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The Winners and Losers of NFL Week 15

Kenyan Drake had one of the all-time great fantasy playoff performances. Except it probably didn’t matter. Plus, reliving the Cowboys’ coin-toss debacle and saying farewell to the Black Hole.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

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: Kenyan Drake, in Fantasy and IRL

It’s Week 15 of the NFL season, which means it’s time for the fantasy football semifinals in most leagues. It was a great week for many of the fantasy superstars who carried their teams to the playoffs: Lamar Jackson, the highest scorer in fantasy football this year, had five touchdowns on Thursday night; Christian McCaffrey, the second-highest scorer in fantasy football this year, had 175 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns on Sunday.

But the greatest fantasy hero of the week wasn’t a guy likely to be on many championship-bound rosters. Kenyan Drake, the forgettable running back traded from the Dolphins to the Cardinals earlier this year, completely dominated the Browns, going for 137 yards and four touchdowns.

It was a wonderful day for Drake, whose season has been rather unfortunate. The Dolphins were 0-6 with him in the lineup, and it seemed like he was lucky to be plucked from Miami and dropped onto the 3-4-1 Cardinals. But then the Cardinals lost their first five games after the trade. Drake hadn’t been a part of a win since December 9 of last year, when he scored the game-winning touchdown on the Miami Miracle play to beat the Patriots. But he ended his 371-day winless streak by posting career highs in both yardage and scoring. I guess you could say that Sunday’s game was the best Drake has ever had. I guess you could say that Drake started from the bottom, and now he’s here. (I also guess that all of my Drake jokes are getting my readers to say “I’m upset!”)

In standard scoring, it was the ninth-best single-game fantasy performance by any player this season, and third best by a running back. Only one player, Aaron Jones, had managed four rushing touchdowns in a game this season. The second guy to do it was Drake, who had only one total touchdown on the season before Sunday. Drake was ranked 41st in total points among running backs entering Sunday and just had one of the games of the year.

So for the most part, Drake’s fantasy performance was meaningless. After all, most fantasy owners who have Drake on their teams probably didn’t make the fantasy semifinals, on account of the fact that they were playing Kenyan Drake. In my three leagues, Drake was on teams that finished eighth, 10th, and dead last. According to Yahoo, Drake was only started in 47 percent of leagues this week, and that includes consolation brackets contested primarily by owners who stopped checking their league weeks ago when it became clear they wouldn’t make the postseason.

All in all, Drake had what might be the most random fantasy playoff explosion since 2009, when afterthought Browns running back Jerome Harrison busted out for 286 yards and three touchdowns. I’ve never heard of anybody who actually started Harrison that week, but I suspect there may be a handful of people on the planet who made their fantasy football playoffs, and, for some reason, had Drake on their roster, and, for some reason, decided to start him this week. It was God’s Plan.

Loser: Everybody Involved With the Great Cowboys Kickoff Debacle of 2019

Sunday almost brought us NFL history, when the Dallas Cowboys almost accidentally spoke themselves out of a possession. Then it kind of did bring us NFL history, when the league’s office phoned in to make sure the Cowboys got that possession anyway.

The controversy stems from the coin toss ahead of the opening kickoff. As the average NFL fan understands it, teams have just one choice to make when they win the opening coin toss—whether they want to receive the opening kickoff, or receive a kickoff after halftime. Does it matter which they choose? Not really—a lot of coaches seem to believe getting the ball at the start of the second half is more valuable than getting it to start the game, but I doubt there’s any meaningful difference.

However, the actual choice is a lot more complicated, thanks to a 2008 rule change that allows teams to defer their decision to the second half. Here are the choices teams actually have:

  1. Whether to kick or receive the opening kickoff
  2. Which direction they’d like to defend to start the game
  3. Whether they’d like to defer—essentially, to make the choice at the beginning of the second half instead.

