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 Aaron Rodgers MVP Campaign
It was snowy in Green Bay on Sunday night, which is supposed to make it tough to throw the ball—you know, because throwing the ball requires extremely fine motor skills and snowy weather makes you lose feeling in your fingers. (Plus, it’s windy!) That was clearly true for Ryan Tannehill this week, as he looked like… well, like Ryan Tannehill on the Dolphins, going 11-for-24 with a touchdown and two interceptions in the Titans’ 40-14 loss. His 121 yards were his fewest ever in a Tennessee uniform.
Utterly unaffected by the snow? Aaron Rodgers, who went 21-for-25 with four touchdowns and an interception.
Part of this is just because Rodgers is the greatest cold-weather thrower since Buddy the Elf. Rodgers has played 23 career games at Lambeau Field when the game-time temperature was 30 degrees or below; the Packers are 19-4 in those games, including a stunning 13-2 record against .500-or-better teams.
But it’s also worth noting that at this point, Rodgers is having the best season of any passer in the NFL. The Packers are the highest-scoring team in the league, averaging 31.6 points per game; the Chiefs are second at 30.1. Rodgers leads the NFL with 44 passing touchdowns (that’s one off his career high of 45); nobody else has more than 38. Rodgers has also thrown just five interceptions, fewer than any other full-time starter. He’s second in the NFL in completion rate, hitting over 70 percent of his passes.
In a surprising twist, the MVP race now feels like it belongs to Rodgers. Patrick Mahomes took the lead in betting odds to win after Week 10, but it honestly seems like Rodgers has the edge. The 37-year-old has thrown more touchdowns and fewer interceptions while averaging more yards per attempt and taking fewer sacks despite having a worse receiving corps. Although Mahomes’s Chiefs have a better record, there aren’t many categories in which he actually surpasses Rodgers. (According to various commercials, they receive the same rate on their car insurance, which is apparently a matter of grave importance to them, even though both are worth several hundred million dollars—so that’s a wash.) Mahomes is the face of the league and obviously the best player in the sport and will be for years to come—but statistically, he’s getting edged out by Rodgers this year.
Who would you say is the most likely NFL quarterback to complete a critical throw with a defender twisting their helmet? The best guess might be Patrick Mahomes, perpetual maker of miracles, but that’s wrong. Maybe Josh Allen, whose incredible body seems to operate entirely independently of his head? Also wrong. When you really think about it, there’s only one possible answer. This throw is FitzMagic:
Trailing in the fourth quarter of a must-win game on Saturday, the Dolphins benched rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in favor of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Tagovailoa had thrown for 93 yards in the first three quarters against the Raiders; Fitzpatrick went on to have 182 yards in the fourth and led the Dolphins on back-to-back-to-back scoring drives. The involuntary no-look pass above set up a game-winning field goal by Jason Sanders, and Miami won 26-25.
This marked the second time the Dolphins have benched Tua late in a game this season. The first situation was pretty similar: Tagovailoa had just 83 yards in the fourth quarter of a one-score game against the Broncos, and then Fitzpatrick came in. The difference? That time, Fitz threw a game-ending interception. Fitzpatrick is as likely to win a game with a ridiculous play as he is to lose a game with a ridiculous play. When you turn to FitzMagic, the spells might backfire.
The Dolphins have announced that they’ll stick with Tua at QB next week, and it makes sense. The offense clearly moves better with Fitz: He’s tied for seventh in the NFL in yards per attempt, while Tagovailoa is 30th. But Fitzpatrick is three times more likely to throw an interception: Tagovailoa is first in the NFL in interception rate, while Fitzpatrick is tied for 31st. When you’ve got the best scoring defense in the NFL—and the Dolphins do—you’re generally better off with the guy who protects the ball, even if he’s less dynamic.
This is a role-reversal for Tua. In the 2017 season, Alabama got to the national championship game thanks to the safe play of Jalen Hurts, who didn’t turn the ball over while Alabama dominated on defense. But when they were scoreless and trailing in the 2018 national title game, they turned to Tagovailoa, who made some risky throws and turned an impotent Alabama offense into a national champion. (I will never stop writing about this game.) Now Tua is the game manager—and when the Dolphins need points quickly and would be just as doomed by a pick as a punt, they turn to Fitz.
