Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, investigate the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Football is not just a game of brawn. The coaches install remarkably complex strategies; the players learn these strategies and master incredibly precise techniques; the great players have an innate ability to read their opponents and outfox them by deploying specific moves at specific times. There is so much finesse.
That said: Sometimes, brawn wins. As the 21st-century philosopher Marshawn Lynch (University of California, Berkeley) once said: “Run through a motherfucker’s face, then you don’t have to worry about them no more.” The wild-card round was the weekend of brawn. Some of the strongest runners in the game are moving on; the motherfuckers whose faces they ran through are done for the season.
The chief face-runner-through was easily Derrick Henry, an ATV that for some reason is allowed to play professional football. Last week, we wrote about how Henry powered the Titans into the playoffs with a 32-carry, 211-yard performance against the Texans. At the time, it was the most rushing attempts by any player in any game this year ... until Saturday, when Henry got the ball 34 times against the Patriots. He went for 182 yards, the most by any player in a postseason game since 2008. While many of Henry’s yards were due to the Titans’ exceptional offensive line play, the 6-foot-3, 247-pound running back took personal pride in lighting up Patriots defenders on his way downfield. Looks like he hit a speed bump on this play:
On one drive, the Titans gained 75 yards: 53 rushing yards by Henry, and 22 receiving yards by Henry.
Derrick Henry gained every yard on Tennessee’s 75-yard TD drive— PFF (@PFF) January 5, 2020
He’s on a different level.
Henry was responsible for 204 of the Titans’ 272 yards, exactly 75 percent. He’s just the third player in NFL history to have 75 percent of his team’s yards in a playoff game. Henry’s dominant rushing game allowed the Titans to avoid throwing the ball against a Patriots defense that allowed fewer passing touchdowns and recorded more interceptions than any other team in the NFL this year. His sheer power put the greatest dynasty in football history to bed for the year—and, depending on which talk-radio host you ask, possibly for good.
And then there was DK Metcalf, the Seahawks’ rookie wide receiver whose muscles have muscles. Metcalf turned heads before the draft for his shirtless pics—those heads then turned away when Metcalf proved incapable of changing directions at the NFL draft combine. He ran a 7.3 in the three-cone drill at the combine—since 2000, only Chad Johnson had ever run that drill so slowly and been drafted higher.
But it seems like agility doesn’t matter to someone who is fast as hell and can beat you up. Metcalf had 160 yards—more than any other receiver in any game this weekend—and bowled over an Eagles defender en route to a touchdown in Sunday’s Seahawks win:
And of course, there was Lynch himself, the patron saint of beasts. Lynch came out of retirement ahead of Seattle’s Week 17 game against the 49ers as the Seahawks dealt with running back injuries. Sunday, Lynch got his first postseason touchdown in five years by taking a hit from Malcolm Jenkins, locking horns with Jenkins until he fell to the ground, and then twirling into the end zone:
Do you think Lynch knows the Seahawks’ full playbook? Surely he doesn’t remember it—the Seahawks have changed offensive coordinators since he was last with the team in 2015—and it’d be impossible to learn the whole thing in a week. But sometimes, power doesn’t need a playbook. Sometimes, you just need to run through a motherfucker’s face.
Loser: The Cursed Saints
Have you ever watched a horror movie and wondered what it’s like to be one of the characters? Not in a “How would I fight off Jason Voorhees?” way—I mean really, psychologically, wonder what it’s like to see everybody around you dying, and know you’re cursed, and be totally unable to do anything about it. So far as I can tell, that’s what Saints fandom is like.
Two years ago, the Saints’ season ended on a missed tackle in the final seconds of regulation against the Vikings. Last year, the Saints lost in overtime shortly after a missed pass-interference call against the Rams. This year, I got the sense they were doomed before the playoffs even started. The Saints went 13-3, which is normally good enough for a first-round bye, but thanks to their inability to tackle George Kittle and another missed pass-interference call in the Week 17 Seahawks-Niners finale, they ended up with a no. 3 seed, stuck in the wild-card round. This is the point in the horror movie when you realize the circumstances of all your friends’ deaths are eerily similar to the circumstances you’re experiencing right now.
