The 32 things we learned from Week 16 of the 2021 NFL season:
1. Finally, some semblance of clarity – in the NFC anyway – to what we’ll see in January. Going into Week 16, only the NFC North champion Green Bay Packers had clinched a playoff spot. But five more teams have joined them: the Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
2. No one’s hotter than K.C., which has won a league-best eight in a row. And the story continues to be the Chiefs defense, which has allowed 61 total points over its past six home games. No one should want to go to Arrowhead in January – but it appears the road to Super Bowl 56 will very likely wind through there once again.
3. With the Cowboys taking the NFC East crown before they took the field Sunday night, this division still hasn’t had a repeat winner since the Philadelphia Eagles’ four-year reign ended in 2004.
3a. Dallas CB Trevon Diggs still has a shot at tying the Super Bowl era (since 1966) mark for interceptions after swiping his 11th of the season – more than anyone in the last 40 years. Diggs needs two more to tie Lester Hayes’ modern standard of 13 in 1980 and could still match Dick “Night Train” Lane’s all-time record of 14 in 1952 … though the Hall of Famer managed that in just 12 games.
3b. The Cowboys and Washington have met 124 times in their storied rivalry, but neither had ever scored more than 50 points in the series … until Dallas exploded for 56 Sunday.
4. Rams WR Cooper Kupp upped his league-leading receptions figure to 132 after catching 10 more balls Sunday in Minnesota. With two games left, he has a very good chance at being the first guy to total 150.
5. The surging Indianapolis Colts are 9-0 when RB Jonathan Taylor rushes for 100 yards … and 0-6 when he doesn’t.
6. Amazing performance Sunday by second-year Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow, whose 525 passing yards are the fourth most in a single game (and 29 shy of Norm Van Brocklin’s 70-year-old record). While orchestrating another beatdown of the luckless Ravens, Burrow became the first player to throw for 400 yards against the same team twice in one season. His 941 yards against Baltimore in 2021 are also a record for the most against a team in a season.
7. You had to wonder if Burrow is on head coach Zac Taylor’s fantasy team given how late he was still going deep in a game Cincinnati won going away 41-21. (Burrow admitted afterward he might have been going after Baltimore’s defense just a bit after Ravens coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale threw a bit of shade his way leading up to the game.)
7a. Burrow’s 299 yards in the first half were the most by any quarterback this season … until Dallas’ Dak Prescott superseded it with 322 Sunday night.
8. Valiant effort by Ravens QB Josh Johnson, who was unexpectedly forced to start but responded by passing for 304 yards and two TDs even though he hasn’t been with the team for even two weeks. Johnson, who was signed off the New York Jets practice squad, is the first player in six years to throw TD passes for multiple teams in the same season.
9. The Bengals swept both the Steelers and Ravens for the first time since 2009.
10. Much was made of Buffalo coach Sean McDermott’s postgame comments in Week 13 when the Bills lost to the New England Patriots in blustery conditions in Orchard Park. “Let’s not give more credit than we need to, give credit to Bill Belichick in this one,” he said after the legendary Pats coach almost exclusively ran the ball in a 14-10 win. Well give the Bills their credit now after they smoked Belichick and Co. 33-21 to take back first place in the AFC East.
11. After winning seven in a row, the Patriots have dropped their last two, QB Mac Jones looking every bit the rookie in those defeats – his performance (14 for 32, 145 yards, 2 INTs) especially poor Sunday. A cautionary tale to anyone who wants to compare him to a young Tom Brady.
12. Speaking of Brady, his Tampa Bay Buccaneers are NFC South champions for the first time since 2007, Jon Gruden’s penultimate season with the Bucs.
13. Prior to Sunday, the Bucs had never beaten the Carolina Panthers three times in a row since the formation of the NFC South in 2002.
14. After injuries and suspension had kept him sidelined since Week 6, Buccaneers WR Antonio Brown returned to set a league record by recording his 23rd career game with double-digit receptions.
15. But AB didn’t want to talk much afterward, especially when grilled about his three-game ban after the NFL ruled he and two other players “misrepresented their vaccination status.”
16. Fly, Eagles, fly – perhaps right into the playoffs given they now occupy the NFC’s final wild-card spot. However they may have to finish the job without RB Miles Sanders, who injured a hand Sunday.
17. Vikings WR Justin Jefferson has 2,851 receiving yards since entering the league in 2020, most ever by a player in his first two seasons after Jefferson overtook Odell Beckham Jr. (2,755) on Sunday. However OBJ, who scored his fourth TD since joining the Rams, got the last laugh as LA took control of the NFC West while serving the Vikes a major setback at U.S. Bank Stadium.
18. The Atlanta Falcons’ Kyle Pitts had 102 yards through the air Sunday, giving him 949 for the season – most by a rookie tight end in the Super Bowl era. Pitts needs 128 more over the next two weeks to break Mike Ditka’s all-time rookie record (1,076 yards in 1961) for the position.
