2021 NFL season, Week 18: What we learned from Sunday's games

Around The NFL breaks down what you need to know from all of Sunday's action in Week 18 of the 2021 NFL season. Catch up on each game's biggest takeaways using the links below:

Las Vegas Raiders
2021 · 10-7-0

Grant Gordon's takeaways:

  1. Carr silences critics amid classic. The 2021 NFL's regular season didn't end until Monday on the East Coast when the Steelers finally learned they'd be going to the playoffs -- right along with the Raiders. There was infinite chaos, clutch performances and head-scratching moments. Despite all the grandeur of this instant classic, most will focus on the Chargers calling a timeout deep in overtime. Were the Raiders actually playing for the tie and running out the clock? Apparently. Maybe. That all changed when Josh Jacobs busted loose and Daniel Carlson's 47-yard kick was true. Overshadowed by all the talk of ties and timeouts is that Derek Carr has led the Raiders to the playoffs. While Sunday night was a classic, this season has been a nightmare more often than not for the Raiders. And yet Carr is set to play in his first playoff game. It's a long time coming and he had to deal with a ridiculous amount of scrutiny on the way. It's the second time in his eight-season Raiders tenure that the franchise has gone to the playoffs, and though his play was a crucial factor in the 2016 squad advancing to the dance, he was unable to enjoy it because he sustained a broken leg in Week 16 of that season. This time around, Carr has willed his squad along in a season overflowing with calamity and chaos. He wasn't outstanding on Sunday night, but he and his team got the result they needed. He finished with 186 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday's triumph, which somewhat symbolized the utter disarray the Raiders have emerged from. He ended the regular season with a franchise-record 4,804 yards, sitting atop a list of Silver and Black legends. For so long, Carr has produced numbers that have gone under the radar, often overlooked because the end results was that the Raiders were at home in January. Now, they're heading to Cincinnati and Carr is leading the way.
  2. The Herbert hype is real. There are myriad reasons Sunday night's game was ridiculously entertaining and dramatic. Justin Herbert led the way. No, the Chargers aren't going to the playoffs, but Herbert is every bit the all-star sensation regardless. Herbert threw a freaking laser beam to Mike Williams for a 12-yard touchdown to send the game into overtime and conclude a jaw-dropping drive in which L.A. converted on fourth-and-10 three times -- three -- before Herbert's buzzer-beating score. Herbert finished the night with 383 yards and three touchdowns, giving him franchise records of 5,014 yards and 38 TDs. The stats are stupendous, but the throws and ability to bounce back from bad plays and shrug off mistakes are truly sensational. No, the Chargers' woes continued on Sunday with another ending of devastation that's grown to be a franchise hallmark. But there is hope with Herbert that he will shrug this off, because he has the talent and the mindset. The Chargers were down 29-14 in the fourth quarter. You would've been reading this a whole heckuva lot earlier if there was no Herbert. It would've been a blowout. He was the catalyst for a comeback that almost was. He is the reason hope must overshadow the disappointment in this Chargers offseason.
  3. Pass rush to the Maxx. Much ado has rightfully been made about a string of Raiders draft picks who have not panned out. Well, the team's 2019 fourth-round draft pick, Maxx Crosby, has most certainly panned out, much to the dismay of opposing quarterbacks. Crosby was a wreaker of havoc on Sunday night, piling up six tackles, two sacks, three tackles for loss, three passes defended, four QB hits and a career-high 11 QB pressures, per Next Gen Stats. Bound for his first Pro Bowl, Crosby has become a preeminent pass rusher. The Raiders have been looking for a bona fide rusher on the edge for a long time and have been shut out of the postseason for a long time, as well. It's no coincidence both have come to fruition at the same time.

Next Gen stat of the game: The Raiders are the first team in the NGS era to finish the season with two of the NFL's top four in QB pressures (Maxx Crosby first, Yannick Ngakoue third.)

NFL Research: Rich Bisaccia is the first interim coach to lead a team to the playoffs in the Super Bowl era.

