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: Whatever Week 17 Nonsense the Eagles Just Pulled
Week 17 of the NFL season is the strangest of the year. It’s a mixture of the most meaningful games of the regular season and the most meaningless—and sometimes, they’re being played at the same time by teams on opposite sidelines. It’s a week when fans might end up cheering harder for their biggest rival than their own team. At the exact moment the NFL tries to tell us that the games are more important than ever, the actual gameplay becomes so unpredictable and bewildering that we’ve collectively decided that Week 17 results are too untrustworthy for fantasy football, the least important thing in the world. Sunday night, the absurdity of the whole situation boiled over in unprecedented fashion, as the NFL’s highlight prime-time game devolved into performance art. The world had to watch in horror as a team simply stopped caring that it had a part to play in the NFL’s playoff race.
Sunday Night Football in Week 17 is the 256th and final game of the regular season, and every year the NFL schedules a game that’s guaranteed to have massive playoff implications. This year, it was a matchup between the NFC East–leading Washington Football Team and the already eliminated Philadelphia Eagles. If Washington won, it would win the division at 7-9. If it lost, there would be a three-way tie on top of the division at 6-10, and the Giants would steal the title and become the worst team in NFL playoff history. So New York players and fans swallowed their pride and went into the game cheering as hard as they could for the hated Eagles.
And for a while, it looked like Philadelphia might pull it off. The Eagles intercepted Alex Smith twice, and Jalen Hurts ran for a pair of touchdowns to give Philly a 14-10 lead.
But in the fourth quarter, with Washington up 17-14, Eagles coach Doug Pederson made a change. He took out Hurts and put in Nate Sudfeld, Philly’s longtime third-string quarterback. Pederson said all week he wanted to get Sudfeld some snaps in the game—but it was stunning to see it happen in the fourth quarter, with Hurts clearly representing Philly’s best chance to win. The game—and with it, the Giants’ hopes of making the playoffs—came down to a guy who hadn’t thrown a pass in an NFL game since 2018.
And it went terribly. Sudfeld went 5-for-12 for 32 yards with an interception, and gave back 16 of those yards on a pair of sacks. That’s 16 yards on 14 dropbacks. The interception was absolutely hideous, a massive overthrow into double coverage:
Nate Sudfeld entering the game went as expected pic.twitter.com/XfD5nxOgT3— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) January 4, 2021
And Sudfeld also lost a fumble on a snap. (Maybe the center wasn’t prepared for the transition from the 6-foot-1 Hurts to the 6-foot-6 Sudfeld.)
Nate Sudfeld possession #2: Fumble ✅pic.twitter.com/jbSAjl49Sm— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) January 4, 2021
It’s understandable that a team might want to use Week 17 to evaluate a quarterback. But if there’s a quarterback the Eagles need to evaluate, it’s Hurts, the captivating rookie who may or may not be an NFL-caliber starting QB—not Sudfeld, a 27-year-old fifth-year vet who has spent four years on the Eagles without so much as winning the backup job. After the game, Pederson said that Sudfeld had been with the Eagles for a few years and “deserved snaps.” That’s what you say about the high school student manager who washed everybody’s uniforms after practice for four years, not the quarterback you put in a game with playoff implications! I honestly don’t know why Pederson insisted on playing Sudfeld. I doubt that he really wanted to lose the game—if that was the case, why not start Sudfeld? I just think he didn’t care and wanted one of his guys to get some playing time.
For Eagles fans, none of this mattered. If Sudfeld threw a game-winning touchdown, they could laugh about it. If he threw a billion picks, they could laugh about that, too. But for Giants fans? I can’t imagine a more excruciating experience than rooting for a team you hate, then seeing that team sub out their best QB at a critical moment because they simply didn’t care about winning. Giants players tweeting about the game started out the night optimistic …
And ended the night discovering previously unknown levels of hatred as their postseason fate was wrecked by another team throwing in the towel.
