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: Mr. Irrelevant
We are living in a golden age for Misters Irrelevant. Historically, these players have been the equivalent of the last kid picked in a playground pickup game, just hoping to be lucky enough to make the roster of the team out of training camp. But the tide is turning. Giants linebacker Tae Crowder, the 2020 Mr. Irrelevant, won New York’s starting middle linebacker job; the 2009 honoree, Ryan Succop, won a Super Bowl two seasons ago with the Buccaneers. Last year, the 2021 Mr. Irrelevant, Grant Stuard, starred in an Uber Eats ad, and then got traded to the Colts for a sixth-round pick. That’s right! A sixth-round pick! A full round higher than he was picked! And Chad Kelly, the 2017 Mr. Irrelevant, just won the Grey Cup with the Toronto Argonauts. (It’s the CFL, but still!) Before Sunday, a Mr. Irrelevant had never thrown a touchdown pass in an NFL game—and now, one is QB1 for the San Francisco 49ers. Brocktoberfest is underway:
Having to play a lowly-drafted rookie is generally an auto-loss for an NFL team. According to TruMedia, the only team to win a game after being forced to turn to a seventh-round rookie for meaningful snaps was the 2005 St. Louis Rams, who won one game with Ryan Fitzpatrick. When the Dolphins were forced to play seventh-round rookie Skylar Thompson in October, they got walloped by the Jets.
But the Niners are coached by Kyle Shanahan. They didn’t drop off when Trey Lance suffered a season-ending injury and gave way to Jimmy Garoppolo, and they didn’t drop off when Garoppolo suffered a season-ending foot injury in Sunday’s game against the Dolphins. They were trailing against a playoff team when they turned to Brock Purdy, the 262nd pick in this year’s NFL draft … and won comfortably, 33-17.
Purdy went 25-for-37 with two touchdowns and an interception. He averaged just 5.41 air yards per attempt, easily the lowest of any QB with at least five passing attempts on Sunday. But that was the plan. Shanahan had a strategy ready for a third-stringer to put up solid numbers on a team with a winning record.
“Brock Purdy” is now a significant part of the NFL playoff picture. After all, San Francisco is in first place in the NFC West, and there aren’t many other options available. The NFL trade deadline passed a month ago, and there simply aren’t that many free-agent QBs. (On Sunday night, ESPN reported the team planned to sign journeyman QB Josh Johnson off the Broncos’ practice squad.) San Francisco does have a fourth-stringer, Jacob Eason, but he has somehow managed to throw two interceptions on just 10 NFL passing attempts. But the Niners have won games with C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens at QB, and made the NFC championship game last year with Jimmy Garoppolo at QB.
Mr. Irrelevant shouldn’t be the name of the last pick in the NFL draft, considering several supposed irrelevants are making impacts on NFL rosters. The real Mr. Irrelevant is whoever plays quarterback for Kyle Shanahan—the Niners will probably be fine no matter who’s under center, even if he was the last pick in the draft.
Loser: Jeff Saturday and the Colts
Everything fell apart so quickly for the Colts. It wasn’t so long ago that they were one of the league’s model franchises—elite quarterback play, a universally respected front office, solid coaching, and 10 wins virtually every year. Now they’re 4-8-1, leading the NFL in turnovers, and coached by Jeff Saturday, who was an ESPN talking head last month.
Things fell apart even quicker Sunday night in Dallas. In the third quarter, the Colts strung together a 15-play, 90-yard drive to cut the Cowboys’ lead to 21-19, falling just short on a two-point conversion that would have tied the game. And then they allowed 33 unanswered points—committing four turnovers and allowing five touchdowns—to lose 54-19. (Yep, that’s Scorigami!)
The Cowboys were the first team to hit 50 points in a game this season, and they did most of it in about 11 minutes of game time. The Colts were outscored by 33 points in the fourth quarter, which may be an NFL record, depending on how you feel about a certain football travesty that took place almost 100 years ago. In 1925, the Chicago Cardinals outscored the Milwaukee Badgers 33-0 in the fourth quarter of a 59-0 shutout—but that game was the result of one of the early NFL’s biggest controversies. The Cardinals scheduled that game in a late-season attempt to play the flimsiest opponents possible to win the league’s championship, but the winless Badgers had already given up on the season and sent many players back to their day jobs. To fill out the Milwaukee roster, a Chicago player recruited some local high schoolers and gave them fake names. The scandal nearly tore apart the NFL, which didn’t have a foothold yet in American culture. The league’s commissioner ordered the game stricken from the league’s record books … but apparently they forgot to actually erase it. The game is still technically a part of NFL history, and is now tied with Colts-Cowboys for the most lopsided fourth quarter in league history.
