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The Winners and Losers of NFL Week 12

The Steelers’ no-show, Cordarrelle Patterson’s evolution, the Waddle, and the rest of the highlights and lowlights from Sunday’s NFL action

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

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: A Reversed Rivalry

There are few truly lopsided rivalries in NFL history. Surely you’re thinking of some of the easy answers: What about Patriots-Jets? Well, it turns out New England had some bad decades—they’ve won only 56.6 percent of games against New York in the Super Bowl era. What about Packers-Lions? Closer, but still under 60 percent. You want some real carnage? Look at Steelers-Bengals.

Among teams that have been in the same division continuously since 1970, Steelers-Bengals is the second-most-lopsided rivalry. (The surprising leader: Vikings-Lions.) Entering the 2021 season, Pittsburgh had a 65-35 record against Cincinnati, a solid 64.4 winning percentage. (That’s not including the two postseason matchups between the teams, both of which the Steelers won.) After all, Pittsburgh has won six Super Bowls; Cincinnati zero. Pittsburgh has 20 Hall of Famers; Cincinnati has three (and that’s including barely-a-Bengal Terrell Owens). Pittsburgh has swept the season series with Cincinnati 22 times, including a four-year stretch from 2016 to 2019 when Cincinnati didn’t win a game. In the past 30 seasons, Cincinnati has swept the season series only twice—in 1998 and 2009.

But the tide is turning. Pittsburgh is riding out the last days of Ben Roethlisberger, who occasionally just falls over for no particular reason. Cincinnati is in its second year with Joe Burrow, who looks very much like the QB that fans hoped he would be after Cincy took him first in the 2020 draft. Last month, Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh 24-10 behind three touchdowns from Burrow. Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd, a Pittsburgh native and Pitt alum, said that he’d never seen the Steelers “give up” like they did toward the end of the game.

Pittsburgh responded by … getting dominated from start to finish in a 41-10 loss. Joe Mixon had a career-high 165 yards, Burrow went 20-for-24 passing and ran for a TD, and former Steeler Mike Hilton had a pick-six on Roethlisberger:

After Mixon scored his second touchdown to give Cincinnati a 41-3 lead, the whole offensive line did a dance in the end zone. (I think C.J. Uzomah tried to join in, but got the tempo way wrong.)

Cincinnati swept the season series against Pittsburgh for the first time in 12 years—and won the two games by a combined 45 points, the largest aggregate margin of victory ever. Nobody commented on whether Pittsburgh gave up in the game. But how enthusiastic did Pittsburgh look about chasing down yet another Big Ben pick?

Pittsburgh is stuck in the past, when Roethlisberger was great and beating the Bengals was easy. But in the very real present, it feels like this rivalry is about to get slightly less lopsided.

Loser: Kirk Cousins

When a quarterback takes a snap from a center, the two players share a shockingly close moment with each other. The things a quarterback says about a center’s butt reveal the deeply personal nature of this relationship—Aaron Rodgers says he pays close attention to his center’s butt height and sweatiness; Jim Harbaugh instructs his QBs to find their center’s asshole with their knuckles. (My editor let me keep “asshole” in this article because it is a direct quote.) Outside of the adult film industry, it’s tough to imagine coworkers having more intimate knowledge of each other’s anatomy.

And no current NFL QB shares more of these moments with their center than Kirk Cousins. In the modern NFL, most snaps are taken from the shotgun, but the Vikings prefer to do things the old-fashioned way, by having Cousins shove his hands under his center’s butt and take the ball. In 2019, the Vikings took 70 percent of their snaps from under center, while the league average was 37 percent; in 2020, they took 64 percent. They’re down to 56.5 percent this year, but that still leads the league. Cousins has expressed a deep familiarity with his centers’ butts. In 2019, he went on a lengthy training camp speech about the butt sweat of Garrett Bradbury, the team’s first-round pick, urging the Minnesota scouting department to pay more attention to butt sweat. Apparently, the team listened—in November, Minnesota benched Bradbury for Mason Cole, although nobody has confirmed whether the benching was butt-sweat-related.

But apparently, Cousins hasn’t gotten familiar enough with Cole’s butt yet. As the Vikings tried to fight back in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game against the Niners, Cousins sneaked up behind right guard Oli Udoh on a critical fourth-down play and placed his hands under Udoh for the snap.

The clock was running down, and Cousins had to get his hands under a butt quickly. But I can’t believe he picked the wrong butt. His running back and right tackle quickly started hollering and pointing at Cousins to correct his error. With time running down, Cousins had to burn a critical timeout to avoid a delay-of-game penalty. Minnesota failed to convert the fourth-down attempt, and never scored again, losing 34-26.

