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 Chargers-Raiders Non-tie
The NFL almost touched God on Sunday night. In the final game of the NFL season, we nearly witnessed a miracle that would have shuffled the playoff picture, ended the career of a future Hall of Famer, and sent sportsbooks crashing into the red. All it took was a series of preposterously improbable events, followed by one of the best NFL games in recent memory.
The league put the Week 18 Chargers-Raiders game into a prime-time spot because it seemed like a traditional win-and-in scenario: Both teams could clinch a playoff spot and eliminate their opponent by winning. But! There was a possibility for the Chargers and Raiders to both make the playoffs if they tied. The scenario that would bring this about was unlikely—the 9-7 Colts, with a playoff berth on the line, needed to lose to the 2-14 Jaguars, who could secure the no. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft by losing, plus the Steelers needed to beat the Ravens. But if those things happened, Las Vegas and Los Angeles would find themselves in a real-life version of the famous Prisoner’s dilemma. If they could trust each other, they could guarantee a mutually beneficial outcome. Both coaches were asked about the scenario before the game, and both assured that they would respect the integrity of the league and play to win the game, while others speculated that the NFL would crack down harshly if there were a colluded tie. Personally, I spent all week getting extremely excited about the scenario—I love talking about the 1982 World Cup game where two teams colluded to get into the group stages—but I knew it was a ridiculous hypothetical. Surely, there was no way the Colts could lose to the Jaguars.
The Colts lost to the Jaguars. And the Steelers beat the Ravens. The hypothetical was coming to life.
I firmly believe that the Chargers and Raiders should have gone out there, snapped the ball, and stood around for 60 minutes. When an NFL team starts the season, their no. 1 goal is to win the Super Bowl. They live for this goal. They fight for this goal. They suffer brutal injuries for that goal. To achieve that goal, you have to make the playoffs—and both teams could guarantee that would happen with a tie. Why risk ruining that opportunity? As a display of fealty to the integrity of the game? The ultimate goal of the game is to win the Super Bowl—not win individual games—and clearly, tying maximized that possibility. Wouldn’t it show more integrity to do whatever it takes to ensure the highest possible chance to make the playoffs?
Unfortunately, the Chargers and Raiders decided to play football. There were 272 NFL games this year, and only one tie, meaning the odds of any individual game resulting in a tie are something like 0.3 percent. So the dream of the playoff-clinching tie seemed to be dead from the moment the first play resulted in positive yardage. The dream was all but buried when the Raiders took a 26-14 lead at the start of the fourth quarter. There are very few plausible scenarios to a tie at the end of regulation when one team has a 12-point lead.
But the Raiders kicked a field goal to go up 15. Then Justin Herbert threw a touchdown pass on fourth-and-21:
The Chargers hit on the two-point conversion and forced a three-and-out. They were now down seven—and Herbert made more magic. On the final drive of regulation, the Chargers converted three separate passes on fourth-and-10.
Before Sunday, NFL passers had gone 29-for-85 on fourth-and-9 or longer, resulting in 20 first downs—just a 23.5 percent success rate. In the final few minutes of this game and overtime, Herbert went 4-for-4, with all four going for first downs. Over the span of a few minutes, Herbert single-handedly accounted for more than 16 percent of the NFL’s fourth-and-long passes for first downs. He also hit on this pass as time expired to force overtime:
If any of Herbert’s four fourth-and-long attempts had hit the ground, the Chargers would have lost. If the last play of regulation had hit the ground, the Chargers would have lost. Somehow, L.A. faced six must-convert attempts and survived all of them.
The potential tie had ramifications across the league. If the two teams guaranteed playoff spots for each other, someone had to get bumped—and that someone was the Pittsburgh Steelers. Everybody assumed that Pittsburgh had secured at least one more game for Ben Roethlisberger’s career when the retiring QB beat the Ravens earlier, but nobody had expected a tie. And fans had taken out long-shot parlays on the Jags losing and Sunday Night Football ending in a tie, figuring if one happened the other would be more likely—according to Action Network, several books stood to lose millions of dollars if the tie hit.
