Ja'Marr Chase delivered one of the great days in wide receiver history to lift the Bengals past the Chiefs, and the Eagles completed their unlikely road back to the playoffs. The Cardinals and Titans also saw their postseason fortunes perk up in Week 17, while Antonio Brown may well have said goodbye to football. Here are the grades from the NFL's penultimate regular-season Sunday.
It is tough to find many players whose stock tanked more than Baker Mayfield's this season. Mayfield being allowed to play most of the season with a fractured left shoulder became a worst-case scenario for him and the Browns. It has thrown his place as their franchise QB into serious doubt, and it kept a talented Cleveland team (7-9) under .500. The Steelers sacked Mayfield nine times, intercepted him twice, and forced 10 straight incompletions. Can the Browns view this season as definitive proof Mayfield is not their long-term guy? Should the long-QB-starved team point to 2020 when a healthier Mayfield ranked 10th in QBR for better evidence? This franchise faces a major decision soon.
BROWNS GRADE: D-plus | NEXT: vs. Bengals (Sun.)
Ben Roethlisberger averaged 2.7 yards per attempt Monday -- the lowest single-game figure in the future Hall of Famer's 248-game career. It is certainly time for retirement. This historically inefficient outing still led to a win. Watt did the most to produce that ending for the Steelers (8-7-1), registering a career-high four sacks. The Browns left backup right tackle James Hudson isolated on Watt too many times, and the Defensive Player of the Year favorite wrecked the game. Watt, who also deflected two passes, has 21.5 sacks -- 3.5 more than anyone else. And he has gotten here in 14 games. Michael Strahan's disputed record (22.5) is in sight; so is Bubba Baker's unofficial mark (23).
STEELERS GRADE: B-plus | NEXT: at Ravens (Sun.)
Kirk Cousins' positive COVID-19 test leading to Sean Mannion facing Aaron Rodgers closed the book on the 2021 Vikings, will likely lead to Mike Zimmer's ouster and concluded a brutal run of "Sunday Night Football." Equipped with flexing powers for years, the NFL let four mismatches stay on the schedule over the past four weeks. Just one (Bucs-Saints) ended up being competitive. The Cousins contracts have not worked out, with the Vikings (7-9) going from the Super Bowl LII precipice at 13-3 to one double-digit win season over the next four years. Some pieces remain in Minnesota, but they will lose a top-tier defensive mind after this latest letdown.
VIKINGS GRADE: F | NEXT: vs. Bears (Sun.)
This is one of the more impressive 13-win seasons in memory. Playing with one starting offensive lineman and without two Pro Bowl defenders for most of the year, Green Bay (13-3) locked up the NFC's bye. The Packers are a Super Bowl-caliber team as is, but they will be vulnerable if certain players' rehab odysseys do not end soon. Green Bay greenlit three more weeks for All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander and Pro Bowl edge rusher Za'Darius Smith to recover. The team's shorthanded stretch producing a bye is absolutely crucial. The Packers could have their best team in 10 years if these standouts resurface in Round 2.
PACKERS GRADE: A | NEXT: at Lions (Sun.)
Penalties went against the Chiefs in Cincinnati, but the AFC West champions do not have much room to complain. Kansas City (11-5) allowed Joe Burrow to throw for 446 yards and left its cornerbacks vulnerable for Ja'Marr Chase's demolition. This was clearest when Chase got loose for 35- and 30-yard gains -- the latter after DC Steve Spagnuolo sent the house on a third-and-27 -- on Charvarius Ward in 1-on-1 coverage to set up Cincinnati's game-winning field goal. The Chiefs defense began a midseason ascent to put the team on the cusp of a No. 1 seed, but its early-season form re-emerging on one bad day will likely make Kansas City play in the wild-card round.
CHIEFS GRADE: C | NEXT: at Broncos (Sat.)
Jerry Butler's rookie receiving record survived Randy Moss and Odell Beckham Jr., but Chase broke the 42-year-old mark in one of the most impactful wide receiver games in modern NFL history. Chase's 11-catch, 266-yard, three-TD day broke the Bengals' single-game record -- passing some heavy hitters -- and showed Burrow's historic Week 16 outing was not merely a product of the Ravens' battered defense. It also moved the Bengals (10-6) into the playoffs for the first time in six years. This AFC-reshaping performance should be enough for Chase, who also eclipsed ex-LSU teammate Justin Jefferson's single-season rookie record (now 1,429 yards), to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.
