This holiday weekend, we’re celebrating the electric plays, investigating the colossal blunders, and explaining the inexplicable moments of the NFL’s slate of games. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Winner: Mike McDaniel
In a season in which his offense scored 70 points in a single game, Mike McDaniel’s most impressive coaching job may have come in Sunday’s 22-20 win over the Cowboys. The victory, which was sealed by a Jason Sanders field goal as time expired and locked the Dolphins into a second consecutive playoff berth, was Miami’s first of the season over a team with a winning record. Before Sunday, the team’s most impressive win had come in its opening game against a Chargers team that’s currently in line to get the no. 6 pick in the draft. This felt like the Dolphins’ first signature win of 2023.
For McDaniel, though, this W represents more than busting the (somewhat unfair) narrative that he couldn’t win a meaningful game. He won several meaningful games in 2022, including early-season victories over the Bills and Ravens. But it is fair to call this his first ugly win in a meaningful game. That’s not to say the Dolphins offense was terrible against Dallas. Based on expected points added (0.02 per play) and success rate (45.8 percent), it was a median performance for the unit, which isn’t too bad considering the competition. But in the past, Miami has struggled to win when the offense wasn’t operating at peak efficiency. We’ve seen them stay close with good teams in lower-scoring games—competitive losses to Kansas City and Philadelphia, for instance—and pull out wins against losing teams in similar situations. But in the big games, crunch-time mistakes, by both the players and coaching staff, always seemed to hamper them. This time around, Miami largely avoided those blunders—outside of a pass interference penalty on a fourth down late in the game.
More importantly, when the time came to win the game, McDaniel’s offense played its best ball. The Dolphins didn’t need one of their trademark explosive plays to get into position. They managed to march down the field, one modest gain at a time, without much pushback—while also running off enough clock to ensure that Dak Prescott wouldn’t get a chance to answer a go-ahead score. McDaniel’s best call of the night may have been his simplest: After seeing a ton of zone coverage throughout the game, McDaniel correctly guessed that Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn would opt to go with man coverage on a key third-down play that could have ended the game-winning drive early. Facing third-and-short, McDaniel dialed up a quick screen pass for Tyreek Hill. The Dolphins were able to get Hill’s man blocked, and he easily picked up the first down. From there, Miami just needed to run out the clock to set up the game-winning kick. It was an anticlimactic ending to an otherwise enthralling game. But those types of moments are a good sign for a team that’s still coming of age in year two of McDaniel’s tenure.
It hasn’t even been three weeks since we saw this same Dolphins team blow a double-digit lead to the Titans, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. McDaniel still has plenty to prove as a head coach. It would be nice to see the Dolphins beat a winning team more convincingly. And stringing together a few of these big wins in a row—as they’ll have a chance to do against Baltimore and Buffalo in the coming weeks—would answer any lingering questions. But Sunday’s result will keep daytime sports talk shows off his case for the next seven days, at least.
Loser: Bullies … Specifically, Jared Goff’s Bully
Brian Flores authored the two lowest moments of Jared Goff’s tenure with the Rams. The first was L.A.’s 13-3 loss to New England in Super Bowl LIII, when Flores was the Patriots defensive coordinator. And the second was an embarrassing blowout loss to the Dolphins in 2020, when Flores was head coach. In those games combined, Goff threw three interceptions, lost two fumbles, took six sacks, and lost 43.3 EPA over 103 dropbacks.
“If we show him some of the looks we’ve shown other teams,” an anonymous Patriots defender told NFL Network’s Mike Giardi before the Rams-Pats Super Bowl, “we believe he’ll [bleep] his pants.” That quote sums up the plan Flores implemented in both games. In obvious passing situations, the defenses crowded the line of scrimmage in aggressive blitz looks. Flores sent the house on some of those plays. On others, he dropped seven or eight defenders into zone coverage and challenged Goff to read the shifting scheme. Goff wasn’t comfortable in either situation, and the Rams scored just 20 points across the two matchups.
