The NFL’s inexplicably lengthy preseason has mercifully come to an end. The next time the league’s modern-day gladiators suit up to compete for glory, financial gain, and our amusement, the points will actually count.

Though the final scores in the preseason are inconsequential, the quartet of contests can affect the course a player or team traverses through the fall months. Below, we run down the summer’s biggest winners and losers.

Winner: Teddy Bridgewater

Only two summers ago, Bridgewater was rushed to hospital after a major knee injury as doctors raced to save his leg and preserve hope he might one day continue his playing career.

He’s officially back.

In three games, Bridgewater put up 316 yards on 28 of 38 passing with two touchdowns and one interception. Most importantly, he showed confidence in his knee, moving inside and out of the pocket without dropping his eyes or fear of taking a hit.

Bridgewater’s impressive preseason performance, which came largely with second- and third-team talent around him, played him all the way out of New York, where rookie Sam Darnold’s similarly strong preseason eliminated any possibility of Bridgewater starting.

Enter the Saints, who represent the ideal destination for Bridgewater and who were happy to part with a third-round pick to secure his services.

In Bridgewater, the Saints get a 25-year-old whose physical attributes and passing style make him a natural backup to 39-year-old Drew Brees. Possessing a roster peppered with young stars like Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and Marshon Lattimore, the Saints are early in a Super Bowl window. Evidently, Bridgewater can elongate that time frame as more than just insurance against a Brees injury. The Saints have found Brees’ likely heir.

Loser: Nick Foles

Are we absolutely sure this is the same guy who won Super Bowl MVP?

Whatever magic propelled Foles through last season’s playoffs has vanished, transforming him back into the middling backup who failed to stick with his previous two teams.

Foles led 10 offensive drives in the preseason and produced zero points. In his most extensive action against the Browns, he threw two picks, lost a fumble, and surrendered a safety.

The Eagles can forget the dream of trading Foles for a premium draft pick; their immediate focus must be rebuilding him into a player who can competently take snaps in Week 1. With Carson Wentz still not cleared to return from a torn ACL, this could remain Foles’ team for a little longer.

He doesn’t have to be Super Bowl Nick – realistically, he’ll never again reach those heights – but if he doesn’t elevate his game in the regular season, Wentz might have to dig the champs out of a big hole.

Winner: Jets GM Mike Maccagnan

The Jets were a big winner at the draft when their risky decision to trade three second-round picks to move up from No. 6 to No. 3 hit the jackpot.

Now, after a preseason in which 21-year-old Sam Darnold played with a savvy well beyond his years, the Jets will confidently make their prized pick the youngest Week 1 starter since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

The winning doesn’t stop there.

Every team in the NFL had the chance to take on Bridgewater as a low-cost project this spring, but only the Jets came calling. That foresight resulted in a tremendous return on investment, as the Jets paid Bridgewater just $1 million in signing and roster bonuses before flipping him to the Saints for a third-round pick.

Considering the Browns essentially paid $16 million for the Texans’ second-round pick (and Brock Osweiler) a year ago, Jets GM Mike Maccagnan got tremendous bang for his buck.

Loser: Josh Allen

Mocked by members of the draft community as an undeserving first-round pick, Allen looked nothing like the erratic, overwhelmed passer most expected him to be.

On the contrary, Allen, who infamously produced a 56.2 percent completion rate against FBS competition, displayed excellent pocket awareness and a veteran’s passing touch.

So why’s Allen a loser? Because he’s the clear winner of the Bills’ quarterback competition and should start in Week 1.

That means playing behind an offensive line comprised of the remnants from an offseason that saw the starting center retire, a starting guard demand his release, and the left tackle shipped out via trade – that’s a death sentence.

Allen’s already had a taste of what’s in store for him. Between his preseason flashes, the rookie spent his summer running for his life.

In the rare moments where he’s not under threat of annihilation, Allen is tasked with distributing a ball to the NFL’s least explosive offensive arsenal. Kelvin Benjamin is the team’s top receiver by default; you probably can’t name the next three pass-catchers on the depth chart. LeSean McCoy may help relieve some pressure, but he’s on the wrong side of 30 and surrounded by major legal questions and the looming possibility of league discipline.

It’s a no-win situation for the Bills. Quarterbacks rarely develop on the bench, and Allen, in particular, looks like he’s ready to hone his skills against NFL defenses.

But the way to season a raw prospect like Allen isn’t to literally tenderize him.

Winner: Knees

Even with Jaguars’ Jalen Ramsey suggesting the NFL’s new rules governing helmet-to-helmet hits will lead to defenders targeting players’ knees, the largest joint in the human body was a preseason winner.

Ramsey’s comments came in the wake of teammate Marqise Lee’s season-ending knee injury, but Lee is one of few players lost for the year. Joining him on the sideline until 2019 are Redskins rookie tailback Derrius Guice and Chargers tight end Hunter Henry, who was hurt back at spring practice.

Compare that trio with the caliber of stars lost to knee injuries in recent preseasons and 2018 is a welcome change. Last year, it was Ryan Tannehill and Julian Edelman going down to torn ACLs. In 2016, Bridgewater tore his knee so severely it cost him most of the next two seasons. In 2015, a rash of knee injuries took out Jordy Nelson and Kelvin Benjamin, among others.

Luck’s certainly a factor, but don’t overlook that teams are being more cautious with their stars, limiting their exposure to live fire. That was most evident in the third week of the preseason, formerly treated as a dress rehearsal for the regular season.

Among healthy starting quarterbacks not taking a snap in Week 3 were Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Dak Prescott, Mitchell Trubisky, and Jared Goff (whose Rams didn’t play their key offensive starters at all for the entire preseason). Several starters who did play hit the showers after merely a quarter, rather than the customary three quarters.

It took longer than it should have, but teams have finally awakened to the idea that there’s often far more to lose than gain in August.

Loser: Raiders

By all accounts, new Raiders head coach Jon Gruden has yet to meet the best player on his team.

Former Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack is away from the Raiders in a contract stalemate that appears certain to stretch into the regular season and may ultimately necessitate a divorce. There’s no reason for it.

Most other teams – maybe every other team – would kill for the chance to lock up a player of Mack’s caliber, even at a price tag that could approach $70 million guaranteed. He’s worth every penny.

Gruden, or maybe it’s the occasionally cash-strapped Mark Davis, has balked at the opportunity without offering any explanation. With a 10-year contract in hand, Gruden faces no imminent pressure to win and can meticulously craft the roster in his own image. If that image doesn’t include Mack, it could be a long and painful decade.

Winner: Joe Flacco

Flacco sorely needed a kick in the butt.

He got it in the form of first-round pick Lamar Jackson, who was just impressive enough this summer to force the complacent Flacco to raise his game and snuff out any debate on who should start.

Those at camp say Flacco enjoyed the best summer of his career. It helped that the Ravens surrounded him with a vastly improved receiving corps, including Michael Crabtree and a resurgent John Brown.

Alex Smith produced his best season with Patrick Mahomes breathing down his neck. Flacco is poised to do the same.

Loser: Referees

Games this season will be decided by penalties called under the NFL’s new rules governing helmet-to-helmet hits. It’s inevitable. It’s also inescapable that some of these penalties will be called in error as referees adjust to the convoluted new rules.

Have mercy on these poor officials: they’re at the front lines of a major culture change that will take years to fully take hold.

Players are permanently damaging their brains and must be re-trained to tackle in a manner far less likely to result in a concussion if American football is to survive.

There will be growing pains as both referees and players adjust to the new rules, but they’ll be worth it in the long run.

Winner: Jaguars

The Jaguars’ new uniforms might be the most boring attire in football history. They’re almost completely lacking in color, striping, or any element to distinguish them from the sort of blank template you might see in a video game’s create-a-team feature.

And yet they’re an enormous upgrade on the over-designed, half-gold, half-black abominations sported by the team last season.

Loser: Stripes

If the Browns looked a little different to you this preseason, it wasn’t just the exciting No. 1 pick making plays under center.

Head coach Hue Jackson dipped into his bag of motivational tactics and pulled out an all-timer: literally removing players’ brown and white helmet stripes to make them “earn their stripes.”

Goofy? Extremely. Effective? Doubtful. This was literally an attempt to motivate grown men – many of them millionaires – with the reward of stickers.

We’d like to see Jackson double down. Don’t let players have those precious stripes until the Browns win a game.

Winner: Josh Gordon

Gordon is finally playing football again, and that alone might qualify him as a winner. But it’s the troubled Browns receiver’s decision to put his mental health above his team and career – and the Browns’ willingness to support him in doing so – that’s particularly worthy of acclaim.

Winner: Hard Knocks

It was actually kind of good this year.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)