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The Week 15 slate was reduced because of COVID-19 outbreaks, with three games postponed to Monday and Tuesday. Still, there were some key outcomes from Sunday's games, even if only one team clinched a playoff spot.
The Green Bay Packers became the first squad in the 2021 season to book their spot in the postseason after taking down the Ravens, 31-30. They also strengthened their claim on the No. 1 spot in the NFC and separated themselves from the rest of the NFL, currently holding the league's best record.
One of their key competitors, the Arizona Cardinals, was expected to clinch a playoff berth but instead suffered a stunning 30-12 loss against the previously one-win Detroit Lions. Another team near the top of the NFC, the Tampa Bay Bucs, lost in historic fashion, with Tom Brady being shut out at home for the first time in his career.
Here are Week 15's winners and losers.
Surging Miami Dolphins
No team in NFL history has started 1-7 and made the playoffs. The Miami Dolphins still might not be the first to do so, but they're at least in position to come close. With their 31-24 victory against the Jets, the Dolphins clawed back to .500 and have now won six games in a row. More importantly, Miami (7-7) is within striking distance of the wild card in the AFC, although it needs some help from other teams to get there.
Dolphins have allowed 250 yards or less in three consecutive games. The last time Miami had a streak like this was from Oct. 16, 1994, to Nov. 6, 1994.
— Hal Habib (@gunnerhal) December 20, 2021
It wasn't pretty, with the Dolphins falling behind to two separate 10-point deficits in the first half. But Miami's defense made stops when it needed to. But more importantly, the Dolphins got something they hadn't had all season. Duke Johnson, whom they signed in October and has spent most of his time on the practice squad, became the first Dolphins rusher to eclipse 100 rushing yards in a single game. If he can provide consistency down the stretch, Miami could sneak into the playoffs. The only way that happens, however, is if the teams ahead — Steelers, Browns, Ravens, Bills and Chargers — slip up.
The first-place Chiefs
This week couldn't have gone any better for Kansas City, which beat the division-rival Chargers on Thursday night, then saw the two closest contenders for the top seed in the AFC, the Patriots (Saturday) and the Titans, lose. That means in an AFC where the top seeds seemingly go down on a weekly basis, the Chiefs (10-4) are now No. 1.
No AFC team has hosted four consecutive conference title games. Kansas City, under Andy Reid, is the only AFC team to host three straight. With three weeks to play in the regular season, the Chiefs have the AFC’s best record.
— Jason Reid (@JReidESPN) December 19, 2021
Considering Kansas City was 3-4 after a stunning 24-point loss against the Titans after Week 7 and was reeling on both offense and defense, coach Andy Reid has to feel good about where this team stands. Since that loss against Tennessee, Kansas City's defense has proven it can be a factor in slowing down opposing offenses. Even with the 28 points allowed against the Chargers, the Chiefs have given up just 13.3 points per game over the last seven. But the offense, which has been spotty at times over the last two months, woke up in Week 15 with explosive performances from tight end Travis Kelce and receiver Tyreek Hill. Now winners of their last seven, the Chiefs look like they might be all the way back and one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL.
WHAT WE LEARNED: COVID-19 cases, contenders' losses provide a twist
PLAYOFF PICTURE: Major shakeups in both AFC, NFC
Tyler Huntley's future
The Baltimore Ravens lost, 31-30, against the Packers and fell four spots in the AFC playoff picture to tumble completely out of the wild card. But quarterback Tyler Huntley, who is on a one-year deal that will make him an exclusive-rights free agent at the end of this season, played well enough to garner consideration as a potential contributor for other teams, even if it's years down the road.
— NFL (@NFL) December 20, 2021
Lamar Jackson is the quarterback of the Ravens. That won't change. But Huntley (28-of-40 for 215 yards and two touchdowns; 13 carries for 73 yards for two touchdowns) flashed the dual-threat ability that is so difficult to defend. Take the fourth quarter, after Baltimore went down two touchdowns with fewer than 10 minutes to play. Huntley completed 11-of-12 passes for 61 yards and added 45 rushing yards with two rushing scores to come within one point. He was efficient, made sound decisions and put his team in position to win the game. Even though the two-point conversion to win failed, Huntley went toe-to-toe with one of the NFL's toughest teams and best quarterbacks.
Slumping Arizona Cardinals
In the über-tight race for the NFC's top seed, no team can afford inexplicable losses. The Cardinals, who entered Week 15 tied for the NFL's best record, lost to the Lions, who came into Sunday with the league's worst mark. Arizona's offense was in tatters, struggling to move the chains on key situational downs.
