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: Ja’Marr Chase
I’m still not sure how I feel about all the records that will be set in the final week of the NFL season. Like, if Cooper Kupp breaks Calvin Johnson’s receiving yardage record with 136 yards in Week 18—will I forever hold it against him that he needed a 17th game when Johnson had only 16? How many years of 17 games will it take for these records to feel normal? Have I been unfair to all the guys who put up big numbers before the league went from 14 to 16 games in the 1970s? I always thought the people who put an asterisk next to Roger Maris’s 61 homers were nerds and losers—am I turning into one of those nerd-losers? Have I always been a nerd-loser? Am I more nerd or more loser?
Luckily, one NFL player had the decency to set his record in his 16th game of the year, so I never have to feel bad about celebrating it: Ja’Marr Chase, who decided to break the single-game rookie receiving record and the record for most receiving yards in a rookie season on the same day.
JA’MARR CHASE IS OUT HERE SINGLE HANDEDLY WINNING FANTASY CHAMPIONSHIPS— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) January 2, 2022
Chase had 266 receiving yards and three touchdowns in Cincinnati’s 34-31 win over the Chiefs. The single-game rookie receiving record had been held for over 40 years by Jerry Butler, who set it in 1979 with the Bills. Chase now has 1,429 yards on the season, breaking the post-merger record of 1,400 set by his LSU teammate Justin Jefferson last year with the Vikings. (Bill Groman had 1,473 yards for the Houston Oilers in 1960, which is technically considered an NFL record even though the Oilers were in the AFL at the time.) Between Chase, Jefferson, and the guy throwing to Chase, I think that LSU team was good.
Chase also had one of the greatest fantasy football performances ever, with 55.6 PPR points, the 15th most by any player in any week in NFL history. But of course, this isn’t just any week—this was fantasy championship week, meaning Chase joins Alvin Kamara and Todd Gurley in the Fantasy Hall of Fame.
But the numbers don’t do an adequate job of describing how brilliant this guy was on Sunday. On this 72-yard score, Chase caught the ball at a dead stop, then accelerated through a pack of seven Chiefs defenders. His 0-to-60 was faster than everybody else’s; his top speed was also faster than everybody else’s.
With the game tied at 31, Chase effortlessly converted a third-and-27—apparently, the first three touchdowns weren’t enough to figure out that Chase couldn’t be contained by single coverage.
266 yards on the DEY for Ja'Marr. That's a team record for receiving yards in a game.— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) January 2, 2022
Watch on CBS pic.twitter.com/s7clFfPQEY
The Bengals kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired, securing the AFC North title for the first time since 2015. And Kansas City’s loss lowered their chances of winning the AFC’s first-round bye from 73 percent to 20 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight. Chase has already set his records—now we can focus on watching his miraculous talent in the playoffs.
Loser: Antonio Brown
Maybe it’s fitting that this will probably be the last image we ever see of Antonio Brown in the NFL:
That’s Brown, having removed his jersey and helmet and pads and gloves, trying to rile up the fans as he left Sunday’s game against the Jets. In the third quarter, the former All-Pro and defending Super Bowl champion threw a tantrum for reasons that remain unknown, and decided to throw away his clothing and career. He left the sideline and never returned. After the game, he was spotted waiting for a ride home from the stadium. He later released a song and was filmed bragging that his “Netflix series” would benefit from his self-ejection. After the game, head coach Bruce Arians quickly said that Brown was no longer a member of the team.
Video of Antonio Brown leaving the field after taking off his jersey and shirt and throw it into the stands. pic.twitter.com/1hwNYei5Fq— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 2, 2022
Despite his superb talents, Brown has always been a headache for his teams. The Steelers traded Brown after the wide receiver skipped practices and got into altercations with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. They sent him to the Raiders, where he refused to play unless he was allowed to practice with his preferred helmet, severely damaged his foot by failing to wear proper footwear during a cryotherapy session, and attempted to fight general manager Mike Mayock. And earlier this season, Brown was suspended for three games for giving the Buccaneers a fraudulent COVID-19 vaccine card. Brown has also repeatedly been known to not pay employees, including the personal chef who alerted the league to his fake vax card.
But Brown is more than a jerk who stiffs employees and likes getting into fights with his teammates and management: He’s consistently been a legitimate danger to the people around him. In 2018, he nearly killed a toddler when throwing furniture out of the 14th floor of his condo. In 2020, Brown pleaded no contest to felony burglary with battery. And multiple women have said that Brown has committed violence against them. In 2019, police investigated Brown for a domestic violence incident involving the mother of his child. Also in 2019, Brown’s former trainer said he raped her, although he wasn’t prosecuted due to the statute of limitations. The two settled out of court in early 2021. That same year another woman said Brown fired her after she rejected his unwanted sexual advances, and that Brown threatened her via text message after she detailed her experience to Sports Illustrated.
