Week 17 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: Aaron Rodgers
Rodger Sherman: There was a time about six weeks ago when it was normal to question Aaron Rodgers. The Packers were 4–6 with a four-game losing streak, and diagnosing the reasons for Rodgers’s drop-off became Wisconsin’s new, most popular hobby. Was it his girlfriend? His sour relationship with his reality-TV-star brother? Was Mike McCarthy actually the NFL’s worst coach?
Sunday night the Packers won their sixth straight game thanks to four touchdowns from Rodgers, sealing the NFC North title. Maybe he was joking when he said the team would run the table back in November, but now the team has done it. And they did it with Aaron Rodgers looking just as Aaron Rodgers as ever. Just look at this damn play:
Rodgers stayed alive for eight seconds — it felt like a minute — before throwing a ball into this.
A chihuahua’s doghouse has a bigger window.
This is the Rodgers we’re used to. He avoids being tackled for days, weeks, months, years, until an eighth of an inch opens up; and even if he’s on the move and that smidgen of space is on the other side of the field, he still slots the ball in. He has thrown for 18 touchdowns since his last interception back on November 13.
But Rodgers isn’t a lock for MVP. Matt Ryan and Tom Brady each had record-setting seasons, but if we’re going by pure value, I think Rodgers stands alone. The Packers running game isn’t great and their defense is legitimately bad. They could only win with Rodgers performing football alchemy, and the past six weeks have been football gold.
Now just do it four more times in the playoffs, Aaron.
Winner: Tony Romo
Robert Mays: In what’s been a magical season for the Cowboys, not enough has been made of what this all must be like for Tony Romo. For everything Romo has suffered in the form of playoff failings, injuries, and unwarranted ridicule, this was the type of year — with running back Ezekiel Elliott, that offensive line, and a humming Cowboys attack — that would have made all those moments worth it. Instead, Romo has watched from the sideline as another quarterback has lifted Dallas to the top of the NFC.
One great drive (3-of-4 for 29 yards with a score) isn’t nearly enough to wipe that experience away, but Romo’s effortless march down the field in the second quarter of Sunday’s 27–13 loss to the Eagles — a possession that culminated in a beautiful pitch-and-catch to receiver Terrance Williams in the back corner of the end zone — was clearly a bit of catharsis. And on a practical level, it provided two encouraging signs about Romo’s future in both the short and long term.
First, Romo looked like Romo, and if the Cowboys suffer the misfortune of losing Dak Prescott at any point during the playoffs, their backup is still a quarterback who can make them one of the most dangerous offenses in the league. Second, this series — Romo’s only action of the season — served as a brief but telling audition for any team that might be considering making a high-stakes move for Romo this offseason yet was uneasy about his health. Romo may not have gotten his chance with this version of the Cowboys, but he’s sure to get another one somewhere.
Sherman: Coach Mike McCoy was fired by the Chargers on Sunday. Here’s what I’ll say about McCoy: He was definitely one of the top three NFL coaches named “Mike M.” whose name ends in “y.” Maybe one of the top two, although it seems Mike Mularkey is doing a much better job developing the Titans than McCoy ever did with the Chargers. If he were on a reality show with the other Mikes, they would probably refer to him as “Mike (California)” to avoid confusion, and he’d get eliminated on the second episode.
McCoy took over a San Diego team that had been pretty successful — .500 or better in eight of the previous nine seasons — and quickly took them down a speed. They missed the playoffs in three out of his four years, and this year marked the first time the Chargers put up back-to-back losing seasons since 2000–2001. McCoy was hired on the strength of his Broncos offenses (it helped that he got Peyton Manning in Denver), but he never figured out how to coach a competent defense. This year they finished 28th in points allowed and fifth-worst in the league, ruining an offense that was actually pretty good and wasting the final great years of a franchise quarterback.
