NFL Winners and Losers: How did the Patriots let THAT happen?

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Of all the teams to get caught stumbling around on a once-in-forever miracle lateral play, you wouldn’t expect it to be the New England Patriots.

Yet, there were the Patriots looking foolish on the Kenyan Drake relay, a play that will be replayed for a long, long time. The sight of Rob Gronkowski flailing trying to tackle Drake summed it up. Gronkowski was on the field to knock down a Hail Mary that the Dolphins were never going to throw from their own 31. So the Patriots ended up with a big tight end on the field trying to make an open-field tackle.

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How bad was that decision?

“I was like, ‘Gronk’s on the field. We got this!'” Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill said as he was watching Drake make his way upfield.

As MassLive pointed out, Gronk was in the game while safeties Devin McCourty and 6-foot-4 Obi Melifonwu (an exceptional athlete who had a 44-inch vertical at the scouting combine) were on the sideline.

You won’t see the Patriots make many mental errors like that. But they ended each half with one.

At the end of the first half, Tom Brady took a sack in the final seconds after the Patriots had marched to Miami’s 2-yard line. The Patriots were out of timeouts, and the only thing Brady couldn’t do was take a sack. Time ran out after that sack. Those three lost points were costly in a 34-33 loss.

This isn’t another attempt to bury the Patriots. The dynasty isn’t over just because they lost to the Dolphins. The Patriots always seem to lose in Miami, for some odd reason. But we’re seeing things this season from the Patriots that don’t fit what we’re used to from them.

The Patriots are 3-4 on the road this season, and with the loss to the Dolphins it’s looking more and more like they’ll need to win at least one road game, maybe two, to make another Super Bowl. The Patriots have lost to the Lions, Jaguars, Titans and Dolphins this season. The first three were all by double digits, and the fourth was on the type of historic mistake that Bill Belichick teams rarely make.

Whoever was responsible for having Gronk on the field for the possibility of a 69-yard Hail Mary has a lot of explaining to do. It was a situation that called for the multiple-lateral play that never seems to work. Tannehill hit Kenny Stills on a short pass. Stills lateraled to DeVante Parker. The Patriots seemed strangely flat-footed at that moment. Parker lateraled to Drake, which is usually when the defense converges on that kind of play. But no defenders made a play. Drake feigned another pitch and took off upfield. It was clear he had a shot to take it a long way.

Had the Patriots been using a regular defensive back instead of Gronkowski, he would have had a shot at tackling Drake. Gronkowski is a great player, but he’s not a free safety. He shouldn’t have been put in that spot. It was a critical miscalculation by the Patriots. Again, when was the last time that happened?

The mistakes on the Drake touchdown and Brady taking a sack at the end of the first half weren’t the only errors. Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point and a field goal. The Patriots converted just three of six red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. And in the big picture, they probably shouldn’t have been in position to get beat at the end by a mediocre Dolphins team. Allowing two touchdowns on a two carries to Brandon Bolden, a former Patriots special teamer who had one carry all season before Sunday, didn’t help.

The Patriots have been fine, but far from great. They play in an easy division and that helps. They’ve also been tremendous at home, where they’re 6-0. But the offense has gone through some strangely quiet stretches. Maybe that’s due to injuries to players like Gronkowski and running back Sony Michel, but it’s troubling. On Sunday the defense wasn’t great, and that was before the total breakdown on the Drake play.

The Patriots aren’t in danger of losing the division title, though they’re still not assured of a first-round bye. They’re still capable of making a run in January. But more than previous seasons, the Patriots have had their off days. It might have gone unnoticed that they weren’t sharp again on Sunday, had someone made a tackle on the final play.

Kenyan Drake scored one of the wildest game-winning touchdowns in NFL history against the Patriots. (AP)
Kenyan Drake scored one of the wildest game-winning touchdowns in NFL history against the Patriots. (AP)

Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Week 14 of the NFL season:

WINNERS

Aaron Rodgers: No matter if Rodgers and Mike McCarthy had a wonderful relationship, as Rodgers says, the firing of McCarthy put the blame on the coach for the Packers’ season. The last four weeks can confirm that Rodgers is as good as ever, but McCarthy’s play calls were the problem.

