Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, investigate the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Winner: Chad Henne
Patrick Mahomes is the face of football, and quite possibly the best player at the most important position in the sport. But in a critical moment during Sunday’s divisional-round playoff game against the Browns, he was replaced by the second-best quarterback from the 2016 Jacksonville Jaguars, someone who wasn’t good enough to play for a 3-13 team four seasons ago. It seemed as if the Chiefs’ decision not to choose a suitable backup for the most valuable player in the sport could cost them their chance at a second consecutive Super Bowl. But out of nowhere, Henne stepped up and made a pair of stunning plays to help Kansas City hold on to a surprisingly tight 22-17 win against the Browns.
Mahomes got the Chiefs out to a 19-3 lead in the first half, and it seemed all but certain that they would advance and host their third straight AFC championship game. But in the third quarter, Mahomes took a hit and looked dazed as he tried to stand up. He was eventually ruled out for the rest of the game with a concussion, so in came Henne. Mahomes won the Super Bowl last year; Henne had never played in a postseason game in his 13 years in the NFL. I’d argue the biggest game Henne had ever played in before Sunday was … Michigan’s famous loss to Appalachian State to open the 2007 college football season. Not great.
There are several types of backup quarterbacks in the NFL. Some have lost training camp battles with their starters; some are young projects hoping to grow into starters; some provide a different playing style from their teams’ starters. Henne was the worst type: He hadn’t played in a long time, and he wasn’t particularly good when he did play. As a starter with the Jags and Dolphins, Henne had a career record of 18-36 and threw more interceptions than touchdowns. Although he’d been under center in recent years when the Chiefs were up big, he hadn’t taken non-garbage-time snaps in a meaningful game since September 2014, when Jacksonville decided to bench him for then-rookie Blake Bortles. That’s so long ago that Bortles had a full career as the Jaguars’ starter and is now a backup for the Rams.
In spite of Bortles’s subpar play across most of that Jacksonville tenure, Henne continued to serve as his backup until 2018 when he came to Kansas City. Since then, Henne hasn’t had much of a chance to shine. The only time Mahomes has really missed time was last season, when Henne was injured—the Chiefs had to sign Matt Moore to start a couple of games. Henne did play decently in Week 17 after the Chiefs had already clinched home-field advantage, but it was one of only two games the Chiefs lost this season.
So when Henne entered Sunday’s game with a quarter and a half to play and a nine-point lead, it was hard to feel optimistic about his abilities. And it didn’t help that he looked terrible at first. On his first full drive, Henne bombed a throw that overshot his receiver by a solid 7 or 8 yards, resulting in a fair catch-able interception by Browns safety Karl Joseph. It was simultaneously a terrible decision and a terrible throw, an egregiously bad choice by a career backup who was using his rare playing time to attempt heroism.
With the Chiefs’ lead down to five, Kansas City needed to safely move the ball, and the guy under center was catapulting hopeless balls directly to the other team. After Henne took a big sack, the Chiefs faced a third-and-14. If they didn’t pick it up, the Browns would get the ball back with the chance to win.
And that’s when Henne made the play of his life. With no receivers open, Henne opted not to force another terrible throw to a heavily covered receiver, and instead ran 14 yards to the first-down marker.
Chad Henne appreciation tweet.— NFL UK (@NFLUK) January 17, 2021
What a run! pic.twitter.com/wijo3Y11pr
Henne is, uh, not a runner. He ran a 4.92-second 40-yard dash at the NFL draft combine … in 2008. That’s an average speed of 16.63 miles per hour; he hit a top speed of almost 18 miles per hour on this run, 13 years later. Henne has played 71 games in his career, and had only four carries of 14 yards or more, none longer than 20. And when he absolutely needed 14 yards here, he almost got it.
However, the officials ruled that Henne was down a few inches short. That brought up a critical fourth down. Would the Chiefs keep the ball in Henne’s hands, or punt? They didn’t just go for it: They threw the ball, with Chad Freakin’ Henne, who completed a pass to Tyreek Hill to seal the win.
