Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, admonish the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to the divisional-round edition of Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Winner: The Best NFL Weekend
I realized Sunday that the divisional playoff weekend is the best of the NFL season. Every regular-season weekend features the Cleveland Browns, conference-championship weekend is confined to a single day, and wild-card weekend features some teams that don’t belong in the playoffs. (Well, so does the divisional round, but, whatever.) This year’s Week 17 was pretty good, but you can’t usually count on that. The divisional playoff weekend features the four best teams in the NFL, spread out over Saturday and Sunday. And this year, the weekend brought it.
- The Eagles beat the Falcons with a goal-line stand (or, you could argue, the Falcons beat themselves).
- The Jaguars and Steelers combined for 87 points, with Jacksonville winning 45-42. No opponent had scored 45 points in Pittsburgh since Week 17 of the 1999 season. Jacksonville led 21-0 and 28-7, but Pittsburgh got the margin down to a single score on several occasions, only to fall victim to the brilliance of Blake Bortles. And thus, the Jags are going to the AFC championship game. The Jaguars! Shout-out to fictional dead person Jason Mendoza, and also all the actual Jaguars fans who built one of the rowdiest fan bases in football while supporting one of its worst teams.
- Minnesota scored the first walk-off touchdown in regulation in NFL postseason history, a 61-yard pass to Stefon Diggs with zero seconds left to turn a sure loss to a win. The Saints had trailed 17-0 and fought back thanks to a blistering second half by Drew Brees. There were four lead changes in the final 3:01, one of which was the play that will live forever in Vikings history, Saints infamy, and I guess Falcons history, too. (Hey, Falcons fans deserve some happiness.)
Everybody will watch the Super Bowl, but those of us who watched the NFL this weekend saw the league at its best.
Loser: The New Orleans Saints
I don’t even know who Saints fans should be mad at, besides everybody and everything.
The play call was awful. The Saints tried to defend the sideline to prevent the Vikings from getting out of bounds to set up a potential game-winning field goal. But they failed at that—Diggs could have gotten out of bounds in field goal range on this play—and the Saints had only a single defender within 35 yards of the end zone. They tried so hard to prevent a game-winning field goal that they allowed a game-winning touchdown.
And rookie safety Marcus Williams made an inexplicably awful play, lunging at Diggs and completely whiffing. Considering he was the Saints’ only line of defense here, he couldn’t afford to miss this tackle. He didn’t just fail to bring Diggs down—he totally missed him. History will forget Williams’s solid rookie season and the fact that he intercepted Case Keenum earlier in this game.
Winner: The 2015 St. Louis Rams
The two quarterbacks in the NFC championship game are the Eagles’ Nick Foles and the Vikings’ Case Keenum. You may remember them from the last NFL team to play in St. Louis. Foles was terrible in 2015, throwing seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions; Keenum took over in November and got the Rams to seven wins.
Neither player was going to get a starting job after being associated with Jeff Fisher’s mediocrity machine, but Keenum took over in Minnesota after an injury to Sam Bradford and Foles after an ACL tear to Carson Wentz. Keenum threw for 318 yards to beat the Saints on Sunday, more than either quarterback managed in any game in 2015; Foles’s 246-yard performance to beat the Falcons on Sunday would have been his second-best total of the 2015 season.
The obvious take is one that most of us discovered when the Rams transformed from the league’s worst offense to its best in a single season without Fisher: that Fisher held everybody around him back. But, you know, maybe he’s a coaching genius who saw excellence in Keenum and Foles and taught them everything they know about quarterback play. We’ll never truly know.
Loser: Thomas Morstead
Vikings-Saints technically didn’t end with the game-winning touchdown by Diggs. It ended with an injured punter playing defensive tackle.
Saints punter Thomas Morstead made an excellent tackle on Vikings returner Marcus Sherels to save a touchdown in the first quarter:
Thomas Morstead: PFF All-Pro punter, Oustanding tackler. pic.twitter.com/J0VaG3mQ87— Gordon McGuinness (@PFF_Gordon) January 14, 2018
But punters aren’t meant to tackle, and he appeared to suffer an injury on the play. For the rest of the game, Morstead immediately winced and grabbed his side after his punts:
That grimace makes it look like Morstead broke a rib, though no one is sure yet. A Minnesota reporter indicated that Morstead said “it only hurts when I punt,” which is really unfortunate because punting is basically his only job. (“It only hurts when I bang my head into the tree,” said the cursed woodpecker.) It was all for naught. The Saints lost in heartbreaking fashion, and left the field after allowing a touchdown on the final play of the game. They left the field in disbelief, shame, and sorrow.
And then somebody went down to the Saints locker room to tell the team they had to come back to the field. By rule, the Vikings had to attempt a point-after try after their touchdown. There was no need for this—with the score 29-24, no extra point, two-point conversion, or defensive two-point conversion could change the result of the game.
I wouldn’t have come back to the field, and I would have fought anybody who tried to make me come back to the field. But Morstead did. He was one of eight players who endured the humiliation of returning to the field and running 100 yards to finish a game they had already lost. See if you can find Morstead—he’s the one who doesn’t look like he knows what he’s doing.
