giants' final drive.

Judge will take a look at Glennon and Fromm this week before making any final determination about who will start in Philadelphia.

A move to Fromm isn't really about the young QB.

Of course, the Cowboys' defense was playing laxer at that point in the game, allowing Fromm to try a couple of deep shots. But as NFL.com put it, "The point is that Glennon is not the answer.

"Never was."

The process that continually leads NFL front offices to think a 32-year-old with a career 60 percent completion percentage, 46-32 TD-INT ratio, and six wins in 30 starts can be anything more than a clipboard-holding player-coach is faulty.

On Sunday, Glennon became the first Giants starting QB to throw for fewer than 100 yards and a sub-25 passer rating (24.8) since Danny Kanell in Week 11, 1998 (minimum 20 attempts). Underscoring the lack of dimension to the Giants offense, Glennon became the first player in the Next Gen Stats era with three INTs and fewer than five attempts on deep passes in a game.

In three starts, Glennon has completed 50.96 percent of 104 pass attempts with two passing TDs and five INTs, taken five sacks and averaged a woeful 4.59 yards per attempt; he entered the week dead last in yards per attempt among 39 qualifying QBs, per Pro Football Focus.

Hence the door is open to Fromm.

"Jake did enough to be in consideration," Judge said. "We'll see how this week of practice goes. Obviously, there is a big difference between starting an entire NFL game and coming in at the end of the game when a team is playing more of a two-minute/prevent mode. That is not a knock on Jake. That is just the reality and truth. So we'll get Mike and Jake ready for this week. We'll make the determination of who is going to start at a later time."

I'll follow up on the quarterback situation via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

Meanwhile, Jones' status wasn't the only major injury news coming out of Sunday's loss to the Cowboys.

Wide receiver Sterling Shepard was also placed on injured reserve Monday after tearing the Achilles tendon in his left leg.

The Giants have been hit by an inordinate number of injuries this season.

Jones, running back Saquon Barkley, tight end Evan Engram, wide receivers Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, Darius Slayton and Shepard have all missed at least two games.

The wide array of injuries and ailments is almost hard to explain, with Jones being the latest to miss games. It has contributed greatly to the derailment of the Giants' season.

"No idea. It's part of football, sadly," Barkley said. "That's the game we play, and we've played since kids, and it's the game that we love.

"Just bad luck, I guess you could say."

The Giants hope to get Toney and John Ross off the reserve/COVID list this week; I'll have more on that situation as well.

But as Raanan wrote this week: "The Giants' offense is incompetent. They're averaging 11.8 points in their past five games. Judge has talked about doing whatever is necessary in regards to the offensive game plan to win. Well, this isn't it. Not that they have much chance. Anytime the Giants are in a passing situation, their quarterback has no chance."

The Giants could realistically lose out and finish 4-13. Who are they going to beat? Maybe Washington at home. Possibly win in Chicago?

The Giants head down the New Jersey Turnpike to play the Eagles on Sunday.

Reasons for optimism?

Six times this season, the Giants have scored 13 points or less in a game. They are 1-5 in those contests, beating Philadelphia 13-7.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jake Fromm, Brian Lewerke, Tyrod Taylor, Daniel Jones, Mike Glennon
RBs: Saquon Barkley, Gary Brightwell, Matt Breida
WRs: Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, John Ross, Darius Slayton, C.J. Board, Sterling Shepard
TEs:

New York Jets

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

According to ESPN.com's Rich Cimini, as a rookie, Zach Wilson experiences something new every week.

It's all part of his big learning year, which is the crux of the New York Jets' great, big rebuilding project.

On Sunday, Wilson got his first chance to come out of halftime with a lead -- a seven-point edge.

He didn't handle that very well, as the Jets blew their first halftime advantage of the season in an eventual 31-24 loss to the Dolphins in Miami.

"It's not all on Zach," head coach Robert Saleh said of the offensive struggles. "It's on all of us."

Wilson's final numbers -- 13 of 23 for 170 yards with no TDs or INTs -- were hardly eye-popping. But the rookie quarterback led the Jets to scores on three of their five possessions in the first half as New York took a 17-10 halftime lead.

Other positives?
Wilson, who had a touchdown run, hasn't been picked off in two straight games, and that's a sign of progress. He also had some off-schedule plays that kept drives alive, flashing the talent that made him the No. 2 overall pick.

Wilson had his share of miscues, including coming up short on two possessions in the last 3:37 with New York down by seven.

But Wilson appeared much more comfortable making the routine throws and running the offense.

That's the big-picture view the Jets are focused on.

"I think he's going through a tremendous learning curve and it's one that he's going to be able to capture and run off of it and take with him to the offseason and grow off of," Saleh said. "We're really excited about where Zach is and we're really, really confident that his arrow is definitely pointing up and it's only going to get better."

It would be hard not to get better.

Since returning from his knee injury, Wilson has led the offense to only 16 points and 258 yards per game. In his four-game absence, with Joe Flacco, Mike White and Josh Johnson at quarterback, the offense averaged 24.5 points and 436 yards.

In Miami, Wilson proved he's at his best when improvising, when trying to make something out of a bad play.

Everything changed in the second half. The Dolphins, who started out in zone, played more man-to-man in the second half. They brought more pressure, too.

The result was six sacks (including a lost fumble) and a lot of indecision by Wilson, who seemed overmatched at times. There were signs of happy feet when his first read was covered. He didn't play well from the pocket, a season-long problem.

