Week 13 of the 2021 NFL season began with the Cowboys getting back on track Thursday night against the Saints, and it kept rolling on Sunday with big wins for NFC powerhouses Tampa Bay and Arizona. The Bucs’ offense excelled behind four Tom Brady touchdown passes, while the Cardinals enjoyed getting Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins back. Arizona got to double-digit wins and maintained the top spot in the conference. But the biggest news of the early window was the Lions’ first win of the season, which came on a last-play TD pass from Jared Goff.
Elsewhere, the Colts’ defense was impressive, shutting out the Texans and making a move in the AFC South. The Chargers piled on points against the Bengals and forced Joe Burrow into a pair of interceptions. The Eagles looked good in a 15-point win over the Jets without Jalen Hurts, and the Dolphins took care of business against the Giants to get their fifth straight win.
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 each team’s outlook coming out of the week. Let’s get to it.
What to know: Lions first-year head coach Dan Campbell was finally able to celebrate after Jared Goff hit Amon-Ra St. Brown with a last-second 11-yard TD pass to snap the Lions’ 15-game winless streak. Detroit hadn’t won a game in the regular season or preseason in nearly a full calendar year, dating back to Dec. 6, 2020 against the Bears. The Lions held their largest lead of the season at the half, 20-6, and while the Vikings took a 27-23 lead with 1:50 left, the Lions fought back with a 75-yard drive to win it, despite not having their best player, D’Andre Swift, who was out with a shoulder injury. There would be no need for the Lions to settle for a moral victory on this day. — Eric Woodyard
Can the Lions build off this dramatic win? Yes, for sure. It’s easier to build off an actual win than a moral victory, and the Lions had plenty of the latter this season. Detroit played hard and kept teams close, even tying the Steelers, but against a Vikings team fighting to stay playoff-relevant, they took the next step and found a way to win. — Woodyard
Woodyard’s confidence rating (0-10): 3, up from 2. Yes, the Lions got their first win, but it’s also not the time to throw a parade in the Motor City. This team still has a ton of holes, but they played their best game of the season on Sunday. The win was much needed.
Next game: at Broncos (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET)
What to know: This loss was inexcusable, yet felt inevitable. Minnesota did everything it could to let the previously winless Lions hang around all game and walk off with a last-second touchdown on the final play of the game. There is nothing to be proud of here for the Vikings, who took their first lead of the game with 1:50 remaining only to lose it 14 plays later when Jared Goff hit Amon-Ra St. Brown for an 11-yard touchdown. Minnesota did everything it could to lose this game: poor offensive playcalling, poor execution, penalties and a strange defensive game plan that let Goff off the hook from the very start. Justin Jefferson was terrific, as usual, and had Minnesota gotten him involved far earlier than the end of the second quarter, this game might have been a different story. The Vikings brought their D+ game to Detroit and thought it would be enough to beat a bad team. — Courtney Cronin
Are the Vikings close to making changes to the coaching staff/front office? Have Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf seen enough to want to change the direction of this franchise? Minnesota got embarrassed by a team with an 0-10-1 record, and one that had a 20-6 lead on the Vikings at halftime. The Wilfs saw passes sail well short of the sticks on second and third-and-long all day, and two questionable 2-point playcalls drawn up that failed. They saw the Lions win a game after finishing 2-for-11 on third down. They saw ill-fated gameplans on offense and defense. Now the question is whether Minnesota’s owners will make changes to its coaching staff and/or front office, and if they do, will those come in the month of December or not until the offseason? — Cronin
Cronin’s confidence rating (0-10): 4, down from 6. Minnesota has a short week with Pittsburgh coming to town for Thursday Night Football. Another loss would drop the Vikings to 5-8, put them further behind in the race for the No. 7 seed and be the nail in the coffin on the season in earnest.
Next game: vs. Steelers (Thursday, 8:20 p.m. ET)
What to know: The Bucs deviated from their run-first approach this season, with quarterback Tom Brady attempting 51 passes. The result was four passing touchdowns, two of those that went to tight end Rob Gronkowski, and wide receiver Chris Godwin setting a single-game franchise record with 15 catches — the most in an NFL game this year. Brady’s first two scores came on a pair of 3-yard passes to running back Leonard Fournette and tight end Cam Brate. Without safeties Jordan Whitehead (calf) and Mike Edwards (suspended) out, the Bucs gave up some big plays early, like a missed tackle on Cordarelle Patterson on a pitch that was taken 39 yards – the longest run play given up by the Bucs all season. It setup a 17-yard touchdown run by Mike Davis. But the defense notched five sacks with Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea getting two apiece. — Jenna Laine
How does Sunday’s win impact the Bucs’ playoff positioning? With the Bucs’ win over the Falcons, they extended their lead to four games in the NFC South and moving into a tie for second place in the NFC seeding with the Green Bay Packers, who were on a bye week, although the Packers will have higher positioning because they have a better conference record. Only the top two seeds are guaranteed home-field advantage until the conference finals, with only the top seed getting a first-round bye and home field if they are still alive. The Bucs could benefit from playing at home considering their scoring differential between home (21.60) and road games (-2.33) this year. — Laine
Laine’s confidence rating (0-10): 8.5, up from 8. Cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting returning to health, along with a five-sack performance by the pass rush, evokes more confidence in the defense, even with giving up a couple of big plays by Cordarelle Patterson, Kyle Pitts and Mike Davis.
Next game: vs. Bills (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)
Tom Brady throws two of his four touchdown passes to Rob Gronkowski as the Buccaneers take down the Falcons.
What to know: One of the biggest inconsistencies this season for the Falcons has been the lack of a run game. Any progress one week would be stifled the next. But now, with the season hitting its final month-plus, Atlanta seems to have discovered more consistency on the ground. A lot of that has to do with Cordarrelle Patterson, who had 78 yards on 13 carries, becoming the team’s main back. Mike Davis, who at one point was expected to be the No. 1 back, has found a secondary role and had three rushes for 29 yards and the Falcons’ lone offensive touchdown. When Atlanta ran well against Jacksonville, that was one thing. That the Falcons could do it against Tampa Bay, which entered the day as the league’s best run defense, signals some progress on the ground. This was the first time Atlanta rushed for 100-plus yards in back-to-back games since Weeks 2 and 3 last year — something to build as the Falcons try to fight for a playoff spot. — Michael Rothstein
What can the Falcons do to try and keep Matt Ryan from being sacked so much? On the face, the season-long numbers aren’t bad – but Matt Ryan has been sacked 10 times in the last three weeks, including a season-worst five Sunday. The majority of those came from the interior of the offensive line, where Atlanta struggled to handle Vita Vea (two sacks) and Ndamukong Suh (two sacks). Atlanta knows it has some issues on the offensive line despite having three first-round picks and two third-round picks as starters – hence the rotation at center between Matt Hennessy and Drew Dalman. After working well against the Jaguars, Dalman had two botched snaps Sunday, including one essentially at the goal-line in the first half that helped stall a drive and lead to a field goal. But this is a team that’s given up at least one sack in every game but one this season – Week 5 against the Jets – and has struggled to protect Ryan as he took 41 sacks in 2020, 48 in 2019 and 42 in 2018. — Rothstein
Rothstein’s confidence rating (0-10): 3.6, no change from 3.6. No change because what was expected to happen — a Falcons team that played decent but didn’t have enough to win — is exactly what occurred.
Next game: at Panthers (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: Sometimes a team with the fewest mistakes wins the game. Other times it’s a team with a lot of mistakes who recovers from them best wins the game. That’s what happened Sunday. Up 24-6, the Chargers turned it over on three straight drives for the first time since 2019. Running back Austin Ekeler had his first career game with multiple fumbles. Quarterback Justin Herbert was sacked four times and threw a pick. Joey Bosa went out with a head injury. Somehow, the Chargers still won the game. — Shelley Smith
How did they do it? Cornerback Tevaughn Campbell played a big role, recovering a rare Joe Mixon fumble and returning it 61 yards for a touchdown to turn a 2-point game into a two possesion game. — Smith
Smith’s confidence rating (0-10): 7, up from 5.5. Somehow they came into this stadium, made every mistake imaginable and won, which may have huge playoff implications.
Next game: vs. Giants (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET)
What to know: Cincinnati squandered the opportunity to build some serious momentum in its playoff push in a loss to the Chargers. Earlier in the week, Bengals coach Zac Taylor acknowledged Sunday was a chance to win three straight games, an opportunity that has slipped out of their grasp twice this season. An injury-depleted roster came close to digging out of a 24-point hole, but Cincinnati couldn’t cobble together the three-game win streak it wanted. — Ben Baby
Are the Bengals going to be healthy enough to secure the playoff berth? Before Sunday, Cincinnati was one of the healthiest teams in the league. But starting cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and linebacker Logan Wilson were both knocked out of the game with injuries. Quarterback Joe Burrow also injured his right pinkie. Burrow aside, those are key positions that will have big implications. But Cincinnati cannot afford Burrow going down or being hampered the rest of the way. — Baby
Baby’s confidence rating (0-10): 6.2, down from 6.7. Cincinnati’s injury problems are more concerning than the loss that dampens the Bengals’ playoff hopes.