There is a major difference between being a distraction around the practice facility and being a bad person. Brown is both, but teams pretended he was merely the first rather than reckon with his biggest sins. The Buccaneers are done with Brown not because he’s an awful person, but because he hurt Tampa Bay’s chances of winning on Sunday, depriving them of his services without giving them time to prepare. But don’t just take my word for it—listen to Arians. Just last week, Arians said that he was proud of Brown, and that “the only thing I care about is this football team and what’s best for us.”
This was a fitting end for one version of Brown—the erratic, over-the-top dumbass who always found one-of-a-kind ways to be a nuisance. But merely viewing him in that light is a generous way to think about a man who multiple women have said committed sexual misconduct. An actual fitting end for Brown’s career would have been for the league and its teams to blacklist him as soon as it became clear what he did off the field. Brown’s career is likely over; it’s unfair that it’s ending because of his goofy antics rather than his legitimate sins.
Winner: Cyril Grayson
When Brown voluntarily removed himself from the NFL with his shirtless shit fit, the Buccaneers were trailing 24-10. That meant Tom Brady had to throw the team back into the game with a depleted version of Tampa Bay’s spectacular receiving rotation. Chris Godwin is out for the season with a knee injury; Mike Evans was available but considered “limited” with a hamstring injury. So when the Buccaneers came back and won the game—it was Tom Brady vs. the Jets, of course they were going to win—they had to rely on an unlikely savior: practice squad receiver Cyril Grayson.
Grayson is one of the best athletes in the NFL—but took one of the most unusual routes to the league. Grayson was a four-time NCAA champion as a member of LSU’s track-and-field team, specializing in the 400 meters. Grayson played football in high school, but when he tried to join the LSU football team, he found a big hurdle—and he never ran the hurdles. NCAA rules make it incredibly difficult for players with scholarships in “minor” sports to participate in football, to prevent powerhouses from cheating scholarship limits by hiding star football players on other teams. But Grayson ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at LSU’s pro day, and because he wasn’t draft-eligible, he was able to sign with the Seahawks two days later.
It was a fittingly fast start to the speedster’s NFL career—but his actual road to pro success was slow. From 2017 to 2019, Grayson was signed to the practice squad of six NFL teams: the Seahawks, Colts, Texans, Bears, Saints, and Cowboys. None ever promoted Grayson to their active roster. The Buccaneers signed him at the end of the 2019 season, but in his first two years with Tampa Bay, he had just one catch. His first target from Tom Brady looked exactly like you’d expect a converted track star attempting to catch a football to look like—all speed, no hands.
But this year, Grayson has emerged as a big-play threat for Tampa Bay despite limited playing time. He had a 50-yard TD reception against the Saints, and then a 62-yard catch last week against the Panthers. Sunday, with the Bucs’ depth depleted, Grayson shone. He entered Sunday’s game with just five career catches. Against the Jets, he had six for 81 yards and a TD. He led all of Tampa Bay’s wide receivers in targets, receptions, and yardage. Grayson didn’t catch his game-winner by outsprinting a defender—he did it by identifying the soft spot in zone coverage, securing a catch, and breaking a tackle to make it into the end zone. Grayson has greatly improved at some of the basics and turned himself from a guy who could run fast into a legitimate wide receiver.
The Buccaneers lost a former All-Pro receiver on Sunday, but they’ve gained something much better: a really fast guy who didn’t even play college football.
Loser: The New York Giants
We’re now in 2022, but the Giants are setting football back 25 years. They’re doing this by literally setting the football back: Sunday, they managed to lose more yardage passing the ball than any team in any game in the 21st century.
Two weeks ago, the G-Men started journeyman Mike Glennon before eventually benching him for 23-year-old Jake Fromm after Glennon threw three interceptions. Last week, they started Fromm but eventually benched him for Glennon after Fromm went 6-for-17 for 25 yards. It’s a QB controversy from hell; a doomed team cycling back and forth between two horrendous quarterbacks who give them no chance to win. This week against the Bears, they went with Glennon. With any hopes of the playoffs long gone and neither quarterback producing, of course you should go with the 32-year-old who has sucked on all six of the teams he has played for.
