Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, investigate the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Winner: The Legend of Nick Foles
In September, we jump to conclusions. In October, we think all that over. In November, we learn who the real contenders are. And in December, we throw all that crap out, because none of it matters. It’s Nick Foles season, and everybody else can get the hell out of his way.
With Carson Wentz sidelined, Foles has once again stepped in as quarterback of the Eagles. Sorry—I should refer to him by his full name, Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles. And Sunday night, Foles delivered one of the most stunning wins of the year, beating the previously 11-2 Rams 30-23 in Los Angeles:
The Eagles were 13.5-point underdogs after Foles was named the starter. I gotta ask Las Vegas: Did y’all see the Super Bowl last year? The one where Nick Foles threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns and beat the Patriots? It was probably on a lot of the televisions at your sportsbooks. Anyway, Philadelphia’s win was the second-biggest upset of the year, in terms of point spread.
In case we need to recap: Foles took over as QB1 of the Eagles when starter Carson Wentz tore his ACL during a game in Los Angeles against the Rams a year ago. The Eagles won that game, and Foles made his first start Week 15, won that, won again in Week 16, made the playoffs, and then won every playoff game and the Super Bowl, and Foles won Super Bowl MVP. A rando crashed the NFL’s biggest party, and somehow, he was the coolest guy there.
The magic seemed dead when Foles started again at the beginning of this year as Wentz continued to rehab. Foles looked awful, averaging 5.5 yards per attempt and throwing just one touchdown in two games. But it’s all here again: The Eagles just won a game over the Rams in Los Angeles, and now it’s Week 15, and the ball is in Foles’s hands.
The Eagles face an uphill battle to make the playoffs—they’re 7-7, a half-game behind the 7-6-1 Vikings for the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC, and they’ve got the 10-4 Texans and a fellow .500 team in Washington down the stretch. But they’ve got Nick Foles.
“They’ve got Nick Foles” shouldn’t be a good thing. We saw him struggle in September. There are full years of evidence that Foles isn’t that good at playing quarterback, and just a few odd wins in December, January, and February to support the notion that Foles is an unstoppable clutch god.
But it’s December. The mild-mannered backup quarterback just went into the phone booth, and he came out wearing a Super Bowl MVP’s clothes. It’s Nick Foles season.
Loser: The Inevitability of Tom Brady
I fear Tom Brady like I fear death. When I first thought about death as a child, I was paralyzed by the fact that one day I would no longer exist. But now I’ve come to terms with the fact that death/Tom Brady is unavoidable. I’m no longer actively terrified—it’s more of a cap on the amount of possible joy I can experience, an understanding that the worst possible thing is looming, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Sometimes it seems like we can beat Tom Brady. Like when the Patriots start the season looking mediocre, or when any team takes a two-score lead on them. But no, there’s no winning here. No matter how bad they look, the Pats always end up getting a first-round bye in the playoffs, and they always end up in the Super Bowl. And no matter how good their opponent looks to start the game, Brady always ends up with the ball in his hands down a score with 30 seconds left, and you realize how foolish you were to think you could have cheated death.
But after the events of the past two weeks, I’m starting to think that maybe Tom Brady can be beaten. Last week was the Miracle in Miami—a fluke, sure, but a fluke rife with Patriots failure that we’re not used to. And this week Brady had a chance to win against the Steelers—and missed it. First Brady threw this brutal interception:
Brady’s human. I’ve seen him make mistakes before. But I’ve never seen him make a mistake like this—a mental mistake, a play where Brady got caught between trying to complete a pass and trying to throw the ball out of bounds and ended up short-arming it right to a defender.
Then, trailing by seven, the Patriots got near the end zone. I’d seen this movie before, and it ends with Brady killing the good guys and escaping so there can be a sequel. (This probably sounds like a pretty bad movie plot. Trust me, it is.) Except this time, Brady came up short. He threw four straight passes that didn’t even hit a receiver. He threw three passes out of the back of the end zone, and this fourth-down pass that was deflected.
Brady’s human. I’ve seen him miss passes before. But I’ve rarely seen him miss like he did on this final possession—just whipping inaccurate passes past receivers he apparently thought were 9 feet tall.
The Patriots are now 9-5, the fourth-best record in the AFC. Winning out won’t be enough for the Pats to get a first-round bye—they’ll need the Texans to lose, too. This is stunning: New England has gotten a first-round bye in the playoffs for eight straight seasons, every year since 2010.
Cam Newton wasn’t in the NFL the last time the Pats had to play the first week of the playoffs.
We’ve gotten used to the Pats’ consistency, so much so that we disregard every slipup they make as a bug that will eventually be fixed en route to the same successful finish they always have. But things are different this year. The Patriots are a machine, but that machine is not working as well as it normally does. If the Pats really don’t get a first-round bye, if they really do have to play on the road in the postseason, things will be different.
Or maybe they won’t, and I’m just convincing myself I can cheat death again.
Winner: Bills Running Back Josh Allen
The newest Final Destination movie came out on Sunday, starring Buffalo’s running backs. The Bills were already short their best offensive player, LeSean McCoy, out with a hamstring injury. Backup Chris Ivory was also out with a shoulder injury. That left just two running backs: Marcus Murphy and Keith Ford.
And then Murphy got hurt, leaving the game with an undisclosed arm injury. That left just Ford, playing his very first NFL game. And then he got hurt. Buffalo was legitimately out of running backs. They started to give the ball to Patrick DiMarco, the fullback who entered Sunday with three carries for negative-2 yards across seven seasons. DiMarco said he’s expected to learn all the plays for running backs and tight ends, and was ready to fill in—and is thrilled to now have positive rushing yards for his career.
And then he got hurt! The Bills also gave a carry to rookie wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud.
It’s pretty rare for a team to flat-out run out of players at a position. Sometimes a kicker or punter gets hurt, and by design, they don’t have backups, and things get weird. Last week the Texans had enough wide receivers injured that quarterback Joe Webb started running routes, but they didn’t run out of receivers—they just didn’t have enough to play in some multi-WR sets. I remember a few years ago the Falcons ran out of offensive linemen and had to play a blocking tight end at right tackle, but that’s about it.
But the Bills were fine. After all, they have Josh Allen, the greatest runner alive.
Josh Allen rushes in for the touchdown! pic.twitter.com/FltZ03itgG— uSTADIUM (@uSTADIUM) December 16, 2018
Allen led Buffalo to a 14-13 win with this 42-yard touchdown pass—yes, out of an empty backfield, because there was nobody to put in the backfield.
The Bills finished the game with a running back—Ford’s injury wasn’t serious, and he returned to the game for the final few drives. But maybe they should just work on cloning Josh Allens.
Loser: The Rams’ Perception of Time
Something weird happened to the Rams on Sunday—they had fewer points than the other team. Los Angeles wasn’t used to this. The Rams had trailed in the final five minutes of only four games this season and hadn’t really needed to run a two-minute drill yet. They kicked a go-ahead field goal with 2:05 remaining against the Packers, scored a go-ahead touchdown with 1:49 remaining against the Chiefs, and weren’t within a score of the Bears or Saints.
So when they needed to score quickly against the Eagles, they were befuddled. Down 17 points with 14 minutes remaining, the Rams went on a five-minute-long drive that ended in a field goal. Next, the Rams went on a touchdown drive that featured three checkdown passes for 10 or fewer yards in the middle of the field.
Somehow, it worked. The Rams got the ball back with 1:08 left down seven points … and seemed blissfully unaware of their circumstances. Here’s Todd Gurley catching a pass near the sideline and, instead of going out of bounds to stop the clock, cutting back upfield to fight for a few extra yards.
Gurley trying to be slick on this play pic.twitter.com/AqFxUsebot— DIE-HARD Fans (@Eaglesfans9) December 17, 2018
Yes, this is the same Gurley who has a habit of stopping short of the end zone to help his team run out the clock. Clearly, he’s capable of spur-of-the-moment decisions regarding which boundaries he should cross in order to manage the clock most wisely. Why didn’t he go out of bounds?
But Gurley wasn’t alone. Tight end Gerald Everett did the same thing. If one player makes a dumb decision to stay inbounds, I’ll call them dumb. If two players on the same team make the same dumb decision to stay inbounds on the same drive, the dumb one is whoever failed to coach his players on basic situational awareness.
Winner: The Emotional Hedge
Sports betting is now legal in Pennsylvania! Congratulations to the fine people of the Keystone State, surely none of whom had ever wagered on sports before, because it was illegal. That included a sportsbook just down the street from Heinz Field. And surprise: A ton of people showed up to bet against the Steelers.
On the first Sunday for the sportsbook at Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh (@WinBigRivers), the action is setting up to make the Pittsburgh Steelers biggest need for the house. The Steelers host the New England Patriots.— David Payne Purdum (@DavidPurdum) December 16, 2018
The era of legalized sports gambling means people are able to gamble and then go attend a sporting event, and therefore it may be the era of the emotional hedge. Betting on your team is risky: If your team loses you’ll be sad, and you’ll also lose money. Betting against your team is a win-win: Either your team gets the W, or you get cash.
Pittsburgh won, which is great for the people in Pittsburgh, including the ones who lost money. You can be happy or rich, but probably not both.
Loser: The Guy the Vikings Fired
Tuesday, the Vikings made a change at offensive coordinator, firing John DeFilippo. It seemed deserved: Minnesota finished 10th in scoring offense last year, then signed a supposed franchise quarterback in Kirk Cousins, and dropped to 20th in scoring offense as scoring exploded around the league. The problem seemed to be at OC, where Minnesota lost Pat Shurmur to the Giants and added DeFilippo.
Sunday, the Vikings had their best offensive game of the year. They scored a season-high 41 points, bolstered by a season-high 220 rushing yards. Dalvin Cook ran wild for 136 yards and two touchdowns:
That’s notable because head coach Mike Zimmer had publicly feuded with DeFilippo over the fact that Minnesota wasn’t running the ball enough. There aren’t many things worse than getting fired—short list: getting dumped, basically anything featuring spiders, being born a Jets fan. But I have to imagine DeFilippo’s week has been even worse than the average firing. Not only did he get axed, but less than a week later, the world is seeing just how wrong he was.
Butts get a bad rap around the NFL. We primarily associate them with the time Mark Sanchez slammed his face into an ass and fumbled a football. But butts can be forces for good, too. Look at Khalil Mack, who sacked Aaron Rodgers back-first on Sunday.
Mack slammed into Rodgers with his back, jolting the quarterback off balance. He finished the job by lowering his body onto Rodgers and essentially twerking him into the turf.
After the Buttfumble, this is a huge opportunity for butts to rebrand. Think about how versatile butts are: They can poop, they can fart, they can … actually, you know what, most of the things butts can do aren’t that great.
I take everything back. The Mack Back Sack isn’t about the versatility of the human ass, but rather the unreal versatility of Mack himself. He can’t be stopped, even if he’s going backward.
Loser: Vance Joseph
I’m a fourth-down radical. I believe coaches should go for it significantly more than they do, and I will not rest until the league’s coaches kneel at the altar of analytically sound decision-making. But Saturday night, Vance Joseph made a fourth-down decision that should disgust even traditionalists—and it probably cost his team a winnable game as the Broncos cling to their minuscule playoff hopes.
Trailing 17-13 with just over five minutes to go, Joseph’s Broncos faced a fourth-and-6 from the 11-yard line. Stunningly, he opted to kick a field goal, cutting Cleveland’s lead to 17-16. I could see kicking a field goal trailing by three—but I’d still rather go for it on fourth down, taking advantage of a late trip to the red zone. But the Broncos were down four.
The risk of going for it is that if you miss, you’re losing and your defense now needs to make a stop to get the ball back for your offense to score again. But guess what: If you kick a field goal down four, you still need your defense to get a stop to get the ball back for your offense to score again.
