NFL Week 15 takeaways: Lessons, big questions for every game

ByNFL Nation ESPN logo
Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Welcome to Week 15of the 2022 NFL season, where the playoff picture is beginning to take shape.

On Thursday, rookie quarterback Brock Purdy helped the San Francisco 49ers clinch the NFC West by beating the division-rival Seattle Seahawks.

Saturday's three-game slate started with the Minnesota Vikings hosting the Indianapolis Colts, who built a 33-0 halftime lead before Kirk Cousins and the Vikings pulled off the biggest comeback in NFL history -- clinching the NFC North in the process. In the afternoon contest, the Cleveland Browns rode a stingy defense and uncharacteristic Justin Tucker misses to beat the Baltimore Ravens in Cleveland. And in the night game, Josh Allen threw four TD passes as the Buffalo Bills clinched a playoff berth with a win over the Miami Dolphins.

On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs clinched the AFC West with an overtime win against the Houston Texans. The Dallas Cowboys failed to clinch a spot in the playoffs after losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars in overtime. And the Detroit Lions kept their playoff hopes alive with a victory at the New York Jets,

In the late-afternoon window, the Las Vegas Raiders got one of the most improbable walk-off wins in NFL history versus the New England Patriots, the Los Angeles Chargers hit a late field goal to down the Tennessee Titans and the Cincinnati Bengals ambushed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half to take sole possession of the AFC North lead.

On Sunday night, the New York Giants held off the Washington Commanders to gain a key edge in the NFC playoff race.

The Los Angeles Rams took the second-quickest exit of any defending Super Bowl champ when they fell to the Green Bay Packers on Monday night.

Our NFL Nation reporters react with the biggest takeaways and lingering questions off this week's matchups and look ahead to what's next. Let's get to it.

Jump to a matchup:





Green Bay 24, L.A. Rams 12


What to know: Yes, the Packers had a convincing win over the Rams that followed their come-from-behind win over the Bears, but those two teams aren't close to playoff caliber. They have a combined record of 7-21. The Packers' three remaining opponents -- the Dolphins, Vikings and Lions -- are a combined 26-16 and none of them have a losing record. Regardless of the opponent, Monday night's win over the Rams was one of the most complete performances of the season: A solid passing game with rookie receivers Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson, production in the run game with Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon, a mighty pass rush led byPreston Smith's two sacks and a potent kickoff returner in Keisean Nixon.

Can the Packers' defense repeat this against a better offense? Jaylen Waddle, Tyreek Hill and Raheem Mostert are going to present a much tougher challenge than anything the Rams offered. Miami's top two receivers are speedsters, and speed receivers have given the Packers trouble all year. And don't forget Mostert is the back who ran for 220 yards and four touchdowns against the Packers in the 2019 NFC Championship Game while with the 49ers. While the Packers' five-sack game on the way to holding the Rams to just 12 points was solid, it did not come against a high-powered offense. -- Rob Demovsky

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


What to know: There are quite a few reasons the Rams have struggled to move the ball consistently down the field, but the pass protection hasn't helped. Los Angeles has allowed 51 sacks this season, tied with the Broncos for the most in the NFL. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, it's also the fourth-most sacks the Rams have allowed in a season since the 1970 merger. It didn't get any easier Monday against the Packers, as Los Angeles lost center Brian Allen on the first drive to a calf injury. Quarterback Baker Mayfield was sacked five times and took nine quarterback hits.

What will running back Cam Akers' role be in 2023?Akers was one of the few bright spots for the Rams in Green Bay, running for 65 yards on 12 carries, his highest rushing yardage of the season. He was also Los Angeles' leading receiver with three catches for 35 yards. Akers missed two games earlier this season as the Rams attempted to trade him before the deadline in an effort to give him a fresh start, according to head coach Sean McVay. The Rams also have rookie running back Kyren Williams, who has impressed the coaching staff in his first season. Akers has one season left on his rookie contract and said after the game that he wants to be in Los Angeles next season. -- Sarah Barshop

Next game: vs. Broncos (Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET)

N.Y. Giants 20, Washington 12


What to know: Just a huge, wild win for the Giants, capped by a final-minute goal-line stand. Their chances of making the playoffs ballooned close to 90%. They are now in prime position to end a six-year playoff drought. In their biggest game in years, quarterback Daniel Jones consistently made plays, running back Saquon Barkley put the game away and rookie outside linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux (11 tackles, 3 tackles for a loss, 1 sack-fumble for a TD) was dominant.