Meanwhile, the loser of the coin toss gets to choose either (1) or (2) at the start of the second half, unless the winner of the coin toss picks (3). Under these rules, there is absolutely no reason that a team should ever choose “kick.” If they choose “kick,” the opponent still gets a decision at the start of the second half, and will almost certainly choose to receive. Really, the only two things a team should ever say are “receive” or “defer.” Luckily, this almost never comes into play—since the 2008 rule change, no team had chosen “kick” to start a game.

Until Sunday, when Dak Prescott got his tongue tied:

After winning the toss, Prescott said, “Defense. Defense! We want to kick it! Kicking it that way!” He seemed to know he wasn’t saying the right thing, and was searching for the right way to phrase it. Official Walt Anderson confusedly asked, “You want to kick?” To which Prescott replied, “We defer to the second half.” But Prescott had already said “defense” and “kick” multiple times, and the rules say that refs have to honor the first thing the player says, no take-backs. (This has actually been a problem for Dallas football teams before—in 1962, the Dallas Texans of the AFL tried to choose a direction after winning the OT coin toss and said “we’ll kick to the clock,” while pointing at a clock on the field. Technically, the word “kick” was considered their choice.)

For a while, it seemed like the Cowboys would kick off to start both halves. It would’ve been a historic mistake. While a few college teams have screwed up the kick/defer terminology, no NFL team has ever accidentally chosen to kick at both halves. There have been a few games where teams kicked off at the start of both halves, but all of those seem to be games where high winds caused teams to choose a direction. (There was also that weird time the Patriots chose to kickoff in overtime even though it wasn’t particularly windy, but that was apparently intentional.) As far as I can tell, there’s never been a literal terminology snafu.

However, larger forces acted to make sure the Cowboys got the ball. The officiating crew apparently communicated with the NFL league office—and, oddly, with Fox sideline reporter Erin Andrews, who told Anderson that Prescott did say “defer”:

The rules allow the league office to help the on-field officials fix “game administration” errors—not judgment calls, but clerical issues like this one. None of this mattered—the Cowboys won 44-21, ending a three-game losing streak. (Maybe instead of deferring, teams should instruct their captains to set off a massive refereeing crisis by muttering through various illegal options to start the game.)

I’m conflicted about how all this went down. On the one hand, there’s no reason for this unnecessarily complicated system to exist. Sure, 99.9 percent of the time, the coin toss goes off without a hitch—but, like, why even bother? Why is the option for this level of screwup even on the books? Why do we even need this to be decided via coin toss—why not give the road team the ball to start every game? Is the difference between getting the ball to start the game and getting the ball to start the second half even meaningful?

On the other hand, the rules do exist, and, in my opinion, it’s kind of ridiculous that outside forces intervened. The rules say that the first word the captain speaks is what matters. The NFL acted to make sure the least ridiculous course of events played out, and to make sure the Cowboys’ obvious intent was granted. But really, the problem is that, as currently written, the league allows a team to speak itself out of a possession. Those rules are pointless and hilarious, and as long as they’re on the books, I feel like the Cowboys should have been hit with their pointless, hilarious punishment.

Winner: Bad Beats

The bad beats are multiplying. In Week 11, we got the worst bad beat of the year on a meaningless play that probably should have been blown dead that ended up as a ridiculous touchdown that led to the Niners covering the spread. But Sunday, less than a month later, we got not one but two absurd end-of-game plays that affected betting winners.

First was the game-ending touchdown in Washington-Philadelphia. The Eagles were 6.5-point favorites, but Washington was still covering and had a chance to win in the closing seconds. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins dropped back to pass, and when a defender wrapped him up, he did the only thing he could to keep the play alive—shoveled the ball backward, where it was scooped up by linebacker Nigel Bradham, who somehow beat Washington running back Chris Thompson to the end zone in a footrace:

Thanks to the last-second touchdown, the Eagles covered. (Imagine winning $50 thousand on this pointless touchdown.)

