Week 15 takeaways, big questions: Draft pick shuffling and concern for Cardinals, Titans

Week 15 of the 2021 NFL season will have a different feel thanks to postponements resulting from a leaguewide COVID-19 outbreak. Raiders at Browns, originally scheduled for Saturday, has been moved to Monday (5 p.m. ET, NFL Network). Additionally, there will be two Tuesday games — Seahawks at Rams and Washington at Eagles — both at 7 p.m. ET on Fox.

Sunday saw one of the biggest upsets of the year, with the Lions beating the Cardinals 30-12. It was one of a few games that shook up the race for the No. 1 draft pick on Sunday, as the Texans also beat the Jaguars. Jacksonville now has the inside track to have the top selection. Elsewhere, the Bills piled on 31 points against the Panthers, while the Cowboys blew out the Giants. The Steelers kept their playoff hopes very much alive with a huge win over the Titans, who came up short on a last-minute fourth-down play, and the Dolphins hung on in a back-and-forth game with the Jets to move to 7-7.

On Saturday night, the Colts took an early lead and hung on, thanks to a late Jonathan Taylor touchdown, to beat the Patriots. And on Thursday, quarterback Patrick Mahomes helped the Chiefs force overtime against the Chargers and win their seventh straight.

Our NFL Nation reporters react with the takeaways and lingering questions. Plus, they each look at the bigger picture with their current team confidence rating — a 0-10 grade of how they feel about a team’s outlook coming out of the week. Let’s get to it.

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What to know: The Lions are the first team to beat the Cardinals on the road all season. Quarterback Jared Goff said the team continues to play for “pride” and has embraced the “spoiler” role to try and upset its opponents moving forward, with the playoffs clearly out of the picture. The Lions were able to register their second regular season victory of the season with another upset. Guys continue to play hard for first-year Lions coach Dan Campbell in the midst of a tough year. — Eric Woodyard

Can rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown continue his streak of seven-plus receptions in three straight games? Yes. This kid is legit. Although St. Brown was already confident entering the season, the game-winning touchdown catch against Minnesota on Dec. 5 has only lifted him even more. He knows he belongs on this stage, and quarterback Jared Goff continues to target him more, with Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson notably out for the season. One of the biggest question marks about the team, dating back to training camp, was who would emerge as a legitimate threat among the receiving corps, and St. Brown has arrived. He’s not only the first rookie in Lions history to post seven-plus receptions in three straight games, but also the third rookie in team history to post 70 or more receiving yards, which he achieved over that three-game stretch, too. — Woodyard

Woodyard’s confidence rating (0-10): 3, up from 2. Coming off their second largest loss of the season last week in Denver, the Lions aren’t interested in tanking; they remain competitive no matter who is on the field, and they showed that against Arizona.

Next game: at Falcons (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)


What to know: If it feels like déjà vu, you’re not mistaken. It’s starting to feel a lot like last season. The Arizona Cardinals played their worst game of the year against the worst team in the NFL, the Detroit Lions. Their loss was their second in a row, and they are now 3-4 in their last seven after starting 7-0. Last season, they started 5-2 and finished 3-6 and out of the playoffs. Missing the postseason is unlikely at this stage, at 10-4, but finishing the year poorly may start putting Kliff Kingsbury’s ability to take a team deep in the postseason — or, at the very least, clinch a playoff spot, which Arizona hasn’t done in the last two weeks — in question. Arizona, however, was doomed from the start on Sunday when the Lions ate 8:50 of the clock on their opening possession. Detroit was in control from there, keeping the Cardinals’ offense off the field for long periods. When Arizona’s offense was on the field, it hardly produced, gaining just 84 yards in the first half — a product of off passes by quarterback Kyler Murray and questionable play-calling by Kingsbury. — Josh Weinfuss

Can the Cardinals right the ship with three games left? It doesn’t look like it will be easy to do, if at all possible. Arizona will have to face a hot Colts team on Christmas night, and then a good Cowboys team before closing the season out against the Seahawks. They’ll face all of them without wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, whose absence could be felt all over the field Sunday in Detroit. If the Cardinals can’t fix their run defense (which allowed 3.7 yards per carry vs. Detroit) and get their offense to start producing touchdowns again, the ship will continue to sail awry. — Weinfuss

Weinfuss’ confidence rating (0-10): 6, down from 7.9. Sunday’s performance was enough to cause major concern about whether the Cardinals can close out a season and get to the playoffs playing decent-to-good football.

Next game: vs. Colts (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET)


What to know: Coach Mike McCarthy will officially talk about the playoffs now. Sunday’s win against the Giants was the Cowboys’ 10th victory of the season. They can clinch a playoff spot in a matter of hours if New Orleans or San Francisco loses. They can clinch the NFC East if Washington and Philadelphia tie on Tuesday or if Washington loses and they gain a strength-of-victory tiebreaker over the Eagles. Before heading down that rabbit hole, just know the Cowboys are all but certain to win the division. But this team wants more than a division crown. Now it is about playoff seeding. Dallas is in contention for the No. 1 seed but likely has to win out and needs the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to lose two games since the Cowboys lost to the defending Super Bowl champion in Week 1. Getting the No. 2 or 3 seed matters so they avoid a potential wild-card matchup vs. one of the better NFC West teams. The Jan. 2 meeting vs. the Arizona Cardinals will be major for the Cowboys. If the defense is playing as well as it is now — four more takeaways, no touchdowns allowed — and if the offense can get back into full rhythm, then the Cowboys can be a dangerous team. — Todd Archer

What is up with the red zone offense? To be successful in the playoffs, teams can’t settle for field goals. In their past two games, the Cowboys have scored touchdowns on three of 11 red zone trips. To be fair, one trip inside the 20 last week came when the Cowboys were taking a knee to seal the win vs. Washington. One trip Sunday was an end-of-half scenario in which McCarthy settled for the field goal. But there are far too many inconsistencies for an offense that has this many tools at its disposal. On the road this year, the Cowboys have scored touchdowns on 10 of 29 red zone chances. The good news: They have one more road game in the regular season. The bad news: They are likely going to have play two road games in the playoffs to make it to the Super Bowl. — Archer

Archer’s confidence rating (0-10): 8.9, up from 8.7. The Cowboys did what they needed to do against a bad team that has been hit hard by COVID-19. They won a game they were supposed to win. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a victory that inched them closer to winning the division and a playoff spot.

Next game: vs. Washington (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET)



Dak Prescott takes his time to find an open Dalton Schultz in the end zone to extend the Cowboys’ lead.


What to know: The Giants’ offense is incompetent. They’re averaging 11.8 points in their past five games. Coach Joe Judge has talked about doing whatever is necessary in regards to the offensive game plan to win. Well, this isn’t it. Not that they have much chance. Anytime the Giants are in a passing situation, their quarterback has no chance. The Giants had 99 yards passing in Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys. The Giants could realistically lose out and finish 4-13. Who are they going to beat? Maybe Washington at home. Possibly win in Chicago? This is ugly. — Jordan Raanan

Is it even worth bringing quarterback Daniel Jones back this season? There are three games left in a lost season. Bringing Jones back at this point makes less and less sense each week. There is obvious concern about whether his injured neck can handle contact. He hasn’t been cleared each of the past three weeks. Why take any risk at this point? A source told ESPN last week that the team was losing hope that Jones would return this season. Better safe than sorry with the young quarterback at this point, even if the Giants would like to see him gain more experience. — Raanan

Raanan’s confidence rating (0-10): 2.1, down from 2.8. It’s painful to watch the Giants’ offense.

Next game: at Eagles (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)


What to know: Who cares who the Miami Dolphins have beaten during this six-game winning streak? Good teams find a way to win in tough conditions, and Miami faced adversity in Sunday’s win against the New York Jets, rallying from an early 10-0 deficit. It outscored its division rival 21-7 in the second half. Overcoming adversity is not something the Dolphins had to do during the first five games of their winning streak; the win marked their first of the season when trailing by more than a field goal at any point. Overcoming a multiple-score deficit without receiver Jaylen Waddle or safety Jevon Holland should be a point of pride for this team, as should its ability to overcome a shaky performance from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. — Marcel Louis-Jacques

Is Duke Johnson the Dolphins’ RB1 moving forward? It’s the question every running back-needy fantasy manager is asking this week. The former University of Miami product earned his first start of the season and turned it into 107 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries. It’s the first time in his career that Johnson has received a 20-carry workload, and he did not disappoint, running with purpose for all four quarters. Myles Gaskin was no slouch, rushing for 54 yards on 10 carries, but Johnson did enough Sunday to earn himself another start. — Louis-Jacques

Louis-Jacques’ confidence rating (0-10): 8.5, up from 8.3. Tagovailoa was not good in this game, but he gets a pass without Waddle; at full strength, Miami is capable of winning out.

