The Chiefs have a new top AFC challenger, and the NFC has a new team in the home-field advantage driver's seat. A few key plot points unfolded during Week 14's 14-game Sunday slate. Here are the grades for each of the teams that played Sunday, along with a look at every NFL squad.
Drops have foiled the Steelers' effort to use short passes to compensate for a lifeless rushing attack, but the lack of a ground presence has put an astounding burden on a 38-year-old quarterback coming off elbow surgery. Ben Roethlisberger (187 passing yards, two INTs) appears to have reached this formula's boundary, and the Steelers' Buffalo outing showed a vulnerable team. Two years after James Conner's Pro Bowl nod, the Steelers have produced fewer than 50 rushing yards in five of their past seven games. While Big Ben's form is another Steeler issue, it is amazing how little the Steelers (11-2) are helping him.
STEELERS GRADE: C-minus | NEXT: at Bengals (Mon.)
After spending most of the season as an oddly offense-geared operation, the Bills are starting to show the kind of defensive form that would keep them in a game against the Chiefs. Buffalo's defense flustered Roethlisberger with relentless blitzes, and slot cornerback Taron Johnson's pick-six changed Sunday night's game (and the AFC). The Bills (10-3) still rank 15th in points allowed, but muzzling the Steelers offense continues a positive late-season trend. Although the Bills lack a game-changing pass rusher, their across-the-board balance resurfacing is providing key support for the best Josh Allen version to date.
BILLS GRADE: A | NEXT: at Broncos (Sat.)
Travis Kelce has 1,250 receiving yards this season -- 70 more than anyone else. In the NFL's previous 100 years, no tight end has led the league in receiving. Kelce will likely obliterate George Kittle's tight end-record 1,377 yards, and his presence highlights a historically lethal Chiefs attack. Kelce benefits from Patrick Mahomes' brilliance and Tyreek Hill's unparalleled deep capabilities, but on a day when Mahomes threw three INTs and took a 30-yard sack, the Chiefs (12-1) were still too much. Kelce's consistency has made this one of the NFL's all-time passing armadas, one that will be a nightmarish task to stop in the playoffs.
CHIEFS GRADE: B | NEXT: at Saints (Sun.)
Despite the Dolphins becoming the first team to intercept Mahomes thrice in a game since the 2018 Rams, they trailed 30-10 at one point and saw an in-case-of-emergency skill-position staff flanking Tua Tagovailoa at game's end. The Dolphins (8-5) lost Mike Gesicki, DeVante Parker, and Jakeem Grant in Week 14 -- a game they entered without running backs Myles Gaskin, Matt Breida, and Salvon Ahmed. Tagovailoa's 316-yard effort and near-comeback bid look more impressive. With Gaskin out in Week 15 with COVID-19, and Bill Belichick still a John Wick-ian adversary for young QBs, these injuries could harpoon Miami's playoff hopes.
DOLPHINS GRADE: B-minus | NEXT: vs. Patriots (Sun.)
Benched in multiple seasons and moved around the Cardinals' defensive front, Reddick is reborn on the edge. He was the 7-6 Cards' best player Sunday, breaking a 27-year-old franchise record with five sacks. The former off-ball linebacker now has 10 sacks, and he made a Chandler Jones-less Giants matchup look strikingly similar to the 2019 Cards-Giants encounter Jones wrecked. Reddick beat top-five pick, Andrew Thomas, multiple times and bested right tackle Cameron Fleming. Next year's salary cap drop will make franchise tags harder to use, but the free-agent-to-be is a textbook tag candidate to pair with Jones.
CARDINALS GRADE: A | NEXT: vs. Eagles (Sun.)
This looked more like the Dave Gettleman-era Giants, and Week 14's letdown showed where the franchise sits in football's most important area. Daniel Jones threw 24 TD passes in 12 games last season -- the fourth-most ever for a rookie; he has eight in 12 games this year. Jones had gone 219 plays without his fumble tick resurfacing, but the NFL's fumbling belt-holder lost the ball three times Sunday. He now has 28 fumbles in two seasons. The Giants have their starting wideouts and Evan Engram available; their impact has lessened in recent weeks. The Giants (5-8) are in danger of blowing this goodwill effort with a national-TV loss next week.
GIANTS GRADE: F | NEXT: vs. Browns (Sun.)
The Vikings cut a fifth-round rookie after he missed three field goals in his second career game, leading them to Dan Bailey. With Daniel Carlson now in Las Vegas, his successor fared worse in a key NFC matchup. The 10th-year kicker missed three field goals and a PAT, becoming the first player in 59 years to miss that many kicks without converting one, according to ESPN Stats and Info. Bailey, who entered Sunday sixth in all-time field goal accuracy, has missed six kicks over Minnesota's past two games. He gave the Buccaneers undeserved security and made the 6-7 Vikes' late playoff surge less likely.
VIKINGS GRADE: C-minus | NEXT: vs. Bears (Sun.)
Tom Brady's Florida relocation overshadowed the Buccaneers (8-5) re-signing Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh this year. The trio combined for four of Tampa Bay's six sacks Sunday, putting the Vikings in position to have to turn to Bailey and ruining the visitors' near-40-minute time-of-possession afternoon. An Antoine Winfield Jr. blitz and a Barrett inside rush resulted in back-to-back sacks to stall a Vikings red zone trip, and a JPP sack-strip ended the game. The talent on this Bucs defense should not be overlooked, and it has helped -- at times -- Brady and Co. attempt to figure things out.
BUCCANEERS GRADE: B-plus | NEXT: at Falcons (Sun.)
Assuming the Texans follow through with their rumored J.J. Watt trade, what exactly do have beyond Deshaun Watson under contract? Laremy Tunsil, yes, but Watson still finds himself in a strange situation: a top-five quarterback with a basement-level roster. The Texans allowed seven sacks and made embattled Bears starters Mitchell Trubisky and David Montgomery resemble Pro Bowlers. Will Fuller is a free agent, and Houston (4-9) has squandered a healthy Watt season by assembling the 31st-ranked defense around him. This team looks at least two years away from contending again, creating unusual circumstances for a franchise QB exiting Year 4.
TEXANS GRADE: F | NEXT: at Colts (Sun.)
Although over half of Montgomery's 155 scrimmage yards came on one play, the second-year running back is making a case he deserves another year as Chicago's starter. The Bears (6-7) need offensive line aid and will require at least a complementary back, but they have seen their 2019 third-round pick emerge during the team's swoon. Improving his Year 2 yards-per-carry figure to 4.5, Montgomery has amassed 410 scrimmage yards over the Bears' past three games. This has helped their offense re-emerge over the past two weeks -- granted against bad defenses -- but with Matt Nagy's job at stake, these games are critical.
BEARS GRADE: A-plus | at Vikings (Sun.)
Touted in this space for months, the Titans' Derrick Henry extension is providing incredible value. After his second 200-plus-yard game this season -- a 215-yard, two-touchdown bulldozing of the Jaguars -- Henry now has more games of 200-plus rushing yards and two TDs (four) than anyone ever. He is now at 1,532 yards -- eight shy of his full-season total that won the 2019 rushing title. En route to becoming the first back-to-back rushing champion since LaDainian Tomlinson from 2006-07, the 27-year-old dynamo now has a 200-yard lead on the 2020 field. The Titans (9-4) have issues, but Henry masks some of them.
TITANS GRADE: A | NEXT: vs. Lions (Sun.)
It is easier to list the roster areas that do not require upgrades than it is to identify deficiencies for the 1-12 Jaguars, who join the population in waiting for 2021. While the Jags have lost their top pass rusher and their top two cornerbacks, other teams have run into worse injury issues. Jacksonville carried a top-five defense in 2018; its 2020 group ranks last despite big contracts (Myles Jack, Joe Schobert) at linebacker. While the Jags have two 2021 first-rounders and lead the league in projected cap space, their next GM has to use said resources to fill numerous holes.
JAGUARS GRADE: F | NEXT: at Ravens (Sun.)