"Once you get man coverage, it kind of goes away, right?" Wilson said, alluding to the easy completions. "You got to let guys try and win, and give them time to win on routes, so it's going to cause me to hitch on some. They'll probably give up some (plays) down the field and, unfortunately, we didn't capitalize on any of those.

"For the most part, it's got to be earned when those guys step up like that. I was trying to be my best, just sitting in the pocket and trusting the protection and just trying to give those guys a shot down the field."

According to Cimini, Wilson described it better than he played it. He struggled. Again. In 10 starts, he has only six touchdown passes. The company line was that he'd benefit from those four weeks on the sideline, that he'd learn by watching. That hasn't happened yet.

"You're watching an overwhelmed rookie endure acute growing pains," Cimini summed up. "The Jets are willing to live with them because they see better days ahead. They'd better not be wrong."

And that brings us to this weekend.

What appeared to be a marquee matchup entering the season is a dud with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Trevor Lawrence heading to New York to take on the Jets and Wilson in a showdown between the top two picks in this year's draft.

This one could go a long way in helping determine the top of the draft order next April. ...

Saleh tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday morning, the team announced.

Saleh, 42, was tested for the virus after reporting symptoms, according to the team. Tight ends coach Ron Middleton is leading practice on Wednesday.

If Saleh doesn't clear protocols by Sunday, Middleton will coach the team Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars at MetLife Stadium. Middleton, 56, spent the previous eight seasons as the Jaguars' tight ends coach.

It's possible, under the new protocols, that Saleh could be cleared to return Thursday. He became the third NFL head coach to test positive, joining the Cleveland Browns' Kevin Stefanski and the New Orleans Saints' Sean Payton (twice).

The Jets have 14 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list, including four practice-squad players (see more details on that below).

Other notes of interest. ... Rookie running back Michael Carter carried the ball eight times for 18 yards in Miami. He caught 1-of-2 targets for an additional two yards.

While it wasn't the outcome we hoped for, Carter was on the field for 54 percent of the team's snaps in his first game back from IR.

Expecting a greater workload and better results in his second game back isn't a reach.

Tevin Coleman carried the ball eight times for 50 yards. Although he got as many carries as Carter, Coleman played 10 fewer snaps and it seems likely that ratio will grow with Carter now two weeks removed from injured reserve. ...

Jamison Crowder caught 5-of-8 targets for 40 yards in the Jets' Week 15 loss to the Dolphins. Crowder, who didn't practice Wednesday due to a calf injury, played the most snaps (51 of a possible 57) and was the most-targeted receiving asset in this one. On a day Wilson completed just 13 passes, the production simply wasn't going to be high end.

That's not going to change much on a week to week basis.

Cole caught 1-of-2 targets for nine yards while Braxton Berrios turned his lone target into a 26-yard catch. He added a pair of carries for 10 yards and a touchdown. Denzel Mims failed to catch any of his three targets. It was the second week he failed to catch a pass. ...

Tyler Kroft caught 2-of-2 targets for 35 yards in the Jets' Week 15 loss to the Dolphins. Playing a solid 63 percent of the team's snaps in his first game back from injured reserve, Kroft clearly moved right back into his role as the Jets' top option at TE. The key words there are "the Jets. ..."

As noted above, the Jets are dealing with COVID issues beyond Saleh after placing rookie left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker and cornerback Michael Carter II on reserve/COVID this week.

The team also announced Tuesday it activated White from the COVID-19 list after he missed four games.

With the additions of Vera-Tucker and Carter, the Jets have wide receivers Elijah Moore, Jeff Smith and Vyncint Smith; defensive linemen Folorunso Fatukasi, John Franklin-Myers and Tanzel Smart; linebackers Noah Dawkins and Hamsah Nasirildeen; cornerback Lamar Jackson; safety Sharrod Neasman; and special teams ace Justin Hardee.

Tight end Ryan Griffin was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury, ending his season. He caught 27 passes for 261 yards and two touchdowns this season before being hurt last Sunday at Miami.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Zach Wilson, Joe Flacco, Mike White
RBs: Michael Carter, Ty Johnson, Austin Walter, Tevin Coleman, Lamical Perine
WRs: Braxton Berrios, Elijah Moore, Denzel Mims, Jeff Smith, Corey Davis
TEs: C.J. Uzomah, Tyler Conklin, Kenny Yeboah, Tyler Kroft, Trevon Wesco

Philadelphia Eagles

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

Jalen Hurts went 23 days between starts, and as ESPN.com's Tim McManus suggested, initially, it showed. But he got things revved as Tuesday's game against the Washington Football Team went along, powering Philadelphia's ground game to new heights in a 27-17 win that boosts the Eagles' playoff chances.

With a pair of rushing touchdowns, Hurts set a new franchise record for most single-season rush touchdowns by a quarterback with 10, passing Michael Vick (2010).

Hurts also joined Cam Newton and Kyler Murray as the only NFL quarterbacks ever to rush for 700-plus yards and nine-plus touchdowns in a season.

Running back Miles Sanders set a new career rushing mark with 131 yards as Philadelphia (7-7) moved into a virtual tie with the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints for the final NFC wild-card spot.

"I know we're at .500 for the first time this year. It's a big deal, but I know the job isn't done -- nowhere near from done," Hurts said. "We know what we want to accomplish. I said it to the guys: We just have to have that mentality of not being denied."

Hurts ended 20-of-26 passing for 296 yards with a touchdown and an interception while rushing eight times for 38 yards with a pair of scores. He turned the ball over twice early. The first -- a dropped pass by tight end Dallas Goedert that caromed off his ankle and into the hands of Landon Collins -- was not his fault.