Next was a game-ending touchdown in 49ers-Falcons. After the Falcons took a one-point lead with two seconds to go, the 49ers had a kickoff return with the chance to win. The Niners got the ball to the right side of the field and tried to reverse field to the left, but a backward pass by Raheem Mostert sailed wayyyyyyyy over the heads of any teammates. The ball bounced around until Falcons receiver Olamide Zaccheaus hopped on it in the end zone:

The over/under in the game was 50; this touchdown gave the game 51 total points.

Football bad beats happen because in the closing seconds of games, teams act risky in desperate attempts to reach the end zone, often featuring desperate, risky choices that they would never make under normal circumstances. But, like, guys, can we maybe be a little bit less desperate and risky? I was going against the Philadelphia defense in fantasy football!

Loser: Kyle Shanahan’s Refusal to Run

The Atlanta Falcons are the upset champions of 2019. They’re responsible for the single biggest upset of the season—a win as 13.5-point underdogs against the Saints—and they pulled off another double-digit upset Sunday, winning as 10-point underdogs against the 49ers. New Orleans and San Francisco have six combined losses. One came when the Niners beat the Saints last week; somehow two of the remaining five came against the 5-9 Falcons. They pulled off the win thanks to a little help from an old friend: 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, who was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator once upon a time. You may remember his last game—when the Falcons lost because they didn’t run the ball with a massive lead.

On Sunday, the 49ers led 19-17 with under two minutes to go when they faced a fourth-and-1 at the 25-yard line. If they picked up the first down, they would have won the game. And they almost certainly would have picked up the first down. On 24 plays of third- and fourth-and-1 entering Sunday, the 49ers picked up 17 first downs and scored three touchdowns. That’s an 83 percent success rate. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was 7-for-7 with seven first downs on run plays on third- or fourth-and-1. That’s a 100 percent success rate. Again: If the 49ers picked up the first down, they win the game.

Instead, San Francisco attempted a field goal. They made it! Hooray! And while that make extended their lead from two points to five points, it also gave the Falcons the ball back with a chance to score a game-winning touchdown. Sure enough, they did, winning on a last-second Julio Jones catch that barely crossed the goal line:

This loss changes the season! Before Sunday, the Niners were the last two-loss team in the NFC and in the driver’s seat to get the top seed in the conference and home-field advantage until the Super Bowl. After last week’s win over the Saints, San Francisco had a 16 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl, according to FiveThirtyEight. That’s down to 8 percent now.

Kicking the field goal was plainly the wrong call. Making it wasn’t a guarantee, and, as you can tell, didn’t seal the win. Every coach should be more confident in their offense’s ability to gain a single yard than in their defense’s ability to prevent a touchdown drive.

So now the Falcons have lost a game because Shanahan didn’t run late with the lead and won a game because Shanahan didn’t run late with the lead. All square, right?

Winner: Onside Kick God Younghoe Koo

On Thanksgiving, we wrote about Onside Kick God Younghoe Koo, who somehow pulled off back-to-back-to-back successful onside kicks, a stunning accomplishment in a league that had seen only two successful onside kicks all season before Thanksgiving. Koo’s legend grew when he recovered a fumble last week—he doesn’t even need to kick onside to get the ball!

Sunday, Koo hit ANOTHER successful onside kick, only for it to get called back due to an illegal formation. Normally, if a team does something cool and it gets called back to a penalty, I don’t get too worked up—sure, that holding call brought back a touchdown, but, uh, they wouldn’t have scored without committing the holding penalty! Violations generally put teams at advantages, which is why they’re illegal. However, Koo’s successful onside kick was actually called back because of a rules infraction that put the Falcons at an obvious disadvantages.

See, there’s a rule that prevents teams from unbalanced formations on kickoffs. You can’t have more than six players on one side of the formation—it was put into place recently to prevent a team from sending 10 guys charging forward in close quarters on an onside kick. However, they wrote the rule backwards—it says that “at least five players from the kicking team must be on each side of the ball.” So when the Falcons accidentally took the field with 10 guys—and couldn’t put five guys on either side of the ball—they were technically committing a violation.

