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 Other Josh Allen
In a league with over 1,700 players, there are sometimes similarly named guys. In the 2021 draft, the Jets picked running back Michael Carter and cornerback Michael Carter II, who played against each other at UNC and Duke. Safety Roy Williams and wide receiver Roy Williams were both top-10 picks in the early 2000s, and were briefly teammates in Dallas. Everybody who played fantasy football in 2008 tried to trick someone into trading for running back Adrian N. Peterson. But doubles don’t happen often with quarterbacks, who tend to have quarterback names like “Colt” or “Dak” or “Kyler.” But Sunday, Bills quarterback Josh Allen squared off against Jaguars edge rusher Josh Allen, just the second matchup between a quarterback and a defensive player with the same name since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970.
Over the course of 60 minutes of football, this went from a funny quirk to the defining aspect of the strangest game of the NFL season. The Bills entered Sunday as the highest-scoring team in the NFL, 15-point favorites over the 1-6 Jaguars. Neither team scored 15 points in the game. Jags Josh dominated Bills Josh, making a series of massive plays as the Jags won the lowest-scoring game of the season, 9-6.
Josh Allen intercepted Josh Allen:
Josh Allen sacked Josh Allen:
Josh Allen recovered a Josh Allen fumble:
The game was a nightmare for announcers—here is a direct transcript from the Bills radio feed, where it quickly became clear that calling Bills Josh Allen “Josh” was woefully insufficient.
“Pressure coming again, Josh in trouble … gets rid of it, fires it down the middle, picked off, intercepted by Josh Allen. Josh Allen of the Bills is picked off by Josh Allen of the Jaguars. Josh Allen of the Bills threw a horrible pass, under pressure again, and Josh Allen of the Jaguars was sitting there waiting for it.”
The Bills came into Sunday averaging 32.7 points per game; the Jaguars were allowing 29.0 points per game. Somehow, this awful defense playing this explosive offense resulted in the Bills scoring six points, their first time without a touchdown since a meaningless Week 17 game in 2019. The only possible explanation is that Bills Josh simply could not function in the presence of his Looper.
Jags Josh is a quality player—he made the Pro Bowl in 2019—but this was indisputably the greatest game he’s ever played. That interception was the first of his career, that fumble recovery was the first of his career, and he finished with a career high in tackles, four of which were on Josh Allen. Simply put, Josh Allen feasted on Josh Allen, soaring to new heights when given the opportunity to destroy his Other.
In his seminal 1919 essay “The Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud explored the unsettling nature of “doubles.” Throughout history, people have told tales about doppelgängers, reflections, clones, and evil twins, a trend that continues in modern horror movies and TV shows. Why are we so disturbed by the idea of doubles? Why is it so terrifying to imagine a version of ourselves whom we cannot control? Monsters may be frightening, but there is nothing more terrifying than our fear of our own failures. Sunday, Josh Allen faced Josh Allen. And isn’t that the scariest thing anybody could ever have to deal with?
Winner: The Manning-cast Curse
I wish this column extended to Monday nights, so I could sing the praises of the Monday night Manning-cast every week. ESPN decided to start airing an alternate feed of its biggest weekly broadcast, in which Peyton and Eli Manning sit around and talk about football while watching the game. They also make jokes, which range from OK to good, but the highlight is listening to unfiltered explanations of how football really works from one of the game’s greatest players, and his brother.
Every week, they pick the brains of various football-related guests, including some active NFL players. Last Monday, Josh Allen (of the Bills) joined the Mannings to talk about how he plays against zone and the time he drank all of Peyton’s beer and failed to recognize Chad Henne. Sunday, Josh Allen lost. We’ve already explained that this was probably because of his crippling fear of his fellow Josh Allen—but it may have been because of his Manning-cast appearance.
The Mannings have had six active NFL players join as guests this season: Allen, Travis Kelce, Russell Wilson, Rob Gronkowski, Matthew Stafford, and Tom Brady. All six have lost their next games. It would be strange enough for any set of six players to go 0-6 in any set of games—the odds of a completely average team losing six straight games are 1 in 64, or roughly 1.5 percent. But these players are on good teams! These five teams are a combined 26-11 in games not affected by the Manning-cast Curse, a 70.3 winning percentage. The odds of a team that wins 70.3 percent of its games going 0-6 is roughly 0.07 percent—1 in 1,400. The supposed “Madden Curse” has been myth-busted many times, and was never particularly well defined—but week after week, the Manning-cast guests defy the odds by losing.
I’ve learned a lot of things about football from watching the Mannings this year, but here’s the most interesting fact they’ve taught us: The most important time of any game week for NFL players is Monday night between 8 and 11 p.m. Eastern. If they are occupied in any way during this period, they are completely doomed. Clearly, the Mannings know this, and are trying to cement their legacy by distracting the game’s greats every week. Curses aren’t real: This is strategic scheming by a man who knows football better than just about anybody on the planet, and his brother.
Loser: Robby Anderson
Finally, Robby was free. He’d escaped the monster who had threatened to kill his NFL career, and it seemed like things had turned a corner.
In 2017, Anderson’s second year in the NFL, the undrafted wide receiver had 941 receiving yards and seemed set for a promising career. Then, the Jets drafted Sam Darnold, and Anderson regressed. He experienced drop-offs in touchdowns, yards per game, and receptions per game, topping out at 779 yards in 2019. So he left the Jets and Darnold in free agency in 2020, signed with the Panthers, and immediately went for 1,000 yards in his first post-Darnold season. He could breathe. He didn’t have to live in fear anymore—he could just be himself.
But you don’t just walk away from killer monsters. They follow you to new towns, new families, and new careers. Just when Anderson thought he was finally free from Darnold, the Panthers traded for him this offseason, reuniting Anderson with the career killer he thought he’d left for good.
Sunday, Darnold threw three interceptions against the Patriots—just like the good old days in New York. Anderson had one reception for 2 yards. His longest play of the night was the one where he tried to chase down J.C. Jackson’s 88-yard pick-six:
That pick six is JC Jackson’s fourth interception of the season and the 21st INT of his four-year NFL career. pic.twitter.com/Z5ZUNC4w3d— Doug Kyed (@DougKyed) November 7, 2021
After Darnold’s third pick of the game, Anderson was seen ripping into his old teammate on the sideline:
Robby Anderson is not happy with Sam Darnold pic.twitter.com/2Xs460TfzD— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) November 7, 2021
You’ve gotta feel bad for Robby. Last season, he finished 15th in receiving yards—a legit WR1. This year, he was tied for 107th before Sunday’s 2-yard outing. Darnold wasn’t good in New York and he isn’t good in Carolina, and Anderson has to know that his career will be defined by the shortcomings of the crappy QB he can’t seem to shake. I’m only kind of exaggerating when I say Darnold is killing his career—look at this pass from last week.
It’s probably time for the Panthers to move on from Darnold—but even if they do, Anderson will never be safe. Darnold will be back. Whatever NFL team he signs with, Darnold will follow. He could sign in Canada, only to touch down in Winnipeg and find the city buzzing with the news that the Blue Bombers have just landed Sam Darnold. He could retire, swearing off football, only agreeing to help coach his daughter’s flag football team—only to notice the unusually square head of the team’s quarterback, 7-year-old Samantha. Robby Anderson can get open, but he can never be alone.
Winner: The Worst Game of the Year
All told, Sunday was a pretty dull day of football. In the first eight weeks of the NFL season, there was just one game in which neither team scored 14 points; Sunday, there were two. The 12 games played on Sunday featured exactly three lead changes in the fourth quarter or later. The slate was defined by a game I will cherish for some time: The hideous matchup between the 1-7 Dolphins and the 1-7 Texans, two teams riding seven-game losing streaks. I believe this game will stand the test of time and be remembered as the absolute worst game of the 2021 season.
In the first eight weeks of the season, no game featured more than six combined turnovers. Last year, no game had more than seven combined turnovers. But the Dolphins and Texans knew we wanted pure sludge, the grossest slop from the bottom of the trough. We weren’t there for touchdowns or competence. They brought us nine combined turnovers, the most in any game since 2016.
This game wasn’t played during a hurricane or a windstorm. It was in the 70s and sunny, a perfect Miami day. These turnovers were caused by offenses that seemed offended by the idea that they had to hold on to the football. Tyrod Taylor randomly decided to throw a ball back into the field of play for an interception when he obviously had the opportunity to throw it out of bounds:
Jacoby Brissett started for the Dolphins, replacing an apparently injured Tua Tagovailoa, and was equally committed to throwing interceptions:
Hilarious Jacoby Brissett pick to Eric Murray pic.twitter.com/jK9bBegBMz— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) November 7, 2021
Here is what it looks like when three people sack a quarterback:
Here is what it looks like when zero people sack a quarterback:
Tyrod Taylor is sacked by a ghost, apparently. pic.twitter.com/pfeTqwJ0tO— FinCuts (@FinCuts) November 7, 2021
It felt like every play in this game featured somebody doing something horribly wrong. The most memorable mistakes featured the quarterbacks, but the offensive linemen also routinely failed to block defenders. Sometimes you’d rewatch a seemingly normal play and notice a stray receiver fall down for no reason. The Dolphins “won,” 17-9, but even they committed five turnovers. These two teams are in football hell—it seems horrible to live there, but I’ll remember my visit fondly.