We can debate the ethics of a colluded tie all we want, but obviously, neither team was willing to try that approach. There has never been a less-rigged game than Chargers-Raiders.
When overtime started, the Raiders and Chargers should have congratulated each other on 60 minutes of evenly matched play and agreed to take the easy road. They had proved beyond all doubt that they gave their best. Both teams were worthy of a playoff berth; it was time to eliminate any potential of missing out. At one point, cameras caught Herbert saying he’d “never wanted a tie so bad.”
Justin Herbert: "I've never wanted a tie so bad" pic.twitter.com/iRkn8QaHsx— CJ Fogler AKA Internet #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) January 10, 2022
Tragically, the Raiders had their hearts set on winning. After the teams traded field goals to start overtime, the Raiders got the ball with less than five minutes remaining. They ran the clock down to the point where they could kneel and force a tie without needing the Chargers’ cooperation. (There’s spirited debate about whether a late timeout by Chargers coach Brandon Staley shifted the Raiders’ strategy from settling for a tie to playing for a win, but the evidence doesn’t support that theory; the Raiders seemed intent on winning the whole time.) But they drove the ball into field goal range and attempted a kick with two seconds left in overtime. Daniel Carlson drilled it:
That we came two seconds away from this tie-and-in scenario is unbelievable. The Jags needed to pull one of the strangest upsets in NFL history; the Steelers needed to win; and two teams needed to approach a tie in a league where ties almost never happen. All of these things came true.
I started the night mad that these two teams didn’t take advantage of their once-in-a-lifetime chance to collude. I ended it grateful that they foolishly bypassed that opportunity. This real game was better than any hypothetical. I’ll never forget the night that a tie was the best possible outcome for two NFL teams—and I’ll never forget that they managed to create something more incredible.
Loser: The Indianapolis Colts
Superheroes don’t lose to supervillains. We love Batman movies because he’s always battling and besting evil, powerful geniuses with a method to their madness. It’d be different if he were just getting his ass whupped by the Joker in every movie—just beaten to a pulp by a weirdo in clown makeup. But that’s the story of the Indianapolis Colts, who were once again brought to their knees by the Jacksonville Freakin’ Jaguars.
The Colts have lost seven consecutive road games to the Jaguars. Everybody else in the NFL is 35-15 when playing the Jags in Jacksonville or London (their second home) since the start of the 2015 season, a 70 percent winning percentage. The Colts are 0-7. They have been unable to solve one of the NFL’s easiest puzzles. In 2015, they gave up 51 points to a Blake Bortles–led squad that finished the year 5-11; in 2018, they lost 6-0 to a team that had lost seven games in a row and was starting Cody Kessler. But all of those losses pale in comparison to Sunday’s shame: a season-shattering embarrassment at the hands of the team that will get the no. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
Indianapolis’s Week 18 scenario was simple enough: If they beat the Jaguars, they would make the playoffs. If they lost—lmao, why even bother talking about that? FiveThirtyEight said the Colts had an 88 percent chance to win; Vegas had them as 15.5-point favorites. The Jags had lost eight games in a row, including games against the Jets and Texans. Jacksonville fans weren’t even expecting a result on Sunday—they mainly showed up to the stadium wearing clown outfits in an attempt to shame owner Shad Khan into firing GM Trent Baalke.
Meanwhile, the Colts had Jonathan Taylor, a potential MVP candidate and one of the favorites to win the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year Award. He’s the guy getting brickwalled on the goal line by the Jaguars defense here.
The Jags stopped Taylor twice on fourth down. Taylor had averaged 128 yards per game since Week 6; Jacksonville held him to just 77 yards. That put the game in Carson Wentz’s hands, and when the game is in Carson Wentz’s hands, he tends to drop it.
The Colts lost, 26-11. The 11 points were a season low; the 26 points were a season high for the Jags. According to Pro Football Reference, it’s the second-biggest upset in the final week of the NFL season since 1978—the Patriots lost to the Dolphins as 17.5-point favorites in 2019. But at least those Patriots still qualified for the postseason. After dropping their win-and-in game against Jacksonville, the Colts were eliminated from the playoffs when the Steelers beat the Ravens.