San Francisco 49ers
2021 · 10-7-0
Los Angeles Rams
2021 · 12-5-0

Adam Maya's takeaways:

  1. The wild NFC West will be well represented in the playoffs. The division was a popular preseason pick to produce three playoff teams, and it delivered. It only took one of the most improbable comebacks to make it happen. The 49ers came into Sunday knowing they likely needed a win in L.A. to get in -- which proved true as the Saints dismantled the Falcons -- while the Rams could secure the division crown and the NFC's No. 2 seed with a win. San Francisco fell behind 17-0, but didn't give up on its run game, found new ways to put the ball in Deebo Samuel's hands and eventually generated a pass rush to cool off a scorching Matthew Stafford. The Niners' 17-point comeback was the largest in the Kyle Shanahan era. The Rams' 17-point blown lead was the largest in the Sean McVay era, and it snapped his 45-game winning streak after leading at halftime (the second longest run in NFL history, per Next Gen Stats). San Francisco will play at Dallas on Super Wild Card Weekend. L.A., which still won the West but dropped to the No. 4 seed, will host Arizona. Let the playoff games begin.
  2. The 49ers' flaws weren't fatal. There were two glaring concerns coming into the season: quarterback and cornerback. Both areas were badly exposed in different parts of the season, and even in the biggest game of the season. They were also the two biggest reasons San Francisco beat the Rams and clinched a postseason bid. Jimmy Garoppolo, playing through a busted thumb, overcame two turnovers and a ghastly first half by leading three TD drives and setting up a chip-shot field goal in overtime. Additionally, the Niners' secondary rebounded from the roughest of starts Sunday to intercept Stafford twice and help hold the Rams to 151 yards over their last eight possessions, with rookie corner Ambry Thomas recording the game-sealing pick in OT. San Francisco needed all of it to claim the conference's final playoff spot.
  3. Cooper Kupp is the league's most valuable non-quarterback. Aaron Rodgers is the heavy favorite to win MVP. He wouldn't be the wrong choice given his sustained excellence and the disproportionate impact a QB has compared to all other positions. But it's hard to say anyone played their position better in 2021 than Kupp did wide receiver. He was a machine all season, and Sunday was no different. Kupp was virtually unguardable in the first half, helping Stafford complete 15 of his first 16 passes. With the Rams QB faltering after halftime and the offense backed up in its own territory, Kupp ran for an 18-yard gain, hauled in a 30-yard jump-ball to convert a third down, and pirouetted in the corner of the end zone while catching the go-ahead TD -- all on the same drive late in the fourth. The unassuming receiver couldn't have contributed more, in the regular-season finale or the season (he won the receiving triple crown, and his 145 receptions and 1,947 receiving yards are the second-highest totals in league history).

NFL Research: Deebo Samuel became the first WR to throw and run for a TD in the same game since the Patriots' David Patten in 2001. Samuel is the only player in NFL History to notch 1,400-plus receiving yards and 300-plus rushing yards in the same season.

Next Gen stat of the game: The 49ers had a 0.4% win probability after punting to the Rams with 1:50 remaining while trailing 24-17 (lowest win probability in a victory in the Next Gen Stats Era, since 2016).

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2021 · 13-4-0
Carolina Panthers
2021 · 5-12-0

Nick Shook's takeaways:

  1. No matter the odds, Tom Brady will always give his team a good chance of victory. Tampa Bay got off to a sluggish start Sunday, falling behind 7-0 and entering the second quarter trailing the Panthers. No matter for Brady, who erased Carolina's lead before half by capitalizing on the Panthers' repeated defensive mistakes in coverage. Brady picked apart the Panthers' Cover 2 look by firing ropes to Rob Gronkowski in the open space over the middle, racking up chunk plays on two separate touchdown drives to turn a 7-3 Carolina lead into a 17-7 Buccaneers advantage. From there, it was full speed ahead, with Brady shortening his time to throw and lighting up the scoreboard, completing 29 of 37 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns before exiting with the game in hand. Brady capped his performance by finding Mike Evans twice in the red zone for touchdowns before handing the keys to Blaine Gabbert, illustrating just how quickly Brady can take control of a game and end an opponent's dreams of scoring an upset win. That firepower will be dangerous in the postseason, no matter the opponent.
  2. If the Sam Darnold experience is nearing the end, at least he went out on a somewhat positive note. Darnold posted a respectable passing line, completing 29 of 42 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns. As is typical with Darnold, ball security was somewhat of an issue, with the QB fumbling away possession, but his interception came late in what was already a lost game. Darnold didn't appear nearly as lost as he had during a rough stretch that saw him land on injured reserve with an injury, but it also likely wasn't enough of a four-quarter example to inspire much confidence in him going forward. The experiment failed, and it will be interesting to see how Carolina proceeds from here.
  3. Tampa Bay is deeper than you think. The Buccaneers are headed to the playoffs without one of their top receivers, Chris Godwin, but that has been their reality for some time now. Antonio Brown's departure left another hole, yet it didn't seem to matter much Sunday. Gronkowski caught seven of his 10 targets for 137 yards, Evans caught six passes for 89 yards and two touchdowns, and Brady connected with a total of eight different targets on the day. Scott Miller even got into the end zone on a 33-yard run. There's plenty of talent on this team, even with its losses, which included Cyril Grayson's departure from Sunday's game.

