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 Wild-Card Weekend edition of Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Winner: Marcus Mariota
In Week 17, Marcus Mariota clinched the Titans’ first playoff appearance since 2008 by shoving an opponent in the face en route to a first down. It was a spectacular individual effort: one man realizing that he needed to do something remarkable to accomplish his team’s goals, and then succeeding at it. But he one-upped and two-upped himself Saturday night in the best game of the wild-card round, making a pair of stunning plays to guide the Titans from a 21-3 deficit to a 22-21 win over the heavily favored Kansas City Chiefs.
First, Mariota became the first quarterback to throw a touchdown pass to himself in a postseason game:
It’s rare enough for a quarterback to catch a touchdown pass on any play—if we only count pure quarterbacks and not quarterback–wide receivers like Kordell Stewart and Brad Smith, there have been just 19 receiving touchdowns by quarterbacks since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, and only one of those was a self-catch: this Brad Johnson play in 1997. It’s not uncommon for quarterbacks to catch their own passes, but normally, it looks like this Matt Stafford play from 2015 or this Brock Osweiler play from 2016—the quarterback snags a batted ball to avoid an interception and instantly gets tackled for a huge loss.
But Mariota almost made his catch look intentional, like a basketball player getting an easy bucket by inbounding the ball off an unaware opponent’s back. He would never have scored a touchdown by running, but he stunned his opponents with the pass, caught the ricochet in stride, and dove for the pylon.
And then in the fourth quarter, Mariota made a critical block on the play that clinched Tennessee’s win:
What a frigging block by Mariota to seal the game! pic.twitter.com/DcQb0a5L1Z— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) January 7, 2018
Quarterbacks don’t catch touchdown passes; quarterbacks don’t make critical blocks. Therefore, Marcus Mariota is no longer a quarterback—he’s a whole dang team.
Loser: Marcus Mariota
One downside to the Titans winning their wild-card game: Mike Mularkey will be the team’s coach in 2018. If the Titans had lost, he likely would have been fired, with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels linked to Tennessee’s hypothetically open head-coaching job. Mularkey himself admitted Saturday that he did not feel his job was safe.
Mularkey is a bad coach and an offensive dullard. In terms of winning percentage, he is one of the worst head coaches ever to win a playoff game. The fact the Titans snuck into the playoffs and miraculously squeaked out a game against a Kansas City team that lost to the Giants and Jets doesn’t vindicate him.
I like Mariota as a player, and I believe Mularkey is actively holding Mariota back. His career would be in much better shape if the Titans had lost, fired Mularkey, and hired McDaniels. Instead, Mariota had to go and do something stupid like lead an incredible, inspiring comeback victory that Titans fans will remember and cherish for decades. What a fool.
Winner: Bugatti Blake Bortles
There was no way a Jaguars playoff win wasn’t going to be extremely weird.
Their victory over the Buffalo Bills was a true affront to football. The 10-3 final score made it the lowest-scoring playoff game since the Steelers beat the Patriots 7-6 in 1998. Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor went 17-for-37 for 134 yards and an interception. When Taylor was injured on the game’s final drive, backup Nathan Peterman threw a game-ending pick on his third pass. (That’s his shtick.) The Bills may have ended their 18-year playoff drought, but their Not Scoring A Touchdown In The Playoffs streak will continue into a 19th year.
Bortles was awful, too, going 12-for-23 for 87 yards and a touchdown. That’s 3.8 yards per attempt. That’s bad. But Blake has WHEELS. He ran for a career-high 89 yards (the only other time he’d ever gone over 70 rushing yards was also against the Bills).
Nobody could stop him; they could only scream helplessly as the Jaguars’ menacing mountain lumbered down the field. Just look at this cameraman’s last moments on earth:
At the NFL draft combine in 2014, Blake Bortles ran a 4.93 time in the 40-yard dash. That’s the same time as noted speedsters Mark Sanchez and Dan Orlovsky, and just a smidge faster than Mike Glennon’s 4.94, but well-behind Eli “The Flash” Manning, who knocked Mel Kiper Jr.’s toupee off with the sonic boom from his 4.90 40.
After Sunday, Bortles joins a short and illustrious list of quarterbacks with more than 70 yards rushing in a playoff game, and all of them were much better at running than Bortles. He also created a list of his own: He’s the first quarterback in playoff history to throw 20 passes and still have more rushing yards than passing yards. And due to the cosmic-level incompetence of the Bills, that was enough for a win.
Loser: Sean McDonough
McDonough’s ESPN call of Saturday’s Chiefs-Titans game started awkwardly enough. He began his broadcast with a sweet, emotional goodbye to his on-air partner, Jon Gruden, who will be the next coach of the Raiders. Presumably, Gruden knew this would be happening, but he no-sold it, saying that his Raiders deal was not official, even though ESPN had been reporting on his new job for days.
Sean McDonough: Goodbye Jon, thanks for everything— 12up (@12upSport) January 6, 2018
Jon Gruden: Well it’s not official yet you IDIOT pic.twitter.com/Ojx8ZCzs9k
This was the point when I adopted the theory that Jon Gruden hates Sean McDonough, something I became more convinced of over the course of the evening.
