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 Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Winner: The NFL’s Ridiculous Rule Book
American football started as a quaint form of murderous semi-rugby played by college kids in the 1860s, and over the past 150 years, it has grown into a billion-dollar behemoth. The modern NFL rule book represents a century and a half of evolution. Some rules have mutated to become unrecognizable; but football also has entire organs that sat unchanged as this chimp grew thumbs. Sunday, three bewildering moments revealed how one sport can feature elements that are modern while others are stunningly archaic—and those moments decided the two biggest games of the day.
First came the call that decided the game of the year: Patriots-Steelers. It sure looked like Steelers tight end Jesse James had scored a go-ahead touchdown to give Pittsburgh a last-minute lead on the Patriots less than a minute after New England had taken the lead. This looks like a touchdown, right?
But no, this wasn’t a catch. Yes, James had control of the ball, and maintained that control of the ball as he brought it across the goal line. We’re often told a play is a touchdown the very instant the ball breaks the plane of the goal line, but not here: James was “going to the ground,” and therefore, had to control the ball through his initial contact with the turf to register a catch. Since the ball jostled and hit the ground when James’s arms crashed down, the pass was incomplete. James had control of the ball in the end zone, but because this wasn’t a catch, he never technically had possession. Unlike James, the Patriots held on to win, 27-24.
This play looks so much like a catch that the league’s officiating chief, Alberto Riveron, accidentally slipped up when justifying the overturn: To explain why this should be an incompletion, he starts by saying “As we can see here, Roethlisberger completes a pass to James …”
Later, on Sunday Night Football, official Gene Steratore had to make a ruling on whether a Dak Prescott run had resulted in a first down or a turnover on downs. After attempting to eyeball whether the ball went past the first-down marker, he dramatically fetched a piece of paper and tried to slide it in between the ball and the marker. Upon determining that the paper hit the football, Steratore ruled it a first down.
It’s a game of inches and also a game where we just make it up as we go and measure stuff with giant sticks and pieces of paper. pic.twitter.com/xhDSSTnxNk— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) December 18, 2017
(When interviewed, Steratore said he made the decision visually before using the card, which just reaffirmed his initial impression. Officiating blog Football Zebras infers he probably knew this was a first down when the ball crossed the paint on the 40-yard line, since the set of downs began at exactly the 30-yard line.)
Nobody had ever seen the Sheet Of Paper Method of determining a first down, leading to questions about whether this was proper officiating procedure. Why was the paper folded, and therefore thicker than an unfolded piece of paper? Why was the “open” end of the folded paper face down, making it more likely to bump the football on its slide? And hey, wait—why is there space between the paper and the marker?
A piece of paper folded once over is 0.1 millimeters thick. Therefore, the Folded Paper trick implies that this system is accurate down to a tenth of a millimeter. But of course it isn’t: The chain gang is really meant to provide the offense a decent idea of where it needs to go. On first-and-10, the gang is just trying to quickly approximate where the referee has spotted the ball. The gang does have a method to ensure it maintains the positioning it had on the sideline when called onto the field, but that method is still imperfect. And besides, the entire premise of spotting a ball at the position of farthest forward progress is a matter of officials’ judgment. Any attempt to claim the chain gang is precise falls apart when you look at the damn thing. What drunk home improvement project created this monstrosity?
The Cowboys scored a go-ahead field goal on that drive, and then the Raiders tried to drive for a game-winning score. But that drive ended when David Carr lunged for the goal line and fumbled the ball out through the end zone.
Oh no Derek Carr, what is you doing? pic.twitter.com/uUnbdQZX93— NFL Retweet (@NFLRT) December 18, 2017
As football fans know by now, this is a touchback. There was no controversy here. We have all accepted this rule, the most unnecessarily punitive in sports. Anywhere else on the field, a fumble out of bounds would return the ball to the fumbling team. But for some reason, at the most critical part of the field, the defense doesn’t even need to touch the ball to force a turnover. Without recovering the football, the Cowboys ended the scoring opportunity, and in turn, the game.
These scenarios could all be fixed. The catch rule should have an objective standard instead of its current mess of complicated ifs, ands, and unlesses. There simply has to be a better way to measure where the ball is than the chain gang—put chips in the footballs! Put lasers on the yard markers! And I have plenty of suggestions about the touchback rule.
But Sunday laid bare two very different ways to go about things. The catch rule is a carefully crafted, complex, intricate attempt to create a definition of “a catch” that preserves our pre-replay understanding of “a catch.” It has failed, as shown Sunday, when an obvious catch became an incompletion via the accurate application of a rule. It is the worst way to modernize the analog. On the other hand, we have a dude sticking a piece of paper into a medieval football contraption. This is a dumb game, beautiful in its stupidity, and maybe it’s more fun when we don’t try to get the right answer on everything.