BENGALS GRADE: A | NEXT: at Browns (Sun.)
Bruce Arians did not want to sign Antonio Brown in 2020; Tom Brady's insistence won out. The three-time cancer survivor's decision to keep Brown after his vaccine card fiasco now looks foolish. Brown's stupefying decision to bolt on the Buccaneers midgame not only complicates his Hall of Fame case -- once on a first-ballot trajectory in Pittsburgh -- but leaves Tampa Bay vulnerable. The Bucs (12-4) escaped against a bad Jets team, but Brady lacking both Brown and Chris Godwin will create issues in the playoffs. Inside chain-movers have powered the legendary QB throughout his career. The Bucs had both for most of their playoff run last season when they benefited from the Brown signing by winning Super Bowl LV.
BUCCANEERS GRADE: C-plus | NEXT: vs. Panthers (Sun.)
Brady led a predictable game-winning drive to vanquish the Jets, but Robert Saleh's decision opened the door to that ending. The first-year head coach inexplicably eschewed a short field goal -- one that would have put the Jets up 27-20 -- to go for a fourth-and-2. To tilt the odds more in the Bucs' favor, the Jets (4-12) ran a QB sneak into the teeth of one of the NFL's best-run defenses. The poor decision and execution obviously reflect badly on Saleh, whose team had the Bucs on the ropes and could have at least forced overtime. Saleh's seat will be hotter in 2022.
JETS GRADE: C-plus | NEXT: at Bills (Sun.)
The Cardinals entered the season with a strong four-wideout corps consisting of DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, and Rondale Moore. Yet Sunday, with Hopkins out and Arizona on a three-game skid, Antoine Wesley stepped in to re-route his team's season. Wesley's leaping touchdown catch preceded a solid concentration effort on a tipped ball. The former Kliff Kingsbury Texas Tech recruit's two TDs helped the Cards (11-5) stay in the mix for the NFC West title. With the Rams having a 49ers problem (five straight losses in this rivalry), the Cardinals' hopes of earning a playoff home game are suddenly very live again.
CARDINALS GRADE: A | NEXT: vs. Seahawks (Sun.)
Dallas' four-game win streak came mostly against downtrodden NFC East teams. After their Washington romp seemingly answered some questions about a slumping offense, Sunday's loss to the Cardinals reinserted doubt about the Cowboys' Super Bowl prospects. The Cowboys (11-5) rushed for 45 yards, with its running backs accounting for just 23 of those. While Dak Prescott submitted quality fourth-quarter work (minus the fumble on Chandler Jones' sack), he did not do enough earlier. This bumps the Cowboys down to the NFC's No. 4 slot, and while Dallas would still be favored in a 4-5 rematch against the Cards, their offensive inconsistency is the central concern entering the playoffs.
COWBOYS GRADE: C-minus | NEXT: at Eagles (Sat.)
Viewed by most as a team in transition, after abruptly ending the Carson Wentz-Doug Pederson era, the Eagles have pushed their surprise season to the playoffs. They clinched a wild-card berth in Washington, with their mix of young talent and Super Bowl LII holdovers shutting out the hosts in the second half. Josh Sweat tallied 1.5 sacks, while Fletcher Cox logged five pressures. Avonte Maddox's fourth-down stop led to a crucial fourth-quarter field goal, and sixth-year Eagle Rodney McLeod's INT ensured Philadelphia (9-7) will play an 18th game. While this space does not agree with the team's new white-on-black road attire, this has been a remarkable season on most other fronts.
EAGLES GRADE: B | NEXT: vs. Cowboys (Sat.)
While John Bates falling made McLeod's game-sealing pick easier, Taylor Heinicke put just one touchdown on the board Sunday. The Old Dominion product has been intermittently effective as Washington's sudden QB1 this season, but the team will again need to try for an upgrade. After failing in its bid for Matthew Stafford, Washington (6-10) opted against trading up for Justin Fields or Mac Jones. The team might not need to move up for one of 2022's first-round QBs, part of a lesser-regarded crop than recent classes. But with Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson in the NFC, this is a prime candidate to invest in one of those first-round prospects.
WASHINGTON GRADE: C-plus | NEXT: at Giants (Sun.)