Change is coming to the Chargers, and this year’s bummer of a season likely meant little for the franchise in the long run. Sunday was probably the last game they’ll ever play in San Diego, as their likely move to Los Angeles looms. The team itself will have to rebuild, as longtime rock Philip Rivers can’t play forever. Soon they’ll have a new stadium and a new coach and a new quarterback and a new direction.
Loser: Kirk Cousins Defenders
Donnie Kwak: The 25-million-dollar question — is Kirk Cousins worth elite-QB money? — won’t get a definitive answer until the offseason. But Cousins squandered the opportunity to cement his case in Sunday’s must-win game against the Giants. The stage was perfectly set for Kirk to prove he’s worthy of Brees bucks. Instead, in Washington’s 19–10 loss, Cousins displayed all the “Bad Kirk” qualities that embolden his detractors — missing deep balls, failing to spot open receivers, and looking jittery in the pocket against a Giants team that played with the hand brake on for most of the second half. Worst of all, Cousins threw two terrible picks — the second of which was an underthrown, off-the-back-leg floater over the middle with 1:27 left in the fourth quarter that screamed “game-ending INT” before it left his hand. Game, playoff hopes, season — over. It wasn’t quite Fitzpatrick-ian, but it was close.
Given the state of the QB market, one bad game shouldn’t affect Kirk’s potential finances too much. He still threw for a franchise-record 4,917 yards this season. But Cousins will have to wait until next season to shake his reputation as a “just good enough to lose” quarterback. That “How you like me now?!” game against Green Bay feels like eons ago. Cousins will undoubtedly get his payday somewhere — Skins fans may just prefer it be outside of D.C.
Winner: New Year’s Eve Hangovers
Sherman: On most years, January 1 is reserved for college football, but once every seven years or so, New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday. NFL Sundays are the perfect Hangover Television product, but perhaps understanding the extra pounding involved with New Year’s Day hangovers, the NFL brought its absolute A game to Week 17: a 1 p.m. ET slate completely devoid of meaning.
We had no games with playoff implications, so you didn’t really have to pay attention. Technically, the Buccaneers could have made the playoffs if they won, the New York–Washington game ended in a tie, AND Tennessee, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Dallas, and Detroit all won, but, well, that would have required an awful lot of chaos.
And since most fantasy leagues ended last week, you ditched a lot of potential responsibilities. If the fantasy football playoffs were still happening, you might have had to wake up more than five minutes before the games started (impossible), focus on a screen (possible, but extremely difficult), and most terrifying of all, use your groggy-ass head to make decisions. Today is not a day for decision-making, not after last night.
These early games provided little more than a not-too-bright light, from a screen that we didn’t have to stare at directly, and the not-too-loud sound of an announcer talking over a dull roar. That’s exactly what we all needed.
Loser: Michael Crabtree
Micah Peters: Chain-snatching has a long and storied history as the highest form of disrespect. There was Ice Cube getting his chain snatched at the height of his feud with Cypress Hill. Jim Jones and Tru Life. Tyga and 40 Glocc. Tyga and Lil Durk. Tyga and some extra in a tank top from his “Coconut Juice” video. Young Buck and the IRS. Gunplay and 50 Cent. Prodigy and some rando on the set of his own music video. Sean Kingston and some other rando at a nightclub. Steve Francis and some other rando at a rap show.
…Michael Crabtree and Aqib Talib on a Sunday afternoon in Denver.
Bottom-five NFL human and Broncos habitual line-stepper Aqib Talib strolled right up to Michael Crabtree early in Sunday’s 24–6 victory over the Raiders and yanked Crabtree’s chain directly off of his neck. Like Steelers safety Mike Mitchell gallantly and ever-so-cordially losing his shit over a face mask call earlier in the day, this moment was another strong case for players being mic’d up at all times. I would bet every penny I’ve ever earned that Talib grabbed that fistful of gold rope and said, “Buy another one, you rich motherfucker.”
