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5 winners from Week 17 of the 2019 NFL season

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In the final week of the regular season, Jaire Alexander’s meaningful penalties and rushing god Ryan Fitzpatrick: both great.

Dolphins QB Ryan Fitzpatrick runs with the football in his right hand and his beard visible under his helmet, superimposed on a blue, black, and white background with squiggly lines
Fitzmagic struck one more time in 2019, with Ryan Fitzpatrick leading the Dolphins to an upset win over the Patriots in New England.

The 2019 NFL regular season is officially over. This means the march to Super Bowl 54 has officially begun. It also means, mercifully, there will be no more Bengals, Jets, or Washington games to muddy our national broadcasts.

In honor of their selfless decision to leave January to the good teams, the NFL’s contenders spent much of Week 17 playing like losers. The Patriots, needing a win to clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs, collapsed in upon themselves against the Dolphins. The Chiefs, in place to leapfrog New England, traded the lead with the Chargers before finally putting away their division rival and securing the conference’s second seed.

The Packers, firmly in the race for the NFC’s top seed, got roasted early by a David Blough receiving touchdown — especially notable because Blough isn’t a receiver (and is, barely, a quarterback). They needed a furious comeback and a game-winning field goal from Mason Crosby as time expired just to escape with a win. The 49ers and Seahawks went down to the wire, and a literal inch of field, to complete the NFC postseason picture.

In the middle of that chaos, the Titans and Eagles claimed the league’s final playoff spots in what turned out to be comfortable wins. And while they may have gained the most from Sunday’s action, they weren’t necessarily Week 17’s biggest winners. Instead, those honors go to ...

It wasn’t: the Browns, who finished 2019 with their worst loss yet

Cleveland didn’t have much to play for in Week 17. The playoffs, once a shining beacon of hope in the preseason, were officially out of reach. All that was left for the Browns was pride and a potential resume-building point in favor of embattled first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens.

This was not nearly enough to carry the team to victory over the previously one-win Bengals. Cleveland squandered an early 7-0 lead and gave up 162 rushing yards to Joe Mixon en route to a 33-23 loss.

Baker Mayfield, who ended 2018 as one of the league’s hottest quarterbacks, finished his season with 21 interceptions and would have led the NFL in picks if not for the continued existence of Jameis Winston. Kitchens lasted exactly 16 games as a head coach before getting fired.

Conversely, Andy Dalton went from getting benched on his birthday to staking the Bengals’ claim as Ohio state champions in what will likely be his final appearance in tiger stripes. An often toothless pass rush got to Mayfield for six sacks. Mixon also deserves credit, not just for a career-best performance, but for innovating this “accidentally assault a ref” postgame celebration.

and now, on to ...

Week 17’s actual winners

5. The Bears, who might as well give this rugby thing a shot

Chicago and Minnesota — the latter locked into the NFC’s sixth seed and thus starting a handful of backups — put together a stirring throwback to 1920 with their meaningless Week 17 showdown. The first 30 minutes of play saw the Bears take a 11-6 lead into halftime despite neither team scoring a touchdown.

The Bears broke that streak in the third quarter, but they kept up the “dawn of football” cosplay in the process. David Montgomery scored his team’s only touchdown in a play that wouldn’t have been out of place in the New Zealand All Blacks’ highlight reel.

Chicago held off a Kirk Cousins-less Vikings team 21-19 to even its record at 8-8 on the season. Mitchell Trubisky, in a performance endemic of his disappointing third year as a pro, needed 37 passes to throw for 207 yards without finding the end zone once.

4. Jaire Alexander, whose mistakes somehow sparked a Packers comeback

Danny Amendola has always been one of the league’s more underrated pot-stirrers. The journeyman wideout is a chippy presence on the field. A first-quarter touchdown throw to quarterback David Blough only increased his volume.

Amendola’s flexing was nearing all-time non-Patriot highs in Week 17 ... until Alexander sent him to Suplex City.

That suplex drew a flag and gifted the Lions seven yards, but Alexander earned every one of those yards with his perfect form. While Detroit would go on to score a touchdown at the end of the drive, Amendola wouldn’t have another catch for the rest of the game. The next time he’d have his name called on the broadcast would be after getting flagged for a late hit on another Packers defensive back he’d been jawing with — this time, safety Kevin King.

This, somehow, wasn’t the only penalty on Alexander that seemed to have a net benefit for the Packers. Alexander was shadowing Chris Lacy in man coverage without any safety help when he tripped while tracking down a Blough deep ball. Rather than let Lacy get away for what would have certainly been a breakaway touchdown, the second-year corner grabbed the Lions wideout and intentionally drew a pass interference penalty.