Next Gen stat of the game: Tom Brady completed 21 of 22 passes thrown in under 2.5 seconds for 196 yards, three touchdowns and a 143.4 passer rating Sunday.

NFL Research: Tom Brady finished the 2021 regular season with 5,316 passing yards -- the third most in NFL history -- 43 passing touchdowns (tied for 10th-most in a season), and the most completions (485) in NFL history.

Buffalo Bills
2021 · 11-6-0
New York Jets
2021 · 4-13-0

Chase Goodbread's takeaways:

  1. Buffalo's defense flexed a lot of muscle entering the playoffs. The Buffalo defense, among the league's best in most every pertinent category, clamped down on the Jets in a way that made the outcome clear almost from the outset. The Jets' offense didn't even cross the 50-yard line until five minutes remained in the first half, couldn't sustain a possession longer than six plays the entire game, and finished with just 53 net yards. The pass rush was downright ferocious with nine sacks, giving Zach Wilson precious little time to find targets that usually weren't open, anyway. It didn't help that the Jets' wide receiving corps, which is nothing special to begin with, was playing short-handed. It was a mismatch, to be sure, and the Bills left no doubt about that.
  2. The Bills overcame some ugly punting woes to knock off the Jets. Punter Matt Haack will need to clean up his form before the postseason or risk costing his team in a higher-stakes setting. He shanked first-half punts of 21 and 23 yards to give the Jets ideal field position, one of which got New York's first touchdown drive off to a favorable start. In the second half, he mishandled a snap and scrambled to squib a seven-yard punt on the run. He did have a beautiful 43-yarder that pinned the Jets on their 2-yard line, but overall, it was one to forget for Haack. The Buffalo weather didn't help, but that can't be an excuse for a Bills punter in January.
  3. The Jets defense finished the season with an inspired performance. With nothing to play for but pride, credit is due to New York's stop unit for holding Buffalo to 13 points for most of the game. The Jets D finally broke as Buffalo scored two late touchdowns, but with the Jets offense offering zero help from a time-of-possession standpoint, the Bills' late points shouldn't mar the Jets' defensive grade. As usual, LB C.J. Mosley was all over the field. He made 13 tackles -- 12 of them solos -- to close the season with his sixth consecutive game with double-digit stops.

Next Gen stat of the game: Bills RB Devin Singletary ran 10 times for 75 yards (7.5 average) between the tackles.

NFL Research: The Bills defense held Jets QB Zach Wilson under 100 passing yards. It was their third such effort this season, and Wilson's second game under the 100-yard mark.

Miami Dolphins
2021 · 9-8-0
New England Patriots
2021 · 10-7-0

Chase Goodbread's takeaways:

  1. The Dolphins might not be going to the playoffs, but they managed to notch a season sweep of the Pats. They did it with a balanced offense and an opportunistic defense that saw CB Xavien Howard get a pick-six off Patriots QB Mac Jones -- and shake a weak tackle attempt from the rookie on the return -- to extend an early lead. Miami never trailed in this one, taking the fight to New England early by holding the Pats to 22 yards in the first quarter. Late in the game, Miami refused to blink when the Patriots scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pull within three points.
  2. Tua Tagovailoa got the better of Mac Jones. In a Week 1 battle of former Alabama quarterbacks, Jones outplayed Tagovailoa in a losing effort. Four months later, they clashed again with a similar outcome -- a Dolphins win -- but this time, Tagovailoa was the more effective of the two. Jones threw for far more yardage (261 to 109), but he committed two crucial turnovers that Miami cashed for 10 big points. Tagovailoa's passing was downright pedestrian at a paltry five yards per attempt, but he protected the ball, and when the Dolphins needed a first down to kill the clock, he scrambled for 11 on a third-and-8 to all but put the game away.
  3. What got into the Dolphins' running game? With his fourth consecutive start to close the season, Duke Johnson added lots of life to the Miami offense with 117 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. He got a downhill push from a much-maligned offensive line, broke plenty of tackles, and led a team total of 195 yards on 43 carries. That's not what the Patriots defensive staff wants to see against a team that entered with a season average of just 86 yards on the ground. Especially a week before the playoffs commence.

NFL Research: Miami's Jaylen Waddle broke the NFL rookie receptions record on the Dolphins' opening drive, a record previously held by Anquan Boldin. Waddle finished the year with 104 catches.

New Orleans Saints
2021 · 9-8-0
Atlanta Falcons
2021 · 7-10-0

Nick Shook's takeaways:

  1. The Saints finally got Alvin Kamara going. After rushing for 102 yards combined in his last three games, the Saints' star running back broke 100 yards in a contest for the first time since Week 14 on Sunday, running hard to rack up 146 yards on 36 carries. He didn't find the end zone, but after Taysom Hill exited with a foot injury, Kamara became an essential part of New Orleans' offense with Trevor Siemian under center. New Orleans was able to keep its momentum going with the football as a result, pushing its lead to as much as 14 before eventually leaving Atlanta with a 10-point win. Had the Saints figured out how to produce this result say, a week earlier, they'd be headed to the postseason instead of entering the offseason.
  2. With nothing to lose, Atlanta played freely, and Russell Gage stepped up. The Falcons lack playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, especially after Calvin Ridley's extended absence began. None of that mattered to Gage on Sunday, who gained nearly half of Atlanta's 257 yards of total offense, catching nine passes for 126 yards and a touchdown. Gage included a highlight-reel play, hurdling a defender during a catch and run, but as the final score showed, it wasn't enough to win. Kyle Pitts was essentially shut out of this game (two receptions, eight yards), but it won't sting too much for a Falcons team that was already eliminated entering Sunday. At the very least, Gage put out some good tape.
  3. Quarterback is at the top of the priority list for the Saints. New Orleans thought it might have an answer under center in its first season following Drew Brees' retirement, but when Jameis Winston was lost for the year to a knee injury, New Orleans' outlook was thrown into question. The weeks that followed included starts made by Siemian, Hill and Ian Book, producing wildly different styles for New Orleans' offense, and ultimately, its first season without a playoff appearance since 2016. The first year of the post-Brees era produced a disappointing finish, but we can commend the Saints for their fight, which was disproportionately powered by its stingy defense. It's back to the drawing board for Sean Payton's squad.

Next Gen stat of the game: Alvin Kamara carried the ball 13 times against defensive boxes with seven defenders, gaining a career-high 89 yards on such carries for an average of 6.8 yards per attempt.

NFL Research: With one sack Sunday, Cameron Jordan pushed his total to 23 sacks on Matt Ryan in his career, the most one player has against one QB since sacks became official in 1982.

Seattle Seahawks
2021 · 7-10-0
Arizona Cardinals
2021 · 11-6-0

Jelani Scott's takeaways:

  1. Wilson, Penny power 'Hawks to upset. For all the praise Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll will understandably receive for pulling off this upset, the continued greatness of Rashaad Penny proved to be the deciding factor in this outcome. In fact, it was Penny's 62-yard TD run that added another six points to Seattle's 31-24 fourth-quarter lead and effectively ended this wild affair. After tallying 100-plus yards in four of the last five weeks, Penny saved his best for last with a career-high 190-yard showing that should end all talks about what he could be if healthy. Of course, Penny's crunch time score was greatly assisted by the play of Wilson, who stayed aggressive from the jump and ended with 238 yards, three TDs and a pick, as well as a rushing score to break a 24-24 tie at the start of the fourth. Tyler Lockett (five receptions, 98 yards, 2 TDs) came through again en route to securing his third straight 1,000-yard season. If Week 18 is indeed the last time Wilson and Carroll share a sideline, Seattle can at least move forward knowing their era ended with a bang. It may be a bit harder, however, to not dwell on what could've been had the offense that showed up Sunday played to a similar level all season.
  2. Is Arizona's defense ready for the postseason? Chandler Jones' huge strip-sack and Zach Allen's subsequent score on the game's second play set the tone for the type of game the Cardinals wanted to play. The only problem was the unit had little to no answer for Shane Waldron's offense for the rest of the game. The Cards were unable to notch another sack of Wilson for the rest of the evening and, although Jalen Thompson managed to pick him off in the third, Arizona couldn't stop the bleeding. Seattle scored on seven of its 10 drives, five of which went 60-plus yards. The Cardinals will have to quickly shake off this concerning outing with next weekend's postseason meeting with the Rams rapidly approaching.
  3. And what about Kyler? The Cardinals failed to secure the NFC West, but that is the least of their concerns exiting Sunday. Inconsistency was again the theme of the evening as the Cards just couldn't find ways to put their division rival away. Kyler Murray had his moments but was hindered by an O-line that struggled to stop a mostly quiet Seattle pass rush, surrendering five sacks and folding under pressure on numerous occasions. A banged up RB room missing Chase Edmonds saw a returning James Conner (93 scrimmage yards, 2 TDs) again shoulder most of the load before exiting early in the fourth with a rib injury. With time running out on a perceived turnaround, it'll be up to Murray and Kliff Kingsbury to figure out how to survive Wild Card Weekend with an offense that has struggled to stay consistent after beginning the year 7-0.

