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?
I’m sure some well-adjusted people watch football just to celebrate exceptional feats of athleticism. Couldn’t be me. I’m broken inside, and instead of fixing myself, I take pleasure in watching other people fail as well. So one of my favorite parts of the football season comes down the stretch, when already-eliminated teams ruin the seasons of potential contenders. There’s something truly delicious about teams that have sucked all season suddenly becoming good at the expense of teams that desperately need to win. They can gain nothing, and take everything.
Sunday looked like a great day for my dark and twisted football fantasies. The Giants jumped out to a 14-0 lead on the Colts and seemed poised to ruin Indianapolis’s season, despite being quarterbacked by a noodle-armed Eli Manning and lacking Odell Beckham Jr.
Elsewhere, the Lions went up 9-0 on the Vikings, managing three scoring drives before Minnesota could get on the scoreboard. Yes, the Lions, who have devolved back into the Detroit Lions after a few seasons of surprising competence. Minnesota wouldn’t have been eliminated from the playoffs with a loss, but, well, it wouldn’t have been good.
Fortunately for these teams—and unfortunately for sick schadenfreude enthusiasts like myself—Indianapolis and Minnesota got their games together. The Colts rallied back for a 28-27 win, with receiver Chester Rogers scoring the game-winning touchdown with under a minute remaining.
The team was reportedly inspired by an Andrew Luck halftime speech, which seems impossible. No way I’m getting fired up by the spokesman for TD Ameritrade.
The Vikings scored 27 unanswered points after digging themselves a 9-0 hole, taking the lead on this pre-halftime Hail Mary and never looking back:
Have you ever seen a Hail Mary look so … easy? It looks like an NBA player decided to join in a middle school playground game of 500. I get that the Lions were on the field, but I think they were there just for decoration.
The spoilers fell short, which is good for the league. There are still six teams that haven’t been eliminated from the playoff hunt that will be fighting for their playoff lives next week, including the Vikings and Colts. Indianapolis will play a straight-up elimination game with the Titans that the league will highlight on Sunday Night Football.
You might think that this is bad for me, a soulless hater. But I’m fine with it: The failures of would-be spoilers in Week 16 just means somebody’s hearts will break in Week 17.
Winner: Positionless Football
The best hit of Week 16 was delivered by a punter:
That’s Atlanta’s Matt Bosher snatching Panthers return man Kenjon Barner out of midair, slamming him to the ground, and flexing in his face. In general, we disrespect the athleticism of punters, who are taller and stronger than casual fans expect. That said, if a punter snags you out of the sky, tosses you like he’s throwing a trash bag into a dumpster, and displays his slightly above-average muscles over your helpless body, you should have to retire and join one of those monasteries where you’re not allowed to speak.
The best throw of Week 16 was delivered by a wide receiver:
LANDRY WITH A PERFECT PASS TO PERRIMAN! pic.twitter.com/onD6U14oUW— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) December 23, 2018
That’s Cleveland’s Jarvis Landry throwing a bomb to Breshad Perriman. This ball traveled 56.2 yards in the air. Most wide receiver passes succeed because the defense is fooled by a trick play and leaves a player wide open. Not this time! Perriman was well covered, and Landry still drops the ball into his breadbasket. Most quarterbacks could not make this throw, but Landry nailed it. The play went for 63 yards—longer than Landry’s longest catch of the year, which went for 51 yards.
Hypothetically, the last few weeks of the year are THE MOST IMPORTANT part of the NFL season. But that’s just for teams in the playoff hunt. For everybody else, it’s the least important part of the NFL season. Nothing matters, and I wish teams would play into that. Start your kicker at quarterback. Let an offensive tackle play wide receiver. You’re already dead—why not live a little?