This is sickening— Darius Slayton (@Young_Slay2) January 4, 2021
One crappy team was sitting at home agonizing, hoping against hope that an even crappier team would beat another crappy team. Instead, the crappiest team in the division put their crappiest quarterback in. The Giants begged their most hated rival to simply care about the game they were currently playing; their rival gleefully declined. And in the most critical moment of the most critical week of the NFL regular season, a team voluntarily opted not to play its best player at the most important position. There were no other games on to distract us. Everybody had to watch a coach pretend to evaluate a quarterback he already knew sucked. It was anti-football, a middle finger to the concept that any of this matters. It was perhaps the most captivating end to a regular season I can remember.
Loser: The Future of the Washington Football Team
The Eagles’ apathy led to the Giants’ agony on Sunday night, but it also put the Washington Football Team into the postseason. It’s kind of a miracle. WFT had the fourth-best odds out of four teams to win the division back at the beginning of the season. Then it benched its starting quarterback, and its backup quarterback suffered a season-ending injury, and so it turned to a guy coming off 17 surgeries who had relearned how to walk since his last time appearing in an NFL game. Washington won five of six games that Alex Smith started at QB and made the postseason for the first time in five years. Last year, this was an embarrassing franchise with an even more embarrassing name; now they’re a playoff Football Team.
However, Washington’s playoff spot comes with a price. Normally, a win or loss in Week 17 can bump a team only a few spots in the next year’s draft order. However, the rules are different for playoff competitors. The 18 best picks in the NFL draft are reserved for teams that don’t make the playoffs, in reverse order of their record. Then come the picks for playoff teams, in the order in which they’re eliminated from the postseason. If Washington had lost Sunday, it would have gotten the 10th pick in the draft because of the team’s 6-10 record. But as a playoff team, the pick will be no better than 19th. And that will absolutely alter the future of this team.
Last week, Washington made the shocking decision to cut Dwayne Haskins—the quarterback it took with the no. 15 pick in the 2019 NFL draft—because he’d performed poorly, because first-year head coach Ron Rivera didn’t draft him, and because quite frankly, Haskins acted like a fool off the field. Now, the only quarterback Washington has under contract for 2021 is Smith. And while Smith has performed stunningly well for a guy who wasn’t able to walk 18 months ago, he’s 36 years old and operating mainly using checkdowns. (His average depth of target is the lowest in the NFL, by a lot.)
The Football Team needs a quarterback more than almost any other team in the league—and this is one of the most quarterback-rich drafts in some time. The 10th pick could’ve gotten them the future of their franchise, or at least been paired with another piece to trade up for a better pick. Instead, they’ll be 19th, far away from the top spots in the draft. If they win a game in the playoffs—unlikely, but possible—they’ll drop even farther.
Of course, the team is thrilled to be in the postseason, and their unlikely division title will be remembered for years to come. The culture established this season could help Washington win in the future. But if you could trade a single playoff appearance—probably a loss—for a franchise QB, you would, right? By winning, Washington made the opposite choice. We’ll see how it plays out.
Winner: The Playoff-Bound Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns are headed to the playoffs. What a strange phrase! “The Cleveland Browns are headed to the playoffs.” It’s like if your local Subway restaurant was awarded three Michelin stars and a James Beard. Even among sad fast-food restaurants, Subway has always stood out to me as the saddest—and even among sad football teams, the Browns are clearly the saddest. And yet, the regular season is over, and the Cleveland Browns are technically still in the running to win the Super Bowl.
The way it happened for this Browns team was dicey. They could have clinched last week—but then their entire wide receiver room was ruled out due to COVID-19 protocols, and Cleveland somehow lost to a 1-13 Jets team that hurt its future by winning. This week, the Browns were facing a Steelers team that was resting its starters because it had already clinched its playoff berth. The Steelers scored the final 13 points of the game, and had a two-point conversion attempt to tie the score at 24-24. They missed, but the ensuing onside kick was a harrowing experience for Browns fans:
The Browns last made the playoffs in 2002. They almost won their one playoff game that year, but wound up losing 36-33 after Pittsburgh running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala scored a last-minute touchdown. Things probably seemed bright to Cleveland fans at the time. The Browns had just been reborn as a franchise in 1999, and after a few understandable growing years, they were already a playoff team. Surely, this would become a routine occurrence.
Instead, the Browns missed the playoffs for the next 17 years, tied for the longest streak since the NFL added the wild-card round in 1978. (The longest postseason drought in NFL history is 25 years, but that took place before the Super Bowl era, when only two teams made the postseason. The Saints had a 20-season postseason drought which ended in 1987, but the majority of it took place in an era when only eight teams made the playoffs.) It should be impossible to miss the playoffs that many years in a row. You don’t have to be great to make the playoffs—over a third of the league makes it! But year after year, the Browns were bad. There was actually one year when the Browns were good—2007, when they won 10 games—and they still missed out. The Browns didn’t just have the longest active playoff drought in the NFL: They held the longest active playoff drought by five seasons.
The quarterback from the last Browns team to make the playoffs, Tim Couch, has not thrown a pass in an NFL game in 18 years; the Browns have had 27 starting quarterbacks since. The head coach from that 2002 team, Butch Davis, is now the head coach at Florida International University; the Browns have had 11 head coaches since.
Since the last time the Browns made the playoffs, LeBron James graduated from high school, got drafted by the Cavaliers, played for Cleveland so long that he earned a reputation for failing to win NBA championships, left for Miami and became the most hated man in Cleveland history, won multiple NBA championships, returned to Cleveland, won a championship there and became the most beloved man in Cleveland history, and then left again for Los Angeles. He was a high schooler in 2002, and he has gray hairs now.
With the NFL expanding the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams in March, almost half of the teams in the league will make the postseason every year. I highly doubt that any team will ever miss the playoffs 17 years in a row again. This will likely be the longest drought any team will ever have to face—and I’m so happy for Browns fans that it is over.
Loser: Bad Backup Quarterbacks
Week 17 is a time for unknown quarterbacks to get in the game—just ask multimillionaire Matt Flynn. But typically, they play in the games between teams that have already been eliminated, or are resting their starters ahead of the postseason—not the games in which teams have to win or go home. But somehow, Sunday’s matchup between the Cardinals and the Rams wound up being a Battle of the Backups despite the fact that both teams could have been eliminated with a loss. Jared Goff had thumb surgery earlier in the week, and Kyler Murray entered the game with a lower leg issue and injured his ankle in the first quarter. And so both teams’ playoff hopes wound up on the backs of John Wolford and Chris Streveler, two players whose jerseys nobody owns. (Wolford for the Rams, Streveler for the Cardinals—but you knew that, right?)
Wolford is actually an intriguing NFL prospect, even if his still-active LinkedIn profile indicates he may think he’s going back to the finance world soon. The former Wake Forest quarterback played in the one abridged season of the immediately defunct Alliance of American Football and led the league in touchdown passes. Throw in some astonishing athletic traits—Wolford ran a 6.78-second three-cone drill at his pro day, which would’ve been the third fastest of any player at any position at the 2020 NFL draft combine—and you can see why NFL teams were interested. The Rams signed Wolford shortly after the AAF folded, and he’s been on the roster ever since.
In Streveler’s case, though, I really have no idea how he got onto an NFL team’s radar—and even less of an idea how he became a team’s primary backup. The Cardinals also have Brett Hundley, who started nine games for the Packers a few years ago, but they’ve gone with Streveler. Hundley seems to have pivoted to making cooking videos for a YouTube account with 114 subscribers. I don’t know why nobody is watching his videos—he’s an active NFL quarterback, which seems like a good hook, and he’s clearly putting a lot of effort into making his cocktails look pretty on camera. Come on folks, help a third-stringer out and smash that subscribe button!