In their first game after firing McCarthy, the Packers put up their most points of the season in an easy 34-20 win over the Atlanta Falcons. Rodgers didn’t put up huge numbers, with 198 yards, but he did throw two touchdowns and was dangerous again with his legs. On his best throws he looked like vintage Rodgers.

The Packers might not finish that strong, considering they won’t face a bad Falcons defense every week. But Rodgers can prove everyone who had called for McCarthy’s firing right.

New Orleans Saints: For a while, everyone was wondering what had happened to the Saints.

They followed up a poor performance in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys with a terrible first half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have one of the worst defenses in the NFL. The Saints trailed 14-3 at halftime. On the first drive of the third quarter, Drew Brees was strip-sacked and lost a fumble in Saints territory. It looked bad.

Everything turned, and fast. The Buccaneers missed a field goal after the Brees fumble. Backup quarterback Taysom Hill blocked a punt, and that really started the comeback. By the end, the Saints had a 28-14 win. The offense came alive, and give the defense credit for a second-half shutout.

The Saints are 11-2, still clinging to hope to get the No. 1 seed in the NFC. For a little more than a half on Sunday, New Orleans didn’t look anything like a contender. Maybe they snapped out of their slump with an important second-half comeback.

Lamar Jackson, almost: What we’ll talk about from Sunday’s Chiefs win is Patrick Mahomes, his amazing fourth-down pass to Tyreek Hill and him taking a big step toward an MVP award.

It was almost Jackson’s signature moment instead.

Jackson played well for the Ravens in a spirited upset bid. He rushed for 71 yards, but we have seen him run it well before. It was also a good passing game. He was 13-of-24 for 147 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. His second touchdown put the Ravens ahead 24-17 with a few minutes left. Had the Ravens gotten a fourth-down stop on the play Mahomes hit Hill for 48 yards, we’d be talking about Jackson and how the Ravens were 4-0 with him.

There’s an argument to be had whether the offense the Ravens is running is a viable long-term option. It’s probably not. But that’s a discussion for down the road. Right now Jackson gives the Ravens the best chance to win. He should continue to improve, too. Even if it’s a bit unusual for an NFL team to run what amounts to a college offense, it was almost enough to pull off one of the biggest road wins of the season in the NFL.

Joe Flacco was almost ready to return this week, should be back next week, but it seems like a good bet that Jackson will get the rest of the season to show what he can do.

Jerry Jones: The Cowboys owner gets ripped a lot, so it’s only fair to give him credit when it’s due. Jones’ move to go get Amari Cooper has been the catalyst for turning around what at one point looked like a lost season.

Cooper’s huge fourth quarter and overtime led the Cowboys to a win on Sunday that all but wraps up the NFC East championship. Cooper scored three times in the fourth quarter and overtime, winning the game on a pass that was tipped up that he grabbed and walked into the end zone. While we’ll find out if sending a first-round pick for Cooper was a good move in the long term, it’s paying off now.

Cooper gives the Cowboys an option in the passing game they didn’t have. Nobody else on the roster could simply beat a defense for a big play, as Cooper did twice in the fourth quarter. Cooper scored a 28-yard touchdown to give the Cowboys a lead, and a 75-yard touchdown after the Eagles tied it up again. He was the reason the Cowboys were in position to win in overtime. Then he had a big third-down catch and the game-winning score in overtime. Cooper had 10 catches for 217 yards.

It was a gamble to get Cooper. Trading a first-round pick for a player who had slumped for a season-and-a-half wasn’t guaranteed to work. But Jones was aggressive, and he likely has no regrets.

LOSERS

Jay Gruden: Maybe Gruden should actually be on the winners list. He has a pretty good excuse to keep his job another season.

The Washington Redskins announced to the world on Sunday that they’re done this season. That might have been a good guess before Sunday, considering they were down to Mark Sanchez at quarterback after injuries to Alex Smith and Colt McCoy. But even with that, what happened Sunday was horrendous. The Redskins were blown apart 40-16 by a bad New York Giants team. Washington trailed 34-0 at halftime, and plenty of fans justifiably decided they had seen enough and left.

What has to hurt most is Washington actually wasn’t in bad shape before all the injuries. The Redskins looked like they could win a mediocre NFC East. Gruden, who is just 34-42-1 and hasn’t made the playoffs since 2015, needed that type of season. That’s not happening anymore.