Trevor Siemian and Case Keenum had better seasons than Lock's 2020, but because of the Broncos' trigger-happy QB routine, their latest experiment should benefit. Lock rewarded his talented receivers Sunday, finding them for big plays in a career-high four-touchdown pass performance. K.J. Hamler and Jerry Jeudy broke wide open on a couple of these chunk gains, but Lock posting a near-perfect passer rating (149.5) in a favorable spot is good news for a Broncos team (5-8) desperate to commit to another Lock year. Considering Courtland Sutton's absence and the pandemic-marred offseason, the still-unreliable passer should receive it.
BRONCOS GRADE: A-minus | NEXT: vs. Bills (Sat.)
Teddy Bridgewater produced quality stretches during the Panthers' loss, doing so without top weapons Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore. He also took four sacks and failed to move the chains once on a game-winning drive against a Broncos team missing two front-seven Pro Bowlers and its top two cornerbacks. The Panthers (4-9) have a low-ceiling quarterback; this was known when Bridgewater signed. The rebuilding team will not be in position to draft the 2021 class' top two quarterbacks, and their timeline does not sync up with a Matt Ryan or Matthew Stafford trade. The franchise is stuck here for the time being.
PANTHERS GRADE: C | NEXT: at Packers (Sat.)
Mike Nolan's eighth defensive coordinator stop could well be a one-and-done effort. With the Cowboys pledging to retain Mike McCarthy, someone must take the fall for this season. But Nolan's group dominated the Bengals (not the toughest task, but still). They recovered three fumbles in the game's first 16 minutes, allowing the Andy Dalton revenge game to commence comfortably. The Cowboys (4-9) did not sack either of the Bengals' QBs until the final minutes but still did not allow their opposition to threaten. A good sign for a team still not technically out of the playoff race.
COWBOYS GRADE: A-minus | NEXT: vs. 49ers (Sun.)
With the Bengals' five-game losing streak placing them squarely between the Jets-Jaguars #WinNeverForTrevor sector and the rest of the NFL, the 2-10-1 team is poised to land in the kind of spot Washington did last year. The Bengals' run game has nose-dived for most of Joe Mixon's absence, with its Giovani Bernard-led contingent submitting another dud against the Cowboys, and Joe Burrow is uncertain for Week 1 of the 2021 season partially because of bad offensive line management. No Chase Young-level talent appears to exist in next year's pool, but Oregon opt-out tackle Penei Sewell is a perfect match for the blocker-needy team.
BENGALS GRADE: F | NEXT: vs. Steelers (Mon.)
Three weeks remain, but the Saints probably have to beat the Chiefs to have a chance at earning home-field advantage. New Orleans' run defense went from not allowing a 100-yard rusher in over three years to letting two Eagles clear the century mark. Miles Sanders and Jalen Hurts' performances capped a 246-yard Eagles rushing day -- the Saints' worst showing in six years. New Orleans (10-3) now trails Green Bay for the NFC's No. 1 seed. The Saints are 1-5 in playoff road games during Drew Brees' tenure. This being relevant again -- when there is only one bye -- is a major plot twist for a team ahead of Brees' return.
SAINTS GRADE: D-plus | NEXT: vs. Chiefs (Sun.)
An Eagles franchise that has employed multidimensional phenoms Randall Cunningham and Michael Vick has a new weapon. Hurts became the fifth Eagle passer to rush for 100 yards in a game; no other franchise has more than two. He also reinvigorated an Eagles team (4-8-1) missing four O-line starters. The ex-Oklahoma Heisman finalist's read-option-based attack bested one of the NFL's top defenses. As Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick and Lamar Jackson have shown, these offenses have shelf lives without proven passing acumens. But this is a nice spark that further complicates matters for the Carson Wentz-anchored franchise.
EAGLES GRADE: A | NEXT: at Cardinals (Sun.)
This is the spark Colts fans awaited when Jonathan Taylor went to Indianapolis in Round 2. Taylor's rocky rookie season hit a crucial peak in Las Vegas. The ex-Wisconsin phenom's 150-yard, two-TD day made the Colts (9-4) resemble the team they intended to be, and it showed this run-oriented squad could be a tougher-than-expected playoff out. Taylor displayed power at the second and third levels and flashed the 4.39-second 40 speed that tantalized teams. If the Indianapolis O-line can continue to keep its 2019 form, it provides a major relief for an overworked passing attack.
