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: Justin Herbert’s Bazooka
Sometimes data challenges our perceptions about the games we love. Sometimes it reveals new ideas about our games, and allows our brightest minds to come up with new strategies. But my personal favorite use of data is the NFL’s NextGenStats Twitter account, which seems to exist for one purpose: Confirming that the football thing we just saw is really awesome. Like Justin Herbert’s 59-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Guyton, which traveled 63.8 yards and stayed in the air long enough for me to realize it was one of the greatest passes I had ever seen.
The visuals are incredible. The ball rockets out of Herbert’s hand, flies off the screen like a punt, and stays there. When the ball drops out of low earth orbit, it descends perfectly into Guyton’s hands, hitting the receiver in stride. It’s miraculous that Herbert got that much power on the ball, considering he was being pursued by Giants defenders from his blind side. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a QB throw a ball this deep, under this much pressure, with this much accuracy.
And the numbers back it up. The pass was the third longest since the NFL started tracking in 2016. Only this Baker Mayfield Hail Mary and this Russell Wilson pass have gone farther. Patrick Mahomes entered the league in 2017, and this is longer than any pass in his game-changing career. Josh Allen’s arm is the stuff of legend, and his career began in 2018—but he’s never thrown any ball farther than this. My jaw dropped 4.7 inches watching this play—the largest drop of the 2021 season—and that was totally justified.
Herbert seems to do this all the time. Just last week he made this pass to Guyton, which traveled 61.2 yards in the air.
The Herbert half roll out and throw it to the opposite side is undefeated pic.twitter.com/OvOw3qI0Rd— Billy M (@BillyM_91) December 5, 2021
Earlier this year, we were debating whether Mahomes or Allen had the stronger arm. But the debate might be over. Justin Herbert is our ThrowGod, and it’s time for everybody to start worshiping him. After all, the data says so.
Loser: The Raiders’ Attempted Dunk
I have a theory that a lot of the stuff that fans and media love talking about doesn’t actually matter a whole ton. Petty feuds, “bad blood,” and other off-the-field motivating factors—how could these things possibly matter? This is football! If the players go 90 percent, they’re gonna get their asses kicked. Every player needs to show up ready to play every down, whether they’re lined up against someone they’ve never heard of before or someone who has personally insulted their mom.
The Raiders have tested this theory with a series of petty slights against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. Maybe they shouldn’t have.
Last October, the Raiders took a victory lap around Kansas City’s stadium in the team buses after a 40-32 win. And before Sunday’s game, all of the Vegas players had a team meeting on top of the Chiefs’ midfield logo:
Dig this! The #raiders met as a team after their pregame warmup at about the 25 yard line. Then proceeded to relocate their team huddle to midfield on top of the #chiefs logo. The stadium erupted in boos as the Raiders fired each other up. LFG!!! pic.twitter.com/6MQOVtQ5G0— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) December 12, 2021
It was the last time the Raiders offense would reach midfield until shortly before halftime. Kansas City started kicking the Raiders’ asses immediately after kickoff and didn’t stop until the game ended. The Raiders took the opening kickoff, but the Chiefs scored on the first play of the game, taking a Josh Jacobs fumble into the end zone:
Kansas City led 35-0 at one point. Las Vegas had five turnovers—four lost fumbles and an interception. Kansas City had six touchdowns. Even Josh Gordon scored. Did you know Josh Gordon was in the NFL?
Kansas City won 48-9—the first time an NFL team has won by that exact score. After the game, the stadium PA mocked Las Vegas’s 2020 victory lap by playing a topical kids’ song for their defeated rivals:
The Chiefs seem to have really taken offense to the victory lap and have been fired up to beat Las Vegas. And the evidence backs up the fact that their anger has led to improved performances. Today’s 39-point margin of victory is the largest for the Chiefs in any game since they drafted Mahomes. Kansas City’s two biggest wins of the 2021 season are both over the Raiders, whom they previously beat 41-14 back in Week 10.
I still believe that it’s possible that NFL players don’t actually get fired up by petty beefs and slights. But maybe don’t test the theory against Patrick Mahomes.
