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 Detroit Lions, Finally
Normally, desperate teams need a Hail Mary—a half-play, half-prayer. But the Lions are well past that—any gods you’ve heard of abandoned this team long ago. They entered Sunday 0-10-1, having lost game after game after game in increasingly upsetting fashion. (They tied one, too, which was even more upsetting.) Head coach Dan Campbell turned heads at the beginning of the season for his enthusiasm; after 11 straight non-wins, he had become increasingly distraught and discouraged. After losing to the Vikings on a 50-yard field goal earlier this year, Campbell wept.
Many winless teams seem listless and depressing—but I’ve been taken with the energy and fight of this tragic Lions team. A few weeks ago, I begged the football gods to let them win a game—but I was begging the wrong gods. Their first win didn’t come on a Hail Mary, but a last-second pass to rookie wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown:
Amon-Ra’s brothers are Packers receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and former Stanford receiver Osiris St. Brown—his dad’s award-winning muscles were filled with good name ideas. Nobody had thought to pray to Amon-Ra in a long-ass time. Back in 2000 B.C., Amon-Ra definitely would’ve been a Day 1 pick—you would’ve never been able to get him in your Eighteenth Dynasty league. But the Lions got St. Brown in the fourth round, and their dedication to the old gods paid off Sunday.
The Lions sincerely tried their best to lose. In the first half, Detroit took their first two-touchdown lead of the season, entering halftime up 20-6. But the Vikings scored three touchdowns sandwiched around a single Lions field goal. Detroit had the ball and the lead with four minutes to go, but when Campbell played aggressively and went for it on a late fourth down, Jared Goff took a particularly ugly sack and lost the football.
That gave Minnesota the ball just 19 yards from the end zone, and they easily scored a go-ahead touchdown to take a 27-23 lead. Goff’s strip-sack was set to be the latest entry on the long list of funny, misguided plays that have cost Detroit games this season.
But the Lions weren’t done. They drove the length of the field and converted on the touchdown pass to St. Brown with literally no time remaining. They were supposed to kick a PAT afterward, but they just didn’t bother. Everybody was too happy to notice. The last Vikings game made Dan Campbell cry; I suspect this one did, too, but for different reasons.
Normally, when the last winless team in the NFL gets a win, fans are furious. “What are you doing?” they scream. “Wins don’t matter! We need to keep tanking to get the no. 1 pick!” But the Lions don’t have that problem. They’ve been so cursed this season that they were 1.5 games behind the next-worst team in the NFL. Sunday was a day of purely good vibes: The Lions won in thrilling fashion, lots of people hugged, and nobody even needs to feel like some part of the future has been compromised. Detroit still has the no. 1 pick in next year’s draft. Maybe they should use one of their picks on Zamir White from Georgia—they call him Zeus.
The Lions might not win again this season—in fact, they shouldn’t. Sunday felt like it contained enough euphoria for a whole season. Thank you, whichever gods listened.
Loser: Whatever the Hell the Vikings Were Doing on That Touchdown Pass
OK, that’s enough joy. This is an NFL column—it’s time to get mad and call somebody stupid. What the hell were the Vikings doing on this game-losing touchdown pass?
Minnesota dropped eight players into coverage—not the worst idea, considering the Lions had to throw the ball into the end zone. However, the eight guys in coverage were assigned to cover … the back of the end zone? Cornerback Cameron Dantzler allowed St. Brown to run unimpeded into the end zone and then backed off to cover nobody; Bashaud Breeland did the same with Josh Reynolds on the other side, implying that this was a play call and not a poor individual choice. Nobody else stepped up to defend St. Brown when Dantzler backed off, and Minnesota’s safeties remained 5 yards deep in the end zone. The end result: St. Brown was wide open in the end zone on a play where the only goal was to put the ball in the end zone. St. Brown noticed how weird the coverage was:
Amon-Ra St. Brown called the cushion on that final play “actually crazy” https://t.co/awKGdRFkB0— Benjamin Raven (@BenjaminSRaven) December 5, 2021
It’s basically the reverse of last year’s Jets Hail Mary disaster. On that play, New York blitzed eight and assigned three defenders to cover 50 yards. Sunday, the Vikings blitzed nobody and dropped eight defenders to play soft zone coverage in the end zone. If the two teams had swapped strategies, they both would’ve won. Instead, each team played the exact defense that was worst equipped for their situation. The other big difference: The Jets were an 0-11 team that lost. The Vikings made a play that winless teams make, but they lost to a winless team.
