NFL 2023 Week 15: Biggest questions, risers and takeaways

ByNFL Nation ESPN logo
Sunday, December 17, 2023

Week 15 of the NFL season started Thursday night when the Las Vegas Raiders crushed the Los Angeles Chargers 63-21 in what became Chargers coach Brandon Staley's final game with the team (Staley and general managerTom Telesco were fired the following day).

On Saturday, the Cincinnati Bengals kept their playoff hopes alive with a thrilling 27-24 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in overtime. The Indianapolis Colts followed that by scoring 30 unanswered points in a 30-13 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Detroit Lions made easy work of the Denver Broncos in a 42-17 blowout in Saturday's nightcap.

Action continued Sunday with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers improving their playoff chances, the Carolina Panthers winning their second game of the season and the Houston Texans winning a divisional game in overtime without QB C.J. Stroud.

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.

Jump to a matchup:




Cleveland 20, Chicago 17


How are the Browns overcoming mounting injuries? For three quarters, it appeared the banged-up Browns were toast. But then a number of backups came up with huge plays in the fourth quarter. Nickelback Cameron Mitchell tripped up QB Justin Fields for a fourth-and-short stop. After that, receiver Marquise Goodwin caught a 57-yard bomb from Joe Flacco that set up a field goal to get the Browns within a touchdown. Then defensive end Alex Wright stuffed Chicago's Tyler Scott on the following possession to force a punt. Without its backups stepping up, Cleveland doesn't come through with this stunning comeback victory.

Stock up after the win:TEDavid Njoku. Njoku, who finished with a game-high 10 receptions, had a toe-tap touchdown, then a big reception on third down to keep the game-winning drive alive late in the fourth quarter.

Stock down after the win: The offensive line. After left guard Joel Bitonio exited the game early with a back injury, the Browns were down to just one healthy starter: right guard Wyatt Teller. As a result, they struggled to establish the line of scrimmage all day. -- Jake Trotter

Next game: at Texans (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)


Should this end all talk about a Bears postseason push? Chicago's postseason chances would have increased to 9% with a win, per ESPN Analytics (it's now at 3%). But the defense's production -- Chicago now leads the league with 18 interceptions -- was the catalyst behind any whispers about a postseason push. Chicago sacked QB Joe Flacco three times, intercepted him three times (including a pick-six) and carried the load when the Bears' offense couldn't get out of its own way (3.4 yards per attempt, eight three-and-outs). But it wasn't enough Sunday, and it should end any talk of playoff football.

Stock up after the loss: SEddie Jackson. The seventh-year veteran recorded his first interception of the season, which was nearly a pick-six. That play set up the Bears inside Cleveland's 5-yard line, and they scored on the ensuing possession.

Stock down after the loss: WRDarnell Mooney. The lack of chemistry between Mooney and Justin Fields has been an issue all season, but it's not like Mooney didn't have opportunities Sunday (eight targets, two catches, 14 yards). Mooney had a potential game-winning Hail Mary pass in his grasp on the last play, but he couldn't hold on. -- Courtney Cronin

Next game: vs. Cardinals (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)

Houston 19, Tennessee 16


Can the offense survive another week without quarterback C.J. Stroud? The Texans got the win without Stroud, as Case Keenum finished 23-for-36 for 229 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The offense sputtered as the Texans didn't score a touchdown until under four minutes remained in the game. Next week things will be tougher as they face a team that entered the week with the top-ranked total defense in the Cleveland Browns.

Stock up after the win: CB Steven Nelson. Nelson tied his career high in interceptions with his fourth of the season, which set up a field goal.

Stock down after the win: WR Robert Woods. The Texans signed him in the offseason to boost the passing game, and with their top two receivers sidelined, Woods finished with 30 yards. He has had over 60 receiving yards in a game only once this season. -- DJ Bien-Aime

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


After being eliminated from playoff contention, what do they have left to play for? The Titans still have plenty to play for even though they're out of the playoffs. Will Levis is their quarterback of the future, so him finishing his rookie season on a high note to gain momentum could pay huge dividends for the future. The Titans have plenty of money to spend (with a projected $91.87 million of cap space going into the offseason) and have 20 players set to hit free agency, including running back Derrick Henry potentially hitting the market.

