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: Joe Burrow
Modern football is dominated by passing, passing, and more passing—but many of the NFL’s single-game passing records are decades old. The passing TD record (seven) is a tie among many players, including Adrian Burk, Joe Kapp, and Y.A. Tittle, all of whom played before the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The passing yardage record (551) was set by Norm Van Brocklin, in a 1951 game against the New York Yanks. It’s a record so old that it was set against an opponent that borrowed a baseball team’s name and didn’t get sued to hell.
There’s a reason for this: These passing records are kept safe not so much by actual defenses, but by teams dialing down their offenses after taking massive leads. Normally, when a quarterback throws for a ton of passing yards or a ton of touchdowns, their team wins by a lot, at which point there’s no more need to keep throwing. Like when Joe Burrow threw seven touchdowns in the first half of a College Football Playoff against Oklahoma … and finished the game with seven passing touchdowns. Burrow probably could have thrown for 10 or 15 passing TDs in that game, but there was no need. LSU’s lead was insurmountable, and it was easier to run out the clock and avoid injury.
But Burrow wasn’t interested in showing that level of restraint on Sunday, as he threw for 525 yards, the fourth most in NFL history. He was still throwing bombs up 41-21 with under two minutes to go:
Burrow was going up against a Ravens defense that has been obliterated by injuries at defensive back—starting cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters suffered season-ending injuries, and backup cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Chris Westry are on the COVID list. That situation got even worse during the game, as Anthony Averett was carted off with a chest injury in the first quarter. Burrow had 299 yards in the first half, giving Cincinnati a comfortable 31-14 lead at halftime:
Tyler Boyd 68-yard TD ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/xo3APVRd0k— Action Network NFL (@ActionNetNFL) December 26, 2021
Most teams would calm down here—run the ball, burn some clock, avoid injuries. But the Bengals actually decided to go even harder. In the first half, they threw the ball 21 times and ran it 11. In the second half, they threw it 25 times and ran it just 10, including a game-ending kneel-down. At one point, they called 15 consecutive passing plays despite a big late-game lead. The Bengals won, 41-21, taking sole possession of first place in the AFC North.
TEE HIGGINS CANNOT BE STOPPED— Action Network NFL (@ActionNetNFL) December 26, 2021
11 receptions, 174 yards, 2 TD
I kept assuming that the Bengals would dial things back. Burrow, whose rookie season ended when he was hit while throwing a pass, took three sacks and narrowly escaped a few others. Why keep throwing with a three-score lead in the fourth quarter? Why not sub him out? Was Burrow really that motivated by the Ravens defensive coordinator saying Burrow wasn’t a Hall of Famer yet? Were the Bengals really willing to risk injury in pursuit of history, like the Ravens did earlier this year to tie the record for consecutive 100-yard rushing games?
Burrow’s gaudy passing performance felt like a statement. To approach legendary single-game passing totals, a QB has to be spectacular and ruthless. Burrow was both on Sunday. The Ravens were not capable of stopping Burrow on Sunday—and he was uninterested in stopping himself.
Loser: The SNF Intro
There is no denying that the NFL has been bleak the last few weeks. Some feel the league should reevaluate its COVID risk assessments due to the potentially milder nature of the omicron variant, which has likely caused so many vaccinated players to test positive; others are horrified that the league is playing games even though so many players are testing positive. The NFL has settled on a solution that seems certain to upset those with both viewpoints: having teams in the midst of large COVID outbreaks play critical late-season games with large swaths of important players out due to positive tests. It’s a situation that can be summed up in this video:
Milo Eifler with the best SNF intro ever LMAOOOOOOOOOOOO pic.twitter.com/AVkO8Ryq2G— ✯✯✯✯✯ (@FTB_Vids_YT) December 27, 2021
As you’re probably aware, NBC’s Sunday Night Football allows starters to introduce themselves in a short video where they say their name and their college, real or fictional. However, NBC did not have a video prepared for Washington’s Milo Eifler, who was playing in just his second NFL game.