The Saints should have won, as 7.5-point favorites against the 10-6 Vikings, the biggest spread of the weekend. However, the Saints did not play like favorites. Still, the Saints scored 10 straight points in the fourth quarter to force overtime.
And in overtime, the Saints never touched the ball. The Vikings won the toss, got possession, and scored a walk-off touchdown on this pass to Kyle Rudolph:
In this horror movie, the villain isn’t even trying to come up with creative ways to kill off the Saints. Another year, another overtime loss, and yes, another pass-interference controversy. It sure looks like Rudolph gave a quick shove to cornerback P.J. Williams to create space before making the catch:
I'm dying. This is so blatantly OPI and it didn't get reviewed pic.twitter.com/1PfPdeU69p— Cian (@Cianaf) January 5, 2020
After last year’s Saints-playoff pass-interference debacle, the NFL allowed for reviews of pass interference. That led to the complete bewilderment at the end of this game; Saints fans booed and prayed and hollered as hard as they could for the NFL to review this play, only for the game to be considered over. According to NFL head of officiating Al Riveron, the league did look at the play, and decided it was just “hand-fighting.” However, the officiating world seems to disagree. Officiating blog Football Zebras wrote that “we should have seen a flag on the play,” while officiating analysts for NBC and ESPN both said the play should have been called offensive pass interference:
It is illegal for an offensive player to extend his arm or arms and create clear separation from the defender. That was OPI. #MINvsNO— Terry McAulay (@SNFRules) January 5, 2020
The last play of @Vikings at @Saints is OPI. By written rule and on-field philosophy, Receiver clearly created an advantage. If called and reviewed, it stands. The consistent standard for creating an overturn remains a topic.— John Parry (@JohnParryESPN) January 5, 2020
Parry brings up another point about the differing standards. After the no-call, the replay officials apparently didn’t feel the pass interference was blatant enough to result in an overturn. However, if there had been an on-field pass-interference call, I doubt review would have overturned it. That’s the problem with reviewing judgment calls—this could’ve been called pass interference or not, depending on the refs’ judgment, and so we’re really reviewing that judgment rather than the play itself.
There’s only one certainty here. If there is such a call late in a pivotal game, it will go against New Orleans. In what religion are Saints this obviously cursed?
Winner: Something New
The website you’re reading was founded in 2016. I was hired that October to write about football. The first year our site existed, the Patriots made the Super Bowl, which wasn’t particularly surprising, because the Patriots had made the Super Bowl two years before that, and three years before that, and four years before that, and so on and so forth. They’ve been doing this since I was 11 years old. Still, it was exciting. It’s always fun to write about great athletes on big stages.
The second year our site existed, I got to cover the Super Bowl for the first time, and the Patriots made the Super Bowl again. I had no complaints about the teams involved—I would’ve been excited to cover a Bengals-Cardinals Super Bowl in Siberia. I could, however, tell that some of the Patriots media were a little bit less excited by the grand spectacle than I was. To me it was like a field trip to Mars; for them it was Tuesday.
The third year our site existed, I got to cover the Super Bowl again, and the Patriots made the Super Bowl again. I remember arriving at Super Bowl media day and hitting a wave of déjà vu—yes, this time we were in the Atlanta Hawks’ arena and not the Minnesota Wild’s arena, but the setup was the same, the logos and signs and sponsors and tables and chairs were the same, the protocols were the same, and the fans (why are there fans?) were the same. Of course, the Patriots were the same. As a joke, I filmed a bit where I asked Patriots players whether they remembered me from the year before. Long snapper Joe Cardona lied and said he did even though I didn’t interview him the year before. Later I had beers with the same Patriots media members I had beers with the year before, except in a different Marriott lobby bar.
The fourth year our site existed, the Patriots started out 8-0. I began thinking about how I wouldn’t even be able to pull the same gag with the Patriots’ long snapper. Brady was older than any successful quarterback in league history, and seemingly unaffected. The defense appeared to be the best in league history.