But from the start, Glennon only seemed interested in helping the Bears. (Would you be motivated to beat a team that gave you $16 million and asked you to play in only four games?) On the first play of the game, Glennon was sacked and lost the football:
And on Glennon’s first pass of the game, he threw an interception:
It wouldn’t get any better. Glennon finished the day 4-for-11 for 24 yards with two interceptions and two lost fumbles—in NFL history, no player has thrown that many picks and lost that many fumbles while throwing for that few yards. Only one of the four passes he completed was past the line of scrimmage. It’s unfathomable that a quarterback could be this conservative while also committing so many turnovers; he somehow managed to maximize risk while minimizing the possibility of anything positive happening.
more INTs than completions beyond the LOS pic.twitter.com/CRPmC8v6jr— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) January 3, 2022
Glennon had as many completions as he did sacks—but his sacks pushed the Giants back farther than his completions pushed them forward. He lost 34 yards on four sacks, leaving New York with negative-10 net passing yards. It’s the first time an NFL team finished a game with negative passing yards since 2009, when the Titans lost 59-0 to the Patriots and had negative-7 passing yards. The Giants didn’t come close to setting the all-time record—the Broncos lost 53 yards on passing plays in a 1967 game—but they did have the fewest passing yards of any team since the Chargers’ negative-19 passing yards in a 1998 game in which Ryan Leaf went 1-for-15 passing.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Glennon’s performance? The postgame press conference by head coach Joe Judge, who went on an 11-minute monologue defending the culture he’s built in his two seasons as New York’s head coach. It seems impossible to defend a game when your quarterback committed four turnovers and went backward with the football, but Judge insisted that his former players are calling him up saying that they would take pay cuts to join his 4-12 Giants. Yeah, sure. And every day women come up to me to tell me they want to end their relationships with their successful partners so they can marry me, a sports blogger.
Joe Judge (amid 10+ minute rant) said that there are players that were on the #Giants last year that have been calling him saying "how much they wish they were still here even though they’re getting paid more someone else.” #Giants— Zack Rosenblatt (@ZackBlatt) January 2, 2022
Judge seemed to be arguing that even though the team has not won games, he has still made progress—but it’s hard to believe Judge is making any progress when his team is moving the football backward.
Winner: The Fantasy Super Bowl Nobody Watched
Fantasy football is such a gift to the NFL. It used to be that fans got interested only in good teams and paid attention only to quarterbacks. Now, we spend all Sunday glued to RedZone, watching teams we don’t care about in games that don’t matter. For some reason, the best players in this game are not the league’s actual MVPs—we scout wide receivers whose teammates all suck and leave them with big target shares and running backs on offenses that can’t pass. And so it’s only fitting that the game that may have decided the most fantasy championships this week was not a matchup between the best teams in the league, but a forgettable blowout between two teams with losing records: Seattle’s 51-29 victory over the 2-13-1 Detroit Lions.
The MVP of the fantasy postseason was probably Amon-Ra St. Brown. Anybody who added the Lions rookie to their roster was securing the blessings of two religions—Amon-Ra was the Egyptian God of Fantasy Championships, and Catholics venerate St. Brown, the Patron Saint of Points Per Reception. According to ESPN, St. Brown was on just 1 percent of fantasy playoff teams on their site—but was on the roster of at least one of the teams in 24 percent of fantasy championships. It makes sense: St. Brown was an unknown picked in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL draft, the 17th receiver off the board, so of course he went undrafted in most leagues. He had only 250 receiving yards through November 1, so he was available to be added on the waiver wire late in the season. Then he started going off in December, averaging 22.4 PPR points in Detroit’s last four games before Sunday. Anybody who added St. Brown to their roster late in the year added elite-level production to their roster for free.
On Sunday, with Detroit trailing 38-7, the Lions needed to pass—and they don’t really have any good receivers besides St. Brown.
Amon-Ra St. Brown is balling out pic.twitter.com/w3obHZXqxc— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) January 2, 2022
But Detroit didn’t win the game, or even come close. After all, Seattle put up 51 points, and had fantasy heroes of their own. They were led by Rashaad Penny, who was also likely available to be picked up in most leagues after spending most of the season behind Chris Carson and Alex Collins. Penny didn’t even have a TD until Week 14, but has now had three 100-yard outings in Seattle’s last four games. On Sunday, he had 170 yards and two touchdowns:
Pretty much nobody cared about the actual outcome of this game—but it had some of the most critical fantasy performances of championship week. Penny led all running backs in scoring (32.5 PPR points); St. Brown was second among wide receivers (35.4) and Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf was third (30.9); Seahawks QB Russell Wilson was second among QBs (27.84). In PPR leagues, this trash game had the nos. 2, 4, 5, and 7 scorers. Congratulations to everybody who won their league because of the surprise Fantasy Super Bowl, touchdown after touchdown scored in a noncompetitive game between bad teams. Make sure to leave a pretty Penny on the altar to thank the Egyptian god-slash-saint who brought you victory.
Loser: The NFL’s Convoluted Replay System
The NFL has all the technology in the world—dozens of the best cameras known to man watching every play, trackers that can tell us the exact speed of each player on the field, and an extremely cool chain contraption that is totally accurate, don’t even question it. But it’s only sorta committed to making sure its officials make the right calls on every play. Only scoring plays and turnovers are subject to automatic review. All other calls are subject to review only if a coach throws a challenge flag, unless there are under two minutes left, in which case the coaches cannot challenge a play and must hope the booth calls for a review. And of course, most fouls—often the most controversial calls—can’t be reviewed under any circumstance. Starting this year, replay officials are able to help on-field officials overturn obvious mistakes without a full review, which has made the entire process more sensible. But still, it’s complicated.
