Week 16 of the NFL season is here, bringing highs, lows, and everything in between. And each Sunday, throughout the day, we’ll 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 Cleveland Browns — Like, Actually!
Every year we hear about how the surviving members of the undefeated 1972 Dolphins pop champagne when the season’s last perfect team loses a game. I like to imagine that the members of the winless 2008 Detroit Lions do something similar and that today, they’re popping bottles of Faygo: After starting the season 0–14, the Cleveland Browns finally won a game, topping the Chargers 20–17 and ensuring that those Lions remain the only NFL squad to finish a season 0–16.
It’s really a testament to the Browns’ players that they were able to win a game. Nobody would have faulted them for failing to maintain their passion following loss after loss after loss. Quarterback Robert Griffin III probably could have called it a year after a Week 1 shoulder injury many assumed would end his season. Instead, everybody kept showing up and working hard, and although the Chargers aren’t the league’s best, any win over a group of 53 NFL players is impressive for these Browns.
Of course, because these are the Browns, this incredible accomplishment briefly looked like it would also be a disaster. The 49ers also had just one win, and their easier strength-of-schedule would have given them the tiebreaker with the Browns to get the no. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft. For a few hours, we said that the Cleveland Browns cannot win even when they win, but then the Niners went out and beat the Rams, putting Cleveland back in position for the top pick. What a day for the Browns.
Will Cleveland continue to rally and get a second W against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers next week? They’re not called the Cleveland Browwns, guys.
Loser: The Raiders’ and Titans’ Hopes and Dreams
The Raiders secured their 12th win of the season on Saturday, but their Super Bowl hopes took a huge hit when star quarterback Derek Carr broke his leg late. Read more on why Oakland will have a hard time contending for the Super Bowl without its MVP candidate:
Earlier in the day, Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota suffered a broken leg in the fourth quarter of the team’s 38–17 loss to the Jaguars. It’s a huge blow to the Titans’ playoff hopes and a crushing end to a star-making season for the second-year quarterback. Read more on the injury here:
Winner: Arizona’s David Johnson
There are a few reasons David Johnson isn’t a Big Name. He’s on the 6–8–1 Cardinals. People who bother thinking about the team still associate it with Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald and the passing game. He played his college ball at Northern Iowa. And, well, the second-year back’s name is “David Johnson.” It doesn’t stand out.
But he’s delivered one of the best seasons that any running back ever has. With 95 yards rushing and 41 receiving in Saturday’s 34–31 win over the Seahawks, Johnson recorded his 15th game in 15 tries with at least 100 yards from scrimmage. That ties a record set by Barry Sanders, and if Johnson does it again next week, he’ll have managed to do it in every game of the season, setting a record that will literally be impossible to break, unless the NFL extends the season past 16 games.
And with three touchdowns against Seattle, he hit 20 combined receiving and rushing touchdowns for the year. He’s only the 28th person in NFL history to score 20 touchdowns in a year, and the first since LeSean McCoy did it in 2011. He’ll have another week to push that number even higher.
Johnson deserves to be talked about as one of the NFL’s biggest stars. Because as a third-round draft pick still on his rookie contract, he’s not going to be able to get paid like one for another few years.
Loser: Texans Franchise “Savior” Tom Savage
Houston won the AFC South on Saturday night, beating Cincinnati 12–10 when Cincinnati kicker Randy Bullock missed a last-second field goal. (My personal belief is that Bullock is secretly a double agent for the Texans and has been working for them since they cut him last year.) Although Houston booked its playoff ticket, this game wasn’t exactly inspiring for anybody hoping for a long playoff run from the Texans.
There was something encouraging about last week’s win, when the team finally benched much-maligned quarterback Brock Osweiler in favor of Tom Savage, who led the Texans to a come-from-behind victory over the Jaguars. I’ve seen fans call for their team’s QB to be benched, but I’ve never seen what transpired last week, when Houston fans cheered Osweiler’s benching so loudly that running back Lamar Miller had to hush them so that Savage could communicate in the huddle. The Texans’ defense was good enough to keep them in the playoff hunt even with a QB as crappy as Brock, so it was reasonable to wonder if their offense might click with Savage.
It didn’t. Against Cincinnati, Savage went 18-for-29 with 176 yards and no touchdowns, as unthrilling an evening as possible. The Texans only scored one touchdown, on a 24-yard run by Alfred Blue.
It’s entirely possible that Savage is better than Osweiler. Saturday night made it clear that if he is, however, the margin isn’t huge. The Texans are as bland with Savage as they have been all season. If they manage a win in the postseason, it won’t be because of any explosiveness on offense.
Loser: The Bills’ Defense
At 7–7 entering Week 16, the Bills needed a Christmas miracle or five to make the playoffs, but it was still possible provided they managed a win over a Dolphins team starting backup quarterback Matt Moore. Get up, Buffalo! Time to fight for your postseason life!
The Bills could’ve fought a little bit harder.
That’s Jay Ajayi breaking through one tackle and pushing off a Buffalo defender’s face en route to the end zone. Outside of boxing and MMA, it’s generally some sort of foul to wallop someone in the face, so it’s particularly satisfying when a running back successfully evades a tackle by shoving a human in the head.
