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: Lamar Jackson
They said Lamar Jackson should play wide receiver. THEY SAID LAMAR JACKSON SHOULD PLAY WIDE RECEIVER! People who make their living talking and thinking about football said Lamar Jackson—who won the Heisman Trophy as a quarterback because he’s good at playing quarterback—should play wide receiver.
Sunday, Jackson won for the sixth time in seven starts as Baltimore clinched the AFC North. I can’t say it better than the Ravens said it:
We didn’t think Jackson should play wide receiver—we said he should be the second quarterback off the board, just behind Baker Mayfield, which, given how this year’s rookie QBs have played, sounds about right. Even the Ravens needed some convincing: Jackson threw only 12 passes through the first nine weeks of the season, serving nominally as Joe Flacco’s backup but generally entering the game to line up at various non-quarterback positions or to carry the ball. Flacco ranked 31st of 33 qualifying passers in yards per attempt while overseeing a 4-5 start. He even threw to Jackson two times.
But then Flacco got injured, and the Ravens’ season—and future—changed. Jackson’s passing stats have been marginally better than Flacco’s—Jackson has a QB rating of 84.5, a TD rate of 3.5 percent, and averages 7.1 yards per attempt; Flacco had a QB rating of 84.2, a TD rate of 3.2 percent, and averaged 6.5 yards per attempt. But while Flacco couldn’t outrun a chubby pug, Jackson is the most dynamic running quarterback the league has seen in years. Sunday, he had 90 rushing yards and two touchdowns in Baltimore’s 26-24 win over Cleveland:
He had zero catches because he did not play any snaps at wide receiver, because he is a professional quarterback. When Jackson took over at quarterback, the Steelers were two and a half games ahead of the Ravens in the race to win the AFC North. When Jackson kneeled to end the game Sunday, the Steelers were eliminated from the postseason.
The switch from Flacco to Jackson was difficult. Baltimore essentially threw out its playbook, transitioning to something that resembles a college spread-option offense. But the switch saved the team’s season. In nine games with Flacco at quarterback, the Ravens averaged 6 yards per play only once. In seven games with Jackson, they’ve hit that number three times. His style is exactly what the Ravens needed. Baltimore’s top wide receiver is Saints castoff Willie Snead. Their top running back is undrafted rookie Gus Edwards. They needed to go nontraditional to make things work.
No, Jackson doesn’t play like the majority of quarterbacks in the NFL right now. This is the era of passing, and Jackson uses his jet-powered speed to set up his passing. But he’s a quarterback, and because the Ravens realized that just in the nick of time, Week 17 wasn’t the end of their season.
Loser: The Team That Doesn’t Get to Play Kirk Cousins
Chicago kicked the crap out of Minnesota on Sunday, eliminating the Vikings from the playoffs. The score was 24-10, but that’s not really doing it justice. With their season on the line, the Vikings averaged 3.15 yards per play, the 11th worst of any team in any game this season. They started flat, going three-and-out on their first four possessions, taking almost 25 minutes before managing a first down. They ended flatter, turning the ball over on downs on each of their final three possessions. The Vikings didn’t turn the ball over or commit any massive gaffes. Playing for their lives, they just couldn’t move an inch, like a mouse trying to push a boulder.
But in kicking the crap out of the Vikings, the Bears have done themselves a disservice. Chicago entered Sunday in a unique scenario: Having already clinched a playoff berth, the Bears had a say in which opponent they would face in the first round. Had they lost to the Vikings, they would have played Minnesota again in the wild-card game. If both Chicago and Philadelphia won, the Bears would play the Eagles.
Sunday proved that the Bears are better than the Vikings. They squeezed them like grapes, purple and puny. A rematch with the Vikings next week, with the game being played in Chicago, would have been a ticket to the second weekend of the playoffs. The Bears could have let up, rested their starters, and ensured a matchup with an inferior team. Instead, they chose to finish the job and eliminate a division rival. Now, they will play Philadelphia. On paper, the Bears are a much better team than the Eagles—Chicago went 12-4 while Philadelphia went 9-7; Chicago is ranked sixth in DVOA, and Philadelphia is ranked 18th.
But Philadelphia is quarterbacked by Unstoppable Playoff God Nick Foles, not Outsized Contract Disappointment Kirk Cousins. (Foles suffered a rib injury at the end of the game but seems likely to play next week.) In case you forgot, Foles led the Eagles on a stunning championship run and won Super Bowl MVP last season. This season, the Eagles have won every game Foles has started since Carson Wentz went down with a back injury. Last week, Foles set the Eagles’ single-game passing record with 471 yards; Sunday he tied the NFL record for consecutive completions with 25. December is the time when he ascends to his final form and becomes unkillable. I firmly believe the Eagles will win every game he starts until the offseason, when he will once again shrink back into being a meek backup quarterback.