When the Broncos moved Chris Harris outside in 2019, Kenny Moore came for the All-Decade slot corner's throne. The Colts' inside stopper has been maybe the best over the past three years and is Pro Bowl-bound. Renfrow beat him Sunday to keep the 9-7 Raiders surge going. Renfrow caught seven passes for 76 yards and a go-ahead TD to secure his first 1,000-yard season. His 24-yard grab on Las Vegas' final drive set up a game-winning field goal and arranged the Raiders' biggest game in five years. The Raiders' 2019 offseason featured bad misses (Antonio Brown, Trent Brown, Lamarcus Joyner, Clelin Ferrell), but the team getting Renfrow in Round 5 proved vital.
RAIDERS GRADE: A-minus | NEXT: vs. Chargers (Sun.)
Dealt a blow in Carson Wentz's positive COVID-19 test, the Colts (9-7) saw their passing game struggle. They needed a ricochet to T.Y. Hilton to keep pace with the Raiders, who have overachieved to stay in the playoff race. Hilton's 45-yard TD accounted for nearly a third of Wentz's passing total. Indianapolis' QB only played Sunday because of the NFL's second in-season virus protocol adjustment, and the performance will make it harder for the Colts to trust their trade acquisition in the playoffs. The Colts will play their third win-and-in finale in four years. That can be viewed as both a success after a 1-4 start and a letdown given some of this team's losses.
COLTS GRADE: C-minus | NEXT: at Jaguars (Sun.)
Matthew Stafford has not enjoyed seeing purple uniforms the past two weeks, likely joining a sizable football-viewing sect on that front. The Rams QB has submitted back-to-back three-turnover performances. Three of Stafford's five INTs against the Vikings and Ravens came inside his own 20-yard line. Chuck Clark's short pick-six put the Rams (12-4) in peril. Thankfully, Cooper Kupp -- on pace for the NFL's first receiving triple crown since Steve Smith in 2005 -- and Odell Beckham Jr. came through late. L.A.'s Stafford-led game-winning drive kept the Rams in first place, but going into a game against a troublesome foe, his recent work provides concern.
RAMS GRADE: B-minus | NEXT: vs. 49ers (Sun.)
From the inception of the six-team playoff bracket in 1990 to last season, 95 teams had started 8-3. Eighty-eight went to the playoffs. This year's Packers, Buccaneers, and Titans will join that group. It does not look like the Ravens will. Baltimore (8-8) is on track to be just the fifth team this century to start 8-3 and miss the postseason, dropping another one-point game Sunday. Lamar Jackson's injury likely cost Baltimore a playoff spot, though Tyler Huntley has played well. John Harbaugh's two two-point failures doomed the Ravens as well. The Ravens will soon have to build around a monster Jackson contract, making 2021 a hard-luck missed chance.
RAVENS GRADE: B-minus | NEXT: vs. Steelers (Sun.)
Those skeptical of the Dolphins' seven-game win streak, which mostly came against poor opposition, took a victory lap after their Week 17 catastrophe in Tennessee. Tua Tagovailoa threw an interception and fumbled three times in the rain. Although the NFL's lone southpaw QB starter lost just one of those, the Dolphins' 31-point loss quickly booted them out of the playoff pursuit. Miami (8-8) went from 1-7 to 8-7, but the questions about Tagovailoa's future are coming back. Trading out of future first rounds for Deshaun Watson will be back on the table soon, creating more controversy after a quality run by this year's team.
DOLPHINS GRADE: F | NEXT: vs. Patriots (Sun.)
News of Henry's imminent return changes the AFC bracket, but one of his replacements has used the All-Pro's injury to redeem himself. D'Onta Foreman totaled 29 carries from 2018-20, but if the Titans (11-5) end up leapfrogging the Chiefs for the AFC's No. 1 seed, they can thank the midseason pickup for vital contributions. Foreman rushed for 132 yards on 26 carries. After beginning the season on the workout circuit, the former Texas Longhorn has three 100-yard outings in his past five games. The Titans have struggled to give Henry a viable backup. They have found one, which will make this resurgent outfit stronger come playoff time.
TITANS GRADE: A-plus | NEXT: at Texans (Sun.)
It did not look like the Texans could win four games this season, but they have gotten there. While the Jaguars somehow outflanking the Texans for 2021 apathy played a part, David Culley has kept the team an interesting spoiler outfit. The Chiefs will be lending their support to Culley's squad next week. Reports of Culley being set to return as head coach make sense; the overmatched squad is playing hard. Still, the Texans (4-12) hiring a 66-year-old non-play-calling head coach to essentially be a caretaker during lean years makes for an odd position for Culley, who likely will not be there when the team is ready to contend.