The second -- a lost fumble deep in Washington territory -- was.

But Hurts found his footing after that and made a number of plays with his legs and arm, including a 19-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Greg Ward midway through the fourth quarter to put the game away.

The cameras caught an animated head coach Nick Sirianni yelling in the direction of Hurts on the sideline following his second turnover.

"Jalen's dad coached him hard. My dad coached me hard. I think Jalen responds to tough coaching. He likes tough coaching. I wasn't going to back down on him. I thought he was careless with the football and I let him know that. We're just honest with each other," Sirianni said. "He played a great football game today -- one of the best games I've seen him play.

"What an unbelievable job by him of flushing [the early turnovers] and moving on."

As noted above, Hurts made his first start since suffering a high ankle sprain against the New York Giants on Nov. 28. His absence was extended when this game was moved from Sunday to Tuesday due to a COVID-19 outbreak with Washington. Hurts didn't look quite 100 percent, but he moved well enough to be effective. ...

As Profootballtalk.com noted, after a Week 3 loss to the Cowboys that saw the Eagles hand the ball off to running backs three times, Sirianni's resistance to running the ball led to a lot of criticism.

Sirianni isn't hearing the same complaints now.

The Eagles have now run for at least 175 yards in each of their last seven games. They are the first team with a streak of that length since the 1985 Bears.

While they haven't been as dominant as that club, it's proven to be a winning formula. They've gone 5-2 over that span to put themselves back in the playoff hunt and head coach Nick Sirianni credited "some gritty guys up front" with opening holes while noting everyone's involved in the success. Running back Jordan Howard, who had 15 carries for 69 yards Tuesday, had a similar view.

"This is great. The offensive line does a great job," Howard said in his postgame press conference. "The tight ends, receivers, and coaches -- they put us in a great position and [quarterback] Jalen [Hurts] makes the right checks. They all just make our jobs easier to run. They [create] gigantic holes and it surprises you because it's like there aren't supposed to be holes that big in the NFL so it's surprising but we're not complaining about it. You just can't have any hesitation especially in the NFL because that hole will close up very fast. So you have to hit it as soon as you see it."

Tuesday's performance marked the fifth time the Eagles have rushed for at least 200 yards in a game. That ties 2013 for their most in a season in the Super Bowl era and also breaks a tie with the Colts for most by any team this season, per ESPN Stats and Information data.

Some Eagles players and staff members were fuming over the league's decision to move this game to Tuesday. It compresses their schedule, as they have to turn around and play the Giants on Sunday on four days' rest, before heading to the D.C. area for a rematch against Washington on Jan. 2. Three games in 12 days is not ideal, but Philadelphia will have to find a way to make it work.

They'll take the bottom line though: With three games to go in Year 1 under Sirianni, the Eagles' postseason hopes are very much alive and well. ...

By the way. ... Philly ran for 208 yards the last time the two teams met, but the Giants won 13-7 so the Eagles will be hoping for the same productivity with a different outcome.

Also of interest. ... Hurts' faith in Goedert paid off.

But as NFL.com's Chase Goodbread asked, who could've blamed him if he hadn't looked Goedert's way the rest of the night after the two got off, shall we say, on the wrong foot?

As noted above, Goedert dropped an easy catch on a short throw for what should've been a first down on Philadelphia's opening drive, and it bounced off his heel into the hands of Collins for an interception.

But Hurts went right back to his tight end on the Eagles' next possession, and again and again until the miscue was an afterthought. Goedert had a career-high 135 yards on seven grabs, ripping one of them away from DB Jeremy Reaves.

Goedert had another third-down drop in the third quarter resulting in a punt, but overall, he bounced back nicely from the early catastrophe.

Apart from Goedert, Hurts connected on explosive plays across the Philly receiving corps -- a 34-yarder to Jalen Reagor, a 28-yarder to DeVonta Smith, a 19-yard clincher for a touchdown to Greg Ward. But it was Hurts-to-Goedert that largely dug the Eagles out of their first-half hole.

On the health front. ... The Eagles didn't have a practice Wednesday, but if they had hit the field Sanders (quad) would have been held out while Howard (knee) would have been limited. I'll have more on their status via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

And finally. ... The Eagles placed Sirianni into COVID-19 protocol Wednesday after he tested positive for the virus.

The team also announced Sirianni will continue to conduct his responsibilities remotely and remains hopeful about coaching on Sunday.

NFL Network's Mike Garafolo reported pass game coordinator Kevin Patullo would be the acting head coach making the game-situation decisions if Sirianni can't coach against the Giants.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jalen Hurts, Gardner Minshew
RBs: Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, Jordan Howard, Kenneth Gainwell
WRs: DeVonta Smith, A.J. Brown, Jalen Reagor, Zach Pascal, Greg Ward, Quez Watkins, JJ Arcega-Whiteside
TEs: Dallas Goedert, Jack Stoll, Tyree Jackson

Pittsburgh Steelers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Will Graves framed it, "The Pittsburgh Steelers don't make any sense. They can't run the ball. They can't stop the run. They can't score a ton of points. They can't win on the road.

"And yet they're still here, still in the mix with three games remaining after a mystifying 19-13 win over Tennessee on Sunday in which they were pushed around for the better part of three hours only to escape by providing the kind of 'splash' plays on defense that can cover up a lot of warts, of which they still have many. ..."

