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?
Editor’s note, January 17, 2022: This story has been updated to include Monday’s wild-card game between the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals.
Winner: The Perfect Game
If you were asked to find the greatest offensive game in NFL history, what would you look for? Would you pick the game where a team simply scored the most points—the Bears’ ruthless 73-0 win in the 1940 NFL championship game? But the Bears scored multiple defensive TDs in that game, which doesn’t really reflect on the offense. Maybe the better answer is something like yards per play. Maybe you’re some nerd who cherishes a game where a team set a record in expected points added. There are a lot of ways to define success.
But I’d argue that the answer is simple: The most perfect offensive game in NFL history should be one where an offense scores a touchdown every single time. It’s a game where an offense gains every single yard available to them, and scores every point that they could have scored. On Saturday, the Bills played that game.
Buffalo beat New England 47-17, and although the Bills didn’t set a scoring record and didn’t gain 500 yards, they were inarguably perfect offensively. The Bills scored seven touchdowns. Josh Allen didn’t throw any interceptions, and the team didn’t lose any fumbles. The Bills didn’t attempt any field goals or kick any punts. In fact, the Bills never even faced a fourth down. (Apologies to punter Matt Haack, who was forced to stand outside in the Buffalo cold for four hours and entered the game only to hold the football on extra points.) The only time the Bills got the ball on offense and didn’t score was when they kneeled to end the game. It was the first game in NFL history where a team didn’t turn the ball over, kick a field goal, or punt.
Allen seems to have evolved into his final form, a galloping giant who also throws perfect passes. He finished the game with more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four).
On top of his 300 passing yards, Allen also had 66 rushing yards, sprinting past some defenders, barreling through others, and turning one unfortunate Patriot’s legs into Jell-O.
Allen was unstoppable in the truest sense of the word—the Patriots did not stop him once. He was so good on Sunday that he even scored a touchdown on a play where he wasn’t trying to score a touchdown. He confirmed after the game that this pass was actually an attempt to throw the ball away. But it didn’t go far enough, and Dawson Knox caught it in the end zone:
Buffalo scored a touchdown on every single real offensive possession against a Patriots team that finished the season second in scoring defense, allowing just 17.8 points per game. (First in scoring defense: the Buffalo Bills.) This would have been a monumental performance even if it were against the Jacksonville Jaguars in a game where they were missing half their starters and Urban Meyer was making defensive play-calls from the dance floor of a fine dining establishment in Columbus, Ohio. Instead it was against Bill Freaking Belichick, a defensive legend who once again got his team to the postseason through the power of defense. The Bills beat the game on the hardest difficulty level.
I suppose the Bills could have been better—for example, if they’d scored a touchdown on every single play. But what they did isn’t a statistical oddity. Scoring a touchdown every single time is the goal of football. There is no beating a team that scores a touchdown every time, unless you also score a touchdown every time and convert more two-point conversions than the other team. This was The Perfect Game, and nobody had ever done it until the Bills. We can view it as a monument to statistical greatness—but the rest of the teams still alive in the playoffs have to view it as a warning.
Loser: Kliff Kingsbury
This seemed to be the season the Arizona Cardinals had dreamed of when they hired Kingsbury as their head coach and made Kyler Murray the top pick in the 2019 NFL draft. After two years of growth, they had finally emerged as a legitimate contender and were the last undefeated team in the NFL, with a 7-0 start. By the time they took their bye week in late November, they had beaten all three of their opponents in the NFC West by double digits, including a 37-20 whupping of the Rams.
But during Kingsbury’s time with the Cardinals, an unfortunate trend has emerged: He isn’t really interested in changing. He likes to line the same players up in the same positions and run the same plays, season to season, week to week. Other teams adjust, and Kliff doesn’t. Kingsbury is 24-24-1 as an NFL head coach, but in the first half of the season he is 15-8-1, and in the second half he is 9-16. This trend dates back to his time at Texas Tech, where his teams went 27-15 in their first seven games of the season and 8-25 after that. This season’s Cardinals turned a 10-2 start into an 11-6 finish.