What do the Giants need now to make the playoffs? It's entirely possible -- given they own the tiebreaker over Washington and Seattle has been in a free fall -- that one more win will do it. New York plays at Minnesota, versus Indianapolis and at Philadelphia the final three weeks. As long as Jones continues to play at a high level and doesn't turn the ball over (three in his past seven games), you have to like the Giants' chances. -- Jordan Raanan

Next game: at Vikings (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)


What to know: Washington can blame itself for another disappointing loss that will haunt it if it misses the playoffs. When the Commanders won six of seven games, they kept winning the turnover battle and limited negative plays. They turned it over twice Sunday -- one resulted in a Giants touchdown, the other cost the Commanders a short field goal. And a late touchdown was nullified because of an illegal formation. Meanwhile, Washington's defense rarely bothered quarterback Daniel Jones and forced no turnovers.

How does this impact Washington's playoff chances? The Commanders are still the seventh seed, so they remain in control of their destiny. But it won't be easy. Washington almost assuredly has to win two of its final three games. Seattle and Detroit are a half-game behind Washington, but Detroit has the easiest schedule (at Carolina, Chicago, at Green Bay). while Seattle (at Kansas City, New York Jets, Los Angeles Rams) and Washington (at San Francisco, Cleveland, Dallas) have it tougher. -- John Keim

Next game: at 49ers (Saturday, 4:05 p.m. ET)

L.A. Chargers 17, Tennessee 14


What to know: A fast start that resulted in an opening-drive touchdown gave way to a long, sluggish afternoon for the Chargers' offense, which punted on five of the ensuing seven drives and saw quarterback Justin Herbert throw two interceptions. However, Herbert came on strong in the fourth quarter: He fueled a touchdown drive to put the Bolts ahead then moved the ball 52 yards with 44 seconds remaining, allowing Cameron Dicker to kick a game-winning 43-yard field goal to keep alive the Bolts' pursuit of their first playoff appearance since 2018.

The defense is trending positive; can it continue? The Chargers' defense is appearing to hit its stride over the past two outings, and the unit could grow stronger with the return of Derwin James Jr.However, it's uncertain when the All-Pro safety will be available after sitting out the past two weeks because of a quadriceps injury. Coach Brandon Staley has described James' status as "day-to-day." -- Lindsey Thiry

Next game: at Colts (Monday, Dec. 26, 8:15 p.m. ET)


What to know: The Titans' offensive line gave up four sacks against the Chargers. The most significant was when left tackle Dennis Daley gave up one to Chris Rumph II for a 9-yard loss that pushed Randy Bullock's field goal attempt to 51 yards, which the kicker missed. Los Angeles then drove down the field to take the lead. The Titans tried to go to Dillon Radunz in place of Daley, but that was short-lived, as Radunz was injured after 13 snaps. Tennessee quarterbackRyan Tannehillwas under constant duress, and the offense sputtered. Now, the surging Jaguars are only one game behind the Titans in the AFC South standings.

Are the Titans really in danger of losing the division after a four-game skid? Absolutely. Tennessee is now stuck in a four-game losing streak for the first time in five seasons under coach Mike Vrabel. One of the four defeats came to the Jaguars, who have won two in a row to cut into the Titans' division lead. The Titans' patchwork roster has now employed 80 players this season with three games left. Tennessee can only hope for help on the way with the possible returns of defensive lineman Denico Autry and wide receiver Treylon Burks. But the offensive line remains a serious liability. -- Turron Davenport

Next game: vs. Texans (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)

Las Vegas 30, New England 24


What to know: So you're saying there's a chance? Look, the Raiders have no wiggle room the rest of the way, but stranger things have happened in this already bizarre season, including Chandler Jones' walk-off 48-yard fumble return for a touchdown off an errant lateral on Sunday. And we saw Las Vegas do the unthinkable by forcing its way into the postseason with a four-game winning streak to close out last season. So go ahead, cue up "Dumb and Dumber" and check back next week, after the Christmas Eve game in Pittsburgh.

