Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
We’re almost there. There’s only one Sunday left until the 2019 NFL season comes to a close.
That means Week 16 was your penultimate chance to watch teams like the Bengals, Dolphins, Rams, and Bears. It may have also been one of your last chances to watch the Steelers (done in by backup quarterback mistakes) and Cowboys (general incompetence) as this year’s finale looms.
With one week left, we know 10 of the 12 playoff teams. But there are still a handful of postseason positions to be jockeyed for — including homefield advantage in the NFC and the AFC’s second bye — and two playoff races between Pittsburgh/Tennessee/Oakland (seriously) and Dallas/Philadelphia.
That took the edge of some of this week’s action, but the winners weren’t just the teams that finished their day with a higher number on the scoreboard. Sunday’s victors extended beyond the box score. Here’s who most won Week 16 in the NFL’s 2019 season.
It wasn’t: the Steelers, who may have had their playoff hopes crushed by the ... Jets? no wait that can’t be ri-
Oh damn, it is! The Steelers threw both their backup quarterbacks into the fire against the NFL’s 19th-ranked passing defense and barely cracked double-digit points. Mason Rudolph took back QB1 duties from Duck Hodges in the second quarter, tied this game at 10-10 going into halftime, then exited with a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter. Hodges came back, only to lead the team to 27 total yards on three drives in a 16-10 loss to a previously 5-9 team.
Pittsburgh’s havoc-heavy defense limited the Jets to just 259 yards — and held old friend Le’Veon Bell to 93 yards on 29 total touches — but couldn’t force the game-breaking turnovers that have lifted the Steelers’ anemic offense in the past. With one loss to New York, Pittsburgh has gone from controlling its own destiny to needing help to backdoor its way into the playoffs.
That loss was simultaneously great for Tennessee, which had nothing to play for in Week 16, somehow. A win over the Saints would have built morale. A loss ... well, didn’t really have any effect on the Titans’ playoff chances:
Head coach Mike Vrabel took that opportunity to rest tailback Derrick Henry and his ailing hamstring. This was unfortunate for the fantasy owners who’d ridden his 238 fantasy points — fourth-most in the league! — into their championship game just to see him sitting on the inactives list. The Titans, on the other hand, managed to mostly cope just fine.
The Titans just need one more win — or a Steelers loss — to clinch the AFC’s final playoff spot. They finish the season against a Texans team that beat them in Week 15, so their path to the postseason may be defined by how Rudolph and/or Hodges do against the Ravens, who have nothing to play for after clinching homefield advantage.
And that should provide an answer to the question we’ve all pondered: are the 2019 Steelers better than the Ravens’ backups? If they aren’t ... how are we all feeling about an 8-8 Raiders team in the playoffs?
Now on to ...
Week 16’s actual winners
5. Middle fingers everywhere
Sunday was a great day for gridiron hate. Panthers defensive lineman Vernon Butler got so heated about getting blocked that he couldn’t restrain himself for punching a player who had no connection to his rage:
That earned him an ejection. Because that wouldn’t result in enough of a fine for his liking, Butler made sure to flip off some fans on his way out. Those Colts fans, likely shocked by his impudence, were forced to watch their team win 38-6 without any avenue to properly drop tenderloin-flavored insults at the Carolina defensive lineman.
On the Cleveland sideline — stuck in the middle of a 31-15 loss to the Ravens— continued to boil over. This time it was Odell Beckham Jr., not Jarvis Landry, openly questioning head coach Freddie Kitchens in the middle of a game. The Browns were held to just 15 points after scoring 40 points in Baltimore in Week 4. One Cleveland fan summed that up, and the whole Browns’ season in general, thusly:
In Denver, in a battle of teams with eight wins between them, the NFL blessed us with more birds. Possibly even a child’s finger!
The face. The indignation. The perfectly extended finger. It’s art.
To that young person’s credit, they ostensibly paid a significant sum of money to watch David Blough throw for 117 yards. They earned the right to flip off any grown man in a Broncos suit jacket who might ask for a high-five. Read the room, ponytail guy.
Meanwhile, Chicago fans haven’t been able to muster up nearly as much full-throated frustration when it comes to their own dashed playoff dreams.
4. The Eagles, who may spare us from having to watch the Cowboys in the playoffs
Dallas faced a win-and-in situation in Philadelphia. A victory against the Eagles meant head coach Jason Garrett would possibly save his job by wrapping up an NFC East title. A loss meant relying on the Giants to upset Philly in Week 17 just to keep the hope of sneaking into the playoffs alive.
