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: An All-Time-Great Football Week
I’m sorry, we just couldn’t get to all the winners and losers in a single column this week. We wrote an entire separate post about the biggest comeback in NFL history on Saturday, which allowed me to devote my attention to one of the wildest Sundays in recent memory, a maelstrom of comebacks and thrillers highlighted by the single worst game-losing play I’ve ever seen in all my years watching this magnificent, idiotic sport.
Twelve of the 15 games this week were decided by just one possession; five were won with scores on the final play of the game, including three overtime walk-offs. There were three 17-point comebacks, the most in a single week in NFL history. There was snow, there was chaos, and there was this:
Has to be seen to be believed: pic.twitter.com/DKNWzwu2pR— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 19, 2022
That’s Patriots wide receiver Jakobi Meyers throwing a last-second lateral pass directly to Raiders defensive end Chandler Jones, who promptly stiff-armed Pats quarterback Mac Jones and romped 48 yards to the end zone to beat his former team. Frenzied multi-lateral plays sometimes end in defensive touchdowns … but normally, those scores just add points to the winning team’s total, with few implications outside of gambling. This play actually turned a tied game into a Pats loss. It’s the second time in NFL history that a last-second multi-lateral play has resulted in a walk-off game-winning touchdown … and the other was also against the Patriots, when the Dolphins went 69 yards for an offensive TD in 2018. Bill Belichick might be the coaching GOAT, but once guys start pitching the ball to other guys, Belichick’s useless.
So much stuff happened Sunday that I just have to list it: Tom Brady blew a 17-point lead in about 13 minutes of game time; the Chiefs somehow went to overtime with the Texans; the Jaguars came back from 17 down against the Cowboys and won on a pick-six in overtime; the Giants beat Washington in a hugely important playoff positioning battle thanks to this jarring stop at the 1-yard line:
And you know what? Let’s watch the Patriots thing again: It doesn’t get old.
Has to be seen to be believed: pic.twitter.com/DKNWzwu2pR— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 19, 2022
Loser: The Dumbest Thing I Have Ever Seen on a Football Field
I just want to break down the final ridiculous play in the Patriots-Raiders game in full:
First, the context:
- The Patriots, notably, were tied with the Raiders. They did not need to score a touchdown to win. They had outscored the Raiders 21-7 in the second half, and up to that point, the only touchdown they had allowed after halftime may or may not have actually been a touchdown. While it would have been nice to win in regulation, there was no need to do anything ridiculous. (They did something ridiculous.)
- Even if Pats WR Jakobi Meyers felt the need to throw this ball, he had better options. Fellow receiver Tyquan Thornton was right next to him; tight end Hunter Henry was a few yards away. Instead, he tried to throw to Mac Jones, who was 20 yards behind him and 30 yards across the field.
- Meyers, to his credit, has taken full responsibility for the failure. He says the Patriots’ coaches told the team to play for overtime. “I thought I saw Mac Jones open,” Meyers said.
Jakobi Meyers said the plan was to run the ball and go into overtime. Said he was ‘trying to be a hero.’— Mark Daniels (@MarkDanielsPJ) December 19, 2022
“I thought I saw Mac Jones open.” pic.twitter.com/tUEudAAjEa
- I thought.
- I saw.
- MAC JONES.
That’s really the dumbest part of this dumb thing: Meyers was trying to throw a pass to Mac Jones, one of the least athletic quarterbacks in the entire NFL, a three-star recruit coming out of high school whose shirtless pictures from college have been mocked. (Lest we needed a reminder of Jones’s lack of athleticism, a designed run for Jones a few minutes earlier had been an abject disaster.) Jones was trailing behind the entire play, with all the Raiders between him and the end zone. Meyers was apparently banking on this slow-ass QB single-handedly defeating the entire 11-man defense, with no blocking help or other teammates nearby to dump off another lateral to. Did Jakobi Meyers think that Mac Jones was some sort of hybrid of Derrick Henry and Justin Jefferson? And would a hypothetical Justrick Henfferson actually be able to make this play?
It’s also worth pointing out that Meyers’s throw was horrible. Meyers was a high school quarterback, which probably gave him the undeserved confidence to think he could complete this pass while on the move and throwing across his body while getting hit. It didn’t end up within five yards of Mac. Even if Chandler Jones wasn’t there to intercept the pass, Mac Jones probably wouldn’t have caught it. It turned out being a clean pick-six, but it could’ve also been a scoop-and-score fumble return.
And now the fun part … talking about Mac Jones’s tackle attempt:
- I think … I think … I think he’s trying to draw a charge? He’s getting his feet set outside of the restricted area, he’s dropping to the ground at the first whiff of contact, he’s looking to the ref for a signal, he’s looking to Coach K on the sidelines for approval. He’s not trying to make a tackle, that’s for damn sure.