It’s funny—you’d expect the rookie to be the carefree bombs-away guy, and the 16-year vet to be the low-risk, low-reward guy. But Fitzpatrick has been in the NFL for 16 years without making the playoffs once because of his tendency for disaster. The only time Fitz almost made it was in 2015, when the Jets started the year 10-5—and Fitz threw three interceptions in a win-and-in Week 17 game at Buffalo. Incidentally, next week, the Dolphins have a win-and-in Week 17 game at Buffalo. So they’ve chosen Tua as their starting QB, in hopes he keeps things chill against a Bills team with nothing to play for—and they’ll turn to their closer if they need some FitzMagic.
Loser: The Pickless Texans
Although Tanking Awareness has reached an all-time high this year, each season provides evidence that teams never stop trying to win. The 2016 Browns started 0-14, then got a win in Week 15. The 2018 49ers started 2-10, then won back-to-back games in Weeks 14 and 15 to bump themselves out of prime draft position. The 2019 Dolphins started 0-7, then finished the year 5-11; the 2019 Bengals started the year 0-11 before getting wins in Week 13 and 17.
This year has given us more evidence—and it’s not just the Jets, who have suddenly gone from 0-13 to 2-13. The Bengals entered Sunday with the third spot in the 2021 NFL draft, likely putting them in prime position to select the best player at any position besides quarterback—which is fine, since they already have a quarterback. And now they’ve won back-to-back games, including Sunday’s 37-31 victory over the Texans, sparked by a stunning 371-yard, two-touchdown game by Bengals third-string quarterback Brandon Allen.
On the other side of that win were the Texans. Normally, there would be a silver lining to the loss. By losing, the Texans gave themselves a worse record than the Bengals, hypothetically improving their draft position. Just one problem: When fired head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien traded for offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil ahead of the 2019 season, he sent Houston’s first- and second-round picks in next year’s draft to the Dolphins. The Texans are now in position to get the no. 3 pick in the NFL draft—and send it to Miami.
It’s actually the second time in the past few years the Texans have dealt away a top-five pick. They traded up to the 12th spot to get Deshaun Watson in 2017, Watson got hurt as a rookie, and the Browns wound up with the no. 4 pick, which they used on Denzel Ward.
After Sunday’s loss, J.J. Watt gave an impassioned and deeply depressing speech about how fans keep coming up to him and telling him they still want the team to win, only for his teammates to disappoint them week after week. It’s a pretty nuts accusation—players on all the teams that actually have an incentive to lose are still playing hard, but Watt seems to imply that many of his teammates have checked out.
After the Texans’ latest loss today, J.J. Watt was asked how he and his team would be able to bounce back next week. His answer is required watching for many. pic.twitter.com/3uRRnvBC53— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 27, 2020
Late-season losses are supposed to come with a silver lining, but not for the Texans, who have effectively opted out of the system that is meant to provide the NFL with parity. A team this bad deserves a lifesaver to keep them from drowning, but the specter of Bill O’Brien just snatched theirs away.
Winner: Anybody With Alvin Kamara in the Fantasy Championship
We don’t celebrate the great moments in fantasy football history the way we should. Championship NFL moments get commemorated in slow-motion montages with baritone voice-overs that get replayed for decades. Championship fantasy football moments get commemorated by you telling your friends “DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN C.J. ANDERSON WON ME THE LEAGUE A FEW YEARS AGO” and them saying “You won the league? I kinda stopped paying attention after I got eliminated. Didn’t Sarah win that year?” and you saying “No, that was last year. I won the year before that!” and them saying “Cool story—by the way, nice job finishing in 11th place this year” and you getting mad because you just wanted to talk about C.J. Anderson. So let’s change that. Let’s make sure people remember that in 2020, Alvin Kamara had the greatest fantasy football performance of all time.
Kamara scored six rushing touchdowns on Christmas, tying an NFL record set all the way back in 1929 by Ernie Nevers. (On Thanksgiving, incidentally.)
Any time a 90-year-old record gets broken, I have to point out that the NFL was not really the NFL 90 years ago. Nevers began his career on a team from Duluth, Minnesota, that played every game on the road because it was too cold in Duluth. He dabbled in baseball, missed the 1928 season due to injuries and instead acted as an assistant coach at Stanford under Pop Warner, and scored six touchdowns for the Chicago Cardinals in 1929. Nevers still holds the record for most points in an NFL game—he kicked all the extra points after his touchdowns. But none of this stuff—being a part-time baseball player, kicking your own extra points after scoring touchdowns—makes sense anymore. (The only thing that really clicks is that Nevers scored his six touchdowns against the Chicago Bears.) Scoring six touchdowns is something from a different world, before fantasy football—before televised football—and then Kamara did it on Christmas.
