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 Ridiculous Final Few Minutes of the NFL’s Regular Season
There were 256 football games this NFL season, and the 256th ended with the most improbable result of all: The Buffalo Freakin’ Bills going to the playoffs.
There were six teams whose playoff status was unclear entering Week 17: In the AFC, the Bills, Chargers, Ravens, and Titans, and the Falcons and Seahawks in the NFC. So the NFL set kickoff for all six teams at the exact same time, 4:25 p.m. ET. Fantasy football might have wrapped up in Week 16, but this was the moment NFL RedZone was born for.
In the last half-hour of these games:
- Marcus Mariota realized mid-play that the road to the NFL playoffs ran through Barry Church’s face:
Mariota has not had a great season, but he ended it by becoming the first player in NFL history to secure a playoff berth by shoving his hand through an opponent’s head. So, actually, he had the best season in NFL history.
- The Bills, absolutely needing a win to reach the playoffs, nearly blew a 19-point lead in seven minutes, giving up back-to-back touchdowns and an onside kick before Dolphins backup David Fales threw an interception.
- Jameis Winston threw a game-winning touchdown with 10 seconds to go against the Saints. No playoff implications, still cool.
- Having beaten Miami, Buffalo had to watch Ravens-Bengals, the Bills needing Cincinnati to win in order to make the postseason. And Andy Dalton came through with this game-winning 49-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-12:
Dalton had thrown four interceptions and two touchdowns in the last three weeks. The Ravens were third in the NFL with just 15 passing touchdowns allowed in the first 15 weeks of the season. Of course Dalton, whose team had nothing to play for, torched the Ravens for three touchdowns on Sunday.
- After Dalton’s touchdown, the Ravens still had a chance to score, which ended when Joe Flacco fittingly completed a fourth-down pass short of the first-down marker. That’s his shtick.
- Bills fans in Miami got to watch another team vicariously earn them a playoff spot:
- ESPN’s attempts to track each team’s playoff probability went haywire:
Calling it a roller coaster might not do this one justice. pic.twitter.com/OvHPSW4b7s— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) January 1, 2018
Normally the NFL season comes to an awkward finish—contenders and eliminated teams alike both bench their best players, for their own reasons. It’s so unusual that we’ve all collectively agreed that Week 17 is too useless for even fantasy football, the most useless thing around. I can’t remember a season finale this thrilling.
Sunday was like when Manchester City won the Premier League while Manchester United watched, if you just pretend that the Bills and Ravens are two of the sport’s biggest, most popular teams, that they’re bitter rivals, and that the results of Sunday’s games decided the NFL’s championship.
Loser: Cold Weather Football Fashion
It really sucks outside right now. Last night, I picked up a piece of my dog’s poop and briefly enjoyed the sensation of warmth my hand felt through the plastic baggie. Then I realized I was mentally celebrating near-contact with dog crap, and got mad at myself for living where I live. The cold is also awful news for football players, who are supposed to play football outside.
Jets quarterback Bryce Petty tried to squeeze on his helmet over approximately 14 layers:
Inspiring start for Bryce Petty and the Jets pic.twitter.com/3t9LvfGCxb— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) December 31, 2017
And Eagles punter Donnie Jones tried to punt in sweatpants:
Nothing quite says "It's Week 17, who cares?" like the Eagles' punter forgetting to take off his warm-up pants pic.twitter.com/onoDu7VZDL— The Ringer (@ringer) December 31, 2017
Both players eventually realized that they were incapable of playing football in warm clothes. Luckily, I watched football indoors all day. But if any NFL players need hand-warmers for the playoffs, I’ve got a dog that produces an alarming amount of them every day.
Winner: Everybody Who Got to Watch or Play the Cleveland Browns
If you watched the Cleveland Browns play this season, you got to witness greatness. Sure, it was greatness in the category of losing, but that’s greatness, too. Just look at this, the play that sealed the team’s 0-16 record:
Corey Coleman really wanted to finish 0-16. pic.twitter.com/0sP3tgVTvb— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) December 31, 2017
Down 28-24 to the Steelers—well, the Steelers’ backups, since most notable Pittsburgh players sat out the game to avoid injury ahead of the postseason—Cleveland was driving, and had its final opportunity to get a win this year. Much-maligned rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer actually made an incredible play, dodging a sack and delivering a perfect ball to a wide-open Corey Coleman. But it was New Year’s Eve, so Coleman decided to end Cleveland’s year by dropping a ball.
Perhaps the members of the other 0-16 team in this sport’s history, the 2008 Detroit Lions, were wistful on Sunday. Last year, I imagined them playing their part as the polar opposites of the 1972 Dolphins (who celebrate when undefeated teams take an L) by popping bottles of Faygo after the Browns won a game to become 1-14. But they can see their equal in these Browns. The Lions’ winless season will forever be defined by Dan Orlovsky’s auto-safety; the Browns should be defined by this Coleman drop.
We’ve become numb to the non-stop failure of the Cleveland Browns, a team that has sucked extravagantly for almost the entirety of its post-1999 rebirth existence. The suckitude of this year’s team is distinctly Browns-ish—there is not another franchise in football that would maintain its coach after back-to-back 1-15 and 0-16 seasons, and yet owner Jimmy Haslam strongly confirmed on Sunday that the team will keep coach Hue Jackson. (“I don’t think anybody else could have done this job,” Jackson said. I disagree—I am completely confident I could coach any team in the NFL to an 0-16 record.)
But let’s not dismiss the spectacular, magnificent, historic losses of these Browns as merely a function of their Cleveland-dom—the 2017 Browns were next-level losers. In the last month alone, they brought us some of the most beautiful losses I’ve ever seen: the Coleman drop, a blown 14-point fourth-quarter lead followed by the worst interception of the season in overtime, and last week’s pair of inexplicable red zone turnovers. The Browns were loss artisans, and I will miss them.
Loser: New York’s Backup Quarterbacks
The Jets and Giants both played meaningless games on Sunday. The Jets lost theirs, getting walloped 26-6 by the Patriots, and the Giants won theirs, picking off Kirk Cousins three times to beat Washington 18-10. And yet neither gave any playing time to recent high draft picks at QB.
It was expected that the Jets would finally give Christian Hackenberg, the team’s 2016 second-round pick, some playing time this week. The selection of Hackenberg was questionable at the time, and he still has yet to see the field through two full NFL seasons, a rarity for such a highly-drafted player. Instead, the team stuck with Bryce Petty all game long. Petty wasn’t playing well—he led the Jets to a Sad Field Goal™ down 24-3 in the fourth quarter, and was later sacked in the end zone for a safety. But apparently, down by three scores in the team’s final game of the season, the Jets still could not afford to let Hackenberg play.
The Giants won’t take as much heat for leaving third-round pick Davis Webb on the bench for two reasons: (1) They won, and (2) the guy playing was Eli Manning. But the fact Webb failed to see the field at all as a rookie is a real disappointment. Manning obviously won’t play forever, and while former head coach Ben McAdoo’s decision to bench Manning in November was the wrong way to treat a franchise icon with one of the longest starting streaks in the history of the league, the idea that the team should give reps to its young quarterbacks was the right one. As it happened, McAdoo only played 27-year old Geno Smith before getting fired the week after benching Manning. Manning’s historic streak was broken for the purpose of testing out young quarterbacks, and yet the season has ended, and their best prospect still hasn’t taken a snap.
Maybe Hackenberg and Webb suck. (Seriously—I’m wondering whether Hackenberg might be the worst quarterback in NFL history.) But we’d need to see them getting live NFL game reps to know that for sure. Live reps are so important for evaluation purposes, and they’re impossible to replicate in practice. The Giants and Jets had some to give away, and chose to stash them, playing guys they already knew all about.
Winner: This Bears Trick Play
I would never describe myself as a football expert. I would, however, describe myself as an expert in special teams plays. Two years ago, I interviewed several special teams coaches about my favorite play: The trick where a punt return unit convinces the punting team to follow one return man to one side of the field while another player catches a punt and returns it for a touchdown. It was invented by Bears special teams coach Dave Toub in 2011, although sadly, his team didn’t get a touchdown out of it—officials called a phantom penalty, apparently as confused by the play as the Bears’ opponents.
On Sunday, six years later, the Bears finally got that touchdown:
This play has the same premise as the other one, but a different execution. On the Toub play, the punt is fielded by a player who starts at the line of scrimmage and pretends to block an opposing gunner before breaking off and catching the punt. On this play, Bryce Callahan began the play kneeling on the sideline:
The Bears trick punt return was *not quite* the famous Johnny Knox/Dave Toub play. Bryce Callahan is crouched by the Bears sideline, trying to bend in—the Knox play used a gunner from the LOS to field the punt pic.twitter.com/D9aXmNCtc9— Rodger Sherman (@rodger_sherman) December 31, 2017
It’s actually an easier play—on the Toub play, the return man has to sprint 40-plus yards, make a catch over his shoulder, reverse direction, and sprint the other way until he gets tackled or scores. On this play, Callahan caught the ball with his momentum moving forward.
But it might be illegal. In August, I wrote about the history of teams attempting to hide football players. The tactic of faking a substitution before having a player hide near his teammates on the sideline was first attempted in 1954, and banned in 1955. The Browns tried it with Johnny Manziel a few years ago—it got flagged—and a few college teams have pulled off illegal versions of the play without getting penalized.
I have yet to see exactly how Callahan maneuvered over to the sideline. If he went over while his teammates were still making substitutions, this play was illegal. But that touchdown is never coming off the board. Salute to the Bears for a fun wrinkle on a classic. Maybe what they did was legal, or maybe they just goaded a bunch of other teams into attempting an illegal play. Each eliminated team should be forced to use all of its trick plays in Week 17.
Loser: The Eagles
The Cowboys were last season’s most exciting surprise, and the Eagles were this season’s. But both teams took dramatic downturns: Dallas was eliminated from the playoffs last week; Philadelphia still has the top seed in the NFC, but will have to play without quarterback Carson Wentz after a torn ACL ended his season. All of this combined to make their Week 17 finale one of the most depressing games of the 2017 season.
At the end of the third quarter, the two teams were tied 0-0, the first time two NFL teams played three scoreless quarters since 2007. Dallas scored the game’s only touchdown with 12 minutes to go; Dan Bailey, the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history, missed the extra point and later missed a 23-yard field goal.
Nick Foles, the man who is supposed to lead the Eagles in Wentz’s absence, went 4-for-11 for 39 yards and an interception on the day. (He is no longer Our Baby, nor is he “It, baby.”) He was replaced by Nate Sudfeld after just one quarter—a planned benching made with Foles’s postseason health in mind, but one that seemed like it could have been performance-related. Sudfeld went 19-for-23 for 134 yards, and Philadelphia sports radio hosts can now try to stir up a Nick Foles–Nate Sudfeld QB controversy.
The Eagles lost the game 6-0. They are the sixth playoff-bound team in league history to get shut out the week before the postseason; the previous five went 1-5 in the playoffs. The Eagles have the top seed in the NFC, and they might be the conference’s least likely team to win the Super Bowl.
Loser: T.Y. Hilton and Johnathan Joseph
If you throw a punch in an NFL game, you will be ejected. Those are the rules. This has been demonstrated multiple times this year.
So you could have presumed that both Hilton and Joseph would get ejected after this fight in the Colts’ 22-13 win over the Texans. I mean, both players threw both rights and lefts at their opponent, in broad daylight, not hidden by any scrum.
T.Y. Hilton and Jonathan Joseph exchanging blows pic.twitter.com/VdluYKyJHL— Cameron DaSilva (@camdasilva) December 31, 2017
And yet the referees let them both continue to play. I don’t know what the justification was, but I like to think that the officials got together and said: You know what? We’re not letting this guy on a 4-11 team and this guy on a 3-12 team get out of this season this easily. They’ve gotta see this through.
Winner: Party People
The 2017 calendar dealt the NFL a bummer. The setup where Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve both fall on Sundays is easily the worst potential orientation of the days of the week for NFL purposes. Christmas Eve isn’t a great football night—people go to church and stuff—so in Week 16, the NFL made Steelers-Texans a Christmas afternoon game. That was a ratings success—it stole Christmas Day from the NBA, getting higher ratings than any basketball game in at least 20 years.
New Year’s Eve also isn’t a great football night—people leave their homes to party instead of staying in to watch sports. College football found this out the hard way when it tried to make its new playoff a New Year’s Eve tradition (there was this ad where Jimmy Kimmel, Robin Thicke, and Nick Young sang about “watching college football through confetti,” even though their party notably didn’t have any televisions) and failed, massively, suffering huge ratings drops. The last time New Year’s Eve fell on a Sunday was in 2006, and the NFL put Brett Favre’s “last” game on in prime time to the tune of 13 million viewers, which was significantly worse than that season’s average of 17 million viewers for all Sunday Night Football games. So a New Year’s Eve prime-time game isn’t a great idea, and unlike Christmas week, the league doesn’t have the option of moving a game to Monday—traditionally, all 32 NFL teams play on Sunday during Week 17 due to all of the playoff ramifications, and to prevent teams from having to play a postseason game on a short week. (Plus, all the big college football games are on New Year’s Day.)
So the NFL decided not to have a Sunday Night Football game this week. They justified this from a “competitive standpoint,” saying that due to the league’s standings, there is no game that could be played in prime time that wouldn’t be affected by earlier results. That’s true, but I suspect if Sunday night wasn’t December 31, the league would have slotted in one of the games that might be rendered irrelevant and hoped for the best.
Instead, they avoided the ratings hit and gave everybody—including the people writing and editing this article!—the opportunity to leave their house New Year’s Eve. Thanks, NFL!