- Mac Jones doesn’t attempt to use any of his body weight to stop the larger Jones, who is starting to rumble upfield. There is a nominal attempt from Mac to arm tackle on the ballcarrier’s legs, but he never gets a grip. It doesn’t even seem like Chandler Jones tries hard to put Mac on the ground—he simply puts a hand on Mac’s head and gently flattens him, like someone trying to push away a nipping 10-pound dog without hurting them too badly.
It was a horrible decision, a worse throw, and a pathetic effort. At every single juncture, the Patriots made the wrong choice, turning an inconsequential play into an all-time catastrophe. There was no world in which Meyers’s pass worked out, but I’m so grateful for the specific, baffling ways in which it failed.
Winner: The Eagles’ Sardine Sneak
Sometimes football is complicated, and sometimes it’s just a bunch of dudes shoving one another. The 13-1 Eagles are good at both—they run a sophisticated, intricate offense led by a spectacularly versatile quarterback. That offense is also extremely good at the shoving.
Jalen Hurts didn’t throw any touchdowns Sunday against Chicago, breaking an eight-game streak of throwing TDs. Instead, he merely threw for 315 yards and ran for three touchdowns in a 25-20 win; it was just the third game in which a player had 300 passing yards and three rushing touchdowns in NFL history. (The other two players to pull it off: Dak Prescott and Congressman Jack Kemp.) But Hurts didn’t really “run” for all three of those scores. He had one touchdown that actually involved running—a 22-yard score on which the Bears hit the wrong gap on a safety blitz, leaving the entire field in between Hurts and the end zone completely devoid of human beings.
But the other two TDs were one-yard scores out of a QB sneak–exclusive formation. He didn’t run into the end zone—he was pushed.
The QB sneak may be the defining play of this dominant Eagles team. Hurts has 28 conversions on third- or fourth-and-1 this year; nobody else in the NFL has more than 17. Hurts might have the most powerful legs of any quarterback ever to play the game—he competed in powerlifting competitions in high school, and his squatting videos in college went viral. The Eagles also have a tremendous offensive line anchored by center Jason Kelce, who was caught telling the Cowboys “you know what’s coming!” before a successful sneak a few weeks ago.
Eagles run a QB sneak for a first down.— Brenden Deeg (@BrendenDeeg_) October 20, 2022
“You know what’s coming” pic.twitter.com/UoGkAt7iy5
But this formation takes things to a new level. Hurts takes a snap from under center with three teammates lined up mere inches behind him, packed in like sardines in a can or clowns in a car. They’re too close for an effective handoff or a dropback pass: They can only push. The Eagles aren’t the first team to run sneaks out of such a crowded formation—I noticed Kansas State doing it a few years ago, and “have everybody push forward” is basically the simplest football concept, so it’s probably been used before—maybe even, like, 115 years ago. The Eagles didn’t start being this obvious about their sneaks until the last few weeks: On QB-sneak touchdowns against the Cardinals and Commanders, there were three players behind Hurts, but they were running misdirection to distract the defense. I guess the Eagles decided to stop screwing around and make those players useful.
Hurts now has 13 rushing touchdowns, the second-most in the NFL this season (behind Detroit RB Jamaal Williams) and the second-most in a season by any QB ever—Cam Newton had 14 in his rookie year.
But I think the Eagles can do even better. After all, they still had slightly-built WR DeVonta Smith on the field for these sneaks, split out wide doing absolutely nothing. Sub him out of the game and put a fourth player behind Hurts. And instead of running backs and wide receivers, they should just put a nose tackle, two backup offensive linemen, and a middle linebacker behind Hurts. And they should start running this play every single down, instead of actually playing offense. If the Eagles have 11 guys push forward, who can stop them?
Loser: Back-to-Back Prime-Time Ref Blunders
The Giants beat the Commanders 20-12 thanks to a thrilling goal-line stand: a crushing tackle on Taylor Heinicke at the 1-yard line by Kayvon Thibodeaux, relentless pressure on a third down to force a hurried throw by Heinicke, and then a pass breakup by Darnay Holmes to seal the win on fourth down. But two of those plays in that goal-line series featured questionable rulings by officials, and one was a clear miss. The Giants’ fourth-down stop actually featured some blatant pass interference by Holmes, a botched call that NBC rules analyst Terry McAulay confirmed on air:
NBC rules analyst Terry McAulay says refs missed a DPI on Curtis Samuel:— Josh Hill (@jdavhill) December 19, 2022
“This is defensive pass interference … it’s always a foul and should have been called.” pic.twitter.com/8teYF6UBxd
The Giants should’ve been flagged there, and the Commanders should’ve gotten four more shots at the end zone.