Kamara finished the game with 53.2 standard scoring fantasy points, the second most of any player in any week since the AFL/NFL merger—and it happened in fantasy championship week. The greatest all-time Fantasy Championship Week performance before Kamara was by Jerry Rice, who had 45.9 points in 1995, but that was before fantasy football was really mainstream. The only player with more fantasy points in a week was Clinton Portis in 2003, who had 254 scrimmage yards and five touchdowns (55.4 points) in a Week 14 game.
I don’t see how anybody could’ve lost a fantasy matchup with a performance like Kamara’s. And Kamara was probably in a lot of fantasy championships—thanks to his spectacular year, Kamara was the third-most common player to appear on fantasy playoff rosters. So here’s a toast to everybody who won or lost because of Kamara’s greatness. It was a performance that might not be matched for a century. May your grandkids brag about the time you won the league on the back of the greatest fantasy performance of all time.
Loser: Chiefs Juggernaut Talk
The Chiefs are clearly the most dominant team in the NFL. They won last year’s Super Bowl, they have the sport’s best player, they have the best record in the league this year, they’ve secured home-field advantage for the playoffs, and they’ve won 10 games in a row.
But every week, I get a little bit more worried about them. Since beating the Jets by 26 on November 1, they have won seven straight one-possession games. They beat the 5-10 Panthers by two; they beat the 5-10 Broncos by six; and Sunday, they survived an ugly game against the 4-11 Falcons when Younghoe Koo missed a last-minute field goal.
Last week against the Saints, Mahomes averaged just 5.4 yards per attempt, the lowest single-game average of his career. It was understandable—the Saints have an elite pass defense. This week against the Falcons, though, Mahomes averaged 6.3 yards per attempt, the fourth-worst single-game average of his career. That’s a much less understandable figure; the Falcons have gotten absolutely torched through the air all season long.
If you win a lot of blowouts, you’re a great team. If you win a lot of close games without losing any, you’re probably getting lucky. The Chiefs are obviously closer to great than lucky—but if one of these one-possession games goes the wrong way in the playoffs, it won’t just be a blip. It’ll be the end of the season for the team we’ve spent all year calling the best in the sport.
Winner: Basically Every NFL Play-Caller
You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. You never know how good your team’s third-string quarterback is until you have to play a wide receiver under center; you never know how skilled your long snapper is until a random tight end has to get the ball to your punter. Saturday, we saw the awfully coached Detroit Lions try to play a game without most of their coaches, and it went so wrong that it somehow made me nostalgic for the cursed memory of Matt Patricia.
The Lions were already short on coaches heading into this week. Patricia was fired in November, with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell stepping in as interim head coach. Last week, Bevell fired special teams coordinator Brayden Coombs after Coombs went rogue and called a fake punt without letting any other coaches know about it. And Saturday, the Lions became the first NFL team to have a head coach miss a game due to COVID-19 protocols, as Bevell and several members of his staff were found to have had high-risk contact with someone who tested positive for COVID.
The Lions asked for the game to be moved back, but the NFL shut them down. So wide receivers coach Robert Prince was installed as a rare interim head coach for an interim head coach for Detroit’s game against the Buccaneers, and quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan became the team’s substitute offensive play-caller. But the real problems were on the defensive side of the ball, as the team’s defensive coordinator, defensive backs coach, defensive line coach, and linebackers coach were all out. The task of calling plays on defense fell to a guy named Evan Rothstein, an assistant in charge of “research and analysis.”
With so many Lions staffers out, they seem to have simply turned to the guys who had been there the longest—Prince has been with the team since 2014, when Jim Caldwell was head coach, and Rothstein has actually been there even longer—he was hired by Jim Schwartz in 2012. (That’s the same logic that led to Creed Bratton’s brief and bewildering reign as regional manager of the Dunder Mifflin Scranton branch in The Office.) My guess is that Rothstein probably knows a ton about football—but before Saturday, he had never called plays, worked as a coordinator, or even been a positional coach at any level. Asked about his new play-caller, defensive end Romeo Okwara described Rothstein as “one of those guys that kind of crunches all the numbers.”