That’s so dumb! Obviously there’s a penalty if a team takes the field with 12 players, but in almost every scenario, there’s no penalty for taking the field with too few players—the other team takes care of it for you. (Like earlier this year, when Dalvin Cook busted out a 30-yard run against 10 Cowboys.) Unfortunately, this rule is written poorly, and it prevented the Falcons from making an incredible play despite having the wrong amount of players.

The NFL should change this rule immediately. I need to see Koo go out on the field with exactly one other teammate, just to see if he can still connect on an onside kick. I bet he can do it.

Loser: The Last Lateral

Unfortunately, 90 percent of a miracle ain’t a miracle. Oh, cool, you turned water into purple water that tastes different? Almost, pal. We don’t remember when people shoot halfcourt shots to win the game and miss. (OK, we remember this one.) You’ve got to make it the whole way.

The Bears had a 90 percent miracle Sunday. With one second remaining, Chicago made the unusual decision to bypass a Hail Mary from the 32-yard line—barely even a Hail Mary, just a deep pass—and instead attempt a series of laterals in a last-ditch attempt to reach the end zone. The first two laterals got to the 8-yard line. A third could’ve tied the game:

The only way a team can really score in these scenarios is by reversing field—bringing the ball to the left side, allowing nine or 10 defenders to converge on the ball, then getting the ball to the other side of the field ASAP and hoping the ball beats the defenders. Somehow, Trubisky does a lot of this himself. He runs in a relatively straight, relatively slow horizontal path across the field at the 16-yard line, and somehow leaves half the Packers strewn at his feet in disarray. But for the most part, reversing field is done by throwing the ball horizontally.

Unfortunately, that was lost on tight end Jesper Horsted, who catches a short lateral from Trubisky and decides to charge forward. It was the wrong decision:

Here we have an undrafted rookie tight end out of Princeton deciding to charge forward into a crowd of defenders instead of pitching the ball to Allen Robinson, a former Pro Bowler calling for the ball with no defenders in sight and a blocker ahead of him. It was unsuccessful.

Trubisky running horizontally across the field and creating a five-defender Packer pileup behind him was a moment with the makings of a miracle. Unfortunately, Horsted didn’t pick up on the basics of lateral plays, so this was just a forgettable near-miracle. Just one of those Cheetos that kiiiiiiiiinda looks like Jesus, but, you know, not enough like Jesus to make a big deal out of it.

Winner: The Pats’ Ability to Win Without Cheating

When a team is accused of cheating, team officials and fans generally rush to say that cheating is bad, and that they didn’t do it. Which is weird, because a lot of the time, when a team is accused of cheating, it’s obvious that they did do it, and I think it’s good.

For example, the New England Patriots, were accused again of spying on opposing teams by filming their coaches giving signals. New England’s official story is that it sent a videographer to Cincinnati to film a video series about the Patriots’ advance scouting department. However, Sunday, Fox’s Jay Glazer released the video filmed by that videographer, complete with the videographer’s repeated offers to delete the footage and make the whole incident disappear. As it turns out, the video was as sloppy and shoddy and hilarious as described, as the Pats’ cameraman clearly filmed the Bengals’ sideline for minutes on end:

Why would the Pats need minutes upon minutes of B-roll of the sideline—not the field, just the sideline—for a short feature about an advance scout? Why would the guy be so eager to delete the footage? It’s obvious the Patriots were cheating in a creative fashion, and cheating in a creative fashion is basically my favorite thing to do in sports. What, are you a cop?

Unfortunately, the Pats were unable to use this footage, because the videographer was too obvious and got caught and wasn’t able to return his highly valuable footage to New England ahead of Sunday’s game against the Bengals. The good news is it didn’t matter. Although the Patriots struggled for most of the first half with the Bengals—the game was tied 10-10 just before halftime—New England eventually won 34-13, breaking a rare Patriots losing streak.

