A little after 4pm on Sunday the Cleveland Browns lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, plunging them to the NFL’s second-ever 0-16 finish. The loss would have been soul crushing if only there had been any souls left to crush in Cleveland. Bad as the Browns season finale was, though, it wasn’t the worst of the day. There’s a strong case to be made that the Browns reached a new level of misery on Sunday but the drop from 1-15 to 0-16 is a lot less dramatic than the fall from making the playoffs to missing them.
Of all the teams with a chance to claim a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season, the Baltimore Ravens entered Sunday’s matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals with the best odds of making the postseason. Per ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Ravens had a 97% chance of making the playoffs on Sunday morning – almost 30% higher than the team with the next best odds – and with the game against Cincinnati winding down, the Ravens seemed to have it in the bag. After trailing all game, they had stormed back to take their first lead of the day late in the 4th quarter. With Cincinnati facing a 4th and 12 at the Baltimore 49-yard line, with 53 seconds on the clock and the Bengals out of timeouts, the Ravens needed just one stop to punch their ticket to the postseason.
In a feature literally named after the NFL’s penchant for constant, unyielding incompetence, you might’ve guessed that today we’d be honoring1 the League itself again. And yet, even as both the Raiders and Steelers lost their games due to controversial-but-true-to-the-rulebook verdicts from their referees, there’s only one place truly deserving of our incompetent gaze. I’m looking at you, Seattle.
The Seahawks have a well-established reputation as a dominant team, their hype built on the foundation of two recent Super Bowl appearances – including one victory – and a multiyear run as one of the greatest defenses of all-time. Injuries to their defense and ineffectiveness along the offensive line have somewhat dampened Seattle’s reputation for excellence this year but they remain a formidable foe, especially at home where they’ve had one of the only legitimate home-field advantages in the sport over the last few years. Even as 2017 seemed to be turning into a down year for the franchise, Russell Wilson vaulted himself into the MVP discussion with a series of masterful performances including an impressive defeat of fellow MVP-candidate Carson Wentz’s up-and-coming Eagles squad in Week 13.
Detroit Lions defensive back Quandre Diggs had just leveled Tampa Bay’s O.J. Howard, causing a fumble that was recovered by Detroit’s Glover Quin. As broadcaster Ronde Barber predicted,1 Diggs was flagged for unnecessary roughness on the play, his hit deemed a shot to the head of a defenseless receiver. As Barber also noted, this was the wrong call, mainly because the receiver wasn’t defenseless (per NFL rules) and because Diggs didn’t hit him in the head.
Every Monday I play beer league hockey with a bunch of physically underwhelming and tactically inept schlubs like myself. In our darker moments, when our utter lack of coaching and ability rears its ugly, toothless head our defensive schemes devolve into little more than puck-chasing. As defensive strategies go, this one tends to be disastrous. It’s also the technique that the San Francisco 49ers utilized in pursuing Tarik Cohen, the Bears’ diminutive rookie running back, as he scored one of the more remarkable touchdowns of the year.
Cohen’s brilliance on this play is undeniable. His speed, acceleration and agility are simply off the charts. He makes a cut at the 30-yard line that leaves Aldrick Robinson – a freaky fast dude himself – flailing his arms and falling way behind the play. The whole play, in which Cohen outmaneuvers an entire professional football team, makes for a reasonable facsimile of the “Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl” technique that shouldn’t work in real life and seems borderline unfair.
After Tyrod Taylor was his predictably solid self during Buffalo’s 16-10 defeat of Kansas City on Sunday, I was tempted to give this week’s Incompetence Trophy to Bills coach Sean McDermott for the second consecutive week because, again, what the hell was he doing starting Nathan Peterman in an NFL game? But McDermott at least didn’t make the same mistake twice and kept the overmatched Peterman on the bench in Week 12. Things were not so simple on the opposite sideline.
After absolutely shredding the Patriots in the season’s Thursday night opener, the Chiefs rattled off four more wins, looking like a league superpower as they cruised to a 5-0 record. Since then they’ve only managed to win one game and that came against a Broncos team that’s currently quarterbacked by a revolving crew of what appear to be three sentient mannequins. (This throw sums up what if feels like to have Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch as your team’s quarterbacks.)
Despite an off-season filled with moves that seemed to indicate that Buffalo’s new front office was punting on the present in the hopes of building a better future, the Bills started this year with a surprising 5-2 record. Even after a puzzling loss to the Jets and an absolute thrashing at the hands of the resurgent Saints, the Bills were 5-4 and sitting in the AFC’s last playoff spot. Considering what was expected of the team heading into this season and that – as I am contractually obligated to tell you – the Bills haven’t made the postseason since 1999, it was hard to consider Buffalo’s 5-4 start as anything but a success.
Unless, apparently, you’re Sean McDermott, Buffalo’s first year head coach. After his team was pummeled 47-10 by the Saints, McDermott decided that the steady if unspectacular play of quarterback Tyrod Taylor simply wasn’t cutting it and instead inserted rookie Nathan Peterman (a.k.a. a guy that no one had ever heard of) into the starting lineup. It, um, didn’t go very well.
Nathan Peterman threw more interceptions in the first half than the Cowboys, Patriots and Rams have thrown all season. pic.twitter.com/j93vajF64H
Thanksgiving isn’t until next week but it already feels like Christmas because this Browns season is the gift that keeps on giving. (Keep in mind that I write about NFL incompetence on a weekly basis. For Cleveland fans this season has been a lump of coal dropped in a pile of shit.) After a deadline-day failure to acquire quarterback A.J. McCarron from the Bengals, I assumed that the Browns had reached peak incompetence. And that may well be true as it relates to off-the-field decisions. On the field, though? They still have so very, very much to give.
Dumbest play call of the year goes to Hue Jackson. QB sneak from the 2 with 15 seconds before half and no timeouts. pic.twitter.com/3XMCetOdWG
That was a quarterback sneak on second down, from the 2-yard line with 15 seconds to go in the half and no timeouts left. It was an unbelievably, incomprehensibly, stunningly stupid playcall, which is to say that it was just about the Brownsiest thing that the Browns have ever Browned.
Philip Rivers is a national treasure. He put bolo ties on the map, he’s got a whole freakin’ troupe of children and he makes the bestdamnfaces in all of football, Mannings be damned. Because he’s never won, well, anything really and because he plays for a vagabond franchise, he doesn’t get the credit he’s due as one of the best quarterbacks of his generation. It’s a shame that the Chargers’ incompetent ownership has squandered such a bright talent, wasting the prime years of Rivers’ career chasing profit margin instead of wins.
Then again, as the losses have piled up over the years, it’s not like Rivers himself has been totally without blame. He’s got a tendency to aggressively force the ball into tight windows, resulting in a fairly prodigious number of interceptions. Even in games where his teammates are clearly to blame for a loss, Rivers manages to inject some of his own flair into the proceedings.
To fully understand what we’re about to watch, you have to understand that being open in the NFL isn’t a binary thing; it’s more of a gradient. There’s “everyday receiver” open, there’s “I’m Julio Jones and I refuse to be covered” open and then there’s “no one is within 10 yards” open. Every once in a generation, there’s one more level and I like to call it “inexplicable, abhorrent, oh my God, how the fuck does an NFL defense even allow that to happen” open. Like this O.J. Howard touchdown catch: