Team Notes week 17 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 28 December 2021

The Arizona Cardinals have qualified for the NFL's postseason for the first time since 2015.

That's the end of the good news.

As ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss suggested, "It was a nightmare on Christmas for the Cardinals."

Their late-season slide continued on Saturday with a 22-16 loss to the Colts. They've now lost three in a row and five of their past eight to fall to 10-5 on the season.

It is Arizona's second straight season with a major slide in the second half. The Cardinals started 5-2 last year and finished 3-6 and out of the playoffs.

So while they've made the playoffs, their fall has been reminiscent of last season.

So the question is obvious: How long will this slide last?

Arizona travels to Dallas in Week 17 and will face another physical running back in the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott. After knowing what Colts running back Jonathan Taylor was going to do and still not being able to stop it, slowing down Elliott doesn't seem any more likely.

If they can't get the win in Big D, Arizona might have one last game to get a win this season in Week 18 at home against the Seattle Seahawks.

Seattle is far off its pace of previous seasons, but it's a team that always plays the Cardinals close. And it doesn't help that Arizona is 3-4 at home this season, with all its losses coming in its past four home games.

The flip side is, with the exception of last week in Detroit, Arizona has been dominant on the road, where it's 7-1, and the Seahawks aren't very good this season, so a 2-0 finish isn't totally out of the question.

But if Saturday's performance is any indication, that isn't likely.

The Cardinals couldn't beat an offense that finished with four backup linemen and without its top tight end. And their own offense struggled to get going without running back James Conner and wide receiver Rondale Moore.

Arizona also couldn't get out of its own way.

It finished the first half with more penalties than points (seven to six) and finished with 11 penalties for 85 yards and kicker Matt Prater missed three kicks -- two field goals and an extra point -- to leave seven, potentially game-deciding, points on the field.

Make no mistake, the frustration is mounting.

"We feel it, you see it," quarterback Kyler Murray said. "It's just good teams don't do that and we weren't doing that early on in the season, and now you see, it's killing us in crucial moments where we're just not scoring touchdowns because of it, or vice versa, on the other side of the ball.

"As a collective group, offensively and defensively, like it's just mental mistakes that you just can't keep making if we want to win these games that we know we're supposed to be winning. I mean, it's bad football."

Murray went on to make it clear he doesn't want to be playing the type of football Arizona has been lately heading into the postseason.

"All you gotta do is get in," he said. "That's all you got to do. But, at the end of the day, we don't want to get in playing the way we're playing. We want to go in playing and feeling good about ourselves and what we're doing. The thing about it is it's fixable.

"We just got to look ourselves in the mirror, stop making these mistakes because that game was very winnable. But good teams don't do that and right now we're not doing what we need to do."

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury said the Cardinals "continue to find ways to lose critical situations and penalties and things of that nature." He added that, "we got to get it turned around somewhere."

The Cardinals are now 0-5 in games that could clinch a postseason berth during his three seasons in charge.

"We're looking at ourselves, looking in the mirror, and trying to figure out what we have to do," Kingsbury said. "Because right now, it's not good enough."

The Cardinals obviously miss three-time All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins, one of the best receivers in the NFL and who commands a ton of attention from opposing defenses. He's likely out for the rest of the regular season with a knee injury.

But the roster should have enough talent to function at a higher rate than it is right now. Receivers A.J. Green and Christian Kirk, along with tight end Zach Ertz, are all high-quality players.

"The answers are in that locker room and those coaches' offices and we've got to figure it out," Kingsbury said.

Running back Chase Edmonds said Arizona needs to "ignore the noise" that will come with a third-straight loss. "We don't need that right now," he said. "We can't afford that right now. ..."

For what it's worth, Murray's highlight on Saturday was a 57-yard run in the first quarter that led to Arizona's first touchdown. He topped the Cardinals in rushing with 74 yards on four carries while also throwing for 245 yards and a touchdown on 27-of-43 passing.

Also worth noting, Murray's third-quarter touchdown pass to Antoine Wesley was his fifth "dime" this season, which is measured by a pass that's thrown 30-plus air yards into a tight window, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. The pass had a completion probability of 20 percent. ...

On the health front. ... The Cardinals got some good news on Monday when starting center Rodney Hudson was activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list. Arizona also hopes that Conner (heel) and Moore (ankle) can bounce back and play against the Cowboys.

Kingsbury told reporters on Wednesday that Conner is day-to-day; the coach went on to suggest that both Conner and Moore were already heading for game-time decisions.

Conner didn't practice Wednesday while Edmonds turned up on the injury report, listed as limited with a back injury. Ertz (hamstring) was also limited in Wednesday's practice.

Kingsbury said CB Marco Wilson (shoulder) is still being evaluated after getting hurt against the Colts. Kingsbury said punter Andy Lee hasn't cleared COVID-19 protocols but he's hopeful he'll be back before the Cowboys game.

The league and the NFL Players Association revised the protocols on Tuesday after the CDC changed its guidelines for those who are asymptomatic, recommending a five-day isolation period and masking over the second five days.

Kingsbury added that getting back Hudson is particularly important for the offensive line.

"He's the glue that's made it all stick together," Kingsbury said.

I'll have more on Conner and Moore via Late-Breaking Update in coming days.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Kyler Murray, Colt McCoy, Trace McSorley
RBs: James Conner, Keaontay Ingram, Jonathan Ward, Darrel Williams
WRs: DeAndre Hopkins, Marquise Brown, Rondale Moore, A.J. Green, Robbie Anderson, Greg Dortch, Antoine Wesley
TEs: Trey McBride, Maxx Williams, Stephen Anderson, Zach Ertz

Atlanta Falcons

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

The Falcons remain a long shot for the playoffs. They also remain below .500 at 7-8, but already the Falcons have a win.

They've won the right to be called relevant as December comes to a close.

For most franchises, that's a modest claim. For the Falcons, who haven't made the playoffs since 2017 and finished with only four wins last season, it's a notable achievement.

Sunday's 20-16 win over Detroit showed the Falcons have developed the ability to win close games that escaped the team the last three seasons, especially in 2020's 4-12 collection of embarrassing losses.

Still, there's much work left. The Falcons have not managed to achieve the sustained success needed for a winning season, much less a playoff season.

The win over the Lions moved the Falcons up only one spot, to No. 10 in the conference standings. They'd lose a tiebreaker with Minnesota, also 7-8, because the Vikings have a better NFC winning percentage.

There's no cause for the Falcons to worry about playoff tiebreakers. They don't control their playoff future even if they win their last two games, and next week's visit to Buffalo (9-6) should command all their attention.

A loss to the Bills or at home against New Orleans to close the regular season on Jan. 9 would eliminate Atlanta from playoff contention.

"It's really pretty simple," head coach Arthur Smith said Monday. "Nothing else matters but trying to win the game this weekend. We've just got to try to win every game in front of us and then it will work itself out the way it's supposed to."

Meanwhile, AtlantaFalcons.com's Kris Rhim notes that Kyle Pitts' rookie season continues to gain momentum.

Four days after earning his first Pro Bowl selection, Pitts proved why he was worthy of being the first rookie tight end in 20 years to earn that honor in Sunday's win over the Detroit Lions.

Pitts exploded in the second half with four catches for 81-yards, including an impressive 35-yard catch in which he blew by Lions' defensive back Ifeatu Melifonwu and caught a pass while Melifonwu tugged his left hand.

Pitts finished the game with six catches for 102 yards and a bevy of broken records. With 949 yards on the season, Pitts passed Tony Gonzalez for the most yards by a Falcons tight end in a single season; he became the only rookie tight end in NFL history with 60+ receptions and 900 yards and is second all-time in yards in a single-season for a rookie tight end behind Mike Ditka (1,076).

But the rushing attack is an issue.

As Associated Press sports writer Charles Odum noted, the Falcons averaged only 2.6 yards on the ground. Cordarrelle Patterson had seven carries for 14 yards. Mike Davis ran for 28 yards.

Most telling: The decisions to rely on neither back for the tough yards but instead have quarterback Matt Ryan run keepers when those yards were necessary.

Patterson sometimes lined up wide against the Lions, where he was most effective early in the season, but he had only one catch. Odum went on to point out Patterson needs the ball in space more often, but his early-season success as a receiver seems to have earned him greater responsibility as a traditional running back.

That hasn't been a formula for success. He has gained 32 yards on 18 carries in his last two games.

From a fantasy perspective, Patterson has scored four touchdowns in the past six games (including one against Detroit), which has salvaged his performances.

But as ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein points out, the explosiveness from earlier this season has waned.

Patterson hasn't caught more than three passes in a game since Nov. 7 and hasn't averaged more than three yards a carry since Dec. 5 against Tampa Bay. Some of this can be explained by a bad game by the offensive line against San Francisco.

But against Detroit, the Falcons just couldn't find ways to get Patterson loose enough. For Atlanta to have any shot at the postseason - it needs to figure out how to unlock Patterson again.

Another issue?

One week after looking like an emerging player when he had eight catches for 91 yards against the 49ers, Russell Gage had only four catches for 39 yards. Gage's fumble at the Atlanta 37 with 2:18 remaining could have been the biggest play of the game if not for linebacker Foye Oluokun's last-minute interception at the Atlanta 1 that saved the win.

Next up. ... The Falcons play at Buffalo on Sunday in their final road game of the regular season. They conclude the schedule hosting New Orleans in Week 18.

On the health front. ... Atlanta placed Tajae Sharpe (foot) on the reserve/COVID-19 list Monday after he tested positive for the virus, Tom Pelissero of NFL Network reports.

Sharpe, who was inactive for Sunday's win over the Lions due to a foot injury, now has to get past both that issue in addition to COVID-19 protocols before he can return to action. Olamide Zaccheaus started opposite Gage in Sharpe's absence in Week 16, finishing with two receptions for 32 yards on four targets.

On Wednesday, the Falcons placed TE Hayden Hurst on the reserve/COVID list.

As NBCSportEdge.com notes, Hurst plays roughly half of the Falcons' offensive snaps and has two touchdowns over the last three weeks as a red-zone presence.

On Tuesday, the Falcons placed quarterback Feleipe Franks and safety Richie Grant on the COVID-19 reserve list, the team announced Tuesday.

Franks has served as Ryan's backup on game day the past three weeks, with Josh Rosen inactive.

Franks has played 14 snaps on offense and 36 on special teams this season. He last played on special teams in Week 13.

Hurst, Franks and Grant join Jonathan Bullard, Jaylinn Hawkins, Willie Beavers, Marlon Davison, Tyeler Davison, Brandon Copeland, Sharpe, James Vaughters and Dorian Etheridge on the team's reserve/COVID-19 list.

The league and the NFL Players Association revised the protocols on Tuesday after the CDC changed its guidelines for those who are asymptomatic, recommending a five-day isolation period and masking over the second five days.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Marcus Mariota, Desmond Ridder
RBs: Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier, Caleb Huntley, Avery Williams, Damien Williams
WRs: Drake London, Olamide Zaccheaus, Damiere Byrd, KhaDarel Hodge, Bryan Edwards, Jared Bernhardt
TEs: MyCole Pruitt, Parker Hesse, Anthony Firkser, Feleipe Franks, Kyle Pitts

Baltimore Ravens

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

The Ravens have remained competitive all season despite injuries that have decimated the roster.

Against Cincinnati, it finally looked like one team's backups trying to stop another team's stars.

As Associated Press sports writer Noah Trister noted, the Ravens were helpless against a Cincinnati team that was never once forced to punt. After losing its previous three games by a combined four points, Baltimore was beaten decisively Sunday, 41-21 in a matchup that put the Bengals a game ahead of the Ravens atop the AFC North.

Baltimore (8-7) is still very much in the mix for a postseason spot, but this was the first time in a while that the Ravens weren't even in the game in the final minutes.

In fact, their only loss more lopsided than this was also against Cincinnati, 41-17 on Oct. 24.

"Disappointed, but you can't afford to be deflated," head coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "There's just no time for that. I know our guys are in a good spot that way. They understand that. They believe it. They know it's a tough fight."

The big story entering the game was that Baltimore was without its top two quarterbacks. Lamar Jackson missed a second straight game with an ankle injury, and Tyler Huntley was on the reserve/COVID-19 list. That left Josh Johnson, who had been with the Ravens less than two weeks, as the starter.

Johnson, however, played fine.

The Ravens have been able to execute their offense at a satisfactory level even with backup quarterbacks. They scored 30 points in a loss to Green Bay two weekends ago with Huntley, and then Johnson threw for 304 yards Sunday.

Huntley and Johnson deserve credit for the way they've run the offense in a backup role, and both have spent plenty of time the past few weeks working with quarterbacks coach James Urban.

It's taken a collaborative effort from Urban, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and the entire offensive staff to get Huntley and Johnson ready on short notice, and the results have been impressive.

Despite having just 10 days to prepare, Johnson was 28-of-40 for 304 yards, two touchdowns and one interception against the Bengals.

"Coach Urban's done a great job. Coach Roman has done a great job, all the coaches have on offense," Harbaugh said. "I'm really happy with the way that those quarterbacks have played. But we can get better. We're going to be chasing. It's not really where we sit around and we say, 'Everything's great, everything's good.' It's not good enough."

The bigger problem was a secondary that has struggled this season and was completely depleted Sunday. The Bengals took full advantage. Joe Burrow threw for 525 yards and four touchdowns. Two Cincinnati players had at least 125 yards receiving and two more had at least 70.

On top of all the other problems in the secondary, cornerback Anthony Averett is now dealing with rib issues.

As for the quarterbacks, Harbaugh did seem to indicate Jackson and Huntley have a chance to return soon.

Some of Baltimore's injured players aren't coming back this season, but a few activations from the COVID-19 list could help in the short term -- especially in the beleaguered defensive backfield.

The league and the NFL Players Association revised the protocols on Tuesday after the CDC changed its guidelines for those who are asymptomatic, recommending a five-day isolation period and masking over the second five days.

"We have everybody we need, and now we need to go out there and play our best football that we're capable of playing, and that'll be enough," Harbaugh said. "So, we have enough, and it will be enough. We've just got to go do it. We've got to focus on that."

For fantasy managers, however, the major storyline this week will be the status of Jackson and Huntley for Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Rams.

Jackson has not practiced or played since his injury Dec. 12 against the Browns, while Huntley was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list Saturday.

A significant step for Jackson would be returning to the practice field Wednesday, and Harbaugh told reporters the QB would be on the field on a limited basis.

Jackson hasn't been on the field since injuring his right ankle on Dec. 12.

"I'm looking forward to that," Harbaugh said. "Hopefully, we'll have Lamar back. Hopefully, we'll have Tyler back, and we'll still have (Johnson). So, those guys will all be working this week to get ready for this game."

I'll have more on their status via Late-Breaking Update in coming days as the Ravens begin preparing for the Rams in earnest. ...

Do the Ravens still have a shot at the postseason?

According to ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley, it's certainly not looking good.

Baltimore realistically has no shot at winning the AFC North after leading the division for most of the season. The Ravens fell one game back of the Bengals with two remaining, and they have lost the head-to-head tiebreaker after getting swept by Cincinnati for the first time since 2015.

Baltimore is going to need help to secure a wild-card berth and reach the postseason for a fourth straight season. ...

Other notes of interest. ... Second-year wide receiver James Proche II had a career day in Cincinnati (seven catches, 76 yards) picking up the slack for veteran Sammy Watkins, who played sparingly after coming off the (Reserve/COVID 19 list) on Saturday.

Meanwhile, rookie Rashod Bateman (four catches, 26 yards) caught his first touchdown pass and rookie Tylan Wallace showed his toughness, shaking off two Bengals tacklers for an 18-yard catch to convert on third-and-13.

"A lot of the young guys stepped up and played well in the game," Harbaugh said. "I'm certainly not happy at all with the results of the game, but certain guys got opportunities and they did a good job. … Hopefully, they can build off of that, and I expect them to."

But make no mistake: Mark Andrew is the driving force of this offense right now.

As Trister suggested, what the star tight end has done this season really is remarkable given the injuries around him. With Baltimore starting a third different quarterback in three weeks, Andrews caught eight passes for 125 yards and a touchdown.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Lamar Jackson, Tyler Huntley
RBs: Gus Edwards, Kenyan Drake, Justice Hill, Mike Davis, J.K. Dobbins
WRs: Devin Duvernay, Demarcus Robinson, James Proche, DeSean Jackson, Tylan Wallace, Rashod Bateman
TEs: Mark Andrews, Isaiah Likely, Josh Oliver, Nick Boyle, Charlie Kolar

Buffalo Bills

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

For three weeks, safety Jordan Poyer and the Buffalo Bills had to live under the cloud of being embarrassed by Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots on national TV.

"Embarrassing" was the word phrased in a question Poyer took issue with following a 14-10 prime-time loss to the Patriots on Dec. 6 in which Buffalo ceded first place in the AFC East against an opponent who attempted just three passes in blustery conditions.

On Sunday, the Bills (9-6) overcame two months of doubts regarding their inconsistencies and a COVID-19 depleted lineup to finally begin changing the narrative with a convincing 33-21 victory at Foxboro, Massachusetts.

Though tied with New England atop the division standings, Buffalo has the tiebreaking edge and needs only to win its final two games -- both at home against Atlanta (7-8) followed by the New York Jets (4-11) -- to clinch its second consecutive AFC East title for the first time since a four-year run from 1988 to '91.

Not lost in the moments following the win, as reported by The Athletic, was Poyer leaving the field and wondering aloud what the reporter who raised the embarrassing question thought about them now.

As Associated Press sports writer John Wawrow wrote, "Motivation, apparently, takes many forms, and it might have come at just the right time for Buffalo to finally play up to preseason expectations."

And much of the credit for the victory goes not to a defense, which allowed the Patriots to convert five of six fourth-down chances and score on two of its three second-half possessions before Micah Hyde ended New England's final drive with his second interception of the game.

The key to this victory goes to a Josh Allen -led offense that ate up more than 35 minutes of game clock and never attempted a punt for just the fifth time in team history.

Days after finishing fourth in the AFC Pro Bowl vote, Allen played what could be considered his most complete game given the stakes and a lineup missing two of its four top receivers -- Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis (reserve/COVID-19 list) -- and a patchwork offensive line.

Some point to Brian Daboll's game plan as being the reason for the success, but the offensive coordinator would chalk it up to great execution.

"Give all the credit to the players," Daboll said Monday. "It's a players' game."

While Daboll is correct knowing the players are the ones on the field turning play calls into plays, Chris Brown of the team's official website notes that Daboll has been an integral part of lifting Buffalo's offense to the upper echelon of the league for a second consecutive season.

But what is the method behind Daboll's ability to not only craft successful game plans, but also make the in-game adjustments necessary to shift gears and stay a step ahead of his opponents?

"I think he just continues to find ways to explore different types of plays," said Allen. "He's constantly watching film from college, other NFL games and even sometimes high school games. He's got a knack for it of just finding good play calls. He'll switch things up where teams maybe lose focus on one guy and then bring him in or focus too much on the other guy. He continues just to watch a lot of film and he's very open minded for different plays from everybody on the team.

"It doesn't matter what position you play, he's willing to take a look at it."

That creativity frequently keeps Buffalo's offense in the realm of the unpredictable, which is where most play callers want to be at the highest level of football. But Daboll always comes back to how it looks on the field.

"You could have the best play call ever, but if you can't execute it then it won't mean much," he said.

Daboll trusts his players implicitly. Allen most of all.

He puts enormous faith in the 11 he puts on the field to adjust week to week, during the week and at times the night before a game when he's still tinkering with the game plan.

When asked how often Daboll will change plays late in a game week, Stefon Diggs answered quickly.

"Every day and twice on game day," he said with a smirk. "He trusts us out there and you know Josh is pretty smart as well. He'll figure it out and move all the pieces in the right spot. When you do have smart players, especially at your quarterback position, you're never really too concerned because they'll figure it out."

Indeed, Allen's value to the Bills has been priceless in a season in which his 38 touchdowns rank second in the NFL, one behind Tampa Bay's Tom Brady.

"I mean, Josh makes a quarter of a billion dollars, you know," left tackle Dion Dawkins said, referring to the six-year contract extension Allen signed in August. "Josh is worth every penny."

Next up. ... Two wins and Buffalo's in, starting with a non-conference matchup against Atlanta.

The Falcons are coming off a 20-16 victory over Detroit, and hasn't won consecutive games since Weeks 8-9 last season. ...

Other notes of interest. ... Another adjustment Daboll has made is dropping the running-back-by-committee approach.

In 10 quarters since taking over the bulk of the workload, Devin Singletary has combined for 263 yards from scrimmage on 50 touches and scored twice. He managed just 613 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns Buffalo's first 12 1/2 games. ...

With Beasley and Gabriel out, Isaiah McKenzie set career highs with 11 catches and 125 yards, while scoring the game-opening touchdown.

To put that in perspective, McKenzie had combined for just seven catches for 38 yards in 12 previous appearances this season. And it came after he had been benched for two games after muffing a punt in a 41-15 loss to Indianapolis on Nov. 21.

Now, with the Beasley and Davis removed from the reserve/COVID list Wednesday (thanks to the new COVID protocols that allow for quicker returns), will McKenzie, the fifth-year speedster whom Buffalo claimed off waivers in 2018, get to further prove he is more than just a part-time gadget player?

As ESPN.com's Alaina Getzenberg pointed out, McKenzie offers more speed than Beasley and gave Allen an option that had been missing in many games this year. That's not to say Beasley shouldn't be involved in the offense going forward, but McKenzie has made a case to have a larger role than the 17.2 percent of offensive plays he was in this season coming into the game.

Elsewhere on the health front. ... Diggs returned after appearing to hurt his left shoulder. ... OL Ike Boettger will miss the rest of the season after rupturing his Achilles tendon. ... OL Jon Feliciano missed his second consecutive game on the reserve-COVID-19 list. DT Star Lotulelei's status is uncertain after being excused for personal reasons. DB Cam Lewis was added to the reserve-COVID-19 list on Monday.

