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 No. 1 Offense and No. 1 Defense
You’re not supposed to be the best at offense and defense. That’s a sign you’re playing your video game on easy mode, or you’re Alabama. But it might be the case with the Bills, who comfortably dominated the Chiefs on Sunday night.
Through five weeks, the Bills have scored more points than anybody else—172 points, 34.4 per game. They’ve also allowed fewer points than anybody else—64 points, 12.8 per game. They’ve outscored their opponents by 108 points; meanwhile, nine of the NFL’s 32 teams have yet to score 100 points on the season.
Those are the type of stats that are supposed to change after a game with the Chiefs, the team that has represented the AFC in the last two Super Bowls, winning one. Kansas City has Football God Patrick Mahomes and an unparalleled arsenal of offensive weapons. Instead, Buffalo handed Kansas City the worst regular-season loss of the Mahomes era. (To be fair, there haven’t been many to choose from.)
As an early Mahomes fan and early Allen hater, I’m not emotionally ready to say that Allen is better than Mahomes. But I’m not going to put up a big fight with someone who thinks Allen is better. Give me a few weeks; I need to work through my feelings on this.
Allen was nearly perfect Sunday night, throwing for 315 yards on just 26 attempts with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He did this in the rain, on the road, both things that should make passing harder. There’s no environment or defense that can stop him:
Of course, he’s also a thrilling runner. He hurdled a guy! And not one of those unimpressive hurdles where the defender actually got an arm to a leg and essentially made the tackle—it was a clean hurdle. How many other QBs in the league are even trying this? Mahomes would try a slide. Kyler Murray would try scurrying around. Lamar Jackson would try a spin move. Ben Roethlisberger would simply fall apart like a cartoon skeleton.
And as for the Bills having the best defense … well, they just kinda kicked Patrick Mahomes’s ass. Mahomes averaged 5.0 yards per attempt Sunday night—the lowest of any of his 59 career starts. He threw two interceptions, one of which came on a spectacular play by Bills rookie Gregory Rousseau:
WHAT A PLAY FROM GREGORY ROUSSEAU— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) October 11, 2021
The one demerit on the Bills’ résumé is their season-opening loss to the Steelers, which seems flushable at this point. They’ve got smooth sailing the rest of the way—they’re tied for the second-easiest remaining strength of schedule in the NFL by opponent win percentage. Their stats are only going to get better after they play the Jets … twice.
There might be another rematch between Allen and Mahomes this season—but it’ll probably be in Buffalo.
Loser: The Struggling Chiefs
You can understand the story of Kansas City’s night by watching Tyrann Mathieu watch Daniel Sorensen. Mathieu, the famed Honey Badger, has been a first-team All-Pro safety for the past two seasons; Sorensen, the Chiefs’ other starting safety, came into Sunday having allowed quarterbacks to go 14-for-17 for 170 yards on plays where he was targeted, per Pro Football Focus. On two separate plays Sunday night, Mathieu watched Josh Allen throw a pass, turned around, and saw Sorensen lost in the vague vicinity of a wide-open receiver:
Stefon Diggs roasted Daniel Sorensen so thoroughly he didn't even realize Sorensen was in the same zip code after he caught this ball pic.twitter.com/ISwW0fn7Gg— Christian D'Andrea probably does not own a brewery (@TrainIsland) October 11, 2021
The Bills have the best defense in the NFL; the Chiefs have the worst, having allowed 163 points. Even Mahomes isn’t enough to make up for those point totals. The Chiefs are 2-3, putting them below .500 and in last place in the AFC West, both of which seemed impossible a month ago.
Before last year’s Super Bowl against the Buccaneers, the Chiefs hadn’t lost by more than a touchdown with Mahomes as their starter. Still, that was the Super Bowl, against the best team of the best, and the Chiefs had a bunch of offensive line injuries. Now, for the first time in the Mahomes era, they’ve lost a regular-season game by more than a touchdown.
Maybe they’ll turn things around. They have Patrick Mahomes! But it’s hard not to have questions. Tyrann Mathieu certainly does.
Tyrann Mathieu is frustrated. pic.twitter.com/yv8M9QYKFk— Pete Grathoff (@pgrathoff) October 11, 2021
Winner: The Mega-aggressive Brandon Staley
If the Chargers keep winning, I’m gonna have to find new things to write about. For years, football bloggers like me have been able to reliably bank on the risk-averse nature of NFL coaches, who punt and kick field goals more than the data says they should. Obviously, NFL head coaches know more about football than me, a guy with a laptop, but their repeated failures in this category week after week allowed writers like me to routinely sound like we know something the coaches don’t.