Stock up after the loss: WR Treylon Burks. Burks has been relatively nonexistent on offense, but he bounced back against Houston with three receptions for a team-high 62 yards -- including a 37-yard catch that helped set up a touchdown on the opening drive.

Stock down after the loss: Henry and the offensive line. Henry entered the day averaging 203.6 rushing yards in his past five games against the Texans, but the offensive line didn't open many lanes and Henry was able to muster only 9 yards on 16 carries. The Titans averaged 2.2 yards per rush and Levis was sacked seven times. -- Turron Davenport

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

Carolina 9, Atlanta 7


Could the Panthers compete for the NFC South title next season? Because the division is a mess with no team with a winning record entering Sunday and none with a franchise quarterback, even a 2-12 Carolina team should be somewhat optimistic for next season. Rookie quarterback Bryce Young led the game-winning drive Sunday, the Panthers have enough salary cap room to surround him with more help next season, and their defense is good enough to compete now.

Stock up after the win:Young. Despite a steady rain, the rookie quarterback didn't have a turnover for only the fourth time in 13 games this season, and he engineered the game-winning drive starting from the Carolina 5-yard line.

Stock down after the win:GGabe Jackson. The Panthers right guard replaced starter Nash Jensen in the second half. After a couple of good run blocks, he surrendered a sack and was called for holding to negate a deep pass to the Atlanta 13-yard line. -- David Newton

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


How hot is coach Arthur Smith's seat? At this point, it has to be pretty warm. Falcons owner Arthur Blank said in August he expected to see improvement this season. Scoring seven points and losing to the league-worst Carolina Panthers while trying to keep pace in the woebegone NFC South does not constitute improvement. The way it happened -- two critical offensive errors (a Desmond Ridder interception, a Bijan Robinson fumble) and a late-game defensive lapse were reminiscent of many other losses this season.

Stock up after the loss: Edge rusher Lorenzo Carter. With Bud Dupree out with a back injury, Carter had one of his best games of the season, seemingly causing issues throughout the game and finishing with four tackles, one tackle for loss and one quarterback hit.

Stock down after the loss:QBDesmond Ridder. The quarterback didn't play poorly Sunday, but when it mattered most and Atlanta had a chance to extend its slim lead, Ridder threw a critical interception on the Carolina 3-yard line, setting up the Panthers' game-winning drive. -- Michael Rothstein

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

Miami 30, N.Y. Jets 0


Can the Dolphins clinch the AFC East before their Week 18 showdown with the Bills? Mathematically, yes. The Dolphins held a two-game lead heading into Sunday's action, so even if the Bills beat the Cowboys (they faced off later on Sunday), if Miami wins each of its next two games, it would maintain at least a two-game lead heading into the finale. But Miami's next two games are against the Cowboys and Ravens -- each of whom could win their respective divisions. If the Dolphins win out (including their game vs. Buffalo), they will clinch the top overall seed in the AFC, a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Stock up after the win: WR Jaylen Waddle. With Tyreek Hill inactive, Miami needed a big game from Waddle. He delivered with 142 yards and a touchdown on eight catches.

Stock down after the win:Hill's pursuit of 2,000 receiving yards. With three games remaining, Hill needs 458 yards to reach 2,000 -- all coming against teams with top-10 pass defenses. -- Marcel Louis-Jacques

Next game: vs. Cowboys (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)


Is it time for the Jets to shut down Aaron Rodgers' comeback bid? Rodgers (Achilles) is likely to be medically cleared this week, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported, but that could turn out to be a procedural footnote. At this point, there's no reason to rush Rodgers into the lineup. The Jets (5-9), who clinched their eighth straight losing season, are eliminated from the playoffs. Rodgers has said it wouldn't make sense to play in a game with no playoff implications. It's just as well. Considering the state of the offensive line, which allowed six sacks and failed to protect quarterback Zach Wilson (knocked out of the game with a concussion), Rodgers is better served by turning his sights to 2024.