Detroit’s drive would stall out soon after, ending with a 56-yard Matt Prater field goal instead of a touchdown.

Those points were crucial for Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers, on a day when he struggled to connect with his wideouts downfield, found his rhythm in time to lead the Packers back from a 17-3 deficit with 19 minutes to play. Mason Crosby’s 33-yard field goal as time expired sealed a 23-20 win for the visitors and a first-round bye in the postseason.

More importantly, it made Green Bay 2-0 against the Lions in 2019 when the Packers led, technically, for zero seconds of game time.

3. Shaquil Barrett, officially better than Warren Sapp (in one specific way)

The Buccaneers ended 2019 in the most Jameis Winston way possible: on a pick-six. Bruce Arians summed up the finale in the most Bruce Arians way possible.

In the midst of that lesser Lynyrd Skynyrd song were other reasons for optimism. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin emerged as the league’s top wideout tandem, and Breshad Perriman balled out once injuries took each of them off the field. Young cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting took the first steps necessary to repair one of the league’s worst secondaries.

But no Buccaneer had a better year than Barrett, who came to Florida on a one-year, $4 million contract and gave Tampa Bay roughly $20 million of value as a pass rusher. The former Broncos rotational piece — he had just 15 starts in 61 games in Denver — went from afterthought to Defensive Player of the Year candidate as the keystone of Arians’ defense.

He had so many sacks in his first four games (nine) it prompted SB Nation’s own Stephen White to write about how absurd he was three different times in the first month of the season. On Sunday, he passed Sapp as the Buccaneers’ all-time single-season sack leader by bringing down Matt Ryan in the second quarter.

That wasn’t enough for Barrett. He’d add two more sacks to bring his season total to 19.5. That’s 5.5 more than he’d had in five total seasons as a Bronco. It’s also enough to tie for 13th-most in a single season in league history, joining names like Bruce Smith, Robert Mathis, and Mark Gastineau among players with at least 19 sacks in a season.

Barrett may have come to Tampa on a prove-it deal. Keeping him there is going to cost the club significantly more.

2. Christian McCaffrey, the NFL’s third-ever 1,000/1,000 man

Unlike the Buccaneers, there haven’t been many moral victories for the Panthers this fall. Cam Newton played in just two games, and while Kyle Allen was able to rally Carolina to a 4-2 start, that lack of talent manifested in a 5-11 season that led to longtime coach Ron Rivera getting fired.

There was one bright shining star in the Panthers’ dim constellation, however. McCaffrey claimed his place as one of the league’s best dual-threat tailbacks by rushing for 1,387 yards and hauling in 1,005 receiving yards from Carolina’s depressing lazy Susan of underwhelming QBs. This 17-yard reception — buried in the latter half of a 42-10 loss to the Saints — launched him into the eight-digit stratosphere.

Only two other players in NFL history have matched that feat: Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk. The former was an All-Pro on a team that won three Super Bowls. The latter won 2000’s MVP award and is now a Hall of Famer.

Pretty good company to keep!

Carolina stands on the precipice of a rebuild. Team owner David Tepper will have to hire a new coach and make a choice when it comes to retaining former MVP Cam Newton or letting him go. Other expensive veterans like Dontari Poe and Greg Olsen could be on the chopping block as well.

McCaffrey will be the sun around which the rest of the Panthers’ solar system rotates, though.

1. Ryan Fitzpatrick, officially the Dolphins’ 2019 rushing leader

The Patriots’ problem isn’t that they missed out on a first-round bye because they lost as a 17-point favorite Sunday afternoon. Their problem is that they lost to a team whose top runner was a 37-year-old quarterback.

Trades, injuries, arrests, and general ineptitude left Miami’s year-end rushing stats look like this:

The Dolphins’ top 5 rushers, 2019 season

Player Carries Rushing yards Yards/rush TDs
Player Carries Rushing yards Yards/rush TDs
Ryan Fitzpatrick 54 243 4.5 4
Mark Walton 53 201 3.8 0
Kenyan Drake 47 174 3.7 0
Patrick Laird 62 168 2.7 1
Kalen Ballage 74 135 1.8 3

Holy crap.

That ground game FitzMagic was on full display Sunday. His scramble on first-and-goal in the third quarter pushed the Dolphins out to a 17-10 lead.

His ability to keep plays alive — he was only sacked twice against a defense that came into Week 17 ranked fifth in the NFL in sack rate (8.4 percent) — gave the Dolphins just enough latitude to hold off the Patriots’ comeback efforts and drive a final nail into the AFC East champion’s bye week hopes. New England will play in the Wild Card Round for the first time since 2009, and it’s at least partially thanks to a Miami team whose top running threat was an aging dropback passer.