Unfortunately, Chargers head coach Brandon Staley is determined to ruin this. Staley spends his press conferences talking about all the stuff football nerds love talking about—like how sack totals are a less reliable way to measure the performance of defensive linemen than their hurries and hits.
Sunday, the Chargers beat the Browns 47-42 in one of the most entertaining games of the year. They were able to put up 47 points because Staley went for touchdowns on every possession. Not field goals, not field position—touchdowns. Obviously, coaches are going for it on fourth down more than ever—but Staley is going for it in situations most people wouldn’t.
On fourth-and-2 at their own 24, he went for it instead of punting. Nobody does this. Last year, there were only two instances of a team going for it on fourth down from inside their own 25-yard line when they weren’t trailing late in the fourth quarter. The Chargers converted.
On fourth-and-7 and fourth-and-8 in field goal range, the Chargers went for it. Nobody does this. Last year, nobody in the NFL went for it from inside the opposing 25-yard line on fourth-and-7 or more unless they were losing by more than a touchdown or running a two-minute drill. The Chargers did it twice Sunday—and converted both.
The Chargers also went for it on fourth-and-4 and drew a pass interference; that doesn’t go in the stats as a fourth-down conversion attempt, but it’s another instance in which Staley’s boldness paid off.
The Chargers are now a stunning 7-for-8 on the season on fourth down. They’re actually 7-for-7 with their offense on the field—the one miss was a fake punt triggered by the punter when he realized the Raiders had only 10 men on the field. Obviously, a 100 percent conversion rate is unsustainable—sadly, even the data nerds who have pushed for more fourth-down attempts must agree on this. But even if the Chargers’ fourth-down performance regresses, Staley’s calls are the right ones. He needed every one of those fourth-down conversions to get the win.
Winner: Austin Ekeler’s Accidental Game-Winner
Staley seems to have learned fourth-down decision-making from playing Madden, but there’s one critical element of football video game strategy that he’s struggling with: The “let the opponent score” endgame scenario. In almost every circumstance in football, the best possible thing is to score a touchdown—but in very rare circumstances, the best thing is to hold the ball until the clock nearly expires and kick a game-winning field goal. In these scenarios, the defense should actually let the offense score a touchdown so they can have enough time to win the game. Last year, the Falcons famously lost a game when Todd Gurley couldn’t stop himself from scoring a go-ahead touchdown, enabling the opposition to get the ball back and win the game. (Of course it was the Falcons.)
Stunningly, the Chargers have already been in this scenario twice this season. Against the Chiefs, Staley’s Chargers scored a late touchdown instead of holding the ball to kick a game-winning field goal—giving Patrick Mahomes a chance to score a game-winning touchdown. Miraculously, the Chargers got a stop and won.
And on Sunday, L.A. trailed 42-41 with the ball on the goal line and 1:31 remaining. It was a first down and the Browns had burned all their timeouts. Again, the Chargers should have kneeled the ball and kicked a game-winning field goal—but instead, they gave the ball to running back Austin Ekeler.
This time, though, Ekeler seemed to know he wasn’t supposed to score. He got to the line of scrimmage and paused, allowing the Browns to swarm to him. But to his surprise, they weren’t swarming to make a tackle. Led by safety John Johnson III, Cleveland pushed Ekeler into the end zone, driving him forward as he tried in vain to resist.
heard austin's hot this time of year pic.twitter.com/KRoweIE7lK— Los Angeles Chargers (@chargers) October 10, 2021
It may be the strangest game-winning touchdown in NFL history. We’ve seen defenses clear out of the way to strategically allow touchdowns before—it even happened in a Super Bowl once—but I can’t recall a defense physically forcing a ball carrier into the end zone before. The Chargers were steel-faced on the sideline instead of celebrating; Ekeler seemed to be upset. Every football player must dream of being carried off the field after scoring a game-winning touchdown. Nobody has ever dreamed of being carried into the end zone to score a game-winning touchdown against their will.
This could’ve been avoided so easily. Just kneel! And after missing a two-point-conversion attempt, the Chargers were at risk of losing if Cleveland pulled off a game-winning touchdown drive. Luckily, the Browns fell short.
I was really worried I’d never find something to criticize Brandon Staley about—but I think I’m on to something here. The dude just can’t stop his team from scoring.
