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Biggest winners and losers from NFL Week 16

Jesse Reed

Merry Christmas, everyone, and welcome to a special holiday edition of winners and losers from the action in NFL Week 16.

The 14 games on the slate on Saturday and Sunday leave us with more questions than answers as it relates to the playoff picture. Some teams were eliminated, and some clinched, but there’s still a heck of a lot that is undecided heading into the final weekend of regular-season ball.

These are the men who were naughty, and nice, this weekend.

Winner: Saints keep marching

The New Orleans Saints clinched a playoff spot Sunday with a convincing win over their NFC South rivals, the Atlanta Falcons. The final score of 23-13 doesn’t really tell the story of how one-sided the game was. In fact, if not for Deion Jones intercepting Drew Brees for the second time this year, the score could have been so much more lopsided.

The Falcons did a great job keeping New Orleans’ rushing attack in check. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram finished with just 76 yards on 25 carries. But as they’ve done all year long, the Saints got production from their defense, which forced two key turnovers. The first of which turned into seven points on the team’s next offensive possession, and honestly must be seen to be believed.

With the big win, the Saints improved to 11-4 while simultaneously dealing a blow to their rivals, who still had a chance to win the division heading into Week 16. It was a great day for #WhoDatNation.

Loser: Hue Jackson needs to invest in a wetsuit

To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Cleveland Browns dropped their 15th game in a row this year. And they did it in embarrassing fashion, which is also not surprising in the least. They turned the ball over three times, allowed Mitch Trubisky and Co. to run rampant and had a defensive touchdown negated by an offsides penalty. Just a typical week for the Factory of Sadness, really.

The big deal here is that Hue Jackson made a pledge at the end of last season that he now has to uphold. Following the team’s embarrassing 1-15 campaign in 2016 he said he’d swim in Lake Erie if the Browns went 1-15 again. Now, there’s always the chance they actually don’t go 1-15, but that would mean they finish without a single win. Either way, the coach will be faced with a hard choice.

We suggest an extra thick wetsuit, because Lake Erie is awfully cold this time of year. But hey, at least the Browns get to pick No. 1 again this year. Just don’t ask Josh Rosen to be excited about that.

Winner: Harrison Smith has epic response to Pro Bowl snub

Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith is one of the best at his position in the league. So it was pretty stunning when he was a Pro Bowl snub this past week, garnering some rather amusing support from local law enforcement.

Smith, who’s never going to toot his own horn, let his play do the talking for him.

He picked off Brett Hundley twice on Saturday night. He also made eight tackles (six solo), one tackle for a loss and helped the Vikings improve to 12-3 on the season. The two picks gave Smith five on the year, and there’s no doubt he deserves to be a Pro Bowler this year.

Loser: Blake Bortles reverts back to form

It’s been nothing but smooth sailing for Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars this month. Bortles entered his Week 16 game with NFL-best numbers in the month of December, and the Jaguars had won three straight games.

All that came to a screeching halt Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, as Bortles and the Jags got railroaded by the San Francisco 49ers, 44-33. Bortles had a lot to do with the loss. He threw three interceptions in the game, one of which was returned for a touchdown. In total, those three turnovers resulted in 21 points for the 49ers, who stunned Jacksonville en route to winning their fourth straight game.

Bortles is lucky he didn’t have four turnovers in the game. He fumbled at one point, but thankfully for him Leonard Fournette fell on the ball. It was just a miserable game full of mistakes, though the silver lining is that Bortles did put up a season-high 382 yards through the air and did throw two touchdowns.

Winner: Antonio Gates turns back the clock

There weren’t many offensive fireworks Sunday when the Los Angeles Chargers played at MetLife Stadium against the New York Jets. There were just three touchdowns scored in the game, and the Chargers won by the score of 14-7. Both Bilal Powell and Melvin Gordon had big games for their respective teams, but the most noteworthy thing to happen is that Antonio Gates proved he still had plenty of gas left in the tank when his team needed him.

Gates played much more than he has recently due to Hunter Henry being placed on IR with a lacerated kidney. And he was a huge key for the Chargers, catching six passes for 81 yards and a touchdown, just his third this season but second in as many weeks.