The Vikings have now played 12 games, 11 of which have been decided by one score. (The NFL record is 14.) They are 4-7 in those games. Last week, their quarterback was so flustered in the clutch that he shoved his hands into the wrong guy’s ass—this week’s clutch moment was somehow more embarrassing.
Winner: Minshew Mania, Philly Edition
The old adage is that the most popular guy on the team is the backup QB, and Philadelphia knows that better than any town. After all, it’s the town where Nick Foles came off the bench and won a Super Bowl. Then Foles went to the Jaguars, where he became a starter, and fans immediately fell in love with the backup—miracle man Gardner Minshew, a late-round draft pick who sold a million novelty mustaches. Then Minshew was named Jacksonville’s starter, the team went 1-15 and drafted Trevor Lawrence, and Minshew became expendable.
Last year, Philadelphia’s most popular guy was Jalen Hurts, a rookie whose thrilling playmaking made him vastly preferable in comparison to the turnover-a-minute play of Carson Wentz. This year, Hurts is the starter for the Eagles—which makes his new backup, Minshew, the most popular guy. Hurts was injured last week in a game in which he threw three interceptions and no touchdowns, making Minshew the starter for this week’s game against the Jets. Of course he showed up dressed like a fighter pilot:
And when the game started, Maverick Minshew took the Eagles on a highway to the end zone. Philadelphia scored three touchdowns before Minshew threw an incompletion. He finished the day 20-for-25 for 242 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions:
MINSHEW DIME ON A PARACHUTE pic.twitter.com/9YYTxT7Ta1— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) December 5, 2021
You could be rational about this. This was against the Jets, who are allowing the second-most yards per pass in the NFL and have the fewest interceptions. Sam Darnold and Carson Wentz both threw for more yards than Minshew against this horrible defense, and neither threw a pick. We know pretty well who Minshew is—a competent backup capable of high completion percentages and low interception rates, but who lacks the elite passing and athletic traits that could set him apart from other QBs. Hurts is struggling as a passer, but he’s 23, improving, and 12th in the NFL in rushing yards. He might be a difference-maker; Minshew likely won’t be.
But you don’t have to be rational about this. After all, Gardner Minshew has a mustache! He’ll surely go down as one of the NFL’s most legendary backups, which is a wonderful fate. If people remember you as a backup, you’ll get to be permanently popular.
Loser: John Harbaugh’s Smart Gambles
We all love bold, brave coaches who are willing to put it all on the line and guide their teams to victory with high-profile risks. We all hate idiotic coaches who are willing to throw away games and doom their teams to defeat with high-risk decisions. The difference between these two coaches is whether or not the plays work. Sometimes, they’re the same guy.
John Harbaugh might be my favorite coach in the NFL. For years, he’s been one of the smartest coaches when it comes to analytically based decisions, and he’s made it seem cool. “Analytics” isn’t just number-crunching by nerds; it’s about giving Lamar Freakin’ Jackson the ball with a chance to win games. And in Sunday’s game, Harbaugh made two unconventional decisions in the final two minutes.
The first unusual choice went unnoticed by announcers. With Baltimore defending a second-and-2 on their own 13-yard line while trying to hold a one-point lead with 1:59 left, safety Chuck Clark went offsides, which is pretty unusual—Clark usually wouldn’t have much opportunity to jump across the line of scrimmage. The Steelers accepted the penalty and got a first down. But in retrospect, it’s almost certain that Clark had gone offsides intentionally. Clark has gone offsides or committed a neutral-zone infraction three times in his career, all of them seemingly intentional. In 2019, Clark stood in the Bills’ backfield on a goal-line snap to prevent Buffalo from snapping the ball before Baltimore was ready. In 2020, Clark tapped Patriots tight end Ryan Izzo on the head to give New England a first down in an attempt to get the Ravens the ball back with more time left on the clock.
The reasoning for Clark’s offsides on Sunday was obvious. Facing second-and-2 from the 13-yard line, it was possible for Pittsburgh to almost totally run down the clock and kick a game-winning field goal. Once the ball was pushed inside the 10, Pittsburgh was limited to just four more plays on offense. Most coaches would be afraid to give up a free first down, but Harbaugh knew his team was unlikely to keep Pittsburgh from going 2 yards in three plays and that the value of time was more important than the 5 yards and free first down for the Steelers. He gave Pittsburgh fewer opportunities to score and ensured his team would get the ball back quickly. The gambit absolutely accomplished its goal. Pittsburgh scored a go-ahead touchdown 11 seconds later, giving Baltimore plenty of time to answer.
Baltimore drove the length of the field and scored a touchdown. Trailing 20-19, Harbaugh decided to go for a game-winning two-point conversion instead of a game-tying extra point. It’s the type of decision you would expect from Harbaugh—remember earlier this year, when he asked Lamar Jackson whether to go for it on a critical late fourth down against the Chiefs? That was so cool, right?
But this time, it didn’t work:
All things considered, you take this play. Mark Andrews was wide open, and Jackson threw a pass that hit him in the hands. If he catches it, that’s a Ravens win. But the Ravens left T.J. Watt unblocked on the play, and Watt closed hard on Jackson. (He tends to do that.) That forced Jackson into a rushed, inaccurate pass, which fell to the ground, for a Ravens loss.
I love both of the choices Harbaugh made Sunday. But there’s a flip side to both of them. It’s possible that the Ravens could’ve kept the Steelers from picking up a first down, held them to a field goal, and won on a field goal of their own by the best kicker of all time, Justin Tucker. Instead, their offsides gave up a first down, which made it much easier for Pittsburgh to score a TD. And Next Gen Stats’ win probability model said the smart call was to play for OT instead of going for two. The Ravens are better than the Steelers, and have a better kicker than the Steelers. That makes them more likely to win a game in overtime. But nothing is guaranteed in football. The Ravens had faced this scenario only once in Harbaugh’s tenure, back in 2018. Harbaugh let Tucker kick—and miraculously, he missed.
You can love Harbaugh’s decision-making or hate it, but there’s one thing you can’t do: Love it when it works and hate it when it doesn’t. You just have to accept that both will happen.
Loser: Teddy Bridgewater, for a Different Reason This Time
Three weeks ago, Bridgewater got roasted for half-assing a tackle attempt against the Eagles. Honestly, half-assing it might be too kind—he didn’t give a whole cheek. Bridgewater got in position to make a hit, and then pulled up. I defended Bridgewater—quarterbacks shouldn’t try to make tackles! It’s how they get hurt! But the play was too funny, his lack of effort too obvious. He was already the subject of memery and blooper reels.
Clearly, Bridgewater took the incident to heart. Sunday night, he threw an interception to Daniel Sorensen, which is already embarrassing enough. With Twitter in mind, Bridgewater put his head down and sprinted over to cut off Sorensen’s path. As the play unfolded, it became clear that Bridgewater was the Bronco best positioned to make the play. Here it was, his moment of redemption. Teddy wound up, threw his shoulder into Sorensen, and …
… and nothing. Bridgewater succeeded only in pushing Sorensen, arguably aiding his path toward the end zone. Bridgewater fell to the ground while Sorensen kept running. Bridgewater’s prone body tripped up Tim Patrick, the only remaining Bronco with a chance to catch Sorensen—I can’t tell for sure, but it looks like Patrick’s foot catches Bridgewater in the head. Sorensen scored, and the Chiefs won 22-9.
I gotta say it: I told you so. You made Teddy Bridgewater do this, and you were wrong. You made him feel bad for not making a tackle, so he tried making a tackle, and he got kicked in the face because of it. The truth is, quarterbacks don’t need to get better at tackling on interception returns. They need to get better at not throwing interceptions.
Winner: The Invisible Defenders Ruining the Bengals
Before the season started, there was a panic about Ja’Marr Chase’s apparent inability to catch NFL footballs. Chase had several drops in preseason, and some posited it was because the NFL balls are larger than the footballs used in college, while Chase pointed out that they don’t have stripes that allow receivers to see the rotation. Everybody promptly forgot about this when the season began and Chase started reeling in incredible touchdown after incredible touchdown.
But mixed in with all the incredible highlights, Chase has been dropping the ball more than most receivers. This play on Sunday should’ve been a touchdown. Instead, it was his eighth drop of the season—and an interception for the Chargers.
Sunday’s Bengals-Chargers game was a matchup between Joe Burrow, last year’s no. 1 overall draft pick, and Justin Herbert, last year’s Rookie of the Year. Both quarterbacks made some great throws, and it was almost a close game. But Chase turned that TD into a pick, and Joe Mixon turned this run into a Chargers TD.
Officially, Christian Covington is credited with a forced fumble on this play—but I honestly can’t tell whether he got a hand in there or whether Mixon just botched transitioning hands. But it’s more uncharacteristic than Chase’s drops—Mixon hadn’t lost a fumble since Week 1 of last year. After the game, Mixon said he wasn’t sure whether Covington touched the ball.