NFL Research: Entering Wild Card Weekend, Arizona is 8-1 on the road this season (highest win percentage in NFL).

Next Gen stat of the game: Rashaad Penny posted a top speed of 20.19 MPH on his 62-yard TD. That is the fastest rush for Penny this season.

Jacksonville Jaguars
2021 · 3-14-0
Indianapolis Colts
2021 · 9-8-0

Chase Goodbread's takeaways:

  1. If you need to wrap your head around how the Colts blew a chance to clinch a playoff spot against the Jaguars, start with the most mind-boggling reason of all. The NFL's No. 1 team in turnover differential (Indianapolis) lost the turnover battle, 2-0, to the league's worst team in that category (Jacksonville). The Colts are lucky it wasn't more disparate than that -- they recovered two of their own fumbles, and while Carson Wentz threw just his first road interception all year, he was fortunate he didn't throw another. Meanwhile, the Jaguars didn't fumble all day, and QB Trevor Lawrence rebounded from a three-interception game last week to throw no picks against Indy.
  2. Lawrence closed the book on his rookie season with a little optimism. Two of the few positives that Jaguars fans can take into the offseason: 1) Lawrence escaped his rookie season injury free, and 2) he lit up the Colts defense to end the season on a good note. He'd been struggling mightily for weeks and had been turnover-prone all season, but turned all that around on Sunday. He connected on his first 12 passes and his first incompletion was a perfectly thrown deep ball that was dropped by Laquon Treadwell. He was well-protected and showed a commanding presence in finishing 23 of 32 for 223 yards and two scores. He sealed the win on a spectacular play when he recovered a bad shotgun snap, rolled away from pressure, and found Marvin Jones for a difficult TD catch in the back of the end zone. It was the kind of performance Jaguars fans hoped to see far sooner than Jan. 9, but for Lawrence's confidence, it's significant that it finally came.
  3. Stunningly, the Jaguars outplayed the Colts on the line of scrimmage. The Indianapolis offensive line was manhandled as Jacksonville's defense came up with a trio of fourth-down stops, and dropped Wentz for a half-dozen sacks. This from a pass rush that entered ranked 30th in the NFL in sacks. The Colts line looked like it was playing in snowshoes. Defensively, the Colts couldn't apply much of any heat on Lawrence and failed to control the line of scrimmage on third down, where the Jaguars feasted for seven conversions, plus another on fourth down. It was an embarrassing performance all around for Indianapolis, but the big men disappointed most of all.

Next Gen stat of the game: Jaguars LB Josh Allen notched five QB pressures and a pair of sacks on 24 pass rushes (20.8% pressure rate).

NFL Research: Trevor Lawrence notched his first game with a passer rating of 100-plus, and his first game with two-plus TD passes without an interception.

Tennessee Titans
2021 · 12-5-0
Houston Texans
2021 · 4-13-0

Chase Goodbread's takeaways:

  1. With the No. 1 seed in the AFC on the line, the Titans -- despite a legitimate scare -- took care of business. Tennessee's offense started both halves in pedestrian fashion, but drove for touchdowns on its last three possessions of the first half to take two-fisted command over a weaker opponent. That should've been enough to bury the Texans, but it wasn't. Houston outscored Tennessee, 25-7, in the second half, roaring back to push the Titans to the edge of disaster. The last thing Tennessee needed was to take an upset loss and have to hope that three other games broke their way to backdoor their way into the top seed. Instead, they finally seized it on their own behind Ryan Tannehill's fourth touchdown pass and a running game that salted the clock away over the final four minutes. The prize? A weekend on the couch, resting up for the second round of the postseason.
  2. Ryan Tannehill made the play of the game at its most critical juncture. With the Tennessee offense stagnated by three straight three-and-out possessions to start the second half, Houston scrambled back into the game from a 21-0 deficit to trail just 21-18 in the fourth quarter. Facing a third-and-5, Tannehill fought off what should've been a sack by Jacob Martin to avoid yet another punt, scrambled away and found Nick Westbrook-Ikhine for a 36-yard gain that flipped both momentum and field position all at once. The play set up Tannehill's fourth TD pass, which gave Tennessee some much-needed breathing room on the scoreboard and the jolt it needed to finish the win.
  3. Davis Mills was sharp once again. Did the Texans find their quarterback of the future in the third round of the draft last year? It's far too soon to crown Mills as a face of the franchise, but he capped the improvement he's shown since being named the starter with a highly impressive season-ending effort against Tennessee. Mills shook off a scoreless first half to give the Titans defense fits in the second. He finished 23 of 33 for 301 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He did it with poise, accuracy, and very little help from his running game. If anything good has come from the Texans' season, it's that they learned Mills just might be a quarterback worth building around.

Next Gen stat of the game: On rushes between the tackles, Houston's Rex Burkhead was stuffed for zero yards on seven carries.

NFL Research: The Titans are the No. 1 seed despite not having a 1,000-yard rusher or a 1,000-yard receiver. Four teams in the last 25 seasons can make that claim, and three of them won the Super Bowl ('96 Packers, '03 Patriots, '17 Eagles).

Pittsburgh Steelers
2021 · 9-7-1
Baltimore Ravens
2021 · 8-9-0

Nick Shook's takeaways:

  1. The AFC North's best rivalry did not disappoint. Pittsburgh and Baltimore entered Week 18 with the same goal: Win and hope for some help to get into the playoffs. The two teams played accordingly, fighting in a close, back-and-forth affair that saw the Steelers gain an advantage late in the action. Justin Tucker and Baltimore's defense were able to send the game to overtime, but the Ravens couldn't get the stop they needed most, allowing Ben Roethlisberger to lead the Steelers down the field for a game-winning drive built on clutch receptions made by rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth and just enough yards gained on crucial downs to keep the chains moving. Chris Boswell sent the Ravens home for the season with a game-winning field goal in overtime, capping Pittsburgh's unlikely (and ugly) comeback and punctuating the latest chapter in this fierce rivalry.
  2. Baltimore ends 2021 wondering what might have been had the injury bug not ravaged its roster. The Ravens have had to overcome incredibly significant hurdles to even put themselves in the position they were in Sunday, turning to a group of castoff running backs all season and a backup quarterback down the stretch, with both needed to try to secure their ninth win of the season. Baltimore did enough to take a lead and hang onto it for most of regulation, but those absences proved to be too much in the most important moments, with Tyler Huntley throwing an interception in the end zone (his second of two) and Marquise Brown dropping what would have been a key touchdown. The most significant difference in performance due to injury came on the defensive side of the ball, as Baltimore lacked the teeth necessary to prevent a plodding Steelers offense from doing just enough to maintain possession, get into field goal range and drill the game-winning kick in overtime. Ravens fans will spend the offseason wondering how the 2021 season could have turned out if they hadn't suffered so many losses on both sides of the ball, and especially on defense, as Sunday proved.
  3. Against all odds and their own offensive struggles, the Steelers are still alive. Pittsburgh has had offensive issues all season and didn't look drastically improved with their season on the line Sunday, but awoke with enough time remaining to erase a slim deficit. When it came to overtime, Roethlisberger had to find a way to just barely move the Steelers past the line to gain, and did so with a nosediving pass to Ray-Ray McCloud that nudged Pittsburgh past the marker on fourth down. A Najee Harris run around the left end picked up 15 crucial yards and set up Boswell's 36-yard field goal to win it, an outcome the Steelers might have never seen had Minkah Fitzpatrick not forced Brown to drop a would-be completion along the sideline in the final minute of regulation. The Steelers have needed luck, timely defensive stops and just enough offensive production to win games late this season, and time and time again, they've gotten it. Sunday was no different and set them up to reach the postseason.

Next Gen Stat of the game: Ben Roethlisberger completed 25 of 31 passes of fewer than 10 air yards for 159 yards and one touchdown in Sunday's win.

NFL Research: Ben Roethlisberger completed his 57th game-winning drive (including playoffs) of his career, breaking a tie with Pro Football Hall of Famer Peyton Manning and Drew Brees for the second-most in the Super Bowl era.

Minnesota Vikings
2021 · 8-9-0
Chicago Bears
2021 · 6-11-0

Adam Maya's takeaways:

  1. Was this the end for Matt Nagy, Mike Zimmer? If Sunday was it for the embattled head coaches, they went out with respective bangs. The Bears' Nagy was as aggressive as ever, electing to go for it on fourth down six times, including four instances with the lead. Fittingly, only one was converted, leaving potentially nine to 18 points on the field in what was a closer contest than the final score suggests. Conversely, Zimmer's defense excelled on critical downs, held Chicago to a field goal for the second half and forced two turnovers with the game in the balance. The unit has disappointed the past two seasons, leaving Minnesota just outside the playoff field. Not playing past the end of the regular season is ultimately why both coaches are on the hot seat, and perhaps moving on.
  2. Anthony Barr is back. Few defensive players in the NFL were better than Barr last decade. But a torn pectoral muscle robbed him of almost all of 2020 and a knee injury clearly compromised his play through the first of 2021. Over the final seven weeks, the veteran linebacker looked like his former Pro Bowl self. That was especially true Sunday. Barr was explosive, disruptive and relentless while tallying 11 tackles, two sacks and two tackles for loss against the Bears. After signing a restructured deal before the season, his status with the Vikings is to be determined. But his latest tape shows there's still tread on his 29-year-old tires.
  3. Darnell Mooney is a legit No. 2 wide receiver. Just a fifth-round pick in 2020, Mooney was a true bright spot in the Bears' offense this season. He closed out his second campaign with career highs of 12 catches for 126 yards, giving him 81 for 1,055 on the year. With Allen Robinson hampered by injury, Mooney proved to be a reliable target despite Chicago's carousel at QB, as he registered at least five catches in 12 games. His role might continue to grow given Robinson's impending free agency. Mooney stands to improve his hands and ability to separate, but his route running and speed already make him a dangerous weapon.

