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Winners and Losers of NFL Week 14

From Brock Purdy’s huge debut against Tom Brady, to Justin Herbert outdueling Tua Tagovailoa, to one of the ugliest punts we’ve ever seen, here are our winners and losers from this week in the NFL

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every week of the 2022 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: Brock Purdy

The 49ers had to bench Brock Purdy. Of course, you think. How could San Francisco, with all its Super Bowl hopes and dreams, possibly compete with a rookie seventh-round pick at quarterback? But the Niners did not bench Purdy on Sunday because he was bad: They benched him because Purdy led the 49ers to a 35-0 lead on Tom Brady’s Buccaneers, and they needed to keep their new QB1 healthy for a playoff run.

Purdy, the last pick in this year’s NFL draft, made his first pro start on Sunday after injuries took out the Niners’ top two quarterbacks, Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo. Much was made before this game about how Brady had never lost a game against a QB making his first career start. But Brock Purdy is no Luke Falk or Luke McCown. (Lukes, please avoid playing Tom Brady. Only Brocks can make throws like this.)

When I first heard last week that the Niners would be turning to Mr. Irrelevant, I assumed we’d see little more than a game manager. I watched Purdy at Iowa State and, well, he didn’t exactly jump off the tape. He looked best early in his college career, steadily dropping off as Iowa State’s offense became more and more reliant on RB Breece Hall. Scouting reports praised him for his accuracy, but not his arm strength or athleticism. It seemed to fit a Niners team quarterbacked by Garoppolo, an unspectacular player who ranks 26th among qualifying quarterbacks in air yards per attempt and 31st in percentage of throws over 10 yards.

Garoppolo hadn’t completed a touchdown pass of more than 25 air yards this season. Purdy threw two on Sunday. And, like, who the hell is this guy?

Purdy made one awful rookie-type decision on Sunday, a brutal interception to an underneath linebacker that was, fortunately for Purdy, wiped off due to a penalty. And the Niners still primarily won because of their defense and run game—they shut out the Bucs for 43 minutes and rushed for over 200 yards—but Purdy can run the Niners’ staple plays and also make some throws that haven’t really been a part of their offense for a while. It legitimately seems like this rookie can be an upgrade on the quarterback who got the Niners to the NFC championship game last season. Sorry, Tom—America has its new favorite late-round quarterback.

Winner: Justin Herbert

Sunday night’s game between the Chargers and Dolphins was inevitably defined by one talking point: In the 2020 NFL draft, Miami picked Tua Tagovailoa at no. 5, one spot before Justin Herbert went to the Chargers. In the years since, Tagovailoa and Herbert have been two of the most divisive quarterbacks in the league. Both have cult followings. Herbert’s fans share highlights of their hero’s powerful arm blasting seemingly impossible throws across the field, while Tua’s fans share ominous lists of media members they believe have disrespected the Miami Dolphins franchise. (I hope that I can avoid a spot on these lists, due to my staunch history of Tua support, but I fear it is too late.) Meanwhile, neither has made the playoffs while their draft classmate Joe Burrow has made the Super Bowl.

The two quarterbacks had met once, in their rookie seasons, but that was before everybody had come up with their best takes about them. With both teams on the cusp of the playoffs, Sunday night was Ragnarök for Tuanon and Herbert Hive.

Herbert won this round 10-8. He dropped a 50-yard bomb into a bucket for Mike Williams:

And this tight-window pass to Keenan Allen traveled so fast that I can’t quite figure out where it went, even on the slow-motion replays:

Meanwhile, Tua had one of the ugliest performances of his career. The Chargers played press coverage on the Dolphins’ receivers, banking that Tua would struggle to make more difficult throws if the early rhythm of plays was disrupted. They were right. He went 10-for-28 for 145 yards, with 40 percent of that yardage coming on a 60-yard pass to Tyreek Hill. The missed passes were really stunning for a quarterback whose accuracy has always been a strength; I’d drop some videos of the missed throws that defined his night, but the NFL generally doesn’t tweet out videos of incompletions.

The Chargers won, 23-17, putting Los Angeles in the seventh and final AFC playoff spot. The win will define everybody’s opinions about these two quarterbacks … at least for the next few weeks.

Winner: The Detroit Lions

There were moments last year when I began to truly consider the idea that the Detroit Lions were cursed. Of course, this is something Detroit Lions fans have been considering for years, perhaps something they were told the very first time their parents gave them a child-size Calvin Johnson or Barry Sanders jersey.