It’s hard to imagine a more depressing result for the Colts. All they had to do to make the playoffs was beat the worst team in the NFL. Instead they suffered arguably the most embarrassing loss ever to take place in the final week of the regular season. Any chances of Taylor winning big NFL awards died on the 1-yard line, along with the Colts’ season. Indianapolis doesn’t even have a good draft pick to look forward to—they traded away their first-rounder for Wentz, the guy who threw away their chances of winning Sunday.
But most importantly, Sunday cemented that the Colts are totally owned by the Jaguars—a team whose fans hate their actual owner so much that they’re willing to dress up like clowns to mock him. The Colts can never be heroes, because heroes actually beat their arch-nemeses. The Colts just get absolutely wrecked by these weirdos dressed up as clowns.
Winner: Week 18
We watched a cash grab Sunday. There used to be 16 NFL games in a season, with every team playing a perfectly balanced schedule of eight games at home and eight on the road. Now there are 17, and the main reason is money. An extra game means millions in extra revenue for the league and its broadcast partners—more fans paying for tickets and parking, more advertising spots to sell. The move comes on top of another cash grab, the decision to add two extra teams to the playoffs, and two extra postseason games.
Hypothetically, these moves should reduce the quality of the NFL. More games means a smaller likelihood that teams will end the season with similar records. That means more games played by teams that have already clinched playoff berths, and more games by teams long eliminated from postseason contention. And more playoff teams means worse playoff teams.
But I’ve gotta say: Week 18 was a damn treat. There were four highly entertaining games with huge playoff implications. We’ve already discussed two: Chargers-Raiders and Colts-Jaguars. There was also Steelers-Ravens, a game between two teams that entered Sunday with less than a 10 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight. But Indianapolis’s loss pushed both teams into legitimate postseason contention. The game went to overtime and Pittsburgh won 16-13 on a walk-off field goal, causing Roethlisberger to thank the heavens for another NFL game.
And then there was Niners-Rams, a game that San Francisco needed to win to make the postseason. After punting while down seven with under two minutes to go, they had less than a 1 percent chance of victory—but they forced overtime on this Jauan Jennings TD and then won 27-24 in OT:
It’s true that the expanded postseason has led to some less-than-stellar playoff participants—out of every team ever to make the playoffs, the Raiders and Steelers have the fourth- and sixth-worst point differentials. But Week 18 was a delight, with more teams than usual in the mix and several down-to-the-wire thrillers that eliminated teams from the postseason. Yes, Week 18 was a cash grab—but it was also more football. And more football is generally good.
Loser: Joe Judge, Again
Last year, the Eagles made a mockery of the final week of the NFL season by giving extended playing time to Nate Sudfeld. Their uninterest in winning allowed the Washington Football Team to win the NFC East, which kept the Giants from becoming the worst playoff team in NFL history at 6-10. Giants coach Joe Judge was furious: “To disrespect the game by not going out there and competing for 60 minutes and giving everything you can to help those players win … we will never do that as long as I’m the head coach of the New York Giants.”
This year, it’s hard to argue that Judge gave everything he could to help his players win down the stretch, as the Giants lost their final six games of the season, all by double digits. They scored 26 combined points in their final four games, including a performance last week where they became the first team in over a decade to finish a game with negative passing yards. This week’s 22-7 loss can be summarized in one video of two plays: a QB sneak on second-and-11, followed by another QB sneak on third-and-9.
The Giants just QB sneaked on 2nd & 3rd down. This is unbelievably soft. pic.twitter.com/4ziBxYI55A— Bobby Skinner (@BobbySkinner_) January 9, 2022
This was a total abdication of the responsibility all football teams have to try to score. After the game, Judge explained that he called the back-to-back sneaks because he was concerned about a repeat of what happened last week, when the Giants called a run play on the 1-yard line that resulted in a loss of yardage and a safety. That potentially could explain the first of these two QB sneaks, from the 2-yard line—but what about the second one, on 3rd-and-9 from the 4-yard line? Did Judge legitimately believe that his offense was likely to lose 5 yards and get tackled in the end zone? And did he really believe it was a good idea to let everybody in the stadium, including his team, know that he didn’t believe in the offense? Did he not consider that part of the reason safeties are bad is because you have to punt the ball away—and by calling back-to-back QB sneaks on second and third downs, he was voluntarily doing that anyway?