Washington has been dealing with one of the league’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks. Last week’s game was pushed from Sunday to Tuesday due to Washington’s COVID issues, and the Football Team had to start third-string QB Garrett Gilbert after Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen contracted COVID. And that outbreak has only exacerbated the team’s already-existing depth issues at linebacker. Jon Bostic went down Week 4 with a season-ending pectoral injury, and Khaleke Hudson suffered an ankle injury that put him on IR in his first start of the season. The team’s remaining starters were Cole Holcomb and Jamin Davis—but Holcomb went on the COVID list on Wednesday, and on Sunday afternoon, Davis self-reported COVID symptoms, and the team decided to hold him out of Sunday night’s game.
Washington didn’t have any good options left. With Bostic, Holcomb, and Hudson out, the team was set to start David Mayo, a special teamer. But they were banking on Davis starting. The team’s remaining linebackers were De’Jon Harris and Jordan Kunaszyk, both undrafted players who had played only a handful of snaps on defense in their careers. They went with Eifler, an undrafted rookie out of Illinois signed from the Dolphins’ practice squad after Hudson went on IR. It wasn’t just Eifler’s first career start—it was his first time playing on defense in an NFL game. Obviously, nobody knew Eifler was going to start until Davis became symptomatic, so NBC didn’t have any time to record his intro.
Washington’s lack of depth doomed them against Dallas. The Cowboys won 56-14 in the most lopsided game of the NFL season. You can see how the linebacker situation affected Washington on this play, where Malik Turner forces about a dozen missed tackles. Mayo is no. 51, the player who gets juked by Turner right off the bat and nearly crashes into two of his teammates, Eifler is no. 46, whose head gets stiff-armed into the ground by Turner. After missing one tackle, Mayo shows up again to miss a second tackle at around the 35-yard line.
That’s why the strange video of Eifler silently smiling is such a good explanation for what’s going on in the NFL right now. The very fact that Eifler was starting this game was a sign that Washington’s team was in disarray, but everybody pretended everything was normal before the game turned into a disaster. Carrie Underwood’s peppy song keeps playing as Eifler smiles, but as you stare upon the motionless face of this guy you’ve never heard of, you can’t shake the uncanny sense that something is deeply wrong.
Winner: Big-Man Touchdowns
It’s fantasy football playoffs season—but the stars of Week 16 were not running backs or wide receivers. Sunday was the greatest day in Big Man Touchdown history, as three teams threw the ball to offensive linemen on the goal line, resulting in three beautiful touchdowns for three 300-pounders.
The Giants failed to realize that three-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman Lane Johnson was lined up in an eligible position for the Eagles, and he wound up completely unguarded on a play-action pass:
The Cowboys ran essentially the exact same play for Terence Steele:
But the best Big Man Touchdown on Sunday was by Jets lineman Conor McDermott. Lined up on the left side at tight end, McDermott sprinted across the field and leapt to snag an overthrown pass by a scrambling Zach Wilson.
McDermott is 6-foot-8, and that’s why these plays aren’t complete gimmicks. Offensive linemen may not be great at getting open, but if they’re open? They’re huge targets. And on all three of these plays, defenses failed to account for linemen.
So far as I can tell, this was NFL history. There have now been 75 receiving touchdowns by offensive linemen since 1950, according to Pro-Football-Reference. Never before have there been three on one day. There were two linemen receiving touchdowns on December 12, 2010, but that was the previous record. There had been only two receiving touchdowns by offensive linemen this season, and there were only two all of last season. Then we got three in one day.
Why now? Why, all of a sudden, did three teams realize that giving the ball to their biggest players could have a big payoff? I have a theory. Big Man Touchdowns are skewed toward the end of the season. Of the 28 offensive linemen making touchdown receptions since 2008, two were in September, three were in October, 11 were in November, and 12 have been in December. This checks out from a strategic perspective. You can’t run this play twice in a season—it’s very easy to defend if anybody actually defends the lineman—so I’m guessing teams get to the end of the season and realize they can either use it or lose it. Either that, or offensive linemen are simply more capable of surviving in lower temperatures because their excess blubber insulates them from colder weather.