Loser: Jordan Love
It’s become trendy to argue that highly drafted QBs should wait on the bench and develop, learning the rhythm of life in the NFL while mastering their team’s offense. It worked for Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes! And hypothetically, that’s what Jordan Love has been doing since the Packers’ controversial decision to pick him in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft: learning while Aaron Rodgers pilots the ship. But with Love backing up a legend, it’s been tough to discern what’s going on with him. Is he riding the bench because Rodgers is one of the best passers in football, and his services aren’t needed yet? Or is Love simply not good enough to play?
The answer became more clear after Rodgers was ruled out of Sunday’s game due to his loud and misguided decision to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine. That forced Love into the first legitimate action of his career. It’s remarkable how little Love had played in the 18 months since being drafted: His first preseason was canceled due to COVID-19, and he failed to win Green Bay’s backup role as a rookie. (Earlier this year I did a study of when first-round QBs made their first starts—besides Love, every first-rounder since 2000 had taken at least a few snaps in their rookie season.) Love got to play this preseason, and threw seven passes in garbage time of Green Bay’s Week 1 loss to the Saints, but it was tough to glean much from those outings.
Sunday was his first chance to show what he can do—and he did relatively little. Although the second-year QB threw only one interception, he routinely seemed like he was on the verge of turnovers:
still not sure how AJ Dillon ended up with this ball but hey, sweet completion Jordan Love! pic.twitter.com/bwj3wx9qlj— Christian D'Andrea probably does not own a brewery (@TrainIsland) November 7, 2021
Jordan Love had Adams open for a touchdown here with a better pass.pic.twitter.com/o44hmky4BU— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) November 8, 2021
The Packers had just 179 passing yards against Kansas City, the fewest of any Chiefs opponent this season. Kansas City was allowing 7.8 yards per passing attempt, third worst in the NFL, but Love managed only 5.6 yards per attempt. The Packers had a legitimate shot to win this game thanks to another dismal offensive performance by the struggling Chiefs, but Green Bay was shut out until there were five minutes remaining and lost 13-7.
Love has supposedly been prepping for this moment for 18 months, but looked as unready as a rookie in Week 1. The Packers always experience a steep drop-off when Rodgers is out—they’re 133-64-1 with him, but 6-12-1 without him since 2008, when players like Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien, and Brett Hundley Jr. tried to fill his shoes. I guess I had just hoped that a first-round draft pick with ample prep time would be different than all the other spot starters who looked hopeless filling in for Rodgers.
Loser: The Worst Seats in the House
We all got to see Jordan Love’s debut in perfect detail on our TVs and computers and phones—every time he got hit, every frenzied heave, every incompletion. Luckily, Love’s family members didn’t have to watch his performance in 4K. They were seated in the very last row of the Chiefs’ stadium, possibly across the state border in actual Kansas. Most stadiums won’t let you bring in telescopes, so they probably weren’t able to see anything Love actually did.
Oh my god they gave Jordan Love’s girlfriend and mom the worst seats in the house ☠️ pic.twitter.com/nfo6eu5STu— Mitch Goldich (@mitchgoldich) November 7, 2021
I’ve attended a game in the last row of a stadium before. It’s fun! You get to pretend some of the greatest athletes on the planet are little, tiny, squishable ants; you can make friends with the birds nesting in the stadium eaves; and you can stand up all you want, because there’s nobody behind you. Plus, if you have a sharp object, you can carve “RODGER WAS HERE” into the stadium’s back wall. But if I went to a football game to see my son, I might want to actually see him instead of seeing a tiny dot wearing his uniform number.
On the broadcast, Erin Andrews explained that this is par for the course—that’s where the ticket allotment is for Chiefs opponents week after week. You don’t expect teams to leave money on the table by giving away front-row seats at the 50, but there has to be something better than the very worst seat in the entire stadium. I hope the Chiefs at least provide opposing families with complimentary oxygen tanks so they can breathe up there.
However, the Packers may have also been partially responsible for the seats their starting QB’s family found themselves in:
Video shows the mom and girlfriend of @jordan3love seated at the top of the stadium - many are mocking the @chiefs for this, but the @packers are also responsible - league rule requires home teams to provide visiting teams w/some nice seats - GB chose to use them for others.— Amy Trask (@AmyTrask) November 7, 2021
While Love may have been making his first NFL start Sunday, it wasn’t the first time his mom had gone to a Packers game. Love explained that his mom has attended all of his games, even when he was riding the bench, even at Utah State, even when he was redshirting as a freshman. “I tell her … ‘I’m not playing, you don’t have to come out of your way to come to these games,’ but she’s like ‘No, I’m gonna be there, I want to see you.’” If she has really attended all his games since his freshman year, she’s been everywhere from Hawaii to North Carolina, from Wyoming to New Orleans. She didn’t care whether her son won or lost or even played—coast to coast, college to the pros, she just wanted to support him.
