Week 14 of the NFL season is here, bringing highs, lows, and everything in between. And each Sunday, throughout the day, the Ringer staff will be celebrating the insane plays, admonishing the colossal blunders, and explaining the inexplicable moments of the NFL season. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Winner: The Playoff Race
Rodger Sherman: Guys, there’s an actual exciting football thing happening this year. I know, I know, we’ve heard so many times how the NFL is self-destructing with bad ratings and bad games and 30,000 other things. But with three weeks left in the regular season, it looks like we’re headed for a weird and wonderful finale.
In the NFC, we have five teams within one game of the final wild-card spot, and all five of them won Sunday. These are interesting teams! The Falcons score and allow thousands of points per game. (Though Sunday, they only gave up points to the lifeless Rams in garbage time.) The Bucs haven’t been good in a few eons, but now Jameis Winston really seems like he was worth that no. 1 pick. Washington’s an adventure, since Kirk Cousins can throw a touchdown or a pick-six on pretty much every play. The Packers are dangerous if Aaron Rodgers plays well — and he played pretty damn well Sunday against the Seahawks. I, um, well, I guess I don’t have anything nice to say about the Vikings right now, but I like purple uniforms. And if the Giants lose Sunday night, they’ll be 8–5, and we’ll have six teams in this mix.
In the AFC, things are just as tight. Wins by the Texans, Dolphins, Titans, and Steelers coupled with a loss by the Broncos mean we have six teams between 8–5 and 7–6, with two division titles and two wild-card spots at stake. We’re going to see Antonio Brown and Von Miller balling out and shaking their pelvises with playoff berths up for grabs. We get to find out if Joe Flacco is elite. We get to see Marcus Mariota arguing that no, he was worth that no. 1 pick. We get to make fun of Brock Osweiler’s contract while he tries to get his team into the playoffs. And, I, um, well, I guess I don’t have anything nice to say about the Dolphins right now, and I don’t really like their uniforms either.
After a season defined by mediocrity, it looks like we might be able to avoid a .500 team in the playoffs. There’s potential drama, and the contestants are playing their best football of the year. (Vikings excepted.) This is good. Football is good, even if we’ve been told 30,000 reasons it isn’t.
Winner: The Exceptionally Weird Giants
Sherman: Are the New York Giants good? They’re 9–4 and beat Dallas 10–7 Sunday night, but I have no idea.
On the one hand, they just beat the best team in football again. The Cowboys’ year so far is an 11-game win streak bookended by two losses to New York. The Giants defense seemed omnipresent. Swarms of players overwhelmed Dallas’s mythical offensive line at times, and rookie QB Dak Prescott doubled his career interception total. Odell Beckham Jr. made those old arcade games where you could use a turbo button seem realistic. He turned a simple slant that could have been a gain of 8 into a 61-yard TD, the game’s decisive score. The Cowboys are the NFL’s biggest problem, and the Giants are apparently the only team capable of solving it.
On the other hand, the Giants seem inept in so many ways. Outside of Beckham’s moment of magic, they were hapless offensively. And no other player on the team really had any role in Beckham’s big play. Sunday night, Eli Manning had three turnovers and could have had more. He forgot how to hold onto the football once and made another throw where the Cowboy who intercepted it was the only player on the screen. Eli is the League’s Benjamin Button. He’s now a few years from retirement and a few more from enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, but with each game, I become more convinced he has never held a football before.
The Giants have nine wins, eight by a single score and one against the Browns. They’re 9–4, they could be 6–7, there’s a universe in which they’re 1–12. They are, perhaps, the league’s most baffling team — capable of doing the most brilliant things and still making us question their ability to execute the most basic aspects of the sport.
They’re so confusing, it’s practically guaranteed that they’ll be the ones to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Loser: The Art of Quarterbacking
Danny Kelly: The NFL is a quarterback’s league. Quarterbacks have established themselves as the most important and most handsomely paid position group, and they’re passing for more yards and more touchdowns than ever before. But while inclement weather was a factor, quarterbacks had a bad early-game Sunday slate. Very bad.
Ben Roethlisberger threw a pair of picks in the first half in snowy Buffalo, then added another in the second half. Tyrod Taylor got in on the action, tossing a pass directly to Pittsburgh corner Artie Burns. Carson Wentz threw a bad pick in the end zone. Both Brock Osweiler and Andrew Luck threw first-half interceptions in Indy. On the Colts’ first second-half possession, Luck added another on a throw back toward the middle of the field he made while running to his left. Philip Rivers threw up a prayer in Carolina and was deservedly picked off. Robert Griffin III, making his first start since Week 1, also coughed the ball up … on a flea-flicker … from the end zone.
