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The Winners and Losers From NFL Week 16

Butt picks, another catch controversy, a historic stretch for Todd Gurley, and much more holiday cheer (and sadness) on this Christmas Eve

AP/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

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: Todd Gurley Fantasy Owners

Congratulations to everybody who picked Todd Gurley in fantasy football on winning your league.

Last week, Gurley went for 180 scrimmage yards and four touchdowns—42 fantasy points in standard scoring leagues—in a performance that likely vaulted most of his owners to fantasy championship games. This week, he almost matched that performance with 276 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns—39.6 fantasy points. He became the first player with 100 rushing yards and 150 receiving yards in the same game since Herschel Walker in 1986.

Simply put, Gurley had the greatest fantasy playoffs of all time. From Weeks 14 to 16, Gurley posted 107.1 points, the most any player has ever managed in those weeks, 7.4 points higher than the 99.7 Jamaal Charles amassed in 2013. If we just count Weeks 15 and 16, Gurley also delivered the highest fantasy total of all time, 81.6 points, surpassing Marshall Faulk’s 2000 and 2001 seasons.

Now, surely, some of you are going to read this and think, “Rodger, you were wrong to automatically congratulate all Todd Gurley owners on winning their leagues. I have Todd Gurley, and I didn’t win my league.” Well, I’m sorry to have been inaccurate. I’d also like to let you know that you screwed up massively and should feel personally bad about your failure. At least everybody who lost their leagues without Gurley didn’t squander the greatest late-season individual statistical performances in football history.

Loser: NFL Officials

Another week, another controversial overturned touchdown.

Last week, it was Pittsburgh tight end Jesse James’s score-turned-incompletion against the Patriots. This week, it was Buffalo receiver Kelvin Benjamin’s score-turned-incompletion against the Patriots.

You could look at these plays and Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins’ score-turned-fumble against the Patriots earlier this season and note that all three of the most controversial, high-profile touchdowns overturned by instant replay this season benefited New England. Somehow, a wide swath of Patriots fans firmly believe the NFL is trying to bring down the Pats, and a wide swath of fans of the other 31 NFL teams firmly believe that the NFL rigs things to benefit the Pats.

After the Benjamin score was overturned, many immediately blamed the NFL’s famously broken catch rule. But in a strange twist, the catch rule was not the problem here. The question here was whether both of Benjamin’s feet touched down in the end zone when he gained control of the ball. Having both feet down with possession is the purest definition of a catch, the one we all understood before things got extremely complicated.

The problem here was not with the rule, but with the way the NFL’s replay system operates. The on-field officials ruled that Benjamin got both feet down. Slow-motion replays raised the question of whether Benjamin’s second foot left the ground before he gained control, but there was no angle that definitively proved Benjamin didn’t have control when his foot left the ground.

The NFL is only supposed to overturn calls if there is “clear and obvious” video evidence that the on-field decision was wrong. If the video is inconclusive—or really, anything less than “clear and obvious”—the call on the field should stand. But between the Seferian-Jenkins overturn and this one, it’s now clear and obvious that the league’s replay office does not adhere to that standard.

The league’s replay system is meant to correct officiating errors by on-field officials. Instead, the league office is using challenges as an opportunity to freshly officiate the plays from New York. That takes a lot of agency away from the league’s referees. This is, of course, quite upsetting to officiating experts:

Leagues are right to use instant replay to ensure accuracy. But when slow-motion, high-definition replays from a variety of angles don’t definitively tell us what happened on a play, there is no right or wrong answer. And in those cases, there won’t be a better solution than trusting the refs.

Winner: Butts

We will never surpass the Buttfumble. But that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate great moments in Sports Butts. Like this Saints interception, a ball that bounced off the hands of Falcons receiver Marvin Hall and onto the ass of New Orleans’s Marshon Lattimore.

The first amazing thing is that reigning MVP Matt Ryan has now thrown 12 interceptions this season, and almost none of them have been his fault. He’s historically unlucky when it comes to picks.

The second amazing thing is that A BALL FELL ONTO A MAN’S BUTT. Last week, the Panthers won thanks to a touchdown made when Panthers wide receiver Damiere Byrd’s butt came down inbounds. The Saints and Panthers are now 11-4 with one week remaining, and the NFC South may come down to whoever has the luckiest butts Week 17.

Lots of people referred to the play as a “butt pick,” but Lattimore doesn’t like that term.

Lattimore is right. From here on out, this play is called the thicc pick.

Loser: The Cleveland Browns

You don’t get to be 0-16 through mere badness. You have to suck monumentally. You have to suck in every facet of the game—you have to suck in ways nobody else would think to suck. And when the chance for success presents itself, you must fail harder in those moments than you’ve ever failed before.

Sunday was likely the Cleveland Browns’ last chance to win a game this season. They were facing the 4-10 Bears, an aimless, inept squad playing out what will surely be the final days of its current coaching regime.

The two teams played roughly evenly—each averaged 4.4 yards per play, with Chicago gaining 258 yards and Cleveland gaining 253. But the Browns only got to the red zone twice, and came away with zero points from those two drives.

The first time the Browns got to the red zone, DeShone Kizer threw a pass that could only be caught by a Chicago defender:

The second time the Browns got to the red zone, Kizer fought to avoid a sack in the backfield and found Rashard Higgins on a broken play, converting a critical third down. Higgins fell while making the catch, but got back up, and bit by bit, battled his way down towards the goal line.

And then he got blindsided and fumbled.