Is a run to the playoffs actually feasible? After holding on for dear life against the Patriots, the Raiders, who improved to 6-8, likely have to run the table against the Steelers, 49ers and Chiefs. Yikes. Las Vegas is only one game out of the seventh and final postseason spot, but there are six other teams with either six or seven wins. -- Paul Gutierrez

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


What to know: An absolute gut-wrenching way to lose the game. This wasn't a performance worthy of a playoff contender. The Patriots played a first half that was possibly the team's worst of the season -- with a red zone meltdown and a blocked punt that was turned into an offensive touchdown -- digging themselves a 17-3 hole. When they had a chance to close out the game in the fourth quarter (after taking a 24-17 lead), they couldn't come up with the defensive stop. Then they made a catastrophic mistake on the last play, turning the ball over and letting the Raiders score a TD to cost themselves the game. Dropping to 7-7, the Pats still have a chance to qualify for the postseason, but with games remaining against the Bengals, Dolphins and Bills, it's a long shot.

Is there any hope for the passing offense -- this season and beyond? Mac Jones finished 13-of-31 for 112 yards. During one stretch in the game, beginning in the second quarter, Jones was 5-of-16 for 18 yards, while averaging minus-1.8 air yards per completion. It's hard to imagine the Patriots being able to compete with such results this season, sparking major questions about what coach Bill Belichick might do to fix it. -- Mike Reiss

Next game: vs. Bengals (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)

Cincinnati 34, Tampa Bay 23


What to know: Cincinnati capitalized on a chance to gain some separation in the AFC North with a win over Tampa Bay. Cincinnati overcame a 17-0 deficit to beat the Bucs and gain a one-game lead over the Ravens in the division standings. Baltimore lost to Cleveland on Saturday, allowing the Bengals to gain some cushion. Granted, the division title could still come down to the Week 18 showdown between the teams, but the Bengals are now in much better position after Sunday's victory.

Can Cincinnati overcome its defensive injuries down the stretch? Yes, the Bengals looked good in the second half, but it's going to be tough for Cincinnati to top Buffalo and Baltimore without key starters. Cincinnati was already without DE Trey Hendrickson (wrist) and CB Mike Hilton (knee) before it lost DE Sam Hubbard (calf) on Sunday. Cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt also left the game, with a left shoulder injury. The Bengals' depth will be tested if those players are out for an extended amount of time. -- Ben Baby

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


What to know: After jumping out to a 17-0 lead, the Buccaneers turned the ball over on three straight drives in the third quarter, with the Bengals scoring 21 points off those miscues and paving the way for the largest blown lead by a Tom Brady-led team at home -- ever. It was a complete breakdown in the second half -- and a shame because that first half was the best the Bucs had looked in all phases this season. Thanks to a loss by the Panthers -- and the Falcons also fell, to the Saints -- the Bucs are still in first place in the NFC South at 6-8.

Why did things unravel? The Bengals forced four turnovers in the second half. They capitalized on a botched fake punt attempt by the Bucs to open the third quarter -- it appeared upbackGiovani Bernard didn't get the call -- with the Bengals recovering it at the Tampa Bay 16. On the next drive, Brady was intercepted by Tre Flowers at the Tampa Bay 31-yard line on a low throw intended for Cameron Brate. There were two lost fumbles too: a forced fumble of Brady on a sack by defensive tackle DJ Reader thatJoseph Ossai recovered at the Tampa Bay 13 then a botched handoff with Leonard Fournette at the Tampa Bay 39. After barely pressuring Brady in the first half, the Bengals got to him several times in the second. Also, the Bucs got away from throwing on first down after success with it in the first half. -- Jenna Laine

Next game: at Cardinals (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET)

Denver 24, Arizona 15


What to know: Decisions still need to be made about coach Nathaniel Hackett's future, but he at least avoided a crushing December home loss some previous Broncos coaches on the hot seat had not. Vance Joseph lost an ugly season finale in 2018, Vic Fangio watched his offense fail him in a home loss to the Bengals in his last season and even Mike Shanahan had an unsightly loss to the Bills in his last home game as Broncos coach in 2008. Broncos co-owner and CEO Greg Penner has said effort will matter when the ownership makes the call, and with Sunday's win and the effort against the Chiefs last week, the undermanned Broncos are still giving Hackett a chance.