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

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Josh Allen, Case Keenum
RBs: Devin Singletary, James Cook, Nyheim Hines, Reggie Gilliam, Duke Johnson
WRs: Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis, Isaiah McKenzie, Khalil Shakir, Jake Kumerow, Jamison Crowder
TEs: Dawson Knox, Quintin Morris, Tommy Sweeney

Carolina Panthers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

Matt Rhule heard the "Fire Rhule" chants from fans during the game, as well as the boos as he left the field Sunday following the Carolina Panthers' sixth straight home loss and 10th defeat in the last 12 games.

They were officially eliminated from playoff contention and as Associated Press sports writer Steve Reed suggested, the honeymoon period is clearly over as Rhule nears the end of his second double-digit loss season.

Carolina fans are growing restless with a team that seems to lack direction at quarterback.

Rhule has been searching for answers, even turning to a two-quarterback system on Sunday that included rotating Cam Newton and Sam Darnold, who returned to action after missing five games with a shoulder injury.

That didn't work.

The Panthers managed two field goals and were blown out 32-6 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who clinched their first NFC South title since 2007 under the direction of seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady.

"We're not them yet; we're aspiring to be them," Rhule said.

Rhule went as far as to apologize to the team's fanbase after the game for the constant losing, but promised he is "1,000 percent convinced" that the organization is headed in the right direction. He pointed to injuries to key players as one of the reasons for his team's struggles.

"There is a process that is happening underneath and everyone is like, 'It's not working Matt, it's not working Matt,' But when I see all of the good things that are happening, I think it is," said Rhule, who is in the second year of a seven-year, $60 million contract.

Rhule came up with the two quarterback approach last week saying he was looking for a spark. Newton started the game -- possibly his last as a member of the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium -- and threw an interception on his second series. He was replaced by Darnold, who was promptly booed as he ran on the field.

Newton never seemed to get into rhythm after that as he and Darnold rotated back and forth. Newton played 37 percent of the snaps, while Darnold got 63 percent of the snaps.

"It was told to me early on this week about playing two quarterbacks," Newton said. "Did I approve of it? That's not even a thought to me. As a player, you play. The coaches, they coach. If he deems that is what is best for this team to win, then it's for me to swallow my pride and get on board. And I did that."

While Rhule wouldn't initially say who will start this week at New Orleans as the week opened, he changed that on Wednesday, when he named Darnold as the starter for Sunday’s game against the Saints.

Of course, it doesn't matter much in the short term with the Panthers eliminated from playoff contention.

Big picture?

The reality is Rhule has swung and missed three times now on quarterbacks -- four if you include passing on Justin Fields with the No. 8 pick in the NFL draft.

The Panthers initially signed Teddy Bridgewater in 2020, but he was jettisoned after one season. Then they traded away three picks to get Darnold, who struggled after a 3-0 start this season. And then they acquired Newton, who has gone 0-5 as the team's starting quarterback, in part prompting Rhule to fire offensive coordinator Joe Brady midway through the season.

So the two-quarterback system felt a lot like a desperate coach grasping at straws to find anything that will work.

Rhule said having coached in the Philadelphia area he didn't mind hearing the boos from the fans. He said he appreciates their passion.

But he added the Panthers need to continue to build just as the Buccaneers did, a message that had the feel of a coach who was politicking to keep his job.

"That team (Tampa Bay) struggled for several years and acquired a lot of pieces and then Tom Brady showed up and [Rob Gronkowski] showed up and Antonio Brown showed up, and now they are one of the best teams in the league," Rhule said. "We're trying to add pieces as we go and develop guys and draft guys and sign guys -- and we hope that we can get there."

For what it's worth, Rhule appears to have the support of Panthers owner David Tepper. Rhule said he spoke with Tepper on Monday and the conversation went well.

"He's been unbelievably supportive," Rhule said on a videoconference call. "All our conversations were about the best things to do moving forward. He's been tremendously supportive and shown me a ton of confidence. We are certainly not where we want to be, but we knew this was something that was going to have to be done right."

Whether that guarantees Rhule is back in Carolina (5-10) next season is unclear.

Rhule said he didn't ask about his future, and said he wouldn't want to speak for Tepper.

Rhule is in the second year of a seven-year, $60 million contract that lured him away from the college ranks.

Rhule had big turnarounds beginning in the third season of stints at Temple and Baylor. After starting the first two seasons 2-10 and 6-6 at Temple, the Owls went 10-4 and 10-3 the next two years.

At Baylor, he went 1-11 his first year, then 7-6 the next. In the third year the Bears got it right, going 11-3 and finishing 13th in The Associated Press poll.

"I believe it is going to take off at some point," Rhule said.

Fantasy managers would be wise not to bank on that turnaround being immediate. The Panthers will play out the string on the road at New Orleans and Tampa Bay. ...

That said, receiver D.J. Moore has proven to be a quality, reliable No. 1 receiver for the Panthers.

On Sunday, he became just the third Carolina player in history to have three straight 1,000-yard seasons. Moore is scheduled to make $11.1 million next season under the fifth-year option of his rookie contract, but it's expected that GM Scott Fitterer will look to re-sign him to a long-term contract extension in the offseason.

In addition, rookie receiver Shi Smith might be worth watching for Dynasty managers and those with an eye on the future.

The Panthers began playing more of their young players Sunday with the team looking ahead to next season. One of those that stepped up was Smith, a rookie from South Carolina. Smith had three catches for 86 yards, including a 63-yard reception where he got behind the defender to haul in a wide-open pass from Sam Darnold. Smith only had three receptions for 18 yards coming into the game.

In addition, fellow rookie Terrace Marshall Jr. played 59 percent of the snaps, his most in a game since Week 5 against Philadelphia.

Beyond that, rookie running back Chuba Hubbard rushed six times for nine yards and failed to bring in his only target on Sunday.

As CBSSports.com put it, "Hubbard unsurprisingly found nearly non-existent running room during his few opportunities against a notoriously stingy Buccaneers defensive front."

Gamescript eventually nullified the Panthers' ground attack for the most part, making it an utterly forgettable fantasy afternoon for the rookie. Despite his role as a de facto lead back to close out the season, Hubbard has seen single-digit carries in each of the last two games and has been an almost complete non-factor as a receiver since Week 7.

He faces another unenviable assignment in Week 17 in the form of a Saints team that's on par with Tampa Bay in terms of stopping the run.

Meanwhile, Carolina is getting virtually no production from its tight ends since trading Dan Arnold away at the beginning of the season. Tommy Tremble and Ian Thomas have combined for just 33 catches for 328 yards and one touchdown. To put those numbers in perspective, Kansas City's Travis Kelce has 83 receptions for 1,066 yards and seven touchdowns on his own.

On the health front. ... CB Stephon Gilmore left Sunday's game with a groin injury, but Rhule indicated he didn't think it was serious. Cornerback is the team's deepest position, but it has grown thin with injuries sidelining Jaycee Horn, Donte Jackson and A.J. Bouye for the season.

In addition, the Panthers placed two of their top defensive players on the reserve/COVID-19 list Monday, among six total players added to that roll.

The team placed defensive end Brian Burns, linebacker Shaq Thompson, defensive end Marquis Haynes Sr., and defensive tackle Phil Hoskins on the list, along with defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon and center Matt Paradis. Nixon and Paradis were already on injured reserve and out for the year.

Carolina announced on Wednesday that edge rusher Haason Reddick joined them on the COVID-19 list. If Reddick is vaccinated, there’s a chance he could test out of the protocols to be available for Week 17.

Losing Reddick, Burns and Thompson is a blow for a defense that has been forced to carry a more significant burden this year anyway.

Rhule referred to it as a "somewhat significant" number earlier Monday, which was affecting some particular position groups, and those absences are making the defensive numbers difficult at the moment. The Panthers are particularly thin at linebacker, as they have been all season.

The good news is the league and the NFL Players Association revised the protocols on Tuesday after the CDC changed its guidelines for those who are asymptomatic, recommending a five-day isolation period and masking over the second five days.

Finally. ... The Panthers are down to three quarterbacks on their active roster.

The team announced that they have released Matt Barkley on Tuesday. Like all players cut loose at this point in the season, Barkley is subject to waivers.

Newton, Darnold, and P.J. Walker remain on hand for Carolina, although Walker was added to the reserve/COVID list on Wednesday.

Barkley was signed off of the Titans' practice squad in November and dressed for a game, but did not see any game action for Carolina. He appeared in five games for the Bills as a backup in 2020 and last started a regular season game for Buffalo in 2018.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, P.J. Walker, Matt Corral
RBs: D'Onta Foreman, Chuba Hubbard, Spencer Brown, Raheem Blackshear
WRs: D.J. Moore, Terrace Marshall Jr., Shi Smith, Laviska Shenault, Rashard Higgins, Andre Roberts
TEs: Ian Thomas, Tommy Tremble, Stephen Sullivan

Chicago Bears

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

As ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert reported it, amid swirling rumors about his job security, Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy said Monday he is operating under the assumption that he will coach the team's final two games of the regular season.

The Bears have never fired a coach during the season, but a new NFL rule allows teams to begin interviewing candidates during the final two weeks of the regular season if the coach is either no longer employed or has been given notice that he won't return for 2022.

Nagy denied a report last month that he had been told that he would be fired after the Thanksgiving Day game at the Detroit Lions.

The Bears (5-10) snapped a three-game losing streak Sunday with a 25-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, but they are among eight teams that have been eliminated from playoff contention.

Earlier, Nagy said he was aware of no changes to the timing of the Bears' annual evaluation process for coaches, which typically concludes after the regular season. He did note his players' effort level in what was an otherwise meaningless game Sunday in Seattle.

"One thing you can always evaluate is effort from players," he said. "You never know [what the result will be]. But you can always judge effort. We saw that yesterday. ... You value that. It states to who the players are in this building. They deserve that and they deserve to have the feeling to win. It's been a little while. When you get a chance to get a win, you've got to enjoy it.

"And for me personally, I'm just really happy for the players."

Without their top two quarterbacks and Nick Foles starting for the first time in a season and a half, and without key players such as wide receiver Allen Robinson, cornerback Jaylon Johnson and defensive end Akiem Hicks because of COVID-19, the Bears rallied in the fourth quarter to get the win in Seattle.

Nagy said he has regular communication with general manager Ryan Pace, board chairman George McCaskey and president Ted Phillips, but nothing has changed in this regard.

"We stay on the same path as far as the communication that we have with George, Ted, Ryan and myself; nothing's changed there," Nagy said.

The question the Bears face for this week is if they'll have Foles back at quarterback after he threw for 250 yards on 24 of 35 without an interception, including a touchdown to Jimmy Graham to set up the winning points on a 2-point conversion pass to Damiere Byrd.

When they get ready to host the Giants in the next-to-last game Sunday, the Bears will have several players back from the reserve/COVID-19 list, including starting Robinson, Johnson and safety Tashaun Gipson. All were cleared Monday to return.

They also hope to get back quarterback Justin Fields, but his return from an ankle injury this week is uncertain.

Nagy did say they didn't plan to put Fields on season-ending injured reserve. He was injured in the Week 16 loss to Minnesota.

"Justin wants to play," Nagy said. "He's a competitor. He wants to be there for his teammates. I think that's what matters. And I think that's what all of us understand. We have to be smart.

"We're not going to put him at risk. And he knows that."

Players did note a difference in having an experienced Super Bowl MVP at quarterback for the final touchdown drive against Seattle.

"When you've got somebody like, as seasoned as him, he knows what it looks like," running back David Montgomery said. "When he's calm, I mean, you can't do anything else but be calm. He's got the most pressure on him. He's the quarterback. So to have him as calm and poised as he is, um, it's special. So we just kind of follow his lead."

As Associated Press sports writer Gene Chamberlain suggested, whatever the statistics for Foles, the best thing he might have done or didn't do was turn over the ball. Only one team has a worse turnover ratio (minus-13) than the Bears and only two have turned it over more than the 25 times they've done this.

Foles had passes out in time and on target, allowing for what Nagy called their best yards after catch game of the year.

"That part, again, that's effort," Nagy said. "You're not getting tackled for a catch/tackle for 1-yard gain. You're getting extra yards. There was a lot of those plays."

If only they could get the passing attack and ground game both working at the same time.

A 20-yard run off left tackle by Khalil Herbert accounted for one of their touchdowns in Seattle, but beyond that they had only 68 more yards rushing and averaged only 2.9 yards overall. The lack of a running game plagued them whenever they had Foles at quarterback last year and used a lot of shotgun formations as they did Sunday, rather than playing with the quarterback under center.

Perhaps this week will be the week it all comes together as the Bears host the New York Giants (4-11) Sunday. ...

Other notes of interest. ... NFL players are young and healthy, and 95 percent of them are vaccinated, and as a result most players who get COVID-19 are either completely asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms. Robinson is an exception.

Robinson revealed Tuesday that he lost 10 pounds while battling COVID-19 and still doesn't feel like he's 100 percent healthy.

Although Robinson has cleared the league's COVID-19 protocols and returned to the Bears, that doesn't mean he's going to be able to perform at the same level as he did before he got the virus.

Robinson is playing this season on the franchise tender, meaning he's slated to become an unrestricted free agent in March. He may be about to leave Chicago, but he said he hasn't started thinking about that yet. Of more immediate importance is focusing on his health.

Elsewhere on the health front. ... Rookie LT Teven Jenkins suffered a shoulder injury and had to leave the game. Rookie backup RT Larry Borom replaced him and finished the game at the position. The Bears will be watching Jenkins' injury, the one to Fields and also a groin strain suffered by Dalton as they begin preparations to face the Giants. Jakeem Grant Sr. missed Sunday's game with a concussion.

The Bears activated wide receiver Isaiah Coulter from the reserve/COVID list on Tuesday.

I'll have more on Robinson, Fields, who practiced on a limited basis Wednesday, and the quarterback situation in general via Late-Breaking Update in coming days.

One last note. ... Graham now has three TD receptions this year, 11 in two seasons with the Bears and 85 in his career, the fourth most by a tight end in NFL history behind Hall of Famers Antonio Gates (116) and Tony Gonzalez (111) and Buccaneers star Rob Gronkowski (91).

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Justin Fields, Trevor Siemian
RBs: David Montgomery, Trestan Ebner, Darrynton Evans, Khalil Herbert
WRs: Darnell Mooney, Chase Claypool, Equanimeous St. Brown, Dante Pettis, Velus Jones Jr., Byron Pringle, N'Keal Harry, Tajae Sharpe
TEs: Cole Kmet, Ryan Griffin, Trevon Wesco

Cincinnati Bengals

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

As ESPN.com's Ben Baby reported it, "Joe Burrow looked across the field at his team's sideline, flipped his palms upward and shrugged to apologize for a throw that set history.

"But there was nothing for Burrow to be sorry about on one of the most prolific passing days in NFL history."

Burrow set a franchise record for the most passing yards in a single game in Cincinnati's 41-21 win over the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium. He was 37-of-46 passing for 525 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.

Burrow, who was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week on Wednesday, broke the record previously held by Boomer Esiason, who threw for 490 yards in an overtime game against the Los Angeles Rams on Oct. 7, 1990. It was also the fourth-highest total in NFL history -- just shy of Norm Van Brocklin's 554 yards against the New York Yanks in 1951.

After the game, the second-year quarterback said the record was a reflection of the entire team's performance and was necessary as the Bengals (9-6) swept the Ravens in the regular season for the first time since 2015.

"You know, I really don't think about the yards too much," said Burrow, who added that he's just as happy throwing for much smaller totals like his 148-yard effort in a win over the Las Vegas Raiders on Nov. 21. "Whatever it takes to win the game. Today, it took throwing for 525 yards."

Burrow appeared to secure the franchise record on a touchdown throw to wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who had a 32-yard touchdown catch overturned on Cincinnati's penultimate offensive drive.

However, Burrow trotted back onto the field with the knowledge he was shy of the 500-yard mark. On a play when head coach Zac Taylor instructed Burrow not to scramble, he instinctively fled the pocket and threw a deep ball to running back Joe Mixon, who caught the pass for a 52-yard, record-setting completion.

That prompted the half-shrug, half-apology to Taylor from across the field.

"I knew I wasn't supposed to do it, but we went out there and did it anyway," Burrow said.

The second-year quarterback's career performance came days after Ravens defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale said it was too early to gift Burrow the "gold jacket" given to those in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Burrow said he was aware of Martindale's comments as he chased the record on Sunday.

"I wouldn't say I was offended by it," said Burrow, the top overall pick in the 2020 draft. "I mean, I'm in Year 2. Who knows what's going to happen down the road? But I didn't think it was a necessary comment."

Said Bengals edge rusher Trey Hendrickson of Burrow, "I wouldn't go around pissing that guy off."

In two wins over Baltimore this season, Burrow threw for a combined 941 passing yards, seven touchdowns and one interception.

After throwing for 416 yards against a much healthier version of the Ravens, Burrow had even more success against a Baltimore team decimated by injuries and battling a multitude of COVID-19 cases. With those numbers, Burrow becomes the first player to pass for 900 yards against a single team in a season in NFL history, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

He breaks the record previously shared by Joe Montana and Dan Marino.

On Sunday, the bulk of Burrow's passing yards went to wide receiver Tee Higgins, who finished with a career-high 194 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

"When he's on fire like that all your job is to do is get open and he's going to find you," Higgins said.

Taylor, who has Cincinnati leading the AFC North by one game and in position for the team's first playoff berth since 2015, said he wasn't surprised by Burrow's record-breaking performance.

"He was feeling it today," the coach said. ...

For what it's worth, after the game, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh appeared to take issue with Taylor calling pass plays late to get Burrow over the 500-yard mark. The postgame handshake showed Harbaugh displeased, but he shrugged in his presser after the loss.

"They call their own plays, and we call our plays," Harbaugh said.

Beyond that, Sunday's win put Cincinnati (9-6) in first place in the AFC North and the Bengals are looking toward the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

"Our guys need to develop a killer instinct right now," Taylor said.

So there is much riding on the last two weeks of the season, starting with Sunday's game against Kansas City, which has clinched the AFC West, and then the finale at the Browns, who are 7-8 and on the playoff bubble.

"It's been a crazy NFL season," Taylor said. "There's a lot of adversity that comes at you from a lot of different ways. We do a lot of positive things, and oftentimes people just want to point out the negatives. Our guys have plowed through it all and found the positives and kept building on it and kept believing each other, kept believing the coaches, coaches believed in the players and here we are.

"Everything's right in front of us, right here going into January," he said. "So we're happy about that, but we're not content yet. ..."

Other notes of interest. ... Mixon is more of a reliable grinder than flashy home run hitter. Even though he had just 65 rushing yards in the Ravens win, he also caught six passes for 70. He ran for a touchdown and caught another one. The fifth-year veteran has 1,159 rushing yards this season, and is 9 yards away from his previous season high, in 2018.

While Higgins led the way, Ja'Marr Chase caught 7-of-10 targets for 125 yards against the Ravens. Chase has cooled off after a blistering start to the season, but it's a relative thing. He remains among the league's most dangerous wideouts and he continues to demonstrate that when given the opportunities.

Boyd caught 5-of-7 targets for 85 yards and a touchdown in the Bengals' Week 16 win over the Ravens. If the trend is your friend, then Boyd should be firmly in your friend zone as he's posted 17 catches (on 23 targets) for 321 yards over the last four games. He has a touchdown in each of the last two games. ...

On the health front. ... Tight end Drew Sample suffered a left hamstring injury in the first quarter that ended his day. His continued availability hasn't been determined. The Bengals have been relatively lucky with the pandemic through Week 16, but on Monday put backup QB Brandon Allen and already-injured cornerback Darius Phillips on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

The Bengals also placed receiver Auden Tate, who's already on injured reserve, on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Joe Burrow, Brandon Allen
RBs: Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, Chris Evans, Trayveon Williams
WRs: Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, Trent Taylor, Stanley Morgan, Trenton Irwin
TEs: Hayden Hurst, Mitchell Wilcox, Devin Asiasi, Drew Sample

Cleveland Browns

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

As ESPN.com's Jake Trotter noted Baker Mayfield admitted after Saturday's game that he let his teammates down after throwing four interceptions in a 24-22 loss to the Green Bay Packers.

"I hurt this team," Mayfield said. "That's the most frustrating thing for me because I thought our defense played tremendous against a really, really good offense. But when you turn the ball over ... and give them extra opportunities, they're gonna take advantage of it. That's just who they are."

Mayfield became just the third quarterback this season to toss three interceptions before halftime, joining Jets rookie Zach Wilson (Week 2) and the Ravens' Lamar Jackson (Week 12 vs. the Browns). All three of those throws were off target according to ESPN Stats and Information research.

And Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers capitalized off all three, turning each of them into touchdown passes as Green Bay built a 21-12 halftime lead.

Head coach Kevin Stefanski said he didn't consider making a quarterback change at halftime and reiterated that Mayfield will remain his starting quarterback for the rest of the season.

"He's our starting quarterback," Stefanski said, "yes."

Despite the early turnovers, the Browns still had a chance to win the game on their last drive. But Mayfield was picked off again in the final minute, becoming the first Cleveland quarterback since Brandon Weeden in 2012 to throw four interceptions in a single game.

"Some of them were bad throws," Mayfield said, referring to the second and third interceptions, both of which were intended for Jarvis Landry.

Mayfield overthrew Landry on third-and-19 from the Green Bay 24-yard line, resulting in the second interception. Then on the third, he was picked off by Rasul Douglas in Green Bay territory trying to squeeze the ball to Landry down the sidelines.

"Didn't follow through on the one in the red zone, which was extremely costly, a red-zone turnover. Just sailed high," Mayfield said. "The other one, just got to put it more outside. (Douglas) made a good play on it. (I) left it inside."

