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: Tom Brady
It’s a bummer that Tom Brady has had the longest and most successful career in football history, because it turns out watching him scream and mope his way through an excruciating loss is extremely enjoyable.
Before Sunday’s matchup with the Saints, the Buccaneers had the highest-scoring offense in the NFL, averaging 31.5 points per game. Against New Orleans they scored … zero. It was the first time a team leading the league in scoring had ever been shut out in December or later; it was also the first time Brady was shut out in a game since 2006. The last time Brady was shut out, he was 29 years old, and nobody else on the Buccaneers was in the NFL yet.
It was a winnable game—the Taysom Hill–led Saints scored only nine points—but the Bucs couldn’t do a damn thing. It was the lowest-scoring NFL game since 2019—and that game was played in a monsoon, with Case Keenum getting shut out. This game was played under perfectly normal conditions; Brady just played terribly.
The 44-year-old handled the loss like a 4-year-old. After that interception, Brady ran over to the Saints sideline and—according to the internet’s finest lipreaders—told the team that beat him to go fuck themselves. (Isn’t approaching the opposing sideline a penalty?)
am I crazy or does Tom Brady say "go fuck yourself bitch" pic.twitter.com/RZHJA2WBIR— alex (@highlghtheaven) December 20, 2021
In addition to his opponents, Brady took out his frustrations on a sideline tablet. Poor tablet. It could’ve had a long life of playing age-appropriate video games for a toddler, but no—it had to run into Tom Brady on his worst day in years.
Brady also yelled at the refs after they called a penalty on the Saints—apparently mad at their lack of calls, even though they called twice as many penalties on New Orleans as on Tampa Bay.
There was a good reason for Tampa Bay’s offensive struggles: Their offense was depleted. By the end of the game, they were without their top three receivers (Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, and Antonio Brown) as well as their top running back (Leonard Fournette). Brady was throwing to Tyler Johnson, Scotty Miller, and Jaelon Darden and handing off to Ke’Shawn Vaughn.
But still—shouldn’t the GOAT be able to lead a field goal drive with less-than-stellar targets? And shouldn’t somebody who has won seven Super Bowls and hundreds of NFL games be able to handle a single embarrassing loss without becoming openly aggressive at the officials, the opponents, and inanimate technology? (RIP, little tablet.)
It’s a good thing for Brady that he has had the longest and most successful career in football history—because I’m not sure this guy could emotionally handle it if he were shut out more than once a decade.
Winner: The Race for the Top Pick
The easiest matchup to pick in Week 15 was Detroit-Arizona. The Lions were 1-11-1, the worst record in the NFL. The Cardinals were 10-3, tied for the best record in the NFL. The 13-point spread seemed generous to Detroit.
But something happened at Ford Field that I can’t quite explain. Detroit handily beat the crap out of Arizona, jumping out to a 17-0 lead and winning 30-12. Jared Goff had his best game as a Lion, going 21-for-26 with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Those weren’t empty stats: The much-maligned ex-Ram with the tiny hands was dealing:
Meanwhile, the Cardinals scored just 12 points, with Kyler Murray averaging a season-low 6.3 yards per attempt:
The worst team in the NFL had beaten the best team in the NFL in the second half of the season only twice since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, most recently in 2004. This was historically improbable—and a disaster for the Lions. Detroit, you fools! You’ve messed it all up. I wanted you to win one game! Not two!
You were having the perfect tanking season. Week after week, the Lions were displaying competitiveness by playing close games, and then losing. A few weeks ago, they had their big euphoric moment of relief—a walk-off touchdown to beat the Vikings. But even after that win, they still had the worst record in the NFL and remained in position to get the top pick in the draft, which seems likely to be Michigan man Aidan Hutchinson. Why win anymore? To “establish culture” under Dan Campbell? That man established culture! He had the whole team fighting for him when they were 0-8! Now they’re 2-11-1, with two wins in their past three games.
To get the no. 1 pick back, Detroit needs the Jaguars to win a game. Sunday’s win by the Lions may have shown that nearly anything is possible in the NFL—but a Jaguars win?