We’d be surprised if the 37-year-old tight end returns for another season. But until he’s gone, let’s enjoy watching the final games of one of the game’s greatest players at his position.

Loser: Underwhelming offensive performance dooms Falcons

For all intents and purposes, the Falcons lost Sunday’s game before halftime. They didn’t score a single point in the first half as the offense sputtered its way through another uninspiring performance. Steve Sarkisian has a lot to do with this, because for the most part we’re talking about the same personnel that torched the league in 2016.

Devonta Freeman fumbled away one scoring opportunity, and then later on when Julio Jones was deemed to be just short of the end zone on third down Freeman was stuffed for a loss on fourth-and-goal. The Falcons didn’t end up scoring a touchdown until there was less than three minutes left in the game.

Matt Ryan and Julio Jones did some big damage through the air, combining on seven catches for 149 yards. The rest of the offense was held to just 137 yards passing, and the running game was shut down in a big way, going for just 67 yards in the game.

Atlanta is still in control of its own destiny. Win next weekend and they get into the playoffs as a wild card team. But if we’re being honest, this looks like a one-and-done team, if the Falcons get in at all.

Winner: Kirk Cousins shreds the No Fly Zone

Kirk Cousins celebrates during the Redskins-Seahawks game

The No Fly Zone (aka Denver’s secondary) was a fly-for-free zone Sunday in Washington, D.C.

Though Kirk Cousins didn’t complete a high percentage of passes (19-of-37) he did throw for 299 yards with three touchdowns. He distributed the ball to eight different receivers, throwing long touchdowns to Josh Doctson and Vernon Davis (the ageless one) in the second half.

It’s been a very frustrating season for Cousins and for Washington. But he continues to prove he can sling the pigskin with the best of them. No doubt, he’ll be a hot item this offseason if the Redskins fail to lock him up on a long-term deal.

Loser: How bad is Christian Hackenberg, really?

We ask this question because Hackenberg is still a no-go for the New York Jets, despite the fact that Bryce Petty has been awful the past two weeks. And when we say awful, it’s not hyperbole. He’s incredibly, almost unbelievably inaccurate. The year, Petty has completed 36-of-76 passes with one touchdown and three interceptions. And many of his incompletions haven’t even been close.

So, seriously. How bad is Hackenberg if he cannot get into the game? It’s the same question we were asking last year when the Jets had nothing to lose by playing him. And here we are a year later and this kid is still not getting any shot to play. This is just a really bad look for an organization that traded up into the second round to draft this young man last year, especially because it was seen as a massive reach at the time.

Winner: Chiefs back to their red-hot ways

For the fourth week in a row Kansas City’s offense put on a tremendous show, leading to the team’s third win in a row. The Chiefs had no trouble dispatching the Miami Dolphins, 29-13, and the usual suspects had their fingerprints all over this victory.

Alex Smith continues to prove he’s one of the most dangerous pure passers in the game. He completed 25-of-39 passes for 304 yards with a touchdowns and no a single turnover. Kareem Hunt stayed hot, too, totaling 106 yards and a rushing score. Tyreek Hill was a man among boys deep down the field, hauling in six passes for 109 yards. And Marcus Peters continued his recent hot streak of creating turnovers, coming up with a fumble recovery on the game’s first drive.

The Chiefs piled up 404 yards of offense, held onto the ball for almost 38 minutes and converted 8-of-16 third downs. They dominated the game, and once again appear to be a team nobody wants to face in the playoffs this January after clinching the AFC West Sunday.

Loser: Eli Manning and Co. get squashed in the desert

The 2017 season cannot end fast enough for Eli Manning and the New York Giants. A team that came into Week 16 with just two wins, the G-men were utterly humiliated by the mediocre Arizona Cardinals, who started none other than Drew Stanton under center Sunday.

Manning didn’t lead a scoring drive until … He finished with 263 yards on 27-of-45 passing, throwing no touchdowns and two interceptions, both of which were hauled in by Antoine Bethea. Manning also lost one of the two fumbles he had in the game, which led to a Robert Nkemdiche touchwown. He also had zero help from his running game or offensive line from start to finish.