Kirk Cousins threw an ill-advised pass from deep in his own end that was picked and returned for a touchdown. Matt Stafford must have felt left out: He threw two second-half picks against the Bears, including this terrible throw — nearly identical to Cousins’s — that Cre’Von LeBlanc returned for six.
And, in rainy Miami, Carson Palmer threw two ugly interceptions in the first half and Ryan Tannehill added one of his own. Tannehill also did this, which wasn’t an interception but was probably worse:
Loser: The Seattle Seahawks
Sherman: The Seahawks have been good for a while. Sunday, they were excessively bad. Russell Wilson threw a career-high five picks, though some were the fault of his receivers. A week after Earl Thomas broke his leg against the Panthers, the vaunted Seahawks defense watched Aaron Rodgers pass all over them, letting him go 18-for-23 with three touchdowns, good for the highest passer rating any QB has ever had against Pete Carroll’s Seahawks. The 38–10 beatdown was the Seahawks’ first loss by more than 10 points since October 30, 2011, when Tarvaris Jackson was Seattle’s starter and Leon Washington led the team in rushing.
We’re supposed to consider the Seahawks a title contender because they’re the Seahawks, but this season hasn’t been the same. Wilson has looked iffy at times, the offensive line is a sieve, and the defense lacks some of the boom it used to have. Sunday, all of those things showed up on the same afternoon.
The Seahawks have won enough games to basically ensure themselves a playoff spot at this point, especially since their competition in the NFC West is made up of the surprisingly sucky Cardinals, an offensively inept Rams team that’s awful even by Jeff Fisher’s standards, and the 49ers’ death rattle echoing through an empty billion-dollar stadium. But seeing the team fire on zero cylinders Sunday makes it seem as if these Seahawks aren’t as potent as the title contenders of years past.
Winner: Le’Veon Bell Fantasy Owners
Donnie Kwak: The Bills hadn’t allowed more than 82 yards to a rusher in six weeks. Then came Bell. The Steelers RB ran 38 times for 236 yards and three touchdowns in Pittsburgh’s 27–20 win, and added four catches for 62 yards — nearly 50 points in non-PPR leagues, the highest single-game fantasy performance thus far this season. It was Bell’s first career three-rushing-TD game. Afterward, he said he loved playing in the Buffalo snow, which reminded him of playing as a kid on Christmas Day. The forecast doesn’t look great for Pittsburgh’s next game, in Cincinnati. Bengals beware.
Loser: Whoever Played Against Le’Veon Bell in Fantasy
Sherman: In the real world, “Week 14” is just another NFL week. In the fantasy world, it means everything. Either this was the pivotal week that decided who gets into the playoffs in your league, or this was the first week of those playoffs.
And it just so happens that this week saw the best fantasy performance of the year. On a day when Ben Roethlisberger threw three interceptions in snowy Buffalo, Le’Veon Bell was Pittsburgh’s only option. He had 236 yards rushing, the most any player has had this season, plus all three of Pittsburgh’s touchdowns, tied for the most any player has had this season. Throw in 62 receiving yards and that’s a grand total of 47.8 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues, and more than 50 in PPR ones. The previous high for the year in standard-scoring leagues was 38.9.
First, I’d like to talk to people who won this week because of this. Congrats. Your friends probably laughed at you for wasting a pick on a guy who was suspended for the first three games of the year, but those first three games didn’t matter. You knew that when you needed him most, Le’Veon would answer the Bell. He proved you right.
Now, I’d like to talk to the people who lost this week because of this. Fantasy football is so stupid. Your first-round pick was probably just as smart of a decision as drafting Le’Veon Bell. You are not less knowledgeable about football than your friend because it turns out Bell is the Abominable Snowman. I couldn’t have predicted that. Your friend couldn’t have predicted that. Le’Veon Bell couldn’t have predicted that, and he knows that he was born with snow treads instead of feet due to a freak genetic mutation.
This isn’t your fault. But you did get your ass absolutely kicked. And while the world will eventually forget who won and lost real NFL games this week, your friend will never let you forget about Le’Veon Bell.
Loser: Josh Huff
Michael Baumann: In a test case for the Law of “If RedZone Shows You a Special Teams Play, You Know It’s Going to Be Good,” Tampa Bay kick returner Josh Huff shuffled in front of a rolling football near his own goal line, intending to pick it up and run with it rather than take a certain touchback.
But because footballs are shaped weirdly, this one bounced up at the last second, hit Huff in the face, and rolled in a straight line about 25 feet before going out of bounds inches from the goal line. The Bucs had to start their next drive on the half-yard line and Doug Martin immediately got swarmed in the end zone for a safety.