Judge talks a big game, but the through line of his Giants career is that he is scared. He’s scared that his garbage offense will lose yardage, so he orders them to run multiple plays that aren’t intended to succeed. He is scared that people think he’s doing a bad job, so he tells a dubious story about how former players are calling him up and telling him how great he is. He’s scared the boys at school don’t think he’s cool, so he says he has a girlfriend from Manitoba who he met at summer camp and that they kissed. Judge can claim that he’s doing a good job, but nothing makes his own failure clearer than his actions.
Last week, Judge said that teams where players fight on the sideline are “clown shows,” an apparent shot at Washington’s team. But it’s hard to remember anything funnier than the way the Giants have closed this NFL season.
Winner: Al “Bubba” Baker
There was a historic false alarm in Sunday’s game between the Steelers and Ravens. For a second, it appeared as if T.J. Watt had tied the NFL’s single-season sack record on this play in the first quarter:
But this play actually wasn’t a sack. Because Ravens QB Tyler Huntley didn’t field the ball cleanly from the center and simply tried to recover the ball instead of attempting a pass, this was considered an “aborted play” rather than a passing play, and therefore no sack could be awarded. The NFL’s statistician’s guide explains at great length which types of plays are sacks and which are not. This play, where Watt was the closest player to Baker Mayfield, who just kinda fell over at the line of scrimmage? That’s a sack, because a quarterback who tried to pass the ball went down without gaining yardage. The play where Watt bullied a right tackle and forced a quarterback to fumble? Not a sack.
But eventually, Watt broke through and got the record, getting around a tackle and a tight end to envelop Huntley and destroy a Ravens goal-line play:
Watt finished the season with 22.5 sacks, tying Michael Strahan for the official NFL record. The Steelers will likely petition the NFL to see whether any additional sacks, like the Huntley play, can be added to his total. Watt didn’t even take significant advantage of the fact that there was a 17th game added to the schedule this year—he missed two games, getting as many sacks in 15 games as Strahan did in 16. And of course, Strahan famously broke Mark Gastineau’s record because Brett Favre purposely rolled toward Strahan and fell over—like if Ricky Davis throwing the ball at his own rim to get a triple-double decided one of the biggest records in NFL history.
But the truth is, neither Watt nor Strahan has recorded the most sacks in an NFL season. That honor goes to Al “Bubba” Baker, who had 23 sacks as a rookie for the 1978 Lions. The problem is that sacks weren’t an official NFL statistic until 1982. Baker’s record was acknowledged only this summer, when Pro Football Reference published research by football historians John Turney and Nick Webster, who combed through play-by-play from games to produce comprehensive sack statistics from 1960 to 1981. When Baker found out about the honor, the former defensive end says he immediately burst into tears realizing that his long-forgotten accomplishments had finally been recognized. Unlike with Watt, there was no celebration; unlike with Strahan, nobody was helping him gun for the record. Nobody even knew that sacks could have a record at the time.
Sacks can be shared, so it’s fitting that there are now multiple sack record holders. The NFL record book will feature Watt and Strahan—but they’re both just short of Baker, whose sack totals remain unofficial. Watt got to tie an official NFL record Sunday, and deserves credit for one of the most dominant pass-rushing seasons ever—but Baker will still hold on to the record that time forgot.
Week 18 should have been simple for the Jaguars: Lose and seal the top pick in the NFL draft for the second time in as many years. It should have been easy, as the Colts were 15.5-point favorites and were motivated to win with a playoff berth on the line.
Instead, the Jags played their most complete game of the season to get their first win since firing Urban Meyer. Last year’s no. 1 pick, Trevor Lawrence, threw for multiple touchdowns for the first time since Week 1.