Chad Henne called game. pic.twitter.com/RNvvw2vjao— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) January 17, 2021
There’s an anecdote we bring up on this site nearly any time a backup quarterback is inserted into a game for a superstar and looks clearly overmatched: Former Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore was once asked why his team didn’t give more practice reps to Peyton Manning’s backup, and he responded, “We don’t practice fucked.” But with the best player in the game on the sideline on Sunday, it became clear that the Chiefs do practice fucked. When Henne came into the game, the Chiefs remained just as aggressive as they would’ve been with Mahomes. They took deep shots and passed on fourth down. The Browns clearly did not expect Henne to run or the Chiefs to call a passing play on fourth down with their backup quarterback—and who can blame them? You expect to lose to Patrick Mahomes; nobody expects to lose to Blake Bortles’s backup.
The fact the Chiefs employ Henne and not any number of younger, better players made it seem like they were punting on their backup QB situation. But when Henne came into the game, they didn’t punt—literally—and instead allowed him to show what he can do. And somehow, he did things he couldn’t even do when he was an actual starter.
Winner: Andy Reid’s Fourth-Down Gamble
Hold up, let’s go back. With the game on the line and his team up by five points, Andy Reid went for it on fourth-and-1 at midfield.
Out of shotgun.
And called a pass.
WITH HIS BACKUP QUARTERBACK.
Chad Henne called game. pic.twitter.com/RNvvw2vjao— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) January 17, 2021
Listen to Tony Romo screaming after the play worked. He sounds less like an NFL play-by-play guy and more an announcer at the NBA dunk contest after a player jumps over a car and two cheerleaders on hoverboards. (“IT’S OVER!!! THAT’S A 50! HE DUNKED A PUMPKIN!!! IT’S OVER!!!”) Romo has earned a reputation for being able to predict upcoming plays based on the way the teams line up before the snap. On this play, Romo was nearly certain the Chiefs were just trying to draw the Browns defenders offside to get a first down. After all, they were lined up in shotgun, and their body language seemed to indicate they weren’t ready to run a play. Romo was caught off guard—and so were the Cleveland Browns, who were actually playing in the game.
But nobody should have been surprised. The Chiefs ran this exact same play in almost this exact same scenario one month ago, albeit with Mahomes under center. On fourth-and-1 with 2:30 remaining in a six-point game against the Dolphins in December, the Chiefs lined up in shotgun and called a sprint-out pass to Hill. Different QB, but virtually the same game situation, presnap formation, and play:
On the one hand, this was one of the most aggressive fourth-down play calls any coach has ever made. According to Pro Football Reference, it seems to be the only time a team has had the lead with the ball on their own side of the field and thrown it on fourth down in the final 90 seconds of a game. But in another way, it was a tremendously easy play. The Browns were so convinced that Kansas City would play conservatively that they barely had a pass defense set up. Hill was wide open, and Henne can hit a wide-open receiver less than a yard downfield.
This comes just a week after the Steelers and Titans saw their seasons end after pathetic decisions to punt while trailing late. Pittsburgh and Tennessee needed points and voluntarily gave possession to their opponents. The Chiefs, on the other hand, had the lead and could’ve been in deep trouble if they were stopped on fourth down. But they were still smart enough to realize that their best chance at winning was to avoid voluntarily giving their opponent the ball. Once more coaches realize this, football will be a lot more fun. For now, though, Reid and the Chiefs can have this little secret for themselves. It might get them a couple of Super Bowls.
Winner: Strong-Armed QBs
The NFL’s final four is settled, and one thing is clear: You’re not gonna get to the Super Bowl by running. This week’s four games featured the top three teams in the NFL in passing yardage (the Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Bills) facing off against three of the top six teams in rushing yardage (the Browns, Ravens, and Saints), plus a fourth game that pitted the NFL’s leader in passing touchdowns (Aaron Rodgers) and a team that nearly had more rushing yardage than passing yardage in its first playoff game (the Rams). Guess who won all four games? That’s right—the teams that threw the damn ball.
Saturday’s opener featured Aaron Rodgers and Jared Goff, two Cal quarterbacks of entirely different calibers. Rodgers threw for 296 yards and two touchdowns; the Rams had 244 yards of total offense. Green Bay led all four teams playing this week in yardage (484) and points (32) and cruised to a comfortable 14-point win.
Saturday night’s game showcased Superhuman Arm King Josh Allen against speedy 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ league-leading running attack. Baltimore led the league with 3,071 rushing yards and was dead last in the NFL with 2,739 passing yards. The Bills called 18 pass plays in a row to open the game, and while Allen didn’t have his best day, he threw the game’s only offensive touchdown to give the Bills a 17-3 win and their first trip to the AFC championship game since the 1990s.
The Sunday matinee pitted the Chiefs, who led the NFL in passing yardage this season, against the Browns, who were third in rushing yardage. Backup Henne finished the job, but Mahomes created enough offense to win the game. He had more passing yardage in three quarters than Mayfield had in a whole game spent playing catchup. The Browns kept running until the very end—even while trailing by two scores, they had an 18-play, eight-minute touchdown drive, followed up by a seven-play, 12-yard drive that lasted four minutes. The Chiefs, meanwhile, were willing to throw the ball on fourth down even with their backup QB, sealing the 22-17 win. Mahomes did score a rushing touchdown, but he celebrated by throwing the ball to Kansas.
Chiefs TD and Mahomes LAUNCHES that ball during the celebration pic.twitter.com/dV2jIT89ZO— Going Deep Podcast (@goingdeep) January 17, 2021
The Sunday nightcap put two quarterbacking legends against each other in Tom Brady and Drew Brees. But the difference is that Brady can still throw, and the Buccaneers offense is built around it—they finished second in the NFL in passing yardage. Brady had two passing touchdowns and no picks in his team’s 30-20 win; Brees had one passing touchdown and three picks.
If I had to rank the NFL’s 32 quarterbacks in terms of throwing strength, I would put Allen, Mahomes, and Rodgers as the top three. Madden—our preeminent ranker of athletes’ physical attributes—generally agrees, putting Allen first, Mahomes second, and Rodgers fourth. We put so much effort into scouting quarterbacks—their mental acuity, their accuracy, their ability to read defenses, their damn hand sizes—and at the end of the day, it’s just Beef-Armed Big Boys powering their teams to the Super Bowl with Super Bombs. Let’s stop scouting the NFL draft combine and start scouting the javelin toss at the Olympics. Long live our Throw Kings; may they hurl meteors and explode any dinosaurs in their paths.
Loser: Retirement-Age Drew Brees
I once thought there was an argument for Drew Brees to be considered the greatest quarterback of all time, based on his statistical accomplishments. At that time (in 2018), he led the NFL in career passing yardage and passing completions and was en route to leading the NFL in passing touchdowns. Unfortunately, Tom Brady has now surpassed Brees in touchdowns and is less than a full season of stats away from catching him in yardage and completions. And while the 43-year-old Brady seems intent on playing for a while, the 42-year-old Brees seems done. NFL reporters have been hinting that this is Brees’s final season for months now, and Fox’s Jay Glazer added to the pile Sunday. If their reporting didn’t make it clear that Brees is retiring, his pitiful play on Sunday did.
Brees finished Sunday’s game 19-for-34 with 134 yards, a touchdown, and three interceptions. He’s played 244 career games for the Saints, and Sunday night was his second worst in terms of yards per attempt—he averaged just 3.9 yards per pass. Brees hadn’t thrown three picks in a game since 2016, and he’d never tossed three picks while throwing for so few yards. He looked totally incapable.
Devin White interception radio call pic.twitter.com/l1t5wzaUAM— Nick Sitro (@nicksitro) January 18, 2021
The Saints attempted only one pass deeper than 20 yards downfield, and it was thrown by backup quarterback Jameis Winston. Brees could barely throw the ball downfield all season—he finished 34th of 35 eligible QBs in average depth of target—and the team needed someone who could actually keep the defense honest over the top. It’s clear that the Saints would’ve been a pretty good team with or without Brees—they went 8-1 in the past two seasons in games he missed due to injury. But New Orleans wasn’t going to bench its franchise icon in what could’ve been the last game of his career.
After years of hauling crappy New Orleans defenses as far as they could go, Brees just held back a team that had more than enough talent to go deep in the postseason. I’ll remember Brees as a legend for his gaudy passing stats and his decades of consistency—but it looks like Brady will end up outlasting him this season and into the future.
Loser: Kicking GOAT Justin Tucker
Kicking is a job with binary outcomes. While a quarterback can make a “good” throw that gets dropped, or a “bad” throw that ends up as a completion, we grade them on a sliding scale. Could they have made a better play by throwing to someone else? Would a better throw have led to a better outcome? With kickers, though, there are just makes and misses. Everybody knows what they’re aiming at, and everybody knows whether they succeeded. And on Saturday, the Greatest Kicker of All Time missed, twice.
NFL kickers are better than ever, and Justin Tucker is the best kicker in the best kicking era of all time. When The Ringer’s Kevin Clark profiled Tucker in 2017, he was the most accurate kicker in NFL history, having made 89.8 percent of his career field goals. Now, he’s somehow raised that figure to 90.7 percent. (Morten Andersen, the only modern-era kicker in the NFL Hall of Fame, hit 79.7 percent of his career kicks.) Tucker was as good as ever in 2020, hitting 23 of his 24 attempts from within 50 yards.
But in the Ravens’ 17-3 loss to the Bills, the most accurate placekicker of all-time missed two kicks. Doinked ’em.
Al Michaels: "So here's (Justin) Tucker, who almost never misses."— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) January 17, 2021
And that's a doink. pic.twitter.com/wB7E6Jgeez
Tucker had never before missed multiple kicks from closer than 50 yards in the same game. He looked stunned after both, his eyes bugging out like Adam Gase while dealing with the New York media:
Justin Tucker can't believe Justin Tucker missed. pic.twitter.com/YiLbGuR47N— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) January 17, 2021
Tucker didn’t miss either by much. Some blamed the doinks on the wind in Buffalo, which also caused Bills kicker Tyler Bass to miss a pair of kicks and may have contributed to some overthrows by Josh Allen and Ravens backup Tyler Huntley. But look at the flags on top of the uprights during Tucker’s first kick. They’re motionless! We’re stuck blaming nonexistent wind, because what else could cause the great Justin Tucker to miss?
Loser: The Least Popular Rule in Football
The last time the Browns were anything close to great, they lost the 1987 AFC championship because Earnest Byner committed a late fumble on the 1-yard line that was recovered by the Broncos. Browns fans call it the Fumble, and it’s a disaster brutal enough to have its own Wikipedia page. In Sunday’s game, which would have gotten the Browns back to the AFC championship game with a win, we got The Fumble 2.0. Cleveland fumbled on the 1-yard line again in a game decided by less than a touchdown. The Chiefs didn’t recover, but it didn’t matter, as the Browns fell victim to football’s most-hated rule.
In the second quarter, Baker Mayfield completed a pass to Rashard Higgins a few yards away from the goal line. But when Higgins stretched out to get the ball into the end zone, Chiefs defender Daniel Sorensen knocked it away. The ball went out of the end zone, resulting in a touchback. (Sorensen also probably committed an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit on the play, but it wasn’t called and it wasn’t reviewable.)
Higgins se ESTICA para anotar o TD mas acaba sofrendo o fumble antes de cruzar o plano de goal...— NFL Brasil (@NFLBrasil) January 17, 2021
A bola saindo pela end zone resulta num touchback: bola dos @Chiefs na linha de 20! #RunItBack #NFLBrasil pic.twitter.com/F4bRLFQQWE
If a player fumbles the ball and it goes out of bounds anywhere between the two goal lines, the team that fumbled retains possession. (They get it at the spot of the fumble if it goes forward, and the spot where the ball goes out of bounds if it goes backward.) However, if a player fumbles the ball and it goes out in the opposing end zone, it is a turnover that gives the opponent the ball at their own 20-yard line.
The fumble-touchback rule is widely regarded as the worst rule in football. It is absurdly punitive to the fumbling team, and doesn’t even require the defense to recover the fumble to get the ball. In 2017, I wrote a post suggesting five possible workarounds to make the play more equitable to the fumbling team. The point of the fumble-touchback rule is that it preserves the all-important nature of the goal line, which is one of the most fundamental (and intriguing) things about the game. But it punishes teams for trying to score, creates an alternate set of rules, and turns a split-second mistake into a game-changing failure.
Sunday showed how devastating the fumble-touchback can be. It’s actually more valuable than a touchdown, if it happens to your opponent: When you score a touchdown, you get six points but have to give the other team the ball; on a fumble-touchback, the defense stops the opponent from scoring six points and gets the ball in decent field position. The Chiefs kept the Browns from scoring a TD and then went the other way and kicked a field goal; they eventually won by five points. If Higgins had scored this touchdown, Chad Henne would have had to lead the Chiefs down the field for a score instead of merely protecting a big lead.
People have been trying to get the NFL to change the fumble-touchback for years. But now, there’s a big, deeply bitter fan base that has fumble-touchback hatred seared into their brains. Cleveland already had the Fumble—I guess this one will be remembered as the Rule.
Loser: Bad Snaps
For some reason, every football play begins with the ball in the hands of a player who can’t advance it. The rule says that while the center must snap the ball, they aren’t allowed to pick it up and start running, or, in most formations, receive a pass. A center’s ability to snap the ball is not considered their primary skill—it’s basically a given that they should be able to routinely get the ball to the QB with no issues—and therefore centers are generally graded on their blocking ability.
But every once in a while, the simplest, most automatic aspect of football becomes an issue. And all season long, Baltimore’s centers have had trouble getting the ball back to Lamar Jackson—a trend that ended in disaster at the most critical juncture of the Ravens’ season.
Since 2018, Baltimore’s center has been Matt Skura. But in Week 9 this season, Skura had a bad snap against the Colts. Then in Week 10, he had three bad snaps against the Patriots. There were some excuses—Skura apparently had a cut on his thumb, and it was rainy and wet that day in New England—but while there’s no official “bad snaps” leaderboard, Skura was officially credited with four fumbles this season, tied for the most by any center since 1970.
So the Ravens made a change, opting to go with Patrick Mekari. Mekari notably struggled snapping the ball in 2019 after Skura went down with an injury, and he skidded a snap Week 15 against the Jaguars. Baltimore gave Skura a shot at winning the job back in Week 16, but Skura still couldn’t snap the ball right. So they went into the playoffs with Mekari—who ruined the Ravens’ chances of beating the Bills on Saturday with a series of brutal missteps.
Mekari had three bad snaps. One came in the first half, and Jackson saved it by turning the play into an incomplete pass. The second came with the Ravens trailing 10-3 and facing a first-and-goal from the 10-yard line. Jackson picked up the fumble and ran for a yard, but the Ravens had lost a critical play in a goal-to-go situation. Two plays later, Jackson threw a pick-six on a pass into the end zone, resulting in a 14-point swing in a game that was eventually decided by 14 points. And on the next drive, Mekari skied the ball over Jackson’s head. Jackson suffered a concussion after getting tackled in an attempt to chase the ball down and would not return.
It probably wouldn’t be fair to say something as simple as bad snaps cost Baltimore a game it lost 17-3. But one of those bad snaps made it harder for Baltimore to score a game-tying touchdown, which led to a touchdown for Buffalo; and another took the team’s MVP out of the game. When the most routine aspect of football became not-so-routine, the Ravens’ Super Bowl hopes ended.
Loser: Not-Quite-Healthy Players
Nobody is at 100 percent in the NFL playoffs. If you spend 16 weeks playing a sport as violent as football, you’re going to wind up hurt. Which leads to the hardest part of watching the playoffs: Seeing great players’ seasons come to an end because they’re too beaten up to stay great.
Aaron Donald is arguably the best player in the NFL. He is double-teamed more than any other defensive lineman, and he still finished tied for second in the league in sacks this season. Think about how ridiculous that is: Every NFL player is an incredible physical specimen, and Donald routinely dominates two of them at the same time. He won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2017 and 2018, and should join Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt as the only three-time winners. But he injured his rib cartilage in last week’s game against the Seahawks and was clearly limited Saturday against the Packers.
Donald finished the 32-18 loss with one tackle and no sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, Donald led all rushers in quarterback pressures this season with 98—nobody else had more than 76—and they credited him with at least three QB pressures in every game this season. Until Saturday, when he had only one. At one point in the game, he got frustrated and grabbed the face mask of Packers left guard Elgton Jenkins, resulting in a 15-yard penalty that turned a third-and-7 into a first down and helped boost a Green Bay scoring drive.
Aaron Donald with a dumb penalty.pic.twitter.com/mCgucctlQr— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) January 16, 2021
The Rams were going to let their best player take the field in the biggest game of the season unless he couldn’t walk. But with his injury, he wasn’t even their best option. Donald spent several critical plays on the sideline, something that would be unimaginable if he was fully healthy. As the game ended, Donald was seen crying on the sideline.
Aaron Donald is emotional on the sidelines. pic.twitter.com/lgrMRLtQZ9— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 17, 2021
On Saturday, the league’s toughest man was reduced to tears. He spent months and months dominating, but at the worst time, his body failed, and he was left watching as his team’s season ended.