Cousins is not the first quarterback to do this. Troy Aikman has a story about a time that he lined up under a guard. The only example I remember of this happening in an NFL game came in 2016, when Tyrod Taylor called for a shotgun snap when he wasn’t behind the center, leading to the ball flying backward and Taylor taking a sack for a huge loss. But Taylor wasn’t under center—he didn’t have to approach the butt like Cousins did.

The most famous QB-under-the-guard moment belongs to Willie Beamen, the third-string QB for the Miami Sharks in Any Given Sunday. When called into action for the first time in his career, Beamen throws up in the huddle and then sticks his hands under the wrong guy’s butt. It’s a bad sign when your real-life quarterback does the same things Hollywood script writers make fictional quarterbacks do to show that they’re comically unprepared for pressure situations.

Unfortunately, Cousins is less talented than Willie Beamen. And when the clock runs down, Cousins has a history of getting flustered. He famously once took a knee instead of spiking a ball when trying to score in the two-minute drill. This is a problem for Minnesota, because 10 of its 11 games have been decided by one score. Every single Vikings game is close, and their quarterback is a man who can’t identify the correct butt under pressure.

Winner: Cordarrelle Patterson

For eight seasons, Cordarrelle Patterson was one of the NFL’s great what-ifs. A first-round pick by the Vikings in 2013, Patterson established himself as one of the greatest—or perhaps the greatest—kick returners in NFL history, but nobody could really figure out how to use him on scrimmage plays. In 2015, the Vikings completely eliminated Patterson from offense, using him exclusively on special teams. Bill Belichick took a flier on him in 2018, but it lasted only a season. He bounced around from team to team, never finding a starting role on offense. Like Devin Hester before him, Patterson mystified NFL head coaches. He is one of the most dynamic players in the league, a rocket-powered speedster who can make magic with the ball in his hands. How could nobody figure out a role for this should-be superstar?

But the Atlanta Falcons have finally cracked the code and figured out how to use Patterson. He’s taken over the Falcons’ starting running back role this season and he had his best offensive game ever on Sunday, with 16 carries for 108 yards and two touchdowns—all career highs.

You might think that as a former kick return specialist and wide receiver, his primary skill is running in straight lines. But Patterson bowled some dudes over Sunday, too:

The Falcons are still taking advantage of Patterson’s versatility—just a few weeks ago, he had 126 receiving yards in a 27-25 win over the Saints. No matter how they get him the ball, he is their key to victory. Last week, Patterson was injured, and the Falcons were shut out in a 25-0 loss to New England. In Atlanta’s five wins, Patterson is averaging 16.6 touches; in Atlanta’s six losses, Patterson is averaging 8.7 touches. The Falcons have removed Patterson from returning duties—and why not? He’s their most dynamic offensive playmaker! They can’t afford to have him get hurt on a kickoff!

The Falcons are 5-6 and have been on the losing end of some of the ugliest games of the year—but there’s something really fun going on with their offense. A few weeks ago, we wrote about the way they’re using tight end Kyle Pitts, and they’re the team that’s finally figured out Patterson. Their top tight end is a wide receiver, and their top running back is also a wide receiver. Now that they’ve realized that Patterson needs to get the ball early and often, they have a legit shot at making the playoffs—laugh, but the Falcons are tied for the 7-seed in the NFC playoff picture.

At 30 years old, Patterson is sitting at the top of an offensive depth chart for the first time in his career. I’m a little bit mad he hasn’t been playing this way for a decade, but mainly I’m thrilled we are finally getting to see him shine.

Winner: The Return of Returns

The downside of Patterson’s emphasis on playing offense is that his legendary kickoff return career may be over. Avery Williams was Atlanta’s primary return man on Sunday, even though Patterson was healthy.

Patterson was the NFL’s last great kickoff returner. Return touchdowns have almost disappeared from the game after the NFL changed its rules on kickoffs to emphasize player safety. There were 25 kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2007, the most in league history; there were just five in 2018. In 2010, five players had multiple kickoff returns for touchdowns. Since 2013, only one player has done it: Cordarrelle Patterson in 2013, and Cordarrelle Patterson again in 2015. It seemed like the kickoff return touchdown would die with Patterson.