I’m pretty sure I’m joking about the Eagles being unbeatable with Foles—this Eagles team is clearly worse than last year’s, and there’s no rational reason to believe Foles can keep up his postseason superhero act. The Bears would be favored against both opponents, but they had the choice of playing a team they knew they could crush or a team that might be quarterbacked by Postseason Gilgamesh. We will see whether they pay for their foolish decision to continue being good at football.
Winner: The Teams That Didn’t Pay Kirk Cousins
The Vikings came into this season with understandably high hopes. They came within a game of the Super Bowl last season, despite being forced to play Case Keenum, essentially the team’s third-string quarterback, from Week 2 onward. This offseason, they went out and made the biggest free-agent signing of the year, signing Kirk Cousins to a three-year, $84 million contract.
Year 1 of that contract ended with a loud fart. In a season-ending loss to Chicago, Cousins went 20-for-33 with 132 yards, but lost 31 yards on sacks. Out of 73 career starts, it was his 72nd-best game in terms of yards per attempt.
Everything fell apart. Cousins got into a demonstrative spat with star wide receiver Adam Thielen:
And coach Mike Zimmer openly bemoaned that the team wasn’t running the ball more.
During his interview with Erin Andrews before the start of the second half, Mike Zimmer said the Vikings need to run the ball more.— Ben Goessling (@GoesslingStrib) December 30, 2018
Maybe it’s a bit harsh to judge Cousins on what was by far his worst game of the season—one of the worst games of his career. But it sure seems like Cousins’s best target and head coach have already done just that.
Loser: Almost-Steelers-Hero Matt McCrane
Steelers fans spent all year dreaming of a competent kicker. Chris Boswell missed a league-high 12 kicks this season, including a game-winner in overtime against the Browns and a game-tying attempt in a three-point loss to the Raiders. The Steelers ended up with a tie and a loss in two winnable games.
In Week 17, the Steelers got their kicker. After Boswell suffered an undisclosed injury, Pittsburgh signed rookie Matt McCrane on Friday. McCrane was perfect against Cincinnati on Sunday, nailing all three field goals he attempted. In the fourth quarter, he drilled a 47-yarder to put the Steelers up 13-10, followed by a 35-yarder to give them the win, 16-13. It seemed as though McCrane had saved the Steelers season and solved a problem that had plagued Pittsburgh all year. They make movies about this type of stuff.
In the end, it didn’t matter, because a few minutes after McCrane nailed his game-winning kick, the Ravens won and knocked the Steelers out of the playoffs. It’s possible McCrane has played his only game in Pittsburgh. Maybe he’ll have a shot to win the job for next season, but chances are the Steelers won’t settle for the best kicker available in Week 17 as their long-term option.
If circumstances were different, McCrane would be a hero today. Instead, his magnificent moment will be forgotten.
It’s been a rough year for football players named Kyle. They have been overshadowed by Heisman winner Kyler Murray, who is not only better at football, but also somehow Kyler than them.
But Sunday, as the regular season came to a close, opportunities arose for a pair of downtrodden Kyles. First up was Kyle Allen, an undrafted rookie quarterback who was forced into a starting role for the Panthers after injuries to both Cam Newton and backup Taylor Heinicke. Allen was once the top quarterback recruit in the nation and actually played with Murray at Texas A&M before transferring and finishing his career as a backup at Houston. Sunday, he looked more like the guy who was the top quarterback in his class than a guy who wasn’t even picked in the draft:
#Panthers QB Kyle Allen hit Ian Thomas in the back of the end zone for his 1st career TD pass.— Steve Frederick (@_SteveFrederick) December 30, 2018
No Cam, no problem so far for Carolina. At the 2min Warning, Allen is 10-for-16, 141 Yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 111.7 QB Rating, 4 Rushes, 18 Yards, 1 TD. pic.twitter.com/LpGov7Ly4C
Look at this arm!
Allen had 228 yards passing and two touchdowns with no interceptions in a Panthers win. I wonder whether somebody will decide this offseason that Allen is more than just a backup getting a novelty start in a meaningless game. I’m getting some Matt Flynn vibes, all the way down to the double first names.
This Kyle is just at the beginning of his career, but another is at the end. Longtime Bills great Kyle Williams announced earlier this week that he would be retiring after 13 seasons, all of which he played in Buffalo. He will go down as one of the great players in the history of the franchise. He chose to stay in Buffalo through thick and thin, providing excellence to mainly doomed Buffalo teams and making five Pro Bowls, the most of any Bill this millennium. Sunday, the Bills committed to sending Williams off with the farewell he deserved. First, Buffalo ran a pass play for Williams for the first reception of his career:
Williams joked that he’d been preparing for the catch his entire career.
Later, as Buffalo’s defense took the field for the final time in a 42-17 blowout win over the Dolphins, coach Sean McDermott set up a send-off I’ve never seen: He used a timeout to stop the clock so that the Bills could sub Williams out of the game.