Regardless of the reasoning, we will celebrate this massive day for these massive men. These touchdowns may not have helped you in your fantasy playoffs—but they didn’t hurt you, either, unless your opponent had the foresight to recognize the trend of Santa-sized players scoring in the holiday season and figured out how to stash an offensive lineman in their flex spot. When Big Men score, everybody wins.
Loser: Third-String QBs
Sunday may also have been a record for games started by third-string quarterbacks. Between injuries, COVID, and general irrelevancy, three teams started third-stringers on Sunday.
The worst of the third-stringers was the Giants’ Jake Fromm, best known for starting over Justin Fields at Georgia and joking that only “elite white people” should be able to purchase guns. Fromm made his NFL debut last week in relief of Mike Glennon, and looked significantly better than the veteran, convincing Joe Judge to give him a start this week. Whoops!
What a first start for Jake Fromm!— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) December 26, 2021
• 25 Yards
• 1 INT
• 3rd quarter benchingpic.twitter.com/TWs3u8aqU8
Fromm went 6-for-17 for 25 yards, the first passer with at least 15 attempts and 25 yards or fewer since Nathan Peterman’s 5-for-18, 24-yard performance in 2018. Anytime you hear the name “Nathan Peterman,” you know you’re in rarefied air. Eventually, Judge benched Fromm for Glennon, who threw New York’s only TD of the game. With Daniel Jones out for the season, we have to assume the Giants will continue benching Glennon and Fromm for each other over and over again, an ouroboros of terrible QB play observed by miserable fans drowning their sorrows in free medium Pepsis.
With 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson injured and impressive backup Tyler Huntley on the COVID list, the Ravens had to start Josh Johnson, the ultimate journeyman. He was a natural fit—Johnson played for John Harbaugh’s brother Jim at the University of San Diego … and then reunited with Jim again with the Niners in 2012 … and then played again for Jim in 2014 … and then joined up with John and the Ravens in 2016. Johnson has been on the roster of 15 NFL teams, though he usually doesn’t actually play. His last NFL start was in 2018 for Washington; he had been with four NFL teams plus teams in the now-defunct AAF and XFL since then. He stepped in and did … fine!
Johnson threw for 304 yards for the Ravens—the only problem was Joe Burrow threw for more than 200 more yards than Johnson did. Johnson joins what I’m sure is a very small club of players to throw for 300 yards for two teams in the same season without being traded—he also had a 317-yard outing after Mike White was injured in a Jets game back in Week 9. Despite the strong outing, I’m hoping it’s his last start for the Ravens—he has to sign with only 17 more teams to complete the full set of all 32!
And you know what? I’m going to toss in a player who should be a third-stringer, as he’s clearly the third-best QB on his own team. If you’ve been reading this column all season, you’ll know I have developed a strange, all-consuming personal vendetta against Lions backup Tim Boyle, who threw one touchdown and 13 interceptions at UConn and still made the NFL. Boyle made his second start of the season on Sunday with Jared Goff out, and actually kept Detroit in the game. But when it was time for him to make a game-winning throw, he zipped a pass directly into the chest of Falcons linebacker Foye Oluokun:
But there was one player who came in as a third-stringer and thrived. With Justin Fields and Andy Dalton injured for the Bears, they had to turn to Nick Foles, making his season debut. While Foles has been unimpressive in his career as QB1 for the Rams, Jaguars, and Bears, he is a first-ballot entry in the Hall of Backup QBs, having won a Super Bowl after Carson Wentz was hurt for the Eagles. And in a Seattle snowstorm, Foles made miraculous passes back-to-back for a touchdown and game-winning two-point conversion:
JIMMY GRAHAM!— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) December 27, 2021
The Bears take the lead with a minute left to play in Seattle! pic.twitter.com/qVkWJ3LrM3
In a world where third-string QBs play every week, Nick Foles is king. We’ve been dealt a bad hand with so many should-be benchwarmers leading NFL offenses, but at least we can bask in the glory of the Backup QB God.