But after Sunday, the Patriots will not make the Super Bowl again. It was, quite frankly, a stunning collapse by the Pats, who finished the season 4-5. It’s important to remember that the Patriots didn’t just lose Sunday—they also lost last week to a Dolphins team that began the season 0-7, a loss that ensured the Pats would have to play in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Before this season, 20 teams had started a season 8-0 since the NFL moved to a 16-game schedule in 1978; six of those teams won the Super Bowl while only three failed to make it past the wild-card round of the playoffs. The Pats’ 12-4 finish was the second worst ever by a team that started out 8-0, behind only the 2013 Chiefs, who finished 11-5.
Sunday morning brought yet another round of conversation about whether Brady and the Patriots are finished. This is, after all, not a result we’re used to from New England. But as fun as grave stomping is, this is a team that started 8-0 and just made the Super Bowl in back-to-back-to-back years. I feel like they should be allowed to lose a playoff game without all the death knells ringing.
But I can say this: We are, for the first time in a long time, going to get something new this year. A quarterback named Brady, Manning, or Roethlisberger has represented the AFC in the playoffs in 15 of the past 16 seasons. (The outlier, oddly, was Joe Flacco.) It has been five years since any of the remaining teams were in the Super Bowl. The last time that was true was 2013.
It’s always fun to write about great teams on big stages. But I have to admit, I’m a little bit excited that the fourth Super Bowl our site has covered will feature somebody new.
Loser: Booger McFarland
I can’t remember a game quite like Saturday’s Bills-Texans matchup, where both teams seemed more interested in creating chaos than advancing to the next round of the playoffs. Here’s a quick summary of things that happened in the final two minutes of the game: The Bills went for it on fourth-and-27, which is ridiculous; Josh Allen took a sack on fourth-and-27, which is even more ridiculous; the Texans failed to pick up a first down on a QB sneak; and Allen decided to hurl the ball over his head with his team’s season on the line. Somehow, the sum of everybody’s poor decisions ended with the game going to overtime, where Deshaun Watson did this:
Never count Deshaun Watson out. pic.twitter.com/MGY5MOKE8j— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 5, 2020
I think the 48-46 49ers-Saints game was the Game of the Year so far. Bills-Texans was the Game of the Year, Train Wreck Edition.
Adding to the experience was the fact ESPN’s announcing crew seemed to be calling an entirely different, equally chaotic game. It was like watching the climactic car chase at the end of a thriller movie, but the movie theater was accidentally playing the audio from the climactic fight scene in a kung fu movie.
Booger McFarland had a career day of lowlights in the closing minutes of the game. There was the time he worried about the Bills’ ability to get their field goal unit onto the field … while their field goal unit was on the field. There was the time he specified that the Texans should try to avoid allowing a touchdown on a play where the Bills were trying to score a game-winning touchdown.
But the strangest part of McFarland’s call was his growing insistence that, in the closing moments of regulation, the Bills needed to run a quarterback draw. The idea got into his head and, no matter how many times he tried to let the idea out of his head by speaking the idea out loud, he needed to do it again. The Bills were trailing by three, had no timeouts with under a minute to go, and could not stop the clock. A QB draw would have been disastrous.
But McFarland kept hawking the QB draw idea. When the Bills were facing a third-and-10 with 15 seconds to go, McFarland still argued that the Bills should run a draw and spike the ball. ON THIRD DOWN, WITH 15 SECONDS LEFT. If they had, the game would have ended, because if you run a draw on third down and spike the ball on fourth, they would have lost possession because there are only four downs.
As the lead color commentator for a big national broadcast, McFarland is automatically subject to criticism. We all like to complain, which means sometimes we complain about good announcers and sometimes we complain about bad announcers. I’ve tried to remain positive about Booger, who has been indisputably better at his job than last year’s Monday Night Football color commentator, Jason Witten. But I can’t remember a moment quite like the one Booger had, when he emphatically stumped for a strategy that would automatically lead to a team losing the game.
Loser: Bill Belichick
Belichick is the greatest football coach of all time, and this seems less like an opinion and more like a fact. He’s won more Super Bowls than any other coach. He won a Super Bowl in 2002 and won a Super Bowl in 2019, which is like winning the Oscar for Best Actor and starring in the most-watched TikTok. He has coached the best offense in the league, and he has coached the best defense in the league. He does not have a system so much as he has the ability to choose the best possible strategy for whatever talents his team has. Which is why it was strange to see Belichick get his ass kicked in a win-or-go-home playoff game Saturday. In a tight game, Belichick kept making the wrong calls in critical moments.
