From the top of the league’s hierarchy to those at the bottom, NFL Week 17 offered no shortage of intrigue. Whether it was a fight for playoff positioning or a fight to avoid posting the worst record in the league, teams had plenty to play for in the final weekend of the 2016 regular season.
Despite a valiant effort to beat their hated rival Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cleveland Browns found a way to fail again, meaning they will pick No. 1 overall this April. While the Browns continued to find ways to lose, one of the league’s best teams the past decade-plus put on a clinic to claim the top seed in the AFC.
An NFL record was set, and we saw one of the game’s best return to action in triumphant fashion. Unfortunately, on the flip side a team that had a run of tough luck got hammered again at the worst possible time.
We’ll take a look at these stories and more as we examine the biggest winners and losers from NFL Week 17.
Winner: Sam Bradford sets new NFL record
The 2016 season hasn’t been idyllic for Sam Bradford and the Minnesota Vikings, but there is a silver lining.
There was no running game. He had an offensive line that couldn’t protect him. He had to learn a new offense literally right before the season began. Despite all of that, Bradford set a new NFL record by finishing the season having completed 71.6 percent of his passes.
Shaun Hill in for @Vikings, ensuring that Sam Bradford finishes the season with an NFL-record 71.6 completion percentage
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 1, 2017
This is a remarkable accomplishment. Bradford’s critics will point to the fact that he didn’t take many downfield shots. That he dinked and dunked his way to the record. But there have been many quarterbacks throughout the history of the league that have done nothing but dink and dunk all year long yet never came close to approaching what Bradford accomplished.
Essentially, he carried Minnesota’s offense all year. And he capped off his campaign with a tremendous performance in Week 17, passing for 250 yards with three touchdowns and one interception in the team’s 38-10 win over the Chicago Bears.
For the season, Bradford threw for 3,877 yards with 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Given what he had to work with, that’s darn impressive.
Loser: Bills get trounced … by the Jets
The Jets have consistently been embarrassed this year, coming into the final weekend of play with just four wins. They have one of the worst quarterback situations in the NFL and have featured a defense that’s allowed many teams to move the ball and score at will.
With that backdrop firmly in place, what happened on Sunday stands out as truly egregious as it pertains to the Buffalo Bills, who just ejected the Ryan brothers last week.
The Jets blew the Bills out of the water, winning 30-10.
Buffalo’s offense was abysmal with EJ Manuel behind center, especially after LeSean McCoy was injured. Manuel completed less than half his passes (9-of-20) for just 86 yards before getting yanked in favor of rookie Cardelle Jones, who fared no better.
.@Revis24 PICKS OFF Cardale Jones!
— NFL (@NFL) January 1, 2017
In what was a chance for defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman to make something positive happen without Rob and Rex Ryan’s influence, Buffalo’s defense was incomprehensibly bad. Allowing Ryan Fitzpatrick to have one of his best games of the season while Bilal Powell rushed for 122 yards, the Bills looked like they were already on winter vacation.
Credit goes to the Jets for maintaining a fighting spirit in a lost season. On the flip side, the Bills should feel ashamed of their effort Sunday.
Winner: Tony Romo shines in first action since preseason
After weeks of speculation about whether the Cowboys would let Tony Romo play, the veteran finally got his chance Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.
And boy, did Romo look sharp. As Jerry Jones said leading up to Week 17, the Cowboys had no reason to worry about rust. Playing in just one series, Romo displayed pinpoint accuracy, going 3-of-4 passing for 29 yards with a gorgeous touchdown strike to Terrance Williams (watch here).
Romo’s strong showing does a couple of things for the Cowboys.
It gives them a rock-solid foundation with which to chase a championship, for starters. If Prescott goes down to injury, it’s clear Romo can still sling it with the best of them and that Dallas shouldn’t miss a beat on offense.
Even if Romo doesn’t play a single down in the postseason, however, his one series of play Sunday gives Jones and the ‘Boys serious leverage for any potential trade inquiries. Top-tier quarterbacks are invaluable in the NFL, and there are some teams out there that have everything in place but that key cog.
Loser: Houston *still* has a quarterback conundrum
It’s not a stretch to say the Houston Texans are the worst AFC Playoff team this year. Their record is proof of this fact (9-7), but the biggest reason we can confidently say they’re the worst is that they don’t have a quarterback.
Tom Savage, who played competently a couple of weeks ago when Brock Osweiler was benched due to poor play, struggled last week against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Then he was downright awful Sunday before exiting with a concussion. Failing to get anything going in the passing game, he cost the team points when he was mauled on a sack-strip by Tennessee, backed up near his own goal line (watch here). A while later, he was pummeled again and forced out of the game by officials after he appeared a bit groggy.
This development forced Bill O’Brien to go back to Osweiler — a move he clearly was not excited about.
— Rob San Miguel (@robertsanmiguel) January 1, 2017
Osweiler was pretty much exactly the same guy we saw all year. He completed barely 50 percent of his passes (21-of-40) for 253 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Most of the yardage gained by receivers came after the catch.
Heading into the Wild Card round, O’Brien (who might be a goner soon) has to decide which quarterback will be responsible for leading the offense. It’s a decision nobody in their right mind would be eager to make, as both Osweiler and Savage have been underwhelming this year. But perhaps the health of Savage will take the decision making away from him, meaning the Texans would be stuck with Osweiler by default.
Beyond the playoffs, Houston is in a terrible position. The Texans owe Osweiler some serious cash next season, yet he’s proven unworthy of the big contract he signed. Savage is a nice backup, but he’s not the answer, either.
Maybe lighting will strike twice in Texas. Maybe the Texans will land the next Dak Prescott in the latter rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft. Other than that scenario playing out, it’s not looking good for Houston as it pertains to the most important position on the field.
Winner: Kansas City seizes opportunity to claim AFC’s No. 2 seed
The Oakland Raiders have had some hard luck lately, losing Derek Carr through at least early February after he broke his leg last weekend. Then on Sunday, backup quarterback Matt McGloin exited with a shoulder injury, leaving rookie Connor Cook in charge of the offense.
Not surprisingly, the Raiders lost to the Denver Broncos, 24-6.
At the same time Oakland was dealing with more rough news, the Kansas City Chiefs took care of business at home…er…on the road in San Diego. Qualcomm Stadium was full of Chiefs fans, making the road team feel right at home.
The Chiefs played like it, too, walking away with a 37-27 victory in which Tyreek Hill had a lot to do with the win, as has become his custom. Alex Smith threw for two touchdowns and rushed in another to give Kansas City the offensive production it needed to claim the AFC West crown.
With the win, and Oakland’s loss, the Chiefs are now the AFC’s No. 2 seed. This means they get to sit out next weekend’s action before hosting at least one game before the AFC Championship Game. Given the intense competition that they’ve faced all year, it’s remarkable that Andy Reid’s team finished the season with a 12-4 record and the AFC West title.
Loser: Kirk Cousins and Co. blow it in must-win game
Heading into Week 17, Washington’s road to the playoffs was pretty cut and dry. Win and get in, barring a tie in the Sunday night game between the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions.
Hosting the New York Giants, Washington’s offense never got into a groove. The team’s running game, which has been robust for most of the season, was shut down to the tune of just 38 yards and 2.5 yards per carry. New York’s defensive line bullied Washington’s offensive front most of the game, dominating against both the run and the pass.
Kirk Cousins had one of his worst games of the season, throwing two interceptions to go along with a late touchdown that tied the game up in the fourth quarter, 10-10. His second interception pretty much sealed the game in favor of New York. Trying to hit Pierre Garcon with about 90 seconds left in the game, he double-pumped before finally letting loose with his pass, which was easily picked off by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Clock running down…
Redskins need (at least) 3.
And Kirk throws a pick. 😮 https://t.co/lI8X58LnV3
— NFL (@NFL) January 2, 2017
Josh Norman earned two personal foul penalties on extra-curricular activities as he went against Odell Beckham Jr. And just to cap off the poor showing, New York’s final punt of the game was fumbled, allowing Trevin Wade to score with time running off the clock.
It was an undisciplined effort by Jay Gruden’s team in what was the most important game of Washington’s season.
Credit is due to New York, which was locked into the No. 5 seed before the game ever started. The Giants played a sharper game, avoiding turnovers while forcing three. That’s the difference between winning and losing in the NFL.
Winner: Packers run the table, claim NFC North
Before the Sunday night game between the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, it was already known that both teams were in the playoffs. Washington’s stink bomb at home against Big Blue put both NFC North teams into the postseason.
But that doesn’t mean the game was insignificant — far from it. The winner would start the playoffs at home, while the loser would hit the road to face the Seattle Seahawks, a not-so-rosy proposition.
Both teams got off to a slow start Sunday night, but before long Aaron Rodgers started to get things rolling on offense, leading to a sixth-straight win for the Packers. Rodgers shredded Detroit’s defense to the tune of 300 yards and four touchdowns, adding another 46 yards on the ground.
With the win, the Packers actually were able to do what Rodgers said they’d do after losing four straight and five of six in the middle of the season — they ran the table. It takes guts to publicly declare you’re going to win out to make the playoffs. Pulling it off? That’s on another level.