Los Angeles won 41-22. I like both teams and would enjoy watching them play in a game where one team isn’t suddenly stricken with an inability to hold on to footballs.
Loser: Another Unfortunate Jets Kicker
Everybody wants to cut their kicker. He sucks! Remember that kick he missed? Buddy, you have one job! Unfortunately, when a team cuts their kicker, they are generally replacing him with a kicker who was unable to beat out the guy they’re cutting. It’s not that one kicker is a run-first kicker and the other has a better arm—all kickers have the same job, and if your team holds a tryout, they can probably figure out who’s better.
The Jets made a kicker swap this week, dumping rookie Matt Ammendola, who has been one of the worst in the NFL. Ammendola was 11-for-11 on kicks from 40 or fewer yards, but just 2-for-8 on kicks longer than that. He was 31st in the NFL in field goal percentage, which is bad, because there are only 32 NFL teams.
Replacing him was Alex Kessman, a rookie from Pitt. I’m not sure why they picked him—Kessman hit just 72.6 percent of his field goals in college, and had a game-losing PAT miss last year. But it wasn’t a good call. Kessman went 0-for-2 Sunday on extra points, after which the Jets decided to forgo kicking. They actually became the first team in the last 40 years to score three touchdowns and wind up with exactly 18 points.
Kessman is the first player in NFL history to go 0-for-2 on extra points in his NFL debut—eight players had gone 0-for-1. It seems that the Jets should cut Kessman, who can’t be trusted to make even the easiest kicks, which would be really unfortunate. If a wide receiver was cut without making a catch, they still might have done some good blocking or run some good routes. Not an 0-for-2 kicker. He had two attempts, and missed them both.
So I wondered: Have any NFL kickers attempted kicks, but finished their careers with no points? The answer is yes. One kicker finished his career with one missed extra-point attempt; one kicker finished his career with one missed field goal attempt. And besides Kessler, one kicker managed to attempt two kicks in his first game and miss both: Kaare Vedvik, who missed a field goal and an extra point in his only NFL game before getting cut. His team? The New York Jets, just two years ago. The Jets can cut Kessman, but their next kicker will also play for the Jets.
Loser: The Panthers’ News Dump
Carolina had a bye week Sunday, but they still made some news. At 1:21 p.m. Eastern time, the team announced that it had fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady. It’s not a great sign for the team—last offseason, Carolina turned to the college ranks by hiring Baylor coach Matt Rhule. Rhule picked Brady as his OC after the 30-year-old was credited with crafting the high-powered LSU passing offense that won the Tigers a national championship.
But less than two years later, everything has gone wrong. This season, the Panthers are 30th in yards per play, 30th in passing touchdowns, 31st in interceptions, and 31st in yards per passing attempt. In 15 games under Brady at LSU, Joe Burrow threw 60 touchdowns and just six interceptions. In Brady’s 28 games as an NFL OC, Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold, Cam Newton, and P.J. Walker combined to throw 26 touchdowns and 31 interceptions.
Something had to change in Carolina, but firing Brady seems like another sign that Rhule doesn’t have much of a plan. First the team hit “undo” on all the QB moves made under Rhule and went back to Newton. Now they’re ditching his big OC hire. Rhule apparently thinks the answer is running the ball 30 times per game. Good luck with that, Matt.
Carolina should’ve made this move last week and given their new OC two full weeks to get up to speed. After all, the Panthers are only 5-7, and 6-6 is the playoff cutoff in the NFC right now. It feels like there’s only one possible reason the Panthers fired Brady when they did: They were hoping this admission of failure would go unnoticed. At 1:21 p.m. on a Sunday, we’re all eating snacks, listening to Scott Hanson say the word “Octobox,” and convincing ourselves that our fantasy teams will win because one player scored a touchdown. (“The Yahoo App says I have a 57 percent chance! It’s basically over!”) Carolina was hoping that we would have too much wing sauce on our fingers to scroll through our phones to see the latest Adam Schefter tweet, and that even if we did see it, we might forget over 11 hours of NFL action.
Nice try! I wanna make sure everybody knows that the Panthers made this move, and that they feel embarrassed enough about it that they had to hide in on a Sunday afternoon. Hey everybody! Carolina thought they’d hired the NFL’s next Sean McVay! Instead Sam Darnold played even worse in Carolina than he did in his worst season in New York! You think you can news-dump on me? Think again!