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: The Arm vs. the Résumé
A great sports debate can’t be ended easily. Maybe it has a few different answers based on which criteria you use; maybe it has one answer this year, one answer next year, and a different answer in 10 years. Fortunately, when the Buccaneers and Chiefs play in the Super Bowl in two weeks, we’ll get to yell about another great sports debate: Who’s the greatest quarterback ever?
Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time—for now. After Sunday’s NFC championship win over Green Bay, Brady will appear in his record-setting 10th Super Bowl. This will be the 55th Super Bowl in NFL history, and Brady will have appeared in 18 percent of them. But the nature of this trip really cements his legacy: He left the Patriots after winning six Super Bowls in New England, and in his first year in Tampa Bay, he took a team that hadn’t even made the playoffs since the 2007 season all the way to the title game. If he wins, it’ll be his seventh championship—somehow, this feels like a cross-sport Michael Jordan zing—and he’ll be the second QB ever to win titles with two different teams. (The other is Peyton Manning, who was good.) It almost doesn’t matter that Brady didn’t play particularly well against Green Bay (he threw three interceptions and had just 78 yards passing in the second half). His résumé is based on wins, and he got another one Sunday.
But while Brady has the rings, Patrick Mahomes seems like he could be the greatest because … well, have you watched him play football? He’s unlike anybody ever. In Mahomes’s first season as a starter, he won NFL MVP; in his second season as a starter, he led back-to-back-to-back playoff comebacks and won the Super Bowl. Sunday, he led another comeback: The Chiefs fell into a 9-0 hole against the Bills after an embarrassing special teams snafu gifted Buffalo a touchdown. But it never seemed like Kansas City was in trouble. Mahomes threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, and the Chiefs won 38-24. Mahomes seems inevitable, like there’s no hole he can’t climb out of. (And to think we were worried about him having turf toe tonight!)
If Mahomes loses in the Super Bowl, it will be his second postseason loss against Brady in two tries, after the 2019 AFC championship game. And while Mahomes will have plenty of opportunities to prove himself as the most incredible quarterback ever to throw a ball, he won’t have that many more to beat Brady, who is 43. It will set the narrative that Brady simply couldn’t be beat in the postseason. If Mahomes wins, he’ll have two championships in three years as a starter, with no signs of slowing down.
We don’t always get a Super Bowl matchup like this: Nick Foles, Jared Goff, and Jimmy Garoppolo have been Super Bowl starting QBs the past few seasons. Sure, it’s reductive to yell about two players who don’t actually take the field against one another—and after 20 years, we’re surely all a bit tired of hearing about Brady’s greatness. (Except, of course, for New England fans, who for some reason are deeply invested in continuing to celebrate Brady even though he left the Patriots for a better team.) But this season has been a testament to these two different forms of greatness—Brady’s inexplicable ability to keep winning, long past his supposed expiration date; and Mahomes’s unprecedented ability to throw passes nobody else has ever been able to throw. It’s the greatest of all time vs. the greatest of right now. I try to resist GOAT arguments, but I can’t wait.
Loser: Kevin King
One guy shows up in every highlight of the Buccaneers’ offense from Sunday, and it’s not Tom Brady. It’s Kevin King—who, unfortunately, is a cornerback for the Green Bay Packers. Here King is mistiming his jump on Brady’s first-quarter touchdown pass to Mike Evans, flailing at a ball sailing over his head.
And you can see him showing up at the end of this second-quarter Leonard Fournette touchdown run, after the Buccaneers running back hurdled one Packers defender and spun away from another. King sprinted across the field, just to serve as a pillow for Fournette’s butt as the running back crossed the goal line.
Here King is getting absolutely toasted by Buccaneers slot receiver Scotty Miller just before halftime. At one point, King and Miller are running side by side. But Miller hits the accelerator, and King is out of gas, watching as yet another touchdown flies over his head.
And finally, he committed a critical pass interference penalty on Buccaneers receiver Tyler Johnson, which essentially ended the game. Beaten for the last time in the 2020 season, he decided to test how stretchy NFL jerseys are. (Stretchy enough for refs to notice, apparently.)