Next game: vs. 49ers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)
What to know: Kyler Murray is back. The Cardinals quarterback returned Sunday against the Bears after missing three games with a high left ankle sprain and looked like the Murray of old. There were a few odds and ends that the Cardinals need to clean up in their comfortable win in Chicago but Sunday was the best they’ve looked after a bye in Kliff Kingsbury’s three seasons in Arizona. — Josh Weinfuss
What will stand between the Cardinals and the No. 1 overall seed? Not much. Coming out of the bye with a big win over the Bears shows this team — and coaching staff — has taken significant strides from the past two seasons. That will bode well, and likely prevent a meltdown down the stretch, as Kyler Murray looked like the Murray of old in his return. Arizona’s remaining schedule is favorable, with games against the Rams next week and the Cowboys in the penultimate game of the season the most daunting. Besides that, Arizona is playing like a team in line for the NFC’s top seed, which comes with home-field advantage until the Super Bowl. — Weinfuss
Weinfuss’ confidence rating (0-10): 8.8, up from 8.5. An improvement was warranted because of the win but there were enough small issues — perhaps rust — coming off the bye that Arizona needs to clean up before getting into the thick of the homestretch.
Next game: vs. Rams (Monday, Dec. 13, 8:15 p.m. ET)
James Conner snares a ball with his left hand and gets into the end zone to finish off a 23-yard touchdown.
What to know: A rough day by Bears quarterback Andy Dalton kept getting worse — thanks in part to him, his receivers, and the Cardinals defense. Dalton threw four interceptions in Sunday’s loss, tying his career high. One was for sure Dalton’s fault, two went off the hands of his receivers and another was on an incredible play at the line of scrimmage by Cardinals defensive lineman Zach Allen. Dalton’s picks led to 23 Arizona points in total, including 14 in the first quarter, which gave the Bears – losers of six of their last seven games – too large of a deficit to overcome. — Josh Weinfuss
How many games could the Bears win to finish the season? Chicago could win three more games down the stretch, with two games left against the Vikings, one each against the Packers, Giants and Seahawks still remaining on the schedule. If they could finish that stretch 3-2, the Bears would end the season at 7-10. Would that be good enough for embattled head coach Matt Nagy to keep his job? — Weinfuss
NFL Nation’s confidence rating (0-10): 3.5, no change from 3.5. The Bears didn’t play terrible. But they did run into a Cardinals team that might be the best in the NFL, and challenged them for most of the game. — Weinfuss
Next game: at Packers (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET)
What to know: Quarterback Gardner Minshew’s performance is going create quite a stir in Philadelphia. He matched Donovan McNabb for highest first-half completion rate (93.3%) by an Eagles QB since 1991 and led the offense to scores on its first seven possessions. Minshew maneuvered well within the pocket and was in command. With a bye coming up, there will be two weeks worth of debate over whether he has earned another start. The expectation is Jalen Hurts will reclaim his job once his sprained left ankle has healed up. But that won’t .keep the sports-talk phone lines from burning up. — Tim McManus
With playmakers like Dallas Goedert and Miles Sanders coming alive, are the Eagles back in the playoff hunt? Goedert set a career high with 105 receiving yards and had his first multi-touchdown game as a pro, while Sanders finished with 144 total yards. That’s certainly encouraging, though it’s fair to wonder how much Goedert’s career day was tied to the play of Minshew. And Sanders appeared to reinjure his ankle down the stretch. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Eagles’ playoff chances rose from 25% to 30% with the win. With one of the easiest closing schedules in the NFL, they’ll be in the mix the rest of the way. — McManus
McManus’ confidence rating (0-10): 4.7, up from 4.1. It was the Jets, so let’s not get carried away. But the Eagles should win more than they lose the rest of the wat regardless of the quarterback.