I’ve always been aware of the Lions’ general historic badness, but really bought into the supernatural last year, as they started 0-10-1 with five one-possession losses. Three were decided on last-second field goals, including Justin Tucker’s record-setting 66-yarder off the crossbar. Detroit’s coach, Dan Campbell, seemed to be at wit’s end, sometimes breaking down in tears in press conferences. The team was playing the right way, but losing in increasingly improbable ways.

This season, they’re not leaving things to chance. They’ve won five of six, and have the NFL’s fifth-ranked offense. Last week, they beat the Jaguars by 26, the team’s largest win in four years. This week, they pulled off one of the best victories in recent Detroit history, toppling the NFC North–leading Vikings in a 34-23 victory.

Despite entering the day allowing more than 5.2 yards per rushing attempt, the Lions held Minnesota to 22 yards on 17 carries. They also kept Minnesota’s star wide receiver, Justin Jefferson, out of the end zone. (Don’t ask how many receiving yards Jefferson had, it’s not important.) Detroit’s offense has scored at least 25 points in the team’s past five games, and even though their defense is one of the worst in the league, they now have a positive point differential. (The 10-3 Vikings do not.)

Getting to the playoffs will be a tough ask for Detroit. They’re 6-7, leaving them 1.5 games out of the NFC playoff field with four games left. Even though they have one of the easiest remaining schedules, the odds aren’t in their favor. But as exciting as a thrilling offense and win streaks are, Lions fans know that the future is what matters. The top two rookies in sack totals—Aidan Hutchinson and James Houston—both play for the Lions; rookie wide receiver Jameson Williams made his first NFL catch Sunday after missing most of the season with an ACL injury he suffered in college, and it was a wide-open touchdown.

And the Lions are set to reap the rewards of the Matthew Stafford trade, as the 4-9 Rams will likely give Detroit a top-five pick in this year’s NFL draft. The way Detroit has been drafting, we can expect the Lions to hit.

I don’t think people watch bad football teams because they enjoy watching losses. I think they do it because of hope. They might say there’s a curse, but they believe deep down inside that they’re watching something beautiful building—play by play, win by win, season by season. For decades, that hasn’t been true in Detroit. But you can see the blocks placed by last year’s dismal Lions in this year’s exciting-but-still-not-there-yet Lions. And it’s easy to imagine that we’ll see the blocks placed by these high-scoring, no-defense Lions when they’re an honest-to-goodness legit contender in two or three years. Maybe when this generation of Lions parents gives their children those small Hutchinson or Williams jerseys, they won’t have to say a thing about some curse.

Winner: Offensive Weapon Penei Sewell

The Lions all but sealed their win over the Vikings with one of the most majestic and oddest play calls in recent NFL history. Holding a 31-23 lead at the two-minute warning and trying to ice the game, the Lions faced a third-and-7—always a tough conversion, no matter the situation. So the Lions decided to highlight the athleticism of one of their best players … 340-pound offensive tackle Penei Sewell.

In the lead-up to the 2021 draft, there was plenty of buzz that the Lions should draft a receiver at no. 7. But when the Bengals drafted Ja’Marr Chase at no. 5 and the Dolphins grabbed Jaylen Waddle at no. 6, the Lions seemed thrilled to pick Sewell. I guess they didn’t have to choose between blocker or catcher: Sewell can do both. On Sunday, the Lions lined Sewell (who had reported as an eligible receiver) up out wide and had him motion across the formation. The Vikings must have assumed he was trying to build a momentum to throw a mega-powerful block, and stayed out of his way. Instead, Detroit threw the ball to Sewell in space. There was nobody near him, and if anybody was, they wouldn’t have been able to stop him. He bellyflopped across the 34-yard line, picking up the first down and staying inbounds to keep the clock moving.

Sewell is the first offensive lineman to catch a pass in the NFL this year, but it’s a somewhat common trick play to put six linemen on the field and throw to the sixth. Most of the time, however, offensive linemen are goal-line targets. According to TruMedia, eight of the 12 catches by offensive linemen in the 2020 and 2021 seasons were short-yardage touchdowns. Often, defenses forget they’re supposed to guard the eligible lineman, allowing them to get wide open in the end zone. The QB lobs a soft pass to a massive target. He has one job: catch the pass and hold on in the end zone. Teams generally don’t want linemen worrying about running with the ball in their hands.

This is not what the Lions did. They designed a play for Sewell to pick up yardage after the catch. It’s the first legitimate third-and-long conversion by a lineman I can find in the TruMedia database that goes back to 2000. (Donald Penn did pick up a third-and-10 in 2009, but the pass was deflected.)

