Week 15 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?
Loser: The Cardinals’ Record Book
Michael Baumann: The cool thing about David Johnson is that while he’s fast and strong and all that other stuff, he also has an ability to slip through tackles like a greased pig through the arms of a flummoxed high school vice principal. Johnson’s eluded so many would-be tacklers this year that on the course of one drive in the fourth quarter of Arizona’s 48–41 loss to New Orleans, he set or tied three discrete league and franchise records.
First, Johnson broke the Cardinals’ single-season record for yards from scrimmage, which now stands at (stares vacantly at the counter from the PBS pledge drive) 1,938. Then he became the first player in NFL history to rush for 100 yards in each of his team’s first 14 games of a season. And finally, Johnson squirmed through the Saints’ defensive line for his 17th touchdown of the year to tie a Cardinals franchise record.
Three records in one drive — that’s as many records as Nirvana had in their entire existence. If Johnson’s going to keep breaking records like this, he’s going to have to change his name to Disco Demolition Night. Johnson’s shredding records like he wants a job in the Nixon White House. You get the idea.
Winner: The Packers As Playoff Sleepers
Kevin Clark: Two things are simultaneously true about the Packers: They are among the most dangerous teams in football, and they can be sort of bad for long stretches of games. On Sunday against the Bears, we saw both. They let the previously 3–10 Bears crawl back into a game, tie it up with less than a minute left, and nearly force overtime.
Then this happened:
Yup, that’s the Packers. The pass traveled 60 yards in the air, which, according to the NFL’s data, is the second-longest pass Rodgers has thrown in the last two years.
Green Bay’s playoff scenario is still clear: win out, beat the Lions in Week 17, finish 10–6, and become the most dangerous sleeper in the playoffs. That possibility is bolstered by the emergence of a viable run game. Ty Montgomery’s 162 yards in the Packers’ 30–27 win are the most by a Packers back on the road in 13 years. This is particularly impressive since Montgomery, still wearing no. 88, was a full-time wide receiver until earlier this season. These Packers are not a particularly great team, but in a weird year for the NFL, the strength of Rodgers, a revived run game, and a not-totally-awful defense may be enough to win a few playoff games.
Winner: The Glendale Home for Elderly Quarterbacks
Sam Schube: The Saints’ 48–41 victory over the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon in Arizona was a specific kind of barn burner: the type of game that didn’t really exist until QBs Carson Palmer and Drew Brees entered the league as part of a generation that learned to love airing it the hell out. Brees chucked the ball 48 times, Palmer 40, but both managed roughly 8 yards per attempt. The game was a throwback to, I don’t know, 2008 — a time of spread offenses and go routes. And it was great. The flip side: For all their deep-ball completions, neither quarterback is likely to make the playoffs. The torch may have been passed — but no one told Palmer or Brees.
Winner: Warm Tom Brady
Baumann: Brady’s going to have better days than 16-for-32 for 188 yards and no touchdowns. But on a day when the Broncos coughed up the ball three times and scored only three points, Brady kept the ball under control, targeting Julian Edelman and his running backs 24 times in a 16–3 victory. One big reason for that win: Von Miller and His Flying Circus hit Brady only five times, down from a league-high 20 hits in last year’s AFC championship game.
It probably helps that Brady’s got nothing to prove. I don’t just mean in the sense that he’s going to the Hall of Fame no matter what, but that Brady actually dressed appropriately for a game that kicked off with temperatures below freezing, then kept going through sundown. Most of the players wore short sleeves to show how tough they are; Brady, who’s old as hell and therefore knows better, wore long sleeves, a turtleneck, a glove on his non-throwing hand, and, I presume, six layers of long underwear. The only parts of Brady exposed to the elements were the parts he needed to see, breathe, talk, and hold a football. The man knows looking tough is less important than staying warm.
Consider Broncos receiver Jordan Norwood, who lost two fumbles. Norwood wore short sleeves, and at 5-foot-11, 171 pounds, he isn’t some mobile coal-fired power station like Vince Wilfork — he had to be freezing. Maybe it isn’t strictly accurate that Norwood fumbled because he was dying slowly of hypothermia, but the bare arms couldn’t have helped.
Brady, meanwhile, stayed warm, took care of the football, and escaped with a win, relatively little physical punishment, and enough feeling in his toes to run right back into the locker room. On a cold night in Denver, that’s a big deal.