But as Patterson abandons special teams, another Viking has picked up his shield. Minnesota running back Kene Nwangwu did this against the 49ers:

Nwangwu suffered a knee injury in preseason and spent the first seven weeks of his rookie season on injured reserve. His first NFL kickoff return was Week 9 against the Ravens—and his second NFL kickoff return was a 98-yard touchdown.

There have been six kickoff returns for touchdowns this NFL season. Two of those are by Nwangwu, who has played only four games. The rest of the league has four touchdowns on over 700 attempts, meaning roughly 0.5 percent result in touchdowns. Nwangwu has two touchdowns on eight attempts, meaning 25 percent of his returns go for touchdowns.

If you’ve never heard of Nwangwu, that’s OK. He was a backup running back at Iowa State, where he scored five total touchdowns in four seasons. (Breece Hall, the starter, scored 21 touchdowns in 2020 alone.) But Nwangu had a ridiculous kickoff return for a touchdown as a freshman, and ran a 4.29-second 40-yard dash at his pro day. Nwangwu had been trapped behind a prolific running back at ISU, but it was clear he could fly in the open field, and that was enough for the Vikings to use a fourth-round pick on him.

What’s next for Nwangwu? If Patterson is a blueprint, we can expect more brilliant special teams play and frustrated coaches. (People are already asking Mike Zimmer whether Nwangwu needs more carries at running back.) But really, we can’t know what’s next for this guy—it’s been six years since anybody had two kickoff return TDs in an entire season, and Nwangwu just did it in his first month. I just hope he gets to keep flying.

Loser: Jalen Reagor

In 2015, the Eagles used their first-round pick on Nelson Agholor, a wide receiver who struggled with the “receiving” element of his position. Agholor had 224 catches in five years with Philadelphia, and according to Pro Football Focus, he had 22 drops. In 2019, he dropped a wide-open, potentially game-winning catch against the Falcons and a potentially game-tying catch against the Patriots. That same year, a Philadelphia native became famous for telling a local news reporter that he had caught children thrown from a burning building—“unlike Agholor.”

The Eagles let Agholor walk after the 2019 season and used their first-round selection in the 2020 draft on another wide receiver: TCU’s Jalen Reagor. In The Ringer’s 2020 NFL Draft Guide, Danny Kelly listed Reagor seventh among receivers, noting that “drops could be a concern.” Of the 41 receivers listed in the 2020 PFF Draft Guide, Reagor had the fourth-highest drop rate. But the Eagles made Reagor the fourth receiver off the board. Clearly, the best way to replace a receiver with questionable hands was to get another receiver with questionable hands.

Reagor has been a massive disappointment. His first NFL catch in his first NFL game went for 55 yards; he hasn’t had a full game with that many yards since. Entering Sunday, he was sixth on the Eagles in receiving yards, behind Quez Watkins, taken 179 picks after Reagor in the 2020 draft, and Zach Ertz, a tight end who was traded over a month ago. In Philadelphia’s previous four games, Reagor had four catches for 5 yards. Reagor is 18th in receiving yards among players selected in the 2020 draft, well behind players like Justin Jefferson, Tee Higgins, and Michael Pittman, all of whom were available when the Eagles picked Reagor.

But Sunday, Reagor had an opportunity to change the way Eagles fans think about him—actually, two opportunities. As the Eagles were trailing the Giants 13-7 with roughly a minute remaining, Jalen Hurts threw a bomb that hit Reagor in the hands right at the goal line. Reagor dropped it, nearly resulting in a Giants interception.

But Philadelphia still had a shot, and kept looking for the game-winning touchdown. On fourth down, the Eagles’ last chance to win, Hurts scrambled around and looked up to see Reagor open at the goal line. Reagor dropped it, ending the game.

One time, the ball bonked off Reagor’s rock-hard hands; the other time, it slid through Reagor’s slippery-wet hands. In addition to losing the game, the sequence seems to have pissed off this year’s first-round wide receiver, Devonta Smith, who is actually good. Smith reportedly asked head coach Nick Sirianni for the ball on the final play, got open, and then had to watch as Reagor’s drops cost Philly the game:

Reagor has had such a minor role in Philadelphia’s offense over his first two years that fans barely noticed that he couldn’t catch the ball. But Sunday, he got open, and the game came down to his ability to make catches. Just like Agholor.

Winner: Yosh Nijman, Massive Football Robot

It’s generally a bad sign when people are talking about your third-string left tackle. Normally it’s something like “Myles Garrett has six sacks today; he’s really destroying our third-string left tackle,” or, “Ahhh! Our starting QB’s leg just fell off after that hit! Why did we have to play our third-string left tackle?”