Pretty hard to complain about the Kevin King PI call when you see it like this. pic.twitter.com/VqF4wUvuyA— Emmanuel Acho (@EmmanuelAcho) January 24, 2021
The Packers have one good cornerback, Jaire Alexander, who was named second-team All-Pro this season. According to Pro Football Focus, opposing quarterbacks who targeted Alexander this season completed 50.7 percent of their passes and had a 68.3 passer rating. King, the team’s other starting cornerback, allowed a 68.6 percent completion percentage and a 105.8 percent passer rating when targeted. PFF graded Alexander as the no. 2 cornerback in coverage this season; King ranked 152nd.
At the beginning of the season, Alexander primarily shadowed opposing teams’ best receivers. But around midseason, Alexander switched to playing left cornerback almost exclusively, with King lining up on the other side. There is a strategy to having elite cornerbacks play sides instead of following receivers. Richard Sherman, notably, has generally played left cornerback both with Seattle and with San Francisco. A great cornerback will typically play the left side, because right-handed quarterbacks will often have their first reads to the right side of the field. But that strategy can look pretty dumb on days like Sunday, when the opposing team simply keeps throwing at the guy who sucks. (I’ll never forget Washington spending big money to sign Josh Norman in 2016, only to keep him on the left side in his first game while Antonio Brown torched Bashaud Breeland.) Alexander was perfect Sunday: He was targeted four times, and allowed no catches while picking off two of Tom Brady’s passes. Meanwhile, throws to King were 4-for-7 with two touchdowns—and Evans dropped another big gainer while King flailed at his feet.
King doesn’t deserve all the blame for the Packers’ loss. For starters, he came into the game with a back injury. And that third touchdown should probably be pinned on Green Bay defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who inexplicably opted to defend the middle of the field with less than 10 seconds remaining in the half, when the Buccaneers’ only option was to try and score a touchdown. (The ol’ Gregg Williams special.) King never should’ve been left in one-on-one coverage with Miller, who ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at his pro day.
But still: King wound up in the background of Tampa Bay’s biggest plays time and time again, like he’s Bernie Sanders in those Inauguration Day memes. King will be remembered as a critical part in the Bucs’ NFC championship victory and become the least popular thing in Wisconsin since veganism.
Winner: Byron Leftwich and Eric Bieniemy
Six of this year’s seven NFL head coaching openings have been filled, and none of them went to Black coaches. In a league whose players are predominantly Black, there are now just two Black head coaches. Two out of 31. There are more NFL head coaches named Matt than NFL head coaches who are Black. One factor here (among many others) is systemic bias in the coaching pipeline: The vast majority of NFL head coaches were previously offensive coordinators, and the vast majority of offensive coordinators were previously quarterbacks, and Black men have been shuttled away from playing quarterback for decades.
This season, there were only two Black offensive coordinators in the NFL—two out of 32. They were Tampa Bay’s Byron Leftwich and Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy. (There will be more next year—Marcus Brady is joining the Colts, and Anthony Lynn is joining the Lions.) Incidentally, the NFL’s two Black offensive coordinators coordinated the no. 1 and no. 2 offenses in passing yardage this season. And now the NFL’s only two Black offensive coordinators will face off in the Super Bowl.
Leftwich’s and Bieniemy’s successes don’t mean the NFL’s hiring processes will change overnight—or at all, necessarily. One Black coach shouldn’t have to win to prove that other Black coaches deserve jobs. That’s not how that works. But Black coaches are winning, and have won in the past. Black head coaches have won Super Bowls before. Black offensive coordinators have won Super Bowls before. Black quarterbacks have won Super Bowls before. (Bieniemy and Patrick Mahomes combined to win a Super Bowl … last year.) The thing that has kept Black men from being head coaches has never been their coaching skills. Even as Black coaches succeed, even as the league trumpets its commitment to racial equality, the coaching carousel is once again coming to a stop without any Black head coaches having been hired so far. Bieniemy has been an obvious coaching prospect for two cycles now, and unlike many of Andy Reid’s previous offensive coordinators, he has not gotten a head job; Leftwich did not even get any interviews for head coaching positions this year.
But Leftwich and Bieniemy making it to the NFL’s championship game defies the long odds against Black coaches. Two of the league’s 32 offensive coordinators this season were Black men; and two of the two Super Bowl offensive coordinators are Black men. It’s a triumph that summarizes a problem the NFL should be ashamed of.