Douglas also made the game-clinching interception at the Packers 40-yard line on a pass intended for Donovan Peoples-Jones, preventing the Browns from attempting a game-winning field goal in the final seconds.

"Just sucks to end it on another turnover," he said.

With the loss to Green Bay, the Browns fell to 7-8 and 13th in the AFC standings, and remain in last place in the AFC North Division. T

Mayfield, who missed Monday's game against the Las Vegas Raiders after testing positive for COVID-19 the week before, didn't clear the protocols in time to fly with the team to Green Bay on Friday. So the Browns flew him up privately from Cleveland to Green Bay on Saturday morning.

On the reserve/COVID-19 list since Dec. 15, Mayfield had not practiced with his team in more than two weeks leading into the Packers game. But he didn't attribute any of the mistakes to a lack of preparation.

"It was just missed throws," he said. "There's no excuse. It is what it is."

Stefanski found himself making a similar defense on Monday.

The coach offered no excuses or regrets for his late-game decisions in Saturday's loss. As Associated Press sports writer Tom Wither suggested, Stefanski left himself open for more scrutiny and deeper criticism for his play calling -- a theme all season -- on the final possession.

Cleveland has lost six games by six points or less this season, an NFL high and a disturbing pattern for the second-year coach and Mayfield, whose toughness is about the only thing in his game not being questioned.

Stefanski said he felt good about the plays he sent in to Mayfield, even knowing his QB was playing without the benefit of practicing.

"We felt like we were in control there," Stefanski said. "But ultimately, when you do not come through, you second-guess everything. You second guess the first play of the game, the second play of the game or whatever it is. When it doesn't work, we are definitely second-guessing ourselves."

Stefanski reasoned that he wanted to score a TD or at least move the ball closer so as not to require rookie Chris Naggar to try a long field goal for the win. Naggar was making his NFL debut after being activated from the practice squad a day earlier due to yet another COVID-19 case.

While practical, Withers believes Stefanski's moves didn't work again as the Browns again failed to execute in the clutch. They're nearly out of time to fix it, but Stefanski is confident he and Mayfield can grow from the latest missed chance.

"We have to find a way to come through, and I have to find a way to come through for the team when we are in those moments," he said. "I'm sure it's easy to say the woulda, coulda, shoulda type of things.

"For us, again, all of our focus has to just go right back into this week, this game, versus this opponent."

And the truth is, with some help, the Browns can still win their division for the first time since 1989 and make the playoffs for the second year in a row. It's going to take Cleveland winning against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the first-place Bengals first losing to Kansas City and the Baltimore Ravens dropping one of their last two games. ...

Other notes of interest. ... The Browns are closer to full strength after activating eight players, including defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and versatile running back Kareem Hunt, from the COVID-19 list on Monday. Starting left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. is also back. He's been replaced the last two games by left guard Joel Bitonio, who will slide back to his usual spot.

Third-string quarterback Nick Mullens is on the COVID-19 reserve list.

The Browns announced the move Wednesday.

In his one game of action this season, Mullens completed 20 of 30 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown against the Raiders.

And finally. ... The kicking situation remains fluid and flawed. The struggling Chase McLaughlin was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list Friday, elevating Naggar into a difficult spot he made tougher by blowing his first extra point. The miss prompted Stefanski to go for a 2-point conversion that failed after Cleveland's second TD and altered strategy down the stretch.

The Browns announced they signed kicker Chris Blewitt to the practice squad Wednesday.

Blewitt entered the NFL in 2019, signing with the Bears as a undrafted free agent. He made his NFL debut with Washington earlier this season and lasted two games, making 2-of-5 field goals and both extra-point attempts.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jacoby Brissett, Josh Dobbs, Deshaun Watson
RBs: Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, D'Ernest Johnson, Demetric Felton, Jerome Ford
WRs: Amari Cooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones, David Bell, Anthony Schwartz, Michael Woods II
TEs: David Njoku, Harrison Bryant, Pharaoh Brown

Dallas Cowboys

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

As NFL.com's Kevin Patra suggested, whether you wanted to define the Dallas Cowboys' recent offensive struggles as going through a slump or simply not playing up to their ability, everyone can agree those issues were put in the rearview following Sunday night's nuclear explosion in the 56-14 dismantling of the Washington Football Team.

After the beatdown, quarterback Dak Prescott noted that he never called the Cowboys' previous struggles a "slump" but did have a quip for those of us who had.

"I think it'd be hard for you to say that now," he said, via the team's official website.

Patra went on to point out whether or not the exact word was "slump," it was clear things for the Dallas offense weren't clicking.

Since Prescott returned from his calf injury in Week 9, the Cowboys offense had been an inconsistent operation highlighted by turnovers, untimely penalties, drops and missed blocks. It was an offense that you could tell had the weapons to be explosive but kept shooting itself in the foot.

"I wouldn't say that I was in a slump. I wouldn't say that," he said. "Now, I would also agree I wasn't playing my best ball. But at the same time I've just continued to work and continue to work at the things that I know, trust the guys around me, trust the receivers and I just think that's a process of that."

On Sunday night, the Cowboys resolved the errors, the self-inflicted wounds ceased, and the explosion erupted in Dallas.

Named the NFC's Offensive Player of the Week on Wednesday, Prescott tossed for 330 yards and four TDs before taking a seat late in the third quarter of the blowout. The QB earned his first game with three-plus passing TDs since injuring his calf. He also became the second player in NFL history to throw a TD to an running back, tight end, wide receiver and offensive lineman in a single game, and the first to do so in a regular-season game -- Rams HOFer Kurt Warner did so in the 1999 NFC Divisional Round win versus Minnesota.

Dak earned 322 passing yards and four passing TDs in the first half. He's the third QB since 2000 to have 300-plus pass yards and four or more pass TDs in the first half of a prime-time game (Aaron Rodgers, Week 10 vs. CHI, 2014; Brett Favre, Week 16 at OAK, 2003).

It was a teamwide explosion for the Cowboys.

Amari Cooper, Dalton Schultz and Malik Turner all had 80-plus receiving yards and one receiving TD (CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup both had 50-plus receiving yards) as the Cowboys put up 497 total yards of offense and 28 first downs.

Putting it together in a prime-time showcase underscored what the Cowboys offense, defense and special teams can be when they all play lights out in the same game. As Patra suggested, "It's scary good."

But for Prescott and the rest of the NFC East champs, they have bigger fish to fry starting in a few weeks.

"I don't know if we're in the world or in the business of trying to send messages," Prescott said, "more than we're just trying to get better day in and day out, game after game and make sure we're playing our best ball as I continue to say and peaking at the right time heading into this tournament."

Dallas, which clinched the NFC East title about an hour before kickoff against Washington, is a game behind NFC-leading Green Bay with two to go. So are the Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay.

The Cowboys figured to be chasing Arizona if they still even had a shot at the NFC's top seed in their regular-season home finale. Now it's the other way around with the Cardinals at 3-5 since their 7-0 start. ...

Other notes of interest. ... Ezekiel Elliott rushed nine times for 37 yards and a touchdown and caught his lone target for five yards and another score in Sunday's win.

Elliott got the Cowboys on the board on the team's first drive of the game, and he chipped in another score in the first half before basically taking the second half off in a crooked matchup. The 26-year-old has seen his production dip in the second half of the season while battling injuries and losing some touches to Tony Pollard.

Luckily for the tailback's fantasy managers, he has maintained value as a starter in standard formats by scoring four touchdowns over the last five weeks.

On the health front. ... Rookie CB Kelvin Joseph got his first career start with Jourdan Lewis sidelined by COVID-19. Lewis and S Malik Hooker should be in line to return from the virus list. DT Osa Odighizuwa did return. LT Tyron Smith (ankle) could be back after missing the past two games.

And finally. ... The Cowboys have had a club record 19 players score touchdowns this season. DeMarcus Lawrence broke the previous mark of 17 with his 40-yard interception return in the first quarter. Fellow edge rusher Chauncey Golston made it 19.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush, Will Grier
RBs: Tony Pollard, Ezekiel Elliott, Malik Davis, Qadree Ollison
WRs: CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, Noah Brown, Simi Fehoko, KaVontae Turpin, Jalen Tolbert, James Washington
TEs: Dalton Schultz, Jake Ferguson, Peyton Hendershot

Denver Broncos

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Arnie Stapleton framed it, "There isn't a team in the league that would want to face Denver's suffocating defense in the playoffs. Thanks to the Broncos' abominable offense, nobody's worrying about having to go up against Justin Simmons, Patrick Surtain II and Bradley Chubb in the postseason."

Barring a mathematical miracle, the Broncos (7-8) will have cleared out their lockers and scattered for another offseason of uncertainty by the time wild-card weekend rolls around Jan. 15.

Coach Vic Fangio, who is 19-28 in three seasons as head coach, said Monday he's not concerned about getting fired.

"Do I acknowledge that it's certainly out there and could happen? Absolutely. But do I worry about it? I absolutely do not worry about it, for many, many reasons," Fangio said.

Asked if he felt he and his staff deserved to return next year for the final year of his contract and if he'd come back in 2022 even without an extension, Fangio said, "Absolutely" on both counts.

Fangio said his discussions with general manager George Paton are framed on the present: "Sometimes those conversations lead into the future, but we don't go too far into the future. We're focused on the task at hand right now."

Fangio said he and Paton "get along tremendously", but he demurred when asked if he felt he needed to win out to finish 9-8 and snap the franchise's four-year streak of losing records.

"I'm not worried about do I have to win the next two to secure the job," Fangio said. "That's totally not my frame of thought right now."

Nobody knows how Paton, nearing his one-year anniversary on the job, will handle the Broncos' failure to make a strong playoff push. Will he prefer a new coach of his own choosing? Would he make Fangio's return contingent on his replacing some assistants such as embattled offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur or special teams coordinator Tom McMahon?

Paton hasn't addressed any of those questions publicly.

The Broncos are a better than 99-in-100 bet to miss the playoffs for a sixth straight season after their 17-13 flop at Las Vegas on Sunday when the offense negated another stellar defensive performance punctuated by three takeaways.

Denver's offense managed an abysmal 158 yards, rushed for a mere 18 yards and converted a solitary third down in losing for the third time in four games.

The Broncos' plus-3 turnover margin ordinarily would have atoned for allowing Josh Jacobs to scurry for 129 yards.

Quarterback Drew Lock played nearly mistake-free in his first start of the season with Teddy Bridgewater (concussion) sidelined, but his receivers had plenty of big drops and 15 of 22 for 153 yards wasn't nearly enough to complement Denver's dominant defense.

"When you get 158 yards of offense and eight first downs, it's hard to say anything good about the offense," Fangio lamented after the game.

As ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold points out, given the investment they've made at the position, the issues getting the wideout on track has to be a concern.

The Broncos are a team that leans on its running game -- despite what it showed during a dismal 18-yard rushing effort in Sunday's loss to the Las Vegas Raiders -- but they still should have a far easier time of getting the ball to a talented wide receivers group.

The Broncos used a first-round pick to select Jerry Jeudy in the 2020 draft, signed Courtland Sutton to a four-year, $60.8 million deal earlier this month and Tim Patrick to a three-year $34 million extension a day earlier. But scan the league's rankings and you have to go all the way to 48th to find a Broncos wide receiver (Sutton) in catches, to 41st in yards receiving (Sutton), to 67th in yards gained after catch (Jeudy) and to 30th in touchdowns (Patrick).

The Broncos haven't found the right route combinations to give their receivers room to work consistently or to protect the quarterback well enough to get them the ball.

"Our passing game just has to be better on all fronts," Fangio said before the loss to the Raiders. "We have to throw it well enough. We have to catch it well enough, we have to scheme it well enough as coaches. We have to pass protect well enough and we have to have good action with our passes. It's from A to Z on that. It's not just one guy or one thing."

The only Broncos player who has averaged more than 14 yards per catch this season is KJ Hamler (14.8), and he hasn't played since suffering a torn ACL in his left knee during the Broncos' Week 3 win over the New York Jets.

"It's a culmination of things," Sutton said after Sunday's loss. "It's just a combination of a lot of things."

Indeed it is. Hamler's absence, as one of the Broncos' fastest players and one of the fastest ones in the 2020 draft (he was Denver's second-round pick at 46th overall), has impacted how defenses have played the Broncos' other receivers at least some. Hamler was often the player, in the season's early going, who could pull help away from the others in the deep part of the field.

Several defensive coaches have told Legwold in recent weeks the Broncos often can't protect their quarterback well enough to get the receivers to the top of routes, especially in their three wide-receiver look. So the quarterback, whether it's Bridgewater or Lock, is often on the move before the routes are done, which means checkdowns to tight ends and running backs.

Toss in a drop or two and it all continues to vex the Broncos.

Before Sunday's loss, the Broncos top four wide receivers in the rotation -- Sutton, Patrick, Jeudy and Kendall Hinton -- had 27 catches combined in the previous four games. Sutton then had four catches against the Raiders for 33 yards, while Patrick had two for 18 yards.

Jeudy's 40-yard catch-and-run early in the second quarter against the Raiders was his longest play of the season, and he had a 14-yard catch later in the same field-goal drive. He didn't catch a pass for the remainder of the game as the Broncos finished with 40 offensive snaps.

Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has said "each game is different," but the Broncos, despite their inclination to run the ball, have actually, even with Joe Burrow's 525-yard effort Sunday, attempted more passes than the Cincinnati Bengals this season -- 488 compared to 486. The Broncos trail the Bengals by more than a yard per attempt -- 6.1 compared to Cincinnati's 7.3.

"[We have to] figure out what may not have worked well and try to work on it," Sutton said. "... That's our job."

For now, Fangio seems at a loss about how to fix an offense that's averaging 19.9 points overall and just 13.6 in Denver's eight losses.

"We just have to keep looking at it and find a way to get it improved obviously," he said.

The offensive woes aren't new: The Broncos have failed to score at least 20 points in 26 of 47 games under Fangio. The Broncos are 4-22 in those games. ...

Meanwhile, Fangio said he'd prefer to start Bridgewater this week, but that Bridgewater remains in concussion protocol and "until he's cleared by the independent docs and says he's ready to go, we have to assume that he won't be available to play."

NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reports that Lock is likely to start again this week as Bridgewater continues to recover.

In addition, Denver Post staffer Ryan O'Halloran reports the Broncos are expected to place Patrick and other players on COVID-19/reserve list Wednesday. I'll follow up on that via Lat-Breaking Update as needed. ...

Despite their thin odds, Chubb said nobody's giving up on the season.

"We're not thinking about next year. We're thinking about these next two weeks against the Chiefs and Chargers and we're going to go out there and ruin somebody's chances," he said.

A team that used to so often enjoy the spoils of victory is relegated once again to playing the role of spoiler.

Up next, a trip to face the Chargers (8-7), also losers of two straight. ...

Sunday was a rough day for the Broncos' running game in general, but at least Javonte Williams was able to bang home a one-yard TD just before halftime. Melvin Gordon, by contrast, wound up with a net of zero scrimmage yards. Gordon's seven carries for minus-4 yards was the worst game of his seven-year career.

Williams is having a big finish to his rookie campaign, piling up 473 combined yards and five TDs in the last five games heading into a favorable Week 17 matchup against a vulnerable Chargers run defense that just gave up a career-high 149 yards and two touchdowns to Houston's Rex Burkhead.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Russell Wilson, Brett Rypien
RBs: Latavius Murray, Marlon Mack, Mike Boone, Devine Ozigbo, Javonte Williams, Chase Edmonds
WRs: Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Montrell Washington, Kendall Hinton, Jalen Virgil, K.J. Hamler, Tyrie Cleveland
TEs: Greg Dulcich, Eric Tomlinson, Eric Saubert, Andrew Beck, Albert Okwuegbunam

Detroit Lions

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Dave Hogg noted, Dan Campbell has already shown himself to be an aggressive coach.

Next season, he's hoping to be able to channel that attitude into more than moments of desperation.

This year, though, he's just trying to keep an outgunned offense on the field. His Detroit Lions have gone on fourth down 36 times in 15 games, six more than second-place Washington and the Jacksonville Jaguars, and over twice more than successful teams such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (14) and Kansas City Chiefs (13).

"When you have trust in your players, there are times it just feels right," Campbell said on Monday. "I want to send a message that we're playing to win, and while there is a time you have to be conservative, there are also spots where my nature is to take calculated risks."

The results have been mixed. The Lions are only 17th in fourth-down conversion rate (50.0 percent) and last in red-zone touchdown rate (43.2 percent), but the team has improved after an 0-8 start.

That's important, because Campbell needs a better team to make his chances improve for winning games instead of avoiding blowouts.

"I'd like to believe the aggressive nature will remain, but that doesn't mean it will always be on fourth down," he said. "It can show up on first and second down with some different things we can do. If you feel strongly about your players and your scheme, you do it."

Despite the lack of results -- the Lions are 2-12-1 after the loss to Atlanta -- the team has made significant progress down the stretch.

Going into the Week 9 bye, the Lions were scoring 16.8 points per game and allowing 30.5. Since then, they've gone 2-4-1 by giving up 20.3 points while scoring 17.9.

One of the league's worst defenses has dealt with injuries, illnesses and an admitted lack of talent to become a unit that gives Detroit a chance to win every week.

In this seven-game stretch, they've only lost one game by more than four points -- a 38-10 rout in Denver -- and they looked like a contender in a 30-12 win over Arizona.

Detroit is still a long way from the postseason, but might have found the defense that will let Campbell take risks with the ball.

Meanwhile, the Lions didn't have quarterback Jared Goff with them for Sunday's loss in Atlanta, but he was back with the team on Monday.

Goff was activated from the COVID-19 reserve list. Goff tested positive a week ago, so his return comes as a result of either a negative test or a result that shows his viral load has dropped below infectious levels.

But Goff, who did not practice Wednesday because of a knee strain, is considered day-to-day, a source tells NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. The QB was able to do some rehab work, but his status is clearly in some doubt for Sunday.

Tim Boyle got the start against the Falcons and went 24-of-34 for 187 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

While Goff could be back for the Week 17 trip to Seattle, wide receiver Josh Reynolds might not be available as a target -- but then again, he might.

Reynolds went on the COVID reserve list on Monday, but the league and the NFL Players Association revised the protocols on Tuesday after the CDC changed its guidelines for those who are asymptomatic, recommending a five-day isolation period and masking over the second five days.

In other words, players who went on the list Monday could be cleared by Saturday.

Also on Tuesday, the Lions placed linebacker Josh Woods on injured reserve and tight end Brock Wright on the reserve/COVID-19 list. They activated defensive end Jashon Cornell from the Reserve/NFI; Designated for Return list.

Fullback Jason Cabinda could miss the final two weeks with a knee injury sustained against Atlanta.

On a more positive note, D'Andre Swift appears to be close to returning from his shoulder injury. The running back practiced on a limited basis all last week and drew a questionable designation before ultimately being declared inactive prior to kickoff. His status bears watching in coming days, but Campbell told reporters on Wednesday he feels Swift will be ready to go this week.

Swift practiced fully on Wednesday.

I'll have more on Swift, Goff and Reynolds via Late-Breaking Update as the week progresses. ...

Bigger picture. .. The Lions didn't draft a quarterback early in the 2021 draft, opting to roll with Goff for at least one season.

But Goff, who turned 27 in October, still has the potential to be Detroit's QB1 for several seasons to come.

Goff has won two of his last three starts for the Lions. And his progress over the course of the year can give Detroit some flexibility for the upcoming offseason.

According to Profootballtalk.com's Myles Simmons, Campbell was asked in a Tuesday interview on 97.1 The Ticket if Goff can be the Lions' long-term quarterback.

"Yeah, I mean, I don't see why not," Campbell said. "He's playing pretty good ball right now."

While that may not be the strongest endorsement, it essentially puts the ball in Goff's court to continue to play well and claim the job as his own.

The quarterback's last start was his best of the season, as he completed 21-of-26 passes for 216 yards with three touchdowns and no turnovers when the Lions beat the Cardinals. That was good for a 139.7 passer rating -- his highest mark of the season.

Overall, Goff has competed 67 percent off his passes for 3,007 yards with 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2021. He's also fumbled nine times losing six of them.

With Goff's contract, it's unlikely the Lions would part ways with him anyway before 2023.

But the former No. 1 overall pick continuing to play well would likely make everyone feel better about Detroit's QB situation entering 2022.

And that's the goal over the final two games: Forget about the draft pick -- Campbell certainly has -- and try to build some momentum going into the offseason with games vs. Seattle and Green Bay. ...

Also of interest. ... Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn has lost his play-calling duties, but the unit still isn't putting up enough points for the Lions to win on a regular basis.

Still, as USA Today's Jeff Risdon notes, the offense has played markedly better since Campbell took over the playcalling.

The rookie head coach is feeling more confident and positive about how he's handling the in-game play calls and decisions. It was a focus of Campbell's postgame press conference.

"Definitely, I feel like every week I've gotten a lot more comfortable," Campbell stated. "And there's a number of challenges that you go through as a head coach and a play-caller together that you get over. Even that little wrinkle today where you lose a couple of guys, you're out of these personnel groups, to have to adjust and adapt and do it on the run. Man, you memory-bank all this you learn and grow from it. I do, I feel like I'm getting get a lot more comfortable."

Don't expect any change in the final two weeks. As for the long-term, it's still up in the air. But Campbell made it clear Lynn won't be retaking the role.

"Look, I'm not even worried about that right now. But we'll cover that whenever the time (comes) -- I just know I'm finishing the season as the OC."

That certainly doesn't bode well for Lynn's future with the team. Based on how the offense has perked up under Campbell's control despite myriad injuries, that's not a bad thing either. ...

A few final notes. ...The Lions only averaged 93.1 rushing yards before the bye, and have improved to 135.3 in the past seven games despite using third-string running back Craig Reynolds for three weeks.

Rookie wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown has caught 35 passes for 340 yards and three touchdowns in the last four games. That's almost as much production as the 39 catches for 352 yards and zero scores he put up in the first 11 games.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jared Goff, Nate Sudfeld
RBs: Jamaal Williams, D'Andre Swift, Justin Jackson, Craig Reynolds
WRs: Amon-Ra St. Brown, D.J. Chark, Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond, Tom Kennedy, Quintez Cephus, Brandon Zylstra, Jameson Williams
TEs: Brock Wright, James Mitchell, Shane Zylstra

Green Bay Packers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

Now that they've moved a step closer to earning the NFC's lone first-round playoff bye, it's becoming apparent the Green Bay Packers don't merely need that extra week to get healthier.

They also could use more time to shore up their suddenly leaky run defense before starting postseason play.

The NFC North champions have won four straight games thanks in part to their defense's penchant for forcing turnovers, which continued Saturday when they intercepted Baker Mayfield four times. The Packers (12-3) needed every one of those takeaways to pull out a 24-22 victory over the Cleveland Browns because they allowed Nick Chubb to run wild.

After the game, Packers coach Matt LaFleur called it "probably our worst performance tackling this season." It's an issue that the Packers must address as they prepare for a Sunday night home game with the Minnesota Vikings (7-8).

The Browns ran the ball 25 times for 219 yards, the highest rushing total the Packers have allowed since giving up 285 yards on the ground in a 37-20 NFC championship game loss to the San Francisco 49ers two seasons ago. Green Bay hadn't yielded more than 219 yards rushing in a regular-season game since Sept. 28, 2014, when the Packers gave up 235 yards on 41 carries in a 38-17 victory over the Chicago Bears.

Through their first 12 games of the season, the Packers were allowing 102.5 yards rushing per game and 4.3 yards per carry. Over their last three games, they've given up 166.3 yards rushing per game and 6.7 yards per carry. Each of their last three opponents has rushed for at least 137 yards.

"I just think we've got to get back to playing everybody doing their 1/11th and not trying to make a play and press," LaFleur said. "I think a lot of times when we do that, we get ourselves out of position. We need all 11 functioning as one on every play, and if you don't, then it leads to inconsistencies. And when you're doing that against good teams, you're going to give up a lot of plays."

The Packers still have reason to feel good about themselves.

With two weeks left in the regular season, they're one game ahead of the Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the race to earn the NFC's top seed. They've forced at least three takeaways in three of their last four games and lead the NFL with a plus-16 turnover margin.

But that defense must get back to stopping offenses even when it isn't producing turnovers.

Fortunately, Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams continue to form the NFL's most dynamic pass-catch combination.

To see just how unstoppable the duo can be, look no further than late in the second quarter from Saturday's victory.

The Packers led, 14-12, and took over on the Cleveland 49-yard line after an interception by CB Rasul Douglas.

On the ensuing nine-play drive, Rodgers and Adams connected five times, covering 42 of the 49 yards, to give the Packers a two-score lead going into halftime.

Sandwiched between two Aaron Jones runs for 3 yards each were back-to-back completions to Adams covering 10 and 9 yards.

After those four plays, the Packers had a first down on the Cleveland 24.

Then Rodgers hit Adams on a picture-perfect back-shoulder throw for 12 yards down the left sideline, and then a 10-yard completion to the right side, with a 1-yard run by Jones in between.

That put the ball on the 1. After an incomplete pass to TE Marcedes Lewis, Rodgers simply lofted the ball to the left with Adams in one-on-one coverage, and the All-Pro receiver snared it out of the air for his second touchdown of the quarter.

It was his 67th TD catch from Rodgers, now two better than the previous team record of 65 held by Rodgers and Jordy Nelson. Adams went on to a 10-catch, 114-yard performance, the eighth time he's had double-digit receptions, 100-plus yards, and multiple TDs in a game -- an all-time NFL record.

Rodgers became the Packers' career leader in touchdown passes (445) on Saturday. He has thrown 16 touchdown passes without an interception over his last five games. ... Adams has seven touchdown catches over his last five games.

Now, as ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky suggested, Rodgers might have a late Christmas wish: For people to stop stepping on his toe.

It happened twice in the first half -- once by Browns defensive end Myles Garrett and once by his teammate, right guard Royce Newman, who got pushed into Rodgers by Malik Jackson. Two plays after that, Rodgers took a shot from Ifeadi Odenigbo that had him limping off the field at the end of that series.

Seemingly every time Rodgers' fractured left pinkie toe starts to feel better, it gets stepped on or kicked.

If this keeps happening, Rodgers might have to consider surgery. He has said he could have surgery as a last resort and could do so without missing any games. It's another reason the Packers would love the No. 1 seed, to get a bye on wild-card weekend. ...

On Monday, the Packers placed Amari Rodgers on the reserve/COVID-19 list. On Tuesday, linebacker Oren Burks and Lewis joined him there. ...

The Packers have a Wednesday deadline to activate cornerback Jaire Alexander from the injured reserve list or shut him down for the season and LaFleur revealed their decision at his press conference.

LaFleur said that Alexander will be activated. He has missed 11 games with a shoulder injury.

The move does not mean that Alexander will be in the lineup against the Vikings this weekend, however. Alexander is still working his way back and Wednesday’s move will give him a chance to continue that work while leaving the door open for him to play at some point in the regular season or playoffs.

Alexander had 13 tackles and an interception before going on injured reserve.

As noted above, the Packers host the Vikings on Sunday night before closing the regular season at Detroit on Jan. 9.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Aaron Rodgers, Jordan Love
RBs: Aaron Jones, A.J. Dillon, Tyler Goodson, Patrick Taylor
WRs: Allen Lazard, Christian Watson, Randall Cobb, Sammy Watkins, Samori Toure, Romeo Doubs
TEs: Robert Tonyan, Marcedes Lewis, Josiah Deguara, Tyler Davis

Houston Texans

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

The Houston Texans had their best rushing game of the year to overcome 16 absences because of COVID-19 and upset the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday to win consecutive games for the first time this season.

Rex Burkhead ran for a career-high 149 yards and two touchdowns playing behind a makeshift offensive line missing three starters to lead Houston to the 41-29 victory. His big day helped the Texans (4-11) pile up a season-high 189 yards rushing.

"He's been Mr. Consistent for us," head coach David Culley said. "He's a guy that's going to get north and south. He just knows how to play the game."

Houston had struggled to run the ball all season and entered Sunday's game ranked last in the NFL in yards rushing by managing a paltry 77.5 yards a game.

Burkhead's game was the first 100-yard performance by a Texan this season. And his work helped them break 100 yards rushing as a team for just the third time this year and first since Oct. 17 when Mark Ingram, who has since been traded to New Orleans, had 73 yards rushing and Phillip Lindsay added 39.

Burkhead had a season-high 22 carries against the Chargers on a day where David Johnson sat out with a quadriceps injury. It was just the second 100-yard game of his nine-year career and first since the last game of the 2016 season with the Bengals.

The veteran was asked about his running style.

"You can't just be one dimensional or guys are going to key on you," he said. "I try to mix it up. My dad was a running back growing up. He always preached to me about being versatile. And not always just hitting the hole fast, you've got to be patient at times."

As Associated Press sports writer Kristie Rieken noted, while Burkhead's performance stole the show Sunday, rookie Davis Mills and Houston's passing game also had a great day against the Chargers.

Mills, a third-round pick from Stanford, was 21 of 27 for 254 yards and two touchdowns to win his second game after opening his NFL career at 0-7.

"He's a very mature guy," Culley said. "And he's getting better and better the more he plays. He understands what his job is."

Mills directed an offense that set a season high in points despite playing without leading receiver Brandin Cooks, who missed the game on the COVID-19 list. With Cooks out, Mills completed passes to seven different players and the Texans had three receivers with at least 50 yards.

"A lot of guys stepped up this week ... when their numbers were called (and) were in the right spots and were winning on their routes," Mills said. "When you can spread the ball around on offense like that, it makes it easier for everybody."

The performance by Mills on Sunday gave him 2,200 yards passing this season to make him the second rookie quarterback in franchise history to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark, and the first since David Carr had 2,592 yards in the team's inaugural season in 2002.

Has general manager Nick Caserio seen enough from Mills to give him a legitimate chance to compete for the starting job in 2022?

Houston has been conservative with Mills this season, with Culley emphasizing turnover avoidance to the third-round pick. On Sunday, Mills did not throw an interception for the third time in his four games since replacing Tyrod Tylor. Mills made some impressive throws against Los Angeles, including a 41-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Conley.

It's something to watch in coming weeks. ...

After dealing a blow to the playoff hopes of the Chargers, the Texans will face another team fighting for a postseason spot when they visit the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.

The 49ers are allowing the fourth-fewest yards in the NFL and are coming off a close loss to Tennessee.

After finally winning consecutive games, the Texans are focused on blocking out any outside negativity and continuing the streak this week.

"This football team is only concerned with what's happening in the locker room," Culley said. "We know there's a lot of noise outside of this locker room. We've tried all year long to stay away from that noise ... (and) we're going to go play it to try to win three in a row."

On the health front. ... The Texans placed Johnson on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Tuesday.

As NBCSportsEdge.com notes, this is Johnson's second stint on the COVID-19 list in the past three weeks. The Houston Chronicle reports Johnson's Week 14 absence was related to a false positive. Now he's positive again, presumably for real this time.

Per Brooks Kubena of the Houston Chronicle, Houston has 16 players off the club’s COVID-19 list — including the Cooks.

Cooks has 80 catches for 945 yards with five touchdowns this season.

Also on the practice field for the Texans were center Justin Britt, guard Lane Taylor, safeties Eric Murray and A.J. Moore; linebackers Kamu Grugier-Hill, Neville Hewitt, and Eric Wilson; defensive ends Jonathan Greenard, Jordan Jenkins, and Derek Rivers; defensive tackles Maliek Collins, Roy Lopez, and Jaleel Johnson; kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn, and practice squad defensive back Cre’von LeBlanc.

WR Phillip Dorsett injured an ankle Sunday and could miss this week's game.

I'll be watching for more on Johnson and Dorsett in coming days; check the Late-Breaking Updates section for the latest. ...

Finally. ... TE Pharaoh Brown continues to pile up penalties each week. The third-year player had two false start penalties Sunday to give him nine penalties this season in limited playing time.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Davis Mills, Kyle Allen
RBs: Dameon Pierce, Rex Burkhead, Eno Benjamin, Dare Ogunbowale, Royce Freeman
WRs: Brandin Cooks, Nico Collins, Chris Moore, Phillip Dorsett, Tyron Johnson
TEs: O.J. Howard, Jordan Akins, Teagan Quitoriano, Brevin Jordan

Indianapolis Colts

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

The NFL is reducing isolation time for players who test positive for COVID-19 and are asymptomatic, including unvaccinated players, to five days from 10.

The league and the NFL Players Association revised the protocols on Tuesday after the CDC changed its guidelines for those who are asymptomatic, recommending a five-day isolation period and masking over the second five days.

The changes could allow Carson Wentz on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the team announced Tuesday. to return for Sunday’s key game against Las Vegas after Indianapolis placed him on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

It was not immediately clear whether Wentz, who is unvaccinated, tested positive for the virus or was deemed a close contact to someone else who had tested positive. However, if Wentz has no symptoms, he could be cleared to play.

Rookie Sam Ehlinger will work as the starter in practice for the Colts this week, though Indy is hoping Wentz clears in time, thanks to those new protocols.

Practice squad quarterback Brett Hundley, would also be available to play against the Raiders.

Ehlinger missed the start of the regular season due to a knee injury suffered in a preseason game at Detroit. His most extensive playing time has been in the final minutes of games that have already been decided.

"Going through the plan, he goes through it, what are your top calls that you feel comfortable with, doesn't have to be all of them," offensive coordinator Marcus Brady said about Ehlinger prior to the Wentz announcement Tuesday. "We have that separate call sheet for him ready to go. He goes through all the reads like Carson does. He's ready to go."

Ehlinger might well be ready to go, but according to The Athletic's Zac Keefer, the Colts discussed whether to reach out to former quarterback Philip Rivers.

Rivers spent last season with the Colts, leading the team to an 11–5 record and playoff berth. He retired last January and has served as the coach at St. Michael Catholic High School in Alabama this fall.

Despite retiring last offseason, Rivers told the Los Angeles Times in August, he wouldn't rule out a return to the field.

On Monday, head coach Frank Reich was asked about if he had reached out to Rivers.

"No. Right now we're just in the situation that we're in. We're happy with the guys that we've got here. Just continue to monitor that day-by-day," he said, per FOX59's Mike Chappell.

Wentz has started every game for Indianapolis this season. In his 15 appearances, he has thrown for 3,230 yards and 25 touchdowns to just six interceptions.

So while we wait for more on Wentz, here's what we know for sure: Like all players who test positive, Wentz now gets a 90-day test holiday and thus isn't at risk of missing any more games through Super Bowl LVI.
In addition, Jack Doyle (knee, ankle) did not practice Wednesday.

I'll be watching for more on Wentz -- and the rest of the team -- in coming days; check the Late-Breaking Updates section for the latest.

The Colts, like many other teams around the NFL, have been hit hard with players going on the reserve/COVID-19 list of late. Wentz was the 15th player currently on the list for the Colts. Linebacker Darius Leonard, guards Quenton Nelson and Mark Glowinski, right tackle Braden Smith, safety Khari Willis and cornerback Rock Ya-Sin are other starters currently out due to COVID.

Nelson, Glowinski and Ya-Sin came off the list Wednesday morning.

"This is what we prepare for, for hitting adversity like this, things you don't expect but this is probably in the category of something that we could expect and that it would just be a matter of time before it was going to hit us," Reich said. "So, we just need to continue to focus at a very high level. Can't allow this to be a distraction, understand how important it is and let's just stay focused on what we have to do."

The Colts (9-6), winners of eight of their last 10 games, are currently the fifth seed in the AFC playoff race.

Only one game separates the fifth and 11th seed in the AFC. The Colts can lock up a playoff spot with a victory over the Raiders on Sunday.

"The playoff race is close and I feel like the teams that can handle the COVID-19 situation are going to be the ones that are gonna be able ... to get into the playoffs," Colts defensive lineman DeForest Buckner said after Saturday's victory over Arizona. "Key players all around the league are out. It's all about depth."

A win over Las Vegas would not only solidify the Colts' hold on the No. 5 playoff seed but it also would give Indy a third 10-win season in Reich's four seasons.

Since starting 1-4, the Colts have won eight of 10, including three straight.

They are one of the hottest teams in the AFC, but must continue winning to keep that momentum into what seems like a probable playoff appearance. ...

A few final notes. ... In case you missed it, Jonathan Taylor rushed 27 times for 108 yards and didn't haul in either of his targets during Saturday's win.

The Cardinals did a decent job of bottling up Taylor outside of a 43-yard run on the Colts' first snap from scrimmage. That long play aside, he managed just 2.5 yards on his remaining carries, but he still reached the 100-yard milestone on the ground for the ninth occasion this season. Indianapolis has happened to log a victory each time Taylor has done just that, which clearly is its recipe for success.

He'll aim to keep the momentum Sunday against a Raiders run defense that ranks 25th in the NFL (122.7 yards per game). ...

T.Y. Hilton, the four-time Pro Bowl receiver, has been slowed by injuries all season and it's hindered his ability to become a consistent option for Wentz. But when the Colts needed Hilton, he produced. Hilton scored Indy's first TD and set up the second with a crucial 39-yard reception.

Finally. ... Michael Badgley made his first 10 field goals after joining the team in October, but he's gone just 5-of-8 since then and came up short on a 53-yarder Saturday.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Matt Ryan, Nick Foles, Sam Ehlinger
RBs: Jonathan Taylor, Deon Jackson, Zack Moss, Jordan Wilkins, D'Vonte Price
WRs: Michael Pittman Jr., Parris Campbell, Alec Pierce, Ashton Dulin, Mike Strachan
TEs: Mo Alie-Cox, Kylen Granson, Jelani Woods

Jacksonville Jaguars

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

The Jaguars suffered a loss in the standings and on the roster Sunday, the latter in the form of their best offensive player.

James Robinson was quickly ruled out with an Achilles injury after exiting in the first quarter of Jacksonville's 26-21 loss to the Jets. The initial diagnosis is that the standout running back suffered a tear and will have an MRI to determine the severity of it, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported.

Jags interim coach Darrell Bevell confirmed after the game that Robinson suffered a torn Achilles.

Robinson was lined up in the backfield when he crumbled to the ground without contact on a play that went for a 6-yard run by Tavon Austin. Robinson managed to walk off the field under his own power but was carted to the locker room.

Jacksonville's bell-cow back had rushed three times for 10 yards. He came into the weekend leading the Jags in rushing (757 yards), and third in receiving (31 catches) with a team-best eight touchdowns.

Dare Ogunbowale replaced Robinson early and ran 17 times for 57 yards, averaging 3.4 yards a carry against a Jets defense that was playing without five starters. Ogunbowale also dropped a pass.

According to Associated Press sports writer Mark Long, nobody should be surprised to see newly signed running back Ryquell Armstead to get touches in the final two games.

Armstead is a tough, physical runner in the same style as Robinson and Carlos Hyde. ...

As expected, Robinson was placed on injured reserve Monday but he's not the only player who was removed from the active roster.

The Jaguars also announced that 10 players have been placed on the COVID-19 reserve list. Tight end Dan Arnold, defensive tackle Malcom Brown, edge rusher K'Lavon Chaisson, tight end Luke Farrell, defensive tackle DaVon Hamilton, center Brandon Linder, tight end Chris Manhertz, edge rusher Lerentee McCray, left guard Andrew Norwell, and defensive lineman Jihad Ward make up that group.

Edge rusher Josh Allen, linebacker Myles Jack, wide receiver Laviska Shenault, right guard Ben Bartch, and linebacker Jordan Smith also went on the list before Sunday's loss to the Jets, so the Jaguars are now up to 15 active roster players on COVID reserve.

They'll hope to have some of them back before their Week 17 game against the Patriots or winning will be an even more difficult task than it's been for the first 15 games of the season.

That might be more realistic a possibility with the NFL adopting CDC recommendations to cut quarantine time to five days after a positive test. Some or all of the players added this week or before could come off the list in time to play as long as they are asymptomatic.

The Jaguars filled a couple of the open spots on the roster by claiming linebacker Jamir Jones and running back Mekhi Sargent off of waivers from the Rams. Practice squad offensive lineman Jared Hocker went on the COVID reserve list to round out a busy day of moves in Jacksonville. ....

Meanwhile, the Jaguars are getting an earlier-than-usual start on their coaching search.

This time, owner Shad Khan doesn't have his guy already lined up.

The Jaguars (2-13) began setting up and interviewing candidates this week -- the NFL now allows teams to start the process during the final two weeks of the regular season -- and Khan is expected to cast a wide net in search of his fifth head coach in the past decade.

Khan had preliminary discussions with (and essentially targeted) Urban Meyer a year before he fired Doug Marrone following the 2020 season. Khan never imagined Meyer, one of college football's winningest coaches, would be such an NFL debacle.

Khan fired Meyer on Dec. 16, ending one of the most turbulent and toxic coaching tenures in league history, and clearly needs to completely tear down and rebuild a woeful franchise that's endured double-digit losses nine times in his 10 years.

Jacksonville has dropped 34 of its past 39 games, including a 26-21 nail-biter at the New York Jets on Sunday.

"I've had a lot of failures; they were not on the sports page," Khan said earlier this month. "You get up, like football, you dust yourself off and you have another go at it."

NFL teams who have fired their head coach can now interview potential replacements during the final two weeks of the regular season, with consent of the candidate's employer.

The proposal was passed in late October.

Long contends the next coach should be someone with NFL coaching experience. Former Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson, former Indianapolis and Detroit coach Jim Caldwell, former Minnesota coach and current Buffalo defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier are expected to get consideration.

Pederson and Caldwell are expected to be interviewed this week.

Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, Green Bay offensive coordinator Nate Hackett, Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and former Atlanta coach and current Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn are also in the mix.

In fact, Jacksonville requested permission to interview Leftwich, Hackett, Quinn and Dallas offensive coordinator Kellen Moore on Tuesday.

Moore began his tenure as the Cowboys' quarterbacks coach just after ending his playing career in 2018. He was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2019 under Jason Garrett and stayed in the same role under Mike McCarthy in 2020. The Cowboys are currently No. 2 in total offense and in scoring.

Quinn decided not to interview.

Another candidate on the Jaguars' radar, per NFL Media's Tom Pelissero, is Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. ...

While they face tough game against New England this weekend, finding the right coach who can help Jacksonville end its losing ways has to be the focus for Khan and the Jaguars as the season winds down.

And from a fantasy perspective, there's not much meat on the bone with Robinson no longer in the picture.

Trevor Lawrence looked as good as we've seen him in recent weeks, completing 26-of-39 passes for 280 yards against the Jets. But he failed to throw a touchdown pass for a fourth-straight week. He has one touchdown pass over the past eight games.

Looking for positives?

Let us know when you find any.

Given Lawrence's ongoing struggles and the offense's issues scoring points, and fantasy managers are taking their chances with anybody in this offense. ...

That said, Matt Wright has made all six of his field-goal attempts in the past two games. He connected three times at the Jets, including twice from beyond 40 yards, to give the Jaguars a chance down the stretch. He's made 16 of 19 on the season, including nine in a row.

Although he doesn't have enough leg to consistently reach the end zone on kickoffs -- he has just two touchbacks on 21 kickoffs -- his accuracy should make him an option to stick somewhere in the NFL, maybe even in Jacksonville, next season.

In addition, Austin is starting to make plays in a variety of ways.

Austin, a 2013 first-round draft pick by St. Louis, caught six passes for 68 yards against the Jets and ran three times for 21 more. All were season highs for a 31-year-old receiver who's playing for his third team in as many years.

