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?
Loser: Mike McCarthy’s Big Trick Play
For years I have harbored a very specific and trivial theory about end-of-game trick plays. When a team has only one snap remaining and must go the length of the field, they are forced to resort to a Stanford band–style lateral play—you know, the kind that went disastrously for the Patriots earlier this season. The theory is that in these situations, teams should remove their offensive linemen from the field. I love and cherish offensive linemen. They are critical for protecting quarterbacks and opening up run lanes—but that doesn’t really happen on an end-of-game lateral play. There’s only about half a second of blocking before the quarterback throws the very first pass, and after that, everybody on the field needs to be fast and good at throwing and catching in hopes of evading defenders and switching the field as many times as possible. The linemen often end up miles behind the play, blocking air. So why not swap out those linemen for speedsters and backup quarterbacks? It’s legal, so long as five players declare themselves as ineligible and don’t cross the line of scrimmage before the first pass.
The Jets tried this once 15 years ago, but nobody else had attempted this hack … until bold thinker Mike McCarthy. At the end of a game last year against Tampa Bay, the Cowboys sent out 10 skill-position players and one lineman; unfortunately, they failed to complete any laterals.
Sunday, the ’Boys had another opportunity. Needing a touchdown to tie San Francisco, they lined up in an unusual formation. Running back Zeke Elliott lined up at center, with the rest of the team spread as wide as possible.
Finally, my dream play was happening! My unpopular tweets from a couple of years ago were about to shine. Someone in the NFL had the vision and was about to pull off one of the greatest endings in football history. It was time.
At no point in the Cowboys’ rambling, incoherent final play were they even close to anything that could be considered a rational football thought. Everybody watching was confused about exactly what the Cowboys had even tried to do—everybody except for me, the guy sitting at home, realizing his one big football idea was dumber than any football idea anybody has ever had.
As it turns out, even on these trick plays, you need some sort of blocking. When San Francisco linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair looked up and saw a running back as the lone lineman, he decided to punish the Cowboys for their hubris and power-blasted Elliott into hell.
“Alright Zeke, so first you’re going to line up at center, then snap it to Dak and then get absolutely leveled.” pic.twitter.com/1cvyXGql5U— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 23, 2023
With Al-Shaair in his face moments after the snap, Dak Prescott had to get rid of the ball quickly. He threw an off-target pass to KaVontae Turpin, basically the only player on the field who was being covered by a defender. Turpin had to jump to catch it and was tackled instantly upon landing. It’s not clear whether the Cowboys had a bigger plan—was Elliott supposed to come get the ball on a lateral after he snapped it? Was Turpin even the intended target? Was the ball supposed to go out wide where there were blockers? We’ll never know. The play was completely dead on arrival because the Cowboys forgot to poke breathing holes in its travel container.
It was yet another poor season-ending performance from McCarthy. He chose to punt in a pair of questionable scenarios—first while facing fourth-and-5 at the opposing 40-yard line, a punt that led to the go-ahead touchdown for San Francisco, and later while trailing by seven with two minutes left—and attempted a field goal while trailing by seven, and the Cowboys never scored again. And once again, Dallas’s season has ended with a memeable final play against the 49ers that nobody besides McCarthy understood. You’d think he would’ve spent a full year thinking of something better. But I’m not even sure he spent the last year thinking about anything.
Winner: Cincinnati’s Backup O-Line
It felt like Joe Burrow was gonna spend all day on his ass again. The Bengals almost won the Super Bowl last year but were eventually held back by an IKEA offensive line—cheaply purchased, shoddily assembled, and constantly falling apart. Burrow took 19 sacks in the postseason (an all-time record) and seven in the Super Bowl alone. So the Bengals ditched the IKEA furniture and called an interior designer, spending big in free agency on left tackle La’el Collins, left guard Alex Cappa, and center Ted Karras. It worked: Burrow was sacked 10 fewer times for 111 fewer yards in 2022. But at the end of the year, their designer line fell apart, just like the cheap one did. Collins tore his ACL in Week 16, Cappa suffered an ankle injury in Week 18, and right tackle Jonah Williams dislocated his kneecap in last week’s win over the Ravens.
On Sunday, the Bengals had to start three backups who essentially hadn’t played all season: at right tackle, Hakeem Adeniji, the player whose performance at right guard in last year’s Super Bowl probably did more than anyone’s to win the Rams a title; at left tackle, Jackson Carman, the player who was benched at right guard last year to allow Adeniji to fall apart in the postseason; and at right guard, Max Scharping, who was cut during the preseason by the 3-13-1 Texans because he couldn’t find a role on their offensive line. None of these three players had meaningful roles with the Bengals through the first four months of the regular season, and their average Pro Football Focus grade was 48.7 (out of 100). They should have been toast against the Bills.