Winner: People Who Are Actually Good at Fantasy Football
For the most part, the idea that some people are better at fantasy football than other people is a myth. Fantasy is fun because it’s a crapshoot, and you don’t even really need to know that much about football to be good at it. Trust me: I’m a professional football writer, and that means I’ve been in plenty of fantasy leagues with people who are paid to write about fantasy football, and they don’t significantly outperform nonexperts. (Also, I’m a professional football writer and I’m also in fantasy leagues with my friends who are not professional football writers and, uh, I lose a lot.)
In 2018, “fantasy football skill” really boils down to two things:
- Having 15 to 20 minutes per week to make informed waiver-wire decisions
- Having Todd Gurley on your fantasy team
If you have Todd Gurley, it’s because you took him no. 1 or no. 2 at the beginning of the season or kept him in a keeper league. He’s been far and away the most valuable fantasy player—he had the second-most points in standard scoring, making him the only running back in the top 12. He had 52.2 more points than the second-best running back in the league. That means he was more than three points per week better than the next-best player someone could’ve drafted. After having the greatest fantasy playoffs of all time last season, Gurley seemed poised to continue the trend of dragging any fantasy team he played on to a championship with 24.4 points last week against the Eagles in Week 15, which is usually the fantasy football semifinals.
All this is to say, if you were in your fantasy football championship this week, there was a good chance you had Gurley on your team. Which means the Rams’ game-time decision to keep the star out of their win over the Cardinals because of a knee injury threw championships into disarray. It was especially tricky for Gurley owners, because the news that he wouldn’t play came after the early Sunday slate had already started, forcing owners to set the majority of their lineups.
It wasn’t possible to coast to victory with Gurley—but it was possible for fantasy owners who had Gurley to manage their way out of catastrophe. Gurley owners should have anticipated the late-breaking news and kept their rosters flexible with players who weren’t locked into early games, allowing them to make adds and drops and lineup changes. And they should have properly identified that the smartest pickup was new Rams starter C.J. Anderson, who stepped in and stunned with 167 yards and a touchdown, good for 22.2 fantasy points. (Anderson was picked up in 36 percent of ESPN leagues in the past day.)
But of course the most likely benefactors of Gurley’s injury were the people going up against Gurley owners. These players already displayed more fantasy acumen than Gurley owners—after all, they managed their way to a fantasy championship game without the fantasy football MVP. But they could have practically cemented a title by making the shrewdest move of all—immediately picking up the few running backs available before Gurley owners could get to a computer. This is the pettiest and smartest fantasy football move possible, and if anybody properly executed it Sunday, they probably won their league.
For the most part, fantasy football is a crapshoot. But of course, good managers can greatly improve their teams’ odds by making smart moves. When the best player in the game got knocked out of the most important week of the year, smart managers won.
Loser: Running Backs
That C.J. Anderson was the guy who stepped in for Gurley is pretty ridiculous. Anderson, who just three seasons ago helped the Broncos to a Super Bowl win, was on the NFL’s scrap heap. He started the year on the Panthers, but quickly became irrelevant behind Christian McCaffrey, managing just 104 yards in nine games. He was cut in November and signed with the Raiders, but didn’t make it onto the field for Oakland. He signed with the Rams only five days ago as it became more apparent that Gurley might miss time. He instantly leapfrogged several younger running backs like John Kelly and Justin Davis, and less than a week after signing with Los Angeles, he was their star:
CJ Anderson doing his best Todd Gurley impression pic.twitter.com/72AK9RrFDB— Def Pen Sports (@DefPenSports) December 23, 2018
It’s not fair to say that Anderson simply filled in for Gurley—he actually outperformed him. Anderson’s 167 yards would be the second-best performance of Gurley’s season.
There’s been a lot of discussion over the past few seasons about how important running backs are in an era dominated by high-powered passing attacks. Gurley’s consistent success for one of the league’s best teams was one of the strongest arguments that a top-notch back could still be a meaningful factor on an elite team. But Sunday, Gurley sat—and a total rando stepped in and did as well, if not better, than Gurley. It made it seem as if Sean McVay’s scheme is more pivotal to Gurley’s success than Gurley’s incredible talents. It’s telling that the absence of the best running back in the game had a bigger impact on fantasy football than actual football.
