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 End of the NFL Season
There were 256 regular-season NFL games this year, and the race for home-field advantage in the NFC came down to a few inches in the final seconds of the 256th.
This angle shows Jacob Hollister just falling short of the goal line. Wild finish! pic.twitter.com/e9FqTfKDjl— Eric Rosenthal (@ericsports) December 30, 2019
Let’s start at the end, with 30 seconds remaining in the NFC West–deciding matchup between the 49ers and Seahawks. If San Francisco won, it would be the no. 1 seed and play home games until the Super Bowl. If Seattle won, the Seahawks would play a home game next week, and the Niners would be the no. 5 seed, eligible to play a home playoff game only if they won back-to-back road games and hosted the no. 6 seed (who also won back-to-back road games) in the NFC championship game. So, yeah, there was a lot on the line.
Trailing 26-21, the Seahawks were driving for a win. The below play—a fourth-down throw to a player with zero career catches—was almost normal compared to what followed:
The catch by John Ursua kept Seattle alive by giving them a first down, but didn’t win them the game. It gave Seattle the ball at the 1-yard line with 23 seconds left and no timeouts. But left tackle George Fant was limping after the play, and struggled to get back to the line of scrimmage for the next snap. The Seahawks had no timeouts left, and couldn’t run a play with an injured left tackle, so they decided to spike the ball, giving themselves a chance to reboot.
With about 25 seconds left on the play clock, it’s seems like the Seattle Medical Staff was running on to the field and Fant waives them off. Throws everything off. Russ thinks they may have re-set the play clock. #FantsFault pic.twitter.com/2XG7ECRcU9— GrantLA (@GrantedLA) December 30, 2019
Now, the clock seemingly wasn’t a factor—but personnel was. The Seahawks had the ball at the 1-yard line with the game on the line—just like they did in Super Bowl XLIX, when they famously didn’t hand the ball to power back extraordinaire Marshawn Lynch. Luckily, Seattle had a chance to right that wrong—the Seahawks thrilled the NFL world by signing Lynch out of retirement last week after injuries to starting running back Chris Carson and backup C.J. Prosise.
But something got screwed up. Maybe Pete Carroll spent a second too long thinking about whether to go to Lynch. Maybe Lynch, who was signed literally days ago and hadn’t been a part of the team’s two-minute-drill installs, wasn’t expecting to be called into the game. (It seemed like Lynch was wearing a hat instead of a helmet on the sideline, and took time to find his proper equipment.) Despite having 40 seconds to set up their next play after the spike, the Seahawks were called for a delay of game due to the confusion over Lynch’s entry. That moved the ball back to the 5-yard line. After the game, at least one Seahawk claimed the team had been prepared to hand the ball to Lynch, but from the 5-yard line, they had to pass.
After incomplete passes on second and third down, the spike came back to haunt the Seahawks, who were now facing a second straight fourth down for the division. Wilson threw to tight end Jacob Hollister, who tried his best to will the ball into the end zone, but fell inches short.
The aftermath of this was chaos. The 49ers acted as if Hollister had fumbled, and ran the ball back 100 yards to the opposite end zone. The Seahawks argued that Hollister had actually scored. Wilson’s elbow, for some reason, began gushing blood, and nobody seemed to know or care why. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth carried on a polite conversation in the NBC booth about nothing in particular to hide the fact they were just as clueless about what was happening as the rest of the world.
This is how the NFL season ended, with a maelstrom of thrilling plays and baffling Pete Carroll choices. Don’t be bummed the NFL season is over, even if, like me, your favorite four months of the year are the four months when you spend every Sunday on a couch with your favorite comfort foods, your frustrating fantasy teams, and the dulcet tones of Scott Hanson. It’s not just that all good things must come to an end—it’s that some things are good because they come to an end.
If NFL fields were endless, there would be no goal line, and the Seahawks and Niners wouldn’t have put every ounce of their effort into getting Hollister across the goal line or keeping him on the other side. If NFL games were endless, the ticking clock wouldn’t have existed, and Hollister’s push would’ve been just another play in an eternal battle for points. And if the NFL season were endless, NFC West positioning wouldn’t have been so critical. I guess I’m sad the NFL season is over, but the perfect struggle in its final moments makes me glad the end of the NFL season exists.
