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2021 NFL season, Week 15: What we learned from Vikings, Raiders wins on Monday 

Minnesota Vikings
2021 · 7-7-0
Chicago Bears
2021 · 4-10-0


Grant Gordon's takeaways:

  1. Vikings go off script for win: Kirk, Dalvin and Justin were all there, but this was hardly pretty and this was hardly the dramatic nail-biter to the end that most Minnesota games have been this season. Nope, the Vikings won a rather tedious affair by a comfortable margin – it would've been their largest of the season, in fact, had it not been for the Bears' score on the last play. Kirk Cousins threw for just 87 yards, but had two touchdowns. Justin Jefferson was largely held in check, but had one of those scores. And Dalvin Cook had 89 yards on 28 carries, which is hardly sexy, but his bell-cow day helped to dictate the game. Minnesota stayed alive in the race to the postseason (moving precariously into the No. 7 spot in the conference) and that’s all that matters. The Vikings gave their fans a game off from the drama and won ugly against an inferior foe. All the wins count the same and this was a crucial one, no matter how it looked under the prime-time spotlight. 
  2. The Akiem Hicks factor: When the Bears were a defensive monster in 2018, Khalil Mack got plenty of due praise, but Hicks was a Pro Bowler and very much the straw that stirred the drink. There are myriad reasons why Chicago’s defense has floundered since then, but Hicks’ injury woes can’t be overstated. Evidence of just how special he can be came Monday night amid a lost season when he led a defensive effort that stymied the NFL’s No. 3 offense for the most part and held it to a meager 193 yards. Hicks had five tackles (four of them solo), two sacks, four quarterback hits and two tackles for loss. He was a monster in the middle and a reminder that the Bears' defense could approach what it was just a few years ago. There is talent on this squad. Another huge example is Robert Quinn, who had a terrible first season with the club in 2020 and has bounced back to become a Pro Bowler this season. He recorded two sacks on Monday and has tallied sacks in six straight games. With 16 for the season, Quinn is nearing the Bears’ single-season record. It’s difficult to find diamonds in this rough season, but they do shine from time to time. 
  3. D.J. Wonnum turns it up: Though the Vikings defense, ranked 29th overall heading into Week 15, was facing the NFL’s 31st-ranked offense, its performance Monday still warrants praise for coming up big in a big spot. With the Vikings’ offense sputtering, the defense ensured 17 points enough was for a victory. And it was unsung defensive lineman D.J. Wonnum who led the charge. Wonnum, a 2020 fourth-round pick, sacked Bears rookie first-rounder Justin Fields three times. The Bears offense hurt itself plenty on Monday, but Wonnum dealt out his share of painful plays. He was a force against an overmatched Bears offensive line, racking up a career-high eight tackles to go with two tackles for loss and four QB hits. His trio of sacks matched his season total prior to Monday. Perhaps Wonnum is coming on at the right time for a less-than-excellent Vikings defense or maybe his stellar evening was a byproduct of his competition. Either way, Wonnum had the best showing of his young career on Monday. 
  4. What else could go wrong for Bears? Prior to Monday night’s game, Chicago return specialist Jakeem Grant was announced as a Pro Bowl selection. He was later ruled out with a concussion. Prior to the game, a storm of Bears players and coaches were sidelined by COVID-19. Head coach Matt Nagy was on the hot seat before a tumultuous 2021 campaign began and it’s never cooled, the offense has never heated up and the defense has only shown glimmers of the fierce unit it used to be. On Monday night, every big play and opportunity for the Bears was matched by a bad play and a lost opportunity (three turnovers, three turnovers on downs, three sacks, one missed field goal). Having hit double-digit losses for the first time since 2017, Chicago has three games remaining in a season that’s been laborious to watch and a precursor to an offseason potentially of monumental change. On Monday, the Bears came out and played hard against a rival and it shouldn’t be ignored when players find motivation amid a lost campaign. Still, though, the offense was held out of the end zone until the very last play of the game. Regardless of how scrutinized the officiating was, Chicago still drew nine penalties. It was a dreadful showing that can't be overshadowed by effort. These seem to be almost certainly the final days of Nagy’s tenure, but Monday shined a light on the fact that there is much that needs to be remedied and rebuilt beyond just the head coach. 

Next Gen stat of the game: Justin Fields was 8 for 11 for 128 yards and a touchdown on passes of 10-plus air yards.

NFL Research: Justin Jefferson passed Randy Moss (2,726 yards) for the second-most receiving yards through a players first two seasons in the Super Bowl era. Jefferson needs just 21 more yards this year to pass Odell Beckham (2,755) for the greatest start through two seasons in the Super Bowl era.

Las Vegas Raiders
2021 · 7-7-0
Cleveland Browns
2021 · 7-7-0


Nick Shook's takeaways:

  1. Derek Carr did it again. Carr nearly threw the game away by getting greedy with a deep shot to Zay Jones late in the game, but Las Vegas was able to overcome Greedy Williams' interception with enough time to mount one last drive. A key completion to Jones erased a horribly timed holding penalty and set up Daniel Carlson for a game-winning 48-yard field goal, which he converted (twice). While Carr's reputation in football circles is unfairly maligned, he tends to thrive in these moments, and he delivered on Monday night. He just might have saved the Raiders' season, too.
  2. There are no moral victories, but we can give the Browns a pat on the back. Cleveland entered this game missing eight starters and was forced to trot out third-string quarterback Nick Mullens, but as the Browns have done for much of the last month, they were able to rely on their defense to keep the game within reach for the first 35 minutes. Mullens eventually found his rhythm, leading a comeback effort that saw the Browns take a 14-13 lead. They didn't hang on, but their comeback alone was an accomplishment, especially for Mullens, who finished with a passing line that included a 66.7 completion percentage, 147 yards and a touchdown. It just wasn't enough, and with so many players out due to COVID-19, it's remarkable they were able to even be in that position by the end.
  3. The Raiders need to clean things up. Las Vegas was frequently set back by avoidable penalties, including a few delay of game flags that were almost always inexplicable. Though the Raiders overcame it, a holding call wiped out a late gain and nearly ruined Las Vegas' chances of getting in field goal range. In between, the penalties -- which reached a total of seven for 64 yards -- got in the way far too often for a team that is hoping to mount an unlikely run to the postseason. If the Raiders truly believe they can get to the playoffs, they must avoid these errors going forward. Hunter Renfrow needs to get some extra work fielding punts, too, after he dropped a couple of them Monday night.
  4. The AFC is a mess. After getting shellacked by the Chiefs eight days earlier, the Raiders were able to win a tough, ugly game to move to 7-7. The conference's standings resemble nothing better than a logjam at this point, and if we need some proof, just consider this: Had the Browns won Monday night, they'd own first place in the AFC North and the fourth seed in the AFC. Because they lost, they're now in last place at 7-7 and 12th in the AFC. It's setting up for a wild final few weeks, but because of such parity in the conference, it's difficult to separate pretenders from contenders. Right now, there's about a dozen of them.

Next Gen Stat of the game: Derek Carr completed 8 of 10 passes for 88 yards and one touchdown versus the blitz on Monday night.

NFL Research: With the Raiders' win, there are now 13 teams in the AFC with a .500 or better record through Week 15. It's the first time since 2002 that the a conference has that many teams at .500 or better this late in the season and only the second time ever. That year, the Browns made the playoffs as a wild-card qualifier at 9-7. The Raiders reached the playoffs, too, and won the AFC behind the efforts of NFL MVP Rich Gannon.

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