Winner: MVP Candidate Jonathan Taylor
It used to be that the NFL’s MVP Award could go to either quarterbacks or running backs. The award has been given out 65 times: 44 times a quarterback has won it, 18 times it’s gone to a running back, and three times it has gone to players from all the other positions combined. Now, only QBs are eligible. Of the past 14 winners, 13 have been passers, with Adrian Peterson in 2012 the lone standout. After all, this award is about “most valuable,” and a solid chunk of NFL analysts think running backs have no value.
But Jonathan Taylor used Christmas to argue for his own value. The Colts’ biggest strength might be their offensive line—just last week I was writing about Quenton Nelson like he’s a damn superhero—but Saturday night, they were reduced to backups. Nelson was on the COVID list, as was right guard Mark Glowinski. Center Ryan Kelly missed the game for personal reasons. And during the game, left tackle Eric Fisher suffered a knee injury. At one point, Nelson’s replacement, Chris Reed, had to leave the game with an injured back, although he soon returned. For a while, the line was reduced to this ragtag bunch:
- Left tackle: Julie’n Davenport, the guy who led the NFL in pressures allowed in 2018, convincing the desperate Texans to make the disastrous Laremy Tunsil trade to replace him
- Left guard: Will Fries, a rookie drafted in the seventh round, playing in just his second NFL game
- Center: Danny Pinter, a fifth-round pick in the 2020 draft
- Right guard: Matt Pryor, a sixth-round pick in the 2018 draft, normally a tackle, playing at guard for the first time all season
- Right tackle: Your Uncle Steve, a 59-year-old man who claims to have won the state championship in high school, with his only evidence being a single picture of him in a football uniform. (Just kidding—it was Braden Smith, their actual starter at right tackle.)
This should have ruined Taylor’s day. An offensive line without four starters is a death knell for any team’s offense—think about the Chiefs in last year’s Super Bowl. There simply aren’t too many people large, strong, agile, and skilled enough to block in the NFL, and an NFL team without blocking is DOA. But Taylor still managed to be effective, even if the replacements in front of him couldn’t open up any holes to speak of:
How did Jonathan Taylor get to convert this 3rd down? pic.twitter.com/Ius5gmc1Yu— Colts Nation (@ColtsNationCP) December 26, 2021
The Cardinals did keep Taylor from scoring a touchdown for the first time since Week 3—but he still had 108 yards in a 22-16 Indianapolis win. He has eight 100-plus rushing yard games in the Colts’ last 11 games, all Indianapolis wins. Nobody else has more than five 100-yard games. Taylor is the NFL’s rushing leader in both yardage and touchdowns by significant margins—he has 1,626 yards, 467 more than anybody else, and 17 touchdowns, three more than anybody else. He leads the league in rushing attempts and entered Sunday second among running backs in yards per carry.
Taylor has won the Colts games where Carson Wentz barely throws, like last week when Wentz completed only five passes. He has won them games where they barely give his backups any carries. He has now won them a game where he didn’t have an NFL offensive line in front of him. I understand why quarterbacks are generally more valuable than running backs—but Taylor may be the man capable of winning the MVP as a runner in a passing league.
Loser: Draft Position
Sunday brought a rare sight: a game between quarterbacks taken with the first and second picks in the most recent NFL draft, the first time such a matchup had occurred since Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota played Week 1 of the 2015 NFL season. But any fanfare from draft hype has disappeared, as Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson have been the two least effective starting quarterbacks in the NFL this season. Wilson entered the day dead last in the league in passer rating; Lawrence was second-to-last. It was hard to think too much about last year’s draft when the top pick in next year’s draft was on the line, as the two teams entered the game with two of the worst records in the NFL.
