In the NBA, tanking for a top draft pick is avant-garde art, cutting-edge science, and cultist lifestyle all wrapped into one exercise of self-flagellation. In the NFL, it is nonexistent. There are too few games, and those games are too violent to ask people to play haphazardly (not to mention NFL players have far less job security). That creates an annual irony where bad teams that would benefit from losing manage to win, granting them short-term happiness at a cost in the not-so-distant future. It’s basically late-night McDonald’s.
That irony was on display throughout Sunday afternoon’s games. Entering this week, the 49ers and Raiders shared the worst record in football at 2-10, with the Cardinals and Jets just behind them at 3-9. Now, three teams are tied for the worst record and another four teams are tied for fourth worst, putting the bottom five in disarray. Here’s how four teams messed up their futures on Sunday while one wisely preserved it.
San Francisco 49ers Defeat Denver Broncos, 20-14
Once Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL in September, a losing season was not the worst outcome for San Francisco. The younger players would get experience, coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch would get the chance to evaluate their roster, and the team would get a top draft slot to restock its roster. Yet the 49ers threw a wrench in that plan when they jumped out to a 20-0 lead against Denver on Sunday largely because of the plays Kyle Shanahan drew up for tight end George Kittle, who had seven catches for 210 yards in the first half.
Shanahan seemed to recognize he was screwing up and went into panic mode. Shanahan tried calling timeout before Dante Pettis caught a 1-yard touchdown before halftime. Kittle didn’t get another catch the rest of the game despite being 4 yards shy of the most receiving yards in a game for a tight end ever. Even when the game was out of hand and San Francisco could’ve run out the clock at the end of the game, the 49ers knelt too early and gave the Broncos the ball back with a chance for a Hail Mary (it did not work). Unfortunately for Shanahan, Broncos head coach Vance Joseph wanted the loss more, and it cost the 49ers a chance at being all alone with the worst record in football.
San Francisco could use a pass rusher at the top of the draft, specifically Ohio State’s Nick Bosa or Houston’s Ed Oliver. The issue is the Raiders could too. The 49ers’ final three games are against Seattle, Chicago, and the Rams. Ironically, the Week 17 Rams game might be the most winnable if L.A. rests its starters.
Oakland Raiders Defeat Pittsburgh Steelers, 24-21
Oakland’s most impressive victory of the season came at the worst time. San Francisco’s loss gave the Raiders their own place at the bottom of the NFL (and at the top of the draft) for a little less than a half-hour, but the Raiders went ahead and scored two touchdowns in the final six minutes to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and even their record with the 49ers.
A loss would have all but locked up the Raiders’ hopes for the first overall pick by giving them a one-game advantage with three weeks left to play. Instead, at 3-10, they are in a three-way tie with San Francisco and Arizona. Next week, they face the Jeff Driskel–led Bengals. If the Raiders put together a two-game win streak, it could catapult them from the first pick to outside the top five and out of range for a player like Bosa.
New York Jets Defeat Buffalo Bills, 27-23
Even when the Jets win, they lose. New York emerged from the rookie clash between Sam Darnold and Josh Allen with a fun, come-from-behind win, but a loss would have been far better for their draft slot. Instead of a four-way tie at 3-10 for the worst record in the league, they are now in a four-way tie at 4-9, including with the Bills, whom they beat on Sunday. The Jets don’t need a quarterback, but they also need a pass rusher. It’s a defensive-linemen-heavy draft, but the team had an outside shot at Bosa or Oliver heading into this weekend. Now they are all but out of the running for the first overall pick and are on the outside looking in at the top three.
New York Giants Defeat Washington Redskins, 40-16
It was a bad day for the draft fortunes of New York football. The Giants crushed Washington, 40-16, giving them a cathartic win over an NFC East rival and a banner day for second overall pick and likely Offensive Rookie of the Year Saquon Barkley. It also crushed the Giants’ chances of getting a pick that high in 2018. The Giants moved to 5-8 with the win, and a team that started 1-7 has won four of their last five games and may not even pick in the top 10 despite being the most quarterback-hungry team in the league. With a worse record, the Giants may have been able to draft a passer of their choice—whether it was Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, Oregon’s Justin Herbert, or West Virginia’s Will Grier—but now the Giants may have to trade up to get their preferred player.
Arizona Cardinals Lose to the Detroit Lions, 17-3
This is a team that is hungry for Ls. Facing a Lions team that easily could have blown the game, the Cardinals refused to blow their draft positioning. They strategically punted on every drive of the first half except their fourth, when they missed a field goal. In the second half, with Detroit up only three points, quarterback Josh Rosen displayed the high football IQ he demonstrated at UCLA by throwing a pick-six to Lions cornerback Darius Slay and ensuring that he can get better teammates in 2019. Arizona may be the only team in the NFL responsible enough to prepare for the future.