NFL Week 16 takeaways – What we learned, big questions for every game and future team outlooks

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Week 16 of the 2021 NFL season should give some clarity in the playoff races in both conferences.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers made history in the early game Saturday, throwing his franchise-record setting 443rd career touchdown pass. Green Bay, which clinched a playoff spot last week, beat the Browns dimming their playoff hopes.

The week started on Thursday night, when the Cowboys clinched a playoff with the 49ers loss to the Titans. San Francisco had led by 10 at halftime before faltering in the second half.

Our NFL Nation reporters react with the takeaways and lingering questions. Plus, they each look at the bigger picture with their current team confidence rating — a 0-10 grade of how they feel about a team’s outlook coming out of the week. Let’s get to it.

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CLE-GB | IND-ARI | SF-TEN

Packers

What to know: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers might have a late Christmas wish: For people to stop stepping on his toe. It happened twice in the first half — once by Browns defensive end Myles Garrett and one by his teammate, right guard Royce Newman — who got pushed into Rodgers by Malik Jackson. Two plays after that, Rodgers took a shot from Ifeadi Odenigbo that had him limping off the field at the end of that series. Seemingly every time Rodgers’ fractured left pinky toe starts to feel better, it either gets stepped on or kicked. If this keeps happening, Rodgers may have to consider surgery. He has said he could have surgery as a last resort and could do so without missing any games. It’s another reason why the Packers would love the No. 1 seed, to get the bye on wild-card weekend. — Rob Demovsky

Can the Packers’ defense live by the takeaway when it really counts? They’re not going to be playing Baker Mayfield every week in the playoffs. So their pattern of either giving up a touchdown (twice) or getting an interception (three times) on the Browns’ first five possessions might not be a great way to live against a quarterback who takes care of the ball better. All three of Mayfield’s first-half interceptions were considered “off-target” throws. He entered the game with the fourth-highest off-target rate in the NFL this season. Sure, the Packers loved to see Darnell Savage, Chandon Sullivan and Rasul Douglas all come up with interceptions, but good old-fashioned third-down stops to end drives might be more important when play a quarterback who doesn’t gift wrap interceptions. — Demovsky

Demovsky’s confidence rating (0-10): 9, up from 8.5. About the only way a team can take down the Packers now is by running the ball. The Packers came into the game allowing 4.5 yards per rush, better than only seven teams. One reason they still rank 13th in rushing yards allowed is that some teams have abandoned the run because they’ve played from behind. Browns running back Nick Chubb averaged 7.4 yards per carry on Sunday and finished with 17 on 126.

Next game: vs. Vikings (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET)


Browns

What to know: Aaron Rodgers turned all three of Baker Mayfield’s first half interceptions into touchdown passes. Then, the Packers clinched the 24-22 victory Saturday by picking off Mayfield a fourth time in the final seconds, as Cleveland’s once promising playoff hopes continue to fade. — Jake Trotter

Can the Browns still make the playoffs? At 7-8, their only hope at this point is to win the AFC North. Cincinnati beating Baltimore on Sunday would help, since the Browns already defeated the Bengals this season and get Cincinnati at home in the season finale. But even then, the Browns are going to need a lot of help. And they will have to win their final two games, including on Monday Night Football in Pittsburgh in Week 16, to have any chance. — Trotter

Trotter’s confidence rating (0-10): 5, down from 6. The Browns can’t win close games in the fourth quarter, as they lost their sixth game this season by six or fewer points.

Next game: at Steelers (Monday, Jan. 3, 8:15 p.m. ET)

Titans

What to know: The Titans’ offense is back with receiver A.J. Brown in the lineup. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw for more than 200 yards for the first time in five games on Thursday. Tannehill also had a touchdown pass for the first time in three games. It snapped a streak of 102 passes without a touchdown. The Titans were the first team with at least five conversions on third-and-10 or longer in a game this season. Brown emerged as a third-down machine, catching eight passes — the most in a game over the past 30 seasons. — Turron Davenport

Can Julio Jones be a complementary receiver to Brown? Yes. Jones isn’t the same player he was two years ago. The Titans only need him to be a presence that can beat single coverage when defenses hone in on Brown. Jones finished with one reception for seven yards so there’s a lot left to be desired. Ryan Tannehill mentioned how Jones attracted coverage when he connected with Brown to convert on a third-and-26. It would be great for the Titans if they can get a productive game from Jones heading into the playoffs to make defenses think twice about paying all of the attention to Brown. — Davenport

Davenport’s confidence rating (0-10): 8.5, up from 8. The signs of life the offense showed is encouraging considering recent struggles, and pairing that with what has become a very stingy defense will make the Titans a tough out down the stretch.

Next game: vs. Dolphins (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)


49ers

What to know: For as good as the 49ers have been over the past month and a half, they offered a reminder Thursday of the narrow margin for error. This isn’t the 2019 49ers, a team capable of overwhelming anyone with their front four and a dynamic running game. Like most teams, the Niners can’t afford to turn the ball over in key situations and have to find a way to get off the field on third down consistently. They did neither against the Titans and it cost them a game they should have won. San Francisco should make the postseason but it has to take care of business against the lowly Houston Texans on Jan. 2. — Nick Wagoner

What version of Jimmy Garoppolo will the Niners get the rest of the way? Thursday’s loss to the Titans was, in many ways, the full Garoppolo experience. He started out hot, marching the Niners down the field for an opening touchdown. Then, he threw a bad pick in the end zone, missed a wide open Kyle Juszczyk for a would-be touchdown and threw another bad interception that led to an easy Tennessee touchdown. Bad Jimmy hadn’t been seen much in the Niners’ recent surge but he appeared at a terrible time in Nashville. If the Niners are going to make the postseason and make any noise when they get there, they need Bad Jimmy to go back into hiding. — Wagoner

Wagoner’s confidence rating (0-10): 6.8, down from 7.2. It’s not so much that the Niners lost but how they lost, which doesn’t inspire confidence because there will be teams as talented as Tennessee in the postseason and they will try to follow a similar plan.

Next game: vs. Texans (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET)



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