That’s Kenyan Drake running into the pile, realizing running into the pile is a pretty bad idea, completely reversing course, and then beating every Bill to the end zone. This wasn’t by design; there’s no deceptive football strategy to explain here. This was just one dude saying “Hey, there are way too many people over here, I’m gonna go over there instead” and somehow being fast enough that none of the 11 players on the other team could do anything about it. The Bills’ offense did its part in forcing overtime, but the same shoddy technique Buffalo exhibited on the Ajayi and Drake plays doomed Buffalo in OT, when another Ajayi run — this one for 57 yards — helped set up the eventual winning field goal in Miami’s 34–31 victory.
Rex Ryan likes to talk about coaching tough, gritty, hard-nosed football teams. Yet on perhaps the most important day of his tenuous Bills tenure, his team wasn’t interested in tackling.
Loser: The Trash-Ass New York Jets
It’s not surprising that the Jets got obliterated by the Patriots, 41–3, on Saturday. New England is probably the best team in the league; the Jets are in the running for the worst and have lost by 30 to a much worse team than New England.
But I’d like to focus on a particularly embarrassing moment. Down 41–0 with six minutes to go, the Jets got the ball to the New England 10-yard line. They stalled, and three plays later, they kicked a 29-yard field goal. Before the field goal, the Patriots led by six scores. After the field goal, the Patriots led by six scores. The Jets would have needed another 13 field goals to win, one roughly every 30 seconds. According to Pro Football Reference, it was the first time since 2008 that a team had attempted a field goal down 40 points.
This was the saddest play of the 2016 football season. Nobody would have thought less of the Jets if they had tried to score a touchdown and missed — everybody already thinks the Jets are as trash as possible.
But even though failing to score would have carried no risk, they still opted to kick a field goal, taking the simplest route they could to avoid a shutout. The decision was presumably made with the assumption that losing 41–3 would feel better than losing 41–0. It shouldn’t. The only thing that should make a team feel good in an ass-whooping is the knowledge that it tried its best and simply wasn’t good enough. In this instance, the Jets opted not to try.
This field goal isn’t the only pointless way in which the Jets tried to mitigate their failure. A few weeks ago, they made the decision to switch from Ryan Fitzpatrick to second-year quarterback Bryce Petty. Against the Pats, Petty played poorly, going 0-for-3 with an interception before getting injured. And when he got hurt, the only available quarterback was Fitzpatrick, even though the team also has rookie Christian Hackenberg, this year’s second-round draft pick.
No matter how unready Hackenberg is, there is no level of unreadiness that should put him in street clothes instead of in position for usage as a backup quarterback in Week 16 in a 40-point game being played by a 3–11 team. The Jets would be trash if he played well and they would be trash if he played abominably. Even if he failed, at least the Jets would be getting a young quarterback reps and finding out how useful he could be. Instead, they played 34-year-old with no potential future with the team.
It’s one thing to be bad. It’s another to spite future success to be slightly better in the short term while still failing massively. And that’s where the Jets are.
Winner: The Giants
The Giants might have lost to the Eagles on Thursday night, but they had the best Week 16 of anybody. By getting their game out of the way early, they got to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas with their families while almost every other team had to play a weekend game. And those weekend games worked out well for New York: With Tampa Bay’s loss to New Orleans, the Giants officially clinched a playoff spot while sitting at home. And now they have a nice, long layoff before their final game of the regular season against Washington, a matchup that’s more or less meaningless for the Giants.
The holiday season is a time for finding joy, no matter what twists and turns life has thrown you. The Giants embraced that spirit. They didn’t win on the field, but they won a postseason berth and won at life. They’re the true winners of Week 16.
Winner: Some Weirdo Whose Fantasy Team Is Good Enough to Be in the Championship Despite Starting Adam Thielen
This is the most important fantasy football weekend of the year despite it being the one in which the fewest people participate. Unless you’re in a weird league that plays its championship during the NFL’s semi-competitive Week 17, this is the week when your title is up for grabs.
If you’re one of the two teams that’s still active at this point, you probably have a pretty good roster. That means you probably aren’t playing Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen. Heading into the Vikings’ game this week, Thielen was the 45th-ranked WR in standard scoring this season. He was started in just 6.5 percent of leagues this week, and after suffering a concussion last week, ESPN’s fantasy staff referred to him as a “risky WR4/flex” option for championship weekend. Not even a good fourth option at wide receiver!
But Thielen had a monster game, with 12 receptions for 202 yards and two touchdowns in the Vikings’ 38–25 loss. With 32.2 points in standard scoring, it’s the third-best fantasy performance by any wide receiver in any game all season, behind just Julio Jones in Week 4 and Marvin Jones in Week 3.
Somewhere in America, someone won a fantasy title because of this game. Maybe that person’s team had a bunch of injuries. Maybe he or she is a Vikings fan who always plays Vikings; or had a pointless hunch with no evidence whatsoever; or is just an enormous idiot. Any of those reasons should have prevented somebody from having a team good enough to make the championship. But somewhere out there, that someone is a fantasy champion, and won’t let his or her friends forget about it forever.
Fantasy football is stupid because of things like Thielen’s season-changing game, but it’s also wonderful because of them. If you won because of Adam, you should probably buy him a beer sometime.