Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2021 NFL season, Week 18: What we learned from Sunday’s games

Around The NFL breaks down what you need to know from all of Sunday’s action in Week 18 of the 2021 NFL season. Catch up on each game’s biggest takeaways using the links below:

San Francisco 49ers, 27, Los Angeles Rams 24 (OT)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 41, Carolina Panthers 17
Buffalo Bills 27, New York Jets 10
Miami Dolphins 33, New England Patriots 24
New Orleans Saints 30, Atlanta Falcons 20
Seattle Seahawks 38, Arizona Cardinals 30
Jacksonville Jaguars 26, Indianapolis Colts 11
Tennessee Titans 28, Houston Texans 25
Pittsburgh Steelers 16, Baltimore Ravens 13 (OT)
Minnesota Vikings 31, Chicago Bears 17
Detroit Lions 37, Green Bay Packers 30
Washington Football Team 22, New York Giants 7
Cleveland Browns 21, Cincinnati Bengals 16

The wild NFC West will be well represented in the playoffs. The division was a popular preseason pick to produce three playoff teams, and it delivered. It only took one of the most improbable comebacks to make it happen. The 49ers came into Sunday knowing they likely needed a win in L.A. to get in — which proved true as the Saints dismantled the Falcons — while the Rams could secure the division crown and improve their seeding with a win. San Francisco fell behind 17-0, but didn’t give up on its run game, found new ways to put the ball in Deebo Samuel’s hands and eventually generated a pass rush to cool off a scorching Matthew Stafford. The Niners’ 17-point comeback was the largest in the Kyle Shanahan era.

The Rams’ 17-point blown lead was the largest in the Sean McVay era, and it snapped his 45-game winning streak after leading at halftime (the second longest run in NFL history, per Next Gen Stats). San Francisco will play at Dallas on Super Wild Card Weekend. L.A., which still won the west but dropped to the No. 4 seed, will host Arizona. Let the playoff games begin.

The 49ers’ flaws weren’t fatal. There were two glaring concerns coming into the season: quarterback and cornerback. Both areas were badly exposed in different parts of the season, and even in the biggest game of the season. They were also the two biggest reasons San Francisco beat the Rams and clinched a postseason bid. Jimmy Garoppolo overcame two turnovers and a ghastly first half by leading three TD drives and setting up a chip-shot field goal in overtime. Additionally, the Niners’ secondary rebounded from the roughest of starts Sunday to intercept Stafford twice and help hold the Rams to 151 yards over their last eight possessions, with rookie corner Ambry Thomas recording the game-sealing pick in OT. San Francisco needed all of it to claim the conference’s final playoff spot.

Cooper Kupp is the league’s most valuable non-quarterback. Aaron Rodgers is the heavy favorite to win MVP. He wouldn’t be the wrong choice given his sustained excellence and the disproportionate impact a QB has compared to all other positions. But it’s hard to say anyone played their position better in 2021 than Kupp did wide receiver. He was a machine all season, and Sunday was no different.

Kupp was virtually unguardable in the first half, helping Stafford complete 15 of his first 16 passes. With the Rams QB faltering after halftime and the offense backed up near its own end zone, Kupp ran for an 18-yard gain, hauled in a 30-yard jump-ball to convert a third down and found space in the back of the end zone on a go-ahead TD pass all on the same drive late in the fourth.

The unassuming receiver couldn’t have contributed more, in the regular-season finale or the season (he won the receiving triple crown, and his 145 receptions and 1,947 receiving yards are both the second-highest totals in league history).

NFL Research: Deebo Samuel became the first WR to throw and run for a TD in the same game since the Patriots’ David Patten in 2001. Samuel is the only player in NFL History to notch 1,400-plus receiving yards and 300-plus rushing yards in the same season.

Next Gen stat of the game: The 49ers had a 0.4 pct win probability after punting to the Rams with 1:50 remaining while trailing 24-17 (lowest win probability in a victory in the Next Gen Stats Era, since 2016).

Nick Shook’s takeaways:

No matter the odds, Tom Brady will always give his team a good chance of victory. Tampa Bay got off to a sluggish start Sunday, falling behind 7-0 and entering the second quarter trailing the Panthers. No matter for Brady, who erased Carolina’s lead before half by capitalizing on the Panthers’ repeated defensive mistakes in coverage. Brady picked apart the Panthers’ Cover 2 look by firing ropes to Rob Gronkowski in the open space over the middle, racking up chunk plays on two separate touchdown drives to turn a 7-3 Carolina lead into a 17-7 Buccaneers advantage. From there, it was full speed ahead, with Brady shortening his time to throw and lighting up the scoreboard, completing 29 of 37 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns before exiting with the game in hand.

Brady capped his performance by finding Mike Evans twice in the red zone for touchdowns before handing the keys to Blaine Gabbert, illustrating just how quickly Brady can take control of a game and end an opponents’ dreams of scoring an upset win. That firepower will be dangerous in the postseason, no matter the opponent.
If the Sam Darnold experience is nearing the end, at least he went out on a somewhat positive note. Darnold posted a respectable passing line, completing 29 of 42 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns. As is typical with Darnold, ball security was somewhat of an issue, with Darnold fumbling away possession, but his interception came late in what was already a lost game.