This didn’t come out of nowhere. The Lions have run 82 plays this season with at least six offensive linemen on the field, second-most in the NFL. And their sixth offensive lineman doesn’t always just line up and block. On Thanksgiving against Buffalo, they had Matt Nelson go in motion and dump a linebacker with momentum to set up a Jamaal Williams touchdown; earlier in the season, they made Nelson go across the formation twice to see how the defense would react. And on Sunday, just a few plays before the pass to Sewell, the Lions had Sewell line up in the slot to set a block.

Sprinting free with the ball, Sewell was a lot like these Detroit Lions. As a football fan, you’re not used to seeing an offensive lineman chugging downfield for a critical first down, or a Detroit team that’s thinking about the playoffs this close to Christmas. But you know that when something that weird picks up that much momentum, you’re going to want to watch what happens next.

Winner: The Texans Tank

Sunday’s Cowboys-Texans intrastate “rivalry” game had the biggest spread of the season—17.5 points!—and for good reason. The Cowboys entered Sunday with the best point differential in the NFL after beating the Colts 54-19 last week, the most points scored by any team in any game all season long. The Texans entered Sunday with the worst point differential in the NFL after allowing three defensive/special teams touchdowns last week against the Browns. The Cowboys have Super Bowl hopes; the Texans hope to get the top pick in the draft.

But the Texans showed up to play Sunday, on both sides of the ball. On offense, they went with a two-QB system, and neither of the quarterbacks was Kyle Allen, who threw four interceptions in back-to-back multiscore losses in the past two weeks. Davis Mills started, and the Texans gave several drives to Jeff Driskel, a run-first backup who hadn’t thrown a pass in an NFL game since serving as Drew Lock’s backup in Denver in 2020. Houston put up 23 points, their second-highest scoring performance of the season, and forced three Cowboys turnovers, including two interceptions off Dak Prescott:

That interception gave the Texans first-and-goal on the Dallas 4-yard line, with the lead and five minutes to go. It was going to take real magic to lose the game—but the Texans had that magic in them. With primary running back Dameon Pierce injured, they put in Rex Burkhead, who is normally only used on passing downs and had zero goal-line carries this season. You know how some running backs are called “short-yardage specialists?” Well, players like Burkhead are long-yardage specialists, and against Dallas he kept making the yardage longer. His first rush went backwards. His second rush also went backwards. Dating back to last season, Burkhead’s past four goal-to-go carries have gone backward.

The Texans wound up with a fourth-and-goal situation. They could’ve kicked a field goal to take a six-point lead, but instead tried to go for a touchdown to take a two-possession lead. And then, they dialed up the worst fourth-down play of the season—a speed option for Driskel, the quarterback who hadn’t played meaningful snaps in years, and Burkhead, the running back who is not particularly good at running. Driskel ran left. Burkhead ran right. I don’t know who was wrong, but it was one of the two guys who probably shouldn’t have been playing in this situation.

The Cowboys got the ball at the 2-yard line and went the length of the field for a go-ahead touchdown, and then Mills threw an interception to end the game. The Texans lost 27-23, covering the massive spread by two touchdowns, and are just three losses away from sealing the top pick in the draft. If they can overperform and still pull out losses like this one, I have no doubt that they can do it.

Loser: The Punt That Wasn’t

It seems like every World Cup commercial is about how football shouldn’t be called “football.” And I’m tired of it! Soccer may involve feet more frequently than football, but how many different methods of kicking a ball are listed in soccer’s rule book? Just one? Thought so. Football’s immensely complex rule book outlines three types of kicking—placekicks, punts, and drop kicks, each of which is allowed in certain circumstances and leads to different situations. Sunday, Giants punter Jamie Gillan invented a fourth way of kicking, with disastrous results.

Gillan screwed up the drop, which is hypothetically the easiest part of the punting process. Instead of dropping the ball onto his foot, he threw it in front of him, and the ball hit the ground before Gillan even had a chance to swing his leg. Most likely the ball slipped from Gillan’s hand, since it was rainy in New Jersey, and rain is the worst enemy of any special teamer.

As the ball skittered along the ground, Gillan decided to kick it anyway—but that was actually a pretty awful idea. The NFL’s rule book specifically defines punts as taking place “before [the ball] strikes the ground.” What Gillan did was essentially kicking a fumble, which is illegal, and he was flagged for “illegal kicking of a loose ball.” It’s an extremely rare penalty—I can’t find any accepted illegal kick penalties since 2013, when Brandon Weeden kicked a ball out of the back of the end zone to avoid a safety. (The Cowboys did get flagged for illegal kicking on a botched extra point attempt earlier this year, but the penalty was declined.)