Loser: Whoever the Chiefs Started at Cornerback Sunday Night
Kansas City has struggled on defense all season. Those struggles have been amplified by injuries throughout an already-weak secondary. And those injuries were even worse than usual Sunday night, as the Chiefs were without starting cornerback Kendall Fuller. In his place, Kansas City had to start Charvarius Ward.
Don’t know much about Charvarius Ward? Let me introduce you! He’s the cornerback getting beat in this clip:
And the cornerback getting beat in this clip:
Ward is a rookie who went undrafted out of Middle Tennessee State. He’s been an important player for Kansas City on special teams this year, but had played only 10 snaps on defense all season—nine of them in garbage time of a blowout win over the Bengals.
Sunday night, he had to play all game, and it went poorly: Ward got called for two pass interference penalties and a defensive holding penalty, and gave up six receptions of 10 or more yards while recording just one pass breakup. Ward was far from the only problem with Kansas City’s defense Sunday night, but whenever the Seahawks managed a big play, there was a decent chance Ward was there, flailing at a pass he failed to stop. Seattle clearly made targeting him a priority, and it paid off.
You’ve gotta feel for Ward. After not playing all season, he was forced to deal with the craftiness of Doug Baldwin and the speed of Tyler Lockett on national television. But for now, his performance exemplifies why football is truly a team game: When even one player who doesn’t belong takes the field at the game’s highest level, there is no place for him to hide.
Loser: Roosevelt Nix
Football players mis-celebrate all the time. It’s the nature of a game where seemingly great plays happen, only for an official to throw a flag and rule that the great play actually never happened. Wide receivers break out elaborate dances without realizing there was a holding penalty 70 yards behind them; cornerbacks wildly gesticulate about their pass breakup before being told they committed pass interference; entire sidelines erupt in joy for minutes before would-be scores are overturned by replay review. It happens, and we don’t judge them.
But I’ve never seen a player celebrate as wrongly as Steelers fullback Roosevelt Nix did Sunday.
Roosevelt Nix with the premature cele— FanDuel (@FanDuel) December 24, 2018
Nix got his first rushing attempt of the year on a fake punt in the fourth quarter of a tight matchup with the Saints. To just about everybody, it was clear Nix came up about a yard short of converting the first down, handing the ball back to New Orleans. The Saints went on to drive for a game-winning touchdown. (Although, to be fair, I’m guessing Drew Brees would’ve done that if the Steelers had punted.)
Nix wanted this play to work really badly. In his four years in Pittsburgh, he has just three carries, and only one has ever gone for a first down. Everybody else gets to celebrate first downs—why not Rosie? He really went in on this celebration, running 10 yards ahead of the play, dropping to a knee, and dropping the football like he was dropping the mic.
I get it. Players often try to sway officials by acting as if they’ve succeeded—shout-out to every single player who has ever enthusiastically pointed in his team’s direction as soon as a ball is fumbled, hoping the officials think, “Well, this defensive back says it was a turnover; who am I to disagree?” But Nix was so wrong that nobody could possibly buy what he was selling. He was 20,000 leagues short of that first down. I walk pretty much everywhere, but if I had to go from where Nix was down to the first-down marker, I’d probably call a Lyft. If the space between Nix and the first-down marker were a home, it would appear on House Hunters or House Hunters International, not Tiny House Hunters.
Nix wasn’t wrong because of an elaborate overturn or some penalty he couldn’t have possibly known about. He just came up short—wayyyyy short—and everybody watching knew it right away. But he opted to celebrate anyway. As his failure became apparent to the whole world, he chose to live in a personal fantasy where the biggest play he’ll ever run was a success instead of an abject failure.