Darnold didn’t appear nearly as lost as he had during a rough stretch that saw him land on injured reserve with an injury, but it also likely wasn’t enough of a four-quarter example to inspire much confidence in him going forward. The experiment failed, and it will be interesting to see how Carolina proceeds from here.

Tampa Bay is deeper than you think. The Buccaneers are headed to the playoffs without one of their top receivers, Chris Godwin, but that has been their reality for some time now. Antonio Brown’s departure left another hole, yet it didn’t seem to matter much Sunday. Gronkowski caught seven of his 10 targets for 137 yards, Evans caught six passes for 89 yards and two touchdowns, and Brady connected with a total of eight different targets on the day.

Scott Miller even got into the end zone on a 33-yard run. There’s plenty of talent on this team, even with its losses, which included Cyril Grayson’s departure from Sunday’s game.

Next Gen stat of the game: Tom Brady completed 21 of 22 passes thrown in under 2.5 seconds for 196 yards, three touchdowns and a 143.4 passer rating Sunday.

NFL Research: Tom Brady finished the 2021 regular season with 5,316 passing yards — the third most in NFL history — 43 passing touchdowns (tied for 10th-most in a season), and the most completions (485) in NFL history.

Chase Goodbread’s takeaways:

Buffalo’s defense flexed a lot of muscle entering the playoffs. The Buffalo defense, among the league’s best in most every pertinent category, clamped down on the Jets in a way that made the outcome clear almost from the outset. The Jets’ offense didn’t even cross the 50-yard line until five minutes remained in the first half, couldn’t sustain a possession longer than six plays the entire game, and finished with just 53 net yards.

The pass rush was downright ferocious with nine sacks, giving Zach Wilson precious little time to find targets that usually weren’t open, anyway. It didn’t help that the Jets’ wide receiving corps, which is nothing special to begin with, was playing short-handed. It was a mismatch, to be sure, and the Bills left no doubt about that.
The Bills overcame some ugly punting woes to knock off the Jets. Punter Matt Haack will need to clean up his form before the postseason or risk costing his team in a higher-stakes setting. He shanked first-half punts of 21 and 23 yards to give the Jets ideal field position, one of which got New York’s first touchdown drive off to a favorable start. In the second half, he mishandled a snap and scrambled to squib a seven-yard punt on the run. He did have a beautiful 43-yarder that pinned the Jets on their 2-yard line, but overall, it was one to forget for Haack. The Buffalo weather didn’t help, but that can’t be an excuse for a Bills punter in January.

The Jets defense finished the season with an inspired performance. With nothing to play for but pride, credit is due to New York’s stop unit for holding Buffalo to 13 points for most of the game. The Jets D finally broke as Buffalo scored two late touchdowns, but with the Jets offense offering zero help from a time-of-possession standpoint, the Bills’ late points shouldn’t mar the Jets’ defensive grade. As usual, LB C.J. Mosley was all over the field. He made 13 tackles – 12 of them solos — to close the season with his sixth consecutive game with double-digit stops.

Next Gen stat of the game: Bills RB Devin Singletary ran 10 times for 75 yards (7.5 average) between the tackles.

NFL Research: The Bills defense held Jets QB Zach Wilson under 100 passing yards. It was their third such effort this season, and Wilson’s second game under the 100-yard mark.

Chase Goodbread’s takeaways:

The Dolphins might not be going to the playoffs, but they managed to notch a season sweep of the Pats. They did it with a balanced offense and an opportunistic defense that saw CB Xavien Howard get a pick-six Patriots QB Mac Jones — and shake a weak tackle attempt from the rookie on the return — to extend an early lead. Miami never trailed in this one, taking the fight to New England early by holding the Pats to 22 yards in the first quarter. Late in the game, Miami refused to blink when the Patriots scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pull within three points.

Tua Tagovailoa got the better of Mac Jones. In a Week 1 battle of former Alabama quarterbacks, Jones outplayed Tagovailoa in a losing effort. Four months later, they clashed again with a similar outcome — a Dolphins win — but this time, Tagovailoa was the more effective of the two. Jones threw for far more yardage (261 to 109), but he committed two crucial turnovers that Miami cashed for 10 big points. Tagovailoa’s passing was downright pedestrian at a paltry five yards per attempt, but he protected the ball, and when the Dolphins needed a first down to kill the clock, he scrambled for 11 on a third-and-8 to all but put the game away.

What got into the Dolphins’ running game? With his fourth consecutive start to close the season, Duke Johnson added lots of life to the Miami offense with 117 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. He got a downhill push from a much-maligned offensive line, broke plenty of tackles, and led a team total of 195 yards on 43 carries. That’s not what the Patriots defensive staff wants to see against a team that entered with a season average of just 86 yards on the ground. Especially a week before the playoffs commence.

