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COVID-19 cases, contenders’ losses provide a twist

The 32 things we learned from Week 15 of the 2021 NFL season:

1. Let’s start with the Jacksonville Jaguars – naturally, right? – who were the league’s top story last week after owner Shad Khan’s decision to fire coach Urban Meyer following a 2-11 start that might have been even uglier off the field. But the Jags are indeed No. 1 – in the projected 2022 draft order – after suffering a season sweep to the Houston Texans (3-11) on Sunday.

1a. The Texans – the Texans!!!!!!!! – have beaten the Jaguars eight times in a row.

2. And who would have guessed Houston QB Davis Mills would be having a better rookie year than Jacksonville counterpart Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 pick of the 2021 draft?

3. As for Meyer, who was fired for cause and apologized to the city of Jacksonville over the weekend, he’s the first head coach not to finish his inaugural season in his post since Bobby Petrino’s infamous departure from the Atlanta Falcons in 2007. “There’s not a world of difference between the college level and the NFL. There’s a galaxy of difference,” Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson told USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell last week.

4. Jags interim coach Darrell Bevell is the first man in NFL history to hold that title in consecutive seasons. He went 1-4 in that role for Detroit in 2020.

WHO COULD REPLACE URBAN MEYER?: Breaking down the top candidates

OPINION: Admitting Urban Meyer mistake gives Shad Khan, Jaguars a chance to set things right

5. Assuming Kevin Stefanski (COVID-19) can’t coach for the Cleveland Browns on Monday afternoon, special teams coach Mike Priefer will be an interim man for the third time in his career – including last season’s wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Steelers when Stefanski was also out with the virus.

6. In a Sunday night stunner, the New Orleans Saints upended Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-0 in the lowest-scoring game of the season. It was the first shutout suffered by Brady since 2006.

6a. The loss delayed the Bucs’ bid to win their first NFC South crown since 2007.

6b. Brady has not beaten the Saints in the regular season since arriving in Tampa last year.

6c. Coach Bruce Arians said the Buccaneers will restore WR Antonio Brown to the roster once his three-game suspension expires this week. Need may be overriding the factor after Chris Godwin and Mike Evans left Sunday night’s game with injuries.

7. The Green Bay Packers became the first team to qualify for postseason, putting a bow on the NFC North with Sunday’s 31-30 win at Baltimore. The Pack’s 11-3 record is the league’s best.

8. Aaron Rodgers’ trio of TD passes gave him 442 for his career, tying Hall of Famer Brett Favre’s Packers record.

8a. Favre had 286 interceptions with Green Bay. Rodgers has 93.

9. However a surprise in the fantasy community as Ravens QB2 Tyler Huntley, playing in place of injured Lamar Jackson, outscored Rodgers courtesy of four total TDs, 215 yards passing and 73 rushing.

10. But that won’t make those in Baltimore any happier, the Ravens (8-6) having lost three in a row by a total of four points, a skid that’s dropped them the top of the AFC to also-ran status. Sunday was the second time in three weeks that coach John Harbaugh went for a two-point conversion and win at game’s end rather than settle for a tying extra point. Both gambles failed.

11. Nine of the AFC’s 16 teams have seven or eight victories, and the Las Vegas Raiders (6-7) could join those ranks Monday.

11a. This is the first time since 2002 that no AFC team has secured a playoff spot entering Week 16.

12. If there seemed to be an undercurrent of national disrespect for the Arizona Cardinals – real or imagined – following their league best 7-0 start and seven consecutive wins on the road, that’s likely to become explicit after they were blown out 30-12 in Detroit by the previously one-win Lions. The Cards (10-4) have dropped four of seven, falling off the pace for home-field advantage and now in danger of being caught by the Los Angeles Rams (9-4) – though a 4-1 record in NFC West games ensures the Cardinals remain in first place regardless of what LA does against the Seattle Seahawks on Tuesday night.

13. The Lions’ win might qualify as the biggest upset of the 2021 season, though a team that plays as hard as Detroit does was bound to win more games. However this one dropped them out of the No. 1 spot in the projected order for next year’s draft.

14. The Titans could have taken control of the AFC and staked a Steelers team that had just 168 yards of offense Sunday. Instead, Tennessee (9-5) turned the ball over four times in defeat, giving Pittsburgh (7-6-1) new life and the No. 1 perch in the conference to the Kansas City Chiefs (10-4), a team the Titans dominated earlier this season.

15. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger passed for just enough yards (148) to leapfrog 2004 draftmate Philip Rivers for fifth place on the NFL’s all-time list. Big Ben now has 63,562 yards through the air but would have to play several more years to catch Favre (71,838) for fourth place.