Stock up after the loss: PThomas Morstead. You know it's bad when the punter is the star. Morstead averaged 53.4 yards on an otherwise dismal day for the Jets.

Stock down after the loss: Coach Robert Saleh. This was an embarrassing performance in all three phases, as the Jets were outgained 290-103 by an injury-depleted Miami offense. This was one of the worst losses of the Saleh era. At 16-32, Saleh's seat is getting warmer. -- Rich Cimini

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

New Orleans 24, N.Y. Giants 6


Can the Saints sustain their positive momentum moving forward? The Saints did exactly what they needed to do against the Giants. The pass rush had a season-high seven sacks, quarterback Derek Carr had his highest passer rating of the season and the Saints' offense was moving the ball well despite missing wide receiver Chris Olave and starting right tackle Ryan Ramczyk. The Saints have won two straight and have a short week before facing the Rams on Thursday night, still needing wins to keep pace in the NFC South.

Stock up after the win: Carr. Carr has had his share of struggles this season, but he had the offense clicking Sunday, throwing a season-high three touchdowns to three different players and compiling a season-high quarterback rating of 134.8, despite missing some key pieces of the offense.

Stock down after the win: OL Andrus Peat. It's hard to find much fault after such a complete win, so Peat draws the short straw with two offensive holding penalties. -- Katherine Terrell

Next game: at Rams (Thursday, 8:15 p.m. ET)


What does this blowout mean for Tommy DeVito and the Giants' QB position? It seems the Cinderella story might be coming to an end. DeVito went 20-of-34 for 177 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions, and a chunk of the damage came late in the fourth quarter, when the game was out of hand. He also held onto the ball too long at times (he was sacked seven times) and had to get checked for a concussion in the first half. The Giants had just 101 yards of total offense early in the fourth quarter. That's not to say DeVito won't be part of the Giants' future. He has earned the right to at least compete for the backup spot next season. But any dream of him overtaking Daniel Jones for the starting spot next season appears unlikely, especially with two of the Giants' final three games against the Eagles.

Stock up after the loss: P Jamie Gillan. He has been great this year as the Giants' punter (46.4 yards per punt). Now he has shown he can be a fill-in kicker, too. Gillan nailed a 40-yard field goal on the final play of the first half.

Stock down after the loss: The receiving corps. Darius Slayton, Jalin Hyatt and Wan'Dale Robinson combined for three catches and 9 yards in the first half. They also had three drops. -- Jordan Raanan

Next game: at Eagles (Monday, Dec. 25, 4:30 p.m. ET)

Kansas City 27, New England 17


Should the Chiefs feel better about where they are headed after a comfortable victory? Not really. Their offensive sloppiness allowed the Patriots to hang around too long, and Kansas City won't face any opponent like New England in the playoffs. The defense played well but, again, the quality of the opponent has to be considered. The Chiefs still have a lot to clean up on offense to make another playoff run.

Stock up after the win: RBs Jerick McKinnon and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The Chiefs needed them to play well with Isiah Pacheco out and they did. McKinnon caught a touchdown pass and threw one as well, while Edwards-Helaire made a nice leaping TD grab.

Stock down after the win: Wide receivers. Rashee Rice caught a TD pass but committed a costly penalty that killed a drive and he could have lost a fumble if the Patriots had challenged one of his catches. Likewise, Skyy Moore was bailed out on his fumble by a Patriots penalty. Kadarius Toney wasn't as lucky, as his drop resulted in a Patriots interception and subsequent touchdown. -- Adam Teicher

Next game: vs. Raiders (Monday, Dec. 25, 1 p.m. ET)


At 3-11 and three games remaining, how does this affect the Patriots' draft position? Bill Belichick's team entered the day with the No. 2 pick and only a 3% chance of drafting No. 1, according to ESPN Analytics. The loss increased the Patriots' odds to 10%. The Panthers, who won to improve to 2-12, were assured of remaining in the top spot regardless of the day's results (their pick goes to Chicago via trade). The Patriots' final three games are at Denver, at Buffalo and home against the Jets. The Panthers' final three games are home against the Packers, at the Jaguars and home vs. the Buccaneers.

