With the final slate of regular-season games complete, there is no more football left to play before the NFL’s postseason, kicks off. While we can’t get to everything — like Aaron Rodgers feuding with Jimmy Kimmel — here are four of the top storylines to emerge from the NFL’s 18th and final week. (Here’s a look back at last week as well as a look at Philadelphia Eagles punter Braden Mann’s attempt to flop being thwarted quite entertainingly by Cam Brown of the Giants.)
Departing Titans star Derrick Henry is a class act
Arguably the best NFL running back of the last decade and certainly one of the most durable, Derrick Henry is set hit free agency in March after amassing 2,185 touches, 10,955 total yards and 97 total touchdowns over eight seasons with the Tennessee Titans.
Playing on Sunday against the favored Jaguars in a game that was only important to Tennessee for draft position purposes, Henry carried the ball 19 times for a season-high 153 yards and a touchdown as the Titans played spoiler and sent Jacksonville home from Nashville with a loss.
Realizing this was likely the final time he’d suit up in a Titans uniform in Tennessee, Henry got his hands on the microphone for the in-stadium sound system after Sunday’s win and thanked the fans who were still in attendance for all of their support over the years. Like Henry, the speech was quite strong.
“I just want to say thank you for the greatest eight years of my life,” Henry told the crowd. “The ups and the downs, y’all have been there for everything. Through the adversity. Watched me grow as a person and as a player. Always supporting me. I love y’all.”
The 30-year-old, who told reporters he wanted to get the Titans (6-11) back into Super Bowl contention but acknowledged his days in Tennessee were probably over, made an even better impression at the podium during his postgame press conference when he thanked team employees ranging from kitchen staffers and members of the cleaning crew to security personnel and the “avocado guy.” The latter, Bob, was thanked by name — just like everybody else on Henry’s list.
A classy way to put a flourish on a great career that’s over in Tennessee but will continue elsewhere in ’24.
Ryan Fitzpatrick Left His Heart in BuffaloThe Harvard grad started at QB for an NFL-record nine teams in 17 seasons
Mike McCarthy is coaching for his job in Dallas
Heading into a playoff game against his former team, ex-Packers coach Mike McCarthy will attempt to lead the Cowboys on a deep playoff run and try to get Dallas past the divisional round of the NFL postseason for the first time since the 1995 season. To do it, McCarthy will need to guide the Cowboys past Green Bay and then another yet-to-be-determined opponent. Based on what Dallas owner Jerry Jones said on Sunday after Dallas knocked off Washington to win the NFC East, McCarthy needs to get Dallas into the NFC Championship Game (and maybe even the Super Bowl) or he’ll be out in Dallas.
“I just think his record speaks for itself,” Jones said, according to The Athletic. “I think of what he’s done and that we’ve put ourselves in this position over these last three years, I think that does speak for itself. We’ve got a lot of football left and no small part thanks to Mike…We’ll see how each game goes.”
Prepping to coach Dallas in the postseason for the third time in four seasons, McCarthy, who is 167-102-2 over 17 seasons as a head coach in the NFL, has the opportunity to improve on his barely-above-.500 postseason record of 11-10. Of course, one of those wins is slightly more notable than the others because it came in Super Bowl XLV when the Packers knocked off the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Thanks to that win, McCarthy is somewhat a victim of his own success entering this postseason as many believe the Cowboys, who have the fourth-best odds to end this season as champions, are legitimate Super Bowl contenders despite plenty of evidence, including the team’s 4-5 road record, to the contrary.
Whether the Cowboy are actually legit or not remains to be seen, but it seems like Jones, who will turn 82 in the fall, believes that they are and is expecting big things. If McCarthy can’t deliver them, he’s gone.
Jameis Winston is actually kind of funny
The first quarterback in NFL history to throw at least 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in a single season, Jameis Winston spent much of this year riding the pine in New Orleans as starter Derek Carr led the Saints to a 9-8 record that nearly got the team into the postseason. The Saints’ final win of the season came on Sunday against the Falcons as New Orleans stomped Atlanta 48-17 to end the year.
Thanks to the lopsided score, Winston was able to get some playing time as head coach Dennis Allen pulled Carr once the outcome of the game was no longer in doubt. That may have been a mistake.
With Winston, who turned 30 over the weekend, in the game performing mop-up duty with a 41-17 lead and a little more than a minute left, Allen called for the team to line up in victory formation on the edge of the end zone and run out the clock. The Falcons, who were eliminated from playoff contention due to the blowout loss, were clearly expecting Winston to follow protocol and take a knee. He didn’t.
Instead, Winston listened to the offensive players he was huddled with on the field and called for a hand-off to Jamaal Williams, who led the league in touchdowns last season, so he could plunge into the end zone for a meaningless score. For Williams, who was a Lion last season, the TD was his first of the season.
When the final whistle blew, Atlanta coach Arthur Smith, who was fired on Monday after three losing seasonsm sought out Allen and let him know that the Falcons did not appreciated being shown up by Winston and Co. Allen apologized to Smith, but it did not appear as the apology was accepted.
Asked about the incident following the game, Winston was far from apologetic while explaining the hand-off to Wilson was a team decision…that did not involve the head coach of the Saints.
“Well I apologize to D.A. [Allen} because the play was victory, but I also explained to D.A. that it was a team decision,” Winston said. “I asked the guys. I said, ‘What do you want to do?’ We know how much Jamaal means to this team. And I understood from D.A.’s perspective, so I give him that, but D.A. didn’t condone that at all. The score was already 41-17, so I don’t know how much worse it can get.”
The Falcons probably don’t want to hear it, but Winston, who have a career in comedy, has a point.
The 2021 QB draft class is basically failing
The owners of the worst record in the NFL in both 2020 and 2021, the Jacksonville Jaguars appeared to have righted the ship when they jettisoned bumbling head coach Urban Meyer prior to last season and then made a postseason run last year with Doug Pederson calling the shots. Shaky during his first season in the league in ’21, former No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence looked like a new quarterback last year with Pederson in charge and appeared to be the franchise QB Jacksonville was looking for when they drafted him.
Lawrence maintained that appearance at the start of this season when the Jags got off to an 8-3 start and looked like they were going to run away with the very winnable AFC South. Unfortunately, it didn’t last.
Banged-up and ineffective for much of the second half of the season, Lawrence struggled down the stretch as Jacksonville went 1-5 to eventually finish at 9-8, the same record they ended up with a year ago. Last year, 9-8 seemed like a victory for the Jaguars and got them into the playoffs. This year, 9-8 feels like a failure, especially because Jacksonville’s eighth loss of the season came on Sunday against the cellar-dwelling Titans (6-11) and eliminated the Jags from postseason contention. Lawrence, who threw a pair of picks in the defeat, had the ball in his hands with the game on the line but was stopped short of the end zone on a decisive fourth-and-goal play.
“The words now don’t really mean much,” Lawrence said after the loss. “It’s fresh, and everyone’s going to deal with this in their own way. You should, everybody does, but you should feel sick, you should feel disappointed and frustrated in yourself, in the offensive, the team. Everything. You put in so much work. Coming in here, (if) we win, we make the playoffs. We have a home playoff game. And we are leaving here, we’re going home, and we’re done. We all understand where we’re at and how disappointing it is, the finish we had this year. We have to be better.”
It was a disappointing end to the former Heineman winner’s junior season in the NFL, but he’s certainly not the only third-year quarterback who fell short of expectations this season. With Lawrence and the Jaguars out of the postseason, there’s is not a single member of the 2021 quarterback class who will be starting a playoff game in 2024.
Along with Lawrence, Zach Wilson (No. 2 overall), Justin Fields (No. 3 overall), Trey Lance (No. 10 overall), Mac Jones (No. 14 overall), Kyle Trask (No. 64 overall), Davis Mills (No. 81 overall) and Kellen Mond (No. 84 overall) will all be watching when the playoffs kick off on Saturday afternoon when the Browns travel to Houston to take on the Texans. Mills will be at that game, but he’ll be on the bench watching rookie phenom C.J. Stroud direct Houston’s offense.
While it’s still far too early to close the book on Lawrence and the rest of the members of the QB draft class of ’21, it’s certainly time to start for their teams to start thinking about drafting their replacements.