A weird quirk of history is that no NFL team has ever hosted a Super Bowl. There have been some close calls—the 49ers played a Super Bowl at Stanford Stadium, which is actually closer to San Francisco than the 49ers’ current stadium in Santa Clara; the L.A. Rams once played a Super Bowl at the Rose Bowl—but it’s kind of incredible that out of the first 108 Super Bowl teams, none managed to play a game in their home stadium. The NFL typically awards Super Bowls to warm-weather cities, like Miami, Phoenix, and New Orleans, and the most dominant teams in the league’s history are teams like the Packers, Patriots, and Steelers, who play up north. (I was genuinely hoping the Vikings would get to play in the Minnesota-hosted Super Bowl a few years ago, but they lost to the Eagles in the NFC championship game.)
But now the streak has been broken. This year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will play the Super Bowl in the shadow of their beloved novelty pirate ship. (It’s not a real pirate ship—she’s made of concrete, I assure you she will sink!) This will be the third ever Super Bowl played at Raymond James Stadium, and the fifth in Tampa—but of course, the Buccaneers have always been trash. They actually have the worst all-time win-loss record in NFL history. But all that was before Tampa Tom showed up to his pre-retirement community.
The sports world revolves around Tampa now: The Lightning won the Stanley Cup last year, the Rays made the World Series, and for some reason, the Toronto Raptors currently play in Tampa. (Can I get futures odds on the USF Bulls winning the NCAA Tournament?) And it happens at a time when none of this matters: There’s a pandemic. The Lightning hoisted the trophy in an empty stadium in Edmonton; the Rays’ World Series was played entirely in Dallas. Super Bowl week will hopefully be subdued, because no party is important enough to risk spreading a deadly virus, and attendance will be limited to a few thousand tickets, ensuring that only the wealthiest natives of the Tampa–St. Pete–Clearwater metropolitan area get to attend. (Tampanians? Tampa Bayniacs?)
Normally, we’d assume that getting to host the Super Bowl would be a major boon for a team, but home-field advantage has been almost nil in primarily empty NFL stadiums—in fact, home teams were slightly more likely to lose than win this season. The Buccaneers will be the first team to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium, and it may not matter a whole lot. (Unless Patrick Mahomes has some pirate-centric phobia and gets spooked by those guys who stand on the fake pirate ship in pirate clothes and shoot off the cannons. Which would probably be the only chance anyone has of stopping him.)
Loser: NFL Coaching Cowardice
This is the third straight week I’m writing about a fourth-down decision. Maybe it’s a bit simplistic to keep boiling football down to these individual calls, but I can’t stress enough how important—and easy—these choices are. In one-possession games, with a team’s season on the line, coaches have to make the most of every chance they get.
But Sunday, the coaches of the two teams that lost inexplicably decided not to. First, let’s talk about the Buffalo Bills. Twice, they faced fourth-and-short situations while trailing by 12—and both times, head coach Sean McDermott opted to kick field goals. With a Super Bowl berth at stake, against the best offense in the sport, they decided to cut a two-possession lead to … a two-possession lead. The Bills seemingly understand that going for it on fourth down can work—they converted 80 percent of their fourth-down attempts this year, and were 2-for-2 on Sunday night. But McDermott seems to freeze up in critical situations: The Bills attempted 16 red zone field goals this year, the fourth most in the league, while choosing to go for it in the red zone just four times. This is bad against anybody, but it’s ridiculous against Patrick Mahomes—you simply can’t settle for field goals against someone who scores so efficiently. His average drive is worth more points than your field goal.
Then there’s the Packers, whose coaching cowardice made the Bills look downright bold. Trailing the Bucs by eight points with 2:05 remaining, Green Bay faced a fourth-and-goal from the 8-yard line. Rather than going for it, though, Packers coach Matt LaFleur opted to kick a field goal which cut the lead to five. They needed to score a touchdown, and were 8 yards from the end zone. Instead they kicked a field goal, meaning they … still needed a touchdown, but didn’t have the ball anymore. They’d never touch it again.
