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?
Loser: The 1-13 New York Jets
When people asked me why I wanted my Jets to go 0-16 this season, I told them about the last NFL game I attended as a fan. It was Week 17 of the 2007 season, and the 3-12 Jets were hosting the 4-11 Chiefs. The windchill was zero. I stayed until the end and cheered—like an idiot—when Mike Nugent hit the game-winning field goal in overtime. As a result of that win, the Jets dropped from third to sixth in the NFL draft order. (I’m sorry, I’ve written about this on this site before. But it really haunted me.)
The Falcons ended up getting that no. 3 pick, and with it, they selected Matt Ryan, a QB who’s gone to four Pro Bowls, won an MVP, and led the Falcons to a Super Bowl appearance. With that no. 6 pick, Jets selected Vernon Gholston, who never even recorded a sack in three years with the team. The Jets might have won the Super Bowl with Ryan instead of Mark Sanchez on the Rex Ryan–coached teams that made back-to-back AFC Championship games, but it didn’t happen because of one win that I was dumb enough to cheer for.
On Sunday, the Jets won another game that could contribute to the next few decades of Jets failure. Entering this week, the 0-13 Jets were in line to draft Trevor Lawrence, the best college quarterback prospect I’ve ever seen. All they had to do was not pull off one of the biggest upsets in NFL history.
Through 13 miserable games, New York had done its job, losing every single contest in sometimes remarkable, dramatic, or come-from-ahead fashion. But Sunday, on the road against the likely playoff-bound Rams, the Jets faltered. The Jets were 17-point underdogs—but went up 17 points early in the third quarter, a lead that even they couldn’t blow. I watched in terror as they kept winning. Former Jets savior Sam Darnold kept throwing dimes; ancient Frank Gore kept grinding.
The Rams had a chance to tie the game in the fourth, but rather than attempting a game-tying field goal, coach Sean McVay elected to try for a deep pass. Safety Marcus Maye broke it up, and the Rams never touched the ball again. I will never forgive McVay for this. A few years ago he was hailed as a game-changing genius and the hot nominee for coach of the millennium; Sunday he was outcoached by Adam Gase, a harebrained doofus who has concocted a secret eight-man committee for calling plays.
The Jets are just the fifth team in NFL history to win as 17-point underdogs. The Dolphins did it Week 17 of last year; before that, nobody had done it since 1995. (No team has ever won as an underdog of 18 or more points according to the Pro-Football-Reference database.)
It is hard to suffer through this kind of a season without getting a reward at the end. Before this year, eight NFL teams had started their seasons 0-13. (Last year’s Jets, remarkably, managed to keep the Bengals from an 0-12 start.) Only three of those eight managed to finish the season winless—but seven of the eight still got the no. 1 pick in the NFL draft. (The only outlier: the 1986 Indianapolis Colts, who finished the season 3-13, missed out on drafting Vinny Testaverde, and were unable to agree to terms on a contract with future All-Pro linebacker Cornelius Bennett.) But the Jets might screw it up. Going 1-15 used to make you a joke for years to come, but now that teams understand the value of tanking, even that record isn’t necessarily bad enough to cement the top pick.
The Jets are now tied with the Jaguars for the NFL’s worst record at 1-13, but New York has been significantly worse this season—Jacksonville has been outscored by 148; New York has been outscored by 207. But that doesn’t matter. The tiebreaker in the race to the bottom is strength of schedule, and the Jags have played a much easier group of opponents. Now I have to root for the Jaguars to win one of their final two games, and after talking to people who root for the Jaguars, it does not sound fun.
If this sounds like a lot of heartache over one prospect, well, it is. But this particular prospect is worth it. Lawrence’s arm strength and accuracy are both off the charts; he has a prototypical quarterback’s body and surprising mobility for a huge guy; he had the poise to win the national championship game as a freshman. He even has great hair. (As we’ve seen with Justin Herbert’s rise and subsequent post-haircut struggles, this is a big deal.) There are multiple quarterbacks analysts also love in this draft class—Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson, NDSU’s Trey Lance—but as a Jets fan, this completely terrifies me. Lawrence is so perfect that even the Jets can’t screw him up, but I know in my heart that if the Jets pick second, they will somehow select the one prospect who will be a complete bust.
In a way, the Jets’ win Sunday was a testament to the uncertainty of the NFL. An 0-13 team won a road game against a squad that was leading one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL. And yet, it cemented my belief in the doomed nature of Jets fandom more than anything else since I first cursed myself by putting on a green jersey. When even your wins feel like losses, you’ll always be sad.
Winner: The Oklahoma Sooners
Sunday wasn’t a great day for fans of the current edition of the Oklahoma Sooners. Their last-ditch hopes of making the College Football Playoff fell short, as it turns out going 8-2 and winning the Big 12 is less impressive than going 10-1 and getting completely obliterated in the ACC championship game. Cheer up, Sooners—at least you’re not permanently doomed to miss the playoffs even if you go undefeated! But it was a pretty awesome day for Sooners in the NFL.
On Sunday afternoon, Oklahoma’s quarterback from the 2019 season squared off against the team’s quarterback from the 2018 season, as new Eagles QB1 Jalen Hurts made his second NFL start against Kyler Murray’s Cardinals. The result was one of the most fun games of the year: Hurts and Murray combined for 744 passing yards and six touchdowns against one interception—plus 92 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground. With just one field goal and one safety filling out the rest of the 33-26 final, Hurts and Murray accounted for 54 of the 59 points scored in the game.
If the Pride of Oklahoma Marching Band had been at the game and played “Boomer Sooner” after every touchdown by Murray or Hurts, every successful extra point, and every first down by their offenses—I think this is the formula—they would have played Boomer Sooner at least 60 times.
The two former Oklahoma players have revitalized their teams. The Cardinals were 3-13 before drafting Murray, and now they’re playoff-bound. The Eagles hadn’t scored 20 points in four games before making the switch from Carson Wentz to Hurts, and now they’ve done it in back-to-back games. Murray and Hurts were never Sooner teammates, but they shared a moment postgame:
But that’s not all! The prime-time Sunday Night Football game between the Browns and the Giants pitted Sooner legend Baker Mayfield against Texas Longhorn legend Colt McCoy. (Incredible stuff—a guy who won the Heisman Trophy against a guy who got invited to New York to watch other people win the Heisman Trophy.) Mayfield went 27-for-32 with two touchdowns; McCoy’s Giants never found the end zone. Mayfield had five incompletions; the Giants had six points.
USC used to be QBU, but Oklahoma has soared to the top of any objective ranking. Their last three starters are guys who transferred in and became NFL starters. That alone gives them more active NFL starting QBs than any other school—Cal and Louisville have two each. And there’s no reason to expect it to stop: Their current QB, Spencer Rattler, should be one of the top QB prospects in the 2022 NFL draft. Sunday was a great day to be an Oklahoma fan watching the pros—but a lot of Sundays probably will be from now on.
Loser: Drew Brees’s Comeback
The Saints got Drew Brees back just in time for a potential Super Bowl preview against the Chiefs. The game pitted the NFL’s all-time passing yardage leader against Patrick Mahomes, the guy who might just take that throne 15 years from now. But the process of bringing Brees back was … troubling.
For one, Brees wasn’t sure he was 100 percent healed from his 11 fractured ribs and collapsed lung. He couldn’t be sure because he’d already gotten too many scans in the past month and it was considered unhealthy for him to take in more radiation. So going into the game, we didn’t know whether Brees could withstand 300-pound football players driving him into the ground over and over again—but don’t worry, he got a fancy protective shirt.
In a news release, @UnequalTech shares that it custom-made protective garments for #Saints QB @drewbrees as he returns from a collapsed lung and 11 rib fractures to play Sunday against the #Chiefs. They did same for #Cowboys Tony Romo few years ago. pic.twitter.com/WyXinqAFFd— Ed Werder (@WerderEdESPN) December 19, 2020
The good news was Brees looked limber in the pregame warmups.
DREW BREES WEIRD STRETCH ROUTINE pic.twitter.com/mSE86KaJzv— highlitecity (@highlitecity) December 20, 2020
And he threw three touchdowns in this game, plus a stunningly deep bomb to Emmanuel Sanders, his deepest completed pass in three years.