Next game: at Saints (Monday, Dec. 27, 8:15 p.m. ET)


What to know: Let’s take a silver-lining view of quarterback Zach Wilson‘s performance: It was a great learning experience. He hung tough under adverse circumstances but ultimately failed to rally his team. Overwhelmed by the Miami pass rush, Wilson was sacked six times, including a fumble on a strip sack. He managed the game well in the first half, helping the Jets to leads of 10-0 and 17-10, but he failed to deliver any big plays in the second half. His pass protection, sans left tackle George Fant, was a mess. At times, Wilson had that deer-in-the-headlights look. The trick plays and dink-and-dunk passing, which carried the offense in the first half, fizzled. The Jets managed only three first downs in the second half. Wilson had two drives in the last five minutes with a chance to tie the game and quiet his critics, but he failed to get it done. Tough rookie year. — Rich Cimini

What happened to the Jets’ run defense? The Jets struggle with pretty much everything on defense, and you have to put their run defense high on the list of issues. Facing the 31st-ranked rushing offense, the Jets allowed 184 yards on the ground — by far Miami’s season high. The Jets played without nose tackle Folorunso Fatukasi, but that was no excuse. Their front four is supposed to be the strength of the team, but Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers & Co. were invisible. When your best unit can’t get it done, you’ve got problems. But that has been the story of the Jets’ rotten season. — Cimini

Cimini’s confidence rating (0-10): 3.5, up from 2. The Jets played a gutty game on the road, but they came unglued in crunch time on both sides of the ball.

Next game: vs. Jaguars (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)


What to know: A tackle by Joe Haden, playing in his first game since injuring his left foot against the Detroit Lions, kept the Titans from converting on fourth down by an eyelash and kept the Steelers’ playoff hopes alive. Timely defensive plays — including three fumble recoveries and an interception — helped Pittsburgh win the turnover differential for the third game in a row with four takeaways. And three of those turnovers came in a stretch of 10 plays late in the second half. But the offense managed just 12 points off those turnovers. Still, Haden and the defense made a play when it mattered most and gave the Steelers a crucial AFC win. — Brooke Pryor

What’s keeping the Steelers from starting faster? For yet another week, Pittsburgh’s offense and defense looked sluggish and uninspired in the first half, and the Steelers were trailing 13-3 at halftime. On the season, they have been outscored by 62 points in the first half. Sunday, the Steelers lost the time of possession battle 21:19 to 8:41 in the first half, and no phase of the game looked good. They had just 16 rushing yards in the first half, their third-fewest of the season, while the defense allowed a rushing touchdown for the ninth consecutive game, their longest streak since allowing 12 straight over the 1967-68 seasons. And on special teams, Pittsburgh had a 27-yard punt and gave up a 55-yard return and then a 32-yard punt. The Steelers have a pesky habit of getting hot after halftime, but the slow starts force them into an almost-doomed game of catch-up. — Pryor

Pryor’s confidence rating (0-10): 3.7, up from 2.3. Haden saved the Steelers’ season, but there are still significant problems the Steelers must address to keep the momentum going.

Next game: at Chiefs (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)



Titans go for it on fourth down to keep their hopes alive, but Joe Haden tackles Nick Westbrook-Ikhine inches shy of the mark to seal the Steelers’ win.


What to know: The Titans jumped out to an early 13-3 lead by dominating the first half. Things changed drastically in the second half because of turnovers. Three of Tennessee’s four turnovers came in the second half, and two of them were in the fourth quarter. That opened the door for the Steelers to roar back by scoring 16 unanswered points. Ryan Tannehill has five games with multiple turnovers this season, which is more than he had in his first two seasons with the Titans combined. Tennessee turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions at one point. That was the Titans’ longest streak in a game since 2017. Despite their poor showing, they are still in the hunt for the top seed in the AFC. — Turron Davenport

What’s wrong with the Titans’ offense? Everything. The offensive line gave up pressures. Tannehill was sacked four times and was inaccurate for the most part. Julio Jones was targeted only once in the first half, which is far too few times for a player expected to be such an impactful weapon. Jones was ruled out with an injury early in the third quarter. The lack of game-changing playmakers hindered the Titans’ ability to find any rhythm on offense. Ultimately, it cost them on the final drive when they came up just short on fourth-and-6. — Davenport

Davenport’s confidence rating (0-10): 8, no change from 8. The biggest issue is health. Rodger Saffold wasn’t able to play this week. Jones went down again with a hamstring injury. The offense struggled once again. The possibility of getting A.J. Brown back on Thursday is promising. But there is still a lot of progress that’s needed from the offense, which at this point has no true strength.