Four turnovers led to four Chris Boswell field goals. Joe Haden returned from a month on the sideline with the game-sealing tackle in the final seconds. The offense managed all of 168 yards, failed to score a first-half touchdown for the fourth straight game and managed all of 35 yards rushing.

And none of it mattered.

"I think we still have a pulse in this thing," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.

Not just a faint one.

Most years, being 7-6-1 at Christmas usually means it's time to start planning for next season. In 2021, it means you've got a shot. The Steelers woke up Monday a half-game back of first in the underwhelming and unpredictable AFC North.

The Steelers don't have enough talent to overwhelm opponents. And when it's not close, it's not close. Their six losses have come by an average of 12.6 points. In the past month alone they've found themselves trailing in the second half by 17 (Los Angeles Chargers), 38 (Cincinnati) and 29 (Minnesota).

No wonder head coach Mike Tomlin sounds more relieved than optimistic while talking about his erratic group. Asked why pre-snap penalties keep cropping up 14 games in and he gruffly responded "because we've got issues."

They've also -- stunningly -- got a chance.

"It's better to win and learn than lose and learn at this point," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "But there's a lot we can improve on."

That's especially true on offense.

First-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada is struggling to come up with a game plan that produces any sort of early momentum. The Steelers have failed to score a first-half touchdown in four straight games, the first time that's happened in more than a quarter century.

On the season, they have been outscored by 62 points in the first half.

Sunday, the Steelers lost the time of possession battle 21:19 to 8:41 in the first half, and no phase of the game looked good. They had just 16 rushing yards in the first half, their third-fewest of the season.

While Canada is dealing with an offensive line that is among the most inexperienced and ineffective in the league, he's also been unable to find a way to successfully mask the unit's deficiencies.

Najee Harris rushed the ball 12 times for 18 yards against Tennessee. He added two receptions for eight yards.

Harris had trouble getting going throughout the game and was limited to fewer than 15 carries for only the fourth time this season. He came close to finding the end zone late in the third quarter but was denied just short of the goal line, only to have Roethlisberger sneak in for a touchdown on the following play.

Despite the fact that Harris has recorded multiple receptions in every game since Week 1, he's been held to 20 receiving yards or fewer in four of his last five contests.

This week, they take their smoke-and-mirrors act on the road to Kansas City on Sunday. The Steelers have dropped three straight away from Heinz Field.

On the injury front. ... Rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth entered the concussion protocol after taking a violent shot from Tennessee's Kristian Fulton in the third quarter. I'll have more on his status via Late-Breaking Update in coming days.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Ben Roethlisberger, Mitchell Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins
RBs: Najee Harris, Benny Snell, Kalen Ballage, Anthony McFarland Jr.
WRs: Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, Cody White, Gunner Olszewski
TEs: Pat Freiermuth, Zach Gentry

San Francisco 49ers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

When Kyle Juszczyk scored San Francisco's first touchdown of the game, he ran through a gaping hole created when Trent Williams flattened yet another defender with one of his vintage blocks.

According to Associated Press sports writer Josh Dubow, that was one of the many physical, tone-setting plays from the 49ers in their 31-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

There was receiver Deebo Samuel knocking the mouthpiece from a defender with a big hit downfield, Williams delivering pancake blocks or Nick Bosa throwing aside defenders on the way to the quarterback.

"We feed on that big time," Juszczyk said. "I know personally, I do. I saw a lot of flexing out there and that got me hyped today and it definitely is a trickledown effect to everybody. I do think that has helped us, it has kind of been the catalyst for our offense."

The Niners have won five out of six games with a consistent formula to get into playoff position in the NFC. They have the fifth-most yards rushing per game (144.7) and fourth-most sacks (18) in the NFL over that span.

The most memorable of the physical plays might have come in the third quarter when Samuel caught a 21-yard pass over the middle and delivered such a hard hit that Atlanta defensive back A.J. Terrell's mouthpiece went flying to the delight of the fans and Samuel's teammates.

That set up San Francisco's third of four straight drives that ended in a touchdown.

Samuel's physicality has been a big part of San Francisco's success this season as he has thrived creating yards after contact as a receiver and running the ball out of the backfield.

"This is the kind of game that I always played," he said. "To see my team round up together, it does give me a little comforted boost and a little energy. Then you just go out there and try to do it again all game, because, not too many defensive backs want to be a part of that."

Thanks to that physical play, the 49ers took care of business against an inferior opponent and are in the driver's seat for an NFC playoff spot.

At 8-6, the Niners' chances of reaching the postseason are good. As ESPN.com's Nick Wagoner notes, they are now the sixth seed, but they also have the tiebreaker against a bottom-of-the-NFC contender. With a quick turnaround to Thursday night in Tennessee, the 49ers have a short week but a great opportunity to prove they should be taken seriously come January. ...

Meanwhile, Jeff Wilson Jr. appears to be hitting his form late in the season after being sidelined the first two months by a freak knee injury in the offseason. After running for 56 yards last week, Wilson ran 21 times for 110 yards and a touchdown against the Falcons. It was Wilson's third career 100-yard game.

"Today was one of those days where I felt like myself," Wilson said after the game. "I felt like the old Jeff, before all the stuff happened. It was a good day and I felt very good."

Expect Wilson to continue seeing heavy usage this week.

After missing the last two games due to multiple injuries, there was some hope that Elijah Mitchell could re-join the San Francisco 49ers in for Thursday Night Football.

General manager John Lynch revealed during a Tuesday appearance on KNBR 680 that the rookie running back's lingering knee injury had "taken a positive turn," per San Jose Mercury News.