A few minutes later, the Browns had a fourth-and-1 on the Denver 10-yard line. They made the smart decision to go for it. If they picked it up, they would have ended the game. But they missed—and still won, because failing to pick up a fourth-and-1 on the 10-yard line forces your opponent to go a really long way.
Denver lost because Vance Joseph was too scared to go for it on fourth down. As Cleveland showed him, going for it on fourth down isn’t as risky as he thought.
Winner: Saturday Football
Because the college football regular season is over, the NFL’s December Saturday slate began this week. This was good for two reasons:
1. Fans got to devote their full attention to Jets-Texans and Browns-Broncos. Deshaun Watson and Deandre Hopkins linked up for a stunning game-winning touchdown for Houston:
And the Browns stonewalled a late Broncos drive for a win:
These were competitive—fun!—games that otherwise would’ve been buried in the Sunday 1 p.m. slate. I probably would’ve just seen coverage of the closing moments. But both games deserved full consideration.
2. With three games already played before Sunday, the late afternoon slate just featured two games—Seahawks-49ers and Steelers-Pats. Seahawks-Niners went to OT, and Steelers-Pats was a classic. Again, both games deserved full consideration.
The arrival of NFL Saturdays allows for a different type of football gluttony. Most weeks we are presented with as many as 10 games at 1 p.m. on Sundays, to be consumed by mainlining RedZone. This week, we got a binge featuring 24 hours of NFL—three hours Thursday night, 12 hours Sunday, and three hours Monday night, like most weeks, plus an additional six hours on Saturday. Is it sad that I like this more? If the NFL gave us 16 individual one-game broadcast windows, I’d probably watch 50 hours of football in a week.
Winner: The Alliance of American Football
The worst investment you can ever make is into a fledgling start-up football league. Many have tried—there’s been the WFL, the USFL, the XFL, the UFL, the FXFL, and many others. As it turns out, it’s really expensive to pay 50-ish football players, plus pay for their equipment and places to play, and provide proper medical coverage for a sport that can permanently maim its players. As it also turns out, not a lot of people are willing to pay any amount of money to watch off-brand football. Crypto is a better investment, and crypto is internet money worth a consistently decreasing amount of real money.
So all those leagues have tried, and failed, and yet more people keep trying. Leagues with planned launches include a reboot of the XFL, the player-owned Freedom Football League, and something called the Alliance of American Football. The AAF is set to launch in the spring, and got a head start on things by holding a draft specifically for unsigned quarterbacks last month. The first pick? Josh Johnson, a journeyman who had been on 11 NFL teams—and thrown passes for only one of them, the Buccaneers. Johnson would be a member of the San Diego Fleet—because the Navy is in San Diego, I think? But then the NFL threw things for a hitch. Washington suffered an injury to Alex Smith, forcing it to sign Mark Sanchez, and then Colt McCoy got hurt, forcing Washington to sign Johnson about a week after his selection by the Fleet.
Normally, you’d think it would be a bad thing for a league’s no. 1 draft pick to ditch the league for a better opportunity within a week. But Johnson’s stint in Washington might be the best thing ever to happen to the AAF. Last week, Johnson seized the QB1 spot from Sanchez by throwing for a touchdown and running for another. This week, he led Washington to a stunning 16-13 win over the Jaguars.
Was he good? Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh ... I don’t know about good, but he threw a touchdown and played mistake-free football, enough for Washington to beat a Jacksonville squad that had just 20 net passing yards.
At one point, the announcer exclaimed, “This guy was the no. 1 pick in the AAF!” I’m sure what he was trying to portray was that Johnson was truly seized off the scrap heap—look, this guy was just drafted into some league nobody’s heard of, and now he’s winning games in the pros. But it kinda sounded like he was vouching for Johnson’s potential—he used the words no. 1 pick. I’m sure at least a few people Googled “AAF Football.”
For start-up football leagues to avoid the Graveyard of Ill-Conceived Football Leagues, they’ll need two things: publicity and an air of legitimacy. The AAF hasn’t even played a game yet, and it’s already strongly linked to a certified NFL game-winning quarterback. I’d still probably rather lose money in bitcoin, but the AAF is off to as good a start as it could hope for.