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?
Winners: Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers
Two months ago, I noted that my editor had put the kibosh on any more “Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are struggling” entries. Sure, it was interesting that two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history were playing some of the worst football of their careers after decades of excellence—but was it interesting enough to write about it every single week? How many times in a row could we be surprised that the once-good players were now bad?
But with one week left in the NFL season, the situation has changed, much to the delight of the NFL’s broadcast partners. Both Brady and Rodgers are still having down years by their personal standards, and both are still leading .500 teams. But both are playing their best football of the season right now, and we’re likely to see both in the NFL playoffs.
Brady’s Buccaneers secured the NFC South title (and a home game in the playoffs) with a 30-24 win over the Panthers on Sunday. The Bucs put themselves in position to win the division with a string of uncomfortable wins where the offense generally looked terrible—but on Sunday, they looked a lot like the dynamic passing attack that won a Super Bowl two years ago, with Brady throwing three touchdowns on three massive passes to Mike Evans:
In the first 15 games of the season, Brady had zero touchdowns with more than 30 air yards; now he has three, all to Evans. It really is déjà vu watching all the touchdowns back to back—all going in the same direction on the field, all with Evans aligned at the bottom of the formation, all over the top of Panthers defenders helplessly chasing Evans. (Maybe things would’ve been different had Carolina’s star cornerback, Jaycee Horn, not broken his wrist last week.)
Evans had 10 catches for 207 yards, the most in any game since Brady came to Tampa in 2020. Brady finished with a season-high 432 yards, and the Buccaneers scored 30 points in a win for the first time all season. (They did hit 31 points in October, but it was in a loss to the Chiefs.) After struggling to get in postseason position, the Bucs can now take it easy in Week 18 with the knowledge that they’ll get a home game—and that their offense looks better than it has in months.
Meanwhile, Rodgers’s Packers also played their best game of the year, dominating the Vikings 41-17. It wasn’t exactly Rodgers’s doing (he had only 159 passing yards and a touchdown); the bigger factor was the Packers’ three picks off Kirk Cousins:
The Packers were 4-8, but have won four games in a row to get back to .500. All they need to do to make the playoffs is beat the Lions at home in a game they’ll be favored to win. Green Bay had scored 24 points only four times in its first 12 games, and two of those required overtime. Now the Packers have done it four times in a row.
It’s still true that Brady and Rodgers are having the worst years of their careers, and that their teams are below their usual standards. They currently rank 25th and 29th among qualifying passers in yards per attempt, and both of their teams are still pretty mediocre at .500. But their teams have performed well enough that both quarterbacks will have a chance to do what they do best: Win games in the postseason. I can no longer avoid giving Brady-Rodgers updates: Their teams are good enough to matter now.
Loser: Riverboat Ron Rivera
The big Commanders news this week was that Washington was going back to Carson Wentz at quarterback. Wentz had missed more than two months with a broken finger, and in Wentz’s absence, backup Taylor Heinicke had slightly better stats, a much better record, and the support of the Washington fan base. But Heinicke had been turning the ball over recently—he had an interception and four lost fumbles in the past three games—so head coach Ron Rivera decided it was Wentz’s turn again.
The thing about playing Wentz in a must-win game is that he’s extremely passionate about giving the ball away. Loves it, always has. The rest of us will never truly understand the thrill Wentz gets from hurling a guaranteed pick into double coverage—maybe it’s like skydiving to him. And after spending all those weeks sitting on the sideline, watching Heinicke win games, he just couldn’t wait to launch doomed deep balls. Watch this clip; he just looks so happy out there finally getting to do what he loves.
Wentz finished Sunday’s game against Cleveland with no touchdowns and three interceptions in a 24-10 Commanders loss. Washington was eliminated from the playoffs when Green Bay beat Minnesota later in the afternoon—something that apparently surprised Rivera, who told reporters after the game that he hadn’t known it was mathematically possible for the team to be eliminated on Sunday.