Streveler spent the past two seasons in the CFL and … played pretty terribly. He entered the 2019 season as the backup for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, but was forced into action after an injury to starter Matt Nichols. Streveler threw eight touchdowns and 14 interceptions, finishing second in the league in interceptions and leading the league in interception rate. Ahead of the playoffs, the Bombers benched Streveler in favor of former Cincinnati starter Zach Collaros—and ended up winning the CFL’s championship, the Grey Cup, with Collaros under center and Streveler coming in primarily for running packages. (He had three passes and nine carries in the Grey Cup win.)
While the CFL used to be a breeding ground for potential NFL quarterbacks, like Warren Moon, Joe Theismann, and Doug Flutie, the Canadian game hasn’t been a consistent feeder to the NFL for decades. Streveler became the first former CFL quarterback to record statistics in an NFL game since Jeff Garcia retired in 2009. I like watching the CFL, and think it’s really valuable as its own unique product, but I have to wonder: How the hell did the Cardinals scout the CFL and decide the most NFL-ready passer in the entire league was the guy who threw twice as many picks as touchdowns? Did they just see the pictures of him shirtless at the championship parade and think he was the league’s MVP and not a backup?
Wolford shined, especially as a runner. Although he threw an interception on his very first pass, he finished the game with 231 passing yards and 56 rushing yards, becoming the first player to have 200 passing yards and 50 rushing yards in his NFL debut.
It was enough to get the job done, because Streveler couldn’t get anything done. He threw an absolutely brutal pick-six—but what else would you expect from the interception king of Canada?
The Cardinals eventually benched Streveler for an injured Murray, but Murray couldn’t do much either. The Cardinals lost the must-win game. They scored only seven points, their lowest total of the season; and their 214 yards were their fewest of the season.
The Rams’ win against the Cardinals put them into the playoffs and simultaneously seems like a lesson for other NFL teams. You should put effort into finding good players to fill your backup quarterback role, because if you’re banking on an interception-prone QB who wasn’t even a starter in a league that hasn’t produced any NFL quarterbacks in decades, you might get screwed in a critical moment.
Winner: King Henry the Great
I feel like I’ve written more about Derrick Henry than any other NFL player this year. I swear, every week I’m like, “Hey, you don’t need to write about Derrick Henry again this week, try to mix it up a bit,” and then he does something ridiculous. I’m like some Mesopotamian scribe who keeps thinking, “You know, this time, maybe a little bit less Gilgamesh content in my tablets, who wants to read more Gilgamesh stuff at this point?” and then Gilgamesh conquers another city or defeats another god in combat and I’m like, “OK, I kinda have to write about Gilgamesh, don’t I?”
This week, Henry ran for 250 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-38 win over the Texans. It was his third 200-yard rushing game of the season—and there have been only five 200-yard rushing games this season. (Elsewhere on Sunday, Colts running back Jonathan Taylor ran for 253 yards, the most of any running back in any game this season.) Henry now has five 200-yard rushing games in his career, more than all but three players in NFL history: Adrian Peterson, Tiki Barber, and O.J. Simpson. The Titans needed all of Henry’s yards on Sunday to seal their first AFC South title since 2008. Plus, Henry had another 212-yard performance in an October game against the Texans, which means he’s the third player in NFL history to have two 200-yard performances against the same team in the same season.
In doing so, Henry finished the season with 2,027 yards, becoming just the eighth player ever to run for 2,000 yards in a season—and the first since 2012. He has now led the league in rushing yardage and rushing touchdowns in back-to-back seasons—the first player to do so since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006 and 2007.