Loser: Players Trying to Score Touchdowns
If James had focused on controlling the football rather than trying to thrust the ball across the goal line, he likely would have held on for a catch. Either he would have scored, or the Steelers would have had a second down inches from the goal line, trailing by three, with multiple chances to go for a touchdown and the potential to tie the game with a field goal.
If Carr had simply gone out of bounds instead of leaping toward the goal line with the ball extended, the Raiders would have had a first down with 30 seconds to go trailing by three, with multiple chances to go for a game-winning touchdown and the potential to tie the game with a field goal.
But both players lunged, trying their best to score pivotal touchdowns. Both lost control, and both were punished harshly for it.
The lesson is clear: Never try to score. Ambition will hurt you, bravery is foolish, and the easiest way not to fail is not to try.
Winner: The Backup Jacksonville Jaguars
By this point in the season, you have to know that the Jacksonville Jaguars are #actually good. It’s not a thing you can laugh about anymore. Their defense is merciless, and Leonard Fournette is untacklable.
But Sunday against the Texans, Fournette was out. So, too, was Allen Hurns, the team’s no. 2 receiver, and the team’s leading wideout, Marqise Lee, got injured in the first quarter. The Jaguars were playing with just three wide receivers: Dede Westbrook, drafted in the fourth round in April, Keelan Cole, an undrafted rookie out of Division II, and Jaydon Mickens, who slept in his car earlier this year while on the Jaguars’ practice squad.
Cole had 186 receiving yards and a touchdown:
Mickens, who entered the game with just one career reception, had two touchdown catches:
As the fantasy playoffs raged, a bunch of dudes nobody owns balled out. Corey Grant, who hadn’t carried the ball since Week 10, led the team with 10 rushing attempts for 69 yards and a touchdown. Tommy Bohanon, a fullback who wasn’t on a roster in 2016 and had never scored a rushing touchdown in 49 career games, scored twice on two carries from the 1-yard line. Powered by these randos, the Jaguars won 45-7, clinching the team’s first playoff berth since 2007.
It’s only right that a gang of merry former cast-offs could be the one to seal the deal on their playoff berth. For most of the past decade, the answer to the question “Which NFL team would be most likely to sleep in the back of its car?” has been “the Jaguars.” They have been aimless and hopeless, and now look at them, stunting on the league.
Loser: The Steelers’ Late-Game Trickeration
There’s a lot of focus on the bad ruling that lost the Steelers the game. But after James’s mishap came the actual play that lost Pittsburgh the game. This happened:
This is a fake spike, a play that worked for the Steelers last year. Most defenders bought that spike—except Antonio Brown’s defender, who was staring down Brown the whole time and never even saw Ben Roethlisberger’s pump fake. Luckily, Antonio Brown is exceptionally good, so he torched his defender in one-on-one coverage.
But Brown got hurt earlier Sunday afternoon, so the receiver Roethlisberger threw to this time was Eli Rogers, the Steelers’ sixth-leading receiver. And while New England’s defensive line bought the fake, the entire secondary and linebacking corps remembered Roethlisberger had done this in the past, and played like they would any other down.
The idea of a trick play is to fool the opposition, but if you can’t, it’s nice to at least have a play design that can win anyway. Sunday night, the Steelers failed to fool the Patriots, and the resulting play design was half of a defense clued in on one route, and that route was being run by one of Pittsburgh’s least-dynamic receivers.
After the game, Roethlisberger explained that there was confusion leading up to the Steelers’ final play:
Ben Roethlisberger says there was a difference of opinion on #Steelers final play. "It wasn't a fake spike. I was yelling 'clock it' b/c I felt that was the thing to do, to clock it and get yourself one play. And it came from the sideline: 'Don't clock it, don't clock it.'"— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) December 18, 2017
There’s a lot of blame to go around. Why did the Steelers think the fake spike would work for a second time, against a team as aware as the Patriots? Why does the Steelers’ fake spike have only one option? Why did Roethlisberger throw the ball even with the lone option covered? These are questions that would be asked a lot more loudly if the catch rule weren’t so bad.
Loser: The Seahawks
Congrats to everybody with Todd Gurley on their fantasy teams; you’re probably in the finals of your league. Against the Seahawks, Gurley had 180 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns for 42 fantasy points in a standard league. It’s the highest fantasy total of the season, and, considering the time of year, one of the greatest fantasy performances of all time. He’s 11th on the list of highest fantasy totals by a player Week 15 or later, and five of the 10 performances above him came before the widespread adoption of fantasy football.