Sunday’s Lions-Vikings game was a chance for Goff to show how much he’s grown as a quarterback since Flores last embarrassed him. And Flores, now in his first year as Minnesota’s defensive coordinator, did his part by implementing a similar plan. Goff was ready this time. He got the ball out quickly whenever Minnesota sent extra blitzers. He remained calm and found the proper outlets when Flores dropped his defense into zone coverages. And when pressure did get home, Goff avoided the big mistakes that cost his old Rams teams.
Goff put up a modest stat line in Detroit’s 30-24 win. He averaged just over 6.0 yards per attempt and threw a single touchdown. But he didn’t turn over the ball and took only one sack after combining for 11 of those drive-killing plays in his first two cracks at a Flores defense. Those numbers aren’t going to win Goff any Player of the Week awards, but they aren’t pants-bleeping numbers, either. And it’s only fitting that after losing to Flores in some incredibly painful moments, Goff helped Detroit win its first division title since 1993 by finally besting his old nemesis.
Bonus Winner: Ben Johnson’s Agent
Goff didn’t defeat Flores all on his own. He got a lot of help from Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, who was also the subject of a report this week that said he was seeking a $15 million-per-year head-coaching job. Johnson’s agent quickly denied the report, but maybe he should reconsider after Johnson orchestrated a division-winning performance. I’m not saying Johnson is worth that kind of money, but the young play caller is doing things even Sean McVay struggled to pull off with Goff as his quarterback.
Johnson used pre-snap motion to make Goff’s pre-snap reads easier, he stacked and bunched the receivers to create space for throws underneath, and he was able to pry open the middle of the field, the area Goff has always preferred to target. Johnson slowed down the game for his quarterback. McVay couldn’t do that for Goff in his matchups against Flores. This was a master class in how to avoid a disaster class from a quarterback. That might be worth $15 million a year.
Winner: Is Joe Flacco Elite? Jokes
Is a hot dog a sandwich? Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? Is Joe Flacco elite? These were the questions that gripped the internet a decade ago, and while asking those first two questions in 2023 should get you banned from polite society, we’ll have to tolerate the return of the Flacco meme after he led the Browns to a 36-22 win over the Texans.
Flacco had been playing mediocre-to-solid football over the first two legs of the team’s current three-game win streak. He threw for more than 250 yards in each game and put together a respectable 7-5 TD-INT ratio. Plus, the Browns were winning, so it was easy to ignore his bottom-five EPA average (minus-0.24) and success rate (41.7 percent). On Sunday, though, Flacco did his part in the win that moved Cleveland’s playoff odds to 99 percent, according to the New York Times prediction model. He threw for 368 yards and three scores. He also tossed a pair of interceptions, but that didn’t stop him from producing 17.4 EPA and finishing with a QBR of 87.3 (out of 100)—both figures led the NFL this week after Sunday’s schedule. He did all that while sporting an average depth of target of 10.9 yards and facing pressure on nearly 40 percent of his dropbacks, per TruMedia. Flacco wasn’t out there to just manage the game—the 38-year-old put on a show.
Nearly two-thirds of Flacco’s production came on Amari Cooper targets. The receiver set the Cleveland franchise record for receiving yards in a single game (265) on 11 receptions and found the end zone twice. Cooper did a lot of heavy lifting, but he could not have done it without Flacco feeding him high-quality throws down the field.
Cooper hauled in four passes of more than 20 air yards. Half of his receptions came on perimeter passes. And Flacco’s accuracy allowed Cooper to rack up 60 yards after the catch, the most he’s had in a game since joining the Browns last season.
A lot has changed in the NFL over the past decade, but Flacco is still the same quarterback he was back when he led Baltimore to a Super Bowl win. He can’t move all that well, he doesn’t make the best decisions all the time, and (speaking of things we said in 2013) he loves to throw up a YOLO ball. But Flacco still owns a talented right arm, and he’s not afraid to push the ball downfield. When it works, as it did Sunday against Houston, Flacco can look eli—I still can’t do it. If he does this again next week, I’ll reconsider.