Stock up after the loss: TE Hunter Henry. The veteran, who is a free agent after the season, was a bright spot, with seven catches for 66 yards and a TD.

Stock down after the loss: K Chad Ryland. The rookie fourth-rounder missed a 41-yard field goal in the first quarter and is now 12-of-19 on field goals this season. -- Mike Reiss

Next game: at Broncos (Sunday, 8:15 p.m. ET)

Tampa Bay 34, Green Bay 20


Can the Buccaneers sustain this offensive production? The Bucs finally have their signature win of the season. It was also quarterback Baker Mayfield's best game as a Buccaneer -- and one of the best of his career -- with 381 passing yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. The fact that he threw touchdowns to four different targets (Mike Evans, Rachaad White, Ko Kieft and David Moore) while Chris Godwin eclipsed 100 receiving yards shows they're ascending as an offense. With the win, the Bucs have a 66% chance of reaching the playoffs, according to ESPN Analytics.

Stock up after the win:WRChris Godwin. Last week, in another must-win game against the Falcons, it was a crucial third-down catch on the game-winning drive against the Falcons. This week, Godwin hit 155 receiving yards -- his most in any game over the past two seasons.

Stock down after the win: Pass rush. Packers quarterback Jordan Love was able to escape sacks multiple times and throw on the move, including his 17-yard touchdown pass to Jayden Reed. The Bucs finished with two sacks, from Anthony Nelson, with six quarterback hits. -- Jenna Laine

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


What are the Packers going to do about their defense? And you thought the Packers' run defense was the problem. Well, they let Baker Mayfield, who didn't complete 50% of his passes in either of the past two games, carve them up to the tune of 22-for-28 for 381 yards with four touchdowns. It's one thing to struggle in one area -- like the Packers have against the run for the better part of the past two seasons -- but this defense now doesn't seem to have anything it can rely on. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry was on the hot seat going into the season largely because of the issues stopping the run, and now this. Coach Matt LaFleur has never made an in-season coaching change, so that seems unlikely, but perhaps he's upset enough to make a move.

Stock up after the loss: WRJayden Reed. The Packers have a playmaker.The rookie's toe-dragging touchdown in the third quarter was just another example. The 17-yarder was his sixth touchdown catch of the season. With a pair of rushing touchdowns, his eight total touchdowns make him the second straight Packers rookie with at least eight touchdowns (Christian Watson did it last season). A Packers rookie had not done that since Max McGee in 1954.

Stock down after the loss: LaFleur. He surprisingly threw the challenge flag after Aaron Jones came up a yard short of a first down on a second-and-5 run in the fourth quarter. Why would he risk a timeout -- that he ultimately lost -- when he would have two downs to get 1 yard? Jordan Love got the first down with a sneak on the next play. -- Rob Demovsky

Next game: at Panthers (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)


Detroit 42, Denver 17


Did the Lions' offense get its swagger back? After a 13-point performance that Lions WR Amon-Ra St. Brown described as "disappointing" and "frustrating" during last week's loss to the Chicago Bears, the Lions responded with a strong win at home over Denver with a solid output on both sides of the ball. St. Brown was coming off a season-low 21 receiving yards, while veteran QB Jared Goff committed nine turnovers over a four-game stretch before facing the Broncos. They both stepped up: St. Brown registered 102 receiving yards with a TD, while Goff threw five touchdown passes without a turnover.

Stock up after the win: Sam LaPorta. The rookie tight end bounced back from a two-catch game at Chicago to set the franchise mark for rookie tight ends with nine touchdowns on the season and three on the night.