Instead, Cincinnati’s makeshift line dominated against the Bills. Burrow was sacked only once, for a loss of 2 yards. The Bengals ran for 172 yards—more than in 16 of their 17 previous games this season—with Joe Mixon having his second 100-yard game of the season. Look at the massive hole opened up for Mixon on this run, ending with Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds getting dumped into the snowy sideline:
Jackson Carman...bench escort. pic.twitter.com/yAbHwFWIxS— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) January 22, 2023
On a day seemingly designed for Buffalo to thrive, the Bengals also went to work in the defensive trenches. They pressured Josh Allen on 20 of his 47 throws and held the Bills to just 3.3 yards per rush attempt.
I don’t quite understand how this happened. There’s no evidence in the careers of Adeniji, Carman, or Scharping to suggest any one of them could be competent NFL players—let alone all three of them at the same time—and we’d seen how disastrous poor line play could be to this exact Bengals team. But if that line holds up for one more game, they’ll be back in the Super Bowl.
Winner: Home Games
Ten of this year’s 13 NFL postseason games have been played, and it feels like the best teams are winning. In the AFC, we have a rematch of last year’s AFC championship game between the Chiefs and Bengals; in the NFC, the top-seeded Eagles will play the hottest team in the league, the 2-seed 49ers. The squads left standing are four of the top six in regular-season point differential—see, Vikings fans, there’s a reason I kept bringing that up!—and four of the top six in regular-season offensive expected points added.
Only three road teams have won so far: Last week, the Cowboys beat the 8-9 Buccaneers in a game Tampa Bay got to host because it won its division; the Giants went to Minneapolis and beat the Vikings; and this week, Cincinnati went into Buffalo and beat the Bills. It felt like a game Buffalo was supposed to win. It was snowy in Buffalo—I’m told that it doesn’t snow every single day all winter long in Buffalo, although to football fans whose primary interaction with the Western New York area is via NFL broadcasts, it certainly seems like it does—and Bills Mafia was as ridiculous as ever. But they couldn’t stop Snow Burrow (Joe Burrsnow?) or Snow Mixon, and soon the Bengals were doing snow angels in Buffalo’s end zone:
Snow angel time for the Bengals. pic.twitter.com/nJsfT78kgy— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) January 22, 2023
The Bengals’ win means that next week’s AFC championship game will be hosted by the Chiefs for a fifth consecutive year. If Buffalo had won on Sunday, that game would have become the first neutral-site conference championship game as a result of the cancellation of the Week 17 Bengals-Bills game in which Damar Hamlin suffered an on-field cardiac arrest. The NFL’s logic was that Buffalo could have been the AFC’s no. 1 seed had it won that game. The Chiefs and Bills had already started selling tickets to the game in Atlanta, a fact Burrow (Brrrr-snow???? Still trying new ones out.) had fun with after the win rendered those tickets void:
Joe Burrow's thoughts on tickets being sold for a Bills/Chiefs neutral site AFC Championship?— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) January 22, 2023
"Better send those refunds." pic.twitter.com/6UqPrVAuy4
And while I was legitimately starting to root for the Bills—how could you not, after Hamlin and the litany of tragedies in the Buffalo area this year?—I’ll take solace in the fact that the neutral-site championship game has been avoided. Last week, ProFootballTalk speculated that the NFL was using the opportunity to soft-launch neutral-site conference title games. The league is interested in neutral-site games because of the competitive balance that would come from eliminating the home-field adva—hahahaha, just kidding, they want it because it’s more profitable. You can make a neutral-site game a big event and sell tickets to it months in advance instead of waiting around to see who qualifies for the title game. You can book concerts around the game and host brand activations and tell fans to stay at the Official Hotel of the NFL. It can become an NFL event instead of a celebration for a home team.
Which is exactly what the NFL doesn’t need. I have watched college football, a sport whose selling point is the unique traditions of schools and the boundless energy of college kids, transform into a sport of neutral-site games. From marquee early-season matchups to conference title games to College Football Playoff games, the biggest matchups are all at neutral sites, and most of them are lifeless. I’ve been to Super Bowls and I’ve been to home games for 3-6 Big Ten teams on cold November afternoons—which do you think are more fun? The ones fans can go to.
Like I said earlier, home teams have been dominant throughout this NFL postseason. But most of that is simply because the teams hosting games in the earlier rounds of the playoffs are generally better. They earned the opportunity to host postseason games by playing well in the regular season. If the NFL chips away at postseason home-field advantage, it will be shooting itself in the foot by eliminating one of the biggest reasons teams play so hard all season long. And besides, when teams do pull postseason upsets, like the Bengals did on Sunday, the road environment heightens the prestige of their accomplishment.
It would have been cynical for the NFL to use the Hamlin incident as a back door to launch a moneymaking venture it’s been hoping to implement anyway. While I’m bummed the Bills lost after all that the city of Buffalo has been through, their loss on Sunday showed exactly why the NFL needs home-field postseason games. Would you rather watch a team win a game in a sterile dome in front of the NFL’s corporate partners? Or would you rather watch them plow through the snow to rip the hearts out of the NFL’s rowdiest fan base?
