Expert Analysis


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Biggest Winners, Losers from Saturday's NFL Week 16 Games

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph (2) drops back to throw from the Steelers end zone in the second quarter of the NFL 16 game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh. The Steelers led 24-0 at halftime.

Following an action-packed two-game Saturday slate, we're going through the biggest winners and losers, including two backup quarterbacks, a spectrum of skill-position performances and more.

Winner: Mason Rudolph, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

We will avoid all of the overused "Rudolph Saves Christmas" puns because he deserves more respect than that. After not starting a game since 2020, Mason Rudolph played the best game of his NFL career in Week 16.

He started the game with an 86-yard touchdown to George Pickens to give the Steelers a 7-0 lead. On the next drive, Rudolph led the Pittsburgh Steelers right down the field for another touchdown. From that point, the Steelers had complete control of the game, and Rudolph was completely in command.

While the game was never really in danger for the Steelers, Rudolph made a big play every time his team needed one. His best throw of the day came on a third-and-1 in the second half, dropping a dime to Pickens on the sideline for a huge touchdown. 

Pittsburgh had its best offensive performance of the season, scoring 34 points and totaling 397 yards. He had a passer rating of 124.0, the highest for any Steelers' QB this season.

The question now is whether or not Rudolph will start in Week 17 over a healthy Kenny Pickett, as the Steelers try to keep their (slim) playoff hopes alive.

Loser: Jake Browning, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

Jake Browning was one of several young backup quarterbacks playing well this season, leading the Cincinnati Bengals to three straight wins. But the two games in which Browning has struggled came against the Steelers.

In the first meeting, the Bengals scored just 10 points and threw a critical red zone interception. He was worse in Week 16, throwing three interceptions and turning the ball over on downs three times. Browning wasn’t seeing the field well, and his turnovers were just bad throws where he was trying to do too much.

It also didn't help that Browning threw too many passes at the line of scrimmage, which doesn't work against Pittsburgh. The way to beat the Steelers is to throw the ball over the middle of the field and attack their linebackers and safeties.

Instead, Browning opted to throw the ball at the line of scrimmage and to the sideline, where the Steelers could rally to the football and make tackles. It was poor game planning by the Bengals and worse execution by Browning.

The result? The Bengals were blown out against the Steelers and saw their playoff hopes dashed. The Bengals still sit at 8-7 but are 0-5 in the AFC North and don’t have many tiebreakers. 

Browning has done a good job filling in for Joe Burrow, but this is just another reminder of why he's a backup quarterback. After a few impressive outings, his play — and the Bengals’ — came crashing to earth in Week 16.

Winner: George Pickens, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

It’s been quite the week for George Pickens. After being called out by his coach, teammates and the entire national media, there was no guarantee Pickens would play in Week 16. But Mike Tomlin decided to stick with his second-year receiver, which paid off handsomely.

As mentioned above, Pickens started the game hot with a huge touchdown. That play alone would have been enough for most receivers, but Pickens didn’t stop there.

He scored a 66-yard touchdown in the second half to prevent a potential comeback from the Bengals. Plus, he had one of the most incredible sideline catches you’ll ever see before halftime on a third-and-15 to set up a field goal for the Steelers.

Pickens finished the game with four catches for 195 yards and two touchdowns in what would be a career performance by him. He desperately needed this type of game after several weeks of subpar play.

If the Steelers want to make a run in the next two weeks, Pickens will need to continue to play at an elite level. The good news is Pickens has the potential to be as good as any receiver in the NFL. And that’s what is so frustrating about his season.

Loser: James Cook, RB, Buffalo Bills

After a huge performance against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 15, James Cook came back to earth in Week 16. Not only did the Los Angeles Chargers contain him, but they also made Cook pretty ineffective. He rushed for just 70 yards on 20 carries and did not earn a single target in the receiving game.

Considering how great he looked last week against the Cowboys, this was a stark difference.

But his inefficiency in the run game isn't why he's on this list. It's the fumbles. Cook had two more fumbles in Week 16, one of which the Chargers recovered in Buffalo's territory. That fumble led to a field goal by Los Angeles, giving them the lead late in the fourth quarter.

The Buffalo Bills did go back to Cook on the next drive, but it was noteworthy that Leonard Fournette got several carries at the end of the game when the Bills were trying to kill the clock.

Cook’s fumbles have been why the Bills have lost some of their games this season, and it’s a shame because he might be their most important skill player behind Stefon Diggs.

Cook has more than 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in his NFL career, but this was not his best game. In fact, his play on Saturday night almost cost the Bills a chance at the playoffs. Buffalo was lucky to survive, but it will need Cook to play much better in the next two weeks if it wants to sneak into the postseason.

Winner: Ed Oliver, DT, Buffalo Bills

The Bills have desperately needed someone to step up on defense in the last few weeks, as they push for the playoffs. The hope was Von Miller or Gregory Rousseau would be the difference-maker in December, but that hasn’t been the case.

Instead, it’s veteran DT Ed Oliver, who is having the best season of his career.

Oliver created constant pressure against the Chargers' interior offensive line in Week 16. He was routinely double-teamed but still impacted plays. 

He made the play of the game for the Bills, recording a sack on Easton Stick on first down on the game's final drive. The Chargers only needed a field goal to win, and Oliver’s sack was a killer. Without any timeouts, the Chargers were forced to rush to the line and only got off two more plays on the game's final drive. Even on second down, Oliver created enough pressure to force an errant throw by Stick.

Oliver finished the game with four tackles (three solo), two sacks, two QB hits and two other tackles for a loss. He was the best player on Buffalo's defense, and his late-game heroics helped seal the win for the Bills. 

Buffalo now sits at 9-6, and if it wins the final two games, it will be in the postseason. And if Oliver continues to play like this, the Bills can make some real noise in January.

Loser: Quentin Johnston, WR, Los Angeles Chargers

With Keenan Allen and Mike Williams out of the lineup due to injuries, this was a critical opportunity for Quentin Johnston to step up for the Los Angeles Chargers.

The No. 21 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, Johnston was the second wide receiver off the board last April. Unfortunately, he has not had a significant impact on the Chargers during his rookie season.

They've tried to give him plenty of opportunities to succeed, but something always seems to go wrong. A perfect example was an end-around play in the red zone that went to Johnston, who gained 13 yards and would have given the Chargers a first-and-goal from the 4-yard-line.

Instead, the play was called back due to an illegal formation penalty, as Johnston wasn’t on the line of scrimmage. The line judge signed that Johnston needed to move up, but the rookie receiver never moved an inch. 

The Chargers were forced to kick a 40-yard field goal three plays later. That was potentially a four-point mistake by Johnston in a game decided by two points. That type of play has haunted Johnston all year, and it's one of the reasons why the Chargers are 5-10. They just haven’t gotten enough from their top draft pick.

Johnston finished this game with just 29 yards on five targets. Despite playing without Allen or Williams, it was the second straight week he could not clear 30 receiving yards. With so many other rookie receivers playing well, it's not hard to be discouraged about Johnston's play this year.