NFL seasons can change in an instant and be decided by events that are seemingly insignificant at the time.

In the case of the Green Bay Packers, their Super Bowl hopes appear to hinge on the left pinky toe of reigning MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers has played through the pain of the fractured toe, yet that most diminutive of appendages may have the biggest impact on how a 2021 season that is proving impossible to predict plays out.

The injury is expected to linger for the rest of the season and Rodgers indicated after the Packers' Week 14 win over the Chicago Bears that it is deteriorating.

"It feels worse," Rodgers told reporters. "I don't know what kind of setback that I had tonight, but we'll look at it tomorrow. Definitely took a step back tonight."

If Rodgers' performance came amid a step back then that should be an extremely worrying sign for his rivals in the NFC, as he and the Packers again shredded the Bears.

Rodgers finished 29 of 37 for 341 yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions in Green Bay's 45-30 triumph at Lambeau Field.

The 2021 campaign has been one of Rodgers' more scattershot seasons. He delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball on 82.4 per cent of his throws last year, the third-best rate among quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts.

This season, his well-thrown percentage is 78, slightly below the average of 78.2. Additionally, after throwing an interceptable pass on just 2.23 per cent of attempts in 2020, his pickable pass rate has increased to 3.36.

Sunday's NFC North encounter, however, was a showcase of just how devastating Rodgers can be when his accuracy is on point. Throwing with touch, precision and confidence that comes with playing a team against whom he now holds a 22-5 record in the regular season, Rodgers delivered a well-thrown ball on 88.6 per cent of attempts, fourth among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts in Week 14.

Yes, Rodgers was aided by playing a Bears defense missing pieces in the secondary and allowing 6.56 yards per pass play, the 10th-most in the NFL, but this performance was not a high point in an inconsistent season against an inferior opponent, it was a continuation of a surge from a quarterback who still has a case for being the league's most talented, even in an era housing both Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert.

Since returning from his controversial coronavirus-enforced absence in Week 10, Rodgers has thrown for 1,325 yards, 10 touchdowns and an interception. He leads the NFL in yards per attempt (8.72) in that time and is also first in passer rating (114.1) and passing plays of 25 yards or more (15).

The season and indeed the MVP race has frankly been too volatile to suggest Rodgers is playing at a level to put him in contention to win the award for a second successive year.

But his standard of performance continues to elevate the Packers to a level where they can overcome even the most disastrous of failures from other areas of the team.

It was the Packers' special teams that threatened to undermine Rodgers' efforts against Chicago. 

Green Bay allowed 213 return yards in the first half, with Bears wide receiver Jakeem Grant taking a punt back 97 yards for a touchdown. Mason Crosby sent a kick-off out of bounds while receiver Malik Taylor muffed a return out of bounds at the five-yard line.

Chicago started four first-half drives at the 40-yard line or beyond and, while the Packers somewhat reduced the errors in the second half, the final two quarters still saw a poor 22-yard punt from Corey Bojorquez and Marquez Valdes-Scantling make a mess of an onside kick recovery.

The Bears held a 10-point lead as a result of those miscues during the second quarter. Sterner opposition may have done a better job of pressing home that advantage, yet Rodgers ensured it did not grow into a decisive one as the Packers improved to 10-3.

Such egregious mistakes would likely be fatal in the postseason even with Rodgers playing at his peak, but his ability to help the Packers overcome deficiencies elsewhere on the team has Green Bay in an excellent position to contend for the one seed and seal the easiest possible route to the Super Bowl.

Rodgers resides in that select group of quarterbacks against whom almost no lead is safe, with a mystique that was only furthered in Week 14 lingering over any game involving Green Bay. However, with the unexpectedly large spectre of a worsening toe injury hanging over the Packers' season, their position as a Super Bowl contender can be considered under threat even as Rodgers continues to solidify it.

George Kittle made NFL history on Sunday as the San Francisco 49ers tight end proved impossible to stop in their dramatic overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

The 49ers surrendered a 20-6 lead in the fourth quarter, the Bengals fighting back to force overtime before taking a 23-20 lead in the extra period.

However, the Niners responded and clinched a 26-23 victory on a walk-off 12-yard touchdown from wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who made a spectacular dive for the pylon as they improved to 7-6.

While it was Aiyuk who produced the defining play of the game, the common thread for the Niners' offensive success was Kittle.

Kittle made three catches on that final drive after making an incredible leaping grab on San Francisco's last drive of regulation, setting up a 47-yard game-winning field goal attempt that was missed by Robbie Gould.

He finished the game with 13 receptions for 151 yards and a touchdown.

Having exploded for 181 yards and two touchdowns in the previous week's loss to the Seattle Seahawks, Kittle became the first tight end in NFL history to record successive games with at least 150 receiving yards and a touchdown.

He also joined Zach Ertz (four games), Jason Witten (four) and Kellen Winslow Sr. (three) as only the fourth tight end with three games with 13 or more receptions.

