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: Birthday Boy Aaron Rodgers
The Packers suffered one of their worst losses ever on Sunday. Green Bay was a 13.5-point favorite over the Cardinals, whose only wins on the season had come against the 2-10 49ers. The Cardinals are so bad that they lost to the Raiders. The team coached by Jon Gruden! They lost to that team! It was a cupcake to start a stretch of the season when the Packers needed to win every remaining game to make the playoffs —and they blew it. The Packers had lost as 13-point favorites in 1997, but Sunday was their biggest loss in terms of point spread in franchise history. Aaron Rodgers had 233 yards passing, but he needed 50 attempts to get there—a performance so bad that he lost his top spot on the all-time leaderboard in yards per attempt.
The loss was so bad that it led to the biggest change to the Packers in years. After the game, Green Bay fired coach Mike McCarthy, who had been in charge of the team since 2006. The Packers needed to move on from McCarthy: His lack of inventiveness and complete unwillingness to change in an era of groundbreaking offensive innovation wasted years of Rodgers’s prime and was set to waste the tail end of his all-time great career. Now the team can hire somebody capable of putting Rodgers in the best situation to maximize success in the years he has left. (Extremely loud, hacking cough, cough cough cough.)
The worst thing that could have happened to Green Bay was a mediocre finish to the season—not good enough to make the playoffs, but not bad enough to force significant change. Luckily, the Packers made things easier with a loss so horrendous that it instantly brought about the change the team needed.
Am I saying that Rodgers intentionally tanked on Sunday to force the Packers to move on from the only coach he’s ever had? No, of course not, that’d be ridiculous. But the end of the decade-long McCarthy era was a great birthday present for Rodgers. Happy 35th, Aaron—now the clock is ticking.
Loser: The Lucky Bears
It’s bad enough that the Bears, with an opportunity to push their NFC North lead, lost to the 3-8 Giants. But it’s even worse considering the amount of ridiculous things that Chicago did in the final few minutes of regulation and overtime.
• Trailing the Giants by seven with 1:13 to go, the Bears recovered an onside kick:
This might not seem that spectacular, but with the league’s new kickoff rules, onside kicks have become extraordinarily hard. The kicking team had recovered just three of the first 38 onside kicks this year, a 7.9 percent success rate. Just by recovering this kick, the Bears had luck on their side.
• To tie the game, the Bears banked on a trick play:
This play starts out like the Philly Special—it even has Trey Burton, who threw the famous touchdown for the Eagles, touching the ball. But unlike the Philly Special, the Giants cover the play well. Tarik Cohen has to make a surprisingly difficult throw—on the run, to a defended player. It’s harder than the game-losing throw Cam Newton missed a few weeks ago. And he nails it, drilling Anthony Miller in the chest for the game-tying score.
• In overtime, Chase Daniel fumbled the snap, but the ball bounced right and he recovered it.
• On the same drive, Daniel fumbled another snap, but the ball bounced right again and a teammate recovered it.
• On the same drive, Daniel was sacked by Olivier Vernon and fumbled AGAIN, but once again the ball bounced right and he recovered it.
The Bears recovered an onside kick, hit a perfect trick play, and then recovered back-to-back-to-back fumbles. Each of these moments was a miracle, and the Bears managed all of them … just to lose. They should be ashamed to squander such luck.
Winner: Big-Man Touchdowns
Skinny folks suffer when the temperature dips, but when there’s a chill in the air and chili in the crockpot, our blubbered brothers thrive. It’s December: It’s Big Guy Season.
Offensive and defensive linemen scored zero offensive touchdowns in the first nine weeks of the season, but ever since, there’s been a big uptick in scores for the NFL’s biggest boys. In Week 10, 320-pound offensive tackle Dion Dawkins caught a touchdown for the Bills. Last week, 320-pound offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva snagged a score on a fake field goal for the Steelers.
And this week, we got two touchdowns from large individuals. One was a passing touchdown to 311-pound Lions left tackle Taylor Decker, a pretty typical throwback to an offensive lineman that had reported as an eligible receiver:
Decker threw the ball into the stands, only to later realize that he really wanted the ball from his first touchdown at any level. Live in the moment, I guess.