Requisite Odell Beckham Jr. Highlight of the Week
Loser: Andy Reid’s Mind Games
Rodger Sherman: The Chiefs started Sunday in the driver’s seat for the AFC West title and in contention for a first-round bye in the playoffs. They ended Sunday with a 19–17 loss and a decidedly less rosy outlook — the Raiders’ win over the Chargers dropped them to a game back in the division. And it was thanks in large part to a coaching decision by Andy Reid. He called timeout with five seconds left in an attempt to ice Titans kicker Ryan Succop as he attempted a 53-yard game-winning field goal. It didn’t work: The timeout wiped out a miss by Succop and allowed him another shot — which he hit.
There aren’t that many ways that a dude on the sidelines can single-handedly change a win to a loss, but Reid pulled it off.
Basically any analysis of the evidence shows that icing has a negligible effect on kickers. The philosophy behind it is that the extra time might cause a kicker to overthink things. But when kickers miss, it’s most often the result of a mechanical breakdown, not nerves. And the chance of a mechanical breakdown happening on a kick after a timeout is about as good as their chance of one on a regular kick.
But coaches will continue to ice kickers. It has the potential to swing games and make the coach look like a sly master of minds in the process. But just as often, we’ll get a Reid scenario, where a coach individually causes his team to lose. His perfectly random decision cost his team a very important game that they could have won — and would have won — if not for his interruption.
Loser: Brock Osweiler
Baumann: I grew up outside of Philadelphia — which is Greek for “bench the starting quarterback right now” — and moved to Houston a couple of years ago. I’d never felt truly at home until today, when I heard the noise for which the phrase “booed lustily” was invented for coming from the NRG. Brock Osweiler discovered that getting roasted by J.J. Watt in a commercial for a company founded by a guy named Butt was not, in fact, rock bottom.
With the Texans down 13–0 to a Jaguars club that entered the game 2–11 and could not block Jadeveon Clowney or move the football except through penalties and turnovers, Bill O’Brien went to the bullpen.
“Savage” is also the word I’d choose to describe the crowd, which got so loud that Lamar Miller had to call for quiet before the former Rutgers quarterback’s first play. Savage immediately endeared himself to the multitudes by leading drives on his first three possessions that resulted in a turnover on downs (on fourth-and-goal!), a field goal, and another field goal. By Osweiler’s standards, Savage looks like 1999 Kurt Warner. He went on to throw for 260 yards in relief — better than all but two of Osweiler’s performances this year — en route to a comeback from 12 points down in the second half, allowing the Texans to preserve a share of first place in the AFC South with a 21–20 win.
It was a rough day for Osweiler. He has one of those faces that can’t express sadness without evoking pity. Judging by the despondency with which he dropped to his knees after the second interception, the best decision Osweiler made was keeping his helmet on after he was benched and denying the TV audience full view of Sad Brock Face, a tearjerker in the vein of The Fault in Our Stars.
Loser: A World Without Gus Bradley As a Head Coach
Clark: The final weeks of the Gus Bradley era in Jacksonville were a joy to watch. Last week, the Jaguars were called for a historically rare delay of game penalty on a kickoff. Then we learned that Bill Belichick could go winless for 41 straight seasons and still have a better winning percentage than Bradley. It was all so exciting.
In Sunday’s loss, the Jaguars outdid themselves. First, this happened to punter Brad Nortman. It was bad.
Next, flags flew all over the place. It had to be a penalty on the Texans, right? No. Somehow, the Jaguars were called for holding the Texans and the play resulted in a safety. I’m amazed that the Jaguars’ punter could get clobbered even though a lineman drew a holding call on the play. But more than anything, I am impressed by Bradley’s ability to find new ways for the Jaguars to be bad every week.
Sometimes you watch a great show weekly — like Atlanta — and think “My God, they did it again!” I felt that way watching the Jaguars make a new mistake every Sunday. I’m gonna miss Gus.
A Win for Penalties, a Lot of Loss for the Bengals
Schube: I have some questions about this tweet from the Oakland Raiders:
Does #returntogreatness mean the Raiders have in fact returned to greatness? That they’re currently returning? Is #returntogreatness a wish? A command? A statement of fact? And one last question: Is the hashtag maybe — don’t hurt me, pal — a little tiny bit hyperbolic? Yes, the Raider’s 19–16 win over the San Diego Chargers clinched the team’s first playoff berth in 14 years. That’s terrific, I’m happy for Raiders fans everywhere, and I’m not just saying that because one of them is breathing heavily at me while wearing silver-and-black makeup and studded shoulder pads. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Also, any Raiders #returntogreatness won’t be complete until Mark Davis gets a haircut. I’m not holding my breath.