It feels impossible that Henry is doing this in the passing era. There were 51 200-yard games between 2000 and 2010—and just 36 between 2010 and 2020. Henry has five of those. That he’s doing it in this era makes it more impressive—and sadly, lessens the respect it earns. Four of the seven 2,000-yard club members won NFL MVP. Henry won’t even sniff the award, as it will almost certainly go to a quarterback for the eighth straight season. But there’s an argument to be made that he is the NFL’s most valuable player. It’s true that the Titans also have a great passing attack—but how much better is it because defenses spend so much time and energy trying to stop Henry? And how many games has Tennessee won because he can run over anybody fast enough to keep up with him and outrun anybody strong enough to tackle him?
Quarterbacks will continue to get better and better, and NFL teams will keep building on each other’s passing achievements. But nobody will replicate Derrick Henry, because his brilliance is solely built on being Derrick Henry. He’s the only counterprogramming for the NFL’s passing revolution, and I’m thrilled that I get to watch him.
Loser: The Completely Humiliated Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins entered the final week of the season with a relatively simple task: If they beat the Buffalo Bills, a team that had already clinched a playoff spot, they would make the playoffs for the first time in five years.
Instead, the Dolphins put forth one of the most embarrassing performances of the season, losing 56-26. They allowed the Bills to score touchdowns on offense, defense, and special teams. They got torched by Josh Allen, who threw three touchdowns before leaving the game at halftime.
Josh Allen no look touchdown pic.twitter.com/czhHa2PGFX— William Fredrick Cody (@BuffaloBilICody) January 3, 2021
They allowed backup QB Matt Barkley to throw a 56-yard touchdown, the longest of his career.
It’s 2021 and Matt Barkley is passing dimes. pic.twitter.com/oUZOZEOj0Z— David Wysong (@DavidWysong_) January 3, 2021
They allowed undrafted rookie Antonio Williams, who was not even listed as one of the four running backs on the Bills’ depth chart, to run for two touchdowns in his NFL debut.
The Dolphins entered Sunday having allowed fewer points than any other NFL team this season—just 18.8 per game. They hadn’t given up more than 33 points in any game. And yet with the season on the line, they allowed 56 points—fifty-six—more than any team had allowed in any game all season long.
Miami also had problems on the other side of the ball, as rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa struggled under center. Tagovailoa entered the game with just two career interceptions and the lowest interception rate in the NFL. He threw three picks against the Bills, including his first career pick-six. Tagovailoa’s first season in the league has been plagued by an inability to throw the ball deep, and in recent weeks the Dolphins had taken to subbing in carefree bomb-heaver Ryan Fitzpatrick when trailing late. But Fitzpatrick was out for this game with COVID-19, so the team was stuck watching Tagovailoa try and fail to do something he couldn’t. I’ve been a Tua fan for years now, but judging by his play in recent weeks, it feels like the Dolphins should seriously consider taking a quarterback with the no. 3 pick in the draft.
There were six teams that went into Week 17 with everything to play for against an opponent with little to nothing to play for—in addition to Miami, that included Baltimore, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Tennessee, and Washington. Five of them won. Miami lost. That alone would’ve been embarrassing enough—but it wasn’t just a loss. It was a complete and utter obliteration, a 60-minute capitulation in which the team never had a chance to win. The Dolphins had been one of the fun stories of the year, a one-season turnaround from tanking to playoff contention led by a rookie QB and a stunningly good young defense. It’s sad to see it end like this, with a season-defining humiliation that makes you wonder how this group was even in position to make the playoffs in the first place.
Winner: Contract Incentives
Part of being an NFL agent is almost like being a prop-bet-obsessed gambler, as you tie your client’s salary (and your 10 percent commission) to performance bonuses. Some of these incentives are straightforward—“make the Pro Bowl, make a million dollars,” stuff like that. Others are more complicated. For example, Vikings offensive lineman Riley Reiff earned $1 million for appearing in 86 percent of the Vikings’ plays this season, and was due to earn $1 million more if he appeared in 93.75 percent of their plays.