The other was a bit more unusual—the Bears gave 332-pound defensive end Akiem Hicks a carry on the goal line, a play that was rightfully compared to touchdowns scored by Bears legend William “Refrigerator” Perry:
Bears DE Akiem Hicks doing his best William "The Refrigerator" Perry impression pic.twitter.com/FtppkoIk6J— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) December 2, 2018
Big-guy touchdowns will only proliferate as the weather gets colder. By the time the playoffs roll around, the only teams left standing will be the ones wise enough to run out a lineup comprised entirely of 300-pounders. Get ready for Super Bowl MVP Jared Lorenzen.
Winner: Jalen Ramsey
It’s been a bad year for Ramsey. Last year, the cornerback emerged as the brash star of an elite defensive unit that went to the AFC championship game. This offseason, he went on an insult kick, dissing every quarterback in the league in a dissing spree the world hadn’t seen since Tupac recorded “Hit ’Em Up.” And then the Jaguars flopped: After jumping out to a 3-1 start, they dropped seven in a row. Every week, broadcasts could air graphics featuring what Ramsey said about each opposing quarterback, and every week the Jags would get lit up. Like three weeks ago, when Andrew Luck—“I don’t think he’s good”—threw for 285 yards and three touchdowns against the Jags. Ramsey got quiet.
Sunday, Ramsey didn’t ingratiate himself to Luck. In fact, he pulled a “down low—too slow!” on Luck when the quarterback was looking for a hand.
This is light fun, but it’s exactly the sort of harmless troll job that Ramsey was roasted for during the Jags’ losing streak. He was under no obligation to be a dick at this moment in time, but he chose to. If Jacksonville had fallen again, people surely would have credited Ramsey’s mild dickishness with inspiring Luck to win.
Except Jacksonville didn’t lose. The Jags shut out the Colts, 6-0. The Colts have been shut out only twice since 1993: last year by the Jaguars, and Sunday by the Jaguars again. It was an incredible defensive effort, and entirely necessary—Jacksonville had no hope on offense with Cody Kessler starting his first game for the Jaguars and Leonard Fournette suspended, but Ramsey and crew came through.
Ramsey had no picks, but he broke up two passes and made the play that sealed the game. With six seconds left, he made an exceptional tackle to ensure that Colts tight end Erik Swoope remained inbounds, keeping the clock running and ending the game.
Jalen Ramsey with the game-winning tackle! Jaguars win! Jaguars win! pic.twitter.com/iRNF2QuP8t— Big Sad Country (@BigCatCountry) December 2, 2018
This was such a smart tackle. Swoope wasn’t trying to advance, just get out of bounds. Ramsey managed to wedge his body in between Swoope and the sideline—a risky move, exactly the defensive strategy that led to last year’s Minnesota Miracle. But Ramsey also made sure to get enough of a hit on Swoope to stop his forward progress and bring him to the ground. (Swoope’s body went out of bounds, but officials ruled that Ramsey was able to stop Swoope’s forward progress inbounds, meaning the play ended inbounds and not out.)
Sunday, Ramsey backed up his words with a win, which is good for everybody. Even if you like watching Ramsey’s words blow up in his face, he needs to win to feel bold enough to begin zinging.
Winner: Tom Brady, Rushing Champion
Brady has more Super Bowl rings than any quarterback in league history. Including postseason games, he’s the NFL’s all-time leading passer. He’s won more games than any quarterback ever. But this season, he has revealed his true white whale: He wants to finish his career with 1,000 rushing yards. It’s not a particularly lofty goal—Pro-Football-Reference’s career active rushing leaders list doesn’t even go that low. But for Brady, it’s apparently meaningful. Everything seems to come easily for Brady, except running. He had the fourth-slowest 40-yard dash among quarterbacks in draft combine history (tied with aforementioned Big Boy Jared Lorenzen), and that was almost 20 years ago. Brady hitting a career rushing milestone is like Spud Webb winning the dunk contest.
With a 5-yard gain in Sunday’s game against the Vikings, Brady’s dream came true.
Over his 19-year career, Brady is now averaging 53 yards per season (25 running backs currently average more yards per game) and 3.77 yards per game (36 running backs currently average more per carry). It’s perhaps the most stunning testament to his longevity that he’s hit 1,000.
And he will not let this milestone slip away. At the end of Sunday’s game, Brady was asked to take a knee to run out the clock. Instead of stepping back a few yards to take the knee and dip back down to 998, Brady hurled himself forward while kneeling, ensuring his intentional knee was for no gain instead of a loss of 2 yards.