And game-winner Aiyuk lavished praise on his team-mate in his post-game media conference.

"That's a different dude," Aiyuk said. "Huge third down plays, just plays all over the field… that's a special dude – real special dude."

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo added: "George showed out today, he really did. When you have a guy like that you can lean on, it's a nice feeling as a quarterback."

Kittle's historic day came despite the Bengals' defense exhausting all options to slow him down.

"We tried like hell to take him away," Cincinnati head coach Zac Taylor told reporters. "We tried everything. He's one of the best tight ends out there. We've known that for a long time.

"He had similar production last week — he had almost 200 yards receiving — so it's not like he surprises people.

"You saw the catch he made that almost won them the game in regulation and put them in field goal range. When a guy is that explosive, and has that big of hands with that kind of catch radius, he makes a lot of plays. And I promise we tried like hell to take him away, and he just finds a way to make those plays."

Josh Allen does not expect the foot injury he suffered to be "a big deal" despite leaving in a walking boot after the Buffalo Bills' overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

Allen saw a furious comeback effort go unrewarded as Tom Brady's 58-yard touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman gave the Buccaneers a walk-off 33-27 win.

The Bills had fought back from 24-3 down to tie the game at 27-27 and force overtime, Allen throwing for 308 yards with two touchdowns and an interception while also rushing for 109 yards and a further score.

Despite his best efforts, the Bills dropped to 7-6 in a further dent to their hopes of beating the 9-4 New England Patriots to the AFC East title, with their prospects of even making the playoffs now in increasing jeopardy.

And there appeared to be reason for substantial concern when Allen entered his post-game media conference in a boot due to an apparent foot issue.

However, he moved to allay fears of an injury that would likely doom the Bills' season.

"Honestly, I'm not quite sure [what the injury is]," said Allen.

"I guess we'll do some more tests tomorrow [Monday]. I finished the game on it, so I don't think it's going to be a big deal."

Asked about the decision to keep him in the game despite the injury, Allen replied: "There was no way I was going out."

Though the Bills are in a precarious position, it was easy for Allen to see the positives after they erased a 21-point deficit.

"We had a good talk at half-time, guys responded well," he explained. "I'm damn proud of our team and how we fought in that second half, that's who we are.

"We wish the end result was different but I'm super proud of our guys.

"There's many teams that would have folded in that position. We want to win, we want to be great, that's the team we've gotta be going forward."

The Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers made light work of the Chicago Bears, yet the quarterback is concerned about an ongoing toe problem.

Rodgers threw for four touchdowns and no interceptions as the Packers came from behind to claim a 45-30 win over their rivals on Sunday.

Green Bay (10-3) are the third team in the NFL this season to hit 10 wins, while the Packers have now won six straight games against the Bears.

Rodgers extended his run to 23-5 when starting against Chicago, while he has now enjoyed seven four-touchdown, no interception games against the Bears – the most in NFL history against a single opponent.

Indeed, Rodgers is the only quarterback who also has six such games, having achieved the feat against the Minnesota Vikings. Tom Brady, with five such games against the Buffalo Bills, is the closest to matching Green Bay's talisman in that regard.

His final touchdown pass of the game took Rodgers to 61 career TDs against the Bears, taking him clear of Brett Favre (60) for the most against Chicago.

Rodgers aggravated Chicago after the clash with Green Bay in October, with a taunt of "I own you."

 

While team-mate Allen Lazard wore a shirt with the slogan "I still own you" to his post-game media conference, Rodgers said he does not need to reiterate the point.

"I've already said what I've said," he explained. "I don't need to double and triple down. I'll let those words stand for themselves."

However, it was not all positive for Rodgers, who conceded the toe injury he has been carrying has not improved.

The reigning NFL MVP sustained the fracture to his pinky toe during his COVID-19 quarantine earlier in the season. Despite allowing the injury time to heal over the Packers' bye week, the 38-year-old revealed he was suffering throughout Sunday's game.

"It feels worse," Rodgers told reporters.

"I don't know what kind of setback that I had tonight but we'll look at it tomorrow. Definitely took a step back tonight."

Rodgers has previously confirmed that surgery is an option, though he is hoping to avoid a procedure if possible. Further scans, set to take place on Monday, will determine the next course of action.

"That would be last resort, for sure," Rodgers added when asked about the possibility of surgery. "But I've got to see what kind of setback it was tonight."

Aaron Rodgers' domination of the Chicago Bears continued as the reigning NFL MVP fuelled the Green Bay Packers' come-from-behind 45-30 victory on Sunday.

Rodgers, who controversially remarked that he "owns" the Bears following October's clash, threw four touchdowns to help the Packers (10-3) rally from a half-time deficit.

The Packers quarterback – now boasting a 23-5 record against the Bears – completed 29 of 37 attempts for 341 yards as NFC North leaders Green Bay overturned a 10-point second-quarter deficit.