Austin is getting a chance to help the Jags deal with season-ending injuries to receiver Jamal Agnew (hip) and now Robinson.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Trevor Lawrence, C.J. Beathard
RBs: Travis Etienne Jr., JaMycal Hasty, Snoop Conner
WRs: Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, Marvin Jones, Jamal Agnew, Tim Jones, Kendric Pryor
TEs: Evan Engram, Dan Arnold, Chris Manhertz, Luke Farrell

Kansas City Chiefs

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Dave Skretta suggested, the Kansas City Chiefs will never take for granted winning their division, which they've now done six straight times, but a thorough thrashing of the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night served notice to the rest of the league.

The Chiefs have their sights set on a much bigger prize.

Along with breaking the record for consecutive AFC West titles, the Chiefs (11-4) also maintained their place a game ahead of Tennessee and atop the conference standings with two games left in the regular season.

That would give them a coveted first-round bye while ensuring all of their playoff games would take place in Arrowhead Stadium.

"We're not going to pull off. We're going to keep going," said Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who'd already moved on from their 36-10 rout of the Steelers by Monday and was looking ahead to next weekend's trip to Cincinnati.

"This is a very important game against a good football team. We have to make sure we're prepared for that," Reid said. "We don't have a cushion like in years past. That's not the way it is this year."

Still, the Chiefs are no doubt feeling good after an eighth straight win bagged them another division title. John Madden's legendary Raiders teams managed five straight in the AFC West in the 1960s and '70s, as did the Broncos with Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning -- and Tim Tebow -- under center in the early 2000s.

The Chiefs' dominance might not approach that of New England, which won a record 11 straight divisions with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, but it's nevertheless an impressive feat in a league that prides itself on parity.

"This year as much as any, if you look at the AFC West, every team is still battling for a playoff spot," quarterback Patrick Mahomes said.

"It's a tough division to be in, and we have to win the AFC West to be where we want to be. We have more goals that we want to go after, but this is the first one. And now we have to build some momentum to the next."

That would be securing the No. 1 seed, which could happen as early as this weekend if the Chiefs beat the Bengals and the Titans lose to the Dolphins.

Otherwise, they may need to beat the Broncos in their regular-season finale to wrap it up.

"One of our goals on our list we want to accomplish -- the first goal we want to accomplish -- is to always win the AFC West," wide receiver Mecole Hardman said. "We have more goals we want to accomplish down the road. That is just one of the goals we needed."

All goal seems attainable as long as Mahomes is in the lineup.

As ESPN.com's Adam Teicher notes, they blew out the Steelers without Travis Kelce, who is on the COVID-19 list. Tyreek Hill played, though he didn't practice all week.

According to NFL Network's James Palmer, Mahomes said that Hill was “exhausted out there. He was just trying to do what he could to contribute”.

With Kelce unable to test out of protocol, the Steelers doubled Hill and he managed just two catches for 19 yards.

That opened up the field for Byron Pringle, though, and he responded with six catches for 75 yards and two touchdowns.

The Chiefs scored on their first four offensive possessions against Pittsburgh and would have gone 5 for 5 had fill-in kicker Elliott Fry not missed a field-goal try.

No matter, the Chiefs dominated as they wrapped up their sixth straight AFC West title while winning their eighth straight game. When Mahomes is on, as he was against the Steelers, the Chiefs can beat a playoff-contending opponent with their lesser receivers playing a starring role.

That could be put further to the test with running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire considered week-to-week with a bruised shoulder, a league source told ESPN's Adam Schefter.

It will be challenging for Edwards-Helaire to play Sunday against the Bengals but the fact that it is on the table is a positive for the running back and the Chiefs.

Edwards-Helaire, who scored early in the victory over the Steelers, left after two carries early in the second half with his injury. He had nine carries for 27 yards and the touchdown before being ruled out.

If Edwards-Helaire is sidelined, the Chiefs will lean on Darrel Williams and Derrick Gore. The Chiefs also could get Jerick McKinnon back from injured reserve. Williams had 11 rushes for 55 yards and Gore had 12 carries for 43 yards in Sunday's victory. The duo also had a combined six catches for 91 yards.

Edwards-Helaire leads the Chiefs with 517 yards rushing and has 19 receptions for 129 yards in 10 games this season and has six total touchdowns (four rushing, two receiving).

On a more positive note. ... The Chiefs activated Kelce from the COVID-19 list and he was slated to practice Wednesday.

I'll be watching more on Edwards-Helaire, who did not practice Wednesday, as the week unfolds; watch the Late-Breaking Updates section for more. ...

Other notes of interest. ... Hill needs just two more receptions to break Kelce's single-season franchise record of 105 set last season. His total of 104 is already the most in a season by a wide receiver in Chiefs history. ...

The Chiefs hoped Josh Gordon could rediscover the All-Pro form he had early in his career, particularly with Hill and Kelce slowed by the virus. But he was targeted three times and failed to catch a pass, dropping one that hit him on the hands.

The Chiefs were put in a tough spot when punter Tommy Townsend and unvaccinated kicker Harrison Butker tested positive for COVID-19. As noted above, Fry was a spotty 3 of 4 on field goals and 3 of 4 on extra points, and Townsend's brother Johnny was shaky in his place.

Butker was cleared to return on Wednesday.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Patrick Mahomes, Chad Henne, Shane Buechele
RBs: Isiah Pacheco, Jerick McKinnon, Ronald Jones, Clyde Edwards-Helaire
WRs: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Kadarius Toney, Justin Watson, Skyy Moore, Mecole Hardman
TEs: Travis Kelce, Noah Gray, Jody Fortson, Blake Bell

Las Vegas Raiders

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

According to Associated Press sports writer Josh Dubow, Raiders interim coach Rich Bisaccia was at a loss for words when it came to describing his team's dominant defensive effort.

It's safe to say that's not a problem many Raiders coaches in the past have had.

The Raiders used a different formula to remain in the AFC playoff race by combining a fierce defensive effort with an overpowering ground game to beat the Denver Broncos 17-13 on Sunday.

The Raiders (8-7) have allowed the most points in the NFL the past eight seasons and consistently been one of the worst defenses.

But they have won back-to-back games when scoring 17 points or fewer for the first time since 1991.

"The first thing that I want to start with is our defense," Bisaccia said. "I really haven't come up with a word yet to describe it. First and foremost, I would say that it is outstanding, phenomenal, it was awesome. It was relentless, competitive effort, down in and down in and down in and down on in. I can't say enough on how excited we are the way that our defense played."

The Raiders allowed a season-low 158 yards and just eight first downs -- their second fewest in a game in the past 25 seasons -- and limited the Broncos to three points following two fumbles that set up Denver in good field position.

Josh Jacobs and the running game did most of the rest with a season-high 160 yards on the ground, and the Raiders now can make the playoffs for the second time in the past 19 seasons by winning the final two games.

"They did a great job today," quarterback Derek Carr said. "So proud of them. I told them in there, I would like to win a championship running the football and playing defense. Quarterbacks, we just try to make the best decision possible every time, trying to get it to the open guys, things like that. If we can play like that, then get hot doing that kind of stuff, that's going to helps us. It doesn't guarantee anything, but it's definitely a good formula to winning."

After a lackluster first half when he had 20 yards on 10 touches from scrimmage with a lost fumble, Jacobs finally delivered a game reminiscent of his impressive rookie season. He ran for 57 yards on a TD drive to open the second half that gave the Raiders the lead for good, his best performance on a drive since the second game of his career in 2019.

He had 18 carries for 104 yards in the second half to give him 129 yards on the game, matching his career high and giving him his first 100-yard game since Week 10 last year against Denver.

Jacobs also had the first 100-yard rushing second half for the Raiders since Rashad Jennings had 113 against Houston in 2013.

As Raiders.com's Levi Edwards notes, much of Jacobs' success can be credited to play of the offensive line that produced one of their best outings of the season.

"To block for someone like Josh Jacobs, you got to love it as an offensive lineman because you know he's going to give you his all on every play," center Andre James said after the victory. "It makes it easy as an offensive lineman to the way he hits those holes sometimes. So we wouldn't want to block for someone else. Super proud of him and the way he came out and performed today. ..."

The strong rushing game was necessary to get the win.

While Carr carried the Raiders to most of their wins early this season, he has needed lots of help the last two weeks. Carr is the first Raiders player since Terrelle Pryor in 2013 to have three straight games in a season with at least two turnovers, and his 12 since the bye are the most in the NFL.

Carr also has had one pass play gain more than 20 yards the past three weeks after being one of the top big-play QBs earlier in the season.

In order for Carr, Jacobs and the Las Vegas Raiders to complete the goal of making it to the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, they now have to get by a nine-win Indianapolis Colts and an eight-win Los Angeles Chargers team that defeated them in Week 4 earlier this season. ...

On the health watch. ... Bisaccia said Carr (ribs) is good to go. The coach was hoping Darren Waller (back/knee) will be able to get on the field Wednesday, but that changed when Waller was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list before practice.

Waller has missed four games with knee and back injuries.

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

The Raiders placed CB Casey Hayward, LB Denzel Perryman, LB K.J. Wright, LB Cory Littleton, DT Darius Philon and LB Patrick Onwuasor on the COVID-19 list. ... CB Brandon Facyson, WR Bryan Edwards, QB Marcus Mariota and S Roderic Teamer are still on the COVID-19 list.

One last note here. ... Is receiver Hunter Renfrow most deserving of a contract extension from the Raiders' 2019 draft class?

As ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez reminded readers, the Raiders had three first-rounders in DE Clelin Ferrell, Jacobs and SS Johnathan Abram, a second-rounder in CB Trayvon Mullen and three fourth-rounders in DE Maxx Crosby, CB Isaiah Johnson and TE Foster Moreau.

But it's Renfrow, a fifth-rounder and the Raiders' eighth player taken that draft, who has caught 92 passes this season, good enough to tie Jerry Rice for second-most by a wide receiver in a single season in franchise history. Tim Brown caught 104 passes in 1997.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Derek Carr, Jarrett Stidham
RBs: Josh Jacobs, Zamir White, Brandon Bolden, Ameer Abdullah, Brittain Brown
WRs: Davante Adams, Mack Hollins, Keelan Cole, DJ Turner, Hunter Renfrow
TEs: Foster Moreau, Jesper Horsted, Jacob Hollister, Darren Waller

Los Angeles Chargers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

Joey Bosa and Derwin James can do plenty of things to mask a subpar season for the Los Angeles Chargers defense.

As Associated Press sports writer Joe Reedy notes, without either in the lineup, the defense's fatal flaws for most of the year were ripe for the picking by the Houston Texans in Sunday's 41-29 loss.

The Chargers' run defense has struggled all season. Without Bosa, James, defensive lineman Justin Jones and cornerback Michael Davis, they allowed 5.3 yards per carry and a career-best 149-yard, two-touchdown day by Rex Burkhead. Houston's 189 yards on the ground marked the sixth time they allowed at least 175 yards this season.

Bosa was among the players cleared on Wednesday.

Los Angeles, whose defense has allowed a league-high 51.1 percent third-down conversion rate, allowed Houston to go 9 of 13, the 10th time a team has made more than half of its third downs against the Chargers.

"When you look at the film, we were in a lot of eight-man fronts, where we knew exactly the type of runs that were going to be deployed by that team," head coach Brandon Staley said. "That's what they did. We were in a lot of run structures that are designed to take it away, but it comes down to technique, attitude and playing together, playing with that intensity, that energy that the game requires, that it demands, regardless of who you're playing.

"The NFL demands your full respect. I feel like we didn't have enough energy and intensity at the game yesterday. That's why we performed the way we did."

The poor showing on defense means the Chargers went from holding a wild-card spot to being on the outside and looking for help.

Things don't get any easier for the Chargers heading into this week's must-win game against Denver. On Monday, they had two more defensive starters added to the reserve/COVID-19 list in cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and safety Nasir Adderley. Combined with James and Davis, rookie Asante Samuel Jr. would be the only regular starter.

The Chargers got five players back from their COVID-19 reserve list on Tuesday, but four more of their teammates took their places.

The league's daily transaction wire brings word that quarterback Chase Daniel, guard Senio Kelemete, defensive tackle Justin Jones, wide receiver Andre Roberts, and linebacker Chris Rumph are back on the active roster.

It also shows that defensive back Davontae Harris, kicker Dustin Hopkins, long snapper Matt Overton and tackle Trey Pipkins are now on the list.

Although both are Harris and Adderley are unvaccinated, they can be cleared in time to play based on the revised protocols agreed to by the NFL and NFLPA on Tuesday. Those revised protocols reflect the CDC's changes to its guidelines for those who are asymptomatic, recommending a five-day quarantine period. Now, players can also be activated in five days if they are asymptomatic.

In other words, any player who tested positive Monday or before, can be cleared as soon as Saturday. Players on the list Tuesday could be cleared Sunday.

Getting those defenders back will be key.

"We haven't had continuity at any level of our defense this year. It's exacerbated in the secondary, but our front hasn't had any continuity, either. We just had a lot of moving parts this year," Staley said.

"We've really had to figure things out. We're going to need to because there's a lot of challenges headed our way right now."

Besides the lack of bodies on defense, the Chargers will be facing a Denver rushing attack that generated 147 yards in its 28-13 win on Nov. 28.

Meanwhile, receiver Mike Williams, who was added to the list last weekend, could also return under the new protocols despite being unvaccinated.

Justin Jackson had 162 scrimmage yards (64 rushing, 98 receiving) against the Texans working in place of Austin Ekeler, who was out after testing positive for COVID-19. The fourth-year running back scored his first touchdown since 2018 and showed consistent bursts to the outside.

The Chargers have wanted Jackson to emerge as the second running back, but injuries throughout his career have derailed any progress he has made.

Ekeler, by the way, was activated from the reserve/COVID list on Monday; receiver Jalen Guyton was cleared Wednesday. ...

Justin Herbert had his ninth 300-yard game of the season, but nearly half those yards came in the fourth quarter. For as well as Herbert has done in most areas, the one area he struggles is throwing into tight windows. He was 1 for 3 with an interception against the Texans.

Over the past three games, Herbert is 5 for 18 with a touchdown and two picks when the defender is within 1 yard or closer of the receiver at the time of the completion.

Hopkins made three field goals, including 46- and 50-yarders, and had a touchback on five of his six kickoffs. Hopkins is 15 of 16 on field goals since joining the Chargers on Oct. 26. The 93.8 percent accuracy rate is tied for the best start in franchise history.

The Chargers need everyone back and a great week of practice before entering the closing stretch against the Broncos and Raiders. Getting the defense right is key after giving up 437 yards to Houston on Sunday.

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

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Justin Herbert, Chase Daniel, Easton Stick
RBs: Austin Ekeler, Isaiah Spiller, Sony Michel, Joshua Kelley
WRs: Keenan Allen, Josh Palmer, DeAndre Carter, Mike Williams, Michael Bandy, Jason Moore, Jalen Guyton
TEs: Gerald Everett, Tre' McKitty, Donald Parham

Los Angeles Rams

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

The Los Angeles Rams overcame a dismal day from starting quarterback Matthew Stafford. The defense, special teams and run game lifted L.A. to a playoff berth with a 30-23 road win over the Minnesota Vikings.

Sunday marked the worst game Stafford has experienced in a Rams jersey, and the veteran QB was the first to admit it.

"Obviously, a great team win," Stafford said, via the official team transcript. "... Less than spectacular in the pass game. Three turnovers is going to hurt us in a lot of games. It's nice to come away with a win, there's no doubt about that. I can play better. We can play better. So there's always that."

Stafford threw three interceptions and passed for a piddling 197 yards on 21-of-37 for a grotesque 5.3 yards per attempt. The QB looked rattled at times behind a makeshift offensive line, and his INTs were a couple of boneheaded decisions.

The last time Stafford threw 3-plus INTs was Week 1, 2018, with the Detroit Lions versus the New York Jets (4 INTs in what will be remembered as Sam Darnold's first -- and perhaps the high-point -- game with the New York Jets). Stafford's 46.8 passer rating was his lowest since Week 15, 2012 (37.6 passer rating in a 38-10 loss to Arizona).

"I sure wanted to make it interesting today, huh?" Stafford quipped in a postgame interview with NFL Network's Tom Pelissero. "Didn't play as good of football as I can play. Our defense played spectacular. We ran the ball great. A couple timely throws here and there, but a lot for me to clean up. But I'm glad we got ourselves a chance in the tournament."

Stafford took ownership of the interceptions that put his team in a bind and kept the score close.

"A tip here, a poor play by me on a couple others," Stafford said of his picks. "Those can't happen for us to be as good as we want to be. Got to clean those up. But our defense played great today."

The last time the Rams won a game with a quarterback throwing three or more interceptions was in Week 8, 2005, versus Jacksonville. The Rams won that day 24-21, with QB Jamie Martin throwing 3 INTs, 2 TDs, and 200 yards.

L.A.'s ability to overcome the poor play from the veteran QB showed the sort of mettle the Rams will need to march deep into January.

"Can't say enough about the resiliency of this group, the mental toughness," head coach Sean McVay said. "Now we want to stay on top of this division. We've got a great opportunity and a great challenge against a Baltimore Ravens football team next week. It will be good to hopefully get some guys back and have somewhat of a normal week of preparation. These last three weeks have truly been a whirlwind.

"For our guys to be able to go undefeated in the month of December after the month of November we had, that says about as much about this group that you need to know. We'll keep it rolling."

Next up. ... Another long flight on a holiday for another early kickoff -- although the Rams are 4-0 in games starting at 10 a.m. Pacific time this season. If Los Angeles beats Baltimore and Arizona loses later in the day, the Rams would clinch their third NFC West title under McVay and a home playoff game.

If not, the race will go down to the final weekend.

Meanwhile, an MRI provided clarity on Darrell Henderson's injured knee, and McVay said the Rams will place the running back on injured reserve.

Henderson has a sprained MCL that will keep him out 3-5 weeks. That means he could return in the postseason if the Rams can stay alive long enough.

Henderson was injured on his only touch Sunday, running 17 yards with 14:34 left in the victory over the Vikings.

Running back Sony Michel led Los Angeles with 131 yards on 27 carries Sunday. The Rams activated running back Cam Akers off injured reserve last week, and McVay said Akers has a chance to play Sunday.

Akers torn an Achilles while training before training camp in July.

The Rams also will place linebacker Ernest Jones on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain that needs surgery. It's undetermined whether the rookie will be able to return this season, according to McVay.

Defensive lineman Greg Gaines had hand surgery today but is expected to play with a cast.

McVay also announced that offensive lineman Joe Noteboom has cleared the 10-day window and is coming off the COVID-19 reserve list. ...

Wideout Brandon Powell scored just the second punt return TD of the 2021 season to earn NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. Powell's 61-yard TD return in the third quarter helped lock down the win in Minnesota. Powell's TD was the first score of its kind by a Rams player dating back to 2015. ...

Finally. ... Cooper Kupp could still set a pair of single-season records before the current season ends.

With 10 catches for 109 yards against the Vikings on Sunday, Kupp now has 132 receptions for 1,734 yards in 15 games. That puts him 17 catches behind the single-record of 149 (Michael Thomas, 2019) and 230 yards behind the single-season record of 1,964 (Calvin Johnson, 2012).

With games against the Ravens and 49ers still on the docket, Kupp has a chance to break both of those records. Baltimore's secondary has been ravaged by injuries, and San Francisco's has struggled at times, due to injuries and inexperience.

So it's true, he'd do it in 17 games. But, again, that's the new length of the season. And it's not changing.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Matthew Stafford, John Wolford, Bryce Perkins
RBs: Cam Akers, Kyren Williams, Malcolm Brown, Ronnie Rivers
WRs: Allen Robinson, Van Jefferson, Ben Skowronek, Brandon Powell, Tutu Atwell, Lance McCutcheon, Cooper Kupp
TEs: Tyler Higbee, Kendall Blanton, Brycen Hopkins

Miami Dolphins

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

As ESPN.com’s Marcel Louis-Jacques put it, "Whatever works, right?"

The Dolphins and Saints entered Monday night's game on opposite sides of the spectrum, with Miami riding a six-game winning streak and New Orleans with 20 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list -- including its top two quarterbacks.

On paper, this was an opportunity for the Dolphins to lay a beating on a reeling opponent on national television. Instead, they plodded their way to their seventh straight victory which is all that matters in the end. It was a mediocre performance on one side of the ball and pure dominance on the other.

Miami sacked rookie Ian Book eight times and intercepted him twice en route to a 20-3 victory that was harder on the eyes than the score suggests. The Dolphins mustered 259 yards of offense, 86 of which came on their lone touchdown drive late in the third quarter. They were committed to running the ball but finished with 86 yards on 30 attempts. Their offensive line play was atrocious in the first half before settling in the second.

Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was just fine for the second straight game, completing 19 of 26 passes for 198 yards, one touchdown and an interception. The bright spot on that side of the ball was rookie receiver Jaylen Waddle, who reeled in 10 passes for 92 yards and a touchdown, setting a Dolphins rookie single-season record for receiving yards in the process.

Miami became the first team in NFL history to win seven straight games and lose seven straight games in the same season. More importantly, it guaranteed itself a playoff bid if it wins its remaining two games.

"I think it revealed a lot," head coach Brian Flores said of the losing streak and how the Dolphins responded to it. "It revealed the character of the guys in this locker room. It revealed that some people were with you and some people were on the fence. The guys kept fighting."

It's a difficult final stretch against the AFC South-leading Tennessee Titans in Week 17 and the New England Patriots in Week 18, both of which are top-10 defenses in the NFL over the past month in terms of defensive expected points added. But the Dolphins' defense ranks second in that category since Week 9 and proved capable once again of carrying this team through any offensive lulls.

And it might have to if the Dolphins want to clinch their first playoff bid since 2016.

Of course, Miami's offense left something to be desired but its defense continued its elite play, allowing 158 total yards and holding the Saints to 0-for-11 on third down. It's the first time the Saints failed to convert a third down since 2005, when they went 0-for-11 against, you guessed it, the Dolphins.

It's funny how history repeats itself. Miami has now held three straight opponents under 300 total yards and has held six of its past seven opponents under 20 points.