The other officiating issue is more complicated. On third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Washington actually did reach the end zone, with RB Brian Robinson powering into the end zone for a potentially game-tying touchdown—only for the score to be called back due to an apparent miscommunication between an official and a player. Washington WR Terry McLaurin was flagged for illegal formation on the play, the first penalty called on him all season, which pushed Washington back to the 6-yard line and made their chances of winning a lot harder. And to understand why he was flagged—and why it’s unusual—you need to know a little bit about football’s rules:
On every play, the offense needs to have seven players on the line of scrimmage. The five players in the middle on the line are ineligible to catch passes, which is why teams have five offensive linemen. The two players on the outside are the “ends” who are able to catch the ball—they used to be called tight ends and split ends, but now we say tight ends and wide receivers. It’s useful for the defense to be able to identify the two ends, which allows them to rule out certain pre-snap motions and trick plays. However, the offensive players don’t always line up directly on the line of scrimmage, even if the rules say they must. Offensive tackles like to play a skosh back to cut off edge rushers more easily, giving the O-line a distinct curve; receivers like a bit of space when playing against press coverage—and besides, they’re standing about 20 yards away from the ball and don’t always line up exactly right.
So officials tend to give them a bit of leeway. When outside receivers get set for a play, they typically check with one of the officials to confirm that they’re close enough to the line of scrimmage to avoid a penalty. You’ll see this dozens of times every game: A receiver will point over to the sideline, and most of the time the official will give them the A-OK. If they’re way off the line, the official will let them know they need to step up. Typically, refs throw the flag only if a receiver forgets to check with them and lines up unusually far behind the line of scrimmage.
But McLaurin checked with the official on the line of scrimmage! Replays clearly showed him looking over to the side and then scooting forward. The official appears to indicate that McLaurin is good to go—something McLaurin said in his postgame interview he believed occurred. McLaurin’s alignment didn’t provide a competitive advantage, and he clearly tried to be in compliance with the official, but the ref got his flag-throwing arm ready and pulled the trigger as soon as the ball was snapped.
Terry McLaurin looks at the ref asking if he’s good - ref points back at McLaurin as of to indicate he’s good. McLaurin then gives a thumbs up to ref to acknowledge it. This “penalty” took a Brian Robinson TD off the board. Via @SNFonNBC pic.twitter.com/B86N6nsJsS— Matthew Berry (@MatthewBerryTMR) December 19, 2022
It feels less excusable than the average officiating controversy. It wasn’t that the official didn’t see the play clearly, or didn’t interpret a rule correctly. It wasn’t a missed call so much as a breach of football etiquette, and it may have cost Washington the game.
Winner: The Jacksonville Jaguars
In Week 15 of the 2021 season, the Jaguars fired Urban Meyer, the head coach who (allegedly) kicked one of his players, (allegedly) did not know who Aaron Donald was, and (definitely) danced with a random woman that was not his wife in a bar in Columbus, Ohio, after skipping the team flight home after a loss. The team was 2-11, well on their way to earning the no. 1 pick in the draft; the guy they’d drafted with the no. 1 pick earlier that year, Trevor Lawrence, was tied for the league lead in interceptions.
In Week 15 of this season, the Jags moved to within one game of the AFC South lead after one of the greatest wins in franchise history, a 40-34 overtime win against the playoff-bound Cowboys. At one point, Jacksonville trailed by 17. Jacksonville DB Rayshawn Jenkins sealed the win with a walk-off pick-six of Dak Prescott; it was the team’s first game-winning overtime touchdown since 2005.
Jenkins was around the ball all game, finishing with 18 tackles and two interceptions, making him the first safety with 18 tackles in an NFL game since 2012 and the first player in the Pro Football Reference database with 18 tackles and two picks in a game. After the game, Jenkins was asked the difference between last year and this one, and he boiled it down to one thing: coaching. He didn’t specifically say anything about Urban Meyer, but (allegedly) Meyer was the coach of the team last year, when they sucked ass.
Lawrence, meanwhile, threw for four touchdowns, including a bunch of beautiful bombs. Last week, tight end Evan Engram led all non-quarterbacks in the NFL in fantasy scoring; this week, it was Jacksonville wide receiver Zay Jones, who caught three touchdowns from Lawrence. Since the start of November, Lawrence has had 14 touchdowns and one interception.
Between the Lions and Jags, the two teams with the worst records in the NFL last year are firmly in the playoff hunt with three weeks to go, led in large part by their young stars. What a difference a year makes.
Loser: Tom Brady, Again
In more than two decades of hating on Tom Brady, I have generally had to settle for faux failures and find small comforts in situations when Brady was otherwise awesome. Like making fun of him for losing the Super Bowl after leading the first team to go 18-0 in NFL history, or for dropping a pass in a Super Bowl where he threw for more than 500 yards. In 2022, though, we get legit reasons to make fun of Brady just about every week. On Sunday, his Buccaneers blew a 17-0 lead against the Bengals—and Brady was the primary reason for the loss.