How can the Broncos overcome the latest round of injuries to the offensive line? The Broncos have not had an offensive lineman start every game this season. They currently have two former starters on injured reserve -- left tackle Garett Bolles and center Lloyd Cushenberry III. And they had three linemen leave Sunday's game. Guard Dalton Risner (elbow) eventually went back in, but guard Quinn Meinerz suffered an eye injury on the first drive and did not return. The player in to replace Meinerz, Tom Compton, later left with a back injury and did not return. The Broncos surrendered six sacks in the first half and seven for the game, so it might force them run the ball more (they averaged over 6 yards per carry against Arizona), especially in play-action, to protect all involved. -- Jeff Legwold

Next game: at Rams (Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET)


What to know: The Cardinals are one step closer to a top-five draft pick, their first since 2019, when they selected quarterback Kyler Murray No. 1 overall. Sunday's loss to the Broncos was all but a blueprint highlighting the areas Arizona needs to address.

Based on Sunday's loss, what are Arizona's biggest needs in the 2023 NFL draft? There are a handful of positions that Arizona could upgrade with the draft, but most notably, the Cardinals need help on the offensive line, at cornerback and with a playmaker, most likely a wide receiver. -- Josh Weinfuss

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

Philadelphia 25, Chicago 20


What to know: When all else fails, the Eagles can bank on their pass rush. Philadelphia registered six-plus sacks for the fifth time this season. That's the most by an Eagles team since team sacks were first tracked in 1963, and is one game shy of tying the most by any team in a season. The money they gave Haason Reddick in free agency this offseason (three years, $45 million) has been well worth it. He led the way with two sacks and a fumble recovery against Chicago and now has 12 sacks on the season for the Eagles, who entered Week 15 with a league-best 49 takedowns.

What's the concern level over the passing game? Low. Jalen Hurts threw multiple interceptions in a game for the first time this season and was below his normal efficiency as a passer. There was some wind and cold to contend with as well as some trap game vibes to this one, seeing that it was sandwiched between a pair of division games: last week against the Giants and their biggest game of the season coming up Saturday against the Cowboys. The offense was clunky for long stretches. Still, Hurts scored three times on the ground -- he now has 13 rushing TDs on the year, one shy of Cam Newton's record -- and made plays through the air when it mattered. This group will be fine. -- Tim McManus

Next game: at Cowboys (Saturday, 4:25 p.m. ET)


What to know: The Bears were tough against the top team in the NFC. Justin Fields threw two touchdowns and ran for 95 yards, joining Lamar Jackson and Michael Vick as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. Chicago's secondary had arguably its best performance of the season by holding MVP candidate Jalen Hurts to his third-lowest completion percentage of the season (59.5%) while forcing him to throw two interceptions. This season is all about finding foundational pieces the Bears can build around in 2023. On defense, Jaylon Johnson continues to prove he's one of those players by recording three passes defended, all of which came against Eagles receiver A.J. Brown.

How will the Bears overcome another onslaught of injuries? Chicago entered Week 15 without wideouts Chase Claypool (knee) andN'Keal Harry(back). The receiving team took another hit when Equanimeous St. Brown left the first quarter with a concussion. One play after St. Brown's injury, right guard Teven Jenkins sustained a neck injury and was taken off the field on a stretcher. Linebacker Jack Sanborn injured an ankle in the third quarter and never returned, while Johnson was sidelined late with a rib injury. The Bears are in survival mode with three games to play amid a seven-game losing streak and hope the rash of injuries doesn't get any worse. -- Courtney Cronin

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

Jacksonville 40, Dallas 34OT


What to know: The Jaguars' defense has been criticized all season for giving up big plays and having a weak pass rush, but it has delivered the past two weeks, including in one of the most improbable victories of the season. Nickelback Tre Herndon had a rough time dealing with CeeDee Lamb all day, but he got his hand on a pass intended for Noah Brown, and safety Rayshawn Jenkins grabbed it and went 52 yards for the winning score in overtime. The Jags picked off Prescott twice and turned both into touchdowns. The Jaguars forced four turnovers in their rout of Tennessee the week prior despite giving up 121 rushing yards to Derrick Henry. The big plays the past two weeks have kept the Jaguars in the AFC South race.