Loser: John Harbaugh’s Two-Point Conversions
The Ravens played for the win again, and they lost. With Lamar Jackson out after suffering an ankle injury early in last week’s game, backup Tyler Huntley played well once again in his second straight contest, scoring back-to-back touchdowns in the fourth quarter to get within a point of the NFC-leading Packers. Faced with the option of kicking a game-tying extra point or a go-ahead two-point conversion, head coach John Harbaugh went for two, and Huntley’s pass fell incomplete. The Ravens lost, 31-30.
It’s the second time in three games that the Ravens have been in this exact scenario—and the second time they’ve lost. Just two weeks ago, Baltimore went for a game-winning 2-pointer against the Steelers, but T.J. Watt pressured Lamar Jackson and the pass was just out of Mark Andrews’s reach. Throw in last week’s 24-22 loss to the Browns, and this team has lost three games to three good teams by a combined four points.
The logic on Sunday’s two-point conversion call is easy to understand. This wasn’t riverboat gambling. This wasn’t “analytics.” (Actually, Analytics Twitter is disappointed in Harbaugh for not going for two earlier.) This was just a head coach looking at the game and trusting his gut on what would give his team the best chance to win. This was a team with 17 players on injured reserve, five more on the COVID list, plus four more starters who were neither on IR or COVID-IR but were inactive. I don’t know if they’re the most injured team in NFL history, but they’ve gotta be close. As such, the Ravens were big underdogs on Sunday—and both logic and historic evidence indicate that big underdogs shouldn’t play for OT.
By the end of Sunday’s game, six of their seven top corners from the start of the season were gone, as were both of the team’s Week 1 starting safeties. Would you send your fourth- and fifth-string cornerbacks out for another 10 minutes against Aaron Rodgers? What if I told you your own MVP quarterback was injured, and you were starting an undrafted rookie at QB? Would you want to extend the game, or reduce it to a single play?
But we can’t let Harbaugh off the hook here. These plays lost these games. Two weeks ago, the Ravens lost because their best play, the play to win the game, left Watt unblocked, and he wreaked havoc. Sunday, they lost because their best play, the play to win the game, left Huntley with only half the field to work with and forced him to make a play he couldn’t. Even if his decisions were right, Harbaugh’s team lost two winnable games.
This Ravens team has gone through hell and responded with week after week of gutty performances, and it has resulted in three straight losses. The standings do not care that the losses have been close, or that the opponents have been tough—they are simply losses. This team deserves pity, but this game will not give it to them.
Winner: The QB-QN Sneak
We all know the quarterback sneak is the most effective play in football—not only does this feel right, the numbers back it up, as the QB sneak converts roughly 70 to 90 percent of the time. For years, the Patriots had the best QB sneaker in football in Tom Brady—but in their 27-17 loss to the Colts, they played against the NFL’s new sneakiest QB: Carson Wentz.
Wentz had only five completions for 57 yards Saturday night, while Jonathan Taylor provided most of the firepower with 170 yards and a touchdown. But whenever the Colts faced fourth-and-short, Wentz came through. The Colts went for it three times on fourth down. All three were QB sneaks, all three were successful, and all three times Wentz had a good strategy: He just followed the butt of the Colts’ superstar left guard, Quenton Nelson. There aren’t that many “superstar left guards”—Nelson is probably the only one, having been named first-team All-Pro in all three of his NFL seasons. If you watch him burrow holes through a New England defense specifically prepared for a QB sneak, you’ll understand why.
It looks like Hightower tried to shoot the wrong gap which allowed Wentz to sneak for the 1st pic.twitter.com/BqE7nlhED8— Ben Brown (@BenBrownPL) December 19, 2021
The second video there is actually a different QB sneak. I know—it’s from the same location on the field and roughly the same camera angle and the same guy tweeted out the video. You can tell it’s different because the Colts had a fake jet sweep action with wide receiver Ashton Dulin sprinting through the backfield, and Patriots defender Matthew Judon comes in with a flying leap to try to punch the ball out.