Brady committed four turnovers Sunday for the first time since 2011, all in the second half on four consecutive drives. He threw two interceptions for the second straight week: One was a lobbed duck after he got hit, while the other was a straight-up bad throw.
Brady also lost two fumbles, including one in which the ball slipped out of his hand on a routine handoff.
Three of the turnovers gave Cincinnati the ball in Tampa Bay territory, resulting in three quick scores. With Brady quickly turning the ball over on those Tampa Bay second-half possessions, the Buccaneers defenders ran out of gas and gave up 34 unanswered points.
The Bucs are now 6-8; it’s the first time a Brady team has ever lost eight games in a season. They’ll need to go 3-0 down the stretch for him to avoid his first losing record ever as a starting QB. Brady is 31st among qualifying quarterbacks in yards per attempt, wedged between Baker Mayfield and Kenny Pickett. It’s a great time to be a Brady hater—but I’ve gotta admit, it’s a bit less fun when it’s this easy.
Winner: The Alley-Oopterception
Sunday’s games may have shown the foolishness of randomly hurling a ball in various directions on a football field—but a lateral led to the interception of the year in the Chargers-Titans game. Titans rookie CB Roger McCreary tracked a deep ball by Justin Herbert, and leapt to catch it—but realized he wasn’t going to land inbounds. So he tossed it to his teammate, safety Joshua Kalu, who caught the ball and tapped his feet inbounds—a rare two-man interception:
All-time interception by Roger McCreary and Josh Kalu pic.twitter.com/4i6JAFCTCb— James Foster (@NoFlagsFilm) December 18, 2022
It’s a stunning feat of concentration and awareness by both players. McCreary seemingly keeps his eyes on the ball the whole time, but he’s actually paying attention to all sorts of things. He’s aware that Chargers receiver Mike Williams isn’t going to be able to make a play on the ball, and that he can possibly make a pick rather than just break up a potential touchdown. He’s aware of the approaching sideline, making sure to leap before either of his feet goes out of bounds so he can make the play. He’s aware of Kalu’s presence, and knows that his alley-oop has a potential recipient. He also seems to know that his toss has to be backwards—you can’t just throw footballs forwards, even if you are in the process of making a leaping interception out of bounds. And he’s seemingly aware that Williams isn’t going to try to catch his pitch to Kalu, turning a potential pick into a touchdown. McCreary calculates all of that, and then Kalu makes a spectacular play as well. In a millisecond, his brain processed that McCreary is pitching him the ball, and that he needs to get both feet down inbounds to make the interception count.
After the game, McCreary said that he had thought about making this exact play, making him either a football innovator who imagines never-before-seen highlights or a massive liar. Either way, he and Kalu had the vision to improvise—and execute—the interception of the year.
Loser: A Non-Walk-Off
With the Buccaneers’ loss to the Bengals and the Panthers’ loss to the Steelers, the dream of a sub-.500 NFC South champion crept even closer to reality on Sunday. Believe it or not, the Falcons could have moved into a tie for first place in the division with a win over the Saints—yes, those Falcons, the ones that are extremely bad, even according to their own loyal fans.
Atlanta put their hopes on rookie QB Desmond Ridder, making his first NFL start after the decision was made to bench Marcus Mariota. Those hopes ended when Ridder ran out of bounds near midfield after an 18-yard scramble with the game clock expired, in essence voluntarily ending the game and giving the Saints a 21-18 win. While virtually every other game this week ended with a game-winning score, this one ended with a player literally running off the field with no time left—not a walk-off win, but a run-off loss.
Desmond Ridder goes out of bounds on the last play of the game pic.twitter.com/x2QbXOMYhX— alex (@highlghtheaven) December 18, 2022
This exact scenario happened with a backup quarterback in a Georgia Tech game earlier this year—apparently, it’s a problem localized to teams from the Atlanta metropolitan area. The Falcons’ loss means the dream of an NFC South in which every single team finishes with a 6-11 record is alive and well.
The Falcons didn’t just lose because of this play, but it was a fitting capper on a disappointing debut for Ridder. He went 13-for-26 for 97 yards, only slightly surpassing the passing output of Saints tight end Taysom Hill, who was 2-for-2 for 80 yards. But it’s a tough look—QBs should know stuff like “How much time is on the clock?” or “Will this action cause my team to lose literally 100 percent of the time?” It literally would’ve been better for Ridder to lateral the ball backwards 20 yards across his body to a waiting defensive player—that attempt actually would’ve given the Falcons a better chance at winning than running out of bounds.