Week 16 of the NFL season started Thursday night with the Los Angeles Rams strengthening their playoff hopes while putting a big dent in the New Orleans Saints’ aspirations.
To start off a two-game Saturday slate, the Pittsburgh Steelers routed the Cincinnati Bengals, who also took a big hit to their playoff hopes. Later, the Buffalo Bills took control of their playoff destiny with a narrow victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, who were playing their first game since firing coach Brandon Staley and general manager Tom Telesco last week.
Our NFL Nation reporters reacted to all the action, answering lingering questions coming out of each game and picking out who — or what — is rising and falling for every team. Let’s get to it.
How concerning was this performance as the Bills continue their playoff push? It’s a reminder of what this season has been. Of the Bills’ 14 games this season, 10 have been one-score affairs. Adequately closing out opponents has been an issue all year. There are things that need to be watched going forward with James Cook‘s ball security an issue and the defense allowing too many drives. Winning is ultimately what matters at this point in the year, but Saturday showed this team still has things to work despite now controlling its playoff destiny.
Stock up after the win: Sam Martin. The Bills punter has had some up-and-down games lately, but he was key to giving the Chargers a long field with three of his four punts going inside the 20-yard line and an average of 52.3 yards per punt, a good sign for this special teams unit moving forward.
Stock down after the win: Passing game. Josh Allen & Co. got things going when they needed to, but the Chargers came into this game with one of the worst pass defenses in the league. Allen completed just 15 of 21 passes for 237 yards, a touchdown and a pick with miscues throughout the game in connecting with receivers. It remains inconsistent. — Alaina Getzenberg
Next game: vs. Patriots (Sunday, Dec. 31, 1 p.m. ET)
Is there reason to be concerned about Derwin James? James has been one of the Chargers’ best players since he was drafted in 2018, establishing himself as one of the league’s best safeties. But in James’ first game since the Chargers fired coach Brandon Staley, James played two snaps at safety and 40 for the game, both season lows. He played most of the game as a nickel cornerback. Under Staley, James played the nickel role in spots, but his main home was at safety, making tonight’s game particularly surprising.
Stock up after the loss: Kicker Cameron Dicker. Former Chargers head coach Brandon Staley earned the nickname “fourth and Staley” for his willingness to go for fourth down conversions, leaving Dicker often on the sidelines. In the first game since Staley’s firing, Dicker made a career-high five field goals, almost winning the game for the Chargers himself. It was the first time the Chargers made five field goals since 2012.
Stock down after the loss: Running back Joshua Kelley. Kelley played a season-low 12 total snaps, including seven on offense. Kelley was the Chargers’ backup running back coming into this season and started two games while Austin Ekeler was out with an injury, but he appears to have fallen out of favor in the Chargers backfield. — Kris Rhim
Next game: at Broncos (Sunday, Dec. 31, 4:25 p.m. ET)
Who will start at quarterback against the Seattle Seahawks? After the game, Mike Tomlin told reporters it was too early to ask. Maybe so, but it’s certainly not too early to consider the possibility that Mason Rudolph has earned the opportunity to start again after throwing for 279 yards and two touchdowns. QB Kenny Pickett was a limited participant in practice this week after having TightRope surgery on his right ankle on Dec. 4. He was inactive against the Bengals, but could be ready to play the Seahawks. Still, Rudolph played a smart game and earned his first game ball for the performance — and maybe another start.
Stock up after the win: Wide receiver George Pickens. Pickens had a career performance with 195 receiving yards and two touchdowns on the heels of a week in which he was heavily criticized for immaturity and a lack of effort, showing that he has an impossibly high ceiling when he’s at his best.
Stock down after the win: Fire Mike Tomlin chants. Hard to find much that went wrong in a resounding win. But it was a tough game for any disgruntled fans who came into Acrisure Stadium ready to unleash Fire Tomlin chants. Instead, the fourth quarter had four Mason Rudolph chants and one for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, something Steelers players agreed was a welcome change. — Brooke Pryor
Next game: at Seahawks (Sunday, Dec. 31, 4:05 p.m. ET)
Does this loss end Cincinnati’s playoff chances? Well, it certainly puts a massive dent in them. The Bengals’ playoff chances are down to 14% after the loss, per ESPN Analytics. But if the Bengals do miss the postseason, they can squarely point at their AFC North record this season. After Saturday, the Bengals are 0-5 in divisional play. Cincinnati was swept by Baltimore and Pittsburgh this season. Depending on what happens over the next two weeks, even a win against the Browns on Week 18 may mean nothing for the Bengals.
Stock down after the loss: QB Jake Browning. Browning forced the issue too often and threw three interceptions in his worst performance as a starter in place of the injured Joe Burrow. — Ben Baby
Next game: at Chiefs (Sunday, Dec. 31, 4:25 p.m. ET)
Does the offense make the Rams a serious threat to make a playoff run? The Rams aren’t in the playoffs yet — they’ve got a 78% chance, per ESPN Analytics — but they are playing like a team that could make a run. Since RB Kyren Williams returned in Week 12, this Rams team has looked like a different group than the one that sat at 3-6 during their Week 10 bye. There’s “no doubt,” head coach Sean McVay said, “we’re different when he plays.” Los Angeles has scored at least 28 points in the five games since Williams returned and has won six out of its last seven games, the lone loss to the AFC-leading Baltimore Ravens.
Stock up after the win: QB Matthew Stafford. The Rams quarterback has thrown multiple passing touchdowns in five straight games, his longest streak since joining the Rams, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He’s also gone four straight games without an interception, which is tied for his longest streak with Los Angeles.
Stock down after the win: Kicker Lucas Havrisik missed a 47-yard field goal in the second quarter. Los Angeles has missed a league-high 11 field goals this season. It’s the most by any team since the 2015 Buccaneers (11), according to ESPN Stats & Information. — Sarah Barshop
Next game: at Giants (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
Can the Saints regroup with playoff hopes dwindling? The Saints now have to win out and get some help to make the playoffs. Their loss exposed issues all around both defensively (tackling) and offensively (they struggled to convert on third and fourth down). The Saints now have to travel to Tampa Bay for a divisional game after the disappointment of such a pivotal loss. How they respond will likely dictate any decisions made about coaching staff or personnel once the season ends.
Stock up after the loss: WR Chris Olave. Olave battled through an ankle injury that caused him to miss Sunday’s game and responded with a season-best nine catches for 129 yards to get him over 1,000 receiving yards for the season.
Stock down after the loss: CB Alontae Taylor. Taylor was benched for Ugo Amadi late in the game and Saints coach Dennis Allen said the Rams got Taylor “a couple of times with his eyes.” — Katherine Terrell
Next game: at Buccaneers (Sunday, Dec. 31, 1 p.m. ET)