Danny Kelly: Mr. Irrelevant, my ass.
The Chiefs took kicker Ryan Succop with the final pick of the 2009 draft, making him that draft’s “Mr. Irrelevant.” Kansas City cut him five seasons later after he lost a preseason roster battle to a rookie draft pick named Cairo Santos. Succop found a spot in Tennessee a few days later, and has been a mainstay for the Titans ever since. When the eight-year veteran kicked the game-winning 53-yard field goal as time expired, beating his old team in their place in 1-degree weather, he showed that maybe revenge is a dish best served cold.
The kick was impressive for more than the fact it came against his former team. In addition to Reid’s failed icing attempt, Succop admitted after the game that the kick was “way out of his range” and that “he [had] no idea how he made it.” Science wasn’t on his side: Studies have shown that historically, as the temperature drops, so too does the accuracy of the league’s kickers. And as Deflategate taught football fans, the ideal gas law states the pressure of the ball drops with the temperature. This means the ball doesn’t react to the force of Succop’s foot as much as it would in warmer weather. I’ve never attempted a 53-yard field goal in subfreezing weather, but I imagine that Succop’s feet felt like ice blocks, and that he felt like he was kicking a brick. Yet, that sucker went right through the uprights.
A 53-yard field goal in freezing weather is really hard. And Succop, whose career-long field goal is 54 yards, has never been known as a guy with a boom stick for a leg. It didn’t matter.
Winner: Justin Tucker’s Leg (and Dabbing Arms)
Sherman: Sadly, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker will not be the MVP. Somebody will say some quarterback or running back has been more valuable to his team.
But Tucker has been as valuable as he could possibly be. He’s 31-for-32 kicking field goals, which is the best field goal percentage in the league among full-time kickers (he should be perfect, but he got blocked last week in a way that he really couldn’t have done anything to prevent) and is one of seven kickers who has yet to miss an extra point. And he hasn’t been kicking chip shots, either: Sunday, Tucker hit his 10th field goal of 50-plus yards this season, tying the record for the most 50-yarders in NFL history. For him to hit so many field goals from such distances with perfect accuracy is absolutely ridiculous.
He’s so good that he can do this, and mostly get away with it:
See, Tucker is also a professional dance-fad murderer. In 2013, he did the dance that that kid Lil Terio did in a viral vid, marking the last time anybody found Terio’s dance funny. Last year, he did the dance from the “Hotline Bling” video, ending that trend as well. Now dabbing, already dead, has been killed anew by Tucker.
That’s how good Tucker is at kicking. He’s so good that he’s most famous for actually being good at kicking — and not ruining once-trending dance moves. Most valuable, indeed.
Loser: The Vikings Waiving the White Flag
Kelly: Minnesota came into this week with a 7–6 record, sitting in the eighth spot in the NFC — technically in front of the streaking Packers, a half-game behind the Redskins, and a game behind the sixth-seeded Buccaneers. They were playing at home. They were getting Adrian Peterson back. Their recent struggles were irrelevant; they still had a real shot at the playoffs. And that’s when the Vikings decided to just give up.
“Flat” doesn’t begin to describe the manner in which they came out early against Andrew Luck and the Colts, as they surrendered huge play after huge play en route to a 27–0 halftime deficit.
Would a big halftime speech by Mike Zimmer inspire them to turn the tide? Would they come out in the second half with a renewed focus, ready to save their season with a huge comeback?
No. No, they would not.
Sam Bradford turned the ball over at the Indy 24-yard line (a strip sack by Robert Mathis) on Minnesota’s first possession. After the Vikings’ next drive stalled, they decided to kick a field goal from the 32-yard line … while they were still down by 27 points. The Colts answered with a 50-yard touchdown bomb to Phillip Dorsett, pushing the lead to 31 points. And after Minnesota’s next drive stalled again at the 33-yard line, the Vikings said “fuck it” and kicked a field goal again. Why bother?
Sure, the Vikings would’ve needed a few scenarios to play out in their favor — the Bucs own a tiebreaker over them, so they would’ve needed Tampa Bay to falter late — but this is the NFL, and weird shit happens all the time. Yet with a listless performance in their 34–6 loss on Sunday, the Vikings have all but eliminated themselves.