Let’s pour one out for four disappointed teams: the Saints, the Steelers, the Titans, and yes, my Atlanta Falcons. New Orleans had a positively gut-wrenching defeat, which gave me an ounce of schadenfreude to go along with my humble pie. The Steelers made it close, but never earned that game. Wish I could say the Titans had a successful season, but they’re now stuck replacing their coach (hopefully with someone who will give Derrick Henry more carries). Finally, the Falcons really laid an egg. Philly has a great defense, so let’s not take anything away from them, but OC Steve Sarkisian has some ‘splaining to do. But even beyond the playcalling, there was a lack of execution in the red zone, which has hurt this team all year. Was the sprint right option the correct call on the final play? Maybe not, but when Julio Jones falls down on the route, it makes the coaching look a whole lot worse.
Biggest Winner – Minnesota Vikings
What. A. Play. Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs for the ‘Minneapolis Miracle’ could go down as one of the most memorable plays in NFL history. Am I getting ahead of myself? Hell no. According to NFL Research, that play was the first playoff game-winning touchdown as time expired, ever. But that wasn’t the only takeaway. Keenum played his ass off – again – and the Vikings dominated the ball (33:17 possession vs. the Saints’ 26:43) by keeping long drives rolling by going 10-for-17 on third down. On defense, they managed to pick Drew Brees twice and bottled up the two-headed monster of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram to the tune of 80 rushing yards. Now they head to Philadelphia where they’ll be favored. The Minny defense has been a suffocating group all year long, but will have their hands full with Jay Ajayi and some big, physical Eagles receivers.
Biggest Loser – Pittsburgh Steelers
Don’t get me wrong – this was one hell of a game. It’s not like the Steelers got blown out. In fact, they did remarkable work drawing within two TDs before the first half and then scored a staggering 28 points in the second half. But it’s a bleak week in Pittsburgh (and not just because the Pirates traded Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole). Steel City had to be salivating at the prospect of getting another shot at New England, but they won’t get there. Now Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley is out, the scapegoat for a year that came up short.
Rookie Watch – Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
What a performance. Fournette has been everything Jacksonville dreamed of and more when they picked him fourth in the 2017 NFL Draft. That’s pretty amazing, because for a few years now the prevailing wisdom has been that investing high picks in running backs rarely works out. Better to get a guy in the second or third round and pair him with another quality back. Well, the young LSU Tiger is turning that line of thinking on its head. He scored three sensational touchdowns on Sunday, each showing a different fact of his skill-set: leaping ability, speed, and power. This kid is only just getting started. Bill Belichick’s defense will be keying in on him come Sunday, forcing Bortles to make plays, so Fournette will need to be spectacular against eight-man boxes and chilly conditions.
Sleeper Awakens – Geneo Grissom, New England Patriots
Who? The third-year man out of Oklahoma had a huge game in the Pats’ demolition of Tennessee on Saturday. Though he only came into the game with two tackles recorded in the regular season, he managed to sack Marcus Mariota twice and draw a key penalty on a New England punt. The 25-year-old edge rusher/special teamer is already proving his worth, and is no doubt becoming a favorite of Darth Belichick.
Dominating Performance – Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
This award rarely goes to a player on a losing team, but we gotta pour one out for Antonio here. He went for 132 yards and two phenomenal touchdowns against the vaunted Jags secondary, spinning A.J. Bouye around like a dreidel all day long. He led the NFL in receiving for the second time in four years, despite missing two games. He racked up 101 catches in those 14 games, and continues to set the standard for NFL wideouts. The NFL is infinitely more fun when Brown is playing – we’re all lucky to get to watch him. Now I command you to go watch this Tony mixtape set to Timmy Turner. Just do it.
Most Devastating Injury – Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings
Luckily, there weren’t any horrible, gruesome injuries this week for me to write up here. I chose Thielen because he’s missed practice time with a lower back injury, and is one of Minnesota’s most important players. He should be good to go come Sunday, but lower back pain could affect his ability to go up and snag balls. He’s been the Vikings’ best receiver all year – despite the amazing catch by Diggs – accumulating 1,276 yards on 91 receptions in the regular season. Get healthy, Adam.
Image Sources: Bra Rempel/USA TODAY Sports, Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports, Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports, Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports, David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports, Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports, Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports