Andy Dalton and Tyler Boyd will never have to pay for chicken wings in Buffalo again.
The Buffalo Bills’ streak of not making the playoffs since the 1999 season was awful and not something you’d wish on any fan, but how it ended was equally exhilarating and unlikely. The biggest play for the Bills this century happened when a Cincinnati Bengals quarterback hit his receiver for a touchdown on fourth-and-12 to beat the Baltimore Ravens. It was perhaps the play of the year in the NFL. And it went in the Bills’ favor. Imagine that.
With less than a minute left, the Bengals trailed the Ravens and faced fourth-and-12 at the Ravens’ 49-yard line. The odds of the Bengals winning and the Bills getting the break they needed were miniscule. Dalton threw to an open Boyd. What looked like a clutch first down somehow turned into a touchdown. Boyd skipped through the Ravens secondary and with 44 seconds left the Bengals led 31-27. Bills Mafia better post some good YouTube fan videos of that moment.
The Ravens blew a playoff spot. And finally, the Bills caught a break. What was the longest current streak without a playoff berth in major American sports is over. The Bills showed their appreciation on Twitter.
It has been a wild season for the Bills. In August, a couple trades led people to wonder if they were tanking. A weird midseason benching of Tyrod Taylor led to the Bills giving away a game against the Los Angeles Chargers with the Nathan Peterman interception debacle. For a while it appeared that bad decision by coach Sean McDermott might cost the Bills a playoff spot.
That stuff doesn’t matter anymore. The streak is over. According to the Buffalo News, this was the first time since 2004 the Bills even entered Week 17 still alive for a berth. And think of all the big moments the Bills needed to make it this season.
There was Tre’Davious White’s forced fumble with a little more than two minutes left of a tie game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that led to a game-winning field goal. They pulled off a huge upset at the Kansas City Chiefs after a three-game losing streak dropped them to 5-5. They pulled off a crazy win in a blizzard in Week 14 against the Colts. The Colts had what was probably an insurmountable two-point conversion to take a lead with 1:16 left, but it was wiped out due to offensive pass interference. The Colts kicked the extra point for the tie instead. A little later, a coaching mistake by Colts coach Chuck Pagano (who was fired Sunday) left Adam Vinatieri trying a 43-yard field goal with seconds left from a hashmark he didn’t prefer. Vinatieri missed. The Bills won in overtime.
The Bills came into Week 17 needing a mini-miracle to make the playoffs. The Ravens were expected to roll the Bengals. The Ravens had a huge comeback against Cincinnati, and then screwed up at the end. The Bills weren’t assured of beating the Miami Dolphins, but then the Dolphins surprised everyone and played Jay Cutler one series so David Fales (six career passes) could play most of the game. It was a strange Dolphins decision considering Fales isn’t their quarterback of the future, and it helped the Bills in a 22-16 win.
The Bills might be shorthanded next week in their playoff game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Running back LeSean McCoy suffered what looked like a serious sprained ankle, though the team got some good news when X-rays were negative. There’s still no guarantee he’ll play next week.
But just making the playoffs is a milestone. Whatever happens next week seems almost beside the point. Despite the ridiculous Taylor-Peterman decision in midseason, McDermott bringing the Bills to the playoffs this season makes for a fantastic rookie campaign.
Bills fans should feel excited for the future. And it’s even better without that awful playoff drought. Enjoy the new year, Buffalo, especially with that monkey off your back.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Week 17:
New England Patriots: And, just as we figured four months ago, the AFC will go through Foxborough.
The road wasn’t as smooth as we expected, especially in the first four weeks of the season, but the result was predictable. Other than a loss to the Miami Dolphins in an obvious look-ahead spot a few weeks ago, the Patriots didn’t lose after Oct. 1. They cruised to a 26-6 win over the New York Jets. The Pittsburgh Steelers or Jacksonville Jaguars or whoever else wants to knock off the Patriots will have to do so at Gillette Stadium. That’s a tough task.
The Patriots might have even found a new contributor for the playoffs. Outside linebacker James Harrison, who had 40 snaps all season with the Steelers (which led to him getting cut, which led to a feud with his former team), had a pair of sacks on Sunday. Harrison’s sacks weren’t impactful, considering they came in a blowout win, but it would seem he has shown the Patriots he’s worthy of being a factor in the playoffs. Of course, that could lead to him playing a role against the Steelers in an AFC championship game, if Pittsburgh and New England make it that far.
All the Patriots have to do to get to that conference championship game is win one home game. And then they’d host the conference championship game for a shot to go back to the Super Bowl. It’s almost like we’ve seen this story play out before.
Patrick Mahomes: It seemed clear that Sunday was Mahomes’ audition for next season. How he played wouldn’t necessarily determine the Kansas City Chiefs’ decision on Alex Smith in the offseason, but you could see how it would factor in. It would have been a lot harder to move on from Smith (even if they’d gain a ton of salary cap room by doing so) if Mahomes looked overmatched.
Mahomes, the team’s first-round pick, didn’t look overmatched at all. He had his rookie moments but he also made some nice plays against a tough defense before Denver’s starters came out in the third quarter. He threw some lasers, which we knew he could do with his powerful arm.
The Chiefs were up by two scores late, then Tyler Bray came in at quarterback. Bray started by botching a handoff that was returned for a touchdown. The Broncos tied the game a little later. Mahomes went back in the game and in the final three minutes he led a drive that ended with a game-winning field goal. Mahomes finished 22-of-35 for 284 yards. He showed a lot of poise on that final drive, after he figured his day was done.
Sunday didn’t prove that Mahomes will be a star, but it should make the Chiefs plenty excited for his future.
Kareem Hunt: Now that’s the way to win a rushing title. With Todd Gurley sitting out in Week 17, Hunt needed just 14 yards to win a rushing title.
And he did it on a 35-yard touchdown run. It was his only carry of the day, and the only one he needed.
Hunt is the second straight rookie to win an NFL rushing title. Ezekiel Elliott was the champ last season. The way Hunt ran in December, he looks like he’ll be a contender for many more rushing titles in the future.
Frank Gore: Of all the players who could have been on the sideline in sweats on Sunday, Gore was deserving.
Gore didn’t need to be grinding it out in Week 17 for the 3-12 Indianapolis Colts against the 4-11 Houston Texans. The 34-year-old doesn’t need those extra miles. But he’s a pro’s pro. He played, and played well.
Gore went over 14,000 yards for his career, just the fifth player to do so, on Sunday. The Colts were struggling in the first half, and Gore gave them a spark. He started breaking off nice chunks of yardage as the Colts took control of the game. Gore passed the 100-yard mark in a game that meant nothing. It says everything about his toughness and respect for the game. He was the key player in the Colts’ season-ending win.
And that’s not all. Gore came back from an injury in the game. He went down in the fourth quarter, trainers came out, and at that point nobody would have blamed Gore if he called it a season. But he went back in, and helped the Colts finish the game. Every young Colts player can take a cue from that. Any player around the league could, actually.
Bruce Arians: Arians, the Arizona Cardinals head coach, didn’t announce after Sunday’s game what he plans to do now that the season is over. There have been reports he could walk away, and perhaps retire for good. Longtime Cardinals beat writer Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic said Arians “sure sounds like a guy who’s done.”
If Sunday was Arians’ swan song in Arizona, he went out on a great memory. The Cardinals, playing for nothing against a Seattle Seahawks team still alive for a playoff berth, pulled out a 26-24 win. According to Jim Trotter of ESPN.com, when cornerback Patrick Peterson was asked if the win was for Arians, Peterson replied, “No doubt.”
Arians was liked by his players, and he has done a fine job with the Cardinals. His players showed their respect by how they respected him with their play on Sunday.
Nick Foles: Presumably, the idea of playing Foles on Sunday was to get him some confidence heading into the playoffs. Or, maybe more accurately, it was to whip up some confidence in Foles among the Philadelphia Eagles and their fan base.
That didn’t happen. When Foles was replaced for Nate Sudfeld in the second quarter, his final line was 4 of 11 for 39 yards in a truly wretched 6-0 Cowboys win. In playing Foles some to gather momentum heading into the postseason, Eagles coach Doug Pederson probably made it worse.
Foles completed first two passes, then was incomplete on his next five. Late in the first quarter he badly underthrew a pass while rolling right that was intercepted by Chidobe Awuzie. A week after the Eagles struggled on offense, they had zero points on the board when Foles’ day was done.
The conditions weren’t good, but they probably won’t be ideal in the playoffs either. This is the hand the Eagles have to play. Foles did look good in his first start, and that’s what the Eagles have to hang their hat on. Because nothing that happened in Week 16 or 17 will lead anyone to believe Foles and the Eagles can make a long playoff run.
Kirk Cousins and the Washington Redskins: That’s not the final impression Cousins wanted to make before he hits free agency (or, possibly, gets the franchise tag again).
Cousins and the Redskins had a total no-show in Week 17. You could tell what kind of day it was going to be right away, when Orleans Darkwa took off for a long touchdown through the Redskins’ defense. Washington rarely showed any interest in playing against a Giants team that is not only terrible, but was missing many key players due to injury. Cousins’ final interception ended any chance Washington had to win. The Giants won 18-10. No halfway intelligent franchise would make a decision on Cousins as a free agent based on one final meaningless Week 17 game, but it wasn’t Cousins’ best day. It was a terrible effort all around.
And that might be the way the Cousins era ends in Washington. Cousins is far from a guarantee to return. Another franchise tag would be $34 million. You’d have to assume Cousins wouldn’t want to sign a long-term deal with Washington after the franchise has refused to pay him like a top-line quarterback the past few years. And if that’s it, there won’t be fond memories of the pitiful way Cousins’ Washington career ended.
Sean McVay’s plan: McVay never said this week that he wanted his Los Angeles Rams to lose to the San Francisco 49ers. Perhaps it never crossed his mind, and he really did just want to get his starters extra rest. But we know now that McVay is pretty sharp, and as the youngest coach in modern NFL history, perhaps he’s wired differently than the old guard who refuses to think about concepts like losing to draw an easier opponent in the playoffs.
It sure seemed like the Rams were trying to lose, and in the process get the No. 4 seed and an easier path in the playoffs. If the No. 3 seed (which the Rams would have clinched with a win) wins in wild-card weekend, they’ll play at the No. 2 seed Minnesota Vikings. The other playoff survivor in the NFC would play the Eagles, and any team would rather take their chances facing Nick Foles than the Vikings.
The Rams did their part, losing 34-13. They never even threatened to win. But the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers screwed up by losing too. The Rams still got the No. 3 seed because of those losses by the NFC South teams. They’ll play the Atlanta Falcons next week.
If McVay was trying to tank to get a clearer path in the playoffs, that’s pretty sharp. It’s the type of new-wave thinking that has made McVay a grand-slam hire as a head coach. It didn’t work out, but he’ll have new plans for his team to navigate the playoff field.
Hue Jackson: The Browns deciding, for practical purposes, that their issues were due to former general manager Sashi Brown and not Jackson ignores the product on the field.
Brown, who was fired this season, didn’t do a great job. But Jackson has done nothing with the talent he was given. Just look at how sloppy Cleveland was against the Steelers. They got a delay of game while punting. They got an offsides penalty on a Steelers field-goal attempt, giving up a first down. They got a punt partially blocked. When it seemed they were getting off the field on a third-down incompletion, Myles Garrett took a roughing-the-passer penalty. They gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown after tying the game. Duke Johnson got a first down on a nice third-and-15 play, and lost a fumble at the end of it. When the Browns faced a fourth-and-2 at the end, with the possibility of needing to use all three timeouts to get the ball back if it wasn’t converted, they burned a timeout before the play.
And then, in maybe the most Browns moment of the season, Kizer made a nice play to free himself and delivered a great fourth-down pass to Corey Coleman … who had it go right through his hands and incomplete. Change one or two of those sloppy mistakes — Coleman’s drop will be the moment that endures, but it was far from all his fault the Browns lost — and the Browns might have actually won a game and avoided 0-16. Instead, they lost 28-24.
But that’s the Browns under Jackson. They’re sloppy and undisciplined. Whatever talent the Browns have, the coaching staff has gotten nothing out of it. Kizer started most of the season and he didn’t show much improvement. Jackson is an offensive coach and their offense is terrible.
Owner Jimmy Haslam said Jackson would return when he fired Brown a few weeks ago and Haslam confirmed on Sunday that Jackson will return. He’s blindly trusting his coach to do better, because nothing the Browns have shown on the field while going 1-31 the past two years should lead Haslam to believe Jackson is the right guy to lead a turnaround.
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