At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Wentz has always been an exceptional QB sneaker. During his five seasons with the Eagles, Wentz led all QBs in fourth-and-1 conversions, picking up 15 first downs on 18 carries. But still, that’s only three first downs per season. The Colts, with Nelson, are doing a better job of maximizing Wentz’s talent. Wentz leads all NFL players with seven fourth-and-1 conversions this season on eight attempts—nobody else has more than four.
So what we’ve got is a quarterback who might be the best sneaker in the NFL, combined with a player who might be the best interior offensive lineman in the NFL. All things considered, the QB-QN sneak might be the most unstoppable play in football.
Loser: Tall People
Broncos wide receiver Tim Patrick is 6-foot-4. In Sunday’s game, he was defended by Bengals cornerback Trae Waynes, who is 6-foot-nothing. In the third quarter, Patrick, crashing into Waynes and sending the itsy-bitsy corner flying, grabbed a 25-yard go-ahead touchdown.
However, Patrick was flagged for a taunting penalty. Patrick did the universal “too small” taunt, lowering his hand down to knee height and indicating that the corner was too tiny to ride this rollercoaster. The refs actually blew the whistle on “Too Short.”
Tim Patrick hit him with the "too small" celebration— ESPN (@espn) December 19, 2021
He received a taunting penalty afterwards. pic.twitter.com/OoPAXEJI7a
The “Too Small” celebration has become a mainstay of NFL wide receivers’ celebratory repertoire, since they’re generally significantly larger than the defenders trying to stop them. (Here are Keenan Allen and Travis Kelce busting it out during a Chiefs-Chargers game earlier this season.) It seems to have migrated over from the NBA, where LeBron James, LaMelo Ball, and others have taunted tinier players by showing how short they are. However, in the NBA, this isn’t a foul—players are allowed to taunt each other pretty freely.
Clearly, this is another example of protecting The Shorts baked into the NFL’s rules. We’ve all seen plays where pint-sized quarterbacks like Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson draw penalties simply because their heads are lower than other players, making it naturally easier for gargantuan defenders to hit them in the helmet.
And now, the league is penalizing receivers simply for speaking the truth and letting diminutive defenders know they’re smaller? This is Anti-Tall Bias! I guess tall receivers will have to settle for continuing to catch TDs over cute little cornerbacks.
Loser: Free Medium Pepsi
It’s December 20, so you’ve either got the Christmas presents you’re gifting or you’re screwed. For those in the latter camp, I’d like to step in and offer some advice. Don’t just give a gift for the sake of giving a gift. It’s possible for a last-second gift to be the most memorable one of the holiday—but it has to be meaningful. It’s possible to give a gift so small and thoughtless that it actually feels like an insult.
Take, for example, the New York Giants, who are 4-10 and in the midst of their fifth-straight losing season. They might not offer quality football to fans, but at least attending a Giants game is one of the most expensive experiences in the NFL. So Sunday, they decided to hold a “Fan Appreciation Day,” and give their fans a gift.
The gift? A medium fountain soda.
The Giants just announced fan appreciation day for Sunday. Season ticket holders get a free medium soda.— TheGiantsWire (@TheGiantsWire) December 17, 2021
This is, without a doubt, the lowest overhead item they could give away. It’s just water, sugar, carbonation, and a paper cup. They weren’t even willing to give away a large soda—just a medium. Still, that might add up if you gave away 80,000 paper cups. But they didn’t! The Giants only gave away the free medium sodas to season-ticket holders, so if you bought single-game tickets, or purchased on the secondary market, you were out of luck. And not for every ticket—if you bought four season tickets, that entitled you to only one free medium soda.
Someone just told me that the free Pepsi at MetLife today is not one drink per ticket. It’s only for the person whose name is on the account— Pat Leonard (@PLeonardNYDN) December 19, 2021
The game sucked, because the Giants suck. Mike Glennon threw three interceptions and the team failed to score a touchdown, losing 21-6 to the Cowboys. Hopefully, fans smuggled in some hard alcohol to pour into their free medium Pepsis. The giveaway generated PR—but the bad type. It’s on the back page of Monday’s Daily News.
What fans actually want from their teams isn’t a gift, but wins. The Giants thought they could substitute a few ounces of sugar water for that, but they actually just revealed how little the franchise cares about their fans. The Giants don’t care enough to put a winning team on the field, or give the fans an enjoyable game experience, or even just give them a large soda.
Don’t be like the Giants: Not everybody can give wins to their loved ones, and that’s OK. But don’t give anybody a free medium Pepsi and pretend it’s the same as giving something with actual love and care.
Winner: Christian Wilkins
Christian Wilkins was born to do touchdown dances. His infectious enthusiasm and ridiculous flexibility make him capable of pretty much any celebration in the book. Unfortunately, he’s a 315-pound defensive tackle for a Dolphins team that hasn’t made the playoffs since drafting him in 2019, so he doesn’t have a lot of opportunities. He did a split after winning the national championship in college, attempted to shoulder bump an uncooperative Roger Goodell after getting drafted, and has earned a reputation for sprinting onto the field to celebrate other people’s touchdowns. He did score a touchdown in 2019, but fumbled on his way into the end zone, preventing him from doing a long-promised TD celebration. The man has been itching for a chance to do his dance.
Sunday, the big man finally got his opportunity to shine. On the goal line, the Dolphins brought Wilkins in as a fullback, a role he’s played several times without incident. But this time, Miami went Spider 2 Y Banana and threw to Wilkins in the flat. Wilkins started his celebration by jumping into the boxes beyond the end zone, his weight slowly collapsing into some empty seats:
Then, he got down on the field and made sweet love to the end zone:
The whole world needs to see Christian Wilkins hit the worm after catching a TD. What a gem. pic.twitter.com/nKAfhIbZ7F— Field Yates (@FieldYates) December 19, 2021
As effusive as the celebration was, Wilkins assured the press that he could do better:
Christian Wilkins on his touchdown celebration: "I was holding back. You ain't never seen me at a wedding or at a Bat Mitzvah."— David Wilson (@DBWilson2) December 19, 2021
There’s a lot of reason to celebrate in Miami. The Dolphins started the season at 1-7, including an embarrassing loss to the league-worst Jaguars—but they’ve won six in a row to get back into the postseason hunt. If Wilkins thinks he has great moves at bat mitzvahs, I can’t imagine what he’d do in a playoff game.
Winner: Jags End Zone Guy
The Jaguars had so many over-the-top disasters this season that it’s tough to appreciate the tiny ones—like the numerous instances of Jacksonville wide receivers failing to get open, occasionally crashing into each other. Pretty embarrassing, because Urban Meyer literally began his career as a wide receivers coach. But now that Meyer is gone, they’ve got players getting wide open in the end zone—just look at this guy come free at the top of the screen and start calling for the ball.
Despite the Jaguars jersey, the man was not a Jacksonville Jaguar—just a fan. And unfortunately for him, it was a run play.
“Florida Man furious at QB for not passing him the ball” pic.twitter.com/SH4kXhHfiP— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) December 19, 2021
The fan briefly got to celebrate the TD on the field with the team, but was predictably crushed by stadium security.
I’ve gotta say—I like this guy’s strategy. Most fans on the field just run around aimlessly for no particular reason, like an energetic puppy that hasn’t gotten to go to the park in a few weeks. (And often wearing the same amount of clothing.) Not this guy! He waited for his team to get into the end zone and found open space.
Maybe he was hoping that a stray flash of teal would distract a Houston defender. Maybe he was hoping that Trevor Lawrence would throw to him, and the referees would look at each other, dumbfounded, and say, “Well, he’s wearing a Jags jersey, I guess that’s a TD.” Maybe it’s just like Air Bud—there’s nothing in the rulebook that says a random idiot from the stands can’t play football!
And besides, this man probably got kicked out of the game, which was being played between the two worst teams in the NFL during a huge rainstorm, and which Jacksonville lost 30-16. This man might have looked like a Duval Doofus with a beer belly—but he was a Duval Doofus with a beer belly and a plan.