Maybe now the Pats know that they’re talented enough to win games without resorting to absurd illegal tactics to get wins. If they truly believe in themselves, the Super Bowl champions can beat a 1-13 team even without cheating.

Loser: Oakland

Black holes are supposed to prevent anything from escaping, even light. Unfortunately, that’s not true of the one in Oakland. Light is definitely capable of leaving the Black Hole, as evidenced by the fact that referees had to tell fans to stop shooting lasers onto the field during Sunday’s game:

Also escaping the gravitational pull of the Black Hole: the actual Raiders. Of course, Oakland lost the Raiders before—the team began playing in the Oakland Coliseum in 1966, then left to play in Los Angeles from 1982 to 1994, but it seems like this is goodbye for good. In Las Vegas, they’ll play in a $2 billion megastadium that should reel in the big bucks for decades.

So far as I can tell, the Raiders decided they wanted to stop playing in Oakland at halftime. The Raiders scored 16 points in the first half, and that was it. The Jaguars scored on their final three possessions while the Raiders didn’t score in the second half. Jacksonville won on a Gardner Minshew II touchdown pass with 32 seconds left:

The crowd erupted, with fans, boos, and garbage spilling onto the field.

It was a fitting end for the Oakland Raiders experience. The team never won a Super Bowl in its second stint in Oakland and missed the playoffs in 16 of their final 17 seasons while playing in a rapidly deteriorating 50-plus-year-old stadium. But through all the failure, the fans maintained their rowdiness and kept showing up in their signature costumes, creating one of the NFL’s most distinctive, irreplaceable environments. Now, that thing is dead. It dies as it lived; rowdy and ridiculous.

There’s no good way to lose a team. Fandom is giving a part of your soul to a business that actually doesn’t want your soul—just your money. Sometimes it uses that money to make you happy. Sometimes it gives $68 million to JaMarcus Russell. When a team leaves, it is saying, “Hey, thanks for that part of your soul—we just happened to find somebody with more money.” Recently, it’s been customary for departing teams to just leave in the middle of the offseason with little more than a press release to say goodbye to their fans. Yeah, that’s bad breakup etiquette, but breakups still hurt even if the person is nice. Sometimes they even hurt more. I suppose it would’ve been nice for the Raiders to leave with a win, but maybe it’s nicer that Raiders fans got to let out their anger.

Other black holes suck in everything that comes into their path. This one died belching out nachos, boos, and people.

Winner: Ben Roethlisberger

After Sunday night, there have been eight four-interception games by quarterbacks this season. Two of those are by the two Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks who have tried to fill in for Ben Roethlisberger. Last month, Mason Rudolph threw four interceptions in a loss to the Browns. He was benched for Devlin Hodges, who won some games and got the Steelers back in the playoff race. But on Sunday night, Duck threw some ducks in a 17-10 loss to the Bills that put a serious dent in Pittsburgh’s postseason hopes:

Unbothered by all this? Ben Roethlisberger, spotted on the sidelines with a truly gargantuan beard:

According to the NBC broadcast, Roethlisberger refuses to shave his massive beard until he is cleared by doctors to throw. The beard is a monument to how long the Steelers have been forced to play inferior quarterbacks. The era of Duck enthusiasm has been fun. Maybe it will end in a playoff bid. Maybe it won’t—and after Sunday night, that seems likely.

And in the end, there will be Ben, his constantly growing beard serving as a reminder of how long it’s been since he got to play. He doesn’t seem to be sweating too much about the prospect of Rudolph or Hodges taking his spot next year—honestly, I would be surprised if he’s sweated at all, for any reason, under any circumstance since his injury. He’s just hanging out, experimenting with comically oversized facial hair, and watching his backups prove why he’ll be the starter again.