COLTS GRADE: A | NEXT: vs. Texans (Sun.)
Firing third-year defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, the Raiders will be moving to a new one in 2021. It will be their seventh since 2003. Guenther's predecessors could not turn around a defense that has largely sputtered since Super Bowl XXXVII (zero top-16 scoring finishes in the past 17 years and counting). Las Vegas (7-6) has caved in against the run, yielding back-to-back 200-yard days -- one of which coming against the Jets' third- and fourth-string backs -- so Rod Marinelli has difficult work ahead. The Raiders are now on the wrong end of Steve Kornacki's playoff big board and have not shown postseason-caliber form in weeks.
RAIDERS GRADE: D-minus | NEXT: vs. Chargers (Thu.)
Washington has the NFC East's best position group, and it is changing the division's outlook. Its defensive line took over Sunday's game in Arizona, with its prized rookie leading the way. In addition to his 47-yard fumble-return TD, Young notched a sack on a dog blitz and pulverized Jeff Wilson to force a fumble in the backfield. Washington (6-7) needed this rampage after Alex Smith's calf injury forced Dwayne Haskins back into action. Fortunately, it looks like Smith could play in Week 15. If he does, Young has the veteran QB on the verge of making one of the most surprising playoff starts in NFL history.
WASHINGTON GRADE: A-minus | NEXT: vs. Seahawks (Sun.)
Deserved accolades aside, Kyle Shanahan has experienced a weird head-coaching stay in San Francisco. No starting-caliber QB resided on the 49ers' roster for much of 2017, and Jimmy Garoppolo's initial injury made 2018 another non-pertinent campaign. Everything coming together in 2019 showed Shanahan's acumen, but this season's across-the-board injuries will give the promising young coach a third irrelevant (through a big-picture lens) season in four years. Nick Mullens' tough week has knocked the 49ers (5-8) out of reasonable playoff contention and dropped Shanahan's record to a strange 28-33.
49ERS GRADE: D-plus | NEXT: at Cowboys (Sun.)
The Cardinals managed to collect a second-round pick for Josh Rosen, who now resides behind Blaine Gabbert on the Buccaneers' depth chart. With Darnold wrapping up a three-year body of work, it appears incredibly unlikely the Jets will receive such a haul for their former No. 3 overall pick. Darnold had two of his top three receivers available against an improving (but still shaky) Seahawks defense. The Jets (0-13) scored three points, and Darnold threw for 132 yards. Given a better (but still bad) O-line this year, Darnold has five TD passes in nine games. Another team may be able to grab him for a Day 3 pick.
JETS GRADE: F | at Rams (Sun.)
It remains to be seen if the Seahawks (9-4) will reward their safety prize with the top-market deal he seeks, but the recently traded standout has submitted an unusual case for such a contract. Adams registered a sack against his old team Sunday. Despite having only played nine games, Adams has 8.5 sacks. That breaks Adrian Wilson's 15-year-old NFL record for most sacks in a season by a DB. Adams, who dropped a room-service INT Sunday, can be labeled a box safety. But he is unusually productive in said box. The Seahawks will have a fascinating decision to make next year.
SEAHAWKS GRADE: A | NEXT: at Washington (Sun.)
The NFL's two collapse kingpins did not disappoint Sunday, combining for three interceptions in the game's final four minutes. Ryan threw two of those, finishing off a three-pick day. This comes during a third consecutive playoff-less slate and what will surely be a fourth straight season that ends without a Ryan Pro Bowl. Ryan's restructured five-year, $150 million contract -- complete with a record $94M fully guaranteed -- makes a trade onerous for Atlanta (4-9) in 2021, but this now represents a fairly sizable stretch where the Ryan-led franchise has hovered off the contender radar. Ryan turns 36 in 2021.
FALCONS GRADE: C-minus | NEXT: vs. Buccaneers (Sun.)
The Chargers (4-9) entered camp with a stunningly accomplished secondary, rostering four All-Pros. That unit's potential never materialized. Derwin James missed the entire season; Chris Harris missed much of it. Casey Hayward has not played to his usual capabilities, and Desmond King is now in Tennessee. But two role players came through late to create a winning opportunity. Jahleel Addae intercepted Ryan on a would-be go-ahead drive in the red zone, and Michael Davis' sideline theft opened the door for a game-winning field goal. A 2021 free agent, Davis has played well enough in a supporting role to warrant extension consideration.