Stock down after the win: Third quarters. The Lions continue to find ways to struggle in the third quarter, as they were outscored 10-7 in the third for the third straight week. During the week, Goff said they needed to have better execution and focus coming out of halftime, and although it didn't hurt them in this game, it's still something to fix. -- Eric Woodyard

Next game: at Vikings (Sunday, Dec. 24, 1 p.m. ET)


Can a gassed Broncos team pick itself up -- again -- for one last playoff push? The Broncos played their third road game in 13 days and looked every bit travel-weary. The offense clustered three-and-outs early in a sluggish start while the defense, after holding the Lions scoreless in the first quarter, couldn't maintain the momentum with a flurry of missed tackles and poor run fits that followed. It's a loss to an NFC team, so not too damaging in the wild-card hunt, but the Broncos need to find a finishing kick with two consecutive games at home and can't lose again if they want a wild card.

Stock up after the loss: CB Pat Surtain II. Surtain continues to influence almost everything opponents do in the passing game. Where the Broncos put him in the formation usually pushes the ball elsewhere, and elsewhere Saturday night was five touchdown passes for Jared Goff, three of those to rookie tight end Sam LaPorta.

Stock down after the loss:Run defense. The Broncos didn't surrender a rushing touchdown until the fourth quarter, but the pace of the game had long gotten away from them as Detroit pounded away for much of the second half against a Broncos rally. The Lions were the seventh team to top 130 rushing yards against the Broncos and the fourth to top 180. -- Jeff Legwold

Next game: vs. Patriots (Sunday, Dec. 24, 8:15 p.m. ET)

Indianapolis 30, Pittsburgh 13


Can the Colts' offense finish the job despite mounting injuries? The Colts lost receiver Michael Pittman Jr. to a concussion and running back Zack Moss to an arm injury in this game, but their capable backups performed in a way that suggested they can overcome those losses. The Colts got some unexpected contributions from the likes of D.J. Montgomery (three career catches before Saturday) and Tyler Goodson (who had no carries entering the game). Even the absence of right tackle Braden Smith wasn't enough to hold the Colts back, despite his backup -- rookie Blake Freeland -- having to contend with Steelers star edge rusher T.J. Watt.

Stock up after the win:Quarterback Gardner Minshew. Minshew had seven completions of 10 yards or longer, a good sign for a passer who has been a little on the lower end when it comes to yards per attempt this season. He surpassed his 6.7-yard average entering the game with a 7.7-yard effort against the Steelers. He also avoided any turnovers.

Stock down after the win:Kicker Matt Gay. Gay has had an uncharacteristically uneven performance in the past two games. He has now missed a combined four kicks over two weeks, including an extra point against the Bengals and a 43-yard attempt that hit the right upright on Saturday.-- Stephen Holder

Next game: at Falcons (Sunday, Dec. 24, 1 p.m. ET)


Can the Steelers win another game this season? The Steelers have dropped three games in a row, and there's not much from those performances to suggest this team can win another game this season -- let alone make the playoffs. In the loss to the Colts, a short-handed Steelers defense was outplayed by a similarly short-handed Colts offense, unable to stop players elevated from the practice squad from getting into the end zone. With a three-game stretch to end the season against a surging Bengals team, a stout Seattle squad and an AFC-leading Ravens group, the Steelers have to do more than put up 216 yards of offense, while allowing 372 yards of offense -- including 157 yards to third- and fourth-string running backs.

Stock up after the loss:Diontae Johnson. For the first time in his career, Johnson has touchdowns in three consecutive games. Against the Colts, he finished with four catches for 62 yards and a touchdown.

Stock down after the loss:George Pickens. The wide receiver lamented his lack of targets and running shallow routes prior to the Colts game, and yet, on his first deep target, a Colts cornerback was able to wrestle a 50-50 ball away from him. Afterward, quarterback Mitch Trubisky said Pickens took a different angle than he was expecting. On another play, Pickens gave no effort to block for Jaylen Warren, resulting in the running back being tackled near the goal line instead of scoring a touchdown. -- Brooke Pryor

Next game: vs. Bengals (Saturday, Dec. 23, 4:30 p.m. ET)

Cincinnati 27, Minnesota 24


Are the Bengals too banged up to keep the magic rolling? Cincinnati suffered two massive injuries in Sunday's win. Defensive tackle DJ Reader left the game with a lower-body injury, and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase was also knocked out with a right shoulder injury. The Bengals have been able to withstand the loss of quarterback Joe Burrow,but also being down a top defender and one of the league's best wide receivers will complicate things further.