Entering Sunday, the Patriots had gotten first-and-goal at the 1-yard line 12 times in playoff games under Belichick. They’d scored 12 touchdowns. Part of that is because Tom Brady is the greatest QB sneaker in league history, easily picking up first downs and touchdowns on virtually every attempt he gets. The Pats should really not have had trouble scoring, especially against the Titans, who allowed touchdowns on 68.1 percent of opposing red zone trips this year. Saturday, the Patriots had a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line, never attempted a QB sneak, and kicked a field goal when they should have gone for it on fourth-and-goal.
And the Pats couldn’t stop punting. In the first half, they punted from fourth-and-1 at their own 47-yard line. In the fourth quarter, trailing by one point, the Patriots punted on fourth-and-3 at the Tennessee 47. With three minutes to go, still trailing by one point, the Patriots punted on fourth-and-4 from their own 37. The Surrender Index, which chronicles poor punting decisions, went absolutely nuts as the Pats voluntarily surrendered the ball in the fourth quarter of a playoff game they were losing:
NE decided to punt to TEN from the NE 37 on 4th & 4 with 3:17 remaining in the 4th while losing 13 to 14.— Surrender Index (@surrender_index) January 5, 2020
With a Surrender Index of 12.29, this punt ranks at the 96th percentile of cowardly punts of the 2019 season, and the 94th percentile of all punts since 2009.
NE decided to punt to TEN from the TEN 47 on 4th & 3 with 12:52 remaining in the 4th while losing 13 to 14.— Surrender Index (@surrender_index) January 5, 2020
With a Surrender Index of 29.92, this punt ranks at the 99.2nd percentile of cowardly punts of the 2019 season, and the 98th percentile of all punts since 2009.
If the Patriots had scored a touchdown instead of a field goal, or chosen to keep running offense instead of giving the ball to the other team, they might still be alive. I understand that the Pats offense has taken a step back this year, but it still seems odd that time and time again, Belichick opted not to trust the quarterback who has won him six Super Bowls.
Winner: Bill Belichick Disciple Mike Vrabel
On the sideline across from Belichick: Mike Vrabel, who played for the Patriots from 2001 to 2008. At this point, I think all 31 NFL teams besides the Patriots have hired someone who has worked with Belichick in hopes that they siphoned off Belichick’s wisdom. They all fail, because so far as we can tell, the coach who makes the Patriots good is Belichick. But Vrabel never coached with Belichick—just played under him. And apparently, he learned one of Belichick’s tricks just by watching games this year.
With about six minutes left in the game against the Patriots, the Titans led by one and were lining up for a punt. I was displeased, because the Titans were punting on fourth-and-5 from the opposing 36. To make the punt easier, Vrabel had the team take a delay of game, moving the ball back 5 yards. The clock ran after the penalty, allowing the Titans to take another 40 seconds off the clock. There’s a rule against a team taking back-to-back delay of game penalties, but there’s not a rule against a team taking a delay of game penalty and then committing some other penalty, so Vrabel had one of his special teamers intentionally commit a false start—allowing even more time to run off the clock after the penalty.
PLAYOFF FOOTBALL BABY! LMAOOOOOOOOO pic.twitter.com/pN7MZy8C0e— Boo Boo Shoester (@FTBeard11) January 5, 2020
Eventually, the clock rolled under five minutes, at which point the NFL’s timing rules change, meaning the Titans couldn’t continue the charade. But they milked almost two minutes off the clock—the third-down play that brought up the punt ended with 6:39 remaining; the Titans eventually punted with 4:51 remaining.
Belichick was furious.