Talib wasn’t penalized, and because this was on CBS and not WorldStar, Crabtree grumbled back to the sideline instead of swinging on the Broncos defensive back. However, the rules of chain-snatching require recourse by the chain-snatchee in the form of running the chain-snatcher’s fade (or at least paying someone to do it for them). Since there’s no sign of retribution, Crabtree can and should be considered a loser.
But we might not have seen the end of this saga. Both Talib and Crabtree spend their offseasons in Dallas. I’m not saying, I’m just saying.
Sherman: Sunday was one of the best days in Matt history, right up with the day Matt Damon won the Oscar for writing Good Will Hunting and the day Matthew Perry and Matt LeBlanc were cast together in Friends.
We entered the year with just two NFL Matts starting at quarterback: Ryan and Stafford. But as the year wore on, other Matts got their turn. Jay Cutler got hurt for the Bears, thrusting Matt Barkley into the spotlight. Ryan Tannehill got hurt for the Dolphins, leaving Matt Moore to lead the team into the playoffs. And last week, Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr suffered season-ending injuries, leading to starting gigs for Matt Cassel and Matt McGloin in Tennessee and Oakland.
Week 17 was a six-Matt week, meaning 18.75 percent of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks were Matts. We previously had a six-Matt week in 2013, when Cassel, McGloin, Ryan, and Stafford were joined by Matts Flynn and Schaub. Sunday’s Matt resurgence proved that Matts still matter. It may be decades before we see another name so well represented in the NFL’s quarterbacks, and Matts have pulled it off twice in four years.
Any name can have a big day — who can forget Week 16 of the 2012–13 season, when Ryans Fitzpatrick and Tannehill were joined by Ryan Lindley among the NFL’s starters? Or Week 15 of last year, when Kellen Clemens and Kellen Moore both got into games? We thought this would be a big year for Carsons, with Wentz finally giving Palmer relief he’d been craving for more than a decade. But barring a young crop of Carsons, they’ll never challenge the Matts as the predominant NFL quarterback name.
Today, this is truly the Mattional Football League.
Loser: Bill O’Brien
Kevin Clark: Texans head coach Bill O’Brien’s Sunday got off to a rough start, when Fox’s Jay Glazer reported that he could be on his way out:
This is weird since O’Brien is a week away from coaching in the wild-card round of the playoffs. And if that wasn’t bad enough, O’Brien, for roughly the 6,593rd time in his three-year Houston tenure, has a problem with his quarterback. Tom Savage, the Texans starter as of two weeks ago, was
driven out of Sunday’s 24–17 loss to the Titans with a concussion. This is an issue because Savage replaced Brock Osweiler, the ludicrously overpaid QB, who is also bad. If Savage cannot return for the playoffs, Osweiler and his 16 interceptions would be a colossally bad person to start a postseason game.
Osweiler was reportedly furious with Denver for benching him last season, and it’s no sure thing that he’s going to be particularly fired up to play for the Houston team that also benched him, in Week 15. Osweiler basically has to stay with the Texans; his deal is worth $37 million guaranteed and isn’t easy to get out of until after next season. It would be a stunning development if he outlasted O’Brien, but that seems possible now.
Winner: Rex Ryan
Clark: Rex Ryan was fired as Buffalo’s head coach this week, leaving the team facility in an extremely sad, Bills-colored truck.
This might seem to make Ryan a loser, but then came Sunday, when the Bills were so unbelievably bad in a 30–10 loss to the Jets that it is now clear that without Ryan, yes, things in Buffalo could get worse. Interim coach Anthony Lynn took charge. The Bills started EJ Manuel at quarterback so as not to risk a Tyrod Taylor injury that would have forced them to pay him. What happened on Sunday was a disaster, and that makes Ryan a clear winner, if only because THIS happened and it wasn’t under his watch.
Winner: Odell Beckham Jr.
Peters: Let’s take a short quiz, shall we? In homeroom, if little Benji Whatshisface yanks your hair from behind and you whip around and punch him in his bird chest, which one of you is getting sent to the principal’s office?