There were no highlights here, as every success seemed to be primarily defined by the other team’s failure. The play of the game was this 52-yard touchdown run by Wilson, made possible by a stunning number of missed tackles by Jacksonville:
Take this play, where Wilson whipped a pass off the helmet of a fallen Jaguars defender, causing the ball to pop up into the air, allowing linebacker Damien Wilson to nearly intercept it, only for Jets left tackle George Fant to deliver a crushing blow that knocked the ball loose. This is what it looks like when two execrably bad teams play each other—a maelstrom of confusion where nobody was doing what they were supposed to.
r look at the sequence that ended the game. The Jaguars had a chance to win in the waning moments, but Lawrence threw a pass directly to Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley. Except Mosley dropped it, causing the ball to flop into the hands of Jaguars receiver Marvin Jones Jr. on the 1-yard line. But that completed pass caused the clock to run, and caused the Jaguars to panic.
Lawrence decided to spike the ball, which was clearly the wrong decision. There were 24 seconds remaining in the game when Jones was tackled, so if the Jags had taken 10 or so seconds to figure out their next play, line up, and run it, they could have gotten two shots at the end zone. Instead, the spike brought up fourth down, giving them just one. They failed to convert, ending the game and giving the Jets a win.
The good news is Jacksonville’s loss keeps them in the driver’s seat for the no. 1 pick in the draft. But if any game in NFL history has ever proved the futility of getting the no. 1 pick, it was this one: We saw the two teams blessed with top draft position last year, and neither one has notably improved. It’s easy to get excited about having the no. 1 pick; I imagine it’s harder to get excited about having the no. 1 pick and still being bad enough to get it again.
Winner: The Preseason Favorites
We had a few fun weeks pretending this NFL season was going to be significantly different from last year’s. People openly wondered whether NFL defenses had figured out Patrick Mahomes. I briefly panicked about the prospect of Mac Jones leading the Patriots to a Super Bowl. Young star QBs were guiding exciting upstart teams, like Justin Herbert’s Chargers and Kyler Murray’s Cardinals.
But don’t worry—none of that will matter, as Week 16 more or less restored order to the NFL. Mahomes threw for three touchdowns in a 36-10 win over the Steelers that was that close only because the Chiefs pulled Mahomes with nearly a full quarter to go.
Two weeks after losing to the Patriots in one of the strangest games of all time and seemingly ceding the AFC East, the Bills thumped them 33-21, with Josh Allen playing a beautifully chaotic Josh Allen game:
With two weeks left in the regular season, the teams leading the races for the two 1-seeds are … the Chiefs and Packers, the same two teams that got the 1-seeds last year. At the beginning of the season, FiveThirtyEight projected the Buccaneers, Chiefs, Bills, and Packers as the four most likely teams to win the Super Bowl. FiveThirtyEight currently projects the same four teams as the most likely to win the Super Bowl, although the order is now Chiefs, Packers, Buccaneers, Bills. At least they’re playing the Super Bowl in a different place this year!
Loser: Baker Mayfield
The Browns got a nice Christmas gift, as starting quarterback Baker Mayfield returned to the lineup after third-string QB Nick Mullens lost the team’s last game while Mayfield was on the COVID list. But Mayfield was insistent on giving gifts to the Packers, throwing four picks in Cleveland’s 24-22 loss on Christmas Day.
The first pass was 3 yards past Donovan Peoples-Jones, who had to put his head down and sprint ahead in a doomed attempt to hit Darnell Savage hard enough to break up the INT. The second was so high that even though Jarvis Landry leapt as high as he could, he couldn’t even get an outstretched fingertip to keep it from falling into the hands of Chandon Sullivan. The third was so far behind Landry that Landry slipped in an attempt to come back to the ball—maybe it was a miscommunication. The fourth was the only defensible interception of the night; it looks like Rasul Douglas yanked Peoples-Jones while the ball was in the air.
These were not balls that got weirdly deflected, or bounced out of a receiver’s hands and into a waiting defender’s. Mayfield was not under pressure on any of these throws. From a clean pocket, he threw pass after pass that his receivers could not even touch.
Meanwhile, Cleveland’s defense held Green Bay to just 24 points and the rushing attack averaged 8.8 yards per carry, with Nick Chubb going for 126 yards and a touchdown. The Browns are now 7-8, and their chances of making the playoffs are all but dead. This was a game they could have won—up until Mayfield’s fourth and final interception.