Winner: The Bills’ No RB Strategy
On Monday night, the Buffalo Bills stood by and lost to an offense that bent football past the point of reason. With extreme winds blowing in Buffalo, New England attempted just three passes—the fewest in an NFL game since 1974—but ran for 222 yards, beating the Bills 14-10. Buffalo couldn’t stop New England’s running backs, and couldn’t run the ball themselves, either, as their backs had 19 carries for 60 yards. The game revealed how ill-equipped Buffalo was to survive a ground war.
The Bills seem to have learned the right lesson from that game. Another team might have seen their failure and decided to get better at running the ball—but Buffalo needed to play to their own strengths. In the entire first half of their game against Tampa Bay on Sunday, the Bills called zero run plays for their running backs. According to the CBS broadcast, they were the first NFL team to play a first half with no RB run plays since 1991. The strategy seemed to backfire tremendously, as Buffalo fell into a 24-3 deficit at the end of the first half.
But the Bills didn’t avoid running the ball—they just avoided running with their running backs. Instead, they ran the ball with their best player: Josh Allen.
Allen had 308 passing yards and 109 rushing yards—just the fourth game in NFL history where a player had a 300/100 line. Russell Wilson did it in 2014, Cam Newton did it during his 2015 MVP campaign, and Lamar Jackson did it in the 2020 playoffs. Allen is a freak carrying the ball—6-foot-5, 240 pounds, fast, strong, and capable of making defenders miss with jukes and hurdles. Buffalo is smart to center their running game on him rather than their less talented running backs.
And when Allen did hand the ball off? It worked. Devin Singletary and Matt Breida finished the day with seven carries for 64 yards. All those carries were in the second half, after the defense was fully convinced that Buffalo’s running backs were just out there for cardio and pass protection.
Yes, Buffalo fell into a 21-point hole early on. But I refuse to believe that they could have avoided that deficit by giving the ball to Josh Allen less and giving it to Matt Breida more. The Bills asked Allen to put the team on his back—and it’s a really sturdy back. Buffalo fought back and sent the game to overtime. Unfortunately, they lost on this touchdown pass by Tom Brady:
Allen played one of the best games of the year, and almost got a win against the defending Super Bowl champs. Monday night’s game showed how important it is to play to your strengths. And, well, Buffalo’s strength is Josh Allen.
Loser: The Panthers’ Platoon
When a head coach is desperate, they’ll make changes just to say they made changes. Changes at QB, changes on the coaching staff, strategic changes—just pulling doors open, hoping it’s a mystery door with a grand prize hiding behind it. Panthers head coach Matt Rhule is opening every door he can, but he’s finding nothing behind them.
Last Sunday, Rhule fired second-year offensive coordinator Joe Brady. Rhule explained that the firing was simply about football—he and Brady had different philosophies. Now, you would assume, was Rhule’s opportunity to run things the way he wanted. But the Panthers came out Sunday against Atlanta and didn’t really seem to have a strategy. Instead, they flip-flopped back and forth between their two struggling quarterbacks, Cam Newton and P.J. Walker. The Panthers benched Newton one series after this pick-six:
In came Walker, the former XFL star who played for Rhule at Temple. But the Panthers went back to Newton after Walker threw this interception:
But then the the Panthers went back to Walker after a pair of Newton drives ended in a sack on fourth down and this lost fumble:
Matt Rhule said Newton should’ve jumped on the football, instead of trying to make a play.— John Ellis (@1PantherPlace) December 12, 2021
Here’s the play again. Trying to find what Cam could’ve done after the fumble
Carolina lost, 29-21. I’d say Newton had the better day—he finished the day averaging more yards per attempt than Walker while also leading the Panthers in rushing. But Walker threw the team’s only passing TD.
It’s possible there’s some sort of strategy here—Newton is a better runner, Walker is a better passer. It would make sense if the Panthers played Newton when they were in red zone situations or leading, but went to Walker when facing big deficits and trying to score quickly. That would explain why Walker went into the game to run the two-minute drill at the end of the first half and why the Panthers went with Walker when they were down 29-14 in the fourth quarter.
But we may be applying too much logic to the Panthers’ decisions. It kinda seems like Carolina was just benching whichever QB made an embarrassing play most recently. That’s not a strategy; it’s fear.
Newton has been in the NFL for a decade. And Rhule has been coaching Walker since 2013. These aren’t mystery doors—they’re options that Rhule should know and understand at this point. Carolina has lost three straight games, all with Newton starting at QB, and has fallen out of the NFC playoff race. They’re doomed unless Rhule can figure out a strategy at QB, and he doesn’t seem particularly interested in doing that.
I always like to watch the Grey Cup, the championship of the Canadian Football League, even though it takes place in the middle of an NFL Sunday. It’s typically a fun game, and a fun opportunity to witness a version of the sport with slightly different rules, and slightly different accents. After the CFL canceled the 2020 season due to COVID, I was really looking forward to Sunday’s matchup between the defending champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and it delivered. Winnipeg beat Hamilton in overtime on this ridiculous pinball interception:
One helluva effort to secure the championship-clinching interception for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. pic.twitter.com/JQXVOcy6GI— Brent Sobleski (@brentsobleski) December 13, 2021
However, for me, the most exciting moment of the game came slightly before overtime. With Hamilton trailing 24-22, Winnipeg kicked the ball off into the end zone and Hamilton’s return man took a knee.
The second fourth-quarter kickoff rouge. pic.twitter.com/Ayjx439aan— Andrew Bucholtz (@AndrewBucholtz) December 13, 2021
Just like in the NFL, this resulted in a touchback, which brings the ball out to the 35-yard line. (See? Slightly different.) But unlike the NFL, this also resulted in a point for Winnipeg: In Canadian football, if a team fails to return a field goal, punt, or kickoff out of the end zone, the kicking team scores a “single” or “rouge,” which gives them a point. Winnipeg actually scored three singles in the game—one on a punt, and two on kickoffs. This play also gave Winnipeg a critical fourth-quarter point in a game that went to OT.
The kneel was a massive blunder. Down by two points, the Tiger-Cats should have had an opportunity to drive for a game-winning field goal. Instead, they gave up a point, and had to settle for a game-tying field goal. It helped cost them the championship. It’s quite possible that the return man, Tim White, didn’t know the CFL rules. White is from Southern California, played at Arizona State, spent four years on the NFL practice squads of the Ravens, Jets, and Saints, and appeared in three games for Baltimore in 2018. This was his first CFL season, and he’d returned only one kick before Sunday. Hamilton’s regular return man, Frankie Williams, was injured.
Now, you’re probably expecting me to say that I want the NFL to adopt the rouge. After all, I’m a weirdo who gets excited about special teams and Canadian football. And I do think it’s great that single points can be added to a team’s score. It allows for teams to come back when trailing by nine points in one possession. It allows for a hypothetical game-winning missed field goal or a game-winning punt, both of which sound incredible. It adds intrigue to decision-making, which I think makes the game more entertaining.
But if the NFL adopted the rouge, would I be as excited to turn on the Grey Cup and witness a championship-altering rouge brain fart? Would a championship-altering rouge brain fart even exist if the rouge were universal? I think football is made more beautiful by how complicated it is—and it’s made even more complicated by the fact that there are two slightly different versions of it played across the border from each other. I want to watch the Grey Cup every year and be enthralled by the Canadian game’s subtle differences. Vive la rouge!
Winner: The Pennyssaince
Rashaad Penny has been a one-man argument against drafting running backs in the first round. It’s true that part of the reason the Seahawks’ 2018 first-round pick has been unproductive is a stunning number of injuries—he tore an ACL in 2019, missed games with a knee injury in 2018 and a hamstring injury in 2019, and hit the IR this year with a calf strain—but guess what, running backs get injured a lot. And even when healthy, Penny has never been able to displace Chris Carson—a seventh-round pick in the 2017 draft. Meanwhile, other backs from the 2018 draft have done fine—Pro Bowler Nick Chubb was taken eight picks after Penny, and seven players selected after him have more career rushing yards.
But now, Seahawks fans will have at least one positive memory of Penny. Sunday, he got just the second start of his four-year career—and he looked incredible. Coming into Sunday, Penny had 78 yards on the season. He nearly doubled that Sunday with a career-high 137 yards to go with two touchdowns.
Rashaad Penny with his first TD of the season— Action Network NFL (@ActionNetNFL) December 12, 2021
Seahawks first quarter -1.5
It does feel like Penny may be better than his reputation. Sunday was just the seventh time in his career that he has gotten 10 carries, and he has hit 100 yards in three of those games. It may be too late to turn around his Seahawks career—but he might be of help to your fantasy team in the playoffs.
