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: The Tank Bowls
You could argue that games between teams eliminated from the playoffs just shouldn’t take place. That every dollar spent by a fan to watch those games is a waste of money; that every injury suffered by a player in those games is a soldier dying in vain; that every gallon of fuel used transporting players and equipment and fans to these games is a splurge we simply cannot afford. The only people who truly want these games are team owners who appreciate that they can sell eight games to season-ticket holders even if their team isn’t going to be competitive in more than two of them. We could settle the draft order by which teams are eliminated first and let dead teams rest in peace instead of playing as zombies.
But then we would miss moments like Sunday, when two of the least necessary games of the 2019 season turned out to be oddly thrilling classics. Four of the worst teams in the league—the Bengals, Dolphins, Giants, and Washington (combined record: 10-46)—put everything on the line in games that they would have done best to lose.
The game between the Bengals and Dolphins was the star of the day—back when both teams were winless, we identified this Week 16 matchup as a potentially historic Pooper Bowl, but unfortunately, both teams won games down the stretch. (The Jets messed everything up.) Still, the game was a big one for the Bengals, who had a chance to secure the top pick in the draft with a loss.
For some reason, Cincinnati fought like hell to get a win. The Bengals trailed 35-12 midway through the fourth quarter. Twenty-three points! In the fourth quarter! They scored a touchdown, got a stop, scored a touchdown with 29 seconds left, picked up a two-point conversion—and this is when things get really wild—recovered an onside kick, threw a touchdown, and scored another two-point conversion to tie the game at 35.
Let’s clarify how ridiculous this is. Since 1994 (as far back as Pro-Football-Reference’s Game Play Finder goes), there has been just one game won by a team that trailed by 14 in the last 90 seconds of the game—in 2001, the Bears came back from 21-7 to beat the Browns in overtime. The Bengals were down 16 with 29 seconds left. If we’re to presume that every two-point conversion is a 50-50 endeavor, the odds of scoring two touchdowns and two two-point conversions are only 25 percent as good as just scoring two touchdowns—and only one team in the past 25 seasons has done that in the last 90 seconds and ended up winning. (There have been no 23-point comebacks in the final half-quarter.) The Bengals, with no reason to want to win, nearly pulled off an upset no team had ever pulled off before.
Of course, with the no. 1 pick on the line, the Bengals’ own fans were begging them to stop.
This improbable comeback was played out in front of literally dozens of fans, all of whom deserve some sort of irrevocable Fandom Achievement Medal they can pull out whenever anybody questions their dedication to their team:
Big game atmosphere as the Bengals drive to tie. pic.twitter.com/e5HlgCSg9O— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) December 22, 2019
But this wasn’t the only ridiculous, meaningless comeback! Washington saw starting quarterback Dwayne Haskins go down with an injury, but still battled back from a 14-point deficit to tie the game at 35 in the game’s final minute.
Notably, Washington could’ve gone for a decisive two-point conversion after scoring to make the score 35-34 under 30 seconds to go, all but ensuring the game would end in regulation. As a franchise, the smartest thing to do would’ve been to just kneel the ball instead of trying to score, but Washington decided to kick an extra point to send the game to overtime. If you believe these games are unnecessary, overtime was an unnecessary extension of games that were already unnecessary. But Washington wanted to keep playing.
And after everything was said and done, the extra time was especially unnecessary, since the massive comebacks were rendered moot. The Dolphins and Giants, both of whom had led all game, won their games in OT. The teams with the most to gain from a loss both pulled out losses—the Bengals will pick first in the draft; Washington will likely pick second.
Oddly, everybody got something out of these games. The Dolphins began the year as the face of modern tanking; they’ll finish the year with at least four wins. The Giants got yet another win on the arm of Daniel Jones, the rookie they hope will become a franchise quarterback. The Bengals and Washington didn’t just get draft picks, they got a guarantee that even in the ugliest scenarios—the most pointless games that really even shouldn’t have existed—they would fight for victory.