Next game: vs. 49ers (Thursday, 8:20 p.m. ET)


What to know: The Texans have likely blown their chance for the No. 1 pick. Because the Lions, who came into the day with a 1-11-1 record, beat the Cardinals, the loser of Texans-Jaguars jumped into the top spot. That was Jacksonville, who’s 2-12 record is the worst in the NFL. Even at 3-11, the No. 2 pick is still in play for the Texans, because they are still only a half-game back of the Lions. The Texans are of course not trying to tank, but a big special teams game (three field goals from kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn and a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown) helped give the Jaguars the inside track at the top pick for the second year in a row. — Sarah Barshop

Have the Texans seen enough from Davis Mills to count on him next year? Although coach David Culley said he chose to replace quarterback Tyrod Taylor with Mills because the rookie gave the team the best chance to win, the final five games of the season are serving as an audition of sorts for the third-round pick. Unlike during his first stint as a starter while Taylor was injured, Mills has done a better job protecting the football in his two starts since the switch, with just one interception in the three games. For a second week in a row, Mills had a strong first half before slowing down in the second, but he did throw a fourth-quarter touchdown to ice the game for Houston. While Mills has been an upgrade over the way Taylor was playing in his return from injured reserve, the team likely sees him more as a backup quarterback than their clear-cut starter in 2022. — Barshop

Barshop’s confidence rating (0-10): 0.6, up from 0.4. Two of the Texans’ three wins this season have come against the Jaguars, but Houston hasn’t shown much competitiveness against the rest of the NFL.

Next game: vs. Chargers (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)


What to know: As much of a problem as coach Urban Meyer was, firing him had no impact on the team’s offensive woes. While the Jaguars did score16 points — nearly a full touchdown more than what they had been averaging over the past seven games (9.1) since the bye — they still only managed one touchdown drive. Since the bye week, the offense has scored just seven TDs (including one against the Texans, who were missing five defensive starters.). Fixing the offense, rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence‘s development and the franchise’s chances for success over the next decade depends on owner Shad Khan making the correct hire to replace Meyer. It needs to be someone with previous NFL head coaching experience and a background in offense. — Mike DiRocco

Did the Jaguars just lock up the No. 1 pick (again)? They’re in the driver’s seat after getting swept by the Texans for the ninth time in the last 11 seasons, which gives them the worst record in the NFL. They’re helped, or hurt depending on your point of view, by the Lions’ tie with Pittsburgh. It’s not a lock yet because the Jaguars do play the New York Jets next Sunday, but they’re final two games after that are at New England and home against Indianapolis — two teams fighting for playoff positioning. — DiRocco

DiRocco’s confidence rating (0-10): 0.4, down from 0.5. Still the same problems every week and hard to see it getting any better until 2022.

Next game: at Jets (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)



What to know: Wide receiver Gabriel
was expected to see the field more with Emmanuel
out with a knee injury, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. Davis finished the game as the team’s leading receiver with five receptions for 85 yards and two touchdowns, the first multiple-touchdown game of his career. He now has scored at least one touchdown in three straight games. In both the game against the Buccaneers and this win vs. Carolina, the offense has been at its best when Davis is a major contributor and reliable option for quarterback Josh
. After playing roughly half of the snaps or less in most games this season, Davis should end the year with more time on field. Not only has he proved himself as a receiving weapon, but he’s also one of the team’s better blockers. Allen should continue to look for him downfield. — Alaina Getzenberg

Can the Bills use this win and stack victories for the first time since Weeks 4 and 5? This game against the Panthers
was a must-win for the Bills. Next up is arguably the most important game of the season. The AFC East will be on the line with a trip to New England, and Buffalo will have plenty to prove after a 14-10 loss to the Patriots in Week 13. Putting back-to-back wins together is something that the Bills haven’t done since a four-game winning streak early in the season. The biggest test of the year is still to come. — Getzenberg

Getzenberg’s confidence rating (0-10): 7.8, up from 7.2. This was a needed win against a Panthers team with plenty of
issues, but the Bills let Carolina linger for too long to allow this rating to go up much.

Next game: at Patriots (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)



Devin Singletary rushes in for a 16-yard touchdown to put the Bills on the board against the Panthers.



