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The Baltimore Ravens sum up the 2021 NFL season. It all looked so good not long ago. Then injuries and COVID-19 ruined everything.
The Ravens went on the road in what should have been an AFC North championship showdown against the Cincinnati Bengals. They had no chance.
The Ravens had 10 players on the COVID-19 list. They had seven starters on injured reserve and had 11 practice squad players on the field via Jamison Hensley of ESPN. Cornerback Anthony Averett was carted off during the game with a chest injury. Lamar Jackson was out due to an ankle injury and his competent replacement Tyler Huntley was put on the COVID-19 list this past week. Josh Johnson, a 35-year-old who has been with 13 teams, started at quarterback. He was signed off the Jets' practice squad 11 days earlier.
Many teams are dealing with injuries and COVID issues, but it's hard to not feel bad for the Ravens, who deserved way better this season.
Sunday's pivotal game started well. The Ravens took a 7-3 lead. Then it was 10-7 Bengals. Then 17-7. Then 24-7 and it wasn't halftime yet. Joe Burrow had 299 yards by halftime against the Ravens' patchwork secondary. That's the most Baltimore has ever allowed in a first half. The Ravens were done — not just against the Bengals, but probably for the season as well — and it wasn't their fault. At the end the Bengals seemed to be rubbing it in, with Burrow throwing deep late. He got to 525 yards. The Ravens couldn't stop anything. They lost 41-21.
This is the 2021 NFL season in a nutshell. The Ravens were 8-3 and looking at the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They got through a rash of injuries and were still one of the AFC's best teams, a testament to head coach John Harbaugh. But the injuries kept piling up and being hit by COVID was the final knockout punch. The Ravens are 8-7, they're not winning the AFC North after being swept by the Bengals and might not get a wild-card spot either. A promising season turned to dust and it was mostly out of their control.
A few teams' seasons are being ruined by injuries and COVID. The Cleveland Browns are another AFC North team that is seeing its season slip away. Given how many players around the league were out this weekend after being put on the COVID-19 list, the Ravens probably aren't the last team that will enter the offseason wondering what happened to their year.
Last season, despite the pandemic we got to the finish line with a reasonable playoffs and a viable champion that didn't need an asterisk. Getting that satisfactory conclusion this season seems a lot less likely.
Here are the winners and losers from Week 16 of the NFL season:
Las Vegas Raiders’ playoff chances, somehow: The Raiders got a lot of help in Week 16, and they helped themselves too.
Las Vegas beat the Denver Broncos, knocking off another team that came in 7-7. Other AFC wild-card contenders lost too.
Las Vegas finishes at the Colts and then hosts the Chargers in the finale. That stretch will be tough. But the Raiders are still alive, with a much stronger pulse after Sunday’s games. Nearing the end of this crazy season, that's all they can ask.
Nick Foles, Damiere Byrd and the Chicago Bears: The Bears’ season isn’t going anywhere, but it’s still nice to win.
The Bears had a nice comeback win over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. They scored late and decided to go for the two-point conversion. Foles, filling in for Justin Fields, threw high to Byrd, who made a remarkable grab and somehow maintained control while staying in bounds. Russell Wilson couldn’t answer and the Bears had a 25-24 win.
— NFL (@NFL) December 26, 2021
Chicago is going to undergo big changes in the offseason. But every win makes for a little better week, and the Bears will enjoy this one.
Buffalo Bills, likely AFC East champs: Finally, the Bills looked like Super Bowl contenders.
The Bills are probably going to win the AFC East. They are tied with New England after beating the Patriots on Sunday, 33-21, and have the edge in the tiebreaker. The Bills have home games against the Falcons and Jets to finish the season. Anything can happen but you have to like their chances.
The Patriots stayed in the game and cut the Bills' lead to 26-21 in the fourth quarter, but Buffalo had a clutch drive after that. Josh Allen picked up a huge first down on a fourth-down run, with a great juke move to get 8 yards. He finished the drive with a fun flip to Dawson Knox that put away the game.