Cleveland lost 20-3. The Browns now have a whopping nine red zone turnovers on the season. Kizer also threw an interception the last time the Browns got into the red zone in Week 15, so they’ve now turned the ball over on three-straight red zone drives. According to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, they were the only team in the NFL with more than three coming into Sunday, and they can set a record for most red zone turnovers since 2000 with another one next week.

The Browns are now just one game away from going winless on the year, and that last game is against the first-place Steelers. They truly suck enough to do it.

Winner: Jimmy Garoppolo

Garoppolo was already the first QB to start his career with wins in his first five starts since Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. But that streak seemed likely to end Sunday against Jacksonville. The AFC South champion Jaguars—sheesh, that’s fun and weird to say—had the best defense in the NFL in most categories before Sunday: fewest points allowed (209), fewest yards per play allowed (4.6), most sacks (51). They were also second in interceptions (20) and allowed the third-fewest passing touchdowns (14).

Jimmy GQ freakin’ torched them. The 49ers, who averaged just 17 points per game before Garoppolo took over, became the first team to crack 40 against the Jags in a 44-33 win. Garoppolo went 21-for-30 for 242 yards with two touchdowns and an interception while taking just one sack. LOOK AT THIS DUDE:

The Jaguars were fighting each other because they couldn’t stop Guwop.

The question is no longer whether Jimmy Garoppolo is the greatest quarterback in the NFL. Now that he’s started four games for the 49ers and won all four for a team that started the season 0-9, the question is whether Jimmy Garoppolo is the greatest quarterback in NFL history, or perhaps the greatest athlete in any sport’s history, or perhaps just the greatest person ever to live.

Loser: The Tennessee Titans

I love breaking down the tricks on trick plays. Here’s one the Titans ran on Sunday.

The trick here is that the Titans are on the field, and the Rams are not on the field. Therefore, when the Titans kicked an onside pick, there were only Titans on the field to recover it. Clever.

But, for some reason, the play was voided. During the play, officials threw a flag, although no penalty was announced or enforced. (All the Titans were onside, and their formation appears to be legal.) After the play, officials announced that the Rams had called a timeout before the kick. Rams coach Sean McVay responded to that announcement by saying “What?” and no timeout was enforced. There was some concern that perhaps the Titans had kicked off before the play clock started running, but Titans kicker Ryan Succop said he’d checked with an official before kicking the ball.

I still don’t know why the Titans weren’t allowed to keep the ball. But I would advise teams to take the field for most plays.

Winner: The Salvation Army

If you’re an NFL fan, you know that every Thanksgiving, the Cowboys bring an enormous red Salvation Army kettle onto their field, and that for the rest of the season, this kettle lives behind one of the Dallas end zones. Last year, that kettle achieved viral fame when Ezekiel Elliott scored a touchdown and jumped inside. He drew a penalty for excessive celebration, but reportedly caused a big spike in donations to the Salvation Army after his jump, and Elliott himself donated $21,000 to the charity after the NFL decided not to fine him for the penalty. This offseason, the NFL relaxed its celebration rules, allowing players to celebrate in groups and use the football as a prop, but notably, the rules still prevent players from using outside objects like goalposts as props. At the time of the rule change, some noted that Elliott’s celebration still would have been illegal.

I guess Seahawks cornerback Justin Coleman never got word about that rule technicality.

The NFL should get rid of the prop wording in its celebration rule—the increase in creative, fun celebrations has been a massive success. Really, all celebrations should be legal, provided they don’t delay the game, aren’t profane, and aren’t taunting opponents in a way that might lead to offense or a fight. But even if the NFL doesn’t completely reform its celebration rules, you’d think the league would want to make an exception for the Salvation Army kettle: The optics of penalizing a player for literally celebrating a charity are, well, bad.

But maybe this is the best thing the NFL can do. By penalizing jumping into the Salvation Army kettle, the NFL has actually extended the life of this celebration’s news cycle. Perhaps by needlessly crapping on an attempt to bring attention to a charity, the NFL has engendered goodwill and reminded people to give at this time of year! At Christmas, even the NFL’s doddering idiocy is beautiful.

Loser: Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett

Sunday, Elliott returned to the Cowboys after serving his six-game suspension for an alleged domestic violence incident. From a football perspective, the timing was great: Dallas needed to beat Seattle to keep its playoff hopes alive, and Elliott is one of the best running backs on the planet. He led the NFL in rushing last year by more than 300 yards, and was leading the league in yards per game before his suspension.

Elliott had 97 rushing yards on the day. Trailing by nine in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys got the ball to the 3-yard line. This would have been a great time to give the ball to Elliott. Here is what they did instead, thanks to head coach Jason Garrett’s questionable play-calling:

  • Ran the ball with Dak Prescott for a gain of 1 yard
  • Attempted a rollout pass play that led to a holding penalty
  • Attempted to passed again, leading to a sack for a loss of 11
  • Threw the ball to Jason Witten 16 yards short of the end zone

The Cowboys lost 13 yards in four plays. Dan Bailey then proceeded to miss a 33-yard field goal—odd, since he’s one of the most accurate kickers in football history. The Cowboys never cut the lead to one possession, and lost, 21-12.

There is no good way for a team to be eliminated from playoff contention, but if you’re a fan of a team, you at least want to think that your squad gave it their best go. Instead, Dallas’s season ended with the team refusing to give its fresh superstar a shot to score.

Garrett has coached America’s most famous franchise for eight years and has only won one playoff game. He won’t win another one this year. Merry Christmas.