What do the Jaguars do at offensive tackle? Both starters -- Cam Robinson (knee) and Jawaan Taylor (hamstring) -- left the game with injuries on Sunday, and that's critical with a short week to prepare for the New York Jets on Thursday night. Walker Little went in for Taylor at right tackle earlier in the second half and then moved to left tackle after Robinson's injury. Taylor gutted it out for the Jaguars' final drive, but if he's unable to play, they will likely bring up a replacement from the practice squad with the short week (possibly Coy Cronk). -- Mike DiRocco

Next game: at Jets (Thursday, 8:15 p.m. ET)


What to know: Dak Prescott has promised he would fix his problem with interceptions. It didn't happen Sunday. Prescott was bumped as he was throwing to Dalton Schultz on one pickoff in the third quarter, and the Cowboys lost in overtime when his third-down pass to Noah Brown was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Prescott now has nine interceptions in his past six games and 11 in his nine games played this season. He had 10 interceptions last year on 596 passes. The Cowboys blew a 27-10 lead, marking the first loss of Prescott's career when having a 17-point lead (30-1). Prescott has been picked off in four straight games, tying the longest streak of his career.

Are the Cowboys ready for Philadelphia? They aren't playing their best entering a huge NFC matchup. They needed a 98-yard drive to beat the one-win Houston Texans. They blew a 17-point third-quarter lead against the Jaguars. They led the Colts by just two points entering the fourth quarter before a 33-point explosion. Maybe they were just playing down to their AFC South foes, but they will not have the same margin for error against the Eagles. They will have revenge on their mind, having lost 26-17 at Philadelphia in October. Prescott did not play that game because of a broken thumb. -- Todd Archer

Next game: vs. Eagles (Saturday, 4:25 p.m. ET)

Kansas City 30, Houston 24OT


What to know: Turnovers can easily bring the Chiefs down in the playoffs. After committing a couple of turnovers against the Texans, the Chiefs are minus-seven in that category for the season. That's the domain of losing teams. The Chiefs have survived the past couple of weeks despite a flurry of turnovers but against inferior opponents. They're pressing their luck if this continues, particularly against better opponents in the playoffs.

Will the Chiefs get the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed if they win out? In that case, the only other team that could get the top seed is Buffalo. The Bills in this scenario would need to win out themselves to get the top seed, and they have a Week 17 game against a tough Bengals team. The better question is whether the Chiefs can win their final three games against Seattle, Denver and Las Vegas. That's not an intimidating schedule, but the way they've played recently doesn't inspire confidence. -- Adam Teicher

Next game: vs. Seahawks (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)


What to know: The Texans' loss to the Chiefs was another example of failing to finish in a lost season for the club. The Texans led the Chiefs 21-16 going into the fourth quarter, the seventh time this season they were either tied or had a lead to start the final quarter. But they've managed to win only one of those games, which is why they're heading toward the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL draft. It was a respectable effort considering they were without their leading rusher in Dameon Pierce and their two top receivers, Nico Collins and Brandin Cooks. Still, not being able to finish games has plagued the Texans all season.

Is the two-QB system fizzling out? The Texans had a plethora of success using two quarterbacks with Davis Mills and Jeff Driskel against the Cowboys. They produced 23 points, their second highest of the season, and the package netted 4.34 yards per play. But against the Chiefs, it produced only 1.24 yards per play. Driskel went 2-for-4 with 16 total yards, half of those on the ground. Mills threw for two touchdowns and ran for another one, but he had a costly turnover in overtime that led to the game-winning touchdown by Chiefs running back Jerick McKinnon. -- DJ Bien-Aime

Next game: at Titans (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)

Detroit 20, N.Y. Jets 17


What to know: The Lions' offense didn't appear to be as sharp as it has looked over the past six weeks, with just 20 total points -- their fourth-lowest mark of the season -- but they showed resilience when it mattered to improve to 7-7. Quarterback Jared Goff's 51-yard touchdown pass to Brock Wright was the second-longest go-ahead touchdown scored in the final two minutes of regulation in a game in the past 20 seasons, per ESPN Stats & Information.

What are the Lions' chances of making the playoffs? Coach Dan Campbell knew his team had to win out to even position itself for a potential playoff spot entering Sunday's game. With a win, the Lions have now boosted their playoff chances to 28 percent, according to ESPN analytics. Detroit has now won six of seven games for the first time since the 2016 season, when they last made the playoffs. -- Eric Woodyard

Next game: at Panthers (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)


What to know: The Jets lost their third straight game -- all by one score -- with their vaunted defense collapsing in the final minute on Brock Wright's 51-yard touchdown reception on fourth-and-inches. They got fooled big time, and it may have cost them a playoff spot. The Jets are a young team, still learning how to win, especially in big games. Clearly, they're not ready for these stakes. In crunch time, they were undermined by their best unit: the defense.