Week 17 is often when those incentives get made or missed. For example: Leonard Floyd needed to have a career-high 10 sacks this season to get a massive $1.25 million bonus. On Sunday, he sacked Arizona backup QB Chris Streveler and got his money. Jeremiah Attaochu had an incentive in which he needed to have five sacks on the season and entered Sunday with four. He shoved Derek Carr out of bounds, it went in the scorebook as a sack, and he made $250,000. (And tweeted about it!)
The most blatant example of incentive gunning, though, came in the closing minutes of Tampa Bay’s 44-27 win against the Falcons. When the Buccaneers signed Antonio Brown this season, they put most of his money into performance incentives rather than handing over guarantees to someone who played one combined game with his previous two teams. One incentive was a $250,000 bonus for making 45 receptions in the season. Late in Sunday’s game, Brown was stuck at 41 catches. So Tom Brady targeted his teammate (and roommate) five times in the final three minutes of a blowout, including four consecutive passes on the Buccaneers’ final four non-kneel plays of the game. Brown got four receptions, a touchdown, and $250,000.
But I think the only player to acknowledge their payout during the game was Saints receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who was due $500,000 if he made 60 catches. He entered the game with 52 receptions on the season—and when he made his eighth catch on Sunday, he openly celebrated his moneyball in the middle of the game:
Emmanuel Sanders need 8 receptions today to get a $500,000 bonus in his contract.— Sporting News (@sportingnews) January 3, 2021
This is how he reacted after getting his 8th catch pic.twitter.com/04pUIQasYJ
NFL players have long understood what it feels like to actually win football games, something we’ll never understand. But Week 17, they get to see what it’s like to be an NFL fan whose fantasy season or betting bankroll depends on some obscure statistical result. When I saw Sanders celebrating his 60th catch, I saw myself, celebrating a wide receiver having 8.4 fantasy points on Monday Night Football to give my team the win.
Winner: Romping Ravens
Normally, you don’t run up the score by running. Run plays keep the clock rolling and are generally inexplosive. If you’re running the ball late in the game, it’s probably a sign you have a big lead and are trying to put the other team out of their misery.
But by continuing to run on Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens were actually making life more embarrassing for the Cincinnati Bengals. In a 38-3 win, Baltimore became just the fifth team in the league to ever record 400 rushing yards in a game, and the first since 2000. They carried the ball 54 times for 404 yards, averaging more yards on the ground (7.5 per carry) than through the air (6.4 per pass). That total came from consistent domination, not a bunch of big plays—the only carry that went for more than 30 yards was this 72-yarder by J.K. Dobbins:
It was a remarkably balanced performance. Dobbins had 160 rushing yards, Lamar Jackson had 97, Gus Edwards had 60, Mark Ingram had 39, and Devin Duvernay and Justice Hill each cleared 20. The Ravens attempted only five passes in the second half—and still managed to put up 267 yards of offense and score 21 points. It probably would’ve been nicer to the Bengals had Baltimore sent backup quarterback Tyler Huntley out there to throw some bombs—but instead the merciless Ravens kept ramming the ball down Cincinnati’s throats.
Running for 400 yards is not simply a feat accomplished by a team’s offense, though. To pull it off, the other team has to be garbage on offense. The Bengals happily obliged, going three-and-out six times. Brandon Allen had one of the worst passing games of the season, going 6-for-21 for 48 yards and two interceptions. (Allen became just the third quarterback of the season to post a 0.0 passer rating; the other two were Kendall Hinton, a practice-squad wide receiver whom Denver started after its QB room was put on the COVID-19 list, and Ryan Finley, Allen’s backup.) When you go 6-for-21 for 48 yards, the ball is hitting the ground a lot—providing those clock stoppages the Ravens weren’t getting.
After going 14-2 and earning the no. 1 seed last season, this year’s Ravens seem tamer—they’re 11-5 and weren’t guaranteed a postseason spot heading into Week 17. But after the 35-point win, Baltimore finishes the season with the NFL’s best point differential for the second straight season. Their win might have been over one of the most pathetic teams in the league—but it showed how frighteningly dominant the Ravens can be on both sides of the ball.