I get that Gillan was trying to prevent the Eagles from getting to his fumble and returning it for a touchdown—but is “randomly kicking the ball” really the best way to make that happen? The penalty gave the Eagles the ball at the Giants’ 33-yard line, essentially the equivalent of a negative-10-yard punt, officially making it the worst punt of the season—and it wasn’t even a punt.

Loser: The NFL’s Concussion Protocol (Again)

How can it get uglier than an NFL game in which both starting quarterbacks get knocked out of the game with concussions? From a football perspective, a double-concussion game features two backup quarterbacks struggling to score after taking second-team snaps all week. From an emotional perspective, it’s even worse, watching the game go on after two young players have their brains shaken up. But the NFL found a way to make it uglier, as Sunday’s Steelers-Ravens game once again raised questions about whether the league is following its own (recently updated) concussion rules.

Pittsburgh starter Kenny Pickett left the game at the end of the Steelers’ first drive, having thrown just one pass. Replays showed Pickett hitting the back of his head on the ground after this hit by Baltimore LB Roquan Smith:

Pickett was sent to the medical tent, evaluated for a concussion, and reportedly cleared. He came back into the game for Pittsburgh’s next series, handed the ball off twice and threw an incomplete pass. It was only then, after being cleared and coming back into the game, that Pickett was pulled and ruled out for the rest of the game due to a concussion. Head coach Mike Tomlin explained later that Pickett was pulled from the game when he “became symptomatic,” which would imply that Pickett suffered a concussion, somehow went through test after test with the league’s independent neurologists and seemed fine, and then, 15 minutes later, started to show symptoms.

Maybe that’s what happened. Brains are tricky. But if that is what happened, it raises more questions than it answers. Why is the NFL’s protocol so heavily based on immediate sideline evaluations when the possibility exists for delayed reactions? I’d almost rather believe that this was an error by the Steelers, who somehow screwed up and accidentally sent Pickett back into the game, than an indicator that sideline testing is missing delayed reactions. Either way, it’s awful for Pickett, who also suffered a concussion in Week 6 against the Buccaneers, giving him two in his rookie season. The NFL and NFL Players Association already rewrote part of its protocols earlier this season after Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa was allowed to return to a game against the Bills in September after exhibiting gross motor instability—a common symptom of a traumatic brain injury—only to be knocked unconscious in his next game four days later.

After Pickett’s exit on Sunday, the game went on. Baltimore’s quarterback, Tyler Huntley, also suffered a concussion, forcing Ravens third-stringer Anthony Brown to make his NFL debut. But the Ravens won anyway because Pickett’s backup, Mitchell Trubisky, threw three interceptions. It feels crass to bring up the poor quality of play when discussing the long-term physical health of players, but it’s also important. When the NFL can’t figure out how to keep its most important players safe from brain injuries, it isn’t worth watching.

Loser: A Fantasy Fumble

It’s fantasy football crunch time—playoffs in most leagues start next week, which means this was the last chance for teams to qualify, earn byes, or avoid finishing in last place. Desperate fantasy football players across the nation were looking at Sunday Night Football, hoping Justin Herbert or Jaylen Waddle would provide a few extra points—making it a bad time for one of the most unusual fantasy rulings in recent memory.

In the second quarter, Dolphins RB Jeff Wilson Jr. rushed for a first down and fumbled. The ball flew into the air, flopped to the ground, rolled around and disappeared under a pile of Dolphins and Chargers—and then suddenly and inexplicably popped up into the hands of Tyreek Hill. With so many players clustered around the ball (and some appearing to believe the play was over), the rest of the field was wide open for one of the league’s fastest players. Hill broke loose for a 57-yard offensive fumble recovery touchdown:

Offensive fumble recovery touchdowns are rare—going into Week 14 there had only been one this season. In fantasy football, most leagues give players six points for recovering a fumble for a touchdown, but no points for the yardage. Normally, this isn’t an issue, because this type of play nearly always occurs near the end zone, like Treylon Burks hopping on Derrick Henry’s fumble in the end zone, or Sam Darnold recovering his own fumble at the 1-yard line and rolling on the ground for a score. Before Sunday night, there hadn’t been an offensive fumble recovery touchdown of more than 10 yards since 2017, a fluke play where a Melvin Gordon fumble popped right into Keenan Allen’s hands. So in most fantasy leagues, Hill got just six points here instead of 11.7 points. (Luckily, he had a 60-yard touchdown catch later to cheer up his fantasy managers.)

It’s semi-justifiable, since punt return and kick return yardage isn’t included in fantasy scoring either. But those are special teams plays, and this is clearly offensive yardage. The most important thing to remember is that football is made up, fantasy football is even more made up, and the whole thing is designed to make you mad that you didn’t get 5.7 points that you believe you deserve, even though you don’t.