The Odell Beckham Jr.–Josh Norman rivalry that began in Week 15 of last season entered its third chapter on Sunday when the Redskins played the Giants with their playoff destiny in their own hands. The Redskins lost, of course, and Norman was flagged twice for extracurricular activity. So even though he only posted a modest 44 yards on five catches in a shaky 19–10 win, it’s safe to say that Beckham won. And all because Norman can’t seem to grasp that revenge is a dish best served discreetly and with at least some small amount of forethought. Beckham seeped under Norman’s skin early on, and the defensive back basically spent the rest of his evening getting caught.
A big, fat for instance: Late in the second quarter, Beckham got a hand in Norman’s face mask, but it was Norman who was flagged for unnecessary roughness when he retaliated by shoving Beckham out of bounds once the play was over. In the third quarter, Beckham stole off on Norman a second time, but again, Norman was penalized for headbutting him after the play.
So in sum: Norman was flagged twice, his team lost, and now he has to watch Beckham dance his way into the postseason from his couch at home. Norman loses. Beckham wins.
Loser and Winner: The Browns
Mays: Well, that couldn’t have gone any better. At about a dozen different moments on Sunday, it looked as if the Browns had hit their stride at exactly the wrong time. All season, Cleveland’s plan for peak awfulness had worked to bizarre perfection. The Browns’ total teardown looked to be a surefire path to the no. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, the purest form of a total rebuild, orchestrated by an analytics-heavy front office seeking to maximize every resource possible.
Then, after knocking off the Chargers for its first win of the season in Week 16, Cleveland needed a last-second 49ers win over the Rams to retain the top pick in the draft. That scare apparently wasn’t enough to deter this team from playing well enough to possibly steal another game. It took a late Isaiah Crowell fumble and a string of coverage mishaps for the Browns to eventually lose 27–24 to a shorthanded Steelers team that was resting Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown. In almost every other scenario, it would have been a devastating overtime loss in what’s been a devastating season; for this Cleveland team, though, there could have been no better outcome.
The only way this season could have gone any worse for the Browns would have been if they endured the torment of 14 straight losses, only end up losing control of the top pick. The 2016 campaign may have felt like a season-long root canal, but at least Cleveland has something to show for it.
Loser: Anybody With Hope in the Raiders
Sherman: Last week Derek Carr got hurt, and we got sad. But this week brought the potential for hope. While most teams yawned through Week 17, the Raiders had an oddly meaningful game at hand. A win over the Broncos would seal a first-round bye in the playoffs, and this was a testing ground for backup quarterback Matt McGloin, who hadn’t started a game since 2013. Would he prove to be competent running Oakland’s offense? We know McGloin wasn’t as talented as Carr, but was the former Penn State walk-on and undrafted free agent #gritty enough to get Oakland a win — and could he prove acceptable enough to get Oakland by during the playoffs? Just what was McGloin capable of?
Very, very little, apparently. The backup-turned-starter went 6-for-11 for just 21 yards. Throwing 11 passes for just 21 yards is not particularly efficient. I mean, even if he went 6-for-6 for 21 yards, that wouldn’t be efficient either. And McGloin hurt his shoulder, forcing third-stringer Connor Cook to make his NFL debut. The rookie played better than McGloin, even throwing a pretty touchdown to Amari Cooper. (Cooper did most of the work.) But that was the team’s only score in a 24–6 loss.
They may have to turn to Cook to start in the playoffs, which is upsetting because he obviously hasn’t played in NFL playoffs before and he wasn’t too good in the other playoff he got to play in.
Whether McGloin or Cook gets to play, the Raiders appear to be in trouble. McGloin doesn’t appear very good at quarterback, and Cook spent the entire year below McGloin on the depth chart.
This isn’t fair. The Raiders were one of the most fun teams to watch this year and possibly a Super Bowl contender. Their game against the Broncos was supposed to show what the Raiders might be able to salvage from their QB situation; instead, a bleak close to the season got even bleaker.