It’s hard to put it all on Jeff Saturday—there were interceptions off strange bounces and funky fumbles, which no coach could’ve prevented. But the idea behind Jeff Saturday, Interim Head Coach, was that a former All-Pro lineman would be able to fire up a Colts squad struggling through a lost season in ways that a lifer coach might not. After hiring a non-coach to be a coach, you’d expect to lose some games because of poor scheme, or bad game management, and hope to make up the difference due to that extra fire.
But that’s not what happened Sunday night. In the fourth quarter, the Colts gave up and got out-fought and out-gritted. Are there any Colts defenders who didn’t look stupid on this Tony Pollard TD run?
Who should be more embarrassed—Matt Ryan for this ugly throw, or the receiver for having the ball wrestled out of their hands by a Dallas defender that wanted it more?
How did the Cowboys’ backups make this touchdown against the Colts’ starters look so easy?
If Saturday was hired for his motivational skills, why did his team get bullied so hard that it looked like they couldn’t wait for the clock to hit triple zeroes? This shouldn’t happen to pros—in fact, it’s literally never happened to pros. The last time somebody got beaten this badly to end a game, it was a bunch of high schoolers going up against pros 100 years ago in a game so ugly and unfair that it nearly got the NFL canceled.
Winner: Joe Burrow, KC Killer
I don’t want to base a narrative on three games decided by a total of nine points. But dammit, we’re about to. Why can’t Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs close games against Joe Burrow’s Cincinnati Bengals?
In Week 17 last January, the Chiefs had their eight-game win streak snapped in Cincinnati. After taking a 28-14 lead in the first half, Kansas City went punt-punt-field goal on their only second-half drives and lost on a last-second Evan McPherson field goal. The loss dropped Kansas City out of the no. 1 seed in the AFC standings—but that wouldn’t matter. They still hosted the AFC championship game, a rematch against the Bengals, and this time they blew an even bigger lead. After taking a 21-3 first-half lead, the Chiefs went punt-punt-interception-punt-punt-field goal and lost, 27-24, in overtime.
Sunday wasn’t quite as dramatic, but facts are facts: Once again, Kansas City had a touchdown lead entering the fourth quarter, but Burrow and the Bengals scored last. Mahomes had a season-low 223 passing yards, the Chiefs defense couldn’t stop Burrow or Cincinnati’s backup running back Samaje Perine, and the Bengals scored 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to win 27-24. (Yes, the same score as the AFC championship game.)
The Chiefs are a league-best 59-18 since Mahomes took over as starting QB in 2018; if we include the playoffs, they’ve beaten 29 of the 31 other teams in the league. (They’re 0-1 against the Seahawks and haven’t played the Vikings.) There’s only one team they have lost to three times since Mahomes took over: the Bengals. And they’ve lost all three since 2022 started, and led all of them in the second half by at least a touchdown.
This loss means the Chiefs no longer lead the AFC—the Bills have retaken the no. 1 seed, for now. But I’m not worried about that. It feels like the smartest thing the Chiefs can do is get as far away from the Bengals as possible in the postseason—or hope the NFL decides to start calling games at the end of the third quarter.
Loser: The Texans Offense
Sunday marked the Cleveland Browns debut for Deshaun Watson, who served an 11-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy after more than two dozen women filed lawsuits against him describing sexual assault and harassment by the quarterback. There’s no quarterback on earth whose play would be good enough to justify the moral baggage associated with Watson … but, like, Watson wasn’t even good. In fact, he was legitimately awful. Against the lowly Texans, Cleveland had exactly one trip to the red zone, and that drive ended with Watson throwing an interception. The Browns offense failed to reach the opposing end zone, but did get stopped in their own end zone for a safety. According to TruMedia, their offense had minus-19.76 expected points added, meaning an average team would have been expected to score about 20 more points than Cleveland did.
And the Browns won, 27-14, because the Texans offense cannot stop giving points to the other team. Kyle Allen threw a pick-six to a Browns defense that till that point had just three interceptions on the season:
Denzel Ward had a scoop-and-score:
And Donovan Peoples-Jones had a 76-yard punt return touchdown, Cleveland’s first since 2015:
All in all, it was one of the strangest games in league history. The Browns are just the seventh team in NFL history to return an interception, fumble, and punt for touchdowns in the same game. Their 27 points are the fourth most by a team without an offensive touchdown in the Super Bowl era.