Loser: The New Orleans Saints
The Saints won their final game of the year—dominated, honestly, taking a 35-0 lead on the Panthers in the first half and coasting to a 42-10 win. But don’t worry, the Saints still got screwed.
New Orleans went 13-3 this year, which is good enough to earn a first-round bye in almost every NFL season. But this year, the Packers and 49ers also went into Week 17 at 12-3. If either team lost, the Saints would have gotten a first-round bye. But the 49ers beat both the Packers and Saints in the regular season, giving them the no. 1 seed in case of a three-way tie, and the Packers had the better conference record, giving them the no. 2 seed.
The Packers fell into a 17-3 hole against the eliminated Lions—but outscored Detroit 20-3 down the stretch to win on a field goal as the clock expired:
Still, the Saints had a chance to get a first-round bye if the Niners lost. But, well, all that stuff we talked about up there happened—plus one thing I didn’t mention. On third down, Wilson targeted Hollister, but 49ers linebacker Fred Warner grabbed Hollister and prevented him from getting the ball:
Why didn't the refs review this for pass interference?! COME ON! pic.twitter.com/3r02j9gjIm— Samuel Gold (@SamuelRGold) December 30, 2019
Hypothetically, this play should have been reviewed, because missed pass interference calls are reviewable this season—you know, because of THE HORRIBLE THING THAT HAPPENED TO THE SAINTS LAST YEAR. The one positive of the Saints getting eliminated from the postseason because of a missed pass interference call was that it caused the NFL to make pass interference reviewable—except the rollout of that rule change was so inconsistent and fraught that making pass interference reviewable has widely been viewed as a negative. The botched rollout of PI review could’ve been redeemed if the NFL had stopped play to ensure that this missed call in a pivotal play in a critical game was rectified. Instead, the game kept moving, the Seahawks lost, and the Saints have to play next weekend.
Missing out on a first-round bye is a really big deal. It’s not just that the Saints might lose to the Vikings next week—and they really might. It’s that if they win, they’ll have to play on the road against the Packers, and if they win that, they’ll probably have to play on the road against the Niners. There’s a reason every Super Bowl participant since 2012 has gotten a first-round bye—it’s really hard to win three straight games in back-to-back-to-back weeks. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Saints’ hopes of winning the Super Bowl would have jumped to 22 percent with a Niners loss. Instead they fell to 11 percent.
Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, just two 13-3 teams have ever been forced to play on wild-card weekend. The most recent? The 2011 Saints, who lost their second-round game to the Niners.
For the second straight year, New Orleans was screwed by a missed pass interference call, which led them to tie their own record for the best team to have to play four postseason games to win a championship. Such is life for the Saints. Hey, at least LSU has good juju this year.
Winner: The Miami Dolphins
Week 17 is a special kind of magic. The best teams in the league often have the least to play for, while the worst seem unsure whether they should try to win or lose. For some teams, it’s the most important week of the year; for others, it’s just an annoying obligation. You can never really be sure which teams will show up. The things that happen feel like they take place in some sort of alternate dreamworld. The games sometimes seem forgettable—and that’s why each year, something happens that I’ll never forget.
One reason the Patriots are in the Super Bowl almost every year is because they generally have to play one fewer playoff game than most teams. Their complete dominance of the AFC East means they’ve had a first-round bye in each of the past nine seasons, giving them one fewer hurdle en route to a championship. All the Pats needed to do to get one for a 10th straight year was beat the Dolphins in Week 17.
The Dolphins. A team that, earlier this year, many thought had the potential to be the worst in NFL history. After all, there were times this season when the Dolphins were on pace to score fewer points than any team in NFL history and also allow more points than any team in NFL history—and that was before they decided to start trading away their few talented players for future draft picks. They were the face of NFL tanking, epitomized by their 43-0 loss to the Patriots in Week 2, a game in which the Dolphins scored zero touchdowns but threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. It looked less like an NFL game and more like a Week 1 college football game where Big State paid Directional Tech $1.8 million to get their asses kicked.
The Dolphins did turn things around over the course of the year, improving to 4-11 entering Week 17, which is just a regular Bad Team Record and not a historic disgrace. But still, the Patriots were obviously expected to win. They were 17-point favorites, a playoff-bound team with reason to keep playing, going up against a team that could only hurt its draft position by winning.