Next game: vs. Washington (Sunday, Dec. 19, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: Rookie quarterback Zach Wilson conquered his first-half demons, leading touchdown drives on the Jets’ first three possessions. The Jets lost the game, and Wilson did have a fourth-quarter interception on an overthrow, but perspective is important. Wilson, the key the franchise’s future, took a couple of baby steps. For a change, he wasn’t skittish in the first quarter. There also were no lingering effects from his recent knee injury, which bothered him last week. Operating a conservative passing attack, Wilson (22-for-37, 226 yards) threw for two short touchdowns and ran for another. Why was this so important? Before Sunday, Wilson had the NFL’s lowest first-quarter QBR (0.7) since 2000. He played well enough to beat the Eagles, but his defense was trash, as usual. — Rich Cimini
Was the Jets’ defense surprised by Eagles quarterback Gardner Minshew? It sure looked like it. The Jets looked utterly unprepared for Minshew, an 11th-hour injury replacement, and the Eagles’ passing attack. The Jets prepared for the dangerously mobile Jalen Hurts, who was scratched due to a lingering ankle injury. To say they failed to adjust would be an understatement, as the Eagles scored on their first seven possessions. Minshew (20-for-25, 242 yards, two TDs) was nearly flawless. Everybody knows the Jets, ranked 32nd in total defense, are talent deficient, but there was no excuse for this. This was a failure by the coaching staff, which expected one thing and got another. — Cimini
Cimini’s confidence rating (0-10): 2.5, down from 4. With nine losses, the Jets clinched their sixth consecutive losing season, a drought that has covered three different head coaches. When does it stop?
Next game: vs. Saints (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: The Colts weren’t pretty and they sputtered at times, but they did what they were supposed to do to beat the lowly Texans. The Colts moved back to above .500 and they’ve finally reached their bye week with a relatively healthy team for the final month of the season. They’ll have two weeks to prepare for the most pivotal stretch of their season with back-to-back games against New England and Arizona, teams that are likely headed to the playoffs, awaiting them on the other side of the bye. The Colts will likely need to win three of their final four games to make the playoffs. What they have against them is that three of those four opponents went into Sunday with a winning record. The Colts have beaten only one team (Buffalo) with a winning record this season. — Mike Wells
Can Jonathan Taylor reach 2,000 yards rushing? Not likely. Taylor has 1,348 rushing yards with four games remaining in the regular season. That means he’ll need to average 163 yards a game to close out the regular season to become just the seventh running back to rush for at least 2,000 yards in a season. Taylor has topped 163 yards rushing in a game twice in 13 games this season. — Wells
Wells’ confidence rating (0-10): 3.7, no change from 3.7. Nothing changed for the Colts from last week against Tampa because the Texans aren’t a good team and Indianapolis was supposed to beat them.
Next game: vs. Patriots (Saturday, Dec. 18, 8:20 p.m. ET)
Carson Wentz hands the ball off to Jonathan Taylor who finds a hole and takes it into the end zone for his second short touchdown vs. the Texans.
What to know: Quarterbacks Tyrod Taylor and Davis Mills have struggled, but the Texans also haven’t put them in a position to succeed. After playing well in Houston’s first two games before he injured his left hamstring, Taylor has been ineffective since he returned from injured reserve. And while he has been unable to protect the football, he also has had to play with poor protection and without impact playmakers beyond wide receiver Brandin Cooks. It’s been clear all season that the Texans lack the talent to compete with the best in the NFL, but Sunday showed once again that they are not just a quarterback away from winning in the NFL. — Sarah Barshop
Is it time to stay with Mills? Last week, head coach David Culley said Mills would play only “if something happens to Tyrod [Taylor].” Taylor was evaluated in the medical tent during the third quarter but was cleared to play, and the team said it was Culley’s decision to play Mills instead. Culley has said all season that when healthy, Taylor gives the Texans the best chance to win. While Mills has also struggled, there is a better chance that he is in Houston’s plans for the future. If that is the case, it would make sense to get another look at Mills before the Texans make a decision about the quarterback position for next season. — Barshop
Barshop’s confidence rating (0-10): 0.6, down from 0.8. The confidence rating has gone upward only once since the Texans opened the season with a win — and a blowout loss to the Colts this week drives the number down even further.