Here's the video.— Chad Ryan (@ChadwikoTWW) January 1, 2023
I am absolutely gobsmacked that Rivera didn't know that the Commanders could be eliminated today.
How does this happen in the modern NFL?
Did this impact his decision to start Wentz?
I'm so confused right now. pic.twitter.com/9BNCr26mxm
In Rivera’s defense, it’s somewhat understandable that an NFL coach wouldn’t know all of his team’s possible playoff scenarios. His job is to win the game. Regardless of whether the Commanders were on the brink of elimination, his job was still to win the game.
But still: It seems important to know the potential ramifications of a game before deciding the starting quarterback, especially when the quarterback you choose is Mr. Interceptions himself, the same man whose Colts lost a must-win game to the 2-14 Jaguars last year (Wentz had a pick and lost fumble in that game). We knew that Riverboat Ron was a gambler—but even the worst degenerate knows the stakes before placing a bet.
Winner: Punter Speed
I can’t imagine a more terrifying moment in football than when a punter sees a football they need to punt on the ground. He needs that football to do its job. It’s like when my Wi-Fi goes out, if failing to reset the Wi-Fi within 0.37 seconds would result in seven 300-pound guys jumping on me, stealing the ball, and scoring a touchdown and millions of people hating me. The punter doesn’t train what to do in these scenarios, but if they don’t do the right thing, it could lead to disaster. Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about the Giants punter who tried to kick the ball off the ground; he quickly learned that doing so was both against the rules and extremely detrimental to his team.
But it’s the situation that Buccaneers rookie punter Jake Camarda found himself in with the division on the line. Tampa Bay led by six in the game’s final minute, but needed to punt the ball away—and if Carolina drove for a touchdown after his punt, the Panthers would’ve won the game and given themselves a chance to win the division next week, with nothing left for either team to play for in Week 18. So Camarda needed to pin the Panthers deep to make life as difficult as possible for Sam Darnold. But long snapper Zach Triner whipped a grounder back at Camarda, eventually getting to Camarda on the short hop. Camarda had to scoop it up—and by the time he got the ball, Panthers defenders were already bearing down on him, making a punt incredibly risky.
But Camarda picked it up, outran a slew of Panthers defenders toward the sideline, and managed to uncork a 41-yard punt down to the 3-yard line:
See, Camarda isn’t just any punter: He is the fastest punter in the NFL. Camarda ran the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in March, probably for fun, since no team is drafting a punter based off his 40 time. And he crushed it, running it in 4.56 seconds, the second-fastest time by any punter or kicker on record. (That’s faster than Dameon Pierce and Tyler Allgier, who rank second and third among rookies in rushing yardage this year.) Camarda has shown his speed in games before—he converted on a fake field goal for Georgia in the 2020 Sugar Bowl.) So when Camarda got the ball, he was actually going up against players who are slower than him—you can see he’s being chased by linebackers Joel Iyiegbuniwe (4.60 40 time) and Cory Littleton (4.73 40 time).
Technically, Camarda’s punt never happened. It took significantly longer than usual to punt the ball, so the Buccaneers’ linemen released downfield, drawing a penalty for ineligible players downfield and wiping the play from the official game record. Regardless, Camarda’s miraculous punt saved Tampa Bay’s season: If he’d gone down where he scooped up the ball, Carolina would’ve had a short field to score the go-ahead touchdown. Instead, his punt was so good that Carolina accepted the penalty, leading to a re-punt that took time off the clock. Camarda’s next punt was also good, going to the 8-yard line, and the Buccaneers kept the Panthers from going the length of the field, sealing the NFC South title.