But Week 17 is a strange land—so unpredictable that even the trivial field of fantasy football feels too important to be decided by such unusual performances. On paper, Miami had nothing to play for. But on the field, it seemed like they had everything to play for. And maybe they did. Like we said last week: Front offices might tank, but players and coaches don’t, and the Dolphins clearly resented the idea that they would lay down on the field. Week 17 offered an opportunity to get back at the team that made them a laughingstock.
The Dolphins picked off Tom Brady for a touchdown to give themselves an early 10-0 lead, with former Patriot Eric Rowe taking the ball into the end zone for a score:
Miami wide receiver DeVante Parker, labeled by many as a bust, absolutely torched cornerback Stephon Gilmore, considered by many as a favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year. He finished with eight catches for 137 yards, by far the most any receiver had this season against the Patriots:
Note the situation, the matchup... this is ELITE from Devante Parker. pic.twitter.com/hz50nYAXRC— Travis Wingfield (@WingfieldNFL) December 29, 2019
Ryan Fitzpatrick had 320 passing yards and threw the game-winning touchdown:
The Dolphins did have something to play for. Rowe, and the many other Dolphins players and coaches who came over from New England with head coach Brian Flores, wanted to prove they could be useful outside of New England’s system, that they hadn’t just been cogs in the Bill Belichick machine. Fitzpatrick is 37 years old, and has no desire to help the Dolphins get a higher pick in next year’s NFL draft so they can better select his replacement. They might not have wanted a win in the conventional sense like the Patriots, whose postseason positioning could be improved by an on-field result—but they had reasons to play.
Miami’s 27-24 win is the biggest upset in terms of point spread since 1995. It’s more than just a late-season oddity, because now the Pats will have to play on wild-card weekend, a circumstance which drastically damages their hopes of repeating as champions. Before Sunday’s loss to the Dolphins, the Patriots had a 10 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl, per FiveThirtyEight; after the loss, that dropped to 3 percent.
Week 17 is a special kind of magic, and you never know what it will bring. This year, a team that looked like it could be one of the worst of all time handed the greatest dynasty in the history of the sport their most significant setback in a decade.
Winner: Jameis Winston’s Horrible, Beautiful Record
Jameis Winston died as he lived. Of course, he lived by dumping barrels of kerosene over himself and jumping into fire pits. When you live like that, you sort of expect to die like that.
Earlier this week, I wrote about how Winston had the potential to make history in Week 17. Not only could he become the eighth quarterback ever to throw for 5,000 yards in a season—a good record!—but he could become the first quarterback ever to have 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the same season, and the first quarterback with 30 interceptions in a season since 1988—not exactly great records.
Winston hit 5,000 yards without much trouble, passing that mark in the second quarter. But he spent most of the game stuck on 29 interceptions. I was worried. Did Winston not realize that he was on the cusp of history?
Of course, there was no need to fear. Winston threw his 30th interception of the year in the most dramatic fashion possible. When the game went to overtime, Winston ensured that his first pass of the extra session would be the last pass of his season by throwing a game-ending pick-six:
Game of Thrones writers are jealous of the ending to Jameis' seasonpic.twitter.com/iLMmyLqZp0— PFF (@PFF) December 29, 2019
Winston didn’t just hit the 30-30 mark with the pick—he also set the all-time single-season record for pick-sixes in a season with his seventh. He’s the first quarterback to throw a walk-off OT pick-six since 2015, and the first quarterback to throw a season-ending OT pick-six since Matt Hasselbeck’s famous “we want the ball and we’re gonna score” pick-six in 2004.
For people who watch Winston just to see the interceptions, this was a perfect ending. Head coach Bruce Arians, on the other hand, seemed positively fed up with the Winston experience:
Arians, asked if Winston throwing a pick-six in overtime is worst possible way to end a season: “I can’t think of anything worse.”— Greg Auman (@gregauman) December 29, 2019
Bruce Arians on Winston’s 30-30 season: “So much good and so much outright terrible.”— Ryan Bass (@Ry_Bass) December 29, 2019
From an actual football perspective, this was a somewhat disgraceful moment. Winston set multiple ignominious records for failure on a game-losing play that ensured his team would finish with a losing record. From the sounds of it, Winston’s continued inability to throw passes to the right team could be a big factor as the Buccaneers decide whether to retain him for 2020 and beyond.
But I can’t remember a funnier NFL moment than a quarterback setting multiple ignominious records on a game-losing play that ensured his team would finish with a losing record. It wasn’t just a failure. It was a monument to the concept of failure, an argument that failing can be spectacular if players dream big enough. Like I said, Winston died as he lived.