Loser: The Jacksonville Jaguars
Since Trevor Lawrence entered the league in 2021, 20 passers have averaged more yards per dropback. Twenty-one have averaged more EPA per play. And 18 have a higher success rate. The former no. 1 pick has been … mediocre through the first three years of his career, and that would be the perfect word to describe his output in 2023. After Sunday’s 30-12 loss in Tampa Bay, the Jaguars quarterback finds himself on the outside of the top 10 in every major passing category. His numbers have regressed across the board from where they were in 2022 and are nearly as bad as they were under Urban Meyer—the biggest red flag of all.
Trevor Lawrence, 2022 Vs. 2023
Lawrence hasn’t taken the step forward that many believed he would this season. But neither has a Jaguars offense that was expected to finish in the top 10 after adding Calvin Ridley to the receiving corps. While Ridley has been productive—he caught his sixth and seventh touchdowns of the season in garbage time on Sunday—it hasn’t made the passing game any better. And with the run game cratering behind a bad offense line that had Travis Etienne’s mom begging Santa for better blocking this weekend, it’s impossible to put this year’s disappointment on any one player.
It’s not so difficult to find other culprits, though. You can start with head coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Press Taylor, who are still searching for ways to get yardage on early downs—like screen passes (that actually work), play-action fakes, and RPOs. There are no easy buttons for Lawrence in this offense. And the coaching staff as a whole has failed to scheme up many explosive plays. Then there’s the front office, which hasn’t made the job any easier for Pederson’s staff. General manager Trent Baalke’s missteps are well documented, and while his spending may have led to the improvement the Jags saw in 2022, the premium he paid will make further additions to the team tricky going forward. The offensive line needs a major overhaul, the team could still use a downfield threat at receiver, and the tight end room is mediocre at best.
The Jaguars are somehow still in first place in the AFC South after the Colts, Texans, and Titans all lost this weekend, so this L could have been a lot bigger for Pederson and Co. And with Carolina and Tennessee remaining on the schedule, this weird and disappointing season will, in all likelihood, end with another trip to the playoffs. It would be the first time that Jacksonville made it to the postseason in back-to-back seasons since the turn of the century. And yet, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this organization is headed in the wrong direction—and that changes to the coaching staff could be coming if this trend continues over the next couple of weeks.
Winner: Mike Tomlin
The Steelers coach sure knows how to put out a fire. After spending the week answering questions about George Pickens’s commitment—Pickens said he stopped blocking on a recent run play to avoid getting injured—Tomlin saw his second-year receiver explode for a career-high 195 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a season-saving 34-11 win over Cincinnati. Pickens picked up a big chunk of that yardage on Pittsburgh’s second offensive snap.
Then, he added another touchdown after dusting a pressing Bengals corner on a go route. He capped off his highlight-reel performance with a stunning display of body control and spatial awareness.
This catch by George Pickens!! pic.twitter.com/UrRIMhAt71— Sunday Night Football on NBC (@SNFonNBC) December 23, 2023
Saturday’s game was a 60-minute reminder of why Tomlin is an exceptional head coach. Many of his peers may have tried to make an example of Pickens by benching him or reducing his role. Former Panthers coach Ron Rivera once benched Cam Newton for an opening drive as punishment for not wearing a tie on the team flight. Derek Anderson started the game in Newton’s place and immediately threw an interception—and Rivera ended up being the one learning a lesson that night. Instead of taking the disciplinary route (at least publicly), though, Tomlin and the Steelers made Pickens the focal point of their offensive plan. He was targeted early and often, and the 22-year-old repaid his coach with a dominant performance that kept Pittsburgh’s postseason hopes alive—but just barely at 13 percent, per the New York Times prediction model. That’s elite coaching.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen Tomlin win something of note. Peyton Manning was still playing football when the Steelers were last considered legit title contenders. Because of that, a loud minority of Pittsburgh fans have wondered whether it is time to move on. The win over the Bengals shows why that would be a mistake. Tomlin is still a coach who maximizes the talent on the roster. He’s still a coach who can manage and motivate a locker room. What Tomlin hasn’t been able to prove—mostly because his front office hasn’t done its job—is that he remains capable of winning a Super Bowl. The Ravens, Browns, and Bengals should be hoping Pittsburgh gives him a chance to do just that in another city.