Stock up after the win: Defensive tackle BJ Hill. Hill now owns one of the more improbable stats of the NFL season: He has recorded an interception in back-to-back games.

Stock down after the win: Cornerback DJ Turner. The promising rookie cornerback allowed five catches on his first six targets as the nearest defender, plays that yielded 100 yards and a touchdown. -- Ben Baby

Next game: at Steelers (Saturday, Dec. 23, 4:30 p.m. ET)


Why does an otherwise great defense keep giving up late leads? Saturday marked the third time in four games the Vikings have lost after giving up the winning score with less than 2 minutes remaining in the game. They led 17-3 early in the fourth quarter and 24-17 with 3:48 remaining. Bengals receiver Tee Higgins deserves credit for an acrobatic effort to score with 39 seconds remaining, but the Vikings have proved vulnerable to deep dig routes. Bengals quarterback Jake Browning, in fact, completed 10 of 14 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns to wide receivers on their final six drives.

Stock up after the loss: Running back Ty Chandler. In his first NFL start, Chandler produced a 132-yard effort, the Vikings' first 100-yard game of the season.

Stock down after the loss:The Vikings' tush push. Minnesota overthought its personnel on two failed quarterback sneaks in overtime, using receiver Brandon Powell as the pusher in hopes of keeping the Bengals out of their goal-line defense. -- Kevin Seifert

Next game: vs. Lions (Sunday, Dec. 24, 1 p.m. ET)


Las Vegas 63, L.A. Chargers 21


How much did Raiders interim coach Antonio Pierce help his case to get the full-time gig? Probably as much as the 3-0 loss to the Vikings hurt his chances four days earlier. Each game is a season unto itself, but as more than one player said in the locker room after beating the Chargers, they are playing for Pierce and interim general manager Champ Kelly. "Because we love both of them," right tackle Jermaine Eluemunorsaid. Eight players scoring touchdowns and scoring a TD after all 5 takeaways helped. They next face the Chiefs on Christmas Day.

Stock up after the win: Interim offensive coordinator Bo Hardegree. Moved upstairs to the press box from the sideline, Hardegree seemed to have a better feel for the game with his playcalling. At least, he seemed more willing to call deeper passes for Aidan O'Connell, and the rookie quarterback responded with aplomb and a career-best 120.7 passer rating, while Hardegree authored a season-high 378-yard game on offense.

Stock down after the win: Pass coverage. OK, so we're truly picking nits here, but if we have to find something negative from a blowout win, two blown coverages did result in a pair of TDs for the Chargers, from 79 yards to close out the third quarter, and from 13 yards midway through the fourth quarter, respectively. -- Paul Gutierrez

Next game: at Chiefs (Monday, Dec. 25, 1 p.m. ET)


Will Dean and John Spanos finally make the right hires to turn this franchise around? Letdowns and mediocrity have been synonymous with this team. This tradition has stood partly because of the ownership's failed hires. They kept general manager Tom Telesco for 11 seasons despite just two playoff wins; hired coach Brandon Staley after one year as a coordinator, and kept him into this season despite a historic playoff meltdown. This appears to be the perfect scenario to finally turn this franchise around, but there is no such thing as a perfect scenario for these Chargers.

Stock up after the loss: The Chargers' draft pick. The Chargers are now projected to have the No. 5 pick in the draft. With a roster that is projected to be $34.8 million over the salary cap next season, according to ESPN's Roster Management System, taking advantage of talented rookies on cheap deals will be paramount.

Stock down after the loss: The entire organization. Thursday night's loss was one of the most embarrassing in NFL history. It reflected dysfunction at every level, from an ownership group that had waited too long to move on from a coach and general manager to the players, who seemed to have given up. Now that Staley and Tedesco have been fired, the franchise can embark on a new era. -- Kris Rhim

Next game: vs. Bills (Saturday, Dec. 23, 8 p.m. ET)

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