Loser: Freddie Kitchens
Freddie Kitchens had one of the easiest ultimatums in history. Ahead of Week 17, Browns ownership was reportedly considering letting Kitchens keep his job with a win over the 1-14 Bengals. It’s like giving a student a passing grade for successfully writing their name on the top of the page.
It also defies all logic: This Browns season was an absolute disaster, as a talent-laden squad fell out of the playoffs with players begging to be traded and a star player getting into screaming matches with Kitchens on the sideline. How could a victory in a meaningless game against an awful team mitigate a whole season of embarrassments?
Freddie failed the test. Cincinnati exploded for 33 points, including a touchdown scored while the Browns had only 10 players on the field:
The Bengals, who, like I said, had just one win in their first 15 games of the season, ran circles around the Browns. Literally, in Andy Dalton’s case, which is especially upsetting, because he’s Andy Dalton.
It was a successful moment for players from both franchises. The Bengals, who had already secured the no. 1 pick in the draft, no longer had to deal with their fans rooting against them, and gleefully exploded with a long-awaited victory. And the Browns, no longer even hypothetically in the running for the playoffs, uh, didn’t seem particularly motivated to save Kitchens’s job. The loss would’ve been humiliating if it wasn’t exactly what the team apparently wanted.
If Kitchens’s tenure came down to a single game, then that’s a terrible decision, because it gave him the chance to save his job with a win that should’ve come easily. Luckily for the Browns, Kitchens made the decision easy. Knowing that his job was on the line, Kitchens’s team lost to the worst team in the NFL in a game where they forgot to regularly put the correct amount of players on the field.
The Kitchens era is over. The ultimatum delivered by Browns management was only justified by the fact Kitchens failed. All Kitchens had to do was write his name at the top of the test to pass, but he spent his time doodling all over the page instead.
Winner: Big Man Touchdowns
It was a banner year for large football players scoring. Earlier this season, we highlighted a receiving touchdown by 347-pound Vita Vea, the heaviest player in NFL history to catch a touchdown. Last week, we wrote about how there had been more touchdown catches by players 300 pounds or heavier than in any previous season in NFL history. But Sunday brought one more Big Man touchdown record: The Falcons ran a tackle-eligible play to get 311-pound Ty Sambrailo this 35-yard touchdown.
BIG MAN UP THE SEAM!— NFL (@NFL) December 29, 2019
Right tackle Ty Sambrailo goes 35 yards on the TD reception! #InBrotherhood
: #ATLvsTB on FOX
: NFL app // Yahoo Sports app
Watch free on mobile: https://t.co/HYJhHN7b2Y pic.twitter.com/Zj4t4uHCDf
Sambrailo’s score was the longest touchdown reception by a player weighing more than 300 pounds (and the longest touchdown reception by any offensive lineman) in NFL history.
Most passing touchdowns to offensive linemen are from within the 5-yard-line—they’re based on the defense forgetting to cover a lineman who declared as eligible for juuuuuust long enough for them to get open and catch a pass. They’re not designed for that player to catch the pass AND THEN RUN, because offensive linemen aren’t typically good at running. The Falcons apparently did not care. They gave Sambrailo the ball and asked him to pick up 22 yards after the catch.
Was it pretty? No. At a certain point, Sambrailo realized defenders were gaining on him and tried to sprint faster, and realized he couldn’t sprint faster. He’s a cargo van with a top speed of 80 miles per hour. He can smash that gas pedal all he wants; it’s not going any faster. But it doesn’t matter. The play was drawn up well enough that the cargo van hit the finish line before the Formula 1 racers behind him. As it turns out, a cargo van’s top speed is still pretty damn fast.
2019 was the Year of the Big Man Touchdown. We saw big men showcase their array of talents in the receiving game more often than ever, and in more different ways than ever. These might be trick plays, and they might not work as a team’s base offense, but the linemen involved are talented enough to turn them into successful scores time and time again. The only thing that makes me happier than 2019 being the Year of the Big Man Touchdown is that the successes of these talented big men will lead to every subsequent year being another Year of the Big Man Touchdown.
Winner: Derrick Henry
Do running backs matter? People on Twitter have opinions about this! My personal answer to this question is “maybe,” but I do know this: No running back has mattered more in any one game than Derrick Henry did Sunday.