Winner: The Eagles’ Risk-Taking
The legend of Nick Foles grows. It’s now this big. Sunday, the Eagles won another must-win game behind the Super Bowl MVP/backup quarterback, who grows 1,000 feet tall every December after Carson Wentz partakes in an act of ritualistic blood sacrifice that allows Foles to become invincible. Foles finished the win over Houston with an Eagles-record 471 yards passing with four touchdowns. Philadelphia nearly blew the game late, as the Texans scored 14 points in the final five minutes to take a 30-29 lead, but Foles battled back, leading Philly on a game-winning field goal drive.
While there was drama in the game’s closing seconds, Philly won the game hours earlier. In the first quarter, Foles threw to Darren Sproles, who found a hole and rolled to the goal. LOL!
In the second quarter, Foles found Zach Ertz in the end zone:
The common thread between both plays? They both came on fourth down. Philly could’ve kicked two field goals on these two plays, but then they wouldn’t have ended up with 32 points at the end of the game. The Eagles attempted four fourth-down conversions on Sunday, and hit on all four. (The all-time record for most fourth-down conversions without missing is five.)
This shouldn’t be surprising to anybody. Under Doug Pederson, Philadelphia has been incredibly aggressive on fourth downs, leading the league with 17 fourth-down conversions last season. That mentality won them the Super Bowl, as Philadelphia went 3-for-3 on fourth-down attempts in the postseason en route to the team’s first-ever Super Bowl. Things haven’t gone great this season, but with Foles under center and smart fourth-down decisions paying off again, things are looking up for Philly. The Eagles took plenty of risks on Sunday. They all paid off, they won because of them, and they might make the playoffs.
Winner: Grudge King Baker Mayfield
In college, Baker Mayfield built his legend on a mountain of slights. Some were real—after all, coming out of high school, nobody thought Mayfield would be a college quarterback, so he had to walk on at Texas Tech, and then he had to transfer to Oklahoma after a falling-out with Texas Tech’s coach and walk on there. Some were imagined, like when he grabbed his dick during a blowout of 1-11 Kansas, or when he planted an Oklahoma flag on Ohio State’s 50-yard line because he thought he heard them singing a year before. Regardless, Mayfield was at his best when he felt he needed to prove people wrong, which presented a problem when he made the NFL: How could Mayfield claim nobody believed in him when he was the no. 1 pick in the draft?
As the first season of Mayfield’s pro career wraps up, it’s clear that won’t be a problem. Just look at what he did Sunday:
Baker Mayfield stared down Hue for 30 mins lmao pic.twitter.com/I8EKQss5Oj— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) December 23, 2018
Mayfield’s Browns were in the rare situation of playing against the man who began the season as their coach. Hue Jackson was fired in October and took a job as an assistant with the Bengals in November—coincidentally, ahead of two games between Cleveland and Cincinnati. Perhaps the Bengals hoped he’d be able to provide inside info. Either way, it didn’t work out: Cleveland won the first matchup 35-20, with cornerback Damarious Randall handing Jackson a ball after picking off a Cincinnati pass. Sunday, the Browns won 26-18, and Mayfield capped it off by attempting to stare Jackson to death.
I’m not sure Mayfield’s justification for attempting to publicly humiliate Jackson is as valid as he thinks. After all, Jackson was fired—it’s not like he chose to leave the Browns. And Mayfield couldn’t possibly expect Jackson to just leave football after getting axed. Apparently, Mayfield believes Jackson should have remained permanently unemployed. But regardless, the imaginary slight worked: In his two games against Jackson’s Bengals, Mayfield went 46-for-63 for 542 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. He never had three touchdowns in a game under Jackson, and now has had at least three touchdowns in both of his games against him.
Mayfield had a great season—clearly the best of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of the draft. Best of all, we know that even in the pros, Mayfield can find ways to get pissed off. Whether or not the hate is justified has never mattered to Mayfield. He just needs fuel for his fire, and when that fire starts burning, he cooks.