Drew Brees 51-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders traveled 50.8 yards of air distance, Brees' longest completion over the last 3 seasons.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 20, 2020
Sanders has been the targeted receiver for the three longest completions by the Saints this season.#KCvsNO | Powered by @awscloud pic.twitter.com/3YN50Cx97U
But Brees finished the game 15-for-34 passing for 234 yards—a deeply uncharacteristic passing line from the all-time completion percentage leader. In fact, Brees has only had two career games with a lower completion percentage—one in 2004 with the Chargers, one in 2006. And I’m not really sure what the point of this pass was:
That the Saints only lost 32-29 against the best team in the NFL isn’t bad—but the loss was a big one. The Saints’ odds of getting the first-round bye in the NFC dropped from 32 percent to 15, according to FiveThirtyEight, and as such, their chances of winning the Super Bowl dropped from 23 percent to 18 percent.
New Orleans went 3-1 with Taysom Hill at quarterback, a much more impressive performance than expected—but in games against teams that are not the Atlanta Falcons, Hill didn’t look good enough to help the Saints seriously contend. To win the Super Bowl, New Orleans will need Brees—and right now, he doesn’t look like Drew Brees. He looks like a 41-year-old with cracked ribs and some sort of weird “military grade” T-shirt.
Winner: Fancy Cameras
Do you ever see an ad for new TVs on your current TV and think, “Wow, that TV looks great! The picture is so clear! I should get that TV!” And then you realize that the super-clear image on the new TV in the ad is being broadcast on your TV, meaning you don’t actually need a new TV? Anyway, I was watching Seattle-Washington on Sunday and had a similar feeling:
This Seahawks game is being shot by Alejandro Iñárritu. pic.twitter.com/DXrGcecCYU— Robert Mays (@robertmays) December 20, 2020
Normally my NFL viewing experience is a frantic mix of scanning the TV, my Twitter feed, and the document where I take notes. But for about 10 seconds, I just stared at my television and gaped, because the football was prettier than usual.
Apparently the NFL decided to film this relatively unspectacular regular-season game using the most spectacular cameras in league history. So spectacular, in fact, that the camera is named after a monster dinosaur shark:
The awesome on-field shots on FOX’s broadcast of #Seahawks-#WashingtonFootball Team are courtesy of this contraption the crew nicknames “The Megalodon.” Here it is. And here’s Mike Smole, who is operating it today. He calls it a “poor man’s Steadicam.” We should all be so poor. pic.twitter.com/RWuYjeaBCe— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) December 20, 2020
This camera apparently has an extremely short depth of focus, meaning close-up things are extremely clear and anything more than a few feet away blends together in a blur. (The same premise behind iPhone Portrait mode. I think. I’m a football writer.) They couldn’t shoot an entire football game on the Extremely Pretty Camera, but they did capture celebrations.
For some reason, we still primarily watch football games from trash camera angles where we can’t even see who the quarterback is throwing to if they’re more than 10 yards downfield—and now we find out there are fancy cameras that nobody has thought to shoot football with before. Clearly, there are still advances to be made in the field of sports broadcasting. The future is bright! Albeit with a beautifully blurry background.
Loser: Kirk Cousins
The good news for the Minnesota Vikings is that they snagged the best wide receiver in the 2020 draft—and perhaps one of the best wide receivers ever. Justin Jefferson had his sixth 100-yard game of the season on Sunday and now has 1,182 receiving yards on the season. That’s the sixth most of any NFL rookie ever, and only 195 short of Anquan Boldin’s rookie record. Jefferson’s definitely not going to catch Randy Moss’s all-time record of 17 receiving touchdowns—Jefferson only has seven—but he already has more first-year receptions than Moss did.
What makes this feat especially impressive is that he’s doing it with Kirk Cousins, the NFL’s … I dunno, 16th-best quarterback? Is that too high or too low? I’m sure I’ll hear answers from both sides, which probably sums up the Kirk Cousins experience pretty neatly. Last year Jefferson rose to the top of NFL draft boards after catching passes from LSU’s Joe Burrow, making him a rare player who experienced a quarterbacking downgrade upon coming to the NFL. And this week, Jefferson showed that he’s apparently starting to get fed up with the difference. In perhaps the greatest No Fans in the Stands moments of the season, cameras caught Jefferson cussing Cousins out after the quarterback airmailed a throw that could’ve been a touchdown.
"Fuck, Kirk! Come on, throw the ball" pic.twitter.com/yax0DzX3PQ— Vikings Blogger (@firstandskol) December 20, 2020
Some rushed to argue that Jefferson was merely yelling “Fuck, ref! Throw the flag!” rather than going after his QB. But I’m not sure what flag could’ve been thrown here. Meanwhile, it makes sense that Jefferson has beef with Cousins about this play. Sure, it’s pretty tough for a righty QB to make a throw rolling out to his left, but there’s plenty of open space for Jefferson here, and Cousins zipped the ball high instead of floating it where Jefferson would have caught it.