Kyle Williams comes off the field for the final time to a standing ovation in Buffalo. They love him there. Cool moment. pic.twitter.com/XCgzKS7Dvb— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) December 30, 2018
You see this all the time in basketball, where teams have more timeouts and the PA announcer tells the crowd the names of the substitutes. But I’ve never seen a football coach call a timeout just to honor one player. Then again, few players have meant as much to their teams as Williams.
It was a satisfying finish to the season for both Kyles. They will enjoy these triumphs until a superstar player named “Kylest” comes along.
Loser: Playoff Hero Blaine Gabbert
The NFL got a dream scenario Sunday night: a true play-in game between the Colts and Titans, the first time in five years that the final game of the season has been a Thunderdome-style, two-teams-enter, one-team-leaves matchup. What could be better?
Just one problem: Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has been dealing with a nerve condition caused by a stinger, was advised by specialists that he could suffer long-term damage that would jeopardize his career if he played Sunday night. He sat out. With their playoff hopes on the line, the Titans turned to backup Blaine Gabbert.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. The Titans had won both of Gabbert’s spot starts this season. He came into last week’s win over Washington when the Titans trailed 10-6, and left with a 25-16 victory. Maybe things would be OK!
Nobody ever actually figured out who Gabbert was throwing to on this interception.
The Titans had a home game to make the playoffs. They gave up touchdowns on their first two defensive drives, trailed the rest of the way, and eventually lost 33-17. Ah well, they can’t all be Nick Foles.
Winner: Apparent Superstar Cody Latimer
If you know Cody Latimer at all, you know him as a wasted draft pick. Latimer was a second-round pick by the Broncos in 2014 whose career just kind of fizzled. He had 158 yards in his first three seasons before emerging as their fourth receiver last year. (Can you emerge as a team’s fourth receiver?) When drafted, Latimer was meant to be a cog in a record-setting passing attack led by Peyton Manning; when he left the Broncos after last season, he was a bit player occasionally catching passes from Trevor Siemian. He signed with the Giants during the offseason, but has spent most of the year on injured reserve.
On Sunday, Latimer saw significant action for a Giants team willing to suit up any wide receiver it could find. With Odell Beckham Jr. among the starters out for this game, Latimer had his opportunity. He had the game of his life. Here’s his first one-handed catch:
And here’s his second:
If you look quickly, you might think Latimer is OBJ! Latimer had a career-high 72 yards—more than he had in either of his first two seasons in the league. If any of the other 31 NFL teams want a guy who can snag Eli Manning–level scattershot passes with his left hand while being blanketed by defenders, this Latimer guy might not be as much of a disappointment as everybody thought.
Winner: Kicking Announcers
If you want to announce football on television, you probably should play quarterback first. The top four broadcasting crews at CBS feature former quarterbacks (Tony Romo, Dan Fouts, Trent Green, and Rich Gannon) as does the lead crew at Fox lead crew (Troy Aikman). Brady Quinn announced a game this year. You could play wide receiver, like CBS’s Steve Tasker, James Lofton, or Fox’s Cris Carter and Greg Jennings did.
But if you’re a kicker or a punter? You’re probably not going to become an announcer. We want analysis from our color commentators. The expertise kickers and punters have isn’t useful for the vast majority of plays that occur in a game. When their expertise is warranted, it tends to be extremely technical—how to kick a ball, what type of footwork to take. They don’t diagnose defenses or make reads. They don’t have much to tell us.
But Week 17, networks have to flexible when it comes to selecting announcers. With playoff implications at stake, the league eliminates Thursday and Monday night football and makes all teams in each division play at the same time to try to ensure that every game is meaningful at kickoff. This complicates things for TV networks. Most weeks, CBS and Fox split between 10 and 13 games each Sunday, depending on whether there are byes, holidays, or Saturday games. Week 17, they have to broadcast 15 games, forcing each network to bust out untested broadcast crews.
Sunday, Fox called on former Colts punter Pat McAfee, who has spent his first year of retirement filming his television and yelling about big kicks and punts. This could have backfired. But luckily, McAfee received a blessing: Lions kicker Matt Prater threw a touchdown:
This rarely happens! Prater is just the eighth kicker since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970 to throw a touchdown pass. (The seventh happened earlier this year.) The odds of a kicker throwing for a touchdown while the internet’s most prominent kicker appreciator announced his first game are astronomical.
Was what McAfee did “good announcing”? I mean, by the announcing guidebook, no. He yells “TOUCHDOWN” for a solid four seconds before a touchdown happens and yells “LET’S GO!” which you’re definitely not supposed to do. But I’m going to be honest: I get a lot more out of watching Twitter videos of people screaming about football things that excite them than I do out of the average professional football commentator. I look forward to networks calling up more announcers from the ranks of TV-filmers into the big time.