Packers wide receiver Davante Adams finished with two touchdowns, including one late in a wild second quarter where both sides traded six TDs, while Aaron Jones also had two TDs.

The game burst to life in the second quarter with 45 points scored – the most ever in the Packers-Bears rivalry, after Rodgers had been sacked by Robert Quinn in the first.

Rasul Douglas had a second pick-six in consecutive games, this time from Justin Fields on his return from a rib injury for the Bears (4-9), completing 18 of 33 attempts for 224 yards with two touchdown passes and two interceptions.

Jakeem Grant scored two for the Bears, including the season's first punt return TD, running 97 yards – the longest in Chicago's history. Rodgers found Lazard and Adams for touchdowns, while Damiere Byrd also crossed for the Bears.

After the Packers trailed 27-21 at half-time, Jones capped a nine-play, 75-yard drive with a rushing TD to take the lead, before Rodgers lobbed a pass to him for his second.

In the fourth quarter, Rodgers found Adams for his second to stretch the lead to 18 points, while Kindle Vildor's penalty for being out of bounds on the punt denied Damien Williams a TD for the Bears, who scored their only second-half points late from Cairo Santos' fourth field goal.

Tom Brady revelled in his "great moment" after making more NFL history but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers superstar is focused on clinching the division title.

Brady was the hero in Sunday's 33-22 overtime victory against the Buffalo Bills – his 700th career touchdown lifting reigning Super Bowl champions the Buccaneers.

The evergreen 44-year-old became the first quarterback in NFL history to reach the milestone courtesy of his 58-yard touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman, having also eclipsed Drew Brees for most pass completions in league history.

It was another historic outing for the record seven-time Super Bowl champion and while he savoured the achievement, Brady swiftly turned his attention to the team as they stand on the brink of their first NFC South crown in 14 years.

"It's pretty rare, you know? But it was very cool," Brady told reporters post-game after the Buccaneers improved to 10-3.

"I'd much rather not have it come down to that, but, in the end, they all count the same, you know? And we got to learn from it and we got to move on.

"Obviously, we're playing for a division championship next week which is pretty exciting for all of us."

Brady was 31-of-46 passing for 363 yards and two touchdowns without an interception, while he rushed for another score against rivals the Bills.

He maintained his dominant record against the Bills with a 33rd win over Buffalo in 36 career starts – the most in NFL history against one team by a starting quarterback.

Brady, who needed 18 completions to surpass future Hall of Famer Brees, now has 7,156 to his name.

"I don't think about those things," said Brady when asked what he is going to do with his latest record-setting paraphernalia. "People kind of tell me they happen, that's pretty cool.

"I keep some jerseys and stuff like that but yeah it's pretty neat. It's just amazing to have so many people share in all those great accomplishments that, obviously, to me, I feel like they're all team awards anyway so anyone who ever caught a touchdown pass, they're part of something pretty cool in NFL history, anyone that had a completion for that matter.

"And, obviously, the guys that came before me doing it like Dan Marino and Peyton [Manning] and Drew and some other incredible players that I always looked up to. So, this is a great moment."

Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians added: "I don't think there will be any records left when he's done."

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is facing a stint on the sidelines in the run to the NFL playoffs after suffering a right ankle sprain in Sunday's 24-22 loss to the Cleveland Browns.

Jackson was doubtful pre-game with an ankle sprain and managed only four of four passes for 17 yards before taking a hit and making way for Tyler Huntley.

The former MVP left Baltimore's locker room in a protective boot.

Baltimore lead the AFC North with an 8-5 record, narrowly ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals (7-6) and Browns (7-6) with four regular season games remaining.

"Lamar has an ankle sprain. We'll look at it more [Monday] and we'll see where we're at," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said at the post-game news conference.

"We'll see how he responds [Monday], we'll see how it responds."

Jackson is enjoying a strong season for the Ravens, completing 242 of 378 passes for 2,865 yards with a 64 percent completion rate for 16 touchdowns.

He also allowed 13 interceptions, having only committed 18 across his previous three seasons.

In Jackson's absence, backup Huntley almost pulled off a comeback victory for the Ravens against the Browns, offering hope they can still fire without their star quarterback.

"Tyler showed a lot of grit, and I felt like the whole team did that," Harbaugh said. "That's who we are and that's why we have a chance to still win the championship in the AFC North and go on from there. That's what we'll be fighting to do in the next four weeks."

Tom Brady was the hero in another historic performance as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers superstar inspired a 33-27 overtime win against the Buffalo Bills in the NFL.

Brady – who surpassed Drew Brees for the most pass completions in league history – became the first quarterback to throw 700 career touchdowns on Sunday and that milestone 58-yard TD settled the contest with the visiting Bills in OT.

Overtime was needed after reigning Super Bowl champions the Buccaneers (10-3) squandered a 24-3 half-time lead against the Bills (7-6).