Aaron Rodgers was displeased with the choice:
Aaron Rodgers on Matt LaFleur's decision to kick the FG late in the 4th qtr:— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) January 25, 2021
"It wasn't my decision." pic.twitter.com/eZVuCD1igY
After the game, Rodgers seemed to float the idea that he might play someplace besides Green Bay. It’s entirely possible that the last image we’ll ever see of the legendary Rodgers in a Packers uniform is him trotting off the field so his coach can cut an eight-point lead to five.
Of all the teams to be in this situation and kick, it’s particularly stunning that it was the Packers. Green Bay had the best red zone offense in NFL history this season, scoring 48 touchdowns on 60 trips. They didn’t pull that off by settling. On fourth downs inside the 10-yard line this season, the Packers were one of seven NFL teams that went for it (five times) more often than they kicked field goals (twice). But on Sunday, they kicked twice inside the 10-yard line and never attempted a fourth-down conversion. Why did they lose their courage in the biggest game of the year?
Last week, we celebrated the Chiefs for going for it on fourth down. They had the lead, and their backup QB was in the game, but they knew that going for it gave them the best chance to win. They threw the ball with Chad Henne on fourth down. The Packers kicked a field goal, sending Aaron Freakin’ Rodgers to sit on the sideline to watch his team lose.
It’s so strange. Normally, there is an oceanic gap between what Analytics Nerds and Drunk Armchair Fans want from football—but on the issue of fourth downs while trailing, both groups scream GO FOR IT! And yet, Football Guys (a group that contains most of the NFL’s head coaches) can’t wrap their head around the idea of trying to score as many points as possible when you’re trailing. NFL coaches ask their players to give 100 percent—and then, in these critical moments, they settle. I hope McDermott and LaFleur spend the offseason truly savoring the nine points they earned by kicking Sunday. Though those points probably won’t make them feel as good as the trophies they didn’t fully try to win.
Loser: Officiating Chippiness
I think Bills-Chiefs may have set a record for Most Unpunished Chippiness in an NFL Game. It started early in the contest, when Chiefs defensive end Chris Jones punched Bills guard Jon Feliciano. Do you know how hard you have to punch a 325-pound guy to knock him over? That’s, like, two Conor McGregors. (Although it’s apparently kind of easy to knock McGregor over via punch, so maybe that’s a bad example.)
I assume Feliciano hit the ground with a massive THUD, but the refs apparently didn’t see it or feel the ground shake under their feet, as Jones wasn’t called for a penalty. Later, Jerry Hughes almost shoved Patrick Mahomes into a heater. It wasn’t a particularly violent play, but I’m raising an alarm because we were very close to the NFL’s best player getting pretty badly burned. Not metaphorically—it was less “Kevin King in single coverage” and more “Shireen Baratheon.”
Mahomes got really close to that heater. pic.twitter.com/oW0OFfXgt3— gifdsports (@gifdsports) January 25, 2021
So both teams got madder and madder at each other. And eventually, with three minutes left in the fourth quarter, a late hit by the Chiefs led to Josh Allen throwing a football at Kansas City defensive end Alex Okafor’s head, which led to Okafor getting up in Allen’s face, which led to Feliciano decking Okafor and Bills offensive tackle Dion Dawkins trying to rough him up.
Feliciano and Dawkins coming to Josh Allen’s defense. pic.twitter.com/zAQYWcZ9Y1— Bradley Gelber (@BradleyGelber) January 25, 2021
The result of this melee was … nothing. Refs called unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on Okafor and Allen, and unnecessary roughness penalties on Feliciano and Dawkins. And even though three of those penalties were on the Bills and one was on the Chiefs, the penalties offset. Personal fouls override regular penalties—if the offense is in an illegal formation, but the defense punches the offense, the offense gets a first down. But any number of personal fouls offset. So as long as somebody on the other team commits unsportsmanlike conduct, you essentially have football immunity (although you can still be ejected from the game). It’s tough: Would we actually like it if—in the middle of one of the most important games of the year—one team lost 30 or more yards of field position because more of their players were involved in a fight than players from the other team? I don’t know, but it feels like “nothing you do matters as long as somebody on the other team did something bad” isn’t a good strategy.
The rest of the game was ugly: The Bills got at least one more unnecessary roughness flag, and more could’ve been called on both teams. The refs let things get out of hand—but at least Patrick Mahomes didn’t get incinerated.