Even worse, New York’s defense allowed Stanton to throw two touchdowns. It was just a miserable effort from Big Blue.

Winner: Giovani Bernard sparks upset victory for Bengals

Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard

You have to go all the way back to Week 2 of the 2015 season to find the last time Giovani Bernard took over a game like he did Sunday. Joe Mixon was injured early, forcing Bernard to carry the load for the Cincinnati Bengals against the Detroit Lions.

He did more than carry the load. He was the biggest key to the Bengals winning just their sixth game of the season. Rushing for 116 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries, Bernard also hauled in seven passes for 52 yards.

The Bengals ended up gaining 28 first downs and won the time-of-possession battle. Andy Dalton wasn’t sharp in this game, so in the end it was Bernard’s play, and the play of the team’s defense, that sparked this win.

Loser: Brock Osweiler is who we thought he was

Twitter knew. When Adam Schefter confirmed a Mike Klis report that Brock Osweiler would be starting this Sunday, the folks on social media had a field day. Yet, there was always a chance, just maybe, that Osweiler could have a big game two weeks in a row, right?

Yeah, no. The Washington Redskins are not great defensively, but they’re a heck of a lot better than the Indianapolis Colts, who got torched by Brock the week before. And it showed.

Osweiler was atrocious. He completed 22-of-38 passes for just 193 yards while throwing no touchdowns and one interception. He also lost a fumble.

For the sake of the Broncos and their fans, one can only hope Paxton Lynch is healthy enough to play next week, and stay healthy enough to finish the game. Because this team really has no idea if it has a quarterback on its roster or not, and that’s a huge problem.

Winner: Jimmy Garoppolo has the Niners rolling

We put the Jacksonville Jaguars on upset alert this weekend, based solely on the fact that Jimmy Garoppolo is as hot as it gets in the NFL right now. But my goodness, I’d be lying if I said I saw this coming.

Jacksonville brought the NFL’s top defense into Levi’s Stadium and got absolutely shredded by Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers. The final score of 44-33 is stunning enough, but here’s some more stunning information for you: Garoppolo completed 21-of-30 passes for 242 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. The Niners also rushed for 131 yards and three touchdowns and won the turnover battle, 3-to-1.

Now with four straight wins as the team’s starter, Garoppolo has proved he’s going to make the 49ers one of the most exciting teams in the NFL in the coming years.

Loser: Dak Prescott’s mistakes crush the ‘Boys

Dak Prescott did not benefit from having Ezekiel Elliott back in the lineup, even though the running back had a big game.

He threw two really bad interceptions, one of which was returned for six points by Justin Coleman. It was his fourth pick-six of the season, which is the most in the NFL, per ESPN Stats & Info. Then later, in the third quarter, driving and already into scoring range, Prescott threw hard and well behind Dez Bryant. The ball was tipped by Byrant, right in the waiting arms of linebacker K.J. Wright.

Both interceptions ended up turning into touchdowns for the Seahawks.

In total, Prescott finished with just 182 yards on 21-of-34 passing with no touchdowns and the two interceptions. Given the fact that Seattle only managed 136 total yards in the game, those turnovers were the key reason why the Cowboys lost. And now they’re eliminated from playoff contention.

Winner: Dion Lewis and Rob Gronkowski star for Pats

The New England Patriots did something pretty amazing Sunday. They won their 12th game in a season for the 11th time since Tom Brady took over, which means he’s now tied with Peyton Manning for the top mark in this exclusive club.

Yet on Sunday at home against Buffalo, it was more about guys not named Brady (who threw an awful pick-six) making the big plays that led to the 37-16 win.

Dion Lewis played like his hair was on fire. He totaled 153 yards and two touchdowns on 29 touches and was the engine that drove the offense against Buffalo. Rob Gronkowski only caught five passes but turned them into 67 yards and hauled in one of Brady’s two touchdowns. And my goodness was it worth the price of admission.

The Patriots are in great shape once again heading into the month of January. The least surprising development of this current season.

Loser: Jameis Winston’s butterfingers 

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a real chance to beat the Carolina Panthers Sunday, on the road no less. In the end, Cam Newton got pretty lucky a fumble at the goal line bounced back to him as he ran in the game-winning score, capping off a tight 22-19 victory.