Which is funny, because Vrabel might not have known about this loophole if Belichick himself hadn’t used it earlier this season. In a 33-0 win over the Jets on Monday Night Football, Belichick pulled the delay-of-game/false start move to kill some clock. “That’s probably a loophole that will be closed and probably should be closed, but right now it’s open,” Belichick said after that game. He was pretty smug about it at the time:
When you think about the joke you're going to tell at the party later pic.twitter.com/hKeMwx27PE— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) October 22, 2019
One funny thing about the various Patriots (ALLEGED!) cheating incidents is that they always seem to come when the Pats didn’t need them. They got caught spying on the Jets, Deflategate came out of a game the Pats won 45-7, Spygate 2.0 apparently involved the Pats scoping out the one-win Bengals. Earlier this year, the Patriots signed Antonio Brown for one game, got him a touchdown against the Dolphins, then cut him. It just makes so much sense that Belichick burned this fascinating loophole to reach a quicker ending to a 30-point game against the Jets, then had one of his former players use it against him to end their season.
Loser: The Olds
Maybe you watch sports as a reprieve from the harsh, bitter, pragmatic realities of the world. For a few hours, everything is a game, and you don’t have to think about how you’re going to die someday. Sorry, no can do! As it turns out, you are going to die, and this weekend’s playoff games proved it. Three of the four oldest quarterbacks ever to play in the NFL postseason took the field this weekend, and all of them struggled and lost. Death comes for all!
The oldest of the quarterbacks is 42-year-old Tom Brady, your friendly neighborhood GOAT. For the past few years, “Is Tom Brady washed?” has been the easiest and loudest football debate. On the one hand, Brady’s play has clearly declined in the past few seasons, and this year Brady threw his fewest touchdowns since 2006 (minus 2008, when he missed 15 games with a torn ACL) and averaged a decade-low 6.6 yards per attempt. Plus, he’s started giving off extreme culty vibes about how we can all live forever if we just follow his very expensive nutrition program. On the other hand … six rings! Kiss ’em, suckers!
Saturday, Brady played one of his worst playoff games ever in the Pats’ 20-13 loss to the Titans. Out of Brady’s 41 playoff starts, Saturday’s game ranked 37th in QB rating (59.4), 32nd in yardage (209), and 34th in yards per attempt (5.65.) It was just the fourth time Brady failed to throw or run for a touchdown in a playoff game—unless, of course, you count the game-ending pick-six he threw to former teammate Logan Ryan.
LOGAN RYAN PICK-6— PFF (@PFF) January 5, 2020
The former Patriot takes it to the
That’s just the second pick-six Brady has thrown in a playoff game—the other came in the Super Bowl against the Falcons two years ago, but Brady also threw for 466 yards and two touchdowns in that game. Saturday, he was mediocre and threw a back-breaking touchdown to the wrong team. Now, the world has to wonder whether Brady can stomach retiring with a pick-six as his last career pass, or whether he’ll come back for another year even after showing marked decline this season.
The second oldest of the quarterbacks: 40-year-old Drew Brees, your friendly neighborhood GOAT! (Brady has the rings, Brees has the records.) Unlike Brady, Brees didn’t have a bad season this year—he led the NFL in completion percentage, posted a career high in touchdown rate, almost posted a career low in interception rate, and had a higher QB rating than last year, when he led the league in QB rating. (Damn Ryan Tannehill for swooping in to surpass Brees!)
However, Brees also played the worst postseason game of his career. Out of his 16 playoff starts, Sunday’s loss ranked 15th in total yardage (208) and yards per attempt (6.3) and was one of just four postseason games in which Brees threw only one touchdown. Brees also threw a pick (he had just four this season) and lost a fumble (his first of the year). This against a Vikings team with multiple injuries at cornerback. The longest pass play of the day was by third-stringer/utility man Taysom Hill, who was responsible for a lot of the biggest plays of the day.
The third-oldest is Josh McCown, who, uh, is not your friendly neighborhood GOAT. McCown is the NFL’s ultimate journeyman, having played on 11 NFL teams since being drafted all the way back in 2002. Most of the time, those teams were bad, and most of the time, he didn’t play. Before Sunday, McCown had never taken the field in a playoff game. But he’s on the Eagles, and it’s the playoffs, so of course the backup quarterback had to get into the game. At 40 years old, he became the oldest player ever to make his postseason debut.
McCown had actually retired before this season and was working as an assistant coach at a Charlotte high school to stay involved with the game after his playing days when he decided the game wasn’t done with him. He signed with the Eagles, but kept flying down to Charlotte on Fridays to coach. It was a Cinderella story—out of retirement and into the playoffs.