You will have to pry Brady’s 1,000 yards from his cold, dead hands pic.twitter.com/SycQRyLBfZ— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) December 3, 2018
Congratulations to Brady—and RIP to the Patriots’ dynasty. With nothing left to play for, Brady will probably just phone it in for the rest of the season. Maybe Bill Belichick can convince Brady he needs to chase some receiving milestone, but, uh, that might not go so well.
Loser: Fantasy Troll Todd Gurley
Earlier this season, Gurley swung fantasy matchups and betting fortunes by intentionally stopping short of the end zone on a play in which he could’ve scored a touchdown, instead opting to allow the Rams to win a game by kneeling out the clock. Some swooned at the superstar’s ultimate display of unselfishness, passing up the chance to score to give his team a better shot at winning. (As we all know, winners never pay attention to their personal stats. Oh, by the way, please ignore that entire section about how the universally acknowledged greatest quarterback of all time has spent years fantasizing about an obscure rushing milestone.)
Sunday, Gurley one-upped himself.
For the second time this season: Todd Gurley doesn't care about your fantasy team pic.twitter.com/wKbyEsJ3rd— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) December 2, 2018
Once again, Gurley stopped short of the end zone, passing up a touchdown and driving fantasy owners into despair. (After all, this week was the final week of the fantasy football regular season.)
One problem, though: Gurley probably shoulda just scored. His non-score came with over two minutes remaining in a one-score game. His Rams couldn’t run out the clock—they had to score again to seal the game. Because of Gurley’s short stop, the Rams had to run two more offensive plays, running the risk of a botched snap or fumble that could’ve given the Lions life.
Everything worked out OK: Gurley punched in a touchdown two plays later. The Rams won, and Gurley put up 28.5 fantasy points, probably getting all his fantasy owners into the playoffs. But I’m worried Gurley is going a little bit too far in his attempts to appear unselfish. I appreciate the critical thinking that has led him to stop short, but most of the time scoring a touchdown is the best thing to do.
Loser: The Colts
Everything had been going right for the Colts. They’d won five games in a row, averaging 34.6 points per game during that stretch, and had a matchup with the Jaguars, who had lost seven in a row. It was the easiest bet of all time—literally 99 percent of bets on the game were on the Colts to cover the four-point spread.
The Colts didn’t cover the spread, or win, or even score any points. Their zero-point effort was one of the most embarrassing performances of any team this season, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. At 6-5, the Colts entered Sunday tied for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. With the loss, they dropped to 6-6 on the same day that the 6-5 Ravens, the 5-6 Dolphins, the 5-6 Broncos, and the 5-6 Titans all won.
The Colts had the easiest matchup of the six teams battling for the final playoff spot, and they turned out to be the only team that lost. If they miss the playoffs, they’ll have to look back on the day they got shut out by the league’s coldest team while everybody around them prospered.
Loser: The Best Passer of All Time
Sunday was a great day for passing non-quarterbacks. Tarik Cohen threw a touchdown, and so did Odell Beckham Jr. OBJ is now 2-for-2 passing on the year with 106 yards and two touchdowns. He should start over Eli Manning.
It was a great day for every passing non-quarterback except the greatest to ever do it. Mohamed Sanu, the Falcons wide receiver who began his passing career 6-for-6 with 228 yards and three touchdowns, threw an incompletion on a trick play Sunday. He maintains his 158.3 career quarterback rating, but loses his 100 percent completion percentage.
Mohamed Sanu just threw his first career incompletion.— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) December 2, 2018
Entering today’s game, Sanu was 6-for-6 with a perfect 158.3 passer rating.
He was the only player in NFL history to attempt 6+ passes and have both a perfect completion percentage and passer rating.#Falcons
We can no longer argue that Sanu is literally a perfect passer. We know that it is possible for him to throw a ball that is not caught. I can no longer end paragraphs about his surprising passing success with a cheap joke like “he should start over Matt Ryan,” like I just did for OBJ. Nothing gold can stay, not even trick plays.
Winner: The Chargers’ Jedi Mind Tricks
Earlier this season, the NFL gave a bit of validation to every fan who has told a ref they had no idea what they were doing. The league fired down judge Hugo Cruz, the league’s first in-season firing of an official since the AFL-NFL merger. The league had suspended refs many times, but this was unprecedented. Nobody had been bad enough to deserve the ignominy of a public, in-season firing.