The Cardinals went 0-for-4 on red zone conversions (including 0-for-2 in goal-to-go scenarios) and 1-for-3 on fourth downs. The sole conversion on fourth down came on the final play of the game, a meaningless scramble by Colt McCoy because Kyler Murray was benched. Murray's ball placement on throws — some of them routine — was off all game. On defense, breakdowns in the secondary yielded huge plays for Detroit, which raced to a 17-0 lead into halftime. This loss isn't completely debilitating. Arizona (10-4) entered Sunday as the No. 3 seed in the conference. With the loss, it fell just one spot. But the Cardinals have lost their last two and three of their last five. Now is not the time to be slumping.
The 10-3 Cardinals lost to the 1-11-1 Lions
This is the 3rd time since 1970 that a team w/ the NFL's worst record beat a team w/ the best record (incl tied records), min. 8 gms each
The prev. 2 teams to lose — 1995 Cowboys & 2004 Patriots — went on to win Super Bowl that season
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) December 19, 2021
The Joe Brady-less Carolina Panthers
Panthers coach Matt Rhule fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady earlier this month. Since then, Rhule — a coach with an offensive background — hasn't gotten his team to play any better. The Panthers (5-9) fell to the Buffalo Bills, 31-14, in another performance marked by offensive ineptitude.
Panthers in September: 3-0
Panthers since September: 2-9 pic.twitter.com/fVafztxQfm
— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) December 19, 2021
Carolina gained just 124 passing yards against the Bills and the deep passing game was almost entirely ineffective. Through the third quarter, the longest passing play for the Panthers was to Robby Anderson for 13 yards. Carolina went for it on fourth down five times; they converted only once. To rush quarterback Cam Newton and Carolina's entire offensive operation, the Bills often brought blitzing cornerbacks. Rhule and Newton had no answers. The bigger problem facing Carolina is that Rhule, who has final say on personnel, is still searching for a final answer at quarterback after trying to make it happen with Sam Darnold (including trading a second-round pick for him), only to scrap those plans in favor of an aging Newton. And while Carolina has had to deal with the absence of star running back Christian McCaffrey most of the season, Rhule and this Panthers staff haven't come close to solving any of the team's offensive woes.
The mark of a good team is that it gets stronger in the second halves of games. The Tennessee Titans, after their 19-13 loss against the Steelers, have struggled in the second half. In Tennessee's last two losses, combined with a Week 12 loss against the Patriots, the Titans have not scored a single point in the second half. In fact, Tennessee has been outscored 36-0 in those losses.
The #Titans have turned the ball over 13 times in their last four games. In their first 10 games, they had turned it over 12 times. Tennessee is now tied for the 2nd most turnovers in the NFL with Jacksonville and KC.
— Emily Proud (@emily_proud) December 20, 2021
The last four Titans possessions against the Steelers were all turnovers: two fumbles, an interception and a turnover on downs. Tennessee lost the turnover battle, including the turnover on downs at the end of the game, by a margin of 5-0. Their offense has been hampered by injuries, none bigger than running back Derrick Henry. But the Titans need to fix their ball security issues. Tennessee has turned the ball over 13 times in the last four games, and is 1-3 in that span.
It wasn't bad enough that the Buccaneers were shut out in a stunning 9-0 game against a shorthanded New Orleans Saints team that was missing coach Sean Payton because of a positive COVID-19 test. Tampa saw key offensive players -- receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and running back Leonard Fournette -- go down with injuries.
On #SNF, the @Saints handed Tom Brady his first shutout since Week 15, 2006 ...
Back on Dec 10, 2006:
- Brady was 29 years, 129 days old
- No currently active defensive player had yet entered the NFL
- Drew Brees was playing his first season w/ the Saints
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) December 20, 2021
Without those weapons, quarterback Tom Brady struggled. He completed 26-of-48 passes for 213 yards with one interception. Credit should go to Saints defensive coordinator and acting head coach Dennis Allen, as Tampa Bay couldn't even cross once into the red zone. The Buccaneers (10-4) had a chance to keep pace with the Packers as the team with the top record in the NFL and could have clinched the NFC South with a victory. This was a team that entered Sunday with the NFL's top-ranked scoring offense (31.5 points per game). Others may not be able to replicate this against the Bucs, but film from this one will be the model they use to try to slow down this offense. Not all teams, though, can generate relentless pressure up front (four sacks with seven QB hurries) with four or fewer pass rushers and drop players in coverage to blanket receivers down the field.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL Week 15 winners, losers: Cardinals, Buccaneers s look terrible