Loser: Ron Rivera
Any football analyst operating in good faith will tell you that on/off splits mean very little in the NFL—especially when the sample size is small. Please be mindful of that as you read the following stat, which may not be meaningful but is pretty funny.
Washington’s Offense With and Without Jacoby Brissett
Jacoby Brissett replaced Sam Howell this week for the second consecutive Sunday, inheriting a multi-score deficit with little time to turn it around. And for a second consecutive Sunday, he nearly led a comeback. His effort ultimately fell short—the Commanders lost 30-28 to a Trevor Siemian–led Jets team, dropping their record to 4-11 and dropping Rivera’s record in Washington to 26-39-1 over four seasons. But obviously neither of the last two losses can be pinned on Brissett. He’s led the Commanders on five scoring drives in just seven chances over the past two weeks. Rather, the losses fall on Rivera, who delayed the inevitable in hopes that Howell would develop into a franchise quarterback overnight.
Rivera’s return in 2024 always felt like a long shot if the team couldn’t make the playoffs, but Howell’s development into a long-term option at quarterback could have saved his job. That looked like a real possibility in early November, when Howell was one of the league leaders in passing yards. Rivera didn’t take a victory lap but, at the time, it sounded like he was warming up for one.
“We feel we have a quarterback,” Rivera said after Week 9. “This franchise has been looking for quite some time and for the first time in a while, I think that that guy might be here.”
Rivera’s tone has changed in the seven weeks since. After Sunday’s game, he wouldn’t say whether Howell would hold on to the starting job going forward, a big departure from last week when Rivera was adamant that Howell was only benched as a precautionary measure.
Ron Rivera on benching Sam Howell. Wouldn’t say if Jacoby Brissett is the starter for the last two games. Said they’ll evaluate and make a decision early this week. pic.twitter.com/lBmMOsQiUf— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) December 24, 2023
But it will be difficult for Rivera to go back to his young quarterback now. The excuse of a poor supporting cast doesn’t hold much weight after watching Brissett thrive with the same roster. The pass protection doesn’t look so bad with the journeyman under center, and Eric Bieniemy’s play-calling doesn’t look so predictable. That tends to happen when quarterback play improves. And now that it’s clear Brissett is the best QB on the roster, it’s fair to ask what could have been if he’d been the starter from the beginning. Maybe Washington wins a few more games and sticks in the playoff race all year. Maybe the front office isn’t compelled to trade away Montez Sweat and Chase Young for an underwhelming package of draft picks. Maybe Washington beats the Rams last week and beats the Jets on Sunday. And maybe Rivera’s departure isn’t a seemingly foregone conclusion.
Winner: The Fantasy Football Community
After months of hearing complaints from the fantasy community, and after several defiant press conferences, Arthur Smith finally gave in. He finally got the wacky idea to get first-round pick Bijan Robinson more involved in the Falcons offense. OK, so Robinson got only 12 carries in the Falcons’ 29-10 win over the Colts, but he was targeted a season-high 10 times in the pass game and eclipsed 100 yards from scrimmage for the first time in four weeks. And guess what? Smith’s unorthodox strategy of feeding his best players worked out! Atlanta scored its most points of the season and kept itself in the NFC playoff picture. This is one of those rare occasions when the average fan may have known better than an NFL head coach.
Fantasy football players also got monster games from Justin Jefferson (141 yards and a touchdown), Cooper (265 yards, two touchdowns), Breece Hall (191 scrimmage yards, two touchdowns), and Pickens (195 yards, two touchdowns)—all highly drafted players who’ve had disappointing production this season. Most leagues are in the playoff or championship rounds at this point, so those performances could not have come at a better time. Unless, of course, you were on the wrong end of them.