Jacksonville’s win put the Lions in position to seize the top pick with a loss against the Packers. But no team has ever tanked less than the Lions, who started the season 0-10-1 and finished it 3-13-1. Early in the game, Dan Campbell’s Lions set the NFL record for most fourth-down attempts by a team in a single season—and scored a touchdown while doing it:
They called a series of trick plays, including a wide receiver pass by former professional lacrosse player Tom Kennedy, and this reverse flea flicker, which also resulted in a touchdown:
The Packers scored a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter, and the Lions’ job seemed to be done. They’d fought hard, as they had all season, but the best team in the NFC kept scoring and ensured that Detroit would get the no. 1 pick. They could’ve lost and still felt good about their effort—but instead, they scored 10 points in the final two minutes while picking off Green Bay twice:
I consider myself a Tanking Enthusiast. I enjoy watching teams pretend to play competitive football, skirting the line that defines how little effort an NFL team can put in. But watching these two teams pull out wins deep into doomed seasons warmed my heart. Detroit pulled off a remarkable comeback, set an NFL record, and got to listen to yet another inspirational Dan Campbell locker room speech. The Jags played the ultimate spoiler by ruining the season for a divisional rival and got some assurance that Urban Meyer didn’t permanently break their franchise QB prospect. A team missing out on a top draft pick because of a meaningless late-season win is a tragedy—but when all the teams who should be tanking pull out unexpected wins, there are good vibes for everybody.
The Niners needed to win Sunday to make the playoffs. Unfortunately, their quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, was still dealing with a torn ligament in his thumb, which kept him out of last week’s game—and even when healthy, he is Jimmy Garoppolo. And the team has three running backs on injured reserve, and has been rolling with sixth-round pick Elijah Mitchell as their starter.
Luckily, they have one player who can fill basically every hole: Deebo Samuel. Deebo had the Niners’ only rushing TD …
And threw a passing TD …
And in the fourth quarter, with San Francisco trailing by seven with under a minute left, Deebo got open downfield and juked two defenders out of their cleats to pick up 43 yards.
The Niners tied the game two plays later and won in overtime to make it into the playoffs. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve written about Deebo in this column this year. Two? Three? All 18? Regardless, it’s not enough. Samuel might be the most entertaining player in the NFL. He accelerates faster than everybody and also seems to have a higher top speed; he’s an unguardable receiver with deft hands; he’s a shifty runner with an endless array of moves. Deebo is a one-man team who got the Niners into the playoffs. I’m happy for the Niners, but mainly happy that I get more opportunities to watch Deebo.
Loser: Vic Fangio
What would you do if you knew you were getting fired tomorrow? You’d go out in a blaze of glory, right? You’d chug Fireball in the office! You’d snatch the gum off the desk of that guy who pops it really loudly for eight hours a day and let him know how annoying it is! You’d tell the boss how you really feel about him, smash his computer with a baseball bat, and get carried out of the office by your coworkers!
Unfortunately, NFL coaches are not so bold. Vic Fangio surely knew that Saturday night’s game could be his last as head coach of the Broncos. Even if Denver won, the team would finish with a losing record, as the Broncos have every season since Fangio was hired. They were also guaranteed a last-place finish in the competitive AFC West. The team doesn’t have a quality quarterback, and it traded away Von Miller for draft picks in November. Clearly, it’s time for a franchise refresh.
This should’ve been reason enough for Fangio to come out firing. Go for it on every fourth down! Call 11 flea flickers! Chug Fireball on the sideline!
But Fangio kept things conservative. He called a single trick play—a pass by wide receiver Courtland Sutton—and tried to ground and pound out a win over Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. It almost worked, as the Broncos had the ball with five minutes to go trailing 28-21. But instead of going for a touchdown, Fangio had the Broncos attempt a 31-yard field goal to cut the seven-point deficit to four with under five minutes to go.
His team would never run another offensive play. The Chiefs, who had previously gone on three 10-plus-play scoring drives, picked up four first downs and ran out the clock. Fangio, a former defensive coordinator, put his faith in the unit he trusted the most. But he was trusting them to stop Patrick Mahomes, who was 5-0 in five matchups against Fangio’s Broncos—now 6-0.
Sunday morning, the Broncos fired Fangio. This is how NFL coaching careers end: not with a bang, but with a field goal.