Maybe the Loves didn’t have a problem with their seats. They don’t attend Jordan’s games just to get the best view. They don’t need to be able to tell Jordan that he overthrew his receivers or that he should’ve seen a safety coming—they just need to be able to tell Jordan they were there for him. It’s about the Loves, and it’s about—ughhhhhhhhhhhhhhh—love. I bet Jordan could feel that all the way from the 578th row.
Winner: The All-Punt Offense
You’ve been taught that a football team has to gain 10 yards to pick up a first down. You have been lied to. They have been hiding the truth from you—the truth of the Punting First Down. Allow the Denver Broncos to demonstrate:
In #DENvsDAL, the punt is blocked & goes beyond the line of scrimmage, where it's touched by the receiving team. Since the receiving team touches the ball beyond the line of scrimmage, the kicking team is eligible to recover the ball. DEN recovers the ball, but cannot advance it. pic.twitter.com/bcdUEGu3Jd— NFL Officiating (@NFLOfficiating) November 7, 2021
This play looks like a disaster for Denver. The Broncos’ punt gets blocked, and they recover the ball well behind the first-down marker. They failed to protect the punt and failed to move the ball past the chains.
But no! Cowboys safety Xavier Woods attempted to pick the ball up in the hopes of returning it for a touchdown, but couldn’t control the wildly bouncing ball. This is essentially the same as a muffed punt. And when a kicked ball is touched by the receiving team beyond the line of scrimmage, that counts as a change of possession, so if the kicking team manages to get back on top of the ball, it’s their ball. The Cowboys already learned this lesson with Leon Lett on a field goal.
Why would anybody try to move the football downfield when they could just kick the ball off opponents? Playbooks are so complicated with all these different ways to run or pass the ball. Why bother? Just kick the ball off of your opponent and hop on top of it. This is the offense of the future.
Winner: All the Teams That Lost Big Players
November 2 was the NFL’s trade deadline—time for teams to realize they were giving up on their seasons. Like the Denver Broncos, who traded eight-time Pro Bowler Von Miller for a pair of Day 2 picks in the upcoming 2022 draft. Miller was leading the Broncos in sacks, but Denver had lost the last four games in which Miller played before an ankle injury, and came to the tough realization that building for the future was more important than holding on to the franchise icon.
Yet without Von, the Broncos absolutely dominated defensively. Denver took a 30-0 lead on the favored Cowboys in Dallas before allowing a pair of garbage-time scores. Miller’s direct replacement was Jonathon Cooper, a rookie seventh-round pick—and he looked incredible Sunday, feasting on Dallas’s backup left tackle and recording the first two sacks of his career.
Jonathon Cooper gets the first sack of his NFL career! pic.twitter.com/6kXfS9TyTo— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 7, 2021
The Broncos weren’t the only team to part ways with a star. The Browns cut Odell Beckham Jr. in a mutually beneficial decision: Odell felt the Browns were holding him back, and was probably right. The Browns felt they didn’t need the headache from a player averaging 39 receiving yards per game, and were also probably right. Even Odell Beckham Sr. was happy—but how would the Browns look without their star?
Just fine, apparently! The Browns beat up on the Bengals 41-16. As always, the Browns were carried by their ground game, as Nick Chubb had 137 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries. But Baker Mayfield averaged over 10 yards per attempt too. Donovan Peoples-Jones got the start in Beckham’s absence and connected with Mayfield on a 60-yard bomb—longer than any play in Beckham’s past two seasons.
But not every player leaves a team’s lineup by choice. The Titans played their first game since Derrick Henry required surgery for a foot injury, and seemed doomed. Henry was their first, second, and third option on offense. He’d received 219 carries; his backup had seven. Tennessee had to totally reshape its offense, and had to do it against the Rams, with Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey.
And it didn’t matter. The Titans didn’t really try to do “offense,” becoming the first team this season to win a game with fewer than 200 yards. They just forced Matt Stafford into two comically bad interceptions and held the Rams to 4-for-15 on third downs, keeping Los Angeles out of the end zone into the fourth quarter. They won 28-16, even getting Adrian Peterson a late TD:
The Broncos, Browns, and Titans suffered big personnel losses and won anyway. This isn’t addition by subtraction, and it isn’t a sign the players they lost are meaningless: It’s just a sign that football is a complex game featuring massive rosters. What makes teams good is often tough to sum up—it’s the work of dozens of players and coaches, most of whom aren’t particularly famous. Solid teams can lose great players and remain relatively good. It’s not a fun take, but it’s the way this sport works.