Nobody should have cared about any of this—in fact, part of the spectacle came from the fact that everybody involved really should have been trying to lose, instead of fighting for victory like it was the most important game of their lives. They say that front offices tank, but coaches and players keep on coaching and playing, as their jobs and their pride depend on performing to the best of their ability. These teams proved that Sunday. The games still didn’t matter, but the fact that they didn’t matter made the frenzied efforts of both teams all the more fascinating to watch.
As the Titans were driving to potentially take the lead, Ryan Tannehill completed a pass to Kalif Raymond, who was moving downfield with the ball after the catch when he fumbled after a 23-yard gain. How could Raymond be so careless with the ball in such a critical situation? Rewatching the play, it’s pretty clear—Raymond was instantly knocked unconscious by a hit from Saints DB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson:
No flag against the Saints for hit to the head... ok.— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) December 22, 2019
He is unconscious on the field and we’re going to pretend nothing happened. pic.twitter.com/fSBP6iJFlU
You can see the moment Raymond’s brain turns off. His hands stop getting the signal from his brain to grip the ball, swinging open as if he suddenly decided to throw “paper” in an on-field game of rock-paper-scissors. Momentum keeps carrying Raymond’s body forward, but since his mind is turned off, he can’t adjust his body, and his legs awkwardly jackknife forward into a position that would be painful if he could feel pain. The Saints snag the fumble; Raymond doesn’t try to get it because he is involuntarily sleeping.
This play brought about a spirited debate about whether Gardner-Johnson’s hit was illegal. Raymond was wrapped up by one defender, and Gardner-Johnson drove his shoulder into Raymond’s head. It sure looks like a forcible hit to the head of a defenseless player, which is illegal. But not everybody agreed. For starters, Raymond was still achieving forward progress, which, per the rule book, means he’s not technically defenseless even though he’s in the grasp of a defender. And as with many similar plays, some argued Gardner-Johnson didn’t have time to react—one second he was sprinting toward a receiver with the ball in hopes of making a big play; a split second later that receiver was wrapped up and Gardner-Johnson needed to stop worrying about making the play and start worrying about avoiding illegal contact.
But when I watch plays like this one, I find myself worrying less about the legality of the play and more about the brutality of the game. No matter how tightly the refs call the game, no matter how protective the league gets with its rule changes, it will occasionally be advantageous to knock your opponents unconscious. This year, the Saints very well could have home-field advantage in the playoffs because they happened to shut an opponent’s brain off at the right time. I’m not sure you can ever fully fix a sport where that’s the case.
Winner: Fantasy Bust
Giants running back Saquon Barkley was the consensus no. 1 pick in fantasy drafts this year, and for most of the year he completely failed to live up to that billing. Entering Sunday, Barkley was the no. 16 running back in standard scoring. If you broke the bank for Barkley, your fantasy season probably sputtered out sometime in November.
But for any fantasy players who somehow managed to make their fantasy championship in spite of making that mistake—maybe they snagged Lamar Jackson for $1 at the end of the draft?—Sunday was validation. Barkley had 189 rushing yards (a career high), 90 receiving yards (the second most of his career), and two touchdowns:
Barkley had 39.9 points in standard scoring, the seventh most of any player in any game all season, and 43.9 points in PPR scoring, the sixth most of any player in any game all season. Barkley hadn’t topped 30 in either all season, with just two games over 20 in standard scoring.
I hope your fantasy football championship confirmed the most important thing about fantasy football: that it is a dumb game. Sometimes seasons are decided by random explosions by anonymous waiver-wire pickups like Kenyan Drake; sometimes people are let down by superstars. Sunday, the player everybody expected to carry teams all season ended up being the best player during championship weekend—but of course, if you’d spent big on Saquon, you probably didn’t make it. Congratulations to all the winners; no matter how dumb your season was, you deserved it. And to all the losers, well, let’s bond over how dumb it was and always is.
Loser: The Steelers’ Backup Center
Football is a team game. You might forget that amid the endless wailing about quarterbacks, but it’s true: If any of 11 players is struggling, that weakness can cost a team a game. Sunday, with their season on the line, the Steelers were completely undone by an injury to their center, Maurkice Pouncey.