Kingsbury’s first playoff game was an opportunity to rewrite the narrative, and the Cardinals were facing the same Rams team they’d manhandled in October. But that just meant that Los Angeles’s players seemed to know exactly what was coming. From the beginning, Kingsbury’s Cardinals were doomed. They managed only 40 yards of offense in the first half and quickly trailed 28-0. Murray looked utterly baffled, averaging just 4.0 yards per attempt and never throwing a touchdown—unless we’re counting his underhanded lob, which was returned for an extremely short pick-six by the Rams:
Perhaps most disappointing is the way Kingsbury didn’t seem interested in fighting—down 21-0 at the end of the first half, he chose to simply run out the clock instead of trying to get another possession back.
Yet another phenomenal start was enough to get the Cardinals to the playoffs for the first time under Kingsbury—but yet another dismal finish ensured that the hottest team of September and October petered out in January. I was thrilled when Kingsbury and Murray were united in Arizona, just months after the Texas Tech head coach had praised the Oklahoma quarterback. But Kingsbury’s lack of creativity seems to have doomed the endeavor. Something has to change in Arizona for this team to realize its potential—and Kingsbury seems deeply uninterested in changing anything.
Loser: Everybody Involved in the End of Niners-Cowboys
The NFL playoffs are supposed to be a showcase for the best of the best—the best players, the smartest coaches, the sharpest refs. But this is football—a game so brutally violent it makes the best players look sloppy; a sport so sadistically complicated it makes the smartest coaches look dumb; a sport so fast it makes the sharpest refs look clueless. There was no better example of this than Niners vs. Cowboys, a game between two teams with fun players that I was excited to watch in the postseason—and ended up being decided by who screwed up less late. Here are a bunch of things that happened in the fourth quarter alone.
In this sequence, the Cowboys successfully converted a fake punt … then left their punt team on the field for first down. It’s unclear what the strategy was—were they going to quickly snap the ball against a Niners defense that was expecting a change?—but it didn’t work. By the time the offense got on the field and the defense had substituted, the play clock had run out and there was a delay of game:
Cowboys fake a punt then went braindead pic.twitter.com/DEh7LYqc38— alex (@highlghtheaven) January 17, 2022
There was the play when it looked like George Kittle fumbled, giving Dallas a critical turnover late in the game—but as it turns out, Jimmy Garoppolo had missed the pass so badly that it was incomplete. He tried to throw a short pass to a massive and completely unguarded player in the flat, but instead wobbled a weak throw into the ground in front of Kittle. Because the pass was incomplete, the fumble never happened. One failure prevented another failure.
There was the time the Niners could have sealed the game with a QB sneak … but for some reason, brought offensive tackle Trent Williams in motion (???????) and Garoppolo called for the snap before Williams got set, resulting in a false start and forcing a Niners punt:
But then there was the coup de grace: Dallas’s final play, a QB draw with 14 seconds left and no timeouts. The Cowboys could have taken two shots at winning the game with throws to the end zone— but instead ran just one play, intentionally choosing one that would result in a running clock. The Cowboys tried to snap the ball before the clock expired, but by rule, weren’t allowed to snap the ball without an official getting the ball set. The official trying to set the ball crashed into Prescott as he frantically attempted to get to the line of scrimmage, and the Cowboys weren’t able to get off another play as the Niners won 23-17.
You might read this and think I had a bad time watching this game—but of all the games this weekend, this one was easily my favorite. You can’t love football without loving it when games go off the rails. The playoffs aren’t just an opportunity for us to see perfect play, as we did with the Bills. They’re also the largest possible platform for the slop we love.
Winner: The Billdo Toss
Bills fans have earned a reputation for doing a lot of things that don’t make a lot of sense. They like leaping through tailgating tables, sentencing perfectly good furniture to death to demonstrate their fandom. They believed that Josh Allen could become a good quarterback, even though the rest of us thought he was doomed. And then, of course, there is the story of one particular item that makes an annual journey from the bedroom to the football field. I’m talking, of course, of the Bills dildo.
Western New York’s favorite sex apparatus made its appearance Saturday night after a Kendrick Bourne touchdown that cut Buffalo’s lead from 30 to 23. After scoring, Bourne noticed the dildo on the ground in the end zone, and pointed it out to an official. (What did he want the ref to do? Throw a flag for ineligible manhood downfield?)
The dildo toss has become an annual tradition in Buffalo, dating back to 2016. The initial dildo tosser claims there wasn’t much logic behind it—he had bought the dildo for a Saturday-night costume party, and decided the next morning that it belonged with the Patriots. He’s been banned from the stadium, but that hasn’t prevented others from following in his footsteps. The Flying of the Phalluses now happens every single time the Bills play the Patriots.