But Green Bay has begun to celebrate its third-string left tackle, Yosh Nijman—and his celebrations. Nijman got three starts earlier this season after an injury to Elgton Jenkins, while starter David Bakhtiari still hasn’t played since tearing his ACL last December. Nijman, who went undrafted in 2019 and played only a few snaps in his first two years in the league, surprised himself and his teammates when he crashed a Randall Cobb touchdown celebration by doing the robot. His teammates said they’d never seen him display that much personality; Nijman says he “blacked out” and doesn’t remember doing the dance. He’s sorta like that random guy on Chappelle’s Show: Nobody outside of Green Bay knows who Nijman is, but if you look closely, he’s the anonymous figure doing the robot in the background of the Packers’ biggest moments.

Still, Packers fans had to be a little bit terrified when Jenkins tore his ACL last week, forcing Nijman back into a starting role against the Rams. That’s right—the Rams, who have Aaron Donald and Von Miller. You could just imagine people talking about Green Bay’s third-string left tackle—“and Aaron Rodgers’s career is officially over after the Packers asked their third-string left tackle to block two Hall of Famers.”

But Nijman prevented Rodgers from suffering a cataclysmic injury. In fact, he held his own. Rodgers was sacked once, for no loss. He told Nijman after the game that he “forgot about that side of the line” during the game because Nijman did such a good job sealing off the Rams’ fearsome pass rush. In this clip, you can see Nijman pushing Donald around on a fourth-down run play:

So people are now talking about the Packers’ third-string left tackle. After an A.J. Dillon touchdown, the running back introduced a national audience to Nijman’s celebration:

Ideally, the Packers will get Bakhtiari back soon. But until then, there are worse options than a 6-foot-7, 315-pound robot.

Loser: Whomever Chris Simms Picks

I watch NBC’s Football Night in America every week. I tell myself it’s because I don’t want to miss the kickoff of the Sunday Night Football game while I’m writing this column, but I think I must enjoy the show, too. It might be the least annoying and most reasonable of all the sports pregame shows. It seems like everybody involved knows what they’re talking about—at least until it’s time for them to pick the winner of the night’s game.

Every pregame show has commentators pick the game, but I think NBC is the only one foolish enough to track each commentator’s picks throughout the season. In 2019, Rodney Harrison finished the year with a remarkable 7-13 mark picking games on SNF. This would be embarrassing, if understandable, if the crew were picking games against the Vegas spread. But they’re not! They’re picking these games straight up!

This year’s bafflingly bad picking performance goes to Chris Simms. Simms was 7-9 as an NFL starting quarterback—but is apparently significantly worse than that when it comes to picking games. He was 4-8 when he picked the Browns to win Sunday night’s matchup against the Ravens:

Cleveland lost 16-10 Sunday night. The Browns had a season-low 40 rushing yards. They committed a series of hilariously bad turnovers—here’s Baker Mayfield forgetting how to throw. And their one touchdown probably wasn’t a touchdown. Long story short, Simms is 4-9 on the year—a 30 percent success rate.

Maybe Simms is simply doing his job. His job isn’t to get the picks right—it’s to keep people watching the show, and people would tune out if everybody on the panel said, “Yeah this should be a blowout, the Ravens are way better.” And besides, I have a new reason to watch this pregame show every week—I need to see if this guy can get every pick wrong for the rest of the year.

Winner: The Waddle Waddle

A few weeks ago, we told the story of former Washington kicker Chris Blewitt, who accepted his destiny and became an inaccurate NFL kicker. Football is filled with tales of nominative determinism: D-lineman Dee Liner, Raiders special-teamer Roderick Teamer, Eagles running back Kenneth Gainwell.

Luckily, Dolphins rookie Jaylen Waddle has refused to let his name dictate his destiny. In Sunday’s game against the Panthers, Waddle burst through multiple levels of the Carolina defense on a 57-yard catch-and-run:

Waddle reached a top speed of 21.8 miles per hour on the play, tied for the fifth-fastest speed by any player this season. Waddle finished with nine catches for a career-high 137 yards and a touchdown. He has the second-most catches of any rookie wide receiver through 12 games in NFL history. After scoring his fourth touchdown of the season, Waddle celebrated by Waddling:

Waddle explained after the game that he had co-opted teammate Christian Wilkins’s penguin celebration. I guess Waddle had never considered how strange it is to be a ridiculously fast, highly coordinated person named after an animal that walks slowly and clumsily. Until Ricky Seals-Jones balances the ball on his nose in the end zone, it’s the most adorable TD celebration in the league.