Loser: The Uncowardly Lions
We’re all rooting for something good to happen to Dan Campbell, the Lions’ pushup-crushing, kneecap-munching first-year head coach. Unfortunately, he is the head coach of the Lions, whose perennial putridness was enhanced by several years of Matt Patricia’s head coaching. Campbell was left with a shell of a roster, and the team traded away its best player, Matthew Stafford, for draft picks and, as a throw-in, Jared Goff. The Lions are winless—but they’re trying so damn hard.
Sunday, the Lions trailed the Vikings by 10 with under five minutes to go when they went on a furious comeback. In the span of 113 seconds, they kicked a field goal, forced a fumble, and drove for a touchdown that looked like it would tie the game.
But Campbell wasn’t content to tie the game. After starting the year 0-4, he wanted to get his guys a win. With 37 seconds remaining, the Lions went for a go-ahead two-point conversion—if they made it, they would surely win; if they missed it, they would certainly lose. Goff backpedaled to avoid the pass rush and found KhaDarel Hodge in the back of the end zone to give Detroit a lead:
Unfortunately, there were still 37 seconds remaining. Kirk Cousins quickly hit a pair of big pass plays to Adam Thielen, and Greg Joseph hit a game-winning 54-yard field goal. It’s the second time this year the Lions have lost on a 50-plus yard field goal with no time remaining—they were thisclose to beating the Ravens, but Justin Tucker’s record-setting field goal doinked up and over the crossbar instead of down and out. According to NBC, the Lions are the first team in NFL history to lose two games on game-ending 50-yard field goals in one season—and they managed to do it by Week 5.
Campbell wept after the game when he thought about how hard his players had fought, just to lose again:
Can’t not root for Dan Campbell pic.twitter.com/O6lXZVcC1u— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) October 10, 2021
Not many coaches are bold enough to go for two in this scenario. The Lions became just the 16th team since 1994 to go for two when trailing by one with under a minute left. It feels risky, but teams know that if they hit, they’re probably going to win. Sunday, Campbell’s Lions hit the go-ahead two-point conversion and still lost. They took a risk, it worked, and somehow, they still fell short. Campbell deserves better, but football doesn’t always give you what you deserve. Sometimes, it gives you the Lions.
Loser: The Rapidly Crumbling Giants
The New York Giants entered Sunday’s matchup with the Dallas Cowboys already dealing with a preposterous amount of injuries. Their two leading receivers from 2020, Darius Slayton and Sterling Shepard, were out, as was left tackle Andrew Thomas. They were 1-3 on the year, a repository of bad vibes.
It got worse. The franchise’s undisputed star, Saquon Barkley, suffered a gruesome-looking ankle injury Sunday. Barkley has suffered season-altering injuries in each of the past two years, and fans had to wonder whether they’d just witnessed a third. Later, Daniel Jones suffered a concussion after diving head-first toward the goal line, wobbling as he tried to walk off the field. Like Barkley before him, he was eventually taken off in a cart. And after halftime, it was announced that de facto no. 1 wideout Kenny Golladay was out with a knee injury. I honestly can’t recall a team losing their quarterback, top running back, and top wide receiver in one game, let alone one half.
The Giants looked surprisingly spry before their new rash of injuries; when Jones dove for the goal line, he was trying to tie the game at 10. But when they took the field after halftime, their team was unrecognizable: Their quarterback was Mike Glennon, the long-necked quarterback with the dismal 6-21 career record, making his first appearance in a New York uniform. Their running back was Devontae Booker, another first-year Giant who had just 10 touches in the team’s first four games. Glennon threw two interceptions, including a brutal pick-six; Booker averaged 2.6 yards per carry. The Giants were already bad—their backups were even worse.
But there was a bright spot for the Giants: rookie wide receiver Kadarius Toney. Toney, a first-round pick, had been a non-factor for New York early in the season, managing just 14 yards in the team’s first three games. But Sunday, he seized the opportunity provided by the injuries to Slayton, Shepard, and Golladay. He had 10 catches for 189 yards, breaking Odell Beckham Jr.’s franchise record for most receiving yards by a rookie.
Kadarius Toney’s movement skills are 1-of-1. He’s so unique it almost doesn’t make sense pic.twitter.com/rBvM1l1f5N— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) October 10, 2021
There it was: a gleaming silver lining. Sure, the Giants suffered massively on Sunday, losing several critical pieces, potentially dooming their already doomed season beyond all doubt. But the next man had stepped up, and he was beautiful. Had the Giants’ injuries allowed them to discover the future of the franchise?