World-class, professional athletes failing to complete simple tasks is funny. People getting hit in the face is funny. But the bounces that ball took — first to hit Huff in the face, then to roll out of bounds short of the end zone — represent a truly incredible confluence of events. I bet if you lined up two world-class soccer players — one to kick the ball, one to head it out of bounds at the 1-yard line — they wouldn’t be able to replicate that play in 1,000 tries.
And then consider that this was Huff’s first play in a Buccaneers uniform. The Bucs just promoted Huff — whom the Eagles cut last month after he racked up a litany of legal issues related to a DUI stop on the Walt Whitman Bridge — from the practice squad. That kickoff was the first time he touched the ball, and he couldn’t even get his hands on it. The Bucs would win 16–11. But between the safety and the ensuing Saints field goal drive, Huff cost Tampa Bay five points before he even got his hands on a football.
Winner: Matt Barkley’s NFL Career
Kevin Clark: Teams are judged on a sliding scale. If the Patriots can’t put away a bad team until the fourth quarter, they’ll get ripped. For the Bears, anything above “absolute trash performance” is a rousing success, and we saw that on Sunday. The “star” (remember, sliding scale) was Barkley, who was downright decent despite the Bears’ 20–17 loss to the Detroit Lions. Barkley came very close to actually winning or tying the game, but was ultimately undone by a comically inept offensive line which canceled out two Barkley darts with holding penalties. On the day, Barkley was 20-of-32 for 212 yards and a touchdown. And he made some pretty good throws:
Barkley was considered a last resort for the Bears, but he’s making the case that he should at least be in the conversation for a competition, in Chicago or otherwise. He is a restricted free agent after this season. After flaming out in Philadelphia and Arizona, it seemed like Barkley was working his way out of the league. Now? He’s not a total disaster — and in Chicago that’s good enough.
Loser: Robert Griffin III
Sherman: RG3 hurt his shoulder in Week 1, and some thought he could miss the entire season. But he worked and rehabbed and worked and rehabbed and eventually fought his way back to join the team in December …
… Only to find the Browns were 0–12, the fans were gone, Ohio was frozen, and nobody cared whether the team won or lost. In fact, I’d bet some people would be fine with the Browns losing out to ensure they get the no. 1 pick.
Just look at this:
There are so many reasons not to run a flea-flicker from your own 1-yard line. It’s such a boom-or-bust play — it could end in a touchdown, but it is more likely to result in an enormous sack or an interception. And if one of those second two things happen, you’re giving up a safety or an extremely short field.
But when you’re 0–12 — as the Browns were entering Sunday’s 23–10 loss to the Bengals — nobody cares. Run the world’s dumbest play. Throw the ball into triple coverage. Man, just do whatever you feel like. Take a nap on the field. Get drunk in the instant-replay booth.
There is no point, which is why if I was RG3, I would have just told everybody I was hurt. There’s no use working hard and risking reinjury if the football is as pointless as this.
Winner: Bryce Petty
Baumann: The Jets have found their quarterback of the fut — [falls out of chair laughing with tears streaming down cheeks] — oh, God, I was so close to getting that whole sentence out with a straight face.
But think of it this way: Petty showed a lot of perseverance. His first pass of the game was picked off, the Jets fell behind 14–0 in the first four minutes of the game, and Carlos Hyde ran for 141 first-half yards against a defense that not only looked like it didn’t want to be there, but moved like it was wading through a vat of corn syrup. Which is understandable — being stuck in a vat of corn syrup sounds unpleasant.
And what a vat of corn syrup it was. Shots of all the empty seats at Levi’s Stadium circulated not in service of attendance-shaming, but in awe of the survival instincts of 49ers fans, who knew they would be better off just not showing up. Because if they had, they would have been force-fed the bland, viscous, lukewarm mush that only two bad NFL teams can provide. Then, when the clock finally reached zero, their tormentors would’ve shoved the funnel back in, cackled, “Overtime, suckers!” and started pouring again.
But full credit to Petty, who managed to throw 34 passes after the interception without turning the ball over (which is harder than it looks — just ask Russell Wilson), a couple of which rookie Robby Anderson snagged for big gains. Petty also ably handed the ball off to Bilal Powell 29 times, including on the game-winning touchdown. It was a perfectly mediocre quarterbacking performance, which will come as a pleasant surprise to however many Jets fans haven’t suffered some sort of apoplexy over the team wrecking its draft position with the 23–17 victory.