Cruz had apparently been grading out quite poorly, but there was a nail in the coffin: He failed to notice a false start by Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung—one of the easier calls for an official to make!—and amid the confusion of an entire defense assuming a false start would be called, Philip Rivers threw a touchdown.
Sunday, the same thing happened. Chargers offensive tackle Sam Tevi false started, but instead of a flag being thrown, a touchdown was thrown:
“Not a false start on the offense.” pic.twitter.com/OFy5b5f6v0— Field Yates (@FieldYates) December 3, 2018
We know the NFL isn’t running some sort of conspiracy to boost the Chargers. In fact, the NFL is taking unprecedented steps to ensure the Chargers get penalized like everybody else.
Apparently the Chargers offensive line is capable of Jedi mind-tricking officials into missing their blatant false starts. The official who missed the call probably knew instantly that he had made a mistake: After the game, Mike Tomlin said the refs told him they knew they screwed up. They just had to keep reffing like they hadn’t just made an error so bad it got another guy fired. This official got Jedi mind-tricked and then had to go meet with Darth Vader after walking past a big cabinet labeled “CORPSES OF INEPT GUARDS KILLED IN BRUTAL FASHION BY DARTH VADER.” It seems unlikely that the league would fire two refs in the same season after going 50 years without doing so, but I bet that ref isn’t answering his phone Monday.
The Chargers might not be the most talented team in the NFL, but if they can somehow keep causing officials to momentarily forget the rules of football? They’re gonna win the damn Super Bowl.
Loser: The Steelers’ Offside Strategy
Something good happened to the Chargers special teams. I’m not quite sure how to deal with it. The Chargers, in case you didn’t know, have been cursed for millennia since the team’s first kicker unwittingly wronged the Greek God of Special Teams. In the past two seasons, the Chargers have cycled through a stunning six kickers, and each one has disappointed in his own way. The last guy nearly gave Rivers an aneurysm, and he was better than the guy who missed two game-winning field goals last year.
But Sunday night, the Chargers needed to win a game with special teams. The Steelers did everything they could to blow a 23-7 lead, including allowing a punt return touchdown to Los Angeles’s Desmond King. The game came down to a last-second kick by the Chargers’ kicker du jour, Mike Badgley, and—as everybody predicted—he missed it.
Are we sure the Steelers were offsides on the 1st kick? pic.twitter.com/gPCaEK6JWp— Steve Frederick (@_SteveFrederick) December 3, 2018
Luckily for Badgley, he got a second chance. The Steelers had come offside in an attempt to block the kick. (If only the Steelers could convince referees to ignore blatant penalties.) Badgley’s second attempt was blocked, seemingly forcing overtime.
I don't know what is worse for Artie Burns for the Steelers. Being offsides and then blocking a kick with your face or being offsides against the Chargers on the next play so bad you miss the block and they win the game. This is a rough series don't you think @cjzero? pic.twitter.com/p0ksgMJlks— Trent M. (@tmac_307) December 3, 2018
But the Steelers were able to block the kick only because they had once again come offside. Badgley got a third attempt, and now 10 yards closer than his first kick, he nailed it. On the successful kick, the Steelers were once again called for being offside—although having won the game, Los Angeles declined the penalty.
(Can you tell which guy is offside? Hint: It’s the guy so far in the Chargers’ backfield he overshoots his target and blocks the air behind Badgley.)
It seemed like the Steelers were just stunningly undisciplined, but I actually think the back-to-back-to-back game-losing offside penalties were part of a strategy. The Steelers don’t go offside on the vast majority of opposing field goal attempts, but knowing that they needed a block to force overtime, the Steelers aggressively attempted to jump across the line of scrimmage at the exact moment the ball was snapped.
On the one hand, I find this strategy admirable. A defense can force as many untimed downs as it wants. Defensive mastermind Buddy Ryan actually had a strategy based on committing an infinite amount of penalties to force a game-ending goal-line stand, and the Steelers used a modern adaptation of that strategy. They were just going to keep attempting to jump the snap over and over and over and over, picking up as many offside penalties and illegally blocking as many field goals as needed until eventually they timed one just right. It’s the strategy of a mad genius.
On the other hand: The Steelers enacted this strategy against the Chargers. You don’t need to block a Chargers field goal attempt to force a crucial miss. The Chargers will miss crucial kicks without you doing anything. They can’t help it.
I appreciate the innovation, but the Steelers didn’t need innovation to jinx a kick that came pre-cursed.