But alas, McCown is no Nick Foles. The Eagles, already battered by injuries at wide receiver and running back, didn’t have much of an offense with McCown in the game. He threw for 174 yards but was sacked six times, including a backbreaking sack on fourth down as the Eagles drove to potentially tie the game.
After the game, McCown wept. His moment had come, seemingly justifying his decision to come out of retirement, but then it was gone. Maybe he showed enough to convince somebody to keep him around as a backup for another year, but I suspect he’ll be happier in retirement.
Josh McCown gave it all he had. Really emotional here at the end with Zach Ertz consoling him.pic.twitter.com/VmV7iii8Es— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) January 6, 2020
Really emotional scene outside Eagles locker room. Josh McCown, walking alone, stops on way in, squats and begins to cry. Zach Ertz and another teammate console him. He gave all he had.— Jim Trotter (@JimTrotter_NFL) January 6, 2020
This weekend, Brady, Brees, and McCown became three of the four oldest quarterbacks ever to play in the postseason. (The only older QB, George Blanda, mainly focused on his kicking duties by the time he was 42, but did play QB at 43 years old in the 1971 AFC championship game after an injury to Daryle Lamonica.)
All of them lost. Brady could—should?—retire, but his pride probably won’t let him. Brees seems to still have it, but is running short on time for his trophy case to match his record collection. McCown seems to be done. Age is something to be revered, but this is football. Nobody’s taking it easy on the old guy.
Loser: The NFL Rule Book
The NFL takes its rules very seriously. The refs don’t care that you were stealing that loaf of bread to feed your family—that’s theft, number 24,601 of the offense, 19-year penalty, replay third down. The question is whether or not rules are broken, not the intent of the rule-breakers.
However, in Saturday’s Bills-Titans game, a rule was very obviously broken on the field, and the refs decided not to take action. A kickoff went into the end zone, and DeAndre Carter of the Texans wanted to take a touchback instead of returning the kick. He could have done this in several ways. He could have taken a knee, as almost every kick returner does. He could have simply let the ball land in the end zone. He could have caught the ball and walked out of the back of the end zone.
However, Carter did none of those things. He caught the ball, stood still for a second, began walking forward, and then tossed the ball to a referee. The ref, realizing that Carter did not do anything that should result in a touchback, did not catch the ball, letting it bounce freely until the Bills recovered it for an apparent touchdown.
According to the rule book, I believe this should have been a safety. Carter threw the ball forward while standing in the end zone. When it landed, it should have been ruled an incomplete forward pass, and the referee should have thrown a flag and called a penalty on Carter for an illegal forward pass, resulting in a safety.
However, the referees huddled—including an entire crew of alternate referees, who are on standby at playoff games for these circumstances—and decided to rule the play a touchback. By standing still, the refs apparently agreed that Carter clearly wasn’t attempting to advance the ball—never mind that he was literally walking forward with it—and that they should rule on his intent rather than his actions.
From a rule-book perspective, this interpretation is shaky. Technically, a touchback is called if the ball is “downed in the end zone by the receiving team.” A player can declare himself down by “falling to the ground, or kneeling, or clearly making no immediate effort to advance.” So because Carter “clearly made no immediate effort to advance,” the ball was “downed in the end zone by the receiving team.” But I don’t like that ruling—I would argue that it’s not clear that Carter was making no immediate effort to advance! HE’S MOVING FORWARD WITH THE BALL WHEN HE TOSSES IT!
The referees were widely applauded by both fans and officiating experts for this—ESPN announcer Joe Tessitore said “common sense prevails.” As it turned out, this mattered a lot—if the refs had called this play as the rule book intended, the Bills would have gotten two points and the ball. Instead, they got none, the Texans kept possession, the game eventually went to overtime, and Houston won. Those two points made a big difference!
But in my opinion, the rules aren’t about common sense! They are cut-and-dry explanations of how the officials should have called the game! In real life, I’m on the side of forgiveness and lenience with people who break rules. But this is sports. Nothing here matters! Let’s punish people for their brain farts, even if their intent was good! The Texans got caught driving fifty-five in a fifty-fo’—send them to prison!