The NFL playoff picture is becoming clearer with just two weeks remaining in the regular season. In Week 15, the Patriots punched a ticket to their 11th straight postseason. The Bears saw their NFC North title hopes dashed out like a spent cigarette. The Chiefs strengthened their case as the world’s best snow football team.
But Week 15 was about more than just final scores, unlikely turnovers, and playoff fates. As always, Sunday’s action created a healthy backdrop for storylines to develop and crash into one another as the league careens toward Super Bowl 54. There were several winners across the NFL landscape, and they stretch beyond the box score.
So who were the week’s biggest winners?
It wasn’t: Josh Gordon, who is not a quarterback
Gordon has been a useful, if not stellar, acquisition for the Seahawks. The former Brown and Patriot only has seven catches in his five games as a member of the team, but he’s turned those opportunities into 19.9 yards per catch. On Sunday, he was responsible for a 58-yard catch on his lone target of the day.
That wasn’t the only time Gordon got a touch against the Panthers, though.
Gordon, called into duty by an overthinking-it Pete Carroll, took a reverse roughly 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage before uncorking a deep ball to a covered DK Metcalf. He blanked safety Tre Boston in the process, and the underthrown ball was quickly scooped up and turned into a Panthers’ possession. Carolina couldn’t do anything with the opportunity — Kyle Allen would throw an interception of his own two plays later — but it snuffed out a potential scoring drive in a 30-24 Seattle victory that was a little closer than the Seahawks would have preferred.
It also turned out to be his last touch as a Seahawk (for 2019, at least) and potentially the last meaningful play of his NFL career after he was served an indefinite suspension — the fifth of his career — for violating the league’s PED and substance abuse policies.
Now on to ...
Week 15’s actual winners
6. Younghoe Koo, who is so good at onside kicks he can recover them with only 10 guys
Koo’s introduction to the NFL in 2017 was memorable for all the wrong reasons. He didn’t make an appearance in the 2018 regular season and wasn’t signed by the Falcons to replace Matt Bryant until Week 10. In that short span, however, the former Georgia Southern standout has been solid. He’s converted 17 of his 19 field goal attempts and has made all but one of his extra points.
More impressively, he’s been responsible for two of the league’s seven successful onside kicks in 2019. He would have made it three , but the Falcons decided they’d rather play Week 15 in hard mode.
Well here's a new one! The #Falcons recover a surprise onside kick … but are penalized because they don't have 5 men on either side of the ball. Why'd that happen? Because they only have 10 men on the field. pic.twitter.com/9xui3bVl4b— Justin Felder (@Justin_FOX5) December 15, 2019
Atlanta’s inability to put the proper number of players on the field for the kick negated its recovery thanks to an illegal procedure penalty for not having enough men on the field. Even so, it was another brick added to the legacy the young kicker is building with the Falcons. The NFL’s onside kick may be a broken play, but if Koo’s behind it, your team somehow has better than 50/50 odds of landing on the ball.
The Falcons, by the way, are now 4-2 with Koo on the roster. They were 1-7 before he arrived.
5. Stephon Gilmore, who Andy Dalton was not prepared to face
Dalton’s return to the Bengals’ lineup was the catalyst behind his team’s lone win of the season. For two quarters, it looked like he may be able to pull off another upset when he led Cincinnati to an early 10-7 lead over the Patriots.
Then Gilmore took over.
Gilmore, a $65 million signing from the typically thrifty Pats back in 2017, has emerged as one of the game’s top defensive backs over the past three years. That was on full display in Ohio.
His first interception gave the Patriots the field position that led to their second touchdown of the day. On the ensuing drive, he decided to give his offense a drive off by jumping all over a lazily thrown out route and taking another Dalton pick all the way to the end zone.
In less than eight minutes, Gilmore had forced two turnovers that turned a surprisingly tight game into the blowout most people had expected. He’s now got a career-high (and league-leading) six interceptions on the year and is cruising toward a second straight first-team All-Pro selection.
He’s one of three Patriot defenders with at least five INTs this fall, alongside Devin McCourty and J.C. Jackson — the latter of whom also picked off Dalton twice. On Sunday, that group lifted New England to a playoff spot and a 21-point win, even on a day where Tom Brady threw for just 128 yards.
4. The Cowboys, who finally look like they’d like to win the NFC East
Dallas ran through the first 14 weeks of the season without a single win over a team with a winning record and was 3-7 in its last 10 games. The Rams had primed themselves for a late playoff push by upending the Seahawks in Week 14 and had won five of their last seven. These factors conspired to make LA a slight favorite Sunday afternoon, even in the unfriendly confines of AT&T Stadium.
So of course the Cowboys boat-raced the Rams right off the field.