At 8-6, Pittsburgh was in position to make the playoffs if it won both of its remaining games. That should have been easy considering the Steelers had a matchup against the 5-9 Jets, but Devlin Hodges threw two interceptions and was benched before halftime for Mason Rudolph. (At this time of year, you love to see a Rudolph get called upon to play various games he was previously excluded from.) Rudolph led the Steelers on two scoring drives and the Steelers were tied at halftime.
Then Pouncey, recently named to his eighth Pro Bowl, got hurt. In came backup B.J. Finney, who has been with Pittsburgh since going undrafted out of Kansas State in 2015. Earlier this year, Finney achieved notoriety for misunderstanding the snap count and forgetting to snap the ball when the rest of the team began to run a play.
Sunday, he was a disaster from the jump. On Finney’s first play of the game, his foot got tangled with Rudolph’s after the snap. Rudolph got tackled for a loss of 5 yards, and hurt his shoulder on the play.
After that series, Rudolph came out of the game due to the shoulder injury. (We’re getting off-script from the traditional Rudolph Christmas story here.) Hodges took over, but repeatedly struggled to catch shotgun snaps from Finney.
Steelers have 2nd and 7 on the Jets' 29. Don't gain another yard and it's a 46 yarder for Boswell in a three point game.— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) December 23, 2019
Instead, it's a sack, dropped snap, and offense goes backwards 17 yards in two plays. Has to punt. That was the game right there. pic.twitter.com/0DR33e8Jze
On the Steelers’ last play, Hodges failed to handle the snap and was forced to spend time recovering the loose ball instead of scanning the field. With the pass rush bearing down on him, he weakly threw a ball vaguely in the direction of JuJu Smith-Schuster. It fell and the Steelers lost.
I didn’t watch closely enough to have an opinion on Finney’s run blocking and pass protection, but it was clear that he simply couldn’t execute the simplest, most fundamental aspect of each play—the snap. It’s surprising that Finney couldn’t get on the same page as his quarterbacks—he started multiple games at center recently when Pouncey was hit with a suspension! But a bug in the most basic part of every play cost the Steelers one quarterback and rendered the other useless.
Winner: Nyheim Hines
The 2019 Colts died last week. This week and next week were just supposed to be about straightening up their affairs and making sure everything is in order for their heirs. And in the process of going through their papers and checking their assets, they found a winning lottery ticket that they could’ve cashed when it could’ve changed their life. Sunday, they found out that Nyheim Hines might be the best punt returner in the NFL—even though he didn’t return punts for the first three months of the season.
For most of the last four seasons, Indianapolis’s punt returner has been wide receiver Chester Rogers. He’s been unspectacular, with no touchdowns on 60 career returns. This year, his longest return went for 21 yards. But Rogers broke his knee during the team’s Week 13 game against the Titans, forcing Hines into the role. He immediately had an impact, with a 23-yard return against Tennessee and a 19-yard return against the Buccaneers. (He didn’t have any punt returns against the Saints because New Orleans scored on their first six drives.) But Sunday, he was absolutely incredible. He had this 84-yard punt return touchdown in the first quarter:
And this 71-yard punt-return touchdown in the fourth:
Entering Sunday, there had been only four punts returned for touchdowns all season in the entire NFL. No player had multiple punt-return touchdowns in the same game since 2012. And in Hynes’s fourth game as the Colts’ return man, he pulled it off. In addition to the 84-yarder and the 71-yarder, Hynes had a 40-yarder to give him three returns for 195 yards. That’s the fourth-most punt-return yards of all time, and the three guys ahead of him all had at least five returns.
It feels pretty clear that the Colts should’ve tried Hynes out at punt returner earlier. Hines has 47 varieties of jukes and ran a 4.38 40 at the 2018 NFL draft combine—faster than any other running back in his class. He was a sprinter on the NC State track team, and dominated on returns for the football team. While he had only 12 punt returns for the Wolfpack, he returned one for a touchdown against Pitt. And yet, the Colts didn’t use him as a return man as a rookie or until November of this year, when he got into Indianapolis’s kick-return rotation. And he didn’t return any punts until after Rogers’s season-ending injury.
It’s a bummer for the Colts, and for Hines. After Sunday, it’s hard to argue he’s not the best punt returner in the NFL, but he won’t go to the Pro Bowl because nobody figured that out until Week 16. Instead, Mecole Hardman, who had no kick or punt-return touchdowns this year, will represent the AFC. And while Hines is averaging 37.3 yards per return—nobody else in the league is averaging more than 12—he won’t be considered the NFL leader this year, since he has less than one return per game.
It’s not like it’s bad to find a lottery ticket on your deathbed. You can really live it up for what little time you have left, and you can pass on millions to your relatives and ensure they live happy lives. The Colts clearly enjoyed their Hines-powered victory Sunday—they won 38-6!—and can use him next week, and now they know that Hines should be their return man going forward. But while that’s nice and all, their lives would’ve been so much different if they’d had that winning ticket when they were young.
Loser: The Carson, California Chargers
Last week, the Oakland Raiders played their final game in their stadium ahead of their move to Las Vegas. This week, the Los Angeles Chargers played their final game in their stadium ahead of their move to a new building. However, last week wasn’t the final Raiders home game of the year—that was Sunday, as the massive L.A. fan base of the Raiders far outnumbered the Chargers fans in attendance. The Chargers were booed on their way onto the field:
And every crowd shot revealed a crowd filled with silver and black rather than blue and gold:
One last image from a Chargers home game pic.twitter.com/dDiXjFzyqy— Rodger Sherman (@rodger) December 22, 2019
The experience upset Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, who was pleased to be done with the stadium:
Melvin Gordon said he had a terrible experience playing at the temporary venue for three seasons: "I caught myself trying to pump up the crowd today after I scored. Realized it was all black jerseys. I was like ‘Man, it’s not a home game.’" #Chargers— Gilbert Manzano (@GManzano24) December 23, 2019
The Chargers’ three-year stay in the Los Angeles Galaxy’s stadium—it was called the StubHub Center when they moved in, but is now called “Dignity Health Sports Park,” although I have also called it “Dignity Sports Health Park” by accident—was one of the strangest in recent NFL history. It was the smallest NFL stadium since the 1960s, seating just 30,000. And yet, the Chargers—whose fans are primarily still down the road in San Diego—rarely seemed to fill it even halfway. It was routinely a virtual road game for the Chargers, as fans of other teams packed the stadium.
Now, the Chargers will move into a bigger stadium, the $4 billion Inglewood arena which they’ll share with the Rams (and, someday, the Olympics). Maybe the new stadium will finally make Los Angeles feel like home for the Chargers. Or maybe it will just make Chargers fans look even scarcer and allow for even more opposing fans to snap up tickets.
Like I said, last week wasn’t the final Raiders home game before their move to Vegas—that came Sunday, in Los Angeles. And Sunday wasn’t the final Chargers home game—that came three years ago, when they moved from San Diego in the first place.
Winner: Scoring Big Men
It was a historic weekend in the NFL. On Sunday, Michael Thomas broke Marvin Harrison’s record for receptions in a season. On Saturday, Jameis Winston tied the all-time record for pick-sixes thrown in a season. (OK, he’s probably not bragging about that one.) But what’s most exciting to me is a record set by the entire NFL. Sunday, the NFL broke its record for most receiving touchdowns by 300-pounders in a season.
Entering Week 16, there had only been four such touchdowns. But on Saturday, the Bills threw a touchdown to 320-pound offensive lineman Dion Dawkins:
BIG MAN TD!— NFL (@NFL) December 21, 2019
Dion Dawkins hauls in the @BuffaloBills touchdown to tie it up. #GoBills @DDawkins66
: #BUFvsNE on @NFLNetwork
Watch now on your : https://t.co/tbGyM1cXB3
How to watch on any device: https://t.co/9oFWSFEujX pic.twitter.com/9ehc5D2TUc
Sunday, the Dolphins threw a touchdown to 315-pound defensive end Christian Wilkins, who had three touchdowns in his college career at Clemson:
This season saw the heaviest receiving score in league history—a touchdown by 347-pounder Vita Vea—and the most heavy receiving scores in league history. Perhaps it feels cruel to you to highlight the weight of these players, but I see it as a recognition of their incredible versatility. Three-hundred-and-fifty-pound NFL players aren’t just sacks of lead. They’re not only stronger than us nonathletes, they’re also faster and more agile and more adept with their hands too. (Wilkins ran a 5.04 40-yard dash at the NFL combine; that’s a smidgen under 16 miles per hour. Your treadmill probably doesn’t even go that high.)