Kadarius Toney has rare instincts with the ball on his hands.— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) October 10, 2021
So few players know this move is where the space is going to be.
Get this guy the ball. Lots pic.twitter.com/yxLyBEXW6S
Then he punched a guy.
Toney was ejected after swinging at Cowboys safety Damontae Kazee. Head coach Joe Judge, who seems to value “culture” over “being good at football,” was furious—cameras caught him yelling at Toney after the play. After the game, Judge said Toney’s behavior won’t be condoned. You can already see Judge benching the talented youngster for the next month, nipping the only good thing happening to the Giants right now in the bud.
I guess it’s a good thing that Toney is bad at punching—if he’d connected with Kazee’s helmet, he probably would’ve broken his hand and wound up on the injury report like all his teammates.
Winner: Dramatic Kicking Failures
Some things are better than ever in 2021, but it’s still fun to complain about them when they don’t work. I carry around a little computer in my pocket that answers any question I have, finds food for me in cities I’ve never been to before, and introduced me to my wife, but I still complain if it guides me into bad traffic or runs out of battery more quickly than I expected.
One thing that’s better than ever? Kickers. They’re hitting from farther and at higher rates than ever. Jan Stenerud, the first pure kicker elected to the Hall of Fame, hit 66.8 percent of his career field goals, connecting on 26.6 percent from beyond 50 yards. Last year, NFL kickers hit 84.6 percent of their field goals, including 63.1 percent from beyond 50 yards. The worst kickers now are better than the legendary kickers of yore. Kickers may be better than ever, but we still complain that they suck when they break. And when kickers break, they break.
Sunday, the kickers in Packers-Bengals broke. With the game tied at 22, Packers kicker Mason Crosby and Bengals kicker Evan McPherson missed five consecutive field goals in eight minutes of game time, spanning the end of the fourth quarter and most of an overtime period. Crosby, who has been Green Bay’s kicker since 2007, entered Sunday having made 24 field goals in a row, a franchise record. That included a game-winner two weeks ago against the 49ers. But Sunday, he missed a go-ahead field goal with two minutes left, a would-be game-winner as the clock hit zeros, and another potential game-winner in OT:
McPherson, a rookie, had hit game-winning field goals in two of his first four NFL games. Sunday, he had a pair of chances to win a third—and bricked both. After missing a game-winner in overtime, he celebrated, thinking it had gone in. Regardless of his heroics earlier in the year, he’ll always be remembered as Nick Young, placekicker.
Evan McPherson started celebrating LMAOOOOO pic.twitter.com/A3tOwAgrSr— ✯✯✯✯✯ (@FTBVids_YT) October 10, 2021
According to ESPN, it’s the first game ever with five consecutive missed potential go-ahead field goals in the fourth quarter or OT. Every miss gave the other team the ball near midfield, meaning they needed to drive only 20 or so yards to attempt (and miss) a game-winning field goal of their own. Fans of both teams were desperately begging their coaches to have a little faith in their offense and try to score a walk-off touchdown instead of settling for another sure-to-miss field goal, but both coaches kept giving the ball to their malfunctioning kickers.
But eventually, the carnage ended. With two minutes remaining in overtime and the prospect of a tie looming, Crosby hit his fourth and final late go-ahead attempt, a 49-yarder to send everybody home:
Kickers may be better than ever—but I get it if you don’t believe me when I say that. If anything, the fact that they’re better than ever makes their phenomenal failures stand out more than ever.
Loser: The NFL’s TV Rules
I watched the end of that Packers-Bengals game with morbid curiosity. There was a lot of spectacular football played Sunday, but there was no better moment than waiting to see whether Crosby would miss a fourth consecutive kick.
Unfortunately, many fans missed that moment. Crosby lined up to kick at 4:25 p.m. ET—the exact time kickers were lining up to kick off games in Dallas and Arizona. Therefore, many viewers watching on Fox were yoinked away from the game-deciding kick to watch commercials:
Umm, FOX in my market cut away from the Bengals Packers game right before the game winning FG. To show commercials.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) October 10, 2021
Fox switches me out of Cin-GB for not the start of the of the Giants-Cowboys but for the commercials before the start of Giants-Cowboys to try to convince me to buy the Sunday Ticket.— Ralph D. Russo (@ralphDrussoAP) October 10, 2021
Fox takes me away from Bengals-Packers to give me Cowboys commercials whyyyyyy— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) October 10, 2021
Why did my local Fox station leave the Green Bay-Cincinnati game before Mason Crosby’s kick???— Mike Waters (@MikeWatersSYR) October 10, 2021
Shades of the Heidi game.