Do the Jets have a quarterback controversy? Zach Wilson or Mike White? Wilson, returning from his three-game benching, was all over the place -- some good, some ugly and some almost-spectacular moments in the fourth quarter. Some of the issues that got him benched -- poor decisions, off-target throws -- cropped up again. Chances are, he will start Thursday night against the Jacksonville Jaguars, as White (fractured ribs) may need more time. When he's ready, coach Robert Saleh will have a decision to make. -- Rich Cimini

Next game: vs. Jaguars (Thursday, 8:15 p.m. ET)

New Orleans 21, Atlanta 18


What to know: The Saints finally got the key takeaway they've been missing all year when Justin Evans and Bradley Roby combined for a forced fumble and recovery to help seal the game. But it was the Saints' rookie wide receivers who impressed the most: Rashid Shaheed had a 69-yard touchdown catch and Chris Olave crept closer to a 1,000-yard season with three catches for 53 yards, taking his season total to 940 yards.

Do the Saints still have a chance at the playoffs? It seems almost unbelievable, but the Saints' win keeps them in the playoff hunt at 5-9 after sweeping the Falcons. The Saints have to win out with two road games against the Browns and the Eagles before a home divisional matchup against the Panthers (5-9). The Saints entered the day two games behind the division-leading Buccaneers, who swept them this season, but it's not impossible to make it to the postseason. Still, it feels like it's too little, too late. -- Katherine Terrell

Next game: at Browns (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)


What to know: It was not the prettiest or most efficient debut, but expecting that from Falcons rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder might have been a bit much. But after a rough start with four straight incompletions, Ridder calmed down. While the numbers won't wow anyone (13-of-26 for 97 yards, six rushes for 38 yards) there were things to build on. As he gets more experience, he will likely trust himself and his decisions more, something that looked like he wasn't doing much of in the first half. Let's be clear: The performance wasn't good. But it wasn't a disaster, either.

Coming out of the bye, what did we learn about the Falcons' rookies? While we knew Ridder would play his first snaps, how Atlanta deployed the rest of its rookies for its final four-game stretch told us a little bit more. Linebacker Troy Andersen, who had been showing steady progress prior to the bye, got the start and had seven tackles. Running back Tyler Allgeier had a career-high 139 rushing yards and one touchdown. He is looking more like a potential back of the future after averaging 8.2 yards per carry. Receiver Drake London was Ridder's top target, with 11 targets, seven catches and 70 yards. Edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie also forced a fumble. -- Michael Rothstein

Next game: at Ravens (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)

Pittsburgh 24, Carolina 16


What to know: The Steelers topped the Panthers to avoid mathematical playoff elimination, but the final quarter was closer than it should've been because of self-inflicted wounds. The Steelers were cruising after opening the third quarter with a dominant 21-play drive that ate up 11 minutes, 43 seconds -- the Steelers' longest drive in 45 years -- followed by what appeared to be a defensive stop. And then an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Marcus Allen prior to Carolina's punt flipped the game. The flag gave the Panthers a fresh set of downs, and they went on to kick a field goal. Thanks to a stout Steelers red zone defense, Carolina settled for another field goal on its next drive (aided by an offsides call on T.J. Watt). But the Steelers' offense survived a third-down false start call on George Pickens on the ensuing drive and went on to grind out a game-sealing, 13-play possession that took up more than five minutes and ended with a field goal .

Does the late-season offensive improvement give Matt Canada job security? A popular scapegoat for the Steelers' early offensive struggles, Canada has quietly overseen a solid improvement from his unit since the bye week. Against the Panthers, the Steelers' historic 21-play drive ate up nearly the entire third quarter and gave the Steelers a two-score lead. And after a quiet week against the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers' run game put up 157 yards and the offense totaled 326 yards. Najee Harris finished with 86 yards on 24 carries and a touchdown. The biggest hole in the game plan remains George Pickens' inconsistent involvement, but overall, the offense has found a rhythm after a slow start -- and perhaps that could keep Canada as the Steelers' OC for a third season. -- Brooke Pryor

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


What to know: This was a huge missed opportunity, The Panthers (5-9) now have no margin for error if they hope to win the weak NFC South after being beaten at their own game: a solid running attack and defense. They almost assuredly will have to win out, with their final two games against division-leading Tampa Bay (6-7 before Sunday's game against Cincinnati) and New Orleans (5-9), which helped Carolina's cause by beating Atlanta (5-9).