McDonough went on to have one of the most awkward broadcasts in the history of national sports. His voice prominently cracked on two pivotal plays during the game, ruining calls that should have been exciting by making us all wonder who mic’d up a donkey with pneumonia. Listen to these yodels:
Later in the evening, Gruden snidely remarked “I’m just glad your voice didn’t crack that time” as McDonough recounted Mariota’s self-touchdown from earlier in the night.
What a tragic evening for McDonough: embarrassed on national television while trapped in a booth with his incredibly wealthy secret arch-rival.
Winner: NFL Fans Freed From Jeff Triplette
Triplette was the lead official for the Chiefs-Titans game, and he sucked. Fox officiating analyst Mike Pereira said Triplette had “not a good performance,” and Pereira used to be the NFL’s head of officials. He tends to support their decisions, or at least tries to justify a bad ruling by explaining how difficult officiating can be. When he says a ref did a bad job, they really did a bad job.
You probably know Triplette from his signature excessively long explanations of rulings, and he didn’t disappoint on Saturday. On the pass caught by Mariota, Triplette took to the mic to explain that Mariota had been eligible to catch the ball because he started in the shotgun formation. There was a grain of truth to Triplette’s explanation—by NFL rule, quarterbacks who start under center are not eligible receivers, which is why Tom Brady had to walk around aimlessly to make a legal catch on this play from 2015. But it was irrelevant: As soon as a pass is touched by a defensive player, any offensive player is eligible to catch it, even offensive linemen or quarterbacks who start under center. It’s concerning that Triplette didn’t understand that.
But that wasn’t his worst mistake. Somehow, he decided that Marcus Mariota did not fumble during this sack:
Triplette explained that Mariota’s forward progress was stopped, which, to be fair, is true. But it’s very unusual to see forward progress cited on a play like this. Normally the play is considered live until the quarterback’s knee hits the ground. Here, Triplette is arguing that the play ended the moment Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson contacted Mariota—before he lost the ball and his body hit the ground—and that judgment call is unreviewable. Later on the drive, the Titans kicked a field goal. They won by a single point.
After the game, it was reported that Triplette is retiring. I normally don’t celebrate retirements, but I’m glad Triplette’s backward progress is being stopped.
Loser: Pharoh Cooper
Pharoh Cooper isn’t the name of a WASP who became the ruler of Egypt—he’s an explosive athlete who was probably the best returner in the NFL this season. He led all qualified players with 27.4 yards per kick return this year—almost 2 full yards per return better than second-place finisher Tyler Lockett—and was one of just seven players with a kick-return touchdown this year. He also averaged 12.5 yards per punt return, good for second in the NFL. He was named first-team All-Pro and will go to the Pro Bowl as a return man.
But most importantly, he was sure-handed: 78 touches and just one lost fumble.
… Until Saturday night, when he was responsible for two special teams turnovers. The first was a muffed punt:
Cooper misplayed the ball, leaving him out of position to catch it, and he didn’t tell his teammates to get the hell away from the bouncing live ball. One touched it, and the Falcons gained possession in the Rams’ red zone.
Later, he fumbled on a kickoff return, again giving the Falcons the ball in great scoring position:
The Falcons scored 10 points off those two turnovers. The Rams also missed the opportunity to score because they turned the ball over. They lost 26-13. Cooper was great this year, but a season of putting the Rams in slightly better field position would have been much less valuable than having somebody who managed to hold onto the ball on those two plays.
Winner: The New Orleans Saints From Every Season Besides This One
This year, we did not get the New Orleans Saints we were used to. For the past decade or so, the Saints have had great passing attacks powered by Drew Brees, no running game to speak of, and borderline-awful defenses. This year, the Saints had a top-10 defense and Brees was merely a complement to two of the best running backs in the NFL.
But we got the Good Ol’ Saints in Sunday’s 31-26 win over the Panthers. Carolina’s defense stifled Mark Ingram (nine carries for 22 yards) and Alvin Kamara (10 carries for 23 yards), and New Orleans’s 41 total rushing yards were its fewest of the year.
Brees was spectacular, going 23-for-33 for 376 yards with two touchdowns. Here’s an 80-yard bomb to Ted Ginn in the first quarter:
The 80-yard touchdown by Ted Ginn to take the lead pic.twitter.com/MNrx2ZmYz7— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) January 7, 2018
(Ginn, by the way, played for the Panthers last year. Three plays before this one, a receiver named Kaelin Clay dropped a would-be touchdown for Carolina. Sorry, Cam.)
And New Orleans’s defense got torched on plays like this:
Cam Newton’s 349 passing yards were the fourth-most by a quarterback against the Saints this season. On the game’s final drive with the Panthers down five, Newton got Carolina to New Orleans’s 21-yard line and took several shots at the end zone, any of which could have resulted in a game-winning touchdown that ended the Saints’ season. But New Orleans managed to hold on after a controversial intentional grounding call and a huge sack.
This was a troubling game for New Orleans—all the things it was good at this year seemed to falter. And yet, somehow, this gives me great confidence in the Saints. By the grace of Brees, a Super Bowl is in their sights.