Want to see a ref kick a dildo out of the end zone? pic.twitter.com/IkwTxp1ZbM— Nora Princiotti (@NoraPrinciotti) October 30, 2018
It is a baffling tradition. How do these fans get the dildos past stadium security? (Dildoes? If it were Italian, the plural would be dildi, but I don’t know the etymology here.) Are the dildos used or bought specifically for the purpose of throwing them on the field? Why only against the Patriots? Is there any symbolism here? Are they implying the Patriots are dildos? Are they saying New England needs to go screw themselves? Or is it just a dildo for dildos’ sake?
Regardless, the Bills Dildo Toss has become an iconic symbol of one of the best fan bases in football, and their uphill battle to seize control of a formerly one-sided rivalry. All their irrational behavior has paid off. All those tables died so Bills Mafia could watch their beautiful centaur of a QB lead Buffalo to glory, soaring past the Patriots through a cascade of dildos raining down from the stands.
Loser: AT&T Stadium
Baseball teams used to customize their stadiums to help out their team—they’d put a short fence in right field if they had a lefty slugger or put in artificial turf if the team had speedsters. Football teams don’t have that option since all fields must be regulation-sized. So instead, NFL stadiums are designed to maximize money. That explains this video from Sunday’s matchup between the Niners and the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium, one of the most expensive stadiums in the world when it was built. It’s a video of fans who purchased “party passes”—tens of thousands of standing-room-only tickets—sprinting into the stadium as soon as it opened, hoping to outrace their fellow fans for prime standing position. (“Party passes” cost about $200 for Sunday’s game.)
AT&T Stadium doors have opened for Cowboys vs. 49ers pic.twitter.com/OtewlvaL82— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) January 16, 2022
But the $1.2 billion spent on AT&T (including $325 million in taxpayer funds) didn’t buy common sense. The stadium is aligned east to west, unlike most football fields, which face north to south to prevent teams from having the sun in their eyes. This shouldn’t be a problem, since the stadium has a dome—but the building features massive windows on its west side. Since the Cowboys are often playing in the late afternoon, the playing field is often flooded in blinding light. It makes for brilliant photos, but terrible football, and the Cowboys have actually lost because of this before. The stadium’s architects claim that they put in the windows with the assumption that buildings would eventually be built to the west of the stadium, blocking out the sun, but 13 years after opening, there are still no plans for that to happen.
So Dallas is left with the only stadium in the league where players can be affected by sun. It’s incredible: All sorts of ancient civilizations built monuments designed around the position of the sun on certain dates, but Jerry Jones spent more than a billion dollars and never considered where the sun would be almost every time the Cowboys play. The sun once again affected the Cowboys on Sunday, as Dallas failed to pick up a critical first down before the half when Cedrick Wilson Jr. lost a pass in the sun:
poor Cedrick Wilson ducked because Dak Prescott may as well have thrown this from the surface of the sun pic.twitter.com/iHQYwHpTxU— Christian D'Andrea, 2021 PAC champion (@TrainIsland) January 16, 2022
But that wasn’t the only time Dallas’s expensive and strange stadium interfered with its players! In the third quarter, punter Bryan Anger kicked a ball off the Cowboys’ record-setting video board that looms over the field, forcing a rekick:
The punt really just hit the scoreboard!!! pic.twitter.com/yJncM87Fki— NFL UK (@NFLUK) January 16, 2022
This marks at least the fifth time the board has been hit by a punt. Only exceptional arrogance could create this stadium. The Cowboys somehow managed to build a stadium that can provide a disadvantage for players on the field—it’s only right that they be the ones who suffer from their own building’s needless flaws. On the plus side, they sold a lot of party passes!
For the second year in a row, the NFL broadcast one of its wild-card games on Nickelodeon. I’ll say the same thing about the broadcast itself that I said last year—like the Manning-cast, the Nickelodeon playoff broadcast is a breath of fresh air in a sport whose league-approved media coverage can be overly stuffy, and an actual useful tool in explaining this preposterously complex sport to the next generation of fans. However, there was one issue with last year’s Nickelodeon broadcast: Despite plenty of CGI slime, no players received a Double Dare–style bucket of slime to their head.