Brady had thrown for a touchdown and ran for another after Leonard Fournette's 47-yard dash set the tone for the Buccaneers in the first half before the rallying Bills silenced the home crowd.

Josh Allen (36-of-54 passing for 308 yards, two touchdowns and an interception) was the instigator for the Bills with a pair of touchdown passes in the final period, after the quarterback's third-quarter run helped reduce the deficit.

Tyler Bass' 25-yard field goal 22 seconds from the end forced OT but Brady had the final say in another memorable moment in an incredible career – the seven-time Super Bowl champion and Breshad Perriman combining for a 58-yard score in the additional period.

Brady (31-of-46 passing for 363 yards and two TDs without an interception) maintained his dominant record against the Bills – the 44-year-old's 33 wins over Buffalo in 36 career starts are the most in NFL history against one team by a starting quarterback.

 

Niners also win in overtime

Overtime was needed to settle another game on Sunday, with the San Francisco 49ers prevailing 26-23 at the Cincinnati Bengals.

In a thrilling ending, Brandon Aiyuk hauled in the winning score on a 12-yard pass from Jimmy Garoppolo before staying in bounds and leapfrogging into the endzone.

The Bengals used a 14-0 final quarter to send the game into OT but the playoff-chasing 49ers managed to see off Cincinnati.

Patrick Mahomes said the Kansas City Chiefs were motivated in Sunday's crushing victory after the Las Vegas Raiders "disrespected" their logo pre-game.

The Chiefs showed no mercy in a 48-9 demolition of the visiting Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium, where Mahomes threw two touchdowns to help fuel the rout.

It came after the Raiders gathered on Kansas City's logo before the contest and Chiefs star Mahomes addressed the subject following the team's sixth successive victory.

"You definitely don't want people to come into your stadium and disrespect things that you kind of built,'' said Mahomes.

"It gave us a little more motivation to go out there and win against a really good football team that we have a rivalry against that usually is a tough football game.''

Raiders defensive end Yannick Ngakoue gathered his team-mates for a pre-game speech and Chiefs star Tyrann Mathieu added: "I don't think champions really act in that manner."

Las Vegas linebacker K.J. Wright conceded the Chiefs were right to feel annoyed.

"I would have been upset, too, if I was them," Wright said. "Anybody that comes there and do that? And they definitely came out and responded to their anger and we couldn't hold up.

"It was spur of the moment. One guy said, 'Let's go' and we all got to ride together. We all went out there together. We did it as a team and just gave them a little more motivation than we needed to give them."

For the Raiders, it was more of the same against the Chiefs, having become accustomed to losses in this game. They have won just three of 18 games in the rivalry since Andy Reid was appointed head coach of the Chiefs in 2013.

The Chiefs were also determined to continue their dominance against the Raiders, who took a victory lap around Kansas City's stadium last year, having trumped their rivals for the first time since 2012.

"We didn't want them winning here again," Mahomes said. "We went out there and handled business."

Mahomes completed 20 of 24 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns in the rout – moving him third all-time in the most yards thrown by a Chiefs quarterback.

The former MVP was masterful, ending a two-game run without a TD pass by posting a season-best pass completion rate of 83.3 per cent. He stretched his record run to 20 consecutive regular season wins in QB starts in November or later.

The Kansas City Chiefs are making statement after statement as they power towards the postseason, with a 48-9 trouncing of the Las Vegas Raiders just the latest.

Andy Reid's Chiefs were somewhere near their ruthless best in the NFL on Sunday, winning a sixth straight game to improve to 9-4, Patrick Mahomes completing 20 of 24 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns in the rout.

It moved him third all-time in the most yards thrown by a Chiefs quarterback, above Alex Smith, with a total of 17,794 yards.

Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire rushed for 37 yards and two touchdowns as the Chiefs looked formidable in defense and offense at Arrowhead Stadium.

A fumble on the first play from Josh Jacobs was clinically punished by Mike Hughes as the Chiefs had a dream start, and by half-time they led 35-3.

Curiously, they won and limited their opponents to exactly nine points for a third successive game, after previous successes against the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos.

Tyreek Hill went through 1,000 yards receiving for the season as he took four catches for 76 yards to reach 1,030, for his fourth 1,000-yard season in the NFL.

Mahomes was masterful though, the quarterback ending a two-game run without a TD pass by posting a season-best pass completion rate of 83.3 per cent. He stretched his record run to 20 consecutive regular season wins in QB starts in November or later.

For the Raiders, it was more of the same against the Chiefs, having become accustomed to losses in this game. They have won just three of 18 games in the rivalry since Reid was appointed head coach of the Chiefs in 2013.


JACKSON DOWN, BROWNS BOOSTED

Star quarterback Lamar Jackson was carted out of the Ravens' clash with the Cleveland Browns, and it was a day to forget for Baltimore.

A 24-22 loss means they slipped to 8-5 for the season, while the Browns improved to 7-6, bolstering their Wild Card hopes.