Miami is now on a seven-game win streak for the first time since 1985 and now sit in the seventh seed of the playoff standings with two games remaining in the regular season. No team in NFL history has had a seven-game losing streak followed by a seven-game win streak until this season. ...

Other notes of interest. ... As noted above, Waddle's 92 yards gives him 941 for the season, breaking the Dolphins rookie record. According to ESPN, Waddle's 10 receptions matches Hall of Fame WR Jerry Rice in his 1985 rookie season for the most by an NFL rookie on Monday Night Football.

Tagovailoa totaled 198 passing yards, giving him 4,153 for his career. It surpasses QB Chad Pennington (4,085) for 10th-most in team history. ...

Phillip Lindsay rushed 13 times for 36 yards against the Saints.

Lindsay made his first appearance since Week 12 and matched Duke Johnson for Miami's team lead in carries. Although neither tailback found much room to run versus a tough Saints front seven, Lindsay only managed three yards fewer than Johnson, who exploded for over 120 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns last weekend.

Despite competing with Myles Gaskin for snaps as well, Lindsay's immediate involvement in his return is an encouraging sign for his usage ahead this week's matchup versus the Titans, even if the Dolphins still rely on a committee approach barring one of their tailbacks emerging as the hot hand.

On the health front. ... The Dolphins placed more players on the COVID-19 list as their cluster grows.

Safety Brandon Jones, defensive lineman Adam Butler, defensive tackle John Jenkins, and receiver Preston Williams are now on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Miami has also put guard Durval Queiroz Neto on the practice squad/COVID-19 list.

That brings Miami's total number of players on their COVID-19 lists to 14.

The league and the NFL Players Association revised the protocols on Tuesday after the CDC changed its guidelines for those who are asymptomatic, recommending a five-day isolation period and masking over the second five days. So the players going on Monday or before could be cleared by Saturday.

Miami has also placed wide receiver Tommylee Lewis and running back Jordan Scarlet on the practice squad/injured list.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Tua Tagovailoa, Teddy Bridgewater, Skylar Thompson
RBs: Jeff Wilson, Raheem Mostert, Myles Gaskin, Salvon Ahmed
WRs: Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Trent Sherfield, Cedrick Wilson, Erik Ezukanma, Tanner Conner
TEs: Mike Gesicki, Durham Smythe, Adam Shaheen, Hunter Long, Cethan Carter

Minnesota Vikings

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

As ESPN.com's Courtney Cronin reported, with the previous record holder looking on from the opposing sideline, Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson made history on his third catch Sunday, racking up the most receiving yards ever by a player in his first two seasons, surpassing the mark Los Angeles Rams wideout Odell Beckham Jr. set in 2015 while with the New York Giants.

With 12:47 to go in the third quarter, Jefferson caught a 9-yard pass from Kirk Cousins to convert a third-and-6 play and give him 23 receiving yards on the afternoon. The Vikings' second-year receiver needed 21 yards entering Sunday to surpass Beckham's record of 2,755 receiving yards. Jefferson now has 2,851 receiving yards after finishing with eight catches for 116 yards in the Vikings' 30-23 loss.

"Blessed, honor to God, just being in this situation, breaking his record with [Beckham] in the building," Jefferson said. "It was no other perfect situation for me. But a dub would definitely be better with that record, but move on."

The record -- and this game in particular -- was one Jefferson said he had been anticipating all season. The matchup the receiver knew he would draw with Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey built up the level of intrigue on a day when Jefferson was eyeing history.

"Need 21 yards, definitely been keeping the tabs for that," Jefferson said Thursday.

"I'm excited. I feel like I live for these moments, ever since I was a kid. Just going up against that top guy, I'm a natural competitor. I've been a competitor since I was playing in the backyard with my family. I'm ready for the game, I been having it circled for a long time. To me, it's a statement game for me considering myself one of the top receivers in the league and solidifying myself. Definitely ready for it."

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Ramsey lined up across from Jefferson pre-snap 22 times on Sunday. Jefferson finished with 40 yards on four catches with Ramsey as the nearest defender, compared with 76 yards when anyone else was the nearest defender.

Jefferson's latest career milestone came on a day when early struggles for the Vikings' offense proved costly in a loss that shrank Minnesota's playoff chances. The Vikings went 2-of-12 on third down and were 2-of-5 inside the red zone, where they came away with only 10 points off three turnovers.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins attempted eight red zone passes and only one was thrown to Jefferson.

Klint Kubiak has coordinated Minnesota's offense to the ninth-highest yardage total in the league, but the offensive struggles Sunday, particularly inside the 20, led to Jefferson saying the team needs to be more aggressive in the red zone.

"I think we should be more aggressive when we get down there, as soon as we get down there," Jefferson said. "But, I'm not the one calling the plays. I'm just here to do my job and do what's told to me. But, we can't get down in the red zone that many times and come out with three points."

Jefferson also said he noticed a lack of energy from his teammates "as soon as I came into the locker room."

"I can only control what I can," Jefferson said. "I definitely will keep the energy up, keep talking my guys up, trying to pick them up, but at the end of the day I can't go out there and play for them, so we just all gotta come together as a whole, have that energy up for next game and just go out there and ball."

On Monday, Zimmer downplayed Jefferson's remarks.

"I think Justin was just frustrated," Zimmer said, via Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "Hey, we're all frustrated when we don't win the game. We all get frustrated. We all say things 10 minutes after the game that we wish we wouldn't have. ... In my opinion, he just wants to win.

"And part of that is he wants to get the ball if he can. And I don't think he's calling out anybody. That's not the type of person he is."

Whatever the case, the Vikings had an opportunity Sunday to legitimize their playoff standing despite starting the day with a .500 record. But an offense that stumbled on third down (2 of 12) and in the red zone (two touchdowns in five trips inside the 20, including one scoreless possession) and a defense being run over by Los Angeles (159 yards rushing) provided the statistical snapshot of the 30-23 loss.

The Vikings (7-8) fell out of playoff position and now will need help even if they win their final two games.

Complicating matters is the team's current COVID-19 situation.

Running back Dalvin Cook missed Sunday's game while on the COVID-19 list. Backup quarterback Sean Mannion developed symptoms and tested positive before Sunday's game, leading to heightened concern for Cousins, who is unvaccinated.

Zimmer said the team will have more safety measures in place this week for the quarterbacks, including not having them in the same room together.

"It's in our building," Cousins said Sunday. "It's going to be in our building. It's going to spread. We've just got to be disciplined to keep our distance and make sure that, to the best of our ability, we don't get it. But it is going to be difficult."

Cook returned to the active roster Wednesday, but another key offensive player is reportedly done for the year.

Wide receiver Adam Thielen made a brief return to the lineup last Sunday before aggravating a left ankle injury and it looks like that will be his final contribution to the team this season.

Chad Graff of TheAthletic.com reports that Thielen had season-ending ankle surgery.

Thielen missed two games before returning to play 23 snaps in a 30-23 loss to the Rams. He caught three passes for 40 yards before leaving the game and has 67 catches for 726 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Thielen is signed for three more years and has a base salary of just over $12 million for the 2022 season.

Cook, who is unvaccinated, was able to return early after the NFL and NFLPA modified their joint COVID-19 protocols on Tuesday, cutting the standard isolation period after a positive test for asymptomatic individuals from 10 days to five days regardless of vaccination status. Previously, unvaccinated players, like Cook, were required to quarantine for a minimum of 10 days.

Offensive lineman Oli Udoh was added to the reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday, the fourth player on the list with Cook, Mannion and tackle Rashod Hill.

I'll have more on Cook's level of conditioning and Thielen via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

It's safe to say that creating energy shouldn't be a problem this week. The Vikings travel to face rival and NFC North champion Green Bay on Sunday night.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Kirk Cousins, Nick Mullens
RBs: Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, C.J. Ham, Kene Nwangwu, Ty Chandler
WRs: Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, K.J. Osborn, Jalen Reagor, Jalen Nailor, Olabisi Johnson
TEs: T.J. Hockenson, Johnny Mundt, Ben Ellefson, Nick Muse, Irv Smith Jr.

New England Patriots

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

According to ESPN.com's Mike Reiss, Mac Jones' rookie growing pains are showing up at a tough time for the New England Patriots.

Jones finished 14-of-32 for 145 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions in Sunday's 33-21 loss to the Bills at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots have sputtered in each of the last two weeks since their bye, with Jones failing to find the rhythm he had exhibited more consistently during the team's prior seven-game win streak.

"There's no excuses, and there's really nothing to talk about. I didn't play great," said Jones, who finished with a 31.4 passer rating, easily his lowest of the season (55.2 vs. the Saints in Week 3 was his previous low). "I can play better and I can lead a lot better. It starts with me."

Jones entered the day having completed 69 percent of his passes on the season. His 43.7 percent on Sunday was his lowest completion percentage of the year (51.4 percent vs. Chargers on Oct. 31 was his previous low), and now he looks to rebound Sunday against No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars.

Having grown up in Jacksonville, and playing in college at Alabama, Jones is experiencing colder weather conditions than he's accustomed to, but he said that has nothing to do with his recent struggles.

"I think it just goes back to execution, throwing it to the right guy, regardless of the weather," he said. "I'm still learning, obviously. The accuracy needs to improve."

Last week, as shown on HBO's "Hard Knocks", Indianapolis Colts coaches made it a point to put the game in Jones' hands and see how he would respond. The Bills, while failing to shut down the Patriots' rushing attack as effectively as the Colts did, did something similar by getting out to an early lead and forcing Jones into more passing situations.

Deception was a big part of the approach that Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier employed, with a focus on tight end Hunter Henry.

"Coach Frazier and [head coach] Sean [McDermott] made a helluva game plan," safety Jordan Poyer said. "The ability for them to just keep turning the dial on our calls, and keep mixing it up, showing him different looks, and trying to confuse him on our back end as much as possible. We knew [Henry] was a top target, knew that Mac liked to get him the football, and forcing Mac to look elsewhere."

The game turned in the second quarter, when the Bills scored 10 unanswered points to break a 7-7 tie. Jones was 2-of-9 for 20 yards and an interception in the quarter.

Further disappointment for Jones came when he was yanked down by Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes on a 7-yard run along the Buffalo sideline, a play that was initially penalized for unnecessary roughness before referee Shawn Smith picked up the flag.

"What we ruled was, we had contact on the sideline," Smith said in a pool report. "And after discussion, we determined that it was incidental contact that didn't rise to a level of a personal foul. There was no second act by the defender in that situation, so we determined there was no foul, based on that action."

That could have given the Patriots, who were trailing 17-7, the ball at the Bills' 37-yard line with 1:22 remaining until halftime. Instead, Patriots right tackle Trent Brown was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct before the next snap, pushing the Patriots back to their own 32.

That was a costly swing of 31 yards, although given the inconsistent performance of the Patriots, it's hard to definitively say it would have made a major difference. The Patriots aren't stringing enough positive plays together.

Henry had said after last week's loss that it's easy to forget Jones is a rookie, and center David Andrews made it a point to note that the team's struggles don't fall solely on him.

"He's very tough for us. He does a great job of standing in there," Andrews said. "We just have to do better for him, and we all have to do better for each other."

Meanwhile, the Patriots no longer have control of the AFC East, and even more concerning, they aren't playing consistent winning football, with back-to-back losses to the Colts and Bills.

Things had looked much different since they returned from their bye week on a seven-game winning streak.

The formula has been similar: Falling behind early, costly penalties, dropped passes and late comebacks falling short.

As Reiss suggests, the running game, which is the strength of the offense, can only carry them so far when they get behind. More will be needed from Jones early in games.

The Patriots (9-6) finish with a home game against the Jaguars and then a road finale against the Dolphins. They might still qualify for the playoffs, but if they don't play more consistently, it will likely be a quick exit regardless.

Other notes of interest ... Damien Harris carried the ball 18 times for 103 yards and three touchdowns against Bills. He wasn't targeted in the passing game, but with Rhamondre Stevenson on reserve/COVID, Harris cornered the market on carries, with 18 of 27 possible turns.

Jakobi Meyers caught 6-of-8 targets for 59 yards on Saturday. That's two-straight six-catch outings and in the last five games in which the Patriots attempted more than three passes (as they did in Week 13), Meyers has 38 targets, 25 catches and 289 yards with a touchdown.

In other words, the floor remains solid and the upside remains capped.

Henry caught 1-of-6 targets for nine yards. With nine touchdowns on 42 total catches, Henry continues to serve as the poster child for touchdown dependency.

As noted above, Stevenson missed Saturday's game, but could be cleared in time to play this week. In addition, Nelson Agholor missed Saturday's game with a concussion.

Agholor remains in concussion protocol while Meyers (thigh) is a new addition from last week.

Harris (hamstring), Brandon Bolden (knee), Nick Folk (left knee) and N'Keal Harry (hip) all remained limited along with Meyers.

Agholor sat out.

I'll have more on their status via Late-Breaking Update as the week progresses.

Elsewhere on the health front.... The Patriots have a COVID-19 concern in their quarterbacks' room.

According to Reiss, New England was expected to place backup QB Brian Hoyer on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Tuesday.

Given Hoyer's presumed proximity to Jones, the rookie out of Alabama could be at risk of testing positive for the virus. But if Jones is vaccinated, then he won't test unless he shows symptoms of the virus.

Hoyer has appeared in four games this season, finishing games in garbage time.

With Hoyer out, third quarterback Jarrett Stidham would be Jones' backup for Sunday's game against the Jaguars.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe, Brian Hoyer
RBs: Rhamondre Stevenson, Damien Harris, Pierre Strong Jr., Ty Montgomery
WRs: Jakobi Meyers, DeVante Parker, Tyquan Thornton, Kendrick Bourne, Nelson Agholor, Matt Slater
TEs: Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith

New Orleans Saints

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

As ESPN.com's Mike Triplett suggested, the Saints looked every bit like a team down to its fourth quarterback and missing a total of 20 eligible players because of COVID-19 in Monday night's 20-3 loss to the Miami Dolphins.

The deck was stacked severely against New Orleans' fourth-round draft pick, Ian Book, who was thrust into the starting quarterback job Thursday and took his first NFL snaps Monday night behind a depleted offensive line. And his performance went about as well as you might expect under the circumstances.

Book's pick-six on his third NFL play was the biggest dagger.

But he wasn't alone, as the depleted offense fell flat all night long, finishing with 164 total yards. The Saints went 0-for-12 on third downs, and Book was sacked a staggering eight times.

"Just keeping him upright tonight was a challenge," said head coach Sean Payton, who said it was "impossible to evaluate" Book's play. "He'll be frustrated like all of us with some plays. But certainly it's not gonna define his growth or his career. It was kind of one of those perfect storms. It was just a tough spot for him to be in, and I think he's smart enough to understand that."

The pick-six came on a pass that was tipped at the line of scrimmage on third-and-3, with Book explaining that the Dolphins did a good job of making their coverage look like Cover Zero. And Book missed a few open receivers and probably took a few more sacks than he should have. But it also felt like he was scrambling away from pressure all night long. He finished 12-of-20 for 135 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.

"I got a lot to get better at," said Book -- who said the pick-six was just the second of his career and described it as both a "terrible feeling" and a "nightmare."

But he said he went to the sideline and "completely got it out of my mind" afterward.

This was supposed to be a redshirt season for Book. Chances are, the Saints will give him a second chance to make a first impression next summer -- but obviously he won't be Plan A as the starting quarterback going into 2022.

Payton said it wasn't his job to worry about whether the league should have postponed Monday's game -- though he did note that the Saints "had two guys today getting fitted for equipment in the locker room" after they signed a total of four players Monday just to be able to fill out their roster.

"Our job is to really focus and prepare, get the players ready to go. [Or else] pretty soon your energy gets wasted," Payton said. "Obviously we didn't do a good enough job tonight. It was frustrating, and I'm sure it was frustrating to watch."

For the record, Alvin Kamara rushed 13 times for 52 yards while catching two of four targets for seven yards during Monday's 20-3 loss to the Dolphins.

As CBSSports.com notes, despite the seemingly favorable matchup with Miami, Kamara was not set up to succeed considering he was working with a fourth-string rookie quarterback behind a patchwork offensive line.

However, it was still confusing that the Saints didn't feed him the ball more often given the massive struggles Book had throwing the ball.

The only saving grace was that because this loss came against an AFC opponent, it won't hurt the Saints' playoff tiebreakers. But they'll need to beat the Carolina Panthers at home Sunday and the Atlanta Falcons on the road in Week 18 to finish 9-8 and have any realistic chance.

They're also going to need a lot of players back for that to happen -- starting with at least one quarterback (Taysom Hill or Trevor Siemian) and at least one offensive tackle (Terron Armstead or Ryan Ramczyk).

The good news is Hill and Siemian were among the players activated Wednesday.

But even that might not be enough.

The Saints have set an NFL record by using 57 different starters this season, according to ESPN Stats and Information. They can credit both a barrage of injuries and COVID-19 issues for that (Book, offensive tackle Caleb Benenoch and receiver Easop Winston Jr. all made their 2021 starting debuts Monday night).

The record is still in play, however, because the Houston Texans are at 56 and counting while they deal with their own COVID-19 issues.

Looking for positives?

The Saints' defense put up a good fight one week after shutting out Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady -- even without linebackers Demario Davis and Kwon Alexander and safety Malcolm Jenkins. Because the pick-six wasn't on its ledger, the defense allowed only 259 yards and 13 points. Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore had an interception. Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan had two sacks for the second straight week, and defensive end Marcus Davenport added a third.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Andy Dalton, Jameis Winston
RBs: Alvin Kamara, David Johnson, Mark Ingram, Dwayne Washington
WRs: Chris Olave, Jarvis Landry, Tre'Quan Smith, Marquez Callaway, Rashid Shaheed, Michael Thomas, Deonte Harty
TEs: Juwan Johnson, Taysom Hill, Adam Trautman, Nick Vannett

New York Giants

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

Jake Fromm's first NFL start with the New York Giants was "not ideal."

It was as bad as the second-year quarterback could have imagined, with just 25 yards passing and being benched in the third quarter of a 34-10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.

"I would say it's not ideal," Fromm said. "I wish I would have played better. It's frustrating for myself. It's not the way I wanted to have represented myself, my family, or, of course, this organization. It's tough, but I'm going to learn from it. I don't think it gets much worse than that. ... I'm going to grind. I'm going to work my tail off to get better and play better like I know I can. I'm going to give everything I can to the guys on offense, to this team, and be the best me I can be from here on out."

Fromm, signed off the Buffalo Bills practice squad just over three weeks ago, went 6 of 17 passing with an interception. It could have been worse had Eagles cornerback Darius Slay not dropped a popup that landed in his arms.

Fromm was benched in the third quarter in favor of Mike Glennon.

"I just got told by the quarterbacks coach that they were going to switch it up and put Mike in there," Fromm said. "I wish nobody -- any of the coaches -- would have been put in that situation. I wish I would have gone out and handled my business, led us to victory, and we'd be having a nice ride home."

It puts into question the starter for this Sunday when the Giants (4-11) play in Chicago (5-10). Head coach Joe Judge said afterwards that he would see how the two performed at practice this week.

As ESPN.com's Jordan Raanan suggested, maybe it was just too much for Fromm to handle. Just last month he was the fourth-string quarterback on the practice squad in Buffalo. He was nowhere near seeing the field there, even after being a fifth-round pick last year.

But the Giants were desperate with Daniel Jones (neck) out for the season and Glennon having struggled in recent weeks. Fromm, who looked competent late in a Week 15 loss to Dallas, clearly wasn't the answer Sunday.

The Giants offense was incompetent for three-plus quarters.

Running back Saquon Barkley had 15 carries for 32 yards. Rookie wide receiver Kadarius Toney led the Giants with four catches on nine targets for 28 yards.

It took until just under 10 minutes were remaining in the fourth quarter for New York to top 100 yards of total offense.

"We couldn't get anything going offensively [Sunday]," Judge said. "We obviously have to have some kind of production in that phase to complement the defense and the special teams when they are making plays for us. But ultimately it wasn't good enough."

They didn't get any production. In fact, they could hardly complete a pass in a first half, which ended with the score 3-3.

They knew it, too.

"You don't want to play with some of the limitations we had," Judge said.

So they tried Glennon. He finished 17-of-27 passing for 93 yards with a touchdown and an interception that was returned for a score.

The veteran understands the difficulty that Fromm was experiencing.

"It just felt like it was tough to get something going," Glennon said. "Tough to get in rhythm. First start, it's not an easy job, a player in the NFL. Obviously there's some things that I'm sure he'll want back, but all-in-all he handled himself really well this week. He prepared really well. I felt his maturity and presence.

"It's been great working with him so far. Unfortunately it didn't go as we wanted."

Meanwhile, as Associated Press sports writer Tom Canavan suggested, Judge had better hope Giants co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch have decided to bring him back as coach for a third season.

If they haven't, the way the Giants (4-11) are playing since Jones was hurt late last month is not going to help his cause. He has a 10-21 record with two games left this season. The team is riding a four-game losing streak without Jones and the losses have gotten uglier and uglier.

It's hard to say whether Judge deserves a third year.

Like most coaches he works very hard. He has added good people on the roster and eliminated issues within the locker room. He just hasn't won enough. Injuries in 2021, especially on the offensive line, didn't help.

The Giants can't keep turning over head coaches, though. They now have had five straight losing seasons. Ben McAdoo got them to the playoffs in 2016 and was fired the next year. Pat Shurmur lasted two seasons. Judge is finishing up his second.

Hired in late 2017, general manager Dave Gettleman is likely going to take a fall after this season.

If Judge's future is in doubt, he is not talking about it.

"I think you come back every week and you go to work, and that doesn't mean it's not frustrations within it, whether you're winning or losing," Judge said.

He said the addiction to coaching is working with the players and finding ways to have success. It involves showing players their mistakes and teaching them how to correct them. He insists it's a building process.