This half-assed commitment to accuracy was unfortunate for the Cowboys on Sunday. The Cowboys were trailing 25-22 with no timeouts left, and the Cardinals were trying to run out the clock. Arizona handed the ball to Chase Edmonds, who tried to stay inbounds. And as he did so, Cowboys lineman DeMarcus Lawrence punched the ball loose. The on-field officials ruled Edmonds down—but replays revealed that Edmonds’s knees improbably stayed inches off the ground. The first part of Edmonds’s body to hit the ground was actually his helmet, and by the time that happened, the ball appeared to be loose.
But no review came. It wasn’t a scoring play or turnover, so there was no automatic review. And it was outside of two minutes, so the replay official couldn’t call for a review. And because the Cowboys had already used all three of their timeouts, Mike McCarthy wasn’t allowed to throw a challenge flag. And the play was too close for the replay official to quickly review and advise the on-field officials about what happened. This was a case where the NFL clearly had the angles and the evidence to make the right call—but the rules didn’t allow the right call to be made.
There should be a mechanism in place that would allow teams to challenge a play even when they don’t have any timeouts—maybe they lose yardage or time goes off the game clock. It would probably be impossible for the NFL to deliver calls on every single play quickly and accurately—how many sports leagues on earth can? But it feels wrong to have league rules preventing review in a game’s crucial moments.
Winner: Jalen Hurts’s Pocket Presence
The ongoing collapse of FedEx Field has been fun to track this season. The season started with sewage streaming out of the stadium’s bowels and onto unfortunate fans; later the Cowboys had to bring their own benches because they didn’t trust Washington’s, and Taylor Heinicke found some scissors on the field. But things got legitimately scary after Sunday’s game, an Eagles win in front of thousands of Philadelphia fans. As quarterback Jalen Hurts left the field, a barrier over the tunnel gave way, leading to a horde of Eagles fans crashing down from the stands and nearly falling onto Hurts:
Luckily, none of the fans needed medical assistance. Washington claimed that this was not a load-bearing barrier, since the section above the tunnel is intended for fans in wheelchairs who are not expected to lean onto the railing. However, it seems fairly obvious that any railings over the field will be crowded around by fans in exactly the manner they did Sunday.
This is a completely ridiculous situation—handled with total chill by Hurts. The quarterback side-stepped the falling fans, helped some of them up, and smiled and posed for pictures with all the fans who received accidental field passes.
I already know that I could not do any of the things Jalen Hurts does on a football field, but I also could not do this. If I saw roughly one ton of humans fall 10 feet into a heap on the ground, I would not simply sidestep them and begin taking photos with them. I would start screaming and yelling “HOLY CRAP HOLY CRAP HOLY CRAP WHAT JUST HAPPENED I THINK THESE PEOPLE ARE DEAD!” I would probably end up actually injuring someone in a frenzied attempt to see whether anybody in the pile was injured. Even though his protection broke down, Hurts diagnosed the situation and calmly scooted to safety so he could take some selfies with fans. The Eagles clinched a playoff berth on Sunday—and this is playoff-level composure by Hurts.
Winner: The Rams’ Midseason Acquisitions
This week of the NFL season was filled with tributes to NFL legend John Madden, who was one of the greatest coaches of all time and the greatest NFL broadcaster of all time. But to many fans, Madden is perhaps best remembered for the video game franchise that bears his name. So I’d like to celebrate an NFL team that’s following a team-building strategy that seems to be taken directly from that game—the Los Angeles Rams, who have traded away their first-, second-, third-, fourth-, and sixth-round picks in next year’s draft to add some of the highest-rated players from around the league. It’s a move from Madden franchise mode, but done in real life.
Sunday, that strategy appeared to pay off. L.A. beat the Ravens 20-19. The go-ahead touchdown was thrown by Matthew Stafford, the former Pro Bowl QB they gave up two first-round picks to get, to Odell Beckham Jr., the former Pro Bowl wide receiver they signed in November:
After that, the game-ending sack was made by Von Miller, the former All-Pro linebacker the Rams traded two Day 2 picks to get at the trade deadline:
It’s still unclear whether Stafford is worth the monumental price the team paid for him in the offseason—the QB threw a brutal pick-six today and has seven turnovers in the past three games. But overall, the players added during the season are doing great: OBJ now has five touchdowns in seven games with the Rams after scoring just seven in 29 games with the Browns. And Miller has nine tackles for loss in seven games with L.A. and is now tied for sixth in the NFL with 16 on the season. It’s starting to feel like building a team out of the most famous players in the NFL is a good idea.