This year’s Nick game was Niners-Cowboys, a bonkers game that was best explained by frequent on-field SpongeBob graphics. (Also, luckily, a game in which children would not have to witness a dildo appearing on the field.) And Nick actually brought a massive slime tank to douse players:
The slime tank is perched by the eastern end zone. The CBS production truck is monitoring Dak warmups beside cartoons. And 82.5 gallons of bubbling slime await in the tunnels..https://t.co/moHlEv59qX pic.twitter.com/cqiC0OA1Qj— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) January 16, 2022
Unfortunately, there was no slime bath on the broadcast. For the second straight year, the “NVP” Award (this apparently stands for “Nickelodeon Valuable Player”) was decided by online vote, and once again went to the losing quarterback—last year Mitch Trubisky, this year Dak Prescott. And it would have been pretty rude to force Dak to enter the slime tank after the L. The broadcast ended with goofy cartoon faces on Mike McCarthy:
Luckily, Niners fullback Kyle Juszczyk bravely volunteered to enter the tank postgame:
But I believe there’s still room for improvement: Juszczyk was too composed and prepared for his slime, which in my opinion, defeats the entire purpose of sliming. We need to eliminate the online NVP vote and actually stun the best player on the best team with a Gatorade cooler of slime as soon as the final whistle blows.
Loser: The Whistle
If you simply watch the play below, it will look like a normal touchdown play highlighted by an incredible Joe Burrow throw as he was falling out of bounds. However, you might notice that some of the defenders trailing Tyler Boyd seem to give up on the play a touch early instead of going 100 percent to stop their opponent from scoring a TD during a playoff game. It’s when you listen to the play that you realize why it’s controversial. Just before Boyd catches the ball, a referee’s whistle blows.
When a whistle blows, players are supposed to stop. Therefore, one of the worst mistakes an official can make is blowing their whistle too early, causing players to stop in their tracks, invalidating the rest of the play. “When an official sounds an inadvertent whistle,” Mark Schultz wrote at officiating blog Football Zebras, “he immediately wants to disappear.” The NFL’s rule book is very clear about what is supposed to happen in the case of an inadvertent whistle: Anything that occurs after the whistle doesn’t count. In the case of a whistle blown during a forward pass, the teams must replay the down.
Saturday night, though, the Bengals and Raiders did not replay the down. Despite the early whistle, officials let the touchdown stand. We can debate all day whether or not the whistle affected the play—it looks like the Raiders defenders were beaten on the play fair and square, and they may have given up early because they had no chance, rather than because they heard a whistle. But what’s clear is that according to the rule book, the play should not have counted. The Bengals ended up winning by seven points, 26-19, securing their first playoff win since 1991.
After the game, NFL officiating boss Walt Anderson told a pool reporter that the crew had concluded that the whistle was blown after the catch, and that it was not reviewable. Two of those things are true—the refs did come to that conclusion, and it’s not reviewable. But Anderson didn’t acknowledge the obvious truth, which is that the whistle did come before the catch.
When the whistle blew, the NFL and its officials had two options: Either invalidate a touchdown due to referee error, or pretend that the referee error never happened. The first probably would’ve been unfair to the Bengals, who seemed to have scored a perfectly good touchdown. But the second feels even more sinister. The only thing worse than screwing up is pretending that the screw-up everybody knows about never happened.
Loser: The Cold
The Bills were favored against the Patriots, and for good reason—Buffalo led the AFC in scoring offense and scoring defense this season. But it still felt like the Patriots had a chance because of what happened the first time these teams met this year. In Week 13, Bill Belichick prepared for Buffalo’s windy weather and crafted a game plan around running the ball, running it again, and running it more. The Patriots had the second-fewest passing attempts of any team in any game since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 and still won.
That game seemed like it would matter heading into Saturday night, because Buffalo’s weather was once again brutal. It was 7 degrees in Buffalo at kickoff with a wind chill below 0. Would Belichick master the cold? Does Josh Allen throw the ball too hard to succeed in cold weather? Do the Bills need a quarterback more suited to Buffalo’s environment?
The Bills were completely unfazed. Meanwhile, Florida-born, Alabama-trained rookie quarterback Mac Jones seemed entertained by the concept of visible breath:
Mac Jones trying to listen to Josh McDaniels, but too fascinated looking at his own breath: pic.twitter.com/pwZUFxz6sV— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) January 16, 2022
What, you thought people who live and work in Buffalo were going to struggle in the cold? Belichick has mastered the wind and the rain—clearly, he has yet to make the cold into his ally.