CHARGERS GRADE: B-minus | NEXT: at Raiders (Thu.)
Last season, an overachieving Packer team saw this generation's most talented quarterback finish 20th in QBR. After Week 14 this year, Aaron Rodgers continued his march toward a third MVP award. He accounted for four TDs and no INTs in Detroit, exiting Detroit atop the QBR board and with a 39-4 TD-INT ratio. Year 2 in Matt LaFleur's offense has unleashed the player Green Bay made a too-early plan to replace. (The Packers rostering Tee Higgins would be interesting now.) Even without receiver upgrades, Rodgers has the Packers (10-3) needing to beat two sub-.500 teams and the Titans to earn their first No. 1 seed since 2011.
PACKERS GRADE: B-plus | NEXT: vs. Panthers (Sat.)
Despite missing the following players -- Kenny Golladay, Trey Flowers, Everson Griffen, Desmond Trufant, Jeff Okudah and two other starting linemen -- they were in a one-score game with one of the NFL's best teams for much of Week 14. And Matthew Stafford's late injury certainly affected Detroit's last-ditch rally hopes. Darrell Bevell has done well in his first two games replacing Matt Patricia. It would still surprise if the Lions (5-8) made Bevell their head coach, but the longtime offensive coordinator has the team in better form than what Patricia left it in on Thanksgiving or in Green Bay.
LIONS GRADE: B-minus | NEXT: at Titans (Sun.)
With the Raiders in freefall and Tua Tagovailoa's Dolphins setup worsening, the Ravens have an opportunity to rescue this season. They probably cannot afford to be overly experimental like they were against the Browns in Week 1, when Lamar Jackson finished with 275 yards. That turned out to be a mirage, and long-term Jackson questions are valid. But Baltimore (7-5) still has the NFL's No. 1 rushing attack, and a readier J.K. Dobbins will return to Ohio after back-to-back 70-yard games. If the Ravens can get past the Browns, a dream closing schedule -- Jaguars, Giants, Bengals -- will carry them back to the playoffs.
MONDAY: at Browns, 8:15 p.m. ET
This latest Ravens tilt probably doubles as the Browns' biggest game since their 2002 wild-card contest. After their 2019 hype proved historically undeserved, the Browns will depend on a rebuilt offensive line showing a national audience their 9-3 record is legit. The Browns lost 38-6 to the Ravens in Week 1 and still have a negative point differential. But their Jedrick Wills-Wyatt Teller-J.C. Tretter-Joel Bitonio-Jack Conklin O-line may be the NFL's best; it has allowed for Baker Mayfield to veer back on track. This still-underrated group has an unique (for an O-line) showcase opportunity Monday night.
MONDAY: vs. Ravens, 8:15 p.m. ET
Cam Newton's Patriots tenure may have three games remaining. The Patriots are, for the most part, still capable of stealing games with their defense. Ranking 29th in QBR and riding three straight sub-120-yard passing games, Newton has shown his bottom-tier QBR figures from 2016-19 were indicative of his post-Super Bowl 50 form. This season has shown a Hall of Fame path may no longer exist for the former dual-threat superstar, though this Patriots supporting cast is far from ideal. Predictably lacking top draft capital, the Pats (6-7) may soon be back to where they were after Tom Brady's departure.
PATRIOTS GRADE: D-minus | NEXT: at Dolphins (Sun.)
Rams GM Les Snead's extensions for Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley, to some degree, put his roster-building acumen in question. The Rams (9-4) are eating over $33 million in 2020 dead money from those mistakes. But the team has successfully pivoted to a modern running back arrangement. Cam Akers' 171-yard night was the best Rams running back performance since before Gurley's 2018 knee trouble, and it doubled as a reminder to not -- save for special cases -- dole out massive contracts to backs. The Rams have $8M in Gurley dead money next year as well, but they have at least reinvested correctly.
RAMS GRADE: A | NEXT: vs. Jets (Sun.)
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.