Next game: vs. Seahawks (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: Until the Dolphins develop a more consistent run game, expect this kind of stat line from Tua Tagovailoa — a lot of attempts and a lot of short, quick passes. The second-year quarterback completed 30-of-41 passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns — that’s 8.1 yards per completion. He completed 5-of-12 passes beyond 10 yards but connected on 21-of-24 passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Tagovailoa’s numbers would have looked a little prettier were it not for a handful of drops by Dolphins receivers. And you can’t argue with results. He put up big numbers in Week 5 and Week 6 — both losses — so as long as this system continues to work, don’t expect it to change. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
Can the Dolphins win out? When Miami stopped its losing streak in Week 9, the goal was to get to .500 by the time it traveled to New Orleans in Week 16. But with the Saints and Tennessee Titans looking increasingly vulnerable, and the Patriots gunning for a No. 1 seed (and possibly resting starters in Week 18) it is suddenly conceivable that the Dolphins’ win streak lasts through the regular season. They are getting healthier and peaking at the right time. If they didn’t lose seven of their first eight games, we would be talking about them a lot more as the hottest team in the NFL. — Louis-Jacques
Louis-Jacques’ confidence rating (0-10): 8.3, up from 8. Miami will have some explaining to do if it somehow loses to the Jets in Week 15; this defense is too good and its offense has been far more efficient as of late.
Next game: vs. Jets (Sunday, Dec. 19, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: It doesn’t who is matter the quarterback or offensive coordinator. The Giants’ offense is hard to watch. It’s borderline incompetent. From the offensive line’s struggles to the missed throws by quarterback Mike Glennon, who was playing for an injured Daniel Jones, to key drops and communication issues. All ugly. A unit that came in averaging 18.4 points per game could have played for days before hitting that number in Miami. The Giants (4-8) finished with nine points and 250 total yards. — Jordan Raanan
What now with the playoffs not even a realistic dream? It’s time to start thinking about the future. It’s not really if, but when, they get a new general manager in the building. And what about the quarterback and coach? The Giants want to see more from Jones. But it’s not clear when he will return from his neck injury, and even if he does, what can he do behind this offense line and with the skill positions depleted? Even running back Saquon Barkley has something to prove. He looks a shell of his former self. — Raanan
Raanan’s confidence rating (0-10): 3.4, down from 4. The Giants are a poor man’s version of the Dolphins. That isn’t necessarily good.
Next game: at Chargers (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET)
What to know: This was a 27-17 win over the Saints the Cowboys needed to get back on track. Style points did not matter. The Cowboys did not have their head coach. They did not have five other coaches and two players. They lost two straight and three of four entering the contest and still responded. Mike McCarthy, who was watching from Texas, called it “an adversity win.” It wasn’t pretty, but the Cowboys improved to 8-4 and extended their lead in the NFC East and kept up the possibility of earning homefield advantage or one of the top-three spots in the playoffs. — Todd Archer
Are the Cowboys back? It’s difficult to say because the Saints have now lost five straight games. But this can build confidence in their ability to handle adversity. This season, the Cowboys have won games without Dak Prescott (Oct. 31 vs. Minnesota) and McCarthy. They are getting players back from injury (Randy Gregory, Neville Gallimore) and have players getting up to speed (DeMarcus Lawrence, Amari Cooper) off injury or the COVID-19 list. They also have young players carrying the load (Micah Parsons, CeeDee Lamb). With five weeks left in the regular season, the Cowboys have put themselves in position to make a run. This is the time they have to get hot if they want to be a team with a legit chance to go far. — Archer
Archer’s confidence rating (0-10): 8.4, up from 7.9. It wasn’t a work of art — they couldn’t run the ball well and Prescott felt like he forced some plays — but it’s a win. And that’s all that mattered on Thursday night.
Next game: at Washington (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
What to know: For a minute, it looked like Taysom Hill’s legs might inject some life into the Saints’ flailing offense. But then the wheels came off when he had to play catchup, with three of his four interceptions coming in the fourth quarter. Maybe the Saints (5-7) will find new life if stars like Alvin Kamara, Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk return at the New York Jets in Week 14. But it might be too late now that they’ve lost five straight in the same season for the first time under Sean Payton. — Mike Triplett
Will the Saints stick with Taysom Hill at quarterback? Yes, as long as his foot and finger injuries are OK. Hill’s performance can’t be sugarcoated. He was off target on some passes even before he started “pressing” and throwing those late INTs. But he also ran for 101 yards — and does offer some needed juice if he can start throwing with more accuracy. “I thought he played with a lot of heart, a lot of guts. We didn’t help him any in the first half,” Payton said. — Triplett
Triplett’s confidence rating (0-10): 4.1, down from 4.5. A smaller dip this time since the Saints should be healthier and more competitive next week. But their playoff chances have plummeted from 83% to 20% since Week 8, according to ESPN’s FPI.
Next game: at Jets (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)