Morstead’s stance looks like that kid in peewee football that has no idea about football pic.twitter.com/op4X2lbMhr— Colby Hawkins (@colby_hawkins) January 15, 2018
Winner: Everybody Who Had the Saints +5.5
Morstead and his ragtag faux defense couldn’t have stopped a Vikings’ two-point conversion attempt if they tried. There were too few of them; they were out of position. Out of some combination of mercy, sportsmanship, and laziness, the Vikings opted not to try scoring. They kneeled, which, considering Minnesota was up by exactly five in a game it was favored by many books to win by 5.5 points, was hugely important news to many viewers:
When they kneel for the deciding point lol pic.twitter.com/UXD9sMevmJ— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) January 15, 2018
The players who took the field for that PAT had no hope of helping the Saints win. But I suppose they did help everybody who needed the Vikings not to score an uncontested two points here. Good teams win, but great teams cover.
Winner: Clock Operators
On Saturday, there were two nearly identical incidents of potential clock operator tomfoolery. Both Philadelphia and New England had possession at the end of their respective first halves, and both teams were driving to get the ball within field goal range. In Philadelphia, it was ruled that Alshon Jeffery had caught a pass from Nick Foles and got out of bounds with exactly one second to go:
In New England, it was ruled that the Patriots had called a timeout after a Danny Amendola reception with exactly one second to go:
Both immediately led to speculation that the clock had stopped early to allow an additional play. And since both calls went for the home team, there was speculation that both plays were the result of local, biased operators making favorable choices to benefit the home team. But that’s not exactly how this works: The NFL mostly hires local clock operators for the regular season but brings in neutral operators for postseason games. Which … kind of acknowledges that during the regular-season operators might have certain biases. But no matter: There is no bias during the postseason.
Using a stopwatch, I tried to estimate the time between when the clock hit one second and when the action that was supposed to stop the clock (Jeffery’s foot touching out of bounds; Amendola signaling timeout) occurred. With Jeffery, it’s clearly less than a second. With Amendola, it seems like it’s a tad over a second, but it’s close, and it’s possible that somebody elsewhere on the field signaled timeout. Watching this live, I was convinced that the clock operators were rigging the game. Analyzing it now, I think the clock operators probably got these plays right. I’m glad to know operators are seemingly unbiased, and that my own personal football fandoms sway my perception of time.
Loser: Le’Veon Bell
This week, Bell spoke about how he’s willing to sit out next season or potentially even retire should the Steelers franchise-tag him rather than negotiate a long-term contract. Sunday, Bell’s Steelers lost at home to the Jaguars, with running back Leonard Fournette running for 109 yards and three touchdowns. That gave him five touchdowns in his two games at Heinz Field this season; Bell had only four in eight.
After the game, he was taunted by Jaguars players:
Jaguar players yelling for Mike mitchell as they entered the locker room. Bunch of guys screaming in the locker room: "Go ahead Le’Veon! Retire."— Tim Benz (@TimBenzPGH) January 14, 2018
Bell wasn’t the reason the Steelers lost; he had 67 rushing yards and a touchdown, plus 88 receiving yards and another touchdown. But the Jaguars usurped his stadium and ordered him to retire. I think he might have to now.
Winner: Calais Campbell
After erasing Buffalo’s offense last week, Jacksonville’s defense didn’t play exceptionally well Sunday against the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 469 yards and five touchdowns, stunning against the best pass defense in the NFL.
But defensive end Calais Campbell expected this—literally. Somehow, when asked about playing the Steelers after last week’s 10-3 win, Campbell predicted that the Jaguars offense would carry the team to a 45-42 win.
The final score: Jaguars 45, Steelers 42. He spoke those random-ass numbers to life. Tom Brady doesn’t have a chance.
Loser: The Art of the Onside Kick
I am normally in favor of more onside kicks, all the time. They give the kicking team an opportunity to steal a possession. They don’t work a lot, but hey, not my problem.
But Sunday, Pittsburgh attempted an onside kick that it absolutely should not have. Trailing 42-35 with 2:18 remaining and two timeouts left, the Steelers could afford to kick the ball deep: With the timeouts and the two-minute warning, they could have gotten the ball back with around a minute and 45 seconds left. However, Pittsburgh could not really afford to miss on the onside kick: If Jacksonville recovered, the Jaguars would get the ball just a few yards outside of field goal range. A field goal would turn a one-possession game into a two-possession game.
If Pittsburgh had a kicker who excelled at onside kicks, maybe this would be a good idea. They did not. The Steelers didn’t attempt an onside kick this year, and their kicker, Chris Boswell, is 0-for-2 kicking onside in his lifetime. Here is one of those two attempts:
(He pulled that trick off in college, but … yeah.)
Boswell’s onside kick attempt was awful, going about 5 yards and dinging into one of his teammates. Jacksonville kicked a field goal on the ensuing possession, and while the Steelers scored a touchdown in the game’s closing seconds, they would have needed to convert an onside kick to make up for the 10-point deficit they created with the first failed onside kick.
The Steelers didn’t lose because of this—their defense allowed five touchdowns to Blake Bortles’s offense, and their two fourth-and-1 attempts were misguided—but the thought process and execution on this onside were both dismal.