What this team has done in 2016 — playing on offense without a true running back, overcoming injury after injury on defense — is almost miraculous. The miracle worker here is Rodgers, who gets my vote as the NFL MVP. All he did during the team’s six-game winning streak was throw 15 touchdowns and run in another while remaining interception free.
With a 10-6 record and the NFC’s No. 4 seed, the Packers now will prepare to host the New York Giants next weekend at Lambeau Field.
Loser: Rams embarrass themselves at home
The Los Angeles Rams somehow won four games this year, but only one of them came at home in front of their “new” fans in Southern California. That’s pretty bad, but the way this team finished the 2016 season on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals was even worse.
The Cardinals, which have been pretty miserable themselves this year, trounced Los Angeles by the blowout score of 44-6. No wonder there were tons of empty seats at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Despite the fact Arizona’s best offensive weapon — running back David Johnson, who exited the game early with a knee injury — the Cardinals had little trouble offensively. They gained 344 yards, 21 first downs and controlled the clock. Carson Palmer took plenty of hits but only one sack was surrendered by his offensive line. He finished with 255 yards and three touchdowns, which was more than enough to win this game.
The biggest reason the Cardinals owned their NFC West rival was the pathetic play of Los Angeles’ offense. As we’ve seen all year, the offensive line failed to open up running lanes for Todd Gurley. He finished with just 40 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, rookie Jared Goff had a rough outing as well, passing for just 120 yards before giving way to Sean Mannion, who threw a pick-six to Justin Bethen on his first drive of the game.
No matter how you slice it, what happened on Sunday was nothing short of a debacle for the Rams. The franchise needs a blockbuster coaching hire this offseason to stir up any meaningful excitement after what went down this past year, to be sure.
Winner: Tom Brady and the Patriots razor sharp in playoff tuneup
The poor Miami Dolphins never stood a chance. Needing a win to clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, the New England Patriots left no doubt that they are the best team in the conference, winning 35-14.
Tom Brady was magnificent, as he’s been all year. And there was never any doubt about the outcome of this contest when New England started out the game with a clock-consuming, 13-play drive that ended with a touchdown from Brady to tight end Martellus Bennett.
After a Miami three-and-out, Brady and Co. went back to work, scoring another touchdown thanks to a brilliant effort by recently acquired Michael Floyd (watch here). That was one of two excellent, game-changing plays by the former Arizona Cardinals receiver. He absolutely leveled a defender to spring Julian Edelman on a 77-yard touchdown later in the game.
Brady was as sharp as a tack all game long. He finished with 276 yards and three touchdowns on 26-of-33 passing. He also passed Dan Marino to move into the No. 4 spot on the all-time passing yards list.
Just as impressive was the fine play of New England’s defense, which created two turnovers, held the Dolphins to 280 yards and just two scoring drives. Given the injury to Derek Carr of the Oakland Raiders, and given the fact the Pats will be at home the rest of the way, it’s hard to envision a scenario where they don’t compete for another title in Houston this February.
Loser: Browns lose in the Brownsiest way possible
After going 0-14 to start the season, Cleveland had a legitimate chance to win two in a row after securing a win last weekend. Heading into Pittsburgh to face a Steelers team that rested many key starters, things looked promising when the Browns took an early 14-0 lead.
Then came the mistakes. The inevitable, Brownsian mistakes that eventually cost them a chance to win.
First, Robert Griffin III fumbled right before the half, allowing the Steelers to score a touchdown before the intermission.
Then Briean Boddy-Calhoun intercepted Landry Jones in the third quarter and appeared poised to score on a pick-six, only to fumble into the end zone, where Jones fell on it for a touchback instead.
— Damon Kecman (@DownWithDamon) January 1, 2017
That ended up being a 14-point swing, as Pittsburgh marched right down the field on a 10-play drive that culminated with a one-yard touchdown run for DeAngelo Williams.
Then on the next offensive possession for Cleveland, kicker Cody Parker missed a field goal, killing an 11-play drive. This missed opportunity turned into another Pittsburgh touchdown, and the Steelers led for the first time all game.
Cleveland came back with a touchdown of its own to tie the game up. Still tied up after regulation, the Browns blew a prime opportunity to score a touchdown and win it in overtime. But alas, it was not meant to be. They had to settle for a field goal after a 17-play drive stalled in the red zone. Pittsburgh came storming back to win it with a touchdown on the next drive, 27-24.
The consolation here is that Cleveland will pick No. 1 overall in April, barring a trade. But winning was much more important on a personal level to Hue Jackson than securing the top overall pick of the draft, and he came away empty handed. Thankfully, he’s already been given a huge vote of confidence by owner Jimmy Haslam, who ensured Jackson will be back in 2017.