Dallas crumpled Los Angeles into a ball and then kicked it into the trash in a 44-21 de-pantsing that finally made the Cowboys look like contenders. An often underwhelming defense allowed just seven points in the first 56 minutes before easing up in garbage time. Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott ran for 248 yards and three touchdowns between them. Tavon Austin scored the easiest touchdown of his life:
Tavon Austin really turned the Rams secondary into a Keystone Kops routine pic.twitter.com/3ekskMAl9A— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) December 15, 2019
The win keeps the Cowboys firmly entrenched atop the messy NFC East. A similar win next week against the Eagles would clinch the division title and cool the calls for head coach Jason Garrett’s firing. The question now is whether this can last. Was the 44-point explosion the catalyst to a December rally, or just the next data point in an inconsistent season that’s jumped from highs to lows like P.T. Barnum taking a polygraph?
We’ll know more next week, but for now the Cowboys are looking like they might be more than just a sad-to-watch home underdog in the Wild Card Round.
3. Travis Kelce, who left us all with a massive, unanswerable question
Did you know Travis Kelce, star of E! Network’s non-hit dating show Catching Kelce, also moonlights as a football player? A pretty good one, too!
Kelce was the star of Patrick Mahomes’ snow-bound revival Sunday, catching 11 passes (on 13 targets) for 142 yards in a 23-3 win that flaunted the full power of Kansas City’s passing offense. It was his first 100+ yard performance since Week 2, and it helped him to reach a notable milestone. He became the first tight end in league history to have four straight 1,000-yard seasons.
That leaves us with a very important question. Is Kelce the league’s best tight end? The only other player in his league at the moment is 49ers’ Hulk George Kittle, who at one point trucked Ricardo Allen so hard that it made him laugh hysterically.
George Kittle was laughing as he pancaked a Falcons defender pic.twitter.com/spiHRh72kn— Kevin Jones (@Mr_KevinJones) December 15, 2019
He also had 13 catches for 134 yards (and a costly fumble).
Last year, Kelce totaled 1,336 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns to Kittle’s 1,377 and five. This year, Kelce’s got 1,131 yards to Kittle’s 888 thanks in part to the injuries that cost Kittle two games. On the other hand, Kittle has caught 79 percent of his targets to get there (Kelce’s at 70 percent). Per SIS, they’ve been similarly effective in run blocking as well.
So who gets the nod? There’s no wrong answer there. If you want youth and a little extra potential, Kittle’s your guy. If you want the game-changer who has put up 33 catches for 425 yards in six postseason games, then Kelce’s the right choice.
2. Eli Manning, who god willing will go down as the league’s perfect .500 quarterback
Coming into Week 15, Manning had a regular season record of 116-117. Daniel Jones’ ankle injury gave him a glorious opportunity to even things out against the Dolphins.
Manning restored balance to the universe when he led the Giants to a victory in what may have been his last appearance at MetLife Stadium. The 2004 No. 1 draft pick threw for 283 yards and a pair of touchdowns while balancing that out with, in true Eli fashion, the bad decisions that led to three interceptions. He started the game with a standing ovation from an appreciative crowd and ended it met by his family as he walked off the field a 36-20 winner.
Eli Manning coming off the field in his final home start and being greeted by his wife and kids. An emotional scene. pic.twitter.com/cuXEOIMyDy— Jordan Raanan (@JordanRaanan) December 15, 2019
While that threw a wrench in the team’s hope for 2020’s top overall pick, New York’s course to the No. 2 selection and a shot at Ohio State pass rusher Chase Young remains intact. If Jones returns to the lineup and this was the last we saw of Eli, he got to leave his final game a winner while still leaving his team in place to improve in the future. That’s a win/win for the Giants — which is only one fewer win than they’ve had so far in 2019.
1. Jameis Winston, who was his truest self Sunday
For the second straight week and fourth time this season, Winston kicked off his day by throwing an interception on his very first drive. Then, he snapped back to form and threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns ... in the first half alone.
Winston, playing without human cheat code Mike Evans but with a chipped bone in the thumb of his throwing hand, shredded the Lions’ defense like Crock Pot pork in a thorough 38-17 pasting. With 8:15 left in the second quarter, he had more passing touchdowns (three) than the Lions had total yards (two). He finished his day with 458 passing yards and four scores — his second straight game with 450+ yards and four TDs.
No one profited more from Winston’s massive swing than Breshad Perriman. The former first-round pick’s three touchdown catches in Week 15 were as many as he had in his first two seasons in the league.
3️⃣ ➡️ 1️⃣9️⃣— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) December 15, 2019
For the third time today, Jameis hits Breshad for a score! pic.twitter.com/4sMnK0QP6m
He’ll have to keep coming up big if Winston’s going to keep this pace. A late injury to Chris Godwin means Tampa Bay might have to play out the rest of 2019 without either of its Pro Bowl-caliber wideouts. That could be brutal for an offense whose running game averaged just 1.7 yards per carry against the Lions.
Winston is still a deeply flawed passer — that early interception was his league-high 24th of the season — but he’s showcasing his value as he plays out the final games of his rookie contract. Performances like Sunday’s shellacking could be enough to convince some needy GM to hand him $50 million in 2020. The way he’s played lately, he could even wind up strapping in for five more years in Tampa.