COVID-19. How to best sum up the ongoing insanity? How about this: The Los Angeles Chargers had zero inactive players Sunday because so many on their roster (13) are on the reserve/COVID-19 list, including OLB Joey Bosa, RB Austin Ekeler, C Corey Linsley and WR Mike Williams.
COVID-19a. How to best sum up the ongoing insanity? Even Jets G Laurent Duvernay-Tardif – Dr. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif – can’t escape the resurgent virus.
COVID-19b. But, ICYMI, among those who didn’t play due to virus protocols were Chiefs TE Travis Kelce and K Harrison Butker, Vikings RB Dalvin Cook, Colts LB Darius Leonard and G Quenton Nelson, Lions QB Jared Goff, Saints QB Taysom Hill, Browns DE Jadeveon Clowney, RB Kareem Hunt, C JC Tretter and LT Jedrick Wills Jr., Texans WR Brandin Cooks, Bills WRs Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis and Ravens QB2 Tyler Huntley.
COVID-19c. Not that it’s atop the priority list given the league’s and country’s inability to get their arms around the virus, but were your fantasy football playoffs also thrown into near-complete chaos?
20. The Seahawks’ last-minute loss to the Chicago Bears continues to enhance the value of Seattle’s 2022 first-rounder … which is owned by the Jets.
20a. The Seahawks have suffered double-digit losses for the first time since 2009 – their lone season under Jim Mora the younger.
21. Costly wins for the Jets and Houston Texans, their victories conferring valuable breathing room to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions atop the projected 2022 draft order.
21a. At least for Jets QB Zach Wilson, he notches a win over Jags QB Trevor Lawrence, the only man drafted ahead of Wilson in 2021. In a matchup no one will remember five minutes from now, Wilson set a team record with a 52-yard TD run – longest ever by a Jets quarterback, topping the 46-yarder predecessor Sam Darnold broke off last year.
22. Let’s acknowledge the Texans for a minute. David Culley inherited about as bad a situation as any rookie head coach in recent memory yet has coaxed four wins, including Sunday’s upset of the Chargers, out of what is arguably the league’s most talent-deficient roster. He deserves at least one more season as this franchise’s reset continues.
22a. Texans RB Rex Burkhead rushed for a career-best 149 yards, upping his total for the season to 356. Entering Sunday, Mark Ingram II, who was traded in October, was still Houston’s leading rusher with 294 yards.
23. Houston’s efforts aside, hugely disappointing loss for the Bolts. In a 10-day period, they went from the precipice of the AFC West lead to a team that doesn’t currently qualify for postseason.
24.QB Aaron Rodgers set the Packers’ all-time record for TD passes Saturday with his 443rd, breaking a tie with Hall of Fame predecessor Brett Favre. Now up to 445, Rodgers is only looking up to Brady (541 with the Patriots) and Drew Brees (491 with the Saints) in terms of touchdowns thrown with one franchise.
24a. Though Rodgers and the Pack were ultimately fortunate to beat the Browns on a day when Cleveland QB Baker Mayfield threw four interceptions, Green Bay has now won 12 consecutive regular-season outings at Lambeau Field. But as nice as the No. 1 seed might be, Rodgers has failed to parlay it into a Super Bowl trip the two times (2011, 2020) he’s enjoyed it.
Dec. 25. The only quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era to give at least four interceptions – er, gifts – on Christmas? Favre and, now, Mayfield.
26. The Pittsburgh Steelers have surrendered 154 points – 38.5 on average – in their last four road contests. Just about, well, curtains for these guys.
27. Don’t count out the Tennessee Titans, who have used an NFL-record 87 players this season. But they got a key one, WR A.J. Brown, back and might still have time to get RB Derrick Henry healthy. And when you consider they still have a realistic shot at the AFC’s top seed, the stars might finally align for them after being out of kilter for most of the past few months.
28. When was the last time we praised the Raiders defense? Las Vegas limited the Broncos to 158 yards – granted, it’s the Teddy Bridgewater-less Broncos – in a hugely important game for both teams. The Silver and Black remain alive and well going into another massive game in Indianapolis, while Denver is all but mathematically eliminated.
28a. The Broncos’ day was nicely encapsulated by RB Melvin Gordon III, whose seven carries netted … -4 yards.
29.DL Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, the latest folks in Washington who just can’t manage to build back better.
30. Holiday hug for Jags RB James Robinson, who tore an Achilles on Sunday. Brutal break for the undrafted free agent, who had such a splendid rookie campaign in 2020 but had to deal with former coach Urban Meyer’s misplaced ire in 2021 prior to this setback. Here’s hoping the injury doesn’t derail Robinson professionally or financially, though he’s suddenly got a lot to overcome … including an even tougher battle with 2021 first-round RB Travis Etienne in 2022.
31. San Francisco 49ers WR River Cracraft has lost his unofficial title as the man with the league’s best name. That honorific henceforth belongs to Chiefs DB Dicaprio Bootle … who also had eight tackles Sunday.
32. Lastly, Belichick’s newfound tolerance of media members continued in spectacular fashion on Boxing Day in an exchange that reflected well on all parties.