On Wednesday, however, Mitchell was ruled out of the game.

The team announced on Tuesday that Trey Sermon has been designated to return from injured reserve. Sermon, a third-round pick out of Ohio State, hasn't played since suffering an ankle injury in Week 12.

Generally, Sermon has not contributed nearly as much as fellow rookie Mitchell, who was selected in the sixth round. Sermon has 41 carries for 167 yards with a touchdown in nine games. He also has three receptions for 26 yards.

There's no reason to believe Sermon will play in Tennessee.

Other notes of interest. .. Jimmy Garoppolo has been one of the league's most efficient quarterbacks, entering Sunday's game with the fourth best QBR in the NFL in that span. He then had one of his most complete performances of the season, finishing 15-of-23 for 235 with a touchdown for a rating of 123.7.

The Falcons are a mess defensively but Garoppolo's recent run of consistency is an encouraging sign. That must continue if the Niners are going to make any noise in the playoffs as teams undoubtedly will dare Garoppolo to beat them.

Against the Falcons, the wide receivers essentially played second fiddle to the running backs and George Kittle, who led the team with six catches and 93 yards on the day.

As a receiver, Samuel caught four passes for 60 yards, while his counterpart, Brandon Aiyuk caught one pass for 36 yards.

However, both receivers found their way to make a mark on the game, turning big plays into bigger plays on multiple occasions.

On the other hand, the game got off to a rough start when JaMycal Hasty fumbled on the kickoff return to give Atlanta the ball at the 12. Hasty then fumbled the kick on his next try, forcing the Niners to start at their 9. He'll need to rebound in Tennessee.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jimmy Garoppolo, Trey Lance
RBs: Elijah Mitchell, Jeff Wilson, JaMycal Hasty, Trey Sermon
WRs: Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Ray-Ray McCloud, Malik Turner, Jauan Jennings, Mohamed Sanu, KeeSean Johnson
TEs: George Kittle, Ross Dwelley, Tanner Hudson, Charlie Woerner

Seattle Seahawks

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

As ESPN.com's Brady Henderson reported, it was right there for the Seattle Seahawks, a deep shot down the sideline with arguably the NFL's best deep-ball thrower and one of the league's biggest and fastest targets.

But like many things in this disappointing and now all-but-over Seahawks season, it didn't work.

When Russell Wilson underthrew an open DK Metcalf on a third-down play midway through the fourth quarter of their 20-10 loss Tuesday at SoFi Stadium -- costing the Seahawks what might have been the tying touchdown or at least a big gain deep into Los Angeles Rams territory -- so ended their best chance of beating their division rival and keeping their ultra-slim playoff hopes alive.

"I was trying to get it out of my hand," Wilson said. "They got off the ball pretty good there and I tried to get it out of my hand. He was kind of doing a double move, so I tried to get it out of my hand before I got hit, just tried to put some air under it, let him go get it. Sometimes those double moves are. ... Tricky because you never know when they're going to come out of it. I wish I could have had that one back. That was the one I wish we could have had back."

In addition to the fourth-quarter miss, Henderson notes that Wilson overthrew Metcalf on another play in third quarter. These weren't the head-scratching whiffs on easier throws that marred Wilson's first three games back from his finger injury, but it was far from the typical Wilson.

Throwing the deep ball may be what he does best as a quarterback, but Wilson was 2-of-12 for 43 yards and an interception on passes of 10-plus air yards.

Wilson finished 17-of-31 for 156 yards and a late desperation pick.

Meanwhile, Seahawks fans can debate which was worse: Officials not calling pass interference on a fourth-down throw to DeeJay Dallas -- who had linebacker Ernest Jones all over him -- or the NFL moving this game from Sunday to Tuesday as a result of the leaguewide spike in COVID-19 cases that hit the Rams' locker room particularly hard.

"It happened quickly and it didn't look very good on the little replay that somebody showed me, but I don't know," head coach Pete Carroll said of the fourth-down play. "I'm not bellyaching about that call. We needed to win the game in all the other ways we could win the game."

The game got postponed -- to Los Angeles' advantage much more than Seattle's -- and now the Seahawks' playoff chances are basically cancelled.

With three games left, the Seahawks are assured of their first losing season since 2011, the year before they drafted Wilson. And they're all but assured of missing out on the playoffs for only the second time in Wilson's career.

"We're playing for each other," Carroll said. "We're playing for the cause of loving this game and living the guys that are in the locker room that are with us ... You saw how hard we played tonight. There's nothing but guys fighting for one another, so that's what we'll do, wherever we're playing, whoever we're playing, whenever it happens. It doesn't matter if it's Tuesday night or Sunday or whatever."

The Seahawks played without leading receiver Tyler Lockett and two other starters in right tackle Brandon Shell and cornerback D.J. Reed, who were among the 10 players they placed on the COVID-19 list this week.

"I'm sick that we didn't have a chance to play with Tyler in this game because this is the kind of game that he would have been a factor in for sure," Carroll said.

The team will hope to get Lockett back on the field in advance of Sunday's game against the Bears in Seattle.

I'll have more on that via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

One last note here. ... Rashaad Penny rushed 11 times for 39 yards while catching both of his targets for five yards in Tuesday's loss.

Penny wound up splitting touches with Dallas, finishing with two more total touches while the latter collected the team's lone touchdown.