But slightly more important than your fantasy playoffs are the NFL playoffs. And the Seahawks, who allowed that monster day, probably aren’t going to those anymore. Per FiveThirtyEight, they’re down to a 13 percent chance of making the playoffs.
They failed in every conceivable way. Russell Wilson was sacked seven times for a loss of 71 yards. He also attempted to throw a pass that turned into a fumble that lost 23 yards:
Russell Wilson tried to throw the ball away. It went BACKWARDS. Lost 23 yards on the play. Lucky it got out of bounds. pic.twitter.com/hlGtQNCfBU— Cork Gaines (@CorkGaines) December 17, 2017
Somehow, this was only the second-most costly throw of his day. Seattle didn’t score a touchdown until it already trailed 40-0.
As for how six of those 40 Rams points happened: Seattle allowed a rushing touchdown to Gurley on third-and-20:
Todd Gurley has 3 TDs and 144 rushing yards at half.— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) December 17, 2017
Including this 57-yard touchdown pic.twitter.com/VFLOH1BCe7
That’s a miracle. The only other person in the Pro Football Reference database to score a rushing touchdown on third-and-20 or longer is Tim Tebow, and, you know, water to wine, fish and loaves and all that stuff.
But it got worse after the game. Earl Thomas commented that Bobby Wagner, who played through a hamstring injury, should have sat out to make room for healthier backups on the field. In a now-deleted tweet, Wagner responded to Thomas: “Keep my name out yo mouth. Stop being jealous of other people success.”
The Seahawks sucked at every aspect of being a team Sunday—offense, defense, and not publicly fighting online. It’s a shame to see a team with such a talented quarterback and so many spectacular defenders miss the playoffs, but at least even their losses are extravagant.
Winner: Cam Newton
I have never seen any NFL player—or person—do anything this cool.
In case you can’t hear: Newton hears Clay Matthews alerting his teammates to the likelihood that the Panthers are about to run a wheel route. Newton smiles and compliments Matthews on watching film.
I love moments when we can listen in to what NFL players are saying to each other during games. Often, we learn how much players notice and respect the work their opponents put in as they strive to be as great as possible. Like Saturday night, we heard Tamba Hali of the Chiefs giving pointers to Joey Bosa of the Chargers. Or last month, when Chris Long of the Eagles told Menelik Watson of the Broncos that he was having a really good game. Cam did that too, acknowledging that Matthews had made an astute observation about the Panthers’ offensive strategy.
And then he said “That’s cool, watch this,” and threw a touchdown. “That’s cool, watch this” is one of the greatest four-word phrases I have ever heard. Before today, I thought it could only be used at the end of a ’90s teen movie, when the protagonist’s rival has done his/her incredibly difficult performance in the skateboarding contest/dance-off/rap battle/guitar solo competition. Cam did it in real life, in an NFL game. That’s cool, and I have nothing to top it.
Winner: Case Keenum
The best part of Vikings-Bengals came well after the game’s outcome had been decided. With Minnesota up 34-0 and just a few minutes away from sealing its NFC North title, Teddy Bridgewater came into the game. It was the quarterback’s first action since his brutal 2016 knee injury, which some felt would prevent him from ever playing football again. When he took the field Sunday, he proved he had beaten the odds, and the crowd’s reception was stunning:
And on Bridgewater’s very first pass, he threw an interception off the hands of a running back.
Case Keenum has been really good for the Vikings, and Sunday he went 20-for-23 for 236 yards with two touchdowns and no picks. But Bridgewater was a star before his injury, so there’s been some debate over whether the Vikings should consider replacing Keenum if Bridgewater is healthy.
If Bridgewater had come in and managed to look dynamic in a few short moments, the quarterback controversy would rile up. Instead, he threw a pick against opposing backups in a long-decided game. It was beautiful to see Bridgewater play again, an opportunity to celebrate his resilience. But ultimately, it seemed inconsequential, a neat moment in a meaningless setting—and that’s probably good for Keenum.
Loser: The Giants’ Special Teams
The Eagles put up 34 points and won, even with Nick Foles at quarterback! But they almost didn’t, because of a defense that gave up 434 passing yards and three touchdowns to Eli Manning.
Philly held on for a 34-29 win on the strength of three plays. A blocked punt:
A blocked field goal:
And a blocked extra point. Luckily for the Giants you can’t block a kickoff, or the Eagles would have found out a way to do it.
Before Sunday, there had been 10 blocked punts on 1,982 punt attempts, 17 blocked field goals on 853 field goal attempts, and seven blocked extra points on 900 attempts. To allow any of these things is a failure. To allow all three in a game, essentially costing yourself 11 points in a game you lost by five, is as bad as starting Geno Smith over Eli Manning.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the Jaguars had clinched the AFC South; they have clinched a playoff berth, not the division title.