Jefferson tweeted after the game that the incident was “blown out of proportion” and that he’s not a “diva,” but … well … he didn’t deny that he furiously cursed at his quarterback. He merely said that we were making too big a deal out of it.
y’all love blowing stuff out off proportion. And I ain’t no diva don’t get it twisted. https://t.co/SfVo6quwpr— JJETS✈️ (@JJettas2) December 20, 2020
I believe Jefferson when he says he’s not a diva. (Why do we only call wide receivers divas? Aren’t there any prima donna safeties? Are there no right tackles who aspire to have the same descriptor applied to them as Mariah Carey?) The Vikings used to have Stefon Diggs, who routinely got furious with Kirk Cousins’s passing ability. (Loved him as a guy, though!) But Diggs eventually had enough, demanded a trade, and now ranks second in the NFL in receiving yards with the Bills. The Vikings currently have Adam Thielen, who has proven to be one of the NFL’s best receivers after falling into the Vikings’ lap out of a Division II school in Minnesota. But he, too, has gotten into arguments with Cousins. (Love him as a guy, though!)
It would be wrong to say that Kirk Cousins’s receivers hate him—they just hate trying to catch the passes he throws. They’re incredibly talented and wish their quarterback was too. I don’t know what the answer is there, besides the Vikings finding a quarterback that’s as good as the guys he’s throwing to.
Loser: The Pats’ Battle With Tom Brady
Week 1 in this column, I wrote about the New England Patriots’ win and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ loss. Clearly, New England had managed to keep continuity despite massive overhaul, while Tom Brady was struggling to adjust to a new system in Tampa Bay. It proved beyond any doubt that the greatest coach of all time was more valuable than the greatest quarterback of all time. (It’s important to make broad, sweeping statements about legendary football humans whose careers span decades based on single games.)
Fifteen weeks later, though, things have changed. The Patriots lost their eighth game of the year on Sunday, falling 22-12 to the Dolphins. Former Patriots coach Brian Flores was running trick plays for two-point conversions in this game, as if to make sure the Pats knew they shouldn’t have let him get away:
That loss cemented New England’s first nonwinning season since 2000 and eliminated the team from the postseason for the first time since 2008. The Bills, meanwhile, clinched their first AFC East title since 1995 this weekend—Josh Allen is infinitely more fun to watch than Tom Brady has ever been—and the Dolphins locked up second place.
Then there’s Tom Brady. Brady threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns … in the second half of a massive comeback win against the Falcons. Technically, the 9-5 Buccaneers haven’t clinched a playoff spot yet—but FiveThirtyEight gives them a 99 percent chance to qualify. When they do, they will end a postseason drought longer than the Pats’ postseason streak, as the Buccaneers haven’t been to the playoffs since 2007.
The Patriots’ failures aren’t all because of Bill Belichick’s inability to adjust. This is a team without any good wide receivers or running backs, and it had more players opt out of the season than any other team. And the Buccaneers’ successes aren’t all because of Brady. Tampa Bay averaged 28.6 points per game with Jameis Winston at QB last year, and it’s averaging 28.6 points per game with Brady at QB this year. The Bucs have always had stupendous receiving talent, but their defense has gone from 29th to 12th in the NFL over the last year. (Some of this probably has to do with Brady throwing significantly fewer interceptions than 30-pick Jameis.) Even if Brady stayed in New England, it’s possible that the Pats would’ve missed the playoffs this year and the Buccaneers would’ve made the postseason.
But we’ll always remember that as soon as Tom Brady left the Patriots, the longest postseason streak in NFL history ended, and when he arrived in Tampa Bay, the league’s second-longest active postseason drought ended. Brady’s legacy has a second act; Belichick has to figure out whether he can build a winning roster moving forward. Season 1 of the Bill-Tom Power Rankings will end with Tom solely in possession of first place.
Winner: Punter Hands
Last week, I wrote an entry criticizing a punter’s ability to control a ball in the bottom of a pile. As a punter enthusiast, I have spent the past seven days racked with guilt over my shameless punter-negging. So I’d like to make it up to them: Here is an entry highlighting how punters have a difficult job that requires a broader skill set than you’d expect.