Loser: Minshew Mania
It seemed like the Eagles would be fine without Jalen Hurts. Yes, Philly’s starting quarterback is one of the most talented young players in the NFL, but the Eagles also have a great infrastructure—a league-best offensive line, a strong defense, a solid run game. And while some teams have shaky backup quarterback situations, the Eagles have Gardner Minshew. We all love Gardner Minshew! The ex-Jag looked fine in two spot starts for the Eagles last year, and threw for 355 yards last week against the Cowboys—the Eagles lost that game, 40-34, but the 40 points allowed were a bigger issue than Minshew’s performance. And besides, this was a team that had won a Super Bowl with Nick Foles. They’d be fine!
But Sunday, it became clear there’s a big drop-off from the maybe-MVP to the mustache. The Eagles scored just 10 points, their fewest of the season, and lost a winnable game against the 6-9 Saints. The loss was sealed on an egregiously bad decision by Minshew, resulting in a pick-six by Marshon Lattimore.
An entire dimension of Philadelphia’s offense is missing when Minshew plays. Hurts averages more than 50 yards per game as a runner; Minshew had one carry for zero yards on Sunday—a quarterback sneak on which the Eagles failed to pick up a first down, something that almost never happened when Hurts’s powerful legs were churning. Not having Hurts as an option in the run game also makes life harder for the Eagles running backs; the team ended the game with a season-low 67 rushing yards.
The Eagles were 13-1 with Hurts; they’re 0-2 with Minshew. They needed only one win (or one Cowboys loss) in their final three games to clinch the NFC East and a first-round bye; now they’ll enter Week 18 needing to play their starters against the Giants. The Eagles could also miss out on the no. 1 seed, which would buy a critical week for Hurts as he recovers from his injury.
Winner: Mike Tomlin
The last month of this NFL season has been a damn roller coaster. After Thanksgiving, the Titans, Dolphins, and Jets were among the seven teams in playoff positioning; all three of them are currently on at least five-game losing streaks and in serious danger of missing the postseason. At the same point in the season, the Jaguars and Packers were 4-7 and 4-8, respectively, but have reeled off win streaks and now face win-and-in postseason scenarios in the final week of the season.
But nobody has pulled off a bigger in-season turnaround than the Pittsburgh Steelers, who started the year 2-6. Since the NFL moved to a 16-game season, 152 teams have begun the season with 2-6 records; only one, the 1978 Chargers, have managed to finish the season with a winning record.
Somehow, the Steelers are a game away from doing it. They beat the Ravens on Sunday Night Football on the greatest throw of rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett’s life, a miracle ball thrown on the run into a roughly ball-sized window, a manipulation of time and space that has convinced me that Pickett might be a good NFL quarterback even though he’s thrown just six touchdowns in 12 games.
The come-from-behind win in a come-from-behind season means the most impressive streak in the NFL is still alive: Mike Tomlin has been the Steelers’ coach since 2007, and still has not had a losing season.
This year, Tomlin’s first without Ben Roethlisberger, seemed guaranteed to go sub-.500. Their Week 1 starting QB, Mitchell Trubisky, was a dud. Their rookie QB, Pickett, has struggled. Most of Western Pennsylvania would prefer to never hear the name of their offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, again. (Especially the ones who already had to suffer through his stint as the Pitt Panthers’ offensive coordinator.) They were sellers at the deadline, trading away Chase Claypool.
And yet here they are, right at .500, with a winnable game against the Browns to go. Even if they win, the playoffs are still a long shot: They’ll need a few other results to break their way, and The New York Times’ playoff machine gives them only a 16 percent chance to qualify. But getting above .500 with this team might be the greatest coaching job ever by one of the game’s greatest coaches.