The NFL’s largest players are coming through on trick plays more than ever before. This is the NFL’s true offensive revolution.
Loser: Jason Garrett
Garrett is an offensive-minded coach. He played quarterback in the NFL, and worked as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator before becoming the Cowboys’ head coach in 2010.
The Dallas Cowboys have a team built around offense. Their quarterback, Dak Prescott, was briefly in the MVP race; their running back, Ezekiel Elliott, is the highest paid of all time; their best wide receiver, Amari Cooper, was virtually unstoppable for the second half of last season; their offensive line is the highest paid of all time.
Sunday, in a win-and-you’re-in game against the Eagles, the Cowboys scored nine points. They scored no touchdowns and kicked three field goals. In the fourth quarter, while trailing by 11 points, Garrett pulled his offense off the field to kick a field goal on fourth-and-4. After that, while trailing by eight points, the Cowboys faced a fourth-and-8 for the game. For some reason, they pulled Cooper off the field.
A #Cowboys source disputes the notion WR Amari Cooper was benched. Instead they wanted to give Tavon Austin a shot at the DBs because Eagles having hard time w smaller quick guys. They got in hurry up mode so they had to wait to put Cooper back in. “Rotation change, not bench.”— Jane Slater (@SlaterNFL) December 23, 2019
If you’re coaching, you probably should be able to override planned rotational changes to keep your best players on the field. And let’s be clear—Cooper, who has 14 touchdowns in his 24 games with the Cowboys, is a better wide receiver than Tavon Austin, who has 15 touchdowns in 95 career games.
With their offensive-minded coach and a team built around offense, the Cowboys scored nine points in their biggest game of the year. Unfortunately, getting rid of their team is impossible, because of how many hundreds of millions of dollars they’ve committed to the running back and offensive line, and the tens of millions of dollars they’ll have to commit to their quarterback. Getting rid of the coach should be easy.
After the game, the Cowboys were stuck in the Philadelphia airport for hours as the team’s charter flight had mechanical delays. They’ve got an offensive-minded coach and a team built around offense, and it wasn’t until they got to the airport that anybody broke the plane.
Winner: The Raiders’ Season-Saving Parlay
When you get toward the end of the season, there’s always some doomed team that’s still technically alive for the playoffs if some ridiculously unlikely scenario plays out. This season, that’s the Raiders, a team that just blew a massive lead in their final game in their home stadium to fall to 6-8 in a league with multiple 8-6 teams. Entering Week 16, the Raiders needed the following things to go right to make the playoffs:
- Win both of their remaining games
- Have the Steelers lose both of their remaining games
- Have the Titans lose both of their remaining games
- Have the Colts win both of their remaining games
- Have the Browns lose at least one of two games
Ridiculous, right? That’s an eight-game parlay before we get to the Browns. Do you know the odds on an eight-game parlay hitting? They’re high.
But Sunday, the first five legs of that parlay hit. The Raiders beat the Chargers; the Steelers lost to the Jets; the Titans lost to the Saints; the Colts beat the Panthers, and the Browns lost to the Ravens. Now the Raiders need only four things to happen in Week 17:
- Beat the Broncos in Denver
- Have the Steelers lose to the Ravens
- Have the Titans lose to the Texans
- Have the Colts beat the Jaguars
Those results would give the league a four-way tie at 8-8 between the Raiders, Colts, Titans, and Steelers for the sixth and final playoff spot. The Colts’ divisional record would be better than the Titans, eliminating Tennessee, but the Colts lost to the Steelers and Raiders, meaning that Indianapolis would be eliminated, and the Raiders would have a better “strength of victory” (the fifth tiebreaker!) than the Steelers.
All four of these are possible! FiveThirtyEight currently gives the Raiders a 10 percent chance of making the postseason. It’s slightly complicated by the fact that the Ravens and Texans are likely to rest starters next week, but still!