The Titans entered Sunday with a win-and-in playoff scenario. If they lost, they were probably still good, but if they beat the Texans, they were guaranteed a playoff spot. How’d they get that playoff spot? By giving the ball to Henry, over and over and over again.
Henry had 32 rushing attempts—the most of any player in any game all season long—and went for 211 yards, the second most of any player in any game all season long. He had three touchdowns, including this 53-yard score:
Derrick Henry takes the lead for the rushing title on a 53-yard TOUCHDOWN! #Titans @KingHenry_2— NFL (@NFL) December 30, 2019
: #TENvsHOU on CBS
: NFL app // Yahoo Sports app
Watch free on mobile: https://t.co/HYJhHN7b2Y pic.twitter.com/4O5zFyPgCT
That 53-yard carry didn’t just ice the 35-14 win and give the Titans a playoff spot—it pushed Henry past Nick Chubb of the Browns for the NFL rushing lead. Chubb had entered the day with a 124-yard lead on Henry for the rushing title, but had only 41 yards in the Browns’ loss to the Bengals.
To summarize: Henry had just about the best running game of the season to power his team to the postseason while becoming the rushing champion. Do running backs matter? I don’t know—but from time to time, they can do awesome things, and watching players do awesome things is awesome, and awesome things matter.
Loser: Anybody Who Had Derrick Henry on Their Fantasy Team and Lost Last Week When He Was Injured and Had to Watch Him Go for 211 Yards and Three Touchdowns After the Season Was Over
Winner: The Replacement Philadelphia Eagles
Lots of teams play randos Week 17. The Vikings played Sean Mannion, who had just one start at quarterback in his first five seasons in the NFL, in place of Kirk Cousins. The Bills’ two leading receivers were Duke Williams and Tommy Sweeney, who had 11 receptions for 184 yards Sunday—they’d previously combined for nine career receptions. Mike Boone, who had 125 yards on the season entering Sunday, ran for 148 for the Vikings.
The Eagles also played lots of randos Sunday. Their leading wide receiver, Deontay Burnett, hadn’t played in an NFL game since last season when he was on the Jets. Their only receiving touchdown of the day was caught by Joshua Perkins, who hadn’t caught a touchdown since 2016, when he played for the Falcons. (To find out info on him, you have to Google “Josh Perkins football” because there’s a G League player named Josh Perkins, and G League players are more notable than replacement-level tight ends.) By the end of the day, their top running back was Boston Scott, who is not a guy that called into WEEI so frequently that he got a job as a sidekick during the drive-time sports-talk hour, but a 5-foot-6 running back picked in the sixth round by the Saints last year.
But there’s a difference between the Eagles’ rando squad and players like Mannion, Boone, Williams, and Sweeney making appearances. The Eagles had everything to play for Sunday, as they could clinch the NFC East with a win over the Giants, but their skill positions have been devastated by injuries. The team’s top three wide receivers (DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, and Nelson Agholor), three of their top four running backs (Jordan Howard, Corey Clement, and Darren Sproles) and their top tight end (Zach Ertz) were out with injuries going into Sunday’s game. And midway through the game, their second running back, Miles Sanders, suffered an injury as well.
And so, with the season of the line, the randos were a necessity. Perkins, who was cut by the Eagles in August, had the first touchdown catch of the game.
Burnett, cut by the Jets and 49ers this year, made a critical fourth-quarter grab.
But the star was Scott, who led the team in both rushing and receiving and finished with 138 yards and three touchdowns. Here’s Scott catching the screen pass that essentially iced the game, including a completely unnecessary spin move in the open field with no defenders in his way:
Sorry bout the spin move WiFi made the game lag— Boston Scott (@BostonScott2) December 30, 2019
The Eagles won, 34-17, to clinch their postseason berth. I’m not exactly optimistic about their playoff chances—this is a 9-7 team that is only in the playoffs because an NFC East team is guaranteed a playoff spot, and is now relying on players signed off the street in critical roles. Even for a team with a history of backups doing incredible things in the postseason … it seems unlikely that these backups are going to do incredible things in the postseason.
The Eagles’ season will probably end with a loss. But Sunday will give Philadelphia a fond memory of the 2019 season—a day when players who had been cast off by other teams emerged as Philadelphia heroes, giving the team a shot at the championship when nobody else was capable of suiting up.