NFL Research: Miami’s Jaylen Waddle broke the NFL rookie receptions record on the Dolphins’ opening drive, a record previously held by Anquan Boldin. Waddle finished the year with 104 catches.

Nick Shook’s takeaways:

The Saints finally got Alvin Kamara going. After rushing for 102 yards combined in his last three games, the Saints’ star running back broke 100 yards in a contest for the first time since Week 14 on Sunday, running hard to rack up 146 yards on 36 carries. He didn’t find the end zone, but after Taysom Hill exited with a foot injury, Kamara became an essential part of New Orleans’ offense with Trevor Siemian under center. New Orleans was able to keep its momentum going with the football as a result, pushing its lead to as much as 14 before eventually leaving Atlanta with a 10-point win. Had the Saints figured out how to produce this result say, a week earlier, they’d be headed to the postseason instead of entering the offseason.

With nothing to lose, Atlanta played freely, and Russell Gage stepped up. The Falcons lack playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, especially after Calvin Ridley’s extended absence began. None of that mattered to Gage on Sunday, who gained nearly half of Atlanta’s 257 yards of total offense, catching nine passes for 126 yards and a touchdown. Gage included a highlight-reel play, hurdling a defender during a catch and run, but as the final score showed, it wasn’t enough to win. Kyle Pitts was essentially shut out of this game (two receptions, eight yards), but it won’t sting too much for a Falcons team that was already eliminated entering Sunday. At the very least, Gage put out some good tape.

Quarterback is at the top of the priority list for the Saints. New Orleans thought it might have an answer under center in its first season following Drew Brees’ retirement, but when Jameis Winston was lost for the year to a knee injury, New Orleans’ outlook was thrown into question. The weeks that followed included starts made by Siemian, Hill and Ian Book, producing wildly different styles for New Orleans’ offense, and ultimately, its first season without a playoff appearance since 2016. The first year of the post-Brees era produced a disappointing finish, but we can commend the Saints for their fight, which was disproportionately powered by its stingy defense. It’s back to the drawing board for Sean Payton’s squad.

Next Gen stat of the game: Alvin Kamara carried the ball 13 times against defensive boxes with seven defenders, gaining a career-high 89 yards on such carries for an average of 6.8 yards per attempt.

NFL Research: With one sack Sunday, Cameron Jordan pushed his total to 23 sacks on Matt Ryan in his career, the most one player has against one QB since sacks became official in 1982.

Jelani Scott’s takeaways:

Wilson, Penny power ‘Hawks to upset. For all the praise Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll will understandably receive for pulling off this upset, the continued greatness of Rashaad Penny proved to be the deciding factor in this outcome. In fact, it was Penny’s 62-yard TD run that added another six points to Seattle’s 31-24 fourth-quarter lead and effectively ended this wild affair. After tallying 100-plus yards in four of the last five weeks, Penny saved his best for last with a career-high 190-yard showing that should end all talks about what he could be if healthy. Of course, Penny’s crunch time score was greatly assisted by the play of Wilson, who stayed aggressive from the jump and ended with 238 yards, three TDs and a pick, as well as a rushing score to break a 24-24 tie at the start of the fourth.

Tyler Lockett (five receptions, 98 yards, 2 TDs) came through again en route to securing his third straight 1,000-yard season. If Week 18 is indeed the last time Wilson and Carroll share a sideline, Seattle can at least move forward knowing their era ended with a bang. It may be a bit harder, however, to not dwell on what could’ve been had the offense that showed up Sunday played to a similar level all season.

Is Arizona’s defense ready for the postseason? Chandler Jones’ huge strip-sack and Zach Allen’s subsequent score on the game’s second play set the tone for the type of game the Cardinals wanted to play. The only problem was the unit had little to no answer for Shane Waldron’s offense for the rest of the game. The Cards were unable to notch another sack of Wilson for the rest of the evening and, although Jalen Thompson managed to pick him off in the third, Arizona couldn’t stop the bleeding. Seattle scored on seven of its 10 drives, five of which went 60-plus yards. The Cardinals will have to quickly shake off this concerning outing with next weekend’s postseason meeting with the Rams rapidly approaching.

And what about Kyler? The Cardinals failed to secure the NFC West, but that is the least of their concerns exiting Sunday. Inconsistency was again the theme of the evening as the Cards just couldn’t find ways to put their division rival away. Kyler Murray had his moments but was hindered by an O-line that struggled to stop a mostly quiet Seattle pass rush, surrendering five sacks and folding under pressure on numerous occasions. A banged up RB room missing Chase Edmonds saw a returning James Conner (93 scrimmage yards, 2 TDs) again shoulder most of the load before exiting early in the fourth with a rib injury.

With time running out on a perceived turnaround, it’ll be up to Murray and Kliff Kingsbury to figure out how to survive Wild Card Weekend with an offense that has struggled to stay consistent after beginning the year 7-0.
NFL Research: Entering Wild Card Weekend, Arizona is 8-1 on the road this season (highest win percentage in NFL).

Next Gen stat of the game: Rashaad Penny posted a top speed of 20.19 MPH on his 62-yard TD. That is the fastest rush for Penny this season.

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