Jackson, doubtful pre-game with an ankle sprain, managed only four of four passes for 17 yards before taking a hit and making way for Tyler Huntley (27 of 38 for 270 yards and one TD).

The Ravens, frontrunners in the AFC North, almost pulled off a stunning comeback against their divisional rivals, having trailed 24-6 at half-time, but it proved just beyond them.

Baker Mayfield went 22-of-32 for 190 yards and two touchdowns for the Browns.

NEWTON WOES PERSIST

Cam Newton has now lost 11 straight games as a Carolina Panthers starter and held himself largely culpable for the latest in that long line.

He also became the first quarterback in NFL history with a rushing touchdown in each of his first four games of a season, but Carolina's 29-21 loss to the Atlanta Falcons was a sickener for the former MVP.

He had 15 completions from 23 passes for 178 yards, splitting QB duties with PJ Walker, as turnovers and failed drives blighted the day for the Panthers.

Newton said: "Pretty much everything they did, we knew was coming. I've got to do a better job of protecting the football. I hold myself to a high standard to do those things and when it doesn't happen it's just inexcusable.

"We had such a great momentum for those drives and they were just drive killers, game killers in essence

"We were driving on both of those turnovers I had. To be optimistic, you see what we're capable of, but we've got to do it for ourselves."

The game is won in the trenches. 

It's an old NFL axiom that has rung true regardless of era, regardless of the changes in philosophy that have defined those eras, and it is one that holds particular weight as the season approaches the business end.

If you can win the battle up front in December and January, chances are you will be in a strong position to challenge to go all the way.

Rarely is one player the difference one either side of the trenches. A superstar edge rusher can be taken out of the game if he does not have support, while an offensive line can still collapse even with a dominant left tackle if it does not have the necessary cohesiveness and continuity.

Yet when two position groups are so dependent on the success of the entire unit, it can make it difficult to decipher who is among the elite when it comes to pressuring the quarterback and protecting him.

That is where the numbers provide that crucial bit of added context. Stats Perform's adjusted win rate does just that, looking at how often a pass rusher or pass protector wins or loses a one-on-one matchup and adjusting that percentage based on their success on stunts.

And there are clear and, in some cases, surprising standouts in that metric through 13 weeks of the NFL season.

Menace in the middle

The identity of the best interior pass rusher in the game has rarely been in dispute and, though he likely will not win Defensive Player of the Year in 2021, Aaron Donald is delivering another year to serve as a reminder of his status as the league's best on that side of the ball.

Donald has the highest stunt-adjusted pass rush win rate of any defender in the league (min. 100 matchups). The Los Angeles Rams star has a win percentage of 64.29, no other defender to meet that matchup threshold even comes close to a win rate of 60 per cent.

Indeed, Donald's closest challenger is Washington defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, his win rate of 50.35 surprising given the former first-round pick has seen much of his assistance taken away through injuries to edge rushers Chase Young and Montez Sweat.

No defensive tackle with 150 snaps on the interior of the defensive line has more quarterback knockdowns (20) than Allen, the quickness, athleticism and power he has at his disposal in part fuelling the resurgence of a defense helping Washington climb back towards the playoffs.

Living on the edge

T.J. Watt leads the NFL in sacks with 16, yet it is the man most likely to rival him for DPOY who leads the way among edge rushers in terms of win rate.

Myles Garrett has won 62 of his 130 one-on-one matchups in 2021, while his stunt-adjusted win percentage of 48.40 is the best for edge players, dominating opposing linemen at a level to suggest he could have even more than 14 sacks.

Indeed, Garrett's 20 adjusted sacks are the most among edge rushers, his adjusted sack rate of 10.7 per cent also leading the way at the position group (min. 100 snaps).

While Garrett's progression to contender for one of the most prestigious individual NFL awards is a natural one for a first overall pick long since viewed as a home run, fewer will have anticipated the kind of dominance Maxx Crosby has produced this season.

Crosby's stunt-adjusted win percentage of 45.03 is second among edge rushers, while no defender in the NFL other than Donald (87) has more one on one wins than Crosby's 82. 

They have come from 185 matchups, but the fact his team-mate Yannick Ngakoue has won only 39 of his 215 matchups illustrates just how quickly Crosby has ascended to an edge rusher superior to many of his more high-profile contemporaries.

Unexpected pressure

When the New York Giants selected Dexter Lawrence with the 17th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, his impact was expected to come predominantly in the run game.

Yet after Donald and Allen, it is he who is the cream of the crop when it comes to interior defensive linemen dominating opposing offensive linemen on pass-rush snaps.

Lawrence, whose career-high for sacks in college came when he had 6.5 as a freshman at Clemson, boasts a stunt-adjusted win rate of 46.26.

Yet his success in pushing the pocket from the interior has not translated into impressive sack production, Lawrence has only 1.5 on the year to go with five quarterback hits.

Residing in the same division, Micah Parsons' sack numbers are more illustrative of his ability to generate pressure.

Parsons playing on the edge occasionally was something most expected when the Cowboys selected him 12th overall this year, yet nobody could have envisaged just how devastating a player Dallas picked to play off-ball linebacker could be in that role.

He has a stunt-adjusted win percentage of 38.32, just below that of former Defensive Rookie of the Year and San Francisco 49ers star edge rusher Nick Bosa (40.31).

That has translated to a 10-sack season for Parsons, who appears destined to end the year joining Bosa among the group of players to have won DROY.

Parsons' season, regardless of when it concludes, will be fondly remembered and marked by accolades, while Lawrence's efforts will likely be quickly forgotten, that contrast reflective of the difference in their roles and the markedly different directions in which their two franchises are headed.

Pass-blocking bullies

Recognition can be tough to come by for offensive linemen, yet it will be a surprise when the dust has settled on the 2021 campaign if these three offensive tackles are not at least able to celebrate a Pro Bowl nod.

The end date of Tom Brady's career is unknown and, after looking close to the finish line in defeat in his final game as a New England Patriot, the injection of life into his career since moving to Tampa Bay has a lot to do with the young blood on the right side of the Buccaneers' offensive line.

Tristan Wirfs, the Bucs' first-round pick in 2020, leads all tackles with at least 100 matchups with an incredible stunt-adjusted win percentage of 95.94. In his second year in the league, he has lost just nine of his 236 one on ones.

Such dominance makes Wirfs' presence integral to the Bucs' hopes of retaining the Lombardi Trophy, and the importance of the man second at his position has rarely been in doubt.

The Cowboys' offensive line was a shambles in 2020 without Tyron Smith, as well as several other missing parts, and he has reaffirmed his value in 2021, losing only nine of 159 matchups for an adjusted win rate of 94.24.

Behind him, Trent Williams (89.91) has been mentioned as an offensive lineman who would be worthy of consideration in a pretty open race for Offensive Player of the Year due to his continued success in pass protection and the monstrous athleticism he demonstrates in blocking for the 49ers' ultra-versatile run game. 

Having traded back with Tampa Bay to allow the Bucs to select Wirfs in the same draft in which they traded with Washington to acquire Williams, there may be some regret in the Niners' front office about that first deal. Hindsight is 20-20, yet with their current issues on the right side of the O-Line, it is hard not to think about just how impressive a front featuring both Wirfs and Williams could have been.

Interior excellence

Joel Bitonio doesn't quite meet the 100-matchup threshold, but an exception should be made in this instance given the exceptional play he is again producing for the Cleveland Browns in providing interior pass protection.

The three-time Pro Bowl guard has lost nine of his 99 matchups, his stunt-adjusted win percentage an outstanding 92.13 per cent. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield may be banged up, but that is hardly the fault of a player who continues to set the standard for protection among interior offensive linemen.

Zack Martin has long since met that standard and the Cowboys' right guard is back to his best after an injury curtailed 2020, boasting an adjusted win rate of 88.78 and losing only 13 of his 100 one on ones.

With Martin and Smith playing at an All-Pro level again, it is no surprise Dak Prescott is enjoying a Comeback Player of the Year season.

Struggles on the offensive line have damaged Lamar Jackson's MVP hopes, but the Baltimore Ravens' star can have no complaints about the protection he has received from guard Kevin Zeitler.

While the play of those around him has declined, Zeitler remains the picture of consistency with an adjusted win percentage of 88.60. In a season where so much about the Ravens has been difficult to trust, Zeitler has offered a much-needed reliable presence in the middle.

Rising to the challenge

Not helped by Wirfs' efficient acclimation to life at the highest level, the rookie returns from 2020 fourth overall pick Andrew Thomas appeared disappointing.

But the Giants' left tackle's progression this season serves as further proof that development is not always linear and can vary greatly from player to player.

This season, he is performing at the standard the Giants anticipated when they made him the first offensive lineman off the board. He has lost 14 of 130 one on ones and boats an adjusted win percentage of 88.64.

New York's patience with Thomas is being rewarded but the Los Angeles Chargers haven't had to wait long for Rashawn Slater to justify his first-round status.

Slater has produced a season worthy of putting him in the mix to be the first lineman to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Whether his efforts in protecting Justin Herbert translate into actual votes remains to be seen, however, no lineman in the NFL has faced more one on ones than Slater's 257, and he has lost only 30 of them.

With a stunt-adjusted win percentage of 88.47, Slater has compiled an outstanding OROY resume, his case furthered by him doing so after a year away from the game in 2020.

Early-career success completely evaded Ereck Flowers, yet he looks to have found a home as the left guard for Washington.

The former Giant is in his second spell with Washington and is proving a pivotal part of a playoff push, coming off worst in just 17 of his 134 one on ones and posting an adjusted win rate of 87.59.

His success is enabling Taylor Heinicke to keep defying the odds at quarterback and put Washington in position for a Wild Card berth.

Slater has settled quickly while Flowers bounced around and took significant time to find his footing. But, at very different points of their careers, both could be rewarded for excellent campaigns with postseason football.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers activated star cornerback Richard Sherman off injured reserve ahead of Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills.

Sherman had missed three games after sustaining a calf injury in warm-ups prior to the Week 10 NFL clash with the Washington Football Team.

The Super Bowl champion, who joined the Bucs in Week 4, featured in three games before suffering a hamstring injury at the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 6.

But five-time Pro Bowler and three-time First-Team All-Pro Sherman – with 11 tackles and a fumble recovery to his name in Tampa – is set to return when Super Bowl champions the Buccaneers face the Bills (7-5).

The Buccaneers were 11-5 last season and they are 9-3 with five games left this term. This will be the first time Tampa Bay finish with a winning record in each of two consecutive seasons since 2007 (9-7) and 2008 (9-7), per Stats Perform.

Sunday's game will feature two of the four quarterbacks with more than 60 touchdown passes over the last two seasons in Bucs superstar Tom Brady (74) and Bills QB Josh Allen (63). The only other QBs with more than 60 passing touchdowns over that span are Green Bay Packers signal-caller Aaron Rodgers (71) and Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs (63).

Brady has a 32-3 record in his 35 career starts against the Bills. His 32 wins over Buffalo are the most in NFL history against one team by a starting quarterback.

The seven-time Super Bowl champion's 91.4 career winning percentage versus the Bills is the highest in NFL history by a starting QB against one team (minimum: 20 starts).

Rob Gronkowski caught two touchdown passes in the Bucs' victory over the Atlanta Falcons last week.

It was Gronkowski's third game with two TD catches this season and the 20th game with at least two TD receptions in his NFL career, the most among active players.

There is a new leader in the AFC after the New England Patriots' remarkable victory over the Buffalo Bills on Monday, stretching their winning streak to seven games.

But after battling the elements as well as the Bills in Buffalo, Bill Belichick's Pats have a bye in Week 14.

That allows others the opportunity to recover ground – including the Bills, who face New England great Tom Brady on Sunday. It is not a meeting they have enjoyed previously, as Stats Perform explores.

Buffalo Bills (7-5) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-3)

Just like Belichick, Brady has enjoyed taking on the Bills – and he had plenty of opportunities to do so with the Pats in the AFC East.

Brady is 32-3 against Buffalo in his 35 career starts, with no starting quarterback in NFL history recording more wins against a single team. His .914 winning percentage in these games represents the highest by a starting QB against one team (minimum 20 starts).

Aged 44, Brady remains one of the best passers around, with a league-leading 74 TD passes over the past two seasons.

Bills QB Josh Allen is joint-third on that list (63 TDs), and Buffalo need his offense to fire, making the most of the platform afforded to him by the defense. After the 14-10 loss to the Pats, the Bills became the first team this season to lose two games in which they allowed 14 points or fewer (also 9-6 at Jacksonville).

Las Vegas Raiders (6-6) @ Kansas City Chiefs (8-4)

The Chiefs are one of three 8-4 AFC teams close behind the 9-4 Pats and will back themselves to tie that record in a matchup they have dominated.

Since 2013, when Andy Reid was appointed head coach, the Chiefs are 14-3 against the Raiders, with only New England against the New York Jets (16 wins) and the Seattle Seahawks against the San Francisco 49ers (15) beating a divisional opponent on more occasions in that span.

This is a time of year in which Patrick Mahomes tends to excel, now on a record run of 19 consecutive regular season wins in QB starts in November or later, but Kansas City's turnaround on defense has been key to their recent improvement.

The Chiefs head into this game having become the first team in NFL history to have a five-game streak allowing 25 or more points and a five-game streak allowing fewer than 20 points in the same season, with the latter sequence ongoing.

Baltimore Ravens (8-4) @ Cleveland Browns (6-6)

Another 8-4 AFC rival, along with the Tennessee Titans, the Ravens again face the Browns in the tightly contested AFC North.

Cleveland's previous game – before their Week 13 bye – was in Baltimore, making them the first team since 1991 to play the same team in back-to-back regular season games, although the Browns beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 17 last year before beating them again the following week in the playoffs.

The Ravens won 16-10 in Week 12 as Browns QB Baker Mayfield completed just 48.6 per cent of his passes, meaning he now has a 2-6 career record when completing no more than half of his pass attempts.

Lamar Jackson was far from convincing in that game, tossing four interceptions, but he had his sixth career game with at least 250 passing yards and 50 rushing yards against the Steelers last week – five of those coming in 2021. The Pittsburgh game was his second loss from those six.

Elsewhere...

The Washington Football Team believe again after four straight wins to move into a playoff place at 6-6, aiming to become only the third team to start 2-6 and make the postseason. One of the previous two examples was Washington last year, who won both games against the Dallas Cowboys, teeing up a potential three-game winning streak against this week's opponents – just their third ever.