Next Gen stat of the game: Kirk Cousins completed 6 of 7 deep passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns -- the three scores on such throws was a first in the NFL this season.

NFL Research: Kirk Cousins went over 4,000 yards passing Sunday for the third time in four seasons with the Vikings, who have failed to reach the playoffs in each of those seasons.

Detroit Lions
2021 · 3-13-1
Green Bay Packers
2021 · 13-4-0

Kevin Patra's takeaways:

  1. Plucky Lions throw kitchen sink at Packers, end season with feisty victory. Dan Campbell's club lived in the "trick play" section of the playbook in the season finale. The Lions scored on a 75-yard reverse WR pass in the first quarter and an end-around flea-flicker in the third quarter. Detroit's offense racked up 404 yards against its division rival. Most importantly for the Lions, it was young building blocks who made key plays. Amon-Ra St. Brown continued his fantastic end to the season, carving up the Packers secondary on eight catches for 109 yards and a TD. It was the sixth straight game the receiver earned eight-plus catches, setting a team record (passing Calvin Johnson). Running back D'Andre Swift punctuated the game with the game-winning TD. And the Detroit secondary played well from start to finish, icing the game with back-to-back interceptions of Jordan Love. Detroit has played hard all season and flew around the field with no fear Sunday against the top-seeded Packers. Sunday was a building-block win for the Lions heading into 2022.
  2. Mission accomplished for No. 1-seeded Packers. Matt LaFleur didn't want his starters having what amounted to three weeks off before playing their first playoff game. As such, the starters played much of the first half, with Aaron Rodgers tossing lasers early. Green Bay went 5 of 7 on third down with Rodgers in the game, moving up and down the field. In what is widely expected to be another MVP season, Rodgers headed into the postseason in his groove. Davante Adams (1,553) set a Packers franchise record for receiving yards, passing Jordy Nelson (1,519). And Green Bay got left tackle David Bakhtiari's feet wet ahead of the postseason. The star LT played 27 snaps before exiting. Love didn't shine in the second half, completing just one pass of 10-plus air yards and throwing two picks, but that's a discussion for another day. The goal was to keep the offense's momentum going into the postseason. LaFleur got enough Sunday, even if it came in a meaningless loss.
  3. Lions clinch the No. 2 draft pick. The win locked the Lions into the No. 2 overall pick in this spring's draft. With Jacksonville blowing out Indianapolis, there was a chance the Lions could have leaped to the top spot with a loss. But a win was meaningful for Campbell's club in trying to build on a strong finish to the season. Yes, Rodgers didn't play the second half, but the Lions went punch for punch with Green Bay starters for a half (and led, 17-13), and plenty of the Packers' key defensive players were still participating late. Campbell's team, which finished the final stretch of the season 3-3, has battled all season. There is a dearth of talent on the roster, and the depth is particularly poor, but building blocks are there. A young corner crew played well Sunday for defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. St. Brown is a star in the making. This offseason will be a key one for the new regime to add weapons and build out a dismantled roster. The win will build expectations in Campbell's second season that the Lions can be more than just a spirited, battling club, but rather one that can contend week in and week out.

Next Gen stat of the game: Jared Goff went 7 for 11 for 74 yards and 2 TDs vs. blitz.

NFL Research: The Lions attempted their 40th fourth-down attempt this season on a Jared Goff TD toss in the second quarter. It marked the most fourth-down attempts by any team in a season in last 30 years (1995 Patriots had 39 attempts). Going 2 of 3 on fourth down on the day, the Lions also set the record with 21 converted fourth downs, most in NFL history (1996 Bears were 20-28).