TEXANS GRADE: C-minus | NEXT: vs. Titans (Sun.)
Trey Lance looked better Sunday than he did in his previous outing -- an October loss in Arizona -- but San Francisco is limited with its raw rookie. That should be expected, given the 21-year-old's inexperience, but Jimmy Garoppolo's injury puts the 49ers (9-7) in a difficult spot. Lance may need to keep the keys the rest of the way, which obviously opens the door to the Garoppolo era ending early. Lance showed some promise, making a few good throws from the first-half two-minute warning during a 249-yard outing. But this particular team will be a tougher sell as a playoff underdog -- if it can get there after Lance faces the Rams -- without Garoppolo.
49ERS GRADE: B | NEXT: at Rams (Sun.)
Carolina's quarterback problem will take precedence, but the team has seen its pass protection crater this season. The Panthers (5-11) gave up seven sacks for the second straight week. Cam Jordan beat multiple blockers, most glaringly right guard John Miller, for his 3.5 sacks. C.J. Gardner-Johnson came untouched on his sack. Sam Darnold deserves some blame for these skyrocketing sack totals, but Carolina's front surrendered 13 second-half pressures. Rookie left tackle Brady Christensen allowed six in the game. The Panthers have right tackle ( Taylor Moton) checked off but feature questions throughout the rest of the unit.
PANTHERS GRADE: D-plus | NEXT: at Buccaneers (Sun.)
After the Ian Book debacle almost certainly led to the NFL further relaxing COVID protocols, the Saints more closely resembled themselves Sunday. Their offense produced just 18 points, but Jordan continued his late-season havoc spree with 3.5 sacks and three tackles for loss. The 11th-year veteran entered Week 15 with four sacks; he is up to 11.5. The seven-time Pro Bowler now has six double-digit sack seasons. Jordan's recent run has helped the Saints stay on course. New Orleans' strong defense is a win over Atlanta and a Lance L.A. letdown from seeing playoff time, which would be quite the statement given their offensive issues this season.
SAINTS GRADE: B | NEXT: at Falcons (Sun.)
Peyton Manning and Josh Allen are two notable names who recovered from bad rookie seasons to become superstars. There are far more first-round QBs who could not rebound after introductory stumbles. Trevor Lawrence has played poorly with and without Urban Meyer. While the since-fired HC's disastrous tenure set Lawrence on this course, the No. 1 pick's three-INT day Sunday kept it going. Lawrence has now thrown an NFL-most 17 picks. A bottom-tier organization for a long time, the Jaguars now face the challenge of rebuilding their prized prospect. Forget capitalizing on a rookie QB contract; the Jags (2-14) just need to stabilize him as a starter.
JAGUARS GRADE: F | NEXT: vs. Colts (Sun.)
The Patriots (10-6) have not wasted much time with the NFL's dregs. This marks New England's second 50-point outing. Like the Pats' 54-13 win over the Jets, their offensive line controlled the Jaguars throughout. Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson scored twice, leading a 181-yard rushing effort that saw limited yardage chances thanks to Lawrence's turnovers. The Pats O-line also allowed just two pressures (with no sacks and no hits) on Jones, who rebounded after his concerning span. This O-line did not produce a Pro Bowler, but it is (again) one of the NFL's best in a tough period for blocking success.
PATRIOTS GRADE: A-plus | NEXT: at Dolphins (Sun.)
Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams recently possessed a decent chance at joining the 1,000-1,000 club. Only seven backfield duos have accomplished this. The Raiders and Chargers, however, likely ensured neither Broncos back will reach 1,000 yards. After Las Vegas made Denver's once-reliable tandem a nonfactor in a close loss, Los Angeles put the game on Drew Lock's shoulders. Williams and Gordon combined for 73 rushing yards and could not convert key early-game red zone chances to prevent a blowout. A Broncos team missing Teddy Bridgewater because of a concussion and several starters due to COVID is playing out the string.
BRONCOS GRADE: D | NEXT: vs. Chiefs (Sat.)