And this is becoming commonplace for the Texans, who have allowed defensive touchdowns in each of the last three games. They’ve scored a total of 39 points in those games and allowed 35 points off of their own passes, fumbles, and kicks. Next up for the Texans? The Cowboys, who forced five turnovers and scored a defensive TD against the Colts on Sunday night. The Dallas offense might not even need to come to the game.
Winner: The Four-Team NFC East Playoff Dream
After the NFL expanded its postseason to seven teams per conference two seasons ago, it’s now possible for one division to get all four of its teams into the playoffs: the division champion, and three wild-card entries. But it’s almost impossible, because roughly 40 percent of NFL games are intra-divisional matchups—and somebody has to lose those, right?
Actually, no! All four teams in the NFC East played on Sunday, including a matchup between the Giants and Commanders, and yet none of them lost. The Eagles crushed the Titans 35-10, the Cowboys easily handled the Colts 54-19, and the Giants and Commanders tied, 20-20. That game was still up for grabs until the final play in overtime, when Graham Gano’s 58-yard field goal attempt came up way short:
Obviously, both the Giants and Commanders could have improved their individual playoff chances with a win. But what if you’re someone whose primary rooting interest is getting all four NFC East teams into the playoffs? (Surely, this person is a TV executive.) Sunday was perfect. Washington is now last in the NFC East, but only a half game out of the seventh playoff spot.
Loser: Baltimore’s No-Lamar Trick
The Ravens lost QB Lamar Jackson to a knee injury in the first quarter of Sunday’s game against the Broncos. Without their star, the playbook was limited—backup Tyler Huntley can run, but nobody can run like Lamar. Which might explain why the Ravens had to bust out one of the worst trick plays of the season in the fourth quarter:
The thing about trick plays is they’re supposed to “trick” the opposition. And for whatever reason, absolutely nobody on the Broncos believed that wide receiver James Proche II was going to run this ball. If you watch this clip, from the very second the ball is pitched to Proche, the Broncos’ defenders begin bailing downfield to defend the pass even though Proche still could’ve taken the reverse downfield if he wanted to. I’m not sure why the Broncos were so sure this was going to be a pass—I looked it up, and the Ravens don’t run WR passes … ever. The last Ravens wide receiver to record a pass attempt was Anquan Boldin in 2010.
Maybe that’s why Proche was so damn determined to throw this pass. This was his time for glory. Even as the Broncos waited eagerly for his throw, Proche took an extremely dramatic run-up into the most doomed pass of the year. He launched the ball almost 40 yards in the air; it was essentially a jump ball for running back Kenyan Drake with four defenders in the area. Broncos safety Justin Simmons won the lotto and came down with his second pick of the day.
Proche really, really should’ve held onto this. The Ravens were in field-goal range, and a Justin Tucker kick would’ve cut Denver’s lead to three, which would’ve helped put Tucker in position to kick another field goal later in the final quarter. Luckily for the Ravens, they were playing the Broncos, whose miserable offense failed to score a touchdown yet again. Baltimore won on a last-minute Huntley rushing TD—hopefully Jackson can return soon so the Ravens don’t attempt any more plays like that failed WR pass.
Loser: The Pyrrhic TD
The NFL is no longer in the business of sharing videos of concussions and the upsetting after-effects of traumatic brain injuries. While massive hits used to be highlights—remember ESPN’s JACKED UP! segments?—the league now knows that concussions are one of the few threats to its dominant position in American society, and tries its best to avoid replays and clips of unconscious players splayed out on the field. But on Sunday, they had no choice: Titans receiver Treylon Burks made one of the most outstanding catches of the day while receiving a brutal headshot that appeared to knock him unconscious:
It was the first touchdown catch of Burks’s career, and he probably won’t remember it. Eagles safety Marcus Epps hit him high, and after that, Burks seems to have no control over his body. After he comes to a rest, the ball slips out of his motionless hand and dribbles onto the ground. The unconscious guy lying on the turf had scored a touchdown. When this happened in Jerry Maguire, Rod Tidwell eventually got up and started dancing; that movie is notably not a documentary.
Burks was, of course, ruled out for the rest of the game with a concussion. The Titans had already listed one of their five wide receivers, Cody Hollister, out of Sunday’s game with a neck injury, so they were left with just three active receivers: Robert Woods, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, and C.J. Board, a special teamer who hadn’t played on offense all season. They combined for just three catches for 16 yards; even though Burks’s touchdown was his only catch of the day, he had more receiving yards than the rest of the Titans’ receivers combined.
The pass to Burks was the only TD of the day for the Titans in a 35-10 loss; they probably wish it had never happened.