New York Giants
2021 · 4-13-0

Jelani Scott's takeaways:

  1. Gibson, McLaurin make history. Figuring out how Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson continue to produce on this inconsistent offense is a topic worthy of its own podcast. But, for now, let's just recognize the standouts for the milestones they eclipsed on Sunday. It took McLaurin two targets – and a gain of 41 yards – to become the first Washington wideout with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons since 1996. Gibson, who fell short of that mark as a rookie last season, later secured his own 1,000-yard campaign following a 17-yard run in the fourth quarter. Together, McLaurin and Gibson became the first Washington WR-RB tandem to cross that threshold in the same campaign since 2014. Both would likely trade those accolades for a couple more wins, but their success is something Washington can surely build on in 2022.
  2. Big Blue ends season with a big whimper. With the exception of the offense managing to score its first TD since Week 14, this one was as bad a sendoff as Joe Judge and his bunch could've asked for. Week 18 offered the Giants an opportunity to make up for some of their uninspiring play amidst a sixth-straight losing season with a rousing season-ending victory. What they ended up going home with instead was a sixth-straight loss and enough boo birds to fill an aviary. The defining moment of the afternoon -- and perhaps the Judge era -- came late in the second when the Giants, trailing 3-0, opted for two Jake Fromm sneaks inside of their own 10. Even in a matchup where the expectations were as low as the stakes, the desire to win was simply not there and it showed.
  3. Uh, better luck next year? If we're being honest, fans of both teams have been saying this for a minute now. And neither look much closer to finding their footing. In Ron Rivera's case, his second year at the helm had glimpses of 2020's promise but ended without the glory of a playoff berth and all the bitterness of another losing season -- the franchise's fifth in a row. As for the Giants, their flashy offseason yielded nothing more than another group that still looks two years away from being two years away. Both sides have pieces for the future but neither will go anywhere until the amount of talent exceeds the amount of burning questions, particularly at QB.

Next Gen stat of the game: Antonio Gibson had 17 carries, 141 yards and a TD on rushes outside the tackles (8.3 avg).

NFL Research: Joe Judge is the first Giants coach to ever lose 13 games in a season.

Cleveland Browns
2021 · 8-9-0
Cincinnati Bengals
2021 · 10-7-0

Nick Shook's takeaways:

  1. The Browns' offensive issues aren't solely the fault of Baker Mayfield. The injured quarterback called it a season a week early and instead spent it preparing for surgery, not a rematch with the Bengals, leaving the Browns to send veteran backup Case Keenum out for their season finale. Things started positively, with Keenum's short-range accuracy proving to be a strength for the Browns in building a 14-0 lead. But when the Browns found themselves on the doorstep of the end zone, they again struggled much like they did with Mayfield at the controls. Keenum threw an ugly interception just before the half, costing the Browns a chance to extend their lead entering the break, and a separate fourth-down attempt on the goal line produced an errant throw from Keenum and a turnover on downs. In the turnover department, Keenum was responsible for two of them. If we learned anything from Sunday, it's what we already knew: The Browns should have trusted the run more than they did in 2021, and their struggles weren't just a product of Mayfield's inconsistency. This tape, like the many other struggle-filled games of 2021, will be valuable for Kevin Stefanski and his staff in the self-evaluation process this offseason.
  2. A week of rest only cost the Bengals a chance to move up in the AFC seeding. Cincinnati clinched the AFC North title a week ago and had only playoff positioning to gain from winning Sunday, meaning a week of rest for Joe Burrow and an abbreviated outing for Ja'Marr Chase was the wise approach. Brandon Allen got the start in place of Burrow and had to fight through plenty of defensive pressure (nine total pressures for a rate of 27.3%) to attempt to lead the Bengals to victory, completing 15 of 29 passes for 136 yards and one touchdown. It was a quiet day from the Bengals' offensive backups, who didn't muster much resistance to Cleveland's strong defense. In the end, though, it mattered little to a Bengals team that should be more focused on what awaits them next week.
  3. Cleveland ended its disappointing 2021 season on a positive note. The Browns limped down the stretch, losing three straight and falling out of the playoff race entirely, setting up a meaningless Week 18 game against the division champions. Instead of laying down, Cleveland played as if it was Week 1 (save for Keenum replacing Mayfield), again riding its defense and doing just enough offensively to pull out a win. There are plenty of questions for the Browns to answer this offseason, starting with quarterback, but it will be a little easier to head into the quiet of winter with a season-ending win than it would have been with an embarrassing loss. That's about all this Sunday was worth for Cleveland, which has now won four straight against Cincinnati.

Next Gen stat of the game: D'Ernest Johnson gained 95 yards on 18 rushes inside the tackles for an average of 5.3 yards per such attempt.

NFL Research: With two catches for 26 yards, Ja'Marr Chase set the Bengals' single-season receiving yards record with 1,455.

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