Maybe Washington gives Gruden a pass for being hit hard with bad injury luck. That might be enough to save his job another season. But injuries or not, Sunday was the type of performance that has to make ownership think over its options.

Denver Broncos plan from top to bottom: The Broncos were losing 20-0 at halftime and the offensive part of that was at least understandable. Denver lost top receiver Emmanuel Sanders to a freak Achilles injury in practice during the week.

That doesn’t explain how the Broncos defensive plan totally failed to account for tight end George Kittle, who is practically the only dangerous target the 2-10 49ers had.

Kittle had an incredible 210 yards at halftime, the most for any NFL player in a first half since 1991. That was only 4 yards short of Shannon Sharpe’s record by a tight end for an entire game. Can’t blame that on offensive injuries. The Broncos, momentarily back in the playoff race, looked terrible against a bad 49ers team. They rallied in the second half – holding Kittle without a catch after halftime, too – but had dug too big of a hole. Those playoff dreams might be all but done now.

When Denver looks back on what went wrong this season, they should start with a truly awful first-half defensive plan against Kittle.

That fourth-down decision by Frank Reich back in September: Reich is a very good coach. That seems clear. The Indianapolis Colts caught a break when Josh McDaniels stood them up.

Still, we can’t forget that the Colts might be in line to steal a division title if not for Reich’s worst mistake of the season.

On Sept. 30, late in overtime against the Houston Texans, Reich decided to go for it on fourth down in his own territory. The Colts didn’t get it, and the Texans had a short drive for a game-winning field goal. That decision matters a lot more after Sunday.

The Colts had an impressive 24-21 win at the Texans, but that win is probably meaningless in terms of the AFC South race. The Colts improved to 7-6, still two games behind the 9-4 Texans. But let’s say Reich punted in overtime of Week 4 and the Colts would have gotten a tie. They’d be 7-5-1 and the Texans would be 8-4-1. The Colts would also hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with a 1-0-1 head-to-head record against Houston. That wouldn’t be insurmountable with three games to play.

The Colts have had a remarkable season and could still get a wild-card spot. But the division race would have been a lot more interesting with one different decision.

The Panthers’ chances to salvage their season: If the Panthers were going to save their season, it probably had to happen down near the goal line at Cleveland on Sunday.

Late in the fourth quarter, the Panthers trailed 26-20. They drove down to the Browns’ 9-yard line. On first down they got a 6-yard run. Then, nothing. A tricky run to D.J. Moore was stopped for nothing. Then on third and fourth down, Cam Newton threw incomplete. The Panthers had one more chance after that but Newton threw an interception with about a minute to go.

That’s not the official end of the Panthers’ season, but it doesn’t look good. The Panthers have lost five in a row since a 6-2 start. In a weird scheduling quirk, they have two games left against the 11-2 Saints. Ron Rivera’s job status will be discussed at length if the Panthers turn a 6-2 start into a six- or seven-win season. They could have at least kept some hope burning with a win Sunday, but they couldn’t get 3 more yards to beat the Browns.

A terrible Pittsburgh Steelers loss: Where to begin with the Steelers taking what might be the worst loss of the NFL season? Let’s start with the Steelers not calling one of their timeouts after first-and-goal for the Oakland Raiders in the final two minutes.

Why can’t coaches figure out clock management? Mike Tomlin didn’t call a timeout, the Raiders smartly bled some clock, and ended up scoring on fourth-and-goal to take a 24-21 lead. Had Tomlin called timeout and the same sequence had played out, the Steelers would have had about a minute to get a game-tying field goal. Instead, they had 21 seconds.

Still, the Steelers almost tied it anyway. The Raiders inexplicably allowed a hook and ladder play to JuJu Smith-Schuster to gain 48 yards. But then, with a chance to tie the game, struggling kicker Chris Boswell slipped when he tried to plant and his kick barely got off the ground. Game over.

That’s bad, but the whole idea of losing to the Oakland Raiders is bad. The Steelers were without Ben Roethlisberger for a while, because he was knocked out of the game for a while with a rib injury. No matter, It’s inexcusable to lose to the Raiders when you’re chasing a division title and maybe even a first-round bye.

The Steelers have done this many times through the years, inexplicably blowing a game on the road under Tomlin that they shouldn’t. A loss to the Raiders, who were 2-10 coming in, was mind-blowing.

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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