Loser: Harry Douglas
Clark: Almost every football hit leaves room for debate. Every face mask and helmet-to-helmet knock can usually be, if you want to be generous, explained away as being the product of an ultrafast game and the heat of the moment. Then, rarely, there are hits like this, when everyone agrees you are acting like an asshole:
Winner: Pierre Garçon
Kwak: Both of Washington’s starting wideouts are pending free agents this offseason, and it is DeSean Jackson who is getting most of the sports-talk angst, especially with a rumor this week that he may return to Philly. Sunday, as is his wont against his former team, Jackson had a flashy day — three catches for 102 yards, including an 80-yard bomb from Kirk Cousins in the third quarter of Washington’s 27–22 win.
However, it is Garçon who the Redskins may miss more. Garçon had a typically workmanlike stat line — five catches for 59 yards and a score — but it was his 6-yard grab on fourth-and-1 with 2:59 left that kept the Redskins alive, both in this must-win game and in the NFC playoff race. Garçon may not have the breakneck speed or the highlight-reel plays, but his clutchness makes him Washington’s real no. 1 receiver.
Loser: The Denver Broncos, Playoff Team
Clark: The Broncos should not have lost footing in the AFC playoff race on Sunday. They played a Tennessee team barely interested in scoring. Marcus Mariota had 88 yards through the air. Trevor Siemian had 334. A 13–10 slugfest is the type of game the Broncos dream of. And yet, they screwed it up. Two fumbles, a lack of a coherent run game, and overall inept execution led to a bizarre loss that was made worse by what happened in Miami. The Dolphins lost Ryan Tannehill for the game (at the very least) against Arizona and looked cooked — but backup Matt Moore led the game-winning drive to give the Dolphins a crucial win in the AFC playoff picture. The Broncos now have an uphill battle to make the playoffs. And this is not because the AFC is particularly good. Heavens, no. It’s because the Broncos haven’t been executing the formula that got them into the playoff hunt to begin with: a defense that will keep scores low, and an offense that needs to make some scoring plays. The latter hasn’t happened enough lately. The Broncos have the Patriots next. Good luck.
Winner: The Titans’ Balance
Kelly: Marcus Mariota has put together an excellent season for Tennessee — his efficiency in the red zone, his versatility as a runner, and his ability to run the Titans’ pro-style, play-action-heavy offense under Mike Mularkey has been a big reason they’re contending for the playoffs in the AFC South — but on a day when he didn’t look his best, Tennessee’s physical run game and suffocating defense picked up the slack. Mariota completed just six passes for 88 yards against a swarming, aggressive Broncos pass defense, so the Titans leaned heavily on DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry to move the football.
Tennessee ran the ball 42 times for 180 yards and a touchdown — Murray contributed 92 yards and a touchdown on 21 totes, and Henry added 42 yards on 12 carries — and the Titans’ bend-but-don’t-break defensive strategy worked against Trevor Siemian, who passed for 334 yards but found the end zone just once. Meanwhile, Denver’s run game was nonexistent; the Broncos carried the ball nine times for just 18 yards.
For the Titans, it was the definition of a team win, and they proved that they have a multitude of ways to beat you, whether it’s Mariota’s arm, their exotic smashmouth run game, or their stout defense. Tennessee moves to 7–6 to keep pace with the Texans in the AFC South, who beat the Colts on Sunday.
Winner: Long Snapper Awareness
Sherman: Long snappers have a job that’s very different from anybody else’s, and they get injured so rarely that no other players really practice the position. When one does get hurt, it can be disastrous. Emergency long snappers have cost teams games in recent years. The Steelers lost after James Harrison snapped a safety in 2008, and the Raiders lost in 2012 when a second-year linebacker messed up two punt snaps, causing the jittery punter to foul up a third.
So the Eagles were in bad shape Sunday when snapper — AND MAGICIAN!!! — Jon Dorenbos got hurt. Tight end Brent Celek tried snapping, and, well:
His snap wasn’t accurate and it knuckled, preventing holder Donnie Jones from getting it down for Caleb Sturgis’s kick. Instead of scoring three points, Philadelphia gave Washington a short field, which the Redskins used to score a touchdown.
And then Celek got hurt! The Eagles did not have a backup backup plan. LB Mychal Kendricks and TE Trey Burton quickly auditioned for the job of third-string long snapper, with Burton eventually winning. His attempt at snapping wasn’t great, but it was good enough to let Jones get a hold down.
The Eagles eventually found themselves trailing 27–22 in the game’s closing minutes, and got all the way down to the Washington 14. If it hadn’t been for Celek’s bad snap, the game might have been 27–25, and the Eagles might have been able to attempt a game-winning field goal. Instead, they needed to try for a touchdown, and Carson Wentz got strip-sacked.
You might not know your team’s long snapper’s name. But just hope he doesn’t get hurt.