Loser: The 7-Seed
Last year the NFL added a seventh team to each conference’s playoff bracket, meaning there are now six games in the first round of the playoffs instead of four! More football!
Unfortunately, the teams playing the extra games are roughly the 13th- and 14th-best teams in the NFL. First up: The 9-8 Eagles, who have the honor of being the last team to lose to Joe Judge’s Giants before Judge got himself fired by losing all six of his final games in blowouts. The Eagles were 0-6 this season against teams that qualified for the playoffs—and now they’re 0-7, after losing to the Buccaneers. The final score was 31-15, but it was 31-0 after Mike Evans somersaulted into the end zone:
Having a FLIPPIN' good time— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) January 16, 2022
*sorry, couldn't resist pic.twitter.com/lFnZNfLNHC
Next up were the 9-7-1 Steelers, who tied the 3-13-1 Lions and had the seventh-worst regular-season point differential of any playoff team in NFL history. Pittsburgh had to play last year’s AFC champions, the Chiefs, less than a month after Kansas City beat Pittsburgh 36-10. Pittsburgh scored first, but Kansas City went up 35-7, and had time to bust out the trickiest of trick plays by the end:
The dominance was so thorough that Kansas City’s stadium ran out of fireworks to celebrate the touchdowns. (It’s the second time this has happened in three seasons—honestly, the Chiefs’ pyro person needs to do a better job of stocking up given that their team’s QB is Patrick Mahomes.)
Nobody expected anything different. Everybody thought Ben Roethlisberger’s career would be over at the end of the regular season, but a few things broke Pittsburgh’s way and they sneaked into the AFC’s final playoff spot. He swore that he’d try to “go in and have fun” against an admittedly better team—but Sunday’s beatdown didn’t look particularly fun.
It’s true that the addition of the 7-seeds has made the end of the regular season a bit more entertaining—but the actual playoff part hasn’t been fun. Two-seeds are now 4-0 against 7-seeds, and neither of Sunday’s games were particularly close. Two years ago, these teams would’ve all been sitting during the first week of the playoffs—two on a bye, two on a beach somewhere after their season was over. Making them play hasn’t added much to the postseason.
Winner: Big-Man Victory Cigars
The Bills and Chiefs will play next week in a rematch of last year’s AFC championship game, in a contest that very well could decide who will win the Super Bowl. This week, they waged proxy wars against each other—Buffalo scored 47 points on the Patriots in their Perfect Game, and Kansas City scored 42 against Pittsburgh. Both teams didn’t just win by a lot—they displayed their dominance by getting their big men involved. Buffalo’s final touchdown was a pass to Tommy Doyle, a 6-foot-8, 320-pound lineman:
The touchdown led to the undisputed highlight of wild-card weekend: Doyle leaping into the stands, a fan’s Cheesehead-styled Buffalo Wing hat coming off, Bills lineman Ryan Bates picking it up, attempting to put it over his helmet, and screaming, “I’M A FUCKING CHICKEN WING.”
Somehow, in a game that featured SEVEN Bills touchdowns and the end of the Patriots season, the absolute moment of the night for me was Ryan 'Rick' Bates (@52batesryan) during Tommy Doyle's leap into the stands.— J.T. Messinger (@JTMessinger) January 16, 2022
It's...it's perfect. @WGRZ #BillsMafia pic.twitter.com/AnVQhPZc49
The Chiefs, of course, had to counter with a Big Man Touchdown of their own, and also scored one with a massive lead. Up 21-7, they ran this play, which actually features a remarkable offensive innovation, for guard Nick Allegretti. He stayed in as a blocker, then suddenly hurled soon-to-be Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt to the side, turned around, and caught a touchdown. Stunningly, this is totally legal. Even if the pass had already been thrown, it would have been legal, since there’s no such thing as pass interference behind the line of scrimmage. Teams should build an offense out of 300-pounders tossing defenders to the ground and catching passes:
There have now been eight receiving touchdowns by offensive linemen in NFL playoff history, and we got two of them this weekend. It’s remarkable that this achievement came just three weeks after linemen set a record for most receiving touchdowns in a week—as I said, these large targets are especially valuable late in the season, when their excess mass allows them to keep warm. Clearly, next week’s Bills-Chiefs matchup will be won by the team that does the best job integrating its best and largest athletes into the offensive game plan.