The Bills have been relatively disappointing this season but they're in line to win the AFC East, and suddenly they look dangerous again.
Tom Brady and Antonio Brown: Brady lobbied the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to get Antonio Brown last year. Presumably, he had a little say in Brown sticking around this season.
Regardless of Brown's many off-field issues, he can play. The Buccaneers need him with Chris Godwin done for the season, and Brown's return to the lineup offered a glimpse at what he can do.
Brown was Brady's favorite target Sunday as the Buccaneers rolled without Godwin, Mike Evans or Leonard Fournette in a 32-6 win over the Carolina Panthers. Brown had 10 catches for 101 yards.
The Buccaneers won't be the same without Godwin, one of the NFL's best receivers. But Brown will be just fine, and so will Brady.
Everyone on the Rams but Matthew Stafford: It probably is good news for the Los Angeles Rams that they can beat a decent team with Stafford playing like he did Sunday.
Stafford threw three interceptions, posted a 46.8 passer rating and still beat the Minnesota Vikings 30-23. The Rams are in great shape in the NFC West after the win, combined with the Arizona Cardinals' loss on Saturday.
Stafford has had an up-and-down first season with the Rams. He has had some good moments but hasn't been the MVP candidate the Rams expected. That's fine because the Rams are on their way to capturing a division title, and they know they don't need Stafford to play great to win.
Mike Tomlin’s streak: Tomlin has been coach of the Steelers since 2007. He has never posted a losing record. That streak is in danger.
The Steelers will need to win one of their last two games to avoid a losing season. They’re 7-7-1 after being trashed by the Kansas City Chiefs 36-10.
The Steelers didn’t score in the first half for the fifth straight game, and CBS said it was the first time that has happened with the Steelers since 1940. Everything is tough for the Steelers this season. Their offense isn’t good and the defense has slipped too.
The Steelers will presumably keep playing hard the last two weeks. Maybe that will be enough to avoid Tomlin’s first losing season.
Los Angeles Chargers: The Chargers had a lot of players out due to COVID-19. That would be a great excuse if the Houston Texans weren't dealing with the same thing.
The Chargers took an inexplicably bad loss on Sunday. The Texans, who had a 3-11 record coming in, looked like the better team. Texans rookie quarterback Davis Mills continued to look good as he picked apart the Chargers. Houston won 41-29.
The Chargers are 8-7 and still should make the playoffs. But it's a lot less of a sure thing after losing to Houston. And the loss was a reminder that the Chargers can't be trusted, even if they get in the postseason.
This miserable Giants season: New York might be the least enjoyable team to watch in the NFL.
The Giants' quarterbacks in Sunday's 34-10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles were Jake Fromm and Mike Glennon. Glennon came in after more than a half of bad football from Fromm. The Giants should have a superstar in Saquon Barkley, but Barkley looks like a shell of himself. You can blame the environment, but if you're drafting a running back second overall he needs to carry the offense no matter what it looks like around him. Then to add insult to injury, offensive tackle Lane Johnson caught a touchdown pass to put the Eagles ahead 27-3 in the fourth quarter.
The Eagles weren't great but the Giants were embarrassingly bad. Again. There's no team that looks more ready for the season to end.
Trevor Lawrence's rookie season: The best the Jacksonville Jaguars and Lawrence can do is wipe 2021 out of their minds.
Blame it all on fired head coach Urban Meyer and the lack of talent around Lawrence, and hope the No. 1 overall pick isn't as bad as he has looked at times this season. Lawrence's first season has been poor, and it got worse when he lost to No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson and the New York Jets 26-21. Lawrence had a chance to tie the game in the fourth quarter but held the ball on a two-point conversion attempt and had to throw wildly into the end zone. It was incomplete. The Jaguars had another shot at the goal line in the final minute but couldn't punch it in, with the drive ending on a fourth-down incompletion.
Lawrence threw for 280 yards and wasn't terrible Sunday, but it was still a loss against an awful Jets team. It doesn't matter. Hopefully Lawrence and everyone else can forget his rookie season even happened.