But that wasn’t all for the Penny family! Rashaad’s brother Elijhaa had the first receiving touchdown of his six-year career Sunday for the Giants:
Clearly, the Seahawks and Giants need to do a better job of getting this pair of Pennys the ball—but that’s just my two cents!
Loser: The Washington Football Field
Never trust Washington Football Team owner Dan Snyder to do anything, even the bare minimum. At most NFL stadiums, you could probably expect to buy tickets to a game and leave without being drenched in human excrement—but as we learned earlier this year, not at Washington’s stadium. (FedEx Field? More like FecEs Field.) At most NFL stadiums, NFL teams can expect to have working sideline equipment provided for them by the home team. Two weeks ago, the Seahawks reportedly found that the heated benches on the sideline kept malfunctioning. So this week, the Cowboys flew their own benches in:
Cowboys imported their own benches after concerns about heating function at WFT, source tells @usatodaysports.— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) December 12, 2021
You can bet Jerry Jones delights in loud logo. “We as the Cowboys, we put it out there,” he said Friday. “I like all this additional color.”
( : @dallascowboys) pic.twitter.com/OZ9W8PiWgp
Snyder is basically your worst landlord, except he owns an NFL team. You expect him to fix the sewage pipes and make sure the building’s electrical bill is paid? Sheesh! How do you expect him to build a yacht with an IMAX theater on it if he spends money on all that stuff?
But Sunday, I saw something worse than a poop fountain or a cold bench. After an injury to Taylor Heinicke, the departing QB looked down at the field and noticed … A PAIR OF SCISSORS ON THE PLAYING FIELD.
Wait, Taylor Heinicke was walking off the field and just saw a pair of SCISSOR LAYING IN THE GRASS????pic.twitter.com/mC5cLKFwUF— Jason McIntyre (@jasonrmcintyre) December 12, 2021
FedEx Field has long been considered the worst field in the NFL. Huge chunks of turf would come out during games; former Washington kicker Kai Forbath once said that a long-running joke about Washington spray-painting the field green was actually true. Snyder’s decision to not spend a little bit of cash for a better field ended up costing the team millions when the shoddy turf contributed to the injury that ruined Robert Griffin III’s career. Supposedly, the team dealt with this issue this offseason. But now I guess they’re growing scissors in there.
Now, I understand how a pair of scissors could end up on an NFL field. Trainers have scissors to cut bandages and athletic tape. I guess what I don’t understand is why the person who dropped the scissors didn’t immediately pick it up, leading to a situation where a player might be tackled onto those blades and get their spleen punctured. However, it’s the second time this has happened this NFL season—the Raiders also had some field scissors earlier this year.
For that trainer’s sake, I hope Snyder doesn’t find out about the scissors incident. He probably won’t care about the player safety issue—but those medical scissors cost $7.99, and Snyder will be pissed that his staffers nearly threw it away.
Winner: Rasul Douglas
In the past 18 months, five NFL teams have decided they didn’t need Rasul Douglas. The Eagles, who drafted Douglas in the third round in 2017, cut him before the 2020 season. The Panthers picked him up, and he started 11 games last year, but they didn’t hold on to him after the season. The Raiders signed him in April, but cut him in training camp. He spent six days on the Texans roster—clearly, they didn’t need any more help. The Cardinals signed him to their practice squad, but never put him on their active roster, meaning any other team in the NFL could steal him away.
The Packers signed him in October, and he’s been a gift for the team. In one of his first games with Green Bay, he made a game-winning interception against Arizona—the same team that failed to protect him. In Week 12, he had a pick-six against the Rams, and was named NFC Defensive Player of the week.
And Sunday against the Bears, he had yet another pick-six:
Rasul Douglas' 2021 timeline:— Doug Kyed (@DougKyed) December 13, 2021
April 19: Signed by Raiders
Aug. 23: Cut
Aug. 25: Signed by Texans
Aug. 31: Cut
Sept. 3: Signed to Cardinals’ practice squad
Oct. 6: Signed by Packers off Cardinals’ PS
Week 8: Game-clinching INT
Weeks 12 and 14: Pick-sixes pic.twitter.com/gUhPMiF0X8
Now Douglas has an interception for every team that cut him since 2021 started. It’s like the old saying goes: One man’s trash is going to do better at cornerback than Kevin King did in the NFC championship game last year.