Has Sam Darnold shown enough to be Carolina's quarterback in the final three games? He's not somebody the Panthers can count on when down by two scores, another reason the Panthers still need to focus their 2023 first-round pick on a quarterback. Darnold is only as good as his running game, and that was almost nonexistent against Pittsburgh. He made some nice throws to keep Carolina close, but he isn't enough of a playmaker to beat a team with his arm or legs. The more mobile PJ Walker might be the better option next week against a high-scoring Detroit team. -- David Newton

Next game: vs. Lions (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)


Buffalo 32, Miami 29


What to know: The Bills rebounded from a sluggish third quarter and played at a high level when it mattered most, coming back from an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit to win. It marked the Bills' largest fourth-quarter comeback win since Week 1 of the 2019 season vs. the Jets (trailed by 13). There's no doubt that Buffalo has things to clean up, but for all three phases to step up when it mattered most was significant for this team's larger aspirations. The Bills also extended their winning streak to five games and clinched a playoff berth in the process.

Can the tight ends and running backs be involved in the passing attack consistently? All four of the Bills' receiving touchdowns went to a running back or a tight end, which marked a career high for Josh Allen. Tight end Dawson Knox was involved in the passing game in a way he hasn't been all season, finishing as the team's leading receiver with 98 yards. Getting Knox -- along with running backs Nyheim Hines and James Cook -- involved in the passing game should open the door to more opportunities for those players and benefit the offense moving forward. As Allen said, "That's what makes an offense scary and dangerous, when you know at any point any of these guys can catch the ball and make a play." -- Alaina Getzenberg

Next game: at Bears (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)


What to know: All is not lost for the Dolphins. Yes, the NFL is a results-driven business, and Miami has now lost three straight games in the most critical month of the season. But Saturday's loss didn't feel as hopeless as the Dolphins' previous two. Their offense came back to life with 405 total yards, they ran for more than 100 yards for the first time since Week 10 and made into the red zone on four occasions after failing to do so over the past two weeks. If this loss to the top-seeded Bills represents a return to form for Miami, this team shouldn't have a problem winning at least two of its next three games.

Can the Dolphins hang on to their playoff position? Of the five other teams jockeying for the three wild-card spots in the AFC, the Dolphins hold a tiebreaker over three of them. They also play the New England Patriots and New York Jets over the next three weeks; beating both gets the Dolphins into the playoffs. If they've truly broken out of their offensive rut from Weeks 13 and 14, the playoff drought in South Florida should be over soon. -- Marcel Louis-Jacques

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

Minnesota 39, Indianapolis 36OT


What to know: The Vikings clinched the NFC North title in the most dramatic way imaginable, launching the largest comeback in NFL history -- regular season or in the playoffs -- to overcome a 33-point deficit to the Colts. Cornerback Patrick Peterson told players in the halftime locker room that that they would win if they could score five touchdowns thereafter, a whopping number that not everyone thought was realistic. But they did exactly that, and now have won 11 of the first 14 games of coach Kevin O'Connell's tenure.

Which Vikings team will we see in the playoffs? Is it the one that fell behind 33-0 at halftime, having allowed a blocked punt to be returned for one touchdown and an interception returned for another? Or is it the one that outscored the Colts 39-3 the rest of the way? No one was willing to say afterward the Vikings had solved all their deficiencies, but quarterback Kirk Cousins said that Saturday's performance was "something that doesn't happen to average people." -- Kevin Seifert

Next game: vs. Giants (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)


What to know: The Colts' second-half breakdown had many contributing factors. Chief among them were the offense's inability to generate first downs and the defense's failure to prevent big plays. On offense, the Colts produced just 132 yards in the final 40 minutes -- the second half and overtime. That gave the Vikings numerous chances on offense, leaving the Indianapolis defense struggling to get stops. The big plays were especially damaging, with Minnesota ripping gains of 64, 63, 35 and 21 yards on plays in the second half. It takes a total collapse for a comeback of this magnitude to happen.