Carroll stated that he would continue to use a combination of backs to close out this injury-plagued season, but that Penny deserved a shot to continue starting after going off against the Texans last week (16-137-2). The 2018 first-round pick will get a far softer matchup against the Bears on Sunday.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Drew Lock, Geno Smith, Jake Luton
RBs: Rashaad Penny, DeeJay Dallas, Travis Homer, Adrian Peterson, Chris Carson, Alex Collins
WRs: DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, Freddie Swain, Penny Hart, D'Wayne Eskridge
TEs: Noah Fant, Will Dissly, Colby Parkinson

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

Barring a total collapse over the final three weeks of the regular season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to win the NFC South.

What coach Bruce Arians is more concerned about right now is the health of the reigning Super Bowl champions.

That ultimately means as much to the team's chances of making another deep playoff run as having homefield advantage in the postseason.

"It hurts more losing all the players we lost," Arians said after Sunday night's 9-0 loss to the New Orleans Saints stopped Tampa Bay's four-game winning streak and kept the Bucs from clinching their first NFC South title since 2007.

Pro Bowl wide receiver Chris Godwin suffered a torn ACL during Sunday night's 9-0 loss to the New Orleans Saints and will miss the remainder of the season, coach Bruce Arians announced Monday.

Godwin suffered the knee injury in the second quarter while falling awkwardly after a collision with New Orleans safety P.J. Williams.

"You feel bad for him because he was having such a great year, and the type of hit it was -- totally legal but I think that's one of the things we have to look into in the offseason," Arians said.

"We're so concerned about hitting people in the head, that we're getting a lot of knee injuries now because of that type of tackle. But it is legal and wasn't a bad play at all. But yeah, I just feel bad for Chris."

Early indications were that it was an MCL injury, and the team was hopeful Godwin might return for the playoffs. But further testing revealed a torn ACL.

Godwin, who was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday, finishes the season with 98 receptions for 1,103 yards and five touchdowns, passing teammate Mike Evans (96) for the second-most receptions in franchise history.

Quarterback Tom Brady expressed frustration over Godwin taking a hit to the knees, calling it a "play I think they ought to take out of the game of football."

Brady said he intends to speak to the NFL Competition Committee this offseason, believing wide receivers need to be afforded the same protection as other players.

"You can't hit anyone in the knees anymore except for receivers, because you can still hit them in the knees, which doesn't make any sense to me," Brady said on his SiriusXM "Let's Go!" podcast Monday. "You can't hit a defensive lineman in the knees. You can't hit a punter in the knees. You can't hit the quarterback in the knees. You can't hit a DB in the knees. Except we're somehow allowing hits on defenseless receivers in the knees.

"So it needs to be addressed and it needs to be really thought out. It really impacts guys' careers."

On a night they were looking to clinch their first NFC South title since 2007, Evans (hamstring), running back Leonard Fournette (hamstring) and inside linebacker Lavonte David (foot) also suffered injuries in Sunday night's game.

Fournette is "likely" to be placed on injured reserve because of the hamstring injury that left him on crutches Sunday night, a league source told ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Fournette would miss the rest of the regular season, but a source said he is expected to return for the playoffs.

With Fournette sidelined, the Buccaneers are signing Le'Veon Bell, pending a physical, to back up Ronald Jones, a source told ESPN, confirming news first reported by NFL Network.

Arians stated that it's a role reversal from last year, when Jones -- then the starter -- suffered a broken finger that required surgery, was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list and suffered a quad injury at the start of the playoffs.

"It's his time now to do what happened for Leonard last year when he got hurt," Arians said. "I've got all the confidence in the world. He ran great, caught the ball good and I think going forward, it's his job right now."

Fournette has rushed for 812 yards and eight touchdowns this season.

Evans, who is second in the NFL with 11 touchdown receptions, was injured after a leaping third-down catch over the middle working against cornerback Marshon Lattimore. He is week-to-week with a strained hamstring and has a chance to play Sunday, a source told Schefter.

That said, he was not on the practice field Wednesday.

At receiver, the Bucs were already without receiver Breshad Perriman, who was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Friday, and Antonio Brown, who was serving a three-game suspension but will rejoin the team on Monday, general manager Jason Licht announced before kickoff.

"We'll wait and see. I think BP should have a chance to get back," Arians said. "Don't know when. And then we'll start looking at all the pieces and put the game plan together."

When asked if he'd go outside the organization in search of possible help at receiver, Arians said, "I'm OK with what we have now."

As far as Brown, the team will evaluate him in practice this week to determine what his workload might look like.

Arians said last year that Brown would be gone from the team if he screws up one time.

On Sunday night, Arians said that bringing Brown back was best for the team and he said Monday that the situation and relationship with Brown has changed since October 2020.

"The history has changed since that statement," Arians said, via Greg Auman of The Athletic. "A lot of things went on last year that I was very proud of him and I made a decision this was best for our football team."

Arians said he "could give a sh-t" about critics of his changed stance on Brown, who will be able to play this week against the Panthers.

For the record, the Bucs (10-4) lead the division by three games with three remaining, so they only need one more victory -- or a New Orleans loss or tie -- to end the Saints' four-year run as NFC South champs.

The next opportunity to clinch the NFC South comes Sunday at Carolina. ...

For what it's worth. ... Brady lost his composure during Sunday night's shutout loss, appearing at one point to curse out a Saints coach and breaking a tablet on the sideline.

The Saints successfully disrupted the veteran quarterback for New Orleans' seventh straight win over the Bucs during the regular season and the fourth since Brady left New England for Tampa Bay in 2020.