And the Lions were going up against Tom Brady. The result was one of the most lopsided games in recent NFL memory. The score was 34-0 at halftime: Tampa Bay scored five touchdowns on six drives; Detroit punted on five of their six drives. The final score of 47-7 doesn’t even really do the game justice. The Bucs pulled Tom Brady at halftime for Blaine Gabbert, and the Lions got lucky enough to score a touchdown on a punt return. The Buccaneers gained 588 yards; the Lions only gained 186.
Sure, some of this probably would’ve happened anyway. The Lions entered the game with the 31st-ranked scoring defense in the NFL, and starting QB Matt Stafford got hurt in the first quarter, forcing backup Chase Daniel to come in. (The Lions have now lost all four games in which Daniel has played this season.) But even at their worst, the Lions are not a team that allows a touchdown on every defensive possession and punts on every offensive possession.
Much in the same way we learned how impressive bad quarterbacks are by watching Kendall Hinton try to lead the Broncos offense, the Lions’ coachless obliteration hints that maybe even the dumbest NFL coaches have more expertise than we generally admit. I may have called Matt Patricia “stupid,” “a dumbass,” “King of the Dumbasses,” “Tyrannadumbass Rex,” “Dumbassasaurus Rex,” “an empty-headed doofus,” “more beard than brains,” “the dumbest rocket scientist in the history of rocket scientists,” and many other things—but Saturday, it became clear that even an incredibly bad NFL head coach may still give his team a better chance to win than a research assistant with a play-calling headset.
Winner: Jaguars Fans
At long last, something good has happened to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ten days ago, this team was seemingly destined to once again be Bad, But Not Quite Bad Enough. They were 1-12, but were being out-tanked by the winless New York Jets at the time. Now, though, the Jets have suddenly become unstoppable, turning in back-to-back wins over playoff-bound opponents in the Rams and the Browns, and the Jaguars have officially locked in the first pick in the 2021 NFL draft—meaning Trevor Lawrence will play in teal.
Tanking isn’t a win for a team’s coaches—even if they’re lucky enough to avoid getting fired, they’ll forever have the stain of a massively sub-.500 season messing up their career winning percentage. And it’s not a win for the players, who may be replaced by the prospects who are drafted with high picks. (Sadly, the era of Gardner Minshew cult fandom is almost certainly over.) But it’s a win for the fans—and nobody needs it more than Jacksonville fans.
The Jags have been bad for most of their existence. Their all-time winning percentage of .428 is the third worst in the NFL, ahead of just the Browns and Buccaneers. But this will be the first time they’ve had the top pick in the draft. So far in their draft history, the Jags have managed to take a disappointing player with virtually every position in the top 10: They picked Luke Joeckel second, Blake Bortles third, Leonard Fournette fourth, Justin Blackmon fifth, Derrick Harvey eighth, Reggie Williams ninth, and Blaine Gabbert 10th. (They’ve never had the sixth pick, and their two seventh picks, Josh Allen and Byron Leftwich, have been pretty good.)
Jags fans knew that getting the no. 1 pick had a chance to change the franchise’s fortunes. We all know that fans of bad teams have rooted for their squad to lose before—but I don’t think I’ve ever heard them do it as openly as they did in Jacksonville on Sunday, where Bears touchdowns were met with the loudest cheers of the entire 2020 NFL season.
It’s possible that the people going nuts in the crowd were transplants who ditched Chicagoland for Northeast Florida—but footage revealed many Jags-turned-Bears fans for a day:
Bears Score! Jubilation in Jacksonville. pic.twitter.com/uVyt2wGZXA— Dilla (@E_Dilla) December 27, 2020
I have long viewed Jags fans with a combination of fear and respect. They root for a perennially bad team with hideous uniforms in a too-large stadium in a city most Americans wouldn’t know about if it didn’t have an NFL team. Nothing you can say can hurt them. Their love for the Jags has almost never been rewarded; that makes it some of the purest love in all of sports fandom. They cheered for Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne and Blake Bortles, and that fire has forged a truly unbreakable blade of fandom. The premise of tanking may upset you—but you can’t tell Jags fans they were wrong. They were cheering for the best quarterback in Jaguars history. He hasn’t worn a Jacksonville uniform yet, but he will soon.