FOX just cut away from Bengals-Packers in Buffalo right before the ending?? Are you kidding me???— Mark Ludwiczak (@marklud12) October 10, 2021
Talk about timing. Fox cut away from the Packers-Bengals game just as the Packers were lining up for the game-winning field goal in overtime.— George Owens (@GeorgeHOwens) October 10, 2021
I sat through this game for 3.5 hours only for the fox broadcast to cut away at the last second and they just tweeted it out https://t.co/rAFxP3LFla— Kelly Connolly (@_kellyQ) October 10, 2021
There is an explanation for this: The NFL’s broadcast rules mandate that local markets carry the entire games of local teams—so if you were in New York, Dallas, the Bay Area, or Arizona, you got whisked away to see Giants-Cowboys or Niners-Cardinals. And for some reason, that also extends to “secondary markets”—some of those tweets are from Buffalo or Syracuse residents, which for some reason is a “secondary market” of the Giants, even though the Bills exist. The same went for Houston, a “secondary market” of Dallas.
But that explanation doesn’t make the situation any less absurd. Fans sat through three and a half hours of one of the strangest games in recent NFL history—only to be blocked from seeing the most important moment, in exchange for one of the least important moments of another game. The rules should allow for some common sense to avoid situations like this.
It’s 2021, and the NFL’s broadcast rules were written in the 1970s. They were designed to protect NFL owners who wanted to make sure local fans stayed tuned to their teams—but they don’t fit well in an era when the internet exists. Sunday’s screw-up is a reminder that these rules are outdated and pointless. The only plus side is that everybody who got involuntarily switched to a new game gets to live in a beautiful world where nobody ever hit a field goal to win that Packers-Bengals game.
Loser: International Baggage Fees
The NFL’s no. 1 priority should probably be trying to expand overseas, considering the sport has reached saturation in the United States and isn’t hugely popular anywhere else in the world. But their execution has been clumsy, awkward, and oddly focused on England, instead of budding football hotbeds like Germany (which propped up NFL Europe while attendance cratered everywhere else) or Brazil (which has more NFL fans than any country outside of North America).
Another strange part of the NFL’s London strategy is the belief that foreign fans will enjoy our worst NFL teams. Sunday was the 29th NFL game in London; none of the first 28 featured two teams that went on to make the playoffs. This time, we sent them the 1-3 Falcons and the 1-3 Jets. It was a forgettable game: The Falcons jumped out to a big lead, but nearly fumbled it away through their own ineptitude, holding on for a 27-20 win that made both teams feel worse about themselves. Why do we think we can win over foreign fans with the Jets? But the league is committed to this strategy. Next week, we’ll send our strongest allies the 1-4 Dolphins and the 0-5 Jaguars. We’re sending Urban Meyer overseas. Some nations would consider this an act of war.
A big part of the London plan is a long-term agreement with Tottenham Hotspur, the English soccer team that specializes at finishing somewhere between second and seventh in the Premier League standings. The league helped pay for Tottenham’s new stadium, and agreed to play games there for a decade. In exchange, they got a legitimate home abroad. The stadium has locker rooms big enough to host two 53-man NFL teams, plus refs and cheerleaders, and has a grass soccer field that can retract to reveal thinner NFL artificial turf underneath.
The stadium has everything that NFL teams need—or so the league thought. The Falcons showed up in London and realized there wasn’t a kicking net, which is necessary to allow kickers to practice. (I mean, I guess they could just spray balls into the crowd, but that would be a real hassle.) Luckily, Atlanta was able to MacGyver the situation, with help from the netting in a soccer goal:
Appears the Falcons forgot their kicking net and so have improvised one using two step ladders and a goal net. pic.twitter.com/bAxITEA88W— Martin Calladine (@uglygame) October 10, 2021
Things worked out fine—Younghoe Koo kicked a pair of field goals in one of the greatest kicking performances by a Korean-born player in the stadium except for every single Tottenham game—but the moment shined a light on some of the absurdities of the London plan. The last time the Jets went to England—again, why do we keep sending our supposed allies the Jets?—they brought their own toilet paper with them, fearing the unfamiliarity of British butt-wiping implements. Football is tough enough when everything’s on one continent, but the NFL is determined to go bicontinental in the clumsiest way possible.