NFL PLAYOFF PICTURE: Major shakeups in both AFC, NFC

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward (97) and outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) celebrate after a fumble recovery by Watt against the Tennessee Titans during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field.

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward (97) and outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) celebrate after a fumble recovery by Watt against the Tennessee Titans during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field.

16. OLB T.J. Watt’s 17½ sacks are a single-season Pittsburgh record. His 67 career sacks are third most for a player in his fifth season.

17. How wild is the AFC North? The Ravens began Sunday in first place. The Bengals ended Sunday in first place. The Browns will claim first place Monday if their depleted roster is good enough to beat the Raiders.

18. The Denver Broncos were swept by the AFC North this season … which is pretty much why they probably won’t make the playoffs, as they are now mired in 12th place in the conference.

COVID-19. We write about it in this space every week. The problem has never been more prevalent this season than it is now, more than 100 players testing positive over the past week, plus two head coaches, and three games being rescheduled – despite the league’s reluctance to do so. Is this rock bottom, amid relaxed league testing protocols? Or are we headed for a diluted postseason when more key — unvaccinated? — players fall by the wayside?

20. Dallas Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs intercepted his league-best 10th pass Sunday, making him the 37th player in the Super Bowl era to hit double digits in a season. However only six since 1966 have swiped 11 passes, Lester Hayes’ 13 in 1980 the most in that period. Diggs has a chance to make some history.

21. Seventh-year RB Duke Johnson, who’d been relegated to the practice squad carousel earlier this season, enjoyed a career day for the Miami Dolphins on Sunday – his first NFL game with two rushing TDs and first bypassing the century mark (107 rushing yards). Johnson’s effort came at the right time given the Fins’ recent COVID-19 issues in their running back room.

21a. Miami beat the New York Jets 31-24, the Dolphins’ sixth straight win restoring them to .500 after their 1-7 start.

22. The Jets (3-11) were officially eliminated from playoff contention with the loss. They last qualified for postseason in 2010, the longest drought in the league, and their 11-year absence matches the worst stretch in franchise history (1970-80).

23. Indianapolis Colts RB Jonathan Taylor, who leads the league with 1,518 rushing yards and 19 TDs, definitely deserves to remain at the forefront of the MVP conversation after running over Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots for 170 yards and a TD – Taylor’s 11th consecutive game scoring on the ground.

24. Saturday’s game between the Colts and Patriots was the first without either Peyton Manning and/or Tom Brady under center since 1997 … when New England’s Drew Bledsoe got the best of Indy’s Jim Harbaugh.

25. The end of New England’s seven-game winning streak not only cost the team first place in the AFC, it sets up a battle for first place in the AFC East with next week’s rematch against the Buffalo Bills (8-6).

26. Remember the untimely obituaries some were writing about the Chiefs? After Thursday’s comeback win in overtime over the Los Angeles Chargers – coupled with losses by the Titans and Patriots – the two-time defending AFC champions now own the inside track to the conference’s No. 1 playoff seed.

27. The Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes is now 12-0 on the road against AFC West teams, the best start any QB has had in divisional away games since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. He’ll play at Denver in Week 18.

28. After his 10-catch, 191-yard, two-TD night in LA, Kansas City’s Travis Kelce posted his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season. Greg Olsen is the only other tight end to manage that in three straight years.

28a. Baltimore TE Mark Andrews was nearly as good Sunday, snaring 10 balls himself for 136 yards and two scores. Andrews became the first tight end in Ravens history to have a 1,000-yard season.

29. Like John Harbaugh, You have to admire Chargers rookie head coach Brandon Staley’s conviction to analytics and adherence as things tighten up down the stretch. But forgoing three makeable field-goal attempts Thursday on drives that ended in fourth-down failures in regulation – two inside the Kansas City 5-yard line – before losing in overtime definitely stings.

30. It’s possible you, me or your mother could rush for 100 yards given how effectively Kyle Shanahan’s San Francisco 49ers move the ball on the ground regardless of who’s in the backfield. It’s possible. But let’s give credit to fourth-string RB Jeff Wilson Jr., who had 110 yards and a TD in Sunday’s win, the first time the Atlanta Falcons had permitted a 100-yard rusher since the 2019 season.

31. New York Giants RB Saquon Barkley entered Sunday with 779 career touches without a fumble. But he coughed it up in Big Blue’s 21-6 loss to Dallas.

32. With the Holidays upon us, good time to remember what a violent game the NFL is and to keep Chargers TE Donald Parham, Jets S Elijah Riley and Broncos QB Teddy Bridgewater – all were carted off in Week 15 – in your thoughts.


Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL scores and more, Week 15 2021: 32 things we learned

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