Not known for special teams reliability, the Chargers made a move that shored up one of their units this season. The Bolts (9-7) signed Andre Roberts as a free agent in October, adding him after the Texans jettisoned him from their island of lower-middle-class veterans. The 12th-year pro kept moving the needle Sunday, taking the opening kickoff back 47 yards to set up a TD and later scoring on a well-crafted 101-yard return. A Pro Bowler from 2018-20, Roberts leads the NFL in kick-return yardage and has bumped the Bolts to fourth in that category since his arrival. The Chargers are inconsistent, but the AFC contenders will likely root for the Raiders next week.
CHARGERS GRADE: A | NEXT: at Raiders (Sun.)
Matt Ryan is not known for running his mouth on Sundays, but officials handed the 14th-year Falcons quarterback a rare personal foul that hurt the underdog Falcons' chances. Ryan was flagged for taunting Bills safety Jordan Poyer after his apparent TD scramble. After a replay deemed Ryan short of the goal line, this infraction meant a 15-yard penalty. With the Falcons trying to cut the Bills' lead to one score, that posed a problem. A turnover on downs ended Atlanta's drive. The Falcons (7-9) were not expected to contend this year. They now must determine if they will keep building around their 36-year-old QB or take a dead-cap hit with a post-June 1 trade.
FALCONS GRADE: C-plus | NEXT: vs. Saints (Sun.)
Josh Allen's fantasy GMs appreciated the dual threat's 81 rushing yards in the snow, but they were a necessity given his issues through the air. The Falcons intercepted the Bills quarterback three times. This was Allen's first three-INT game since September 2019 and just the second of his career. The Bills (10-6) responded by rare ground-game reliance, with the resurgent Singletary carrying the ball a career-high 23 times. This came two weeks after Singletary logged 22 totes. The 5-foot-7 back turned his workload Sunday into 110 yards and two TDs. This is a big step for the pass-reliant Bills, who could use a middling run game in the playoffs.
BILLS GRADE: B-minus | NEXT: vs. Jets (Sun.)
While the Lions thrilled O-line enthusiasts with back-to-back tackle-eligible plays, the second going for a Taylor Decker touchdown, they captivated the fantasy world by allowing 51 points to the Seahawks. Detroit let Rashaad Penny go off for 170 yards -- his most since the 2017 Armed Forces Bowl -- in a rout that interrupted a mini-run of frisky Lions play. Sunday's outing reminded me how far the Lions (2-13-1) need to go, talent-wise. Next season will likely be a bridge to hopeful 2023 relevance, but this will not be a quick rebuild.
LIONS GRADE: F | NEXT: vs. Packers (Sun.)
More read-between-the-lines news came out of Seattle this week, and Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll separating after 10 seasons is in play. For now, the two teamed up on a vintage performance. Wilson lit up the hapless Lions for 236 yards and four TD passes -- his most since Week 1. Wilson's production has dipped since the "Let Russ Cook" start to the 2020 season. The run-oriented Carroll reined in his QB after that start, and Wilson's yards per attempt are down to 7.3 over the past 25 games. Not ideal for a deep passer. Everything points to the 33-year-old QB trying harder to leave the Seahawks (6-10). With Carroll signed through 2025, new owner Jody Allen's biggest test is coming soon.
SEAHAWKS GRADE: A | NEXT: at Cardinals (Sun.)
The Bears led throughout and won by 26. Undaunted, the Giants threw 11 passes. The team that apparently withdrew an offer to Colt McCoy in order to sign Mike Glennon finished with minus-10 passing yards -- the worst aerial output since Ryan Leaf's 1998 rookie year in San Diego. Saquon Barkley did eclipse 100 yards for the first time this season. There is nothing else to take from this game. The Giants (4-12) have been outscored 141-49 in five games since Glennon took over for Daniel Jones. Two top-10 picks are coming, but this organization has dug a deep hole.
GIANTS GRADE: F | NEXT: vs. Washington (Sun.)
Most NFL fans probably cannot guess the league's sack leader. It is, in fact, a 31-year-old journeyman on a 6-10 team. Quinn's off-radar dominance continued Sunday. The 11th-year veteran dropped Glennon for his 18th sack, breaking Richard Dent's 37-year-old franchise record, and forced a fumble. Quinn initially broke out with a 19-sack season in 2013 in St. Louis, but he could not come close to that production for the rest of his Rams days or his Dolphins season. After a bounce-back Cowboys slate in 2019, the Bears gave him a big-ticket deal to complement Khalil Mack. Even with Mack injured, Quinn is thriving.
BEARS GRADE: A | NEXT: at Vikings (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.