In true 2019 Cowboys fashion, the team saw an opportunity and then vomited all over itself. Dallas fell to 2-8 this season against franchises with .500 records or better by scoring just nine points against Philadelphia’s 17th-ranked scoring defense. The Cowboys’ receiving corps dropped several key passes to keep the offense from ever finding a rhythm. Dak Prescott, dealing with a shoulder injury, needed 44 passes to throw for 264 yards without finding the end zone once.
While Dallas wore its failures like a child stumbling around in a tuxedo, the Eagles deserve credit for pushing their rivals to that (incredibly fragile) breaking point.
Carson Wentz, who’d burned off any MVP hype earlier this season, threw for 300+ yards for his third time in four games. Miles Sanders did the heavy lifting of an injury-ravaged running back rotation and gained 156 total yards. Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, who were tasked with carrying a passing game without Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, or Nelson Agholor, teamed up for 13 receptions.
Philly fans were so emboldened by the win that one even managed to sneak his way into coach Doug Pederson’s postgame press conference (before immediately giving his true identity away).
The Eagles now just have to beat the 4-11 Giants to lock up their second division title in three years. The last time they did that, they also won the Super Bowl.
(They also had Nick Foles, but I digress ... )
3. Giants-Washington, which against all logic was a hot-fire shootout
After 21 minutes of game time, the Giants and Washington had combined for 35 total points. Dwayne Haskins completed 12 of his 15 passes for two touchdowns and zero interceptions before leaving the game in the third quarter due to an ankle injury.
Daniel Jones had his third game of 2019 with at least four touchdown passes — joining Deshaun Watson and Fran Tarkenton as the only rookies to hit that mark. His fifth carried New York to an overtime victory in a 41-35 kaiju big battel in the nation’s capital.
While Sunday portended bright futures for Jones and Haskins, the game’s biggest story may have been the return of the 2018 version of Saquon Barkley. The reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year had struggled over the latter half of the season after suffering an ankle injury in Week 3. He went three full months without a 100-yard game before gashing the Dolphins for 112 yards last week.
Barkley outdid himself in Week 16, when he ran over a team bound for the top five of the 2020 NFL Draft yet again. He rushed for a career-high 189 yards (55 of which came in the fourth quarter and overtime) and caught four passes for 90 more — including this deep ball touchdown from Jones.
Washington was still a winner despite being on the unfortunate end of the 41-35 final score. It now has the inside track on the No. 2 overall pick — and that could mean adding Heisman candidate Chase Young to their pass rush. For a team that’s been bullish on Ohio State products recently (including Haskins and top wideout Terry McLaurin), losing may have been the best outcome.
2. Nyheim Hines, who threw off some real Devin Hester vibes
While Butler was off enraging Colts fans (jokes on him, the easiest way to do it would have been to suggest Frank Reich’s coaching last week was subpar), Hines was delighting them. The second-year tailback had only four career punt returns before he faced off with the moveable object that is Carolina’s special teams.
Hines accounted for 195 yards on punt returns against the Panthers, good for fourth-most in NFL history. He only needed three returns — including a pair of touchdowns — to get there.
How’d he do that? The answer was good blocking, strong lane identification, and some blazing, punter-embarrassing top-gear speed:
Hines had 66 career punt return yards before Week 16. He had returns of 40, 84, and 71 yards on Sunday alone. That was enough to gloss over another mediocre performance from Jacoby Brissett behind center and end Indianapolis’ four-game losing streak.
1. Michael Thomas, who set the NFL single-season reception record
And will probably shatter it Week 17.
Thomas hasn’t had a game this season in which he’s had fewer than five receptions. He’s had 10 with 100+ receiving yards — including Sunday’s 136-yard performance that kept the Saints in the running for a playoff bye.
The fourth-year wideout carved up a middling Titans secondary for 12 catches, increasing his season total to 145 — two more than Marvin Harrison’s NFL record of 143 back in 2002. New Orleans used every inch of his effort. Thomas’ record-setting catch set up the Saints at the Tennessee 1-yard line late in a 31-28 game.
The icing on the cake was a touchdown reception two plays later that effectively iced out the Titans’ comeback hopes. So how did Thomas feel after coming away with a 17-year NFL record AND a win in one fell swoop?
Actually, he’s just looking forward to the playoffs, especially after the way New Orleans was ushered out of the postseason last winter.
Thomas will be called upon in Week 17 as the Saints continue their push toward homefield advantage in the NFC. He’ll square off against the Panthers, who he burned for 10 catches and 101 yards in Week 12. A similar output may give him a single-season receptions record that could stand for 30 years.
Or until Thomas comes back in 2020.