"Actually, the adrenaline, the kick you really have as a coach is that high you get from working with the team and being able to share in their success," the 39-year-old said. "That's really what you live for, what a coach lives for."

The question is can Mara and Tisch live with it another year?

From a fantasy perspective, Canavan summed it up well: "With Jones out for the season with a neck injury, the Giants have no offense."

In the past four weeks, they have scored a combined 46 points. Neither Glennon nor Fromm can lead this offense with the line playing poorly. There are no holes for runs. There is no time to throw. New York's longest play against the Eagles was 11 yards.

The Giants averaged 2.6 yards on 73 plays. "That's pathetic," Canavan added.

On the health front. ... There's a new injury Toney this week as the rookie receiver was held out Wednesday with a shoulder issue.

Barkley (ankle), Gary Brightwell (neck), kicker Graham Gano (illness), wideout Collin Johnson (hamstring) and tight end Kyle Rudolph (ankle) were also held out Wednesday.

Backup offensive tackle Matt Peart tore an ACL in the first quarter and did not return. He was starting at right tackle with Nate Solder on the COVID-19 list. WR John Ross and DT Danny Shelton also are on the list. DB Julian Love, who shared the team lead in tackles Sunday, was added to the COVID-19 list Monday.

With the NFL adopting CDC recommendations to cut quarantine time to five days after a positive test, some or all of the players added this week could come off the list in time to play as long as they are asymptomatic.

The Giants travel to Chicago on Sunday.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Daniel Jones, Tyrod Taylor
RBs: Saquon Barkley, Matt Breida, Gary Brightwell, Antonio Williams
WRs: Darius Slayton, Richie James, David Sills, Kenny Golladay, Marcus Johnson, Isaiah Hodgins, Sterling Shepard, Wan'Dale Robinson
TEs: Lawrence Cager, Tanner Hudson, Chris Myarick, Daniel Bellinger

New York Jets

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Dennis Waszak Jr. noted, Robert Saleh couldn't be on the sideline or at the stadium because of COVID-19 when his New York Jets took the field Sunday, so he audibled with a fun game plan.

The still-quarantining coach would watch his squad play Jacksonville from the hotel room in New Jersey that has been his home for nearly a week.

And he'd get a buddy to join him on FaceTime so they could view together.

So, Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur -- whose Packers beat the Browns on Christmas -- spent a few hours keeping Saleh company. But there was one problem.

"He was like 5 seconds ahead of me," Saleh said of LaFleur's TV feed. "I'm yelling at him to stop telling me what's happening."

Relatable, coach.

When big offensive lineman Conor McDermott stretched out to snare a 1-yard touchdown pass from Zach Wilson, in the fourth quarter, LaFleur let out a loud, "Ohhh!" So Saleh knew something wild was going on.

"When he caught it, I was just laughing and like, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe that happened," a smiling Saleh said. "It was a really cool moment."

That unlikely catch by McDermott -- the first TD by a Jets O-lineman since Jumbo Elliott's grab in the "Monday Night Miracle" against Miami in 2000 -- was just one of a few highlights in a 26-21 victory that featured some headline-worthy story lines.

The first was Saleh being sidelined and replaced by tight ends coach Ron Middleton, who received a game ball from owner Woody Johnson after the win.

"It was frustrating," Saleh said of not being able to coach. "The guys played their absolute butts off."

Saleh said he's feeling "great" and hopes to return to the team in the next day or two.

He said the Jets should also get several players back after having their COVID-19 list swelled last week to as many as 20 before kickoff.

Another key story line was the showdown between Wilson and Trevor Lawrence, the fourth matchup in NFL history of rookie quarterbacks who were drafted with the first two picks.

Wilson's passing numbers were hardly gaudy -- 14 of 22 for 102 yards and the TD to McDermott -- but it was the third straight game in which the No. 2 overall pick didn't throw an interception. He also looked extremely comfortable running Mike LaFleur's offense, saying he was playing "free" on Sunday.

Worth noting, Wilson was without his top three wide receivers. He also played behind a patchwork offensive line.

Saleh raved about Wilson's 12-yard toss to Braxton Berrios on third-and-9 late in the game that helped set up a field goal.

"I'll argue with (Mike) LaFleur that that was probably the best throw he's made all season," Saleh said. "I mean, it was awesome. It was a clutch throw, clutch catch."

Wilson also set a Jets record for a quarterback with 91 yards rushing, highlighted by a 52-yard touchdown -- the longest run by a QB in franchise history.

"I just felt like I was having fun out there," Wilson said, "and was just able to play ball like I have my whole life."

And that's the most promising sign of all for the 4-11 Jets with two games remaining.

Another promising sign?

The running game kept pounding from start to finish, ending up with 273 yards rushing. That's the most by any NFL team this season, and the most by the Jets since 2018.

Michael Carter, the team's four-round pick has played himself into more carries in the Jets' running back rotation, especially after Sunday's breakout performance. The rookie finished with 118 yards on 16 carries -- an average of 7.4 yards -- along with two catches.

The Jets are still struggling on third downs, going 4 for 12 in those situations against the Jaguars. Their 37.4 percent conversion average on the season ranks them near the bottom of the NFL, and their 27.03 percent average in the last three games is better than only New England (24.32 percent).

That's not going to get easier this weekend. The Jets play their home finale Sunday against Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Brady is 30-8 against the Jets in his career, but this is the first time he's facing them not as a member of the Patriots. ...

Other notes of interest. ... With Jamison Crowder out with a calf injury and Elijah Moore sidelined by COVID-19, Denzel Mims again failed to make an impact. Mims played 32 snaps and had no catches and just two targets, including one on which he would've been ineligible because he stepped outside the back of the end zone. He has just eight catches for 133 yards and no scores this season.

"Denzel's going to have an opportunity," Saleh said. "No one's quitting on him. We're going to continue to grind and try to put him in the best position possible to try to help this team. ... His story isn't even close to being written yet."

Berrios was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week thanks to his 102-yard kickoff return TD in the second quarter on Sunday. Berrios, who totaled 150 return yards on the day, was the first Jets player to score on a kickoff return since 2018. ...

On the health front. ... Saleh said he expects Moore to return for the team's final two games of the year after the rookie spent the last three weeks on injured reserve with an injured quad.

His return will be a welcome development. With 34 catches (on 45 targets) for 459 and five touchdowns in the six games before he went on IR, the rookie had emerged as a legitimate fantasy producer. Expecting him to return at that same level isn't a total reach.

Moore and Crowder will be day to day -- with Conner Hughes of The Athletic suggesting both players are in the 50-50 range of getting back this week; I'll have more on both via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

Beyond that, C Connor McGovern (knee) and TE Trevon Wesco (knee) were both placed on season-ending injured reserve. ... S Elijah Riley should return from concussion protocol after missing the game Sunday. ... CB Bryce Hall, TE Tyler Kroft and practice squad LB LaRoy Reynolds became the latest Jets players placed on the COVID-19 list.

Saleh and seven starters, including defensive tackle Quinnen Williams (a Sunday morning scratch), were out because of COVID-19 protocols. All told, 20 players were on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

With the NFL adopting CDC recommendations to cut quarantine time to five days after a positive test, some or all of the players added this week could come off the list in time to play as long as they are asymptomatic.

Saleh was cleared to return on Wednesday

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Mike White, Joe Flacco, Zach Wilson
RBs: Michael Carter, James Robinson, Ty Johnson, Breece Hall
WRs: Garrett Wilson, Elijah Moore, Corey Davis, Denzel Mims, Braxton Berrios, Jeff Smith
TEs: Tyler Conklin, C.J. Uzomah, Jeremy Ruckert, Kenny Yeboah

Philadelphia Eagles

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

Running back Miles Sanders broke his right hand against the New York Giants on Sunday and will miss this week's game against the Washington Football Team, head coach Nick Sirianni said Monday.

Sanders will be reevaluated next week. The team is hopeful he will return at some point this season and he will not be placed on injured reserve, Sirianni said.

Sanders left Sunday's game in the first half and did not return. Jordan Howard and Boston Scott saw an increased workload in his absence, though Howard was later sidelined with a stinger. Howard's MRI "came back good," per Sirianni, and there's optimism that he'll return to play as well.

The Eagles (8-7) sit in the seventh and final playoff spot in the NFC. They have two games remaining: vs. Washington and at the Dallas Cowboys.

The Eagles have won five of their past six games, largely because of their effectiveness on the ground. Philadelphia leads the league in rushing yards per game (163.2) and rushing touchdowns (22). As a result, the Eagles have scored 30 or more points seven times this season. They're averaging 29.9 points per game since Week 8, which is second highest in the NFL in that span behind Indianapolis (31.4).

Whatever the case, Sanders was coming off back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances before Sunday's injury. He missed three games earlier with a sprained ankle and the ground game still produced at a high level. With Sanders out and Howard banged up, Scott and rookie Kenneth Gainwell are expected to have bigger roles against Washington.

Sanders, 24, has rushed for 754 yards on 137 carries (5.5 yards per attempt) with no touchdowns in 12 games.

Meanwhile, the Eagles are keeping quarterbacks Jalen Hurts, Gardner Minshew and Reid Sinnett in separate rooms at team headquarters amid the surge in coronavirus cases across the country and the NFL, Sirianni said.

"We're going to make some adjustments. I'm not there 100 percent yet because I don't have to be quite yet with the players not being back yet, but we're going to definitely make even more adjustments than what we need to just keep everybody safe," he said. "The quarterbacks will be in separate rooms. We're going to be even safer with them being in separate rooms."

The Eagles' quarterback meetings are now entirely virtual. That not only keeps the quarterbacks apart, but also Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen -- the offensive playcallers -- in separate rooms.

All three quarterbacks will continue to attend practices.

The Eagles currently have eight players on the reserve/COVID-19 list, including defensive ends Derek Barnett, Ryan Kerrigan and Tarron Jackson. Philadelphia began implementing more intensive protocols a couple of weeks ago as the number of cases leaguewide began to tick up, including holding team meetings in the practice bubble as opposed to the smaller auditorium and switching certain meeting rooms to allow for more social distancing.

Separating quarterbacks is the latest step in trying to keep the team as healthy as possible.

"I talked to a couple other head coaches and tried to figure out what they're doing because we all know -- to win this game this week, we're going to need all hands on deck," Sirianni said. "So, what is the best course of action? And, obviously, we're talking to our doctors and our trainers to figure out the best course of attack."

Beyond all that, it's fair to wonder if the Eagles can rely on Hurts' arm down the stretch?

The second-year signal caller was 7-of-17 for 94 yards in the first half and was inches away from both an interception and a lost fumble. He rebounded to throw a pair of touchdowns, helping the Eagles pull away. But he was limited as a runner for the second straight game (two carries, 7 yards), an indication that his sprained left ankle is not yet 100 percent.

As ESPN.com's Tim McManus suggested, in order to win out against Washington and Dallas and make any noise in the playoffs should they get there, Hurts needs to avoid the peaks and valleys in the passing game -- especially if his run game is limited due to injury.

On a more positive note, rookie wide receiver DeVonta Smith had five catches for 80 yards and one touchdown. It was his best game since five catches for 116 yards and one TD on Nov. 7 against the Chargers.

And finally. ... The team announced that they have signed Kerryon Johnson to their practice squad. Johnson spent training camp with the Eagles, but failed to make the team.

Johnson appeared in one game for the 49ers in Week 3, but only saw action on special teams. He ran 283 times for 1,225 yards and eight touchdowns over three seasons with the Lions.

Again, with Sanders out and Howard coming off that stinger, the addition makes sense if Howard doesn't return as expected.

Worth noting. ... Howard did not practice Wednesday; Hurts (ankle) was limited; I'll have more via Late-Breaking Update in coming days.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jalen Hurts, Gardner Minshew, Ian Book
RBs: Miles Sanders, Kenneth Gainwell, Boston Scott, Jason Huntley, Kennedy Brooks
WRs: A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, Quez Watkins, Zach Pascal, Britain Covey
TEs: Jack Stoll, Grant Calcaterra, Dallas Goedert

Pittsburgh Steelers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

As ESPN.com's Brooke Pryor pointed out, with two games left, the Steelers aren't out of the playoff race. Their chances of earning are minimal after Sunday's 36-10 drubbing by the Kansas City Chiefs, but the players aren't ready to throw in the towel.

Sunday's loss followed a familiar script -- the Steelers (7-7-1) went in a big hole early, but this time, they couldn't dig out. The Steelers have been outscored 97-9 in the first half of their last five games, and they were held without a first-half touchdown for a fifth consecutive game -- the first time that's happened since 1940.

The 23-point hole Sunday also marked the third time in the Steelers' last five games they've trailed by at least 23 points.

The Steelers' other two recent large deficits resulted in losses to the Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings, and all three were on the road.

"We haven't done much on the road," head coach Mike Tomlin said. "We're taking too long to warm up to the environment. It's been an issue. Obviously won't be an issue coming up this week, we'll be at Heinz Field. I acknowledge it's been an issue for us."

Running back Najee Harris, though, didn't blame the slow start on the hostile crowd.

"I'll say it's just execution," Harris said. "It's kind of dumb to blame it on everything else other than us when we're in Week [16], later in the season. It's about time we point at ourselves instead of other X-factors. It's something we've got to get together as a team. I don't think it has to do with anything else but us, personally, individually. We've just got to find a way to execute, personally and as a team.

"You should get acclimated to whatever. Away, home. It doesn't matter. We've got to get it together."

Losses by the Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Chargers this weekend keep the Steelers' playoff hopes from completely tanking. They're in 11th place in a tight AFC after the loss, but to have any hope of playing past Week 18, the Steelers have to first beat the Browns on Monday Night Football at Heinz Field in what figures to be Ben Roethlisberger's final game at home as a Steeler.

The Steelers are 5-2-1 in home games this season, their two losses coming in Weeks 2 and 3.

"It doesn't happen if we don't get one," Roethlisberger said of making the playoffs. "We've got to go get one win, coming home, big game Monday night. Two divisional opponents. Let's focus on this one. That's going to be my message. Let's focus on one game, one opponent. Trying to get one victory, see what happens after that."

Meanwhile, Tomlin is well aware of the issues plaguing his team's offense.

Roethlisberger and the offense were ineffective throughout the game, Roethlisberger completing 23 of 35 attempts for 159 yards with an interception and a fumble caused by a strip sack in the fourth quarter.

Roethlisberger also had a garbage time touchdown throw to Diontae Johnson with less than three minutes to go before Mason Rudolph replaced him with two minutes left.

The coach doesn't believe the game planning by first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada is part of the problem.

Tomlin said Tuesday he has no issues with Canada's approach but added it's imperative for the Steelers to get off to better starts if they want to have any chance to reach the playoffs.

"I have no reservations about the play-calling component of his job and what he's done," Tomlin said before adding there is a learning curve when it comes to calling plays at the collegiate level -- as Canada has done at places such as Pitt and LSU -- and the NFL.

As Associated Press sports writer Will Graves suggests, Canada's learning curve likely needs to flatten out quickly.

Pittsburgh hasn't scored a first-half offensive touchdown since before Thanksgiving.

The 39-year-old Roethlisberger, has flashed shades of his old gunslinging self in spurts throughout the season, particularly when the offense uses more up-tempo, no-huddle plays, but the last two games have been marred by slow-developing, fruitless plays.

Asked if he would consider just "handing Roethlisberger the keys", Tomlin said he's "not opposed to that" but added Roethlisberger is already heavily involved.

"Ben is always a component of planning, particularly as it pertains to starts," he said. "You know, he's a guy who's been on the job 18 years at the quarterback position. It'd be foolish for us not to include him in the process. So I'm not going to pretend like that has not been a component or part of the discussions as it pertains to the development of plans to this point this season."

One person who won't be part is former offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, who left the team on Monday to take the same position at Oregon less than a year after being promoted following the firing of Shaun Sarrett. Tomlin said Klemm was committed to finishing out the season in Pittsburgh, but Tomlin let him head west immediately to "eliminate any questions" about the commitment level of those in the building.

Chris Morgan will work with the offensive line for the remainder of the season, which Tomlin will use as an opportunity to evaluate Morgan as a potential full-time replacement.

Morgan will be tasked with trying to help an ineffective offensive line find some sort of momentum as Pittsburgh tries to earn a second straight playoff berth.

The good news?

Pittsburgh could be relatively healthy when it hosts the Browns. Tight end Pat Freiermuth (concussion), right guard Trai Turner, center Kendrick Green (calf) and left guard Kevin Dotson (left guard) could all be available.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Kenny Pickett, Mitchell Trubisky, Mason Rudolph
RBs: Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, Benny Snell
WRs: George Pickens, Diontae Johnson, Miles Boykin, Steven Sims, Gunner Olszewski
TEs: Pat Freiermuth, Zach Gentry, Connor Heyward

San Francisco 49ers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

The 49ers resumed practice Monday after a long holiday weekend without starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

That's because Garoppolo suffered what a source told ESPN's Adam Schefter was a torn ulnar collateral ligament of the right thumb, as well as a fracture in the same thumb, early in Thursday's 20-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans. His status for Sunday's game against the Houston Texans remains uncertain.

Garoppolo did not participate in the Niners' Monday "bonus" practice, which came after the team went its separate ways for the three days following the loss in Nashville. Rookie quarterback Trey Lance took all of the work with the starters in Monday's session, which coach Kyle Shanahan described as a walk-through.

According to Shanahan, Garoppolo suffered the injury when Titans defensive tackle Denico Autry sacked him for a 7-yard loss with 3:56 left in the second quarter. Garoppolo finished the game but struggled with a pair of costly interceptions and missed a would-be touchdown throw to open fullback Kyle Juszczyk in the first half.

Shanahan indicated that Garoppolo was hampered by the thumb on the Niners' first offensive play of the third quarter, a pass intended for receiver Deebo Samuel that sailed into the waiting arms of Titans safety Amani Hooker for an interception that Tennessee turned into the game-tying touchdown.

Garoppolo finished 26-of-35 for 322 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions for a 44.4 QBR.

"We knew his thumb was hurting him," Shanahan said. "We thought he jammed it sometime in the game, so he tells us right when he comes to the bench."

With Garoppolo considered day-to-day, Lance could be in line for his first extended work with the starters since before a Week 5 loss to Arizona. And if Garoppolo is unable to heal well enough to play Sunday, Lance would make his second career start against Houston.

Shanahan indicated the decision will come down to not only how Garoppolo feels but also how he looks throwing the ball if he progresses to that stage. As for Lance, Shanahan said the No. 3 overall pick in this year's draft has made good progress while running the scout team The coach pointed to improved decision-making and accuracy, among other things.

"This last month of Trey has been his best consecutive four weeks at practice since we've had him," Shanahan said. "He's had a number of good days and he's had some bad days like most guys do, but as far as his consistency and stuff, I feel this last month has been his best."

In addition to Garoppolo, the 49ers had some other key names dealing with injuries. Linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair has a sprained knee that will keep him out at least the next two games, according to Shanahan, while defensive tackle D.J. Jones will be limited by an ankle injury.

Rookie running back Elijah Mitchell, who has missed the last three games to a concussion and more recently a knee injury, could return this week.

Finally, punter Mitch Wishnowsky is being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, making him the first Niner to get that designation since August.

Stay tuned. ... I'll have more on Garoppolo, Lance and Mitchell, who was limited in Wednesday's practice, via Late-Breaking Update as preparations for the Texans play out in coming days. ...

Also of interest. ... Samuel had nine catches for 159 yards and ran five times for 32 for his fourth game this season with at least 150 yards from scrimmage. The only other San Francisco receiver to do that was Jerry Rice in 1994 and '95.

Samuel's fifth catch for at least 50 yards -- matching the league high -- set up the game-tying touchdown, and he now has 1,548 yards from scrimmage and 12 TDs on the season.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jimmy Garoppolo, Brock Purdy, Trey Lance
RBs: Christian McCaffrey, Elijah Mitchell, Kyle Juszczyk, Jordan Mason, Tyrion Davis-Price
WRs: Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Jauan Jennings, Danny Gray, Ray-Ray McCloud, Malik Turner
TEs: George Kittle, Ross Dwelley, Charlie Woerner, Tyler Kroft

Seattle Seahawks

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Tim Booth points out, there's a page inside the information packet the Seahawks release weekly that lists all the moments in Russell Wilson's career when led a game-winning comeback in the fourth quarter and overtime.

There are 35 listings in total, a staggering number and tied with Matthew Stafford for the most of any quarterback since Wilson arrived in the league in 2012.

But there is a noticeable absence from that list.

There are no listings from this season, which speaks largely to why the Seahawks are 5-10, eliminated from playoff consideration and likely headed for an offseason of major changes, the likes of which Seattle hasn't seen during the Wilson and Pete Carroll era.

Those late-game moments that helped define Wilson's greatness have gone missing and Sunday's 25-24 loss to Chicago was another example. After the Bears took the lead with 1:01 remaining, Wilson had two timeouts and needed 35 or so yards for a realistic attempt at a winning field goal.

Instead, Seattle committed three penalties and failed to convert a first down, Wilson's last pass attempt not getting to Tyler Lockett.

There are a multitude of reasons why Seattle's season has fallen apart and a team that won 12 games and a division title a year ago is guaranteed of finishing in last place in the NFC West. But their lack of fourth quarter and overtime execution is near the top of that list.

And while not all of that should fall on Wilson -- he missed three games, two of which Seattle had chances in the fourth quarter or overtime -- it all comes back to the franchise quarterback in some way. When trailing with less than 4 minutes to go this season, Wilson has a 70.7 passer rating, one TD and been sacked four times.

"I think that's the biggest and the toughest part about this season," Wilson said. "I think about all the great seasons, all the great moments we've had. A lot of times it's -- this season in particular it feels like we have the lead or whatever it may be, and we can finish better. We have to be able to finish better in my opinion on offense."

The good news for Seattle?