Is playcalling a big part of the Colts' offensive issues? There were some curious playcalling decisions by the Colts in this game. When Indianapolis lost All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor on the opening series, you'd think it might impact their play selection. But the Colts still called 37 combined runs for backups Deon Jackson and Zack Moss. It made sense when the Colts were up big, leading 33-0 at one point. But their lack of production in the running game combined with the Vikings' terrible pass defense begs the question of whether the Colts got too conservative. Jackson and Moss averaged a combined 3.7 yards per carry. -- Stephen Holder

Next game: vs. Chargers (Monday, Dec. 26, 8:15 p.m. ET)

Cleveland 13, Baltimore 3


What to know:The Browns completely shut down Baltimore's offense -- which was without quarterbackLamar Jackson--as they held an opponent out of the end zone for the first time all season. Cleveland's defense has quietly been playing better of late -- though it will likely be too little, too late for the 2022 season.

Can the 6-8 Browns still make the playoffs? Even after Saturday's win, that still remains a long shot. The Browns will be officially eliminated from the AFC North race with just one more Cincinnati or Baltimore victory. And virtually every wild-card hopeful for the last two playoff spots -- including the Dolphins, Patriots, Chargers and Jets -- have the head-to-head tiebreaker over Cleveland, not to mention the better overall records.-- Jake Trotter

Next game: vs. Saints (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)


What to know:The Ravens' offense is in shambles. Saturday marked the first time Baltimore was held to three or fewer points in a regular-season game since 2008. It's been a tough stretch for the Ravens, who have been held to 16 or fewer points in three consecutive games -- the team's worst such rut since 2000. Backup quarterback Tyler Huntley couldn't push the ball downfield (138 yards passing), but Baltimore's problems won't be totally solved even if Jackson (knee) returns for the next game. Over his past nine outings, Jackson has thrown seven touchdown passes and five interceptions.

Can the Ravens still win the AFC North? This loss put a dent in Baltimore's hopes to capture the division and opened the door for the Bengals to take control. Baltimore's chances to win the AFC North dropped to 52% with the loss, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. The Ravens showed no signs of panic after the deflating defeat in Cleveland, though, and they know they can take the division if they win out. Baltimore's final three games are home against the Falcons and Steelers before finishing the regular season at the Bengals. -- Jamison Hensley

Next game: vs. Falcons (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)


San Francisco 21, Seattle 13


What to know: Niners rookie quarterback Brock Purdy continues to pass every key test thrown his way, including fighting through a painful rib injury to help beat the Seahawks and win the NFC West division. It's too early to say where this is going with Purdy, but the Niners still have designs on winning the Super Bowl. It's a huge ask of Purdy considering no rookie quarterback has ever started a Super Bowl, let alone won it. But the Niners have won seven in a row, and Purdy has been unfazed by the spotlight so far.

Now that they've clinched the division, how will the Niners handle their final three games? The 49ers can't drop below the No. 3 seed in the NFC, but they can still realistically rise to No. 2. As long as that two spot is in play, don't expect the Niners to take their foot off the gas, in part because they need to get Purdy as many snaps as possible before the postseason. -- Nick Wagoner

Next game: vs. Commanders (Saturday, 4:05 p.m. ET)


What to know: The Seahawks have a long way to go before they can compete with San Francisco for NFC West supremacy. That was evident in their 20-point loss in Santa Clara in Week 2 and over the last month, as the 49ers blew out opponents while the Seahawks struggled against under-.500 teams. It was again obvious Thursday night as San Francisco controlled the game from start to finish with a third-string quarterback in Brock Purdy and no Deebo Samuel. It illustrated how big the gap has suddenly become between the 49ers and a Seattle team that used to own them not long ago.

Can the Seahawks still make the playoffs? That's still very much in play. While they can no longer win the NFC West, ESPN's Football Power Index had their chances of claiming one of the NFC's two wild-card spots at 37% as of Friday. That's because the Giants and Commanders also entered the weekend with seven wins, and Seattle has a head-to-head victory over New York. But it won't be easy. Their defense has been reeling and they'll be without star receiver Tyler Lockett for at least one game as he recovers from hand surgery. -- Brady Henderson

Next game: at Chiefs (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)

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