Week 16 of the 2021 NFL season should give some clarity to the playoff races in both conferences.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers made history in the early game on Saturday, throwing his franchise-record 443rd career touchdown pass. Green Bay, which clinched a playoff spot last week, beat the Browns, dimming their playoff hopes.
The week started on Thursday night, when the Cowboys clinched a playoff spot with the 49ers’ loss to the Titans. San Francisco had led by 10 at halftime, before faltering in the second half.
Our NFL Nation reporters react with their 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: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers might have a late Christmas wish: for people to stop stepping on his toe. It happened twice in the first half — once by Browns defensive end Myles Garrett and once by his teammate, right guard Royce Newman, who got pushed into Rodgers by Malik Jackson. Two plays after that, Rodgers took a shot from Ifeadi Odenigbo that had him limping off the field at the end of that series. Seemingly every time Rodgers’ fractured left pinkie toe starts to feel better, it gets stepped on or kicked. If this keeps happening, Rodgers might have to consider surgery. He has said he could have surgery as a last resort and could do so without missing any games. It’s another reason the Packers would love the No. 1 seed, to get a bye on wild-card weekend. — Rob Demovsky
Can the Packers’ defense live by the takeaway when it really counts? The Packers won’t be playing Baker Mayfield every week in the playoffs. So their pattern of giving up a touchdown (twice) or getting an interception (three times) on the Browns’ first five possessions might not be a great way to live against a quarterback who takes care of the ball better. All three of Mayfield’s first-half interceptions were considered “off-target” throws. He entered the game with the fourth-highest off-target rate in the NFL this season. Sure, the Packers loved to see Darnell Savage, Chandon Sullivan and Rasul Douglas all come up with interceptions (Douglas had two, including the one that sealed the game in fourth quarter), but good old-fashioned third-down stops to end drives might be more important when playing a quarterback who doesn’t gift wrap interceptions. The Packers are the first team over the past two seasons to record at least five sacks and four interceptions in a game. The last team to do it was the Falcons at the Panthers in Week 11 of 2019. — Demovsky
Demovsky’s confidence rating (0-10): 9, up from 8.5. About the only way a team can take down the Packers now is by running the ball. The Packers came into the game allowing 4.5 yards per rush, better than only seven other teams. One reason they still rank 13th in rushing yards allowed is that some teams have abandoned the run because they’ve played from behind. Browns running back Nick Chubb averaged 7.4 yards per carry on Sunday, finishing with 17 attempts for 126 yards.
Next game: vs. Vikings (Jan. 2, 8:20 p.m. ET)
What to know: Aaron Rodgers turned all three of Baker Mayfield’s first-half interceptions into touchdown passes. The Packers then clinched the 24-22 victory on Saturday by picking off Mayfield a fourth time in the final seconds, as Cleveland’s once-promising playoff hopes continue to fade. — Jake Trotter
Can the Browns still make the playoffs? At 7-8, their only hope at this point is to win the AFC North. Cincinnati beating Baltimore on Sunday would help, since the Browns already defeated the Bengals this season, and they face Cincinnati again at home in the season finale. But even then, the Browns will need a lot of help. And they will have to win their final two games, including on Monday Night Football in Pittsburgh in Week 16, to have any chance. — Trotter
Trotter’s confidence rating (0-10): 5, down from 6. The Browns can’t win close games in the fourth quarter, as they lost their sixth contest this season by six or fewer points.
Next game: at Steelers (Jan. 3, 8:15 p.m. ET)
What to know: The Titans’ offense is back with wide receiver A.J. Brown in the lineup. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw for more than 200 yards for the first time in five games on Thursday. Tannehill also had a touchdown pass for the first time in three games. It snapped a streak of 102 passes without a touchdown. The Titans were the first team with at least five conversions on third-and-10 or longer in a game this season. Brown emerged as a third-down converter, catching eight passes — the most in a game over the past 30 seasons. — Turron Davenport
Can Julio Jones be a complementary receiver to Brown? Yes. Jones isn’t the same player he was two years ago. The Titans need him only to be a presence who can beat single coverage when defenses home in on Brown. Jones finished with one reception for 7 yards, so there’s a lot left to be desired. Tannehill mentioned how Jones attracted coverage when he connected with Brown to convert on a third-and-26. It would be great for the Titans if they could get a productive game from Jones heading into the playoffs to make defenses think twice about paying all of the attention to Brown. — Davenport
Davenport’s confidence rating (0-10): 8.5, up from 8. The signs of life the offense showed were encouraging, considering recent struggles, and pairing that with what has become a very stingy defense will make the Titans a tough out down the stretch.
Next game: vs. Dolphins (Jan. 2, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: For as good as the 49ers have been over the past month and a half, they offered a reminder on Thursday of the narrow margin for error. This isn’t the 2019 49ers, a team capable of overwhelming anyone with its front four and a dynamic running game. Like most teams, the Niners can’t afford to turn the ball over in key situations and have to find a way to get off the field on third down consistently. They did neither against Tennessee, and it cost them a game they should have won. San Francisco should make the postseason, but it has to take care of business against the lowly Houston Texans on Jan. 2. — Nick Wagoner
Which version of Jimmy Garoppolo will the Niners get the rest of the way? Thursday’s loss to the Titans was, in many ways, the full Garoppolo experience. He started out hot, marching the Niners down the field for an opening touchdown. Then he threw a bad pick in the end zone, missed a wide-open Kyle Juszczyk for a would-be score and threw another bad interception that led to an easy Tennessee TD. Bad Jimmy hadn’t been seen much in the Niners’ recent surge, but he appeared at a terrible time in Nashville. If the Niners are going to make the postseason and make any noise when they get there, they need Bad Jimmy to go back into hiding. — Wagoner
Wagoner’s confidence rating (0-10): 6.8, down from 7.2. It’s not so much that the Niners lost but how they lost, which doesn’t inspire confidence because there will be teams as talented as Tennessee in the postseason that will try to follow a similar plan.
Next game: vs. Texans (Jan. 2, 4:05 p.m. ET)