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Bills went from tanking talk to the playoffs, and other Week 17 thoughts

In August, the Bills were fighting off accusations that they were tanking on the season. On Sunday, the Bills will play their first playoff game in the 21st Century.

Buffalo won on Sunday, and got some help in the form of Baltimore losing, and so the NFL’s longest playoff drought is over. But not many people expected them to be here. Or anywhere close to here. Many assumed the Bills were actually trying to lose in 2017 because they thought they had no hope this season and wanted to build a better team in the future with higher draft picks.

The tanking talk heated up when the Bills traded Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby, getting a bounty of 2018 draft picks in the process. That led to people saying new G.M. Brandon Beane and new coach Sean McDermott didn’t even want to win in 2017, instead prioritizing winning in the future. Beane lashed out at that.

I was very annoyed,” Beane said of first hearing talk that the Bills are tanking, in an August appearance on PFT Live. “We’re going to compete our tails off for 2017.”

Beane was right and the people who accused him of throwing the season away were wrong. The Bills played to win this season and earned their postseason berth. That they did so while also making some trades that put the Bills in good position to improve the roster in the 2018 draft is a bonus.

NFL teams shouldn’t tank. Competition is the very essence of the league, and if teams aren’t competing to win, they’re violating the fundamental principles of sport. The Bills earning a playoff berth is a powerful statement that you can build for the future and also win in the present.

Here are my other thoughts from Sunday:

Jimmy Garoppolo goes 5-0. The 49ers were 1-10 when Jimmy Garoppolo became their starting quarterback. The 49ers finished the season 6-10 yesterday after Garoppolo led them to five consecutive wins down the stretch. San Francisco has its quarterback of the future. Now the 49ers should get him locked up to a long-term contract, even if they have to pay him a fortune to do it. Garoppolo has only seven career starts (two with New England last year and five in San Francisco this year) but he might get the most lucrative contract in NFL history.

Jeff Triplette can’t control a game. I’m sure Triplette, the longtime NFL referee, is a perfectly fine fellow. But he just shouldn’t be an NFL ref. He routinely loses control of the games he’s working. After a fight broke out in the Bills-Dolphins game, Triplette and his crew took about 10 minutes to get everything sorted out and get the game going. As Triplette was calling all the penalties, he called the numbers of two players who weren’t on the field. Then he called the number of a Dolphins player who doesn’t exist (Triplette called No. 24, and the Dolphins don’t have a 24 on their team). Triplette routinely makes mistakes that an NFL referee shouldn’t make.

Playoff spots are determined by inches. In September, Lions receiver Golden Tate appeared to score a game-winning touchdown on the final play of a game against the Falcons. But instant replay overturned the call, ruling that Tate’s knee had touched the ground with the ball just inches shy of the goal line. Now the 10-6 Falcons are in the playoffs, and the 9-7 Lions are out. If the Lions had won that game, they’d be 10-6 and in, and the Falcons would be 9-7 and out. That’s how close the difference between success and failure is in the NFL.

Blake Countess should be suspended. Countess, the Rams’ cornerback who laid a vicious hit to the head of 49ers receiver Marquise Goodwin on Sunday, should be suspended for Saturday’s playoff game against the Falcons. The NFL needs to send a message that hits to the head like that won’t be tolerated, and forcing a player to sit out a playoff game might get that message out.

James Harrison will make a difference in the playoffs. The Patriots added Harrison, the longtime Steelers pass rusher, just in time to see him record two sacks in Sunday’s finale. I have a feeling he’s going to prove himself to be a difference-maker in the postseason. Especially if he takes on his former team in the AFC Championship Game.

The Vikings might not leave Minnesota. No team has ever played a Super Bowl on its home field, but the Vikings have the best chance any team has ever had. Minnesota is the No. 2 seed in the NFC, meaning it will play a home divisional round game, and the only reason the Vikings can leave Minnesota is if they travel to Philadelphia for the NFC Championship Game. And with the Eagles playing without the injured Carson Wentz, that’s looking unlikely. Don’t be surprised if the Vikings win two home playoff games, and then get to play in the Super Bowl at home as well.

The Giants and Colts didn’t tank, either. Heading into Sunday’s games the Browns had already clinched the first overall pick in the draft, but the second pick was down to the Giants or Colts. If they wanted to improve their draft stock, both teams should have been playing to lose. Instead, both teams won. Like the Bills, the Giants and Colts didn’t tank. NFL teams should play to win, and it’s to the credit of the Giants and Colts that they did.