On Sunday, the Jaguars played the Ravens without a punter after Logan Cooke got sick Saturday night. (Missing a punter is a big problem for a team that’s as crappy on offense as the Jags.) That left kicker Aldrick Rosas to handle kicking and punting duties, something many people assume must be easy, since they both require feet. Not so! Rosas, who didn’t punt in college, averaged 36.7 yards on his three punts. (Only one punter has averaged fewer than 36 yards per punt since 2000, and it’s a guy who was cut after one game.) Plus, one of Rosas’s kicks was returned for 20 yards, giving him a truly dismal net average of 29 yards per punt. (Did you think you’d get punting stats when you clicked on this link? Too bad!)
Rosas also struggled on Sunday in one way you might not expect. Kickers kick the ball out of a placehold, while punters catch a (relatively hard) snap before punting. In the fourth quarter, Jaguars long snapper Ross Matiscik threw back a snap that probably would’ve been an easy snag for the 6-foot-5 Cooke—but forced the shorter Rosas to jump. Rosas bobbled the snap, scrambled back to recover it, and had to force off a rushed punt under serious pressure. It was actually a pretty impressive kick for an amateur punter under great distress—but only went 30 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
Elsewhere on Sunday, Eagles punter Cameron Johnston got injured after a blocked punt in the first quarter. That forced kicker Jake Elliott into a punting role—he averaged 38.5 yards, also pretty bad—but the Eagles also missed Johnston in another critical role: They had nobody to hold kicks. Remember when Tony Romo muffed that hold in that playoff game? Back then, it was commonplace to have a backup QB serve as a holder, but now most teams use a punter. (Don’t worry—Bill Belichick has given an extravagantly long answer about this trend.) Without Johnston, the Eagles went to their backup holder, Zach Ertz. You’d think he’d be good, because of the whole “professional football catcher” thing, right? Nope! The Eagles only attempted one placekick after Johnston’s exit—and Ertz couldn’t get the hold down. Blame probably belongs with the snapper, Rick Lovato, but perhaps a more experienced holder has success.
So here’s my point: Punters aren’t just leggy boys. They also have surprisingly great hands, and without punters’ soft, wonderful catching capabilities, relatively simple football tasks become complex.
Loser: The Chains
There’s probably nothing that could’ve been done about the Atlanta Falcons blowing a 17-0 halftime lead against the Buccaneers. It happened so casually that it barely even seemed noteworthy. Atlanta could’ve won the game if the team had just kept it close early, but by taking a three-score lead, the loss was fated. The Earth could’ve veered off its orbit and smacked into Mars and as the planet turned to icy wreckage, the image frozen on our televisions would’ve been a Fox Sports graphic saying, ATLANTA FALCONS: THIRD BLOWN DOUBLE-DIGIT LEAD OF THE SEASON.
But still, it’s worth noting a late-game controversy. The Buccaneers were able to seal the 31-27 win after a Leonard Fournette first down, and it was determined the Bucs got the first down on this play:
this measurement resulted in a 1st down— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) December 20, 2020
it was reviewed...and confirmed a 1st down pic.twitter.com/xya4eoUQwD
There was also the matter of the referee scooching the ball forward a little bit:
The ref actually was right to move the ball to the spot instead of just leaving it where it ended up after the play. (Although the ruling of the spot itself was questionable.) But I keep looking at the ball and the stake and back to the ball and back to the stake … and the ball … and the stake … and … it’s short, right? Like, it’s definitely short, right? It could be a misleading camera angle, but … it’s short … right?
I’m a big fan of the chains. There’s actually a surprisingly complex art to operating the chains, and they’re more accurate than you’d think. Plus, the drama of bringing out the chain crew is unparalleled in a way that a more scientific method wouldn’t be. (Before you ask: There are already chips in the ball, and they aren’t accurate down to the inch. Although, uh … it’s possible the chains aren’t, either.)
I truly love that this goofy 114-year old instrument is used to officiate America’s most popular sport. But if we’re gonna use the chains, we have to at least make it look like they’re doing the job they’re supposed to. Because every time the chains are used, somebody thinks, “Hey, why does the most profitable sports league on earth pretend that this hunk of junk that looks like my dad’s worst home improvement project is an accurate measuring device?” And every time, we get slightly closer to someone inventing a better—and less quaint—system.