Brady was just 26-of-48 for 213 yards and one interception -- a costly turnover that essentially ended the Bucs' chances of making a comeback.

That's when Brady lost it.

Videos posted to social media appeared to show Brady yelling "Go f--- yourself" at Saints defensive line coach Ryan Nielson.

Shortly after that, Brady slammed a tablet on the sideline.

He was asked about what was said after the game but said, "Nothing, just football," according to WFLA.

Brady suffered his first shutout loss since 2006 and said he "didn't do much of anything right."

"I wish it was just one thing. It was a lot of things," he added. "We just didn't play well enough. We're not going to win scoring no points."

Neither are fantasy managers, who would likely be disappointed if Brady wasn't irritated at this performance. We'll all expect a rebound against the Panthers -- even with a depleted supporting cast.

I'll have more on that -- and who we should expect to step up at wideout, including Brown, Tyler Johnson and Scott Miller.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Tom Brady, Blaine Gabbert, Kyle Trask
RBs: Leonard Fournette, Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Giovani Bernard
WRs: Russell Gage, Mike Evans, Cyril Grayson, Tyler Johnson, Breshad Perriman, Jaelon Darden, Scott Miller, Chris Godwin
TEs: Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate

Tennessee Titans

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

As ESPN.com's Turron Davenport notes, the Titans' offense struggled to avoid turnovers in their frustrating 19-13 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

The Titans turned the football over four times, with three resulting in Pittsburgh taking over on the plus side of the field.

The Steelers (7-6-1) converted each of the turnovers into field goals. Three of the field goals came after halftime, which, combined with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's 1-yard touchdown run, led to 16 unanswered points in the second half to secure the victory.

"All different things that have to get cleaned up," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "You turn the ball over as much as we did, you put yourself in a tough position. Offensively, we have to play cleaner football."

Added head coach Mike Vrabel, "We moved the ball offensively, and we were efficient on third down, but unfortunately, we turned the football over."

The Titans (9-5) turned the ball over on three consecutive drives in the second half. Tannehill was directly tied to two of them.

The first came when Steelers defensive lineman Taco Charlton tipped Tannehill's pass at the line of scrimmage and Joe Schobert came away with the interception. The other was a botched snap by Tannehill.

Tannehill now has five games with multiple turnovers this season, which is more than he had in his first two seasons with the Titans combined (three).

Over the past four games, the Titans have turned the ball over 13 times.

Only one of them came via special teams.

Tennessee, which has averaged 24.1 points per game this season, is averaging only 14.8 points over that stretch.

According to Davenport, the problem is obvious. The Titans have become one dimensional on offense.

Surprisingly, the one thing they've done consistently is run despite not having All-Pro Derrick Henry, who was the NFL's leading rusher before fracturing his foot six weeks ago.

Offensive coordinator Todd Downing vowed to not "jerk the wheel" on offense by continuing to run, even without Henry. Tennessee has gained more than 100 yards on the ground in each of its past four games and has surpassed the 200 rushing yard plateau twice.

Tannehill chipped in with two of his career-high seven rushing touchdowns coming in the past four games, but he hasn't found success in the passing game.

Sunday's loss to the Steelers was the third consecutive game in which Tannehill failed to have at least 200 yards passing, and he hasn't thrown for a touchdown in the past two.

The ineffective passing game can be placed on a myriad of things. Not having wide receiver A.J. Brown has robbed Tannehill of his favorite target over the past few seasons. Brown leads the team in receptions (46) and receiving yards (615), in addition to being tied with wide receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine and tight end MyCole Pruitt for the lead in touchdowns (3), despite missing four games this season.

Not having Brown or Henry leaves the Titans without two of their most clutch performers. That was especially the case when Tannehill's pass to Westbrook-Ikhine came up just short on fourth-and-6 with 46 seconds left in the game.

Westbrook-Ikhine tried to fight for the extra yard, but cornerback Joe Haden refused to let him and stopped him just shy at the Steelers' 16-yard line.

Then there's wide receiver Julio Jones, who has gone through extended periods of games where he's a nonfactor. Jones was targeted only once in the first half against the Steelers, and that came with under two minutes left in the second quarter.

Jones hasn't put up big numbers in the passing game and he hasn't been on the field all that much because of hamstring injuries. The latter knocked him out of Sunday's loss and the team has a short week before facing the 49ers on Thursday, so he looks like a good bet to miss his seventh game of the season.

On Monday, Vrabel would only say that the Titans will see how things play out in the next couple of days.

"Going forward, we'll evaluate where he is and see how [he] can help us on Thursday," Vrabel said.

In a bit of a surprise, Jones was a full participant in Wednesday's practice and won't have an injury designation for Thursday night.

But there are other issues, most notably the offensive line.

In total, Tannehill has been sacked 41 times this season, tying him with Joe Burrow for the NFL high. In fairness, not all of the sacks are because of the offensive line. Tannehill has held onto the ball too long at times and receivers have struggled to get open consistently.

Despite not having much of a passing game, Tennessee is averaging 22 first downs and 346 yards in the past three games.

The problem is they're minus-1.7 in the turnover margin over that period, and the struggling offense has 13 turnovers in their past three losses.

Help could be on the way for the Titans, since Brown is eligible to return to practice from injured reserve.

Brown missed the last three games with a knee injury, but still leads the club with 46 catches and 615 receiving yards. He is one of three players with three receiving touchdowns.

The Titans would always be happy to welcome Brown back to the lineup and Jones' latest hamstring injury would make his return all the more significant for the Titans against the 49ers on Thursday night.