The biggest reason Tampa Bay lost this weekend was that Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston had an awful case of the butterfingers. He lose three fumbles in this game — one on the game’s first offensive possession, one inside the red zone in the second quarter and then one at the end of the game, precipitating a monumental meltdown in which he had to be restrained by coaches and teammates.

The three turnovers resulted in six points for Carolina. They really represented what was at least a nine-point swing, assuming the Bucs could have at least converted a field goal on the one he lost in the red zone. Turnovers continue to be a huge problem for Winston, who has tons of talent but struggles to make good decisions.

Winner: The Gurley/Goff Express is full steam ahead

The Los Angeles Rams have now won two extremely impressive road games in a row. After taking the Seattle Seahawks behind the woodshed last Sunday, they traveled across the country to take on the Tennessee Titans, winning 27-23 on Christmas Eve.

For the second weekend in a row, Todd Gurley was magnificent. He rushed for 118 yards while hauling in 10 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns (including this 80-yard dash).

It was a historic two-game stretch as far as fantasy football scores go.

Unlike last weekend, the Rams needed a big game from Jared Goff, who delivered. Completing 22-of-38 passes for 301 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions, Goff was brilliant. Now the Rams are 11-4, have clinched the NFC West, and are in line to host at least one playoff game in January if they win in Week 17.

Loser: Lions no-show must-win game

The Detroit Lions were eliminated from playoff contention with their loss Sunday in Cincinnati. They had to win to stay alive. And really, there’s not one thing you can point to and say, “they looked ready to play.”

In all three phases of the game, Detroit fell on its face. Matthew Stafford wasn’t sharp. In fact, aside from Eric Ebron, who’s been hot of late, Detroit’s entire passing game was blah. The defense was pushed around by a Cincinnati offense that’s been struggling to get out of its own way in recent weeks. And the normally reliable Matt Prater missed a 50-yard field goal that would have tied the game in the third quarter.

It was a lackluster effort by a team that was fighting for its playoff life. And now the players will have an extra week to stew on the fact they came up small when the games mattered most.

Winner: Frank Gore continues to amaze

Frank Gore

Playing on a team that has won just three games all year, it would be tough to not just play out the string and get to the offseason for some players. Frank Gore is not one of them, however. The future Hall of Famer continues to fight like his life depends on it, giving his all and sacrificing his body for a team that’s been out of playoff contention really since the start of the season.

On Saturday night in a rather dull game against Baltimore, Gore looked like a man in his mid-20s, not a 34-year-old who’s carried the ball well over 3,000 times in his career. He finished the game with 68 yards rushing, 18 yards on two catches and one of the best touchdowns of the entire weekend (watch here).

At this point it’s unknown whether Gore will play in 2018 or retire. We’ll miss watching the Inconvenient Truth whenever he does hang up the cleats for good.

Loser: Brett Hundley latest victim of Vikings’ plundering D

We already discussed the fact that Brett Hundley threw two interceptions to Harrison Smith. But it wasn’t just the picks that sets him (and Green Bay’s offense as a whole, if we’re honest) apart as a big loser this weekend.

Playing instead of Aaron Rodgers, who was once again placed on IR this past week, Hundley completed just 17-of-40 passes for 130 yards. There’s no way to spin this as anything other than an unmitigated disaster. Sure, he was playing for a team that entered the game with a seriously depleted roster. But that kind of futility is noteworthy no matter what the circumstances.

Winner: Larry Legend continues to pile up accolades

It’s been a pretty stale year overall for the Arizona Cardinals. Yet despite the team’s difficult circumstances with injuries, especially on offense, one man continues to play at an insanely high level.

Catching nine passes for 119 yards and one touchdown Sunday at home against the New York Giants, Fitzgerald eclipsed the 100-catch, 1,000-yard threshold once again. He’s now the oldest player in NFL history to catch at least 100 passes for 1,000-plus yards.

Fitzgerald may or may not play again in 2018. For what it’s worth, it’s going to be a sad, yet triumphant day, whenever he retires. A sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer, Larry Legend is still one of the best in the business.