What to know: Losing kicker Zane
(quad) during pregame warm-ups just added another layer of uncertainty to a bad Carolina team. Could a healthy Gonzalez have made a difference? Maybe. Not having him took at least six points off the board. That the score was as close as it was for most of the game is a testament to the defense continuing to play hard while the offense continues to struggle, particularly in the passing game, providing further evidence the offense needs a complete overhaul during the offseason. — David Newton

Will quarterback Sam Darnold play again this season? Yes. Darnold will have his shoulder examined on Monday. If cleared, he will be eligible for Sunday’s home game against Tampa Bay. With Cam Newton 0-4 as a starter for the Panthers this year and having lost 12 consecutive games as a Carolina starter, the Panthers need to find out what they have for next season since Darnold is the only quarterback under contract. Whether Matt Rhule will turn the offense completely over to Darnold, who lost five of his last six starts before going on IR, is the biggest question. — Newton

Newton’s confidence rating (0-10): 3.9, up from 3.8. Next up are Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, not exactly a recipe for success for a Carolina team that has won only twice in the past 11 games.

Next game: vs. Buccaneers (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)


What to know: The Colts have gone from being the eighth seed, which was on the outside of the AFC playoff picture, to now the fifth seed in the conference. Indianapolis ended its eight-game losing streak to the Patriots with defense, forcing two turnovers and blocking a punt. — Mike Wells

Can the Colts rely on quarterback Carson Wentz? Wentz, outside of having three quarterback sneaks for first downs, didn’t play well. He threw one interception, and the Patriots dropped two other interceptions. Those types of mistakes will hurt the Colts down the stretch. — Wells

Wells’ confidence rating (0-10): 6, up from 3.7. The Colts will be favored in two of their final three games — Las Vegas and Jacksonville. They’ve positioned themselves to get in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons under coach Frank Reich.

Next game: at Cardinals (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET)



Jonathan Taylor scores a 67-yard yard touchdown to put the Colts up by 10 just before the two-minute warning.


What to know: The Patriots dug themselves too big of a hole, and their late comeback bid fell just short. A disastrous first half, and falling behind 17-0, proved too much to overcome. In that first half, the Patriots made too many mistakes and were controlled at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Meanwhile, the Colts had made their defensive intentions clear leading into the game: Take away the run game, put the ball in quarterback Mac Jones‘ hands and see how he responds. As it turned out, Jones had his worst first half as a pro. He threw his first red zone interception of the season (late in the second quarter) and then opened the third quarter with a pick deep in the Patriots’ own territory. Jones had a total of two interceptions during the Patriots’ seven-game winning streak. He rebounded a bit in the second half, but it was too late. — Mike Reiss

How costly is the loss for playoff seeding? The Patriots had been in control of possibly earning the No. 1 seed, but now they no longer are in that position. Dropping to 9-5, they are behind the Chiefs (10-4) and have games remaining against the Bills (home), Jaguars (home) and Dolphins (road). So they are still in the driver’s seat in the AFC East, with the Dec. 26 game against the Bills an obvious biggie. Then there is the short-term picture: Is this a sign of trouble ahead? — Reiss

Reiss’ confidence rating (0-10): 6.8, up from 7. Every team gets a mulligan over the course of a season. The Patriots had slowly been rising up the ranks, but this sets them back a bit.

Next game: vs. Bills (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)


What to know: Travis Kelce still has it. There was some concern about the 32-year-old tight end, who has four games with 30 yards or less this season. But he delivered for the Chiefs on Thursday night against the Chargers in the biggest game of the season with a huge fourth quarter and overtime. — Adam Teicher

Should the Chiefs be concerned about their defense? The Chiefs, who allowed 27 points total in their previous three games, gave up 28 against the Chargers. But the Chiefs not only played against a top-level quarterback and a strong offensive opponent, but they also did so without three key defensive players, including defensive tackle Chris Jones. Jones would have made a difference in a pass-rush that struggled much of the game in getting pressure on Justin Herbert. So it’s premature to lose confidence in the defense. — Teicher

Teicher’s confidence rating (0-10): 9.4, up from 9.1. The Chiefs weren’t great for the full game against the Chargers, but they looked like a championship team when it truly counted.

Next game: vs. Steelers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)


What to know: The Chargers are almost there. Almost. If they had scored after making it to the 5-yard line, they could have won this game. Coach Brandon Staley insists going for it on fourth down (even though they failed three times) is the right course of action and is “how this team will play” because he believes in it. So do his players. — Shelley Smith

Can they win a tough game by going for it on fourth down? We shall see. They came close Thursday, but what about the next three games against at the Houston Texans, vs. the Denver Broncos and at the Las Vegas Raiders? — Smith

Smith’s confidence rating (0-10): 7, no change from 7. The Chargers are still in the playoff hunt but likely lost their shot at the AFC West title.

Next game: at Texans (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)

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