Aaron Rodgers has claimed he "owns" the Chicago Bears, and the numbers show exactly what the Green Bay Packers QB means. He is 21-5 in the regular season and 1-0 in the postseason against the Bears, who will fear this week's matchup.

The Cincinnati Bengals have painful memories of playing the 49ers, having lost 12 of 16 games against San Francisco, including two Super Bowls. Joe Burrow will hope to get back on track in the latest meeting, however, having led the league with 14 picks to this point. Boomer Esiason, with 22 in 1990, was the only previous Bengals QB to lead the league outright in interceptions.

Mike Tomlin hinted at changes after the Pittsburgh Steelers failed to recover from an awful first half in their 36-28 Thursday Night Football defeat to the Minnesota Vikings.

The Steelers fell to 6-6-1 in Minneapolis, just unable to rally after going scoreless through two quarters and trailing 29-0 in the third.

There had been 1,616 previous occasions of a team falling behind by 29 points or more in the NFL, but Pittsburgh became the first of those to then have the chance to win the game.

Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers back down the field on the final drive but ran out of time at the Vikings' 12-yard line.

Head coach Tomlin appeared to initiate the improvement with some ruthless calls, benching receiver Chase Claypool and inside linebacker Joe Schobert.

And he warned more changes could follow after the Vikings were allowed 176 rushing yards in the first half – a season high for any team before halftime.

Only twice since 1991 – 182 for the Oakland Raiders in 2013 and 179 for the Baltimore Ravens in 2020 – have the Steelers given up more rushing yards in the first two quarters of a game.

Criticism was not reserved for the defensive line alone, though, as Roethlisberger was sacked four times before halftime.

"We were 'JV' again tonight, and I'm talking up front on both sides," Tomlin said. "We've got to be better than we were. We'll turn over every stone to do that.

"We've got a long week coming up between this and our next one. We'll make good use of that time and assess not only what we're doing, but who we're doing it with."

He added: "I'd be remiss – I'd be doing that group a disservice – if I didn't look at all options."

Outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who leads the league with 16.0 sacks, sustained a groin injury in the second quarter, while Alex Highsmith went down with a knee complaint.

But the Steelers afforded themselves no excuses, as defensive end Cameron Heyward said: "The first half was horrendous.

"Guys weren't filling. We weren't getting off blocks. We weren't tackling. You name it – we did it wrong."

Dalvin Cook, just back from a torn labrum and dislocated shoulder, was the man to profit, with 205 rushing yards – one shy of his career high – and two touchdowns.

Both his scores came in that first half – only the second time Cook has had two rushing TDs heading into halftime – along with 153 yards. This was just Cook's second 100-yard first half.

"I'm just happy to be back, happy we got the win," he said. "My coaches know once I tell them I'm good, I'm good.

"There ain't no holding me back, just turn me loose. I just appreciate them for believing in me and just trusting in who I am."

Former Denver Broncos wide receiver and Super Bowl 50 champion Demaryius Thomas has died, aged 33.

Roswell Police Department confirmed to the NFL that Thomas was found deceased in his home on Thursday, with preliminary information suggesting his death stemmed from a medical issue.

In a short statement on its Twitter page, the league said: "The NFL family mourns the tragic loss of Demaryius Thomas and we extend our deepest condolences to his family and loved ones."

Thomas, who officially announced his retirement in June, having last played for the New York Jets in the 2019 season, spent eight and a half of his 10 years in the league with the Broncos.

Among tributes to the four-time Pro Bowler, a Broncos statement read: "We are devastated and completely heartbroken by the sudden, tragic passing of Demaryius Thomas. D.T. was beloved by our entire organisation, his team-mates and coaches, and our fans.

"Recently retiring as a Bronco, we were very much looking forward to celebrating Demaryius for years to come as one of the greatest players in franchise history."

The team added: "Demaryius' humility, warmth, kindness and infectious smile will always be remembered by those who knew him and loved him.

"We have lost an incredible player and a special person in Demaryius Thomas. Our hearts and deepest sympathies go out to the Thomas family and all who are grieving this unimaginable loss."

A first-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Thomas dealt with injuries in his first two seasons with the Broncos but was a starter in Denver thereafter.

In the 2013 season, in which quarterback Peyton Manning broke the single-season record for passing yards (5,477) and passing touchdowns (55), Thomas was the team's foremost offensive weapon (142 targets).

The receiver ranked fourth in the league for receiving yards (1,430) and second for receiving scores (14).

That season ended with a Thomas TD in a Super Bowl defeat to the Seattle Seahawks, but he and the Broncos returned to the title game two years later, winning the championship to end Manning's legendary career.

At the time of Thomas' retirement earlier this year, Manning said: "It was an honour and a privilege to play with you, to be your team-mate.

"I always had great respect for your toughness, your work ethic, your fearlessness across the middle, your ability to make big catches in big games.

"I never played with anybody as big and strong and powerful and as fast as you."

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