The question is whether they can get him ready on a short week.

The Titans have until Thursday to activate him for Thursday's game and Vrabel said on Tuesday Brown will be evaluated throughout the week.

"He will have to go out there and he has been working with the trainers and the strength staff," Vrabel said of Brown. "Looking at conditioning and updates in how he responds to the work he has done. He will be with us in the jog through today and I am sure he will do some stuff a little bit faster."

Remember, since he hasn't been added to the active roster, Brown won't appear on the injury report this week.

Whatever the case, the Titans need all of the offensive help they can get with the Indianapolis Colts (8-6) pulling within one game for the AFC South lead. Tennessee currently holds the No. 3 seed in the AFC behind the Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) and New England Patriots (9-5).

The Titans' finishing stretch looks much more challenging with their own turnover issues. San Francisco has won four of its last five to climb above .500, while Miami has won six straight to get to .500. Even a season-ending trip to Houston is no gimme after the Texans won in Nashville in November.

I'll have more on Jones and Brown via Late-Breaking Update in advance of Thursday night's game.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Ryan Tannehill, Logan Woodside
RBs: Derrick Henry, Dontrell Hilliard, Khari Blasingame, Trenton Cannon, Jordan Wilkins
WRs: Nick Westbrook_Ikhine, Chester Rogers, Racey McMath, Dez Fitzpatrick, Cameron Batson, Robert Woods
TEs: Geoff Swaim, Austin Hooper, MyCole Pruitt

Washington Football Team

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 21 December 2021

As ESPN.com's John Keim reported, the Washington Football Team showed its grit and resilience. It showed the ability to compete in a situation where it entered at a clear disadvantage.

What it didn't show was the ability to stop the Philadelphia Eagles' offense.

Or to fully overcome a number of player losses.

That's why, instead of a win, it will receive a number of "good job, good effort" comments. Meanwhile, its playoff chances took a major hit with Tuesday's 27-17 loss to the Eagles.

At 6-8, Washington would need to win its final three games and receive help to make the playoffs. The WFT is a game behind Minnesota, New Orleans and Philadelphia for the third and final wild-card spot. But it has now lost to both the Saints and the Eagles.

Washington plays at Dallas on Sunday, followed by a home rematch against Philadelphia and a road game at the New York Giants. A three-game win streak to close the season would be asking a lot given the health of the roster.

Two weeks ago Washington appeared to be in good position to earn a berth. But that's when injuries and the COVID-19 list started to become key factors. Washington has lost too many players in the past two weeks; starting quarterback Taylor Heinicke and his backup, Kyle Allen, as well as All-Pro right guard Brandon Scherff were on the COVID-19 list and missed Tuesday's game.

"We're in a unique situation," receiver Terry McLaurin said. "We had the mindset going into the week that we'll play with whoever we have. This is the NFL, you have to be ready at all moments."

Other key offensive players such as tight end Logan Thomas and running back J.D. McKissic are on injured reserve. McKissic was placed on the list Tuesday.

"It is frustrating because of the timing," head coach Ron Rivera said. "If you look at some of the injuries we have, that's the game. That's the nature of the game. You have to handle tough circumstances. I would like to have handled the last couple weeks better than we did."

Meanwhile, on a key Eagles' drive late in the game, only one of Washington's five defensive backs, safety Bobby McCain, was a full-time starter. Corner Danny Johnson was the only other regular contributor.

That all added up a rough night for Washington, even though the Football Team cut the lead to 20-17 early in the fourth quarter. That was part of the resolve it has shown in the last two seasons. Its first 10 points were set up by turnovers, but the Eagles took control thereafter. The stats suggested it should have been a blowout: Philadelphia outgained Washington 519 to 237.

Washington hung around because that's what it does. It has bounced back after a 2-6 start. It took a matter-of-fact approach in dealing with the player losses. But reality bit hard Tuesday. The WFT will need to get a lot of its players back and hope it can parlay that into a strong finish.

Keim went on to suggest it's hard to knock Garrett Gilbert's performance.

He had just signed with Washington on Friday, giving him three practices before playing in a game. He underthrew McLaurin on a 46-yard completion. McLaurin made the catch and Washington eventually kicked a field goal, but with more time together perhaps Gilbert would have hit him in stride for a touchdown.

Gilbert made a couple of nice passes on a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, one to tight end Ricky Seals-Jones on an out route and another to tight end John Bates on a third-and-1 bootleg in which he had to alter his arm angle to throw back slightly.

Gilbert is a limited quarterback, but he was put in an almost unwinnable situation and probably did as well as one could expect.

Antonio Gibson rushed 15 times for 26 yards and a touchdown and brought in six of seven targets for 39 yards on Tuesday night.

Gibson overcame a minor toe injury early in the contest to log a solid workload, but there was little running room to be had against a surprisingly stout Eagles front. However, the second-year back did make a sizable impact through the air, pacing the team in receptions in the process.

Gibson, who didn't practice Wednesday, may have a more favorable matchup as a rusher in a Week 16 road battle against the Cowboys on Sunday night.

I'll follow up on his status and the progress of the QBs via Late-Breaking Update in coming days.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Taylor Heinicke, Carson Wentz, Ryan Fitzpatrick
RBs: Antonio Gibson, Jaret Patterson, J.D. McKissic
WRs: Terry McLaurin, Cam Sims, Adam Humphries, Dyami Brown, Curtis Samuel
TEs: John Bates, Sammis Reyes, Ricky Seals-Jones, Logan Thomas