With two games left in the regular season, the Seahawks somehow have one of the best run defenses in the NFL. It was on display again Sunday while holding Chicago running back David Montgomery to 45 yards rushing on 21 carries. Chicago had just 88 yards on 30 carries and take away Khalil Herbert's 20-yard TD run and Seattle allowed 2.3 yards per rush on the other 29 attempts.

But the offense is what fantasy managers are interested in and Booth believes it should be troubling for the Seahawks that DK Metcalf may be the best pure athlete on the field yet completely disappears from the offense for stretches. Metcalf caught a 41-yard touchdown in the first quarter Sunday, then had one reception for zero yards and was shut out in the second half.

Something had gone awry with the connection between Wilson and Metcalf.

Positives on offense?

Once thought a certain separation after this season, Rashaad Penny is making a strong case for having a role with the Seahawks in 2022. Penny posted his second 100-yard rushing game in the past three games against the Bears, running for 135 yards on just 17 carries. Penny averaged 7.9 yards per rush and was able to break out with runs of 32, 32 and 25 yards.

In the past four games, Penny has rushed for 346 yards and is averaging 6.4 yards per carry.

"My whole career has been derailed with small little injuries or small things," Penny said. "Finally, for four games straight, I was able to just keep going and keep continuing for the last few weeks."

Seattle's home finale is Sunday against Detroit.

Whether it's the final home game for Carroll, Wilson or Bobby Wagner is one of the big unknowns. It seems likely there is some sort of overhaul about to take place in the offseason that would break up at least part of the most successful run in franchise history. If so, the game with Detroit could be the final opportunity for home fans to show their appreciation.

But to be clear, Carroll doesn't believe a "restart" is in order.

"Not for one reason at all am I thinking that we have to restart this whole thing and create a new philosophy and a new approach and all that," he told 710 ESPN Seattle on Monday. "I don't think that. I think we've got the essence of the things that we need. We've got to build on them, we've got to support it better and we've got to continue to grow and progress.

"There ain't no standing still, but there's the foundation for doing things."

Carroll, who has final say on personnel matters, said the Seahawks were "very optimistic" about their level of talent going into this season. He mentioned their offensive line in particular, saying it's been "fine" and hasn't been the problem "at all."

But he said the Seahawks have been "up against it" with how loaded the rest of the NFC West is. They've gone 2-3 in divisional games.

Carroll was asked if Jody Allen, who's been the team's de facto owner since her brother Paul passed away in 2018, has signed off on the idea that a restart isn't needed.

"We've been on the same page about everything that's going on since she took over," Carroll said.

The 70-year-old Carroll is under contract through the 2025 season while general manager John Schneider is under contract though the 2027 draft, each signing an extension within the last 14 months.

Wilson's future is in question after he voiced his frustration last offseason, leading to trade talks between the Seahawks and Bears. Wilson, who's under contract through 2023, has since said he wants to remain in Seattle. Wagner is signed through 2022 and will be coming off his eighth straight Pro Bowl but has a cap charge of $20.35 million next season.

Wilson's absence and uneven accuracy since his return are among the reasons why Seattle's offense ranks 20th in points per game.

In noting the difficulty the Seahawks have had pinpointing Wilson's recent struggles, Carroll said he doesn't believe coordinator Shane Waldron's system is the issue "at all" and noted that the quarterback doesn't feel like he's still hurt.

"But the results are a little bit different," Carroll said, "and the accuracy thing, maybe there's a couple plays a game, and I think that there's a factor in there, some that we have to deal with that we really don't have control of like we wish we did."

Carroll was asked on 710 ESPN Seattle if he's confident about the future of the team.

"Yeah, we have to continue to build, though," he said. "We've got to get better and keep bringing in the players that can help us make the difference. We've got to get healthy again and we'll see how that goes. The quarterback position with Russ having to deal with what he's dealt with -- which most players could not have handled the way he did -- we've got to see how he bounces back.

"He will certainly be great again. He's going to be a great player. I don't feel like it shows right now, but I think that's what's going to happen because he's got it in him to do that.

"So we build around those factors and all of the pluses that we can generate. We've got contracts, we've got a lot of free agents. We'll figure that out later but there's a lot of questions and things that we've got to [get] through and figure out. It's just not the time. It's not the time to asses all of that. But there's a lot to look at and there's a lot of positives and a lot of plusses."

A few final notes. ... Jason Myers continues to miss kicks at troublesome times for Seattle. Myers missed a 39-yarder in the fourth quarter on Sunday that would have given the Seahawks a 10-point lead. It was his second missed field goal this season inside 40 yards. The conditions with snow on the field and some wind weren't optimal, but considering how good Myers was a year ago, this season has been a disappointment.

On the health front. ... Seattle didn't have any injuries of significance coming out of the loss and they're getting a couple of offensive players back from the COVID-19 reserve list.

The team announced that tight end Will Dissly and right tackle Brandon Shell have been activated on Tuesday. The team now has four active roster players on the reserve list with cornerback D.J. Reed and defensive lineman Bryan Mone also set to come off the list this week.

Cornerback Bless Austin and defensive end L.J. Collier are the other two players currently unavailable due to COVID protocols.

Dissly has 20 catches for 223 yards and a touchdown in 14 appearances this season. Shell has started all 10 games he's played and missed one with a shoulder injury before spending the last two games on the reserve list.

One last note here. ... Alex Collins, who took over the primary backfield role when Chris Carson was lost to a season-ending neck injury is clearly no longer that. In fact, with Penny rolling, Collins was a healthy scratch against the Bears.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Geno Smith, Drew Lock
RBs: Kenneth Walker III, DeeJay Dallas, Travis Homer, Tony Jones Jr.
WRs: Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf, Marquise Goodwin, D'Wayne Eskridge, Penny Hart, Dareke Young
TEs: Noah Fant, Will Dissly, Colby Parkinson

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

It came a week late and without a good chunk of their star power, but Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers clinched the NFC South title with a 32-6 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, capturing their first division title since 2007 and giving them back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time in franchise history.

"We wanted to hang three banners this year," head coach Bruce Arians said. "We don't have one of those division banners up there for a long time. It feels great. This is what we focused on to win our division. Our guys did it today. Can't be more prouder of the group that played today."

Injures forced them to be without Pro Bowl wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and running back Leonard Fournette, who comprised nearly 60 percent of their scoring offense. On defense, they were without outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, inside linebacker Lavonte David and safety Antoine Winfield Jr.

They also lost Pro Bowl outside linebacker Shaq Barrett to a knee injury in the third quarter.

There will be significant absences this week as well.

Arians has tested positive for COVID-19, the team announced Tuesday.

Arians is isolating at home. He told ESPN.com's Jenna Laine he is OK and is dealing with mild symptoms, mainly a cough.

"I tested positive for COVID-19 this morning but have only experienced mild symptoms to this point," Arians said in a statement issued by the team.

Assistant head coach and run game coordinator Harold Goodwin will handle Arians' duties on an interim basis.

"I have complete confidence in him and the rest of our coaching staff to prepare the team for this week's game against the Jets," Arians said in his statement. "I look forward to rejoining the team and being back in the facility as soon as I can test back in."

Arians, 69, has had multiple health issues in his career, including a prostate cancer diagnosis in 2007, a skin cancer diagnosis in 2013 and renal cell carcinoma that required part of his kidney to be removed in 2017. He was required to undergo a physical to ensure he was healthy enough to coach the Buccaneers before accepting the job in 2019 and has not had any documented health concerns while in Tampa.

Arians is the second member of the Bucs' coaching staff to test positive this week. On Monday, wide receivers coach Kevin Garver tested positive, as did Evans.

Goodwin has worked with Arians since 2007, when he was the offensive line coach and quality control coordinator when Arians was offensive coordinator with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He went with Arians to the Indianapolis Colts, where he served as offensive line coach when Arians was offensive coordinator and interim head coach. He was then Arians' offensive coordinator with the Arizona Cardinals from 2013 to 2017.

Evans is already week-to-week with a hamstring injury he suffered in the Week 15 loss to New Orleans.

If either COVID-19 or the hamstring injury keeps him out for the next two weeks, Evans will finish without reaching 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in his career. Evans currently has 899 yards and 11 touchdowns in 14 games.

While there's a chance Evans might return down the stretch, sacks leader Shaquil Barrett (knee) likely won't play again in the regular season.

On Tuesday, the Bucs announced that cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean would be placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, bringing the total for Buccaneers players and coaches to seven. Last week, defensive lineman Rakeem Nunez-Roches and kick returner Jaelon Darden were placed on the list. ...

Meanwhile, the Bucs go Antonio Brown back after his injuries and suspension. Brown caught 10 passes for 101 yards against the Panthers.

In fact, the Bucs leaned heavily on Brown and Cyril Grayson, who had just one catch for the season prior to Sunday and two in his career, hauled in three catches for 81 yards.

On the ground, the Bucs turned to Ronald Jones, who was unseated by Fournette for the starting running back role last season, and Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who before Sunday had rushed for just 50 yards on the season. Vaughn took a handoff 55 yards for a touchdown on the second drive of the game, giving the Bucs their longest rushing score of the year.

In the second quarter, Brady found Cameron Brate on a slant route for a 4-yard touchdown to make it 19-6, with the Bucs showing far heavier tight end usage after one of the unit's worst performances of the season last week. Jones added the team's third touchdown on a 7-yard run in the third quarter.

"We lost a lot. We lost a lot," Brady said of the injuries. "And I don't think you just make up for it overnight. We're gonna have to learn each other. We're gonna have to do some different things for the guys that are in there -- guys are gonna have to keep getting better and making improvements. Hopefully we can get some guys back this week and then get a bit stronger at these positions."

Throughout the season, the Bucs had what many deemed an embarrassment of riches on offense. Even without Brown for nine games and Rob Gronkowski for five, they repeatedly put up 30 points a game.

That was until Week 15, when the team could have clinched the division with a win but lost 9-0 to the New Orleans Saints.

"I'm not taking anything for granted," Brady said. "Winning the division is hard to do. And we've earned it. We're 11-4. It's not the greatest record in the world, but it's certainly not the worst either. So 11-4 -- I'll take it. We lost some tough games. I think we've learned from each of those tough losses."

And they're still learning.

Against the Panthers, there were a few mistakes and, in Brown's case, some rust, as he and Brady were on different pages on a third-down pass on the opening drive. Brate also wasn't on the same page with Brady at the Carolina 4-yard line, and on third down, Brady and Gronkowski failed to connect on a corner route in the end zone.

But the defense kept the Panthers out of the end zone all game and Brown was a difference-maker on third down.

"When I watched him practice this week, I knew he was in great shape," Arians said of Brown, who registered his 23rd career game of 10-plus receptions, breaking a tie with Andre Johnson for most in NFL history. "He was healthy this week and told me, 'Whatever you need, I'm there.'"

Speaking to reporters for the first time since his suspension, Brown quipped "next question" when asked about what it meant that Arians stood in his corner despite the coach making it clear that there would be no second chances.

An NFL investigation determined that Brown and teammate Mike Edwards used fake COVID-19 vaccination cards. ...

Wide receiver Breshad Perriman is back. Perriman was activated from the COVID-19 reserve list Tuesday after missing the last two games.

The last time Perriman played, he scored a 58-yard touchdown in overtime to beat the Bills. ...

One last note here. ... The wildcard in the new procedure that allows teams with coaching vacancies to interview assistant coaches from other teams is that the team with the assistant coaches drawing interest elsewhere must consent. Arians was eager give that consent.

"None of the paperwork has been put in yet," Arians told reporters on Monday when asked whether teams have requested permission to interview offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and/or defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. "They have to go through channels. And I welcome it if it is."

On Tuesday the Jaguars requested permission to speak with both.

If a team gives permission for even one interview for an assistant, it must grant permission to all teams interested in the assistant. Some head coaches may resist, given that it can indeed create a distraction. Some teams have lobbied to push the process later, not earlier, so that the assistants will focus on the jobs they have before turning their attention to the one they're trying to get.

But Arians is fine with it.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Tom Brady, Blaine Gabbert, Kyle Trask
RBs: Leonard Fournette, Rachaad White, Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Giovani Bernard
WRs: Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Julio Jones, Russell Gage, Breshad Perriman, Scott Miller, Jaelon Darden, Kaylon Geiger
TEs: Cade Otton, Cameron Brate, Ko Kieft, Kyle Rudolph

Tennessee Titans

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

The Tennessee Titans are back at work rested from a weekend off with the math for their second straight AFC South title very simple.

Beat the Miami Dolphins on Sunday and avoid going to Houston for the regular-season finale needing to beat the Texans for a third straight season.

Not that anything will change from how the Titans prepare with Monday giving them an extra day to prepare.

"I would say it is pretty much the same scenario as we have always tried to talk about around here and just focusing on this week," head coach Mike Vrabel said. "Focusing on how we can improve. Use these couple of extra days to get healthy and do a little bit of work today, to condition and work out and to meet."

As Associated Press sports writer Teresa M. Walker noted, the Titans (10-5) had some mixed results Monday with the latest round of COVID-19 testing.

They activated starting left guard Rodger Saffold and rookie defensive back Elijah Molden from the reserve-COVID-19 list.

They also placed three starters and four players overall on the reserve list: outside linebacker Bud Dupree, wide receivers Julio Jones and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine and defensive back Buster Skrine. Cornerback Caleb Farley, who's on injured reserve, also was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list.

Defensive end Denico Autry and linebacker Jayon Brown both went on the list Tuesday.

With the NFL adopting CDC recommendations to cut quarantine time to five days after a positive test, some or all of the players added this week could come off the list in time to play as long as they are asymptomatic.

Right guard Nate Davis and reserve lineman Kendall Lamm all remain on the list. Left tackle Taylor Lewan came off the list Wednesday.

"We are dealing with it like everybody else is," Vrabel said. "Trying to do what is best for the player and make sure their health and safety is monitored and taken care of, and their family's health and safety are taken care of. I would say that we are hopeful to get some of those guys back."

The Titans have won two of three since their bye and now hope to benefit from the mini-break following their 20-17 win over San Francisco on Dec. 23. They currently hold the No. 2 seed in the AFC where only Kansas City (11-4) has a playoff berth clinched.

A team that has used 88 players this season, most in a non-strike season, has gotten at least one player back from injured reserve prior to each of the past three games. First, it was Jones against the Jaguars followed by Dupree against Pittsburgh and most recently receiver A.J. Brown hours before the win over the Niners.

Brown came through with 145 yards on a career-high 11 catches in a much-needed win with Tennessee's margin in the AFC South decreasing over Indianapolis (9-6).

It's probably no coincidence that Ryan Tannehill threw for more than 200 yards for the first time in five games on Thursday. Tannehill also had a touchdown pass for the first time in three games. It snapped a streak of 102 passes without a touchdown.

The Titans were the first team with at least five conversions on third-and-10 or longer in a game this season.

Brown emerged as a third-down converter, catching eight passes -- the most in a game over the past 30 seasons.

According to ESPN.com's Turron Davenport, Jones isn't the same player he was two years ago, but the Titans need him only to be a presence who can beat single coverage when defenses home in on Brown.

Jones finished with one reception for 7 yards, so there's a lot left to be desired. Tannehill mentioned how Jones attracted coverage when he connected with Brown to convert on a third-and-26. It would be great for the Titans if they could get a productive game from Jones heading into the playoffs to make defenses think twice about paying all of the attention to Brown.

So they have that going for them.

In addition, six of the 13 Titans currently on injured reserve are eligible to return. That includes Derrick Henry, the NFL's rushing leader the past two seasons who was leading the league in that category when he broke his right foot Oct. 31. Vrabel refused to tip whether Henry, or anyone else, might be allowed to start practicing this week.

That's not stopping others from hoping and speculating what might happen as the Titans hope they can prepare for the postseason.

"As soon as we get everybody back healthy, get the King (Henry) back, we do what we do," Brown said after their win over the Niners.

While Henry's season-long ship has sailed, getting him back at some point in the playoffs would make for some post-season fantasy tournament and DFS fun.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Ryan Tannehill, Malik Willis
RBs: Derrick Henry, Dontrell Hilliard, Hassan Haskins, Julius Chestnut, Trenton Cannon
WRs: Robert Woods, Treylon Burks, Nick Westbrook_Ikhine, Cody Hollister, Chris Conley, Kyle Philips
TEs: Austin Hooper, Chigoziem Okonkwo, Geoff Swaim, Kevin Rader

Washington Football Team

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 28 December 2021

According to ESPN.com's John Keim, the worst nightmare occurred for the Washington Football Team.

A roster that continued to lose key players endured a week when those losses were too much to overcome. It also leads to a pivotal question during a three-game skid: Was it just about the player losses, or did Washington swerve down a road that threatens to derail any progress?

Washington wasn't good enough to overcome those losses, or even stay competitive in Sunday's 56-14 road loss against the Dallas Cowboys (11-4).

It was Washington's second loss in five days. The team clinched its fifth losing season in a row -- not the step it wanted to take coming off last season's 7-9 finish. Washington's playoff hopes are now remote.

"We've been dealing with a lot of s---, so it's something we've got to learn to deal with and handle," coach Ron Rivera said. "Sometimes we play to our abilities and play to what we're capable of. [Sunday] was not an indication of what we're capable of."

As Keim explained, that's why he said the loss was just about one game, not a sign of where the franchise is -- or isn't -- headed. Washington (6-9) was in bad shape after a 27-17 loss at Philadelphia (8-7) on Tuesday, but trailed by only three midway through the fourth quarter. It was in bad shape against the Cowboys two weeks ago, yet had the ball late in the game with a chance to tie.

"This is a bad game. This ain't a direction, I'll tell you that right now," Rivera said. "Look at the way we played in the previous two games and in our circumstances you'd say that's a hell of an effort. What happened [Sunday] was disappointing. Could we have played better? I think so. It didn't happen that way so we live with it."

On Dec. 17, Washington had 23 players on the COVID-19 list; three still remain -- guard Brandon Scherff and linebacker Cole Holcomb were activated Monday. Washington's top two quarterbacks, as well as seven assistant coaches, were out in the loss Tuesday at Philadelphia, forcing the team to start quarterback Garrett Gilbert four days after he was signed off New England's practice squad.

Five days later Washington had to play the Cowboys. In the meantime, the injured reserve list was adding more players, including safety/linebacker Landon Collins, a key to their defensive turnaround prior to the past two games. Among the key contributors on the list: tight end Logan Thomas, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, defensive end Chase Young, running back J.D. McKissic, center Chase Roullier and linebacker Jon Bostic. Corner William Jackson III and linebacker Jamin Davis were unavailable Sunday. Receiver Curtis Samuel has been a non-factor this season, largely because of injuries.

Then, on Thursday, safety and special teams captain Deshazor Everett was involved in a one-car crash that killed his girlfriend. Everett has since been discharged from the hospital.

"Friday was a very difficult day," Rivera said.

Said quarterback Taylor Heinicke: "The whole Deshazor thing that happened, it's really tough. He's one of the bright spots in the locker room; he's always smiling, always working hard. You hear that something like that happened, especially during the holidays, it's tough. Again, there's no excuse for what happened [Sunday]."

Over the past two games Washington allowed a combined 1,016 yards, 83 points and 7.10 yards per play as the team was outgained by 522 yards and outscored by 52 points. In the previous five games, it had allowed 5.35 yards per play.

But there's a line between providing a reason for subpar play and an excuse. Washington was a double-digit underdog entering the game Sunday because of the player absences. A loss would have been understandable, but allowing 42 first-half points is not.

Rivera said of giving reasons versus making excuses: "You're going to sound like that no matter how hard I try not to."

"It does affect us," said defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, who was involved in a sideline skirmish Sunday with teammate Daron Payne when frustrations boiled over. "It's our job to go out there and play good football. Which, for the last two weeks, it has been probably some of the worst football I've ever been a part of, including myself. We have no one to blame but ourselves."

If Washington wants to finish the season pointed in the right direction, it needs to play much better -- starting Sunday at home in a rematch against the Eagles (1 p.m. ET, Fox). Then it needs to address quarterback in the offseason. Rivera and the organization can view the past three games, which followed a four-game win streak, as a byproduct of the roster woes. The danger would be in thinking it's the only reason for the struggles.

"How you respond to it," Rivera said he told his players, "that tells more about who you are than anything else."

He was talking about Sunday's loss. He could have been talking about the past three weeks.

The only good news is there are only two games left in the season, and Washington's coaching staff and front office can shift into full evaluation mode for 2022 and beyond.

"Are we playing for the future? Absolutely," Rivera said. What's that future? I don't know what that future is, but we're playing for the future and you have to play one (game) at a time first and foremost."

As they ponder that future, it's safe to assume quarterback will be on the agenda.

By throwing two interceptions in another ugly performance, Heinicke almost certainly ended any chance of going into next season as a candidate to be Washington's starting quarterback. The Heinicke magic from the four-game winning streak has faded.

Heinicke is still in line to start Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, but Kyle Allen could also see some action and may get the nod in Week 18 at the New York Giants.

"Not as an indictment of Taylor or anything like that, but just that we also wanna make sure we get a really good look at Kyle," Rivera said.

ON a more positive note, rookie receiver Dyami Brown hauled in a 48-yard pass for Washington's longest play of the Cowboys game. Brown has had an inconsistent first season in the NFL, but his presence alongside Terry McLaurin in the offense moving forward can only be considered a positive.

Antonio Gibson played through a toe injury at Dallas, but for a second consecutive year that problem is expected to end his season. It would make sense for Washington to shut down Gibson and see what rookie Jaret Patterson can do with a bigger load.

For the record, Gibson and Samuel (hamstring) were limited to open the week Wednesday; Heinickie (knee) worked fully.

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

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Taylor Heinicke, Sam Howell, Carson Wentz
RBs: Brian Robinson Jr., Antonio Gibson, Jonathan Williams, J.D. McKissic
WRs: Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, Jahan Dotson, Dyami Brown, Cam Sims, Dax Milne
TEs: Logan Thomas, John Bates, Cole Turner, Armani Rogers