Loser: AJ Dillon’s Legs
The Packers had the strangest draft of any team this year. We all know about their decision to use a first-round pick on quarterback Jordan Love, who has failed to beat out former UConn interception enthusiast Tim Boyle for the backup job and spent Sunday night’s game building a snowman behind the Packers bench—he used athletic tape for the eyes, a stick of smelling salt for the nose, and a Microsoft Surface for the mouth.
But there’s also the Packers’ second-round pick, AJ Dillon, who looked like a potential Derrick Henry clone at the combine. Despite being the heaviest running back at the event (247 pounds), Dillon posted the highest vertical leap (41 inches, tying Saquon Barkley for the fifth best of all time) and the longest broad jump (10 feet 11 inches, tying Alvin Kamara for the fourth best of all time). In training camp, media members lined up behind Dillon to document his unbelievably large leg muscles.
Today’s photo:— Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) August 17, 2020
Different positions, different pic.twitter.com/xNzsKRc3Ft
For most of this season, though, those massive quads were primarily used for sitting on the bench. He was clearly the third-stringer—even when Aaron Jones was injured, Jamaal Williams took over, and Dillon never got more than five carries a game. On the plus side, he probably helped Jordan Love get past some difficult levels of Candy Crush.
Sunday night’s game between the Packers and the Titans seemed like it would be dominated by Henry—but out of nowhere, Dillon emerged as the breakout star. Dillon entered the night with 115 rushing yards on the season; in Green Bay’s 40-14 win, he had 124 yards. Maybe his stupendously large leg muscles were the only ones capable of powering through the Lambeau snow, like the way cars need special tires in winter.
Dillon also scored his first two career touchdowns in this game—but somehow, that’s when his legs failed him. After his first score, Dillon attempted the famous Lambeau Leap—and fell short. (He also seems to have let out a high-pitched squeaking noise upon falling, like the noise a chipmunk might make after losing a chipmunk fight.)
After Dillon’s second touchdown, he tried again—and needed a boost from Allen Lazard to reach the stands.
We’re probably judging Dillon a bit too harshly. For one, the ground was snowy—not ideal Lambeau Leaping conditions. And normally, players don’t actually reach the stands on the sheer power of their leaping skills—they get yoinked up by a slew of Packer fans, which is an inadvisable activity during a pandemic. But still, it’s funny that the guy who leapt all the way from Indianapolis to Green Bay during the combine finally got to have his breakout game, only to become famous for not being good at jumping.
Winner: Scoreboard Watching
The final week of the NFL season is set up differently from all the others. All 16 games pit teams from the same divisions against one another, and it’s the only week without a prescheduled Sunday Night Football game. Usually, it’s pretty clear which game they’ll pick to flex into the spot—one with obvious playoff implications which can’t be altered by any other game.
But there really isn’t one next Sunday. The no. 1 seed in the AFC has been locked (Chiefs). Six of the eight divisions have been sealed, and in the two that haven’t (the AFC South and NFC East), there’s not a head-to-head matchup for the division. After Week 16, there are 11 teams that can still make or miss the playoffs. Of those, two have legitimate play-in scenarios: the Cardinals and the Washington Football Team. Meanwhile, there are six teams (the Bears, Browns, Titans, Dolphins, Rams, and Ravens) who can lose and still make the postseason; and two (the Giants and Cowboys) who must win, but can be eliminated by a Washington win.
So the NFL ended up choosing Washington-Philadelphia for Sunday Night Football: It’s win-and-in for the Football Team, and the Giants and Cowboys must try to win their earlier games regardless in hopes Washington loses. It’s kind of a fascinating game—it’s unclear whether Washington’s quarterback will be Alex Smith, whose surgically repaired calf is struggling; Dwayne Haskins, who blew off steam after last week’s loss with a maskless get-together with strippers; or Taylor Heinicke, who was taking online classes at Old Dominion three weeks ago.
Outside of SNF, though, the rest of the day will be full of scoreboard watching. There are nine games that have playoff implications, and most of them will feature fans trying to keep up with the score in another game taking place somewhere else. And I’m here for it. Sure, it’s fun to watch games where there’s a definitive result—two teams enter, one team leaves, fight! But we have the entire playoffs for that. Week 17 is about the joy of watching the scoreboard—like the Bengals ending the Bills’ playoff drought by beating the Ravens in 2017, as the Bills watched in the locker room. The NFL tries to set the final week of the season up to avoid this scenario, but I’m kind of glad it didn’t pan out at all this year.