Loser: The Miami Dolphins’ Invisible Corner
The Dolphins made an unforgivable mistake in a critical moment in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game against the Patriots. Clinging to playoff hopes in the midst of a four-game losing streak, Miami needed to stop the Patriots from scoring a touchdown to go up by two possessions—but they somehow left wide receiver Tyquan Thornton completely unguarded. (He’s the guy at the bottom of the screen here in the red circle, holding his arms up in hopes of getting noticed.)
amazing to think this lineup ended with a *Patriots* timeout pic.twitter.com/pBmfdNGMcN— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) January 1, 2023
But Miami got lucky. The Patriots somehow didn’t identify this free touchdown opportunity, and saved the Dolphins from themselves by calling timeout, presumably because their coaching staff realized Mac Jones was about to run a play into the part of the field where all the Dolphins defenders were. (I thought “reading defenses” was the thing Jones was supposed to be good at?)
And then, the Dolphins did something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. After the Pats let them off the hook, Miami made the exact same unforgivable mistake again, just seconds later, after a full timeout to talk things over and fix the seemingly simple problem of covering each wide receiver. This time Jones threw a touchdown to the unguarded receiver, Jakobi Meyers. A Dolphins linebacker, Duke Riley, noticed the issue as the ball was snapped and ran over to try to make a play, but he was too late and was trying to do something that wasn’t his job.
That touchdown put New England ahead 23-14, and they held on to win 23-21 to keep their playoff hopes alive. Miami is banged up—the team had already lost defensive backs Nik Needham and Byron Jones to season-ending injuries, and were without cornerback Xavien Howard on Sunday. (The Pats had the ball at the goal line because of a humiliating pass interference call on Keion Crossen, a journeyman on his fourth team in five seasons.)
But there’s no amount of banged up that justifies lining up without anybody covering a wide receiver, having time to fix the mistake, and then doing it again. The Dolphins started December 8-3 and virtually guaranteed a playoff spot; they’ve lost five in a row and need a Week 18 win over the Jets to go to the postseason. It’ll be hard enough with a backup (or potentially third-string) QB, if Tua Tagovailoa (concussion) and Teddy Bridgewater (who suffered a finger injury Sunday and was replaced by rookie Skylar Thompson) can’t play; it’ll be impossible if they make stupid mistakes over and over again.
Loser: Justin Jefferson’s Fantasy Managers
This is fantasy football championship week, and there was a good chance that if you drafted Justin Jefferson, you were in it. According to ESPN, 43.4 percent of its fantasy leagues featured at least one finalist with Jefferson on the roster, a higher percentage than any player this year, last year, or in 2020. (ESPN doesn’t seem to have released this stat for the 2019 season or earlier, so this could be a record.) Jefferson wasn’t the highest-drafted WR (that was Cooper Kupp) but he leads all receivers in receptions and yardage. He was especially dominant in the fantasy playoffs, with 123 yards and a touchdown against the Colts in Week 15 and 133 yards and a touchdown against the Giants in Week 16, powering millions of fantasy teams to the finals.
But on Sunday, Jefferson had just one catch for 15 yards against the Packers. He was featured in only two highlights: The play when Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander did Jefferson’s signature griddy dance in his face after an incompletion.
Jaire Alexander hitting the Griddy after defending Justin Jefferson pic.twitter.com/2DxqF6qXMa— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) January 1, 2023
And the play when Jefferson accidentally hit an official in the back when slamming his helmet in frustration after another Kirk Cousins interception:
Justin Jefferson was a HUGE disappointment to fantasy owners today except for in leagues that award 20 points for slamming your helmet onto a referee’s back. pic.twitter.com/VcWojlrBvd— Cousin Sal (@TheCousinSal) January 2, 2023
Jefferson needed just two catches on Sunday to tie the record for the most by a player in their first three seasons, which seemed like a lock, since Jefferson had had at least two catches in every single game of his career. Instead, he had just the one. He’ll probably set the record next week when the Vikings play the Bears, but he’ll have a much harder climb to break Calvin Johnson’s single-season receiving yardage record—if he’d maintained his weekly average of 117 yards per game, he would’ve broken it easily, but now will need 194 yards in Week 18.
But there’s no Week 18 for fantasy owners. Hopefully your league gives out a nice prize for second place.