Winner: Kicker Tackles
In the regular season, the average kickoff return went for 22.9 yards; in this weekend’s divisional round, returners averaged 30.3 yards per return. And yet none of those returns reached the end zone, thanks to a pair of last-ditch efforts by the literal last guys on the field (and the last guys you’d expect to make a play): the kickers. Two placekickers helped their respective teams protect slim leads with touchdown-saving tackles, although they didn’t exactly use a traditional tackling form.
First up was Kansas City’s Harrison Butker, who stopped Jacksonville’s Jamal Agnew from breaking a fourth-quarter return by diving face-first into Agnew’s left calf:
Harrison Butker saved a kickoff return touchdown with his face pic.twitter.com/SrEsR9Tmvi— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) January 22, 2023
And on Sunday, San Francisco’s Robbie Gould DROPPED THE HIT STICK on Dallas’s KaVontae Turpin.
Lol, just kidding. Robbie Gould is a 40-year-old kicker. He just kinda stood in Turpin’s way, and Turpin did an unnecessary spin move and spun himself into Gould. You can practically hear Gould saying, “Ope! Sorry! Was just trying to squeeze by ya!” on the TV feed.
In the entire NFL regular season, there were just 23 solo tackles by kickers or punters on kickoff returns. That means you could expect a play like this roughly once every 12 games—and we got two in four this weekend! Butker hadn’t recorded a tackle since 2020; Gould did have two tackles this year but previously hadn’t recorded any since 2016. Part of this is because there are 10 players on the field better equipped and positioned to tackle the returner while kickers hold back and prepare to break glass in case of special teams emergency … but part of it is because kickers are bad at tackling. Butker has three missed tackles, and before this weekend, he had just two successful tackles in his career, according to Pro Football Focus. Both players may have saved their teams’ respective seasons since both tackles were made in the fourth quarter of tight games, both defenses made stops after the return, and both teams won by a touchdown. Focus on these remarkable kicker moments rather than yet another Brett Maher missed extra point!
Loser: The Chains
It has been a bad postseason for the first-down chains, the medieval torture device that found a second life as a measuring implement on the sidelines of football games. Last week, the NFL’s Next Gen Stats account tweeted about how there is a chip in the football that gives highly accurate data on where the ball is on the field—the chip has been in the balls since 2016, but the league doesn’t talk about it often because it immediately leads to fans wondering why we use a medieval torture device to measure first downs instead of the chip in the ball.
But the chains suffered another blow Saturday night: The Giants-Eagles game was brought to a halt when the chain snapped.
Taking a quick break to fix the 1st down chains. pic.twitter.com/iRebH00TCH— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 22, 2023
The officiating crew went deep into the bowels of Lincoln Financial Field and returned with backup chains, which were comically tangled and needed to be unwrapped:
The 1st down chains were broken, so officials brought out the backup chains, and it took just a little bit to unravel them Ready to go now! pic.twitter.com/sSES5w4hri— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 22, 2023
We’re not at the point yet when the chip in the ball can give instant results, especially since we still need referees to determine exactly when players are down. But the chains themselves seem to be in dire peril. The upstart USFL played its 2022 season without chains, instead using a camera system similar to the Hawk-Eye system used at tennis tournaments to determine first downs. They still need refs to spot the ball, but the system eliminates chain delays like Saturday’s—and perhaps most important, makes the first-down decision look like it banks on cutting-edge technology rather than a confangled contraption operated by three middle-aged men in crossing guard vests. It will cost the NFL money to install the system in all its stadiums, but it will make the game move faster and look smarter. I have grown fond of the first-down chains, but I suspect this is the last time we’ll see the chains snap during an NFL playoff game.
Winner: Playoff Hero Chad Henne
The first Kansas City drive against the Jaguars was a succinct argument for why Patrick Mahomes is the most irreplaceable player in the NFL, a triumphant march in which the soon-to-be MVP hit a bunch of silly throws only he can string together—jump passes, sidearm throws, the full Mahomes experience.
And after the second drive, he needed to be replaced. Mahomes suffered an ankle injury, and it quickly became clear that despite his attempts, he could no longer execute the simplest quarterback tasks. He couldn’t maneuver in the pocket, generate power on throws, or even execute handoffs. It seemed like the entire NFL postseason could shift depending on how quickly Mahomes could get moving again.
Mahomes is the best player in the NFL, so even if Kansas City’s backup was somehow Joe Burrow or Justin Herbert, it would be a step down. But of course, Kansas City’s backup is not Joe Burrow or Justin Herbert. It is Chad Henne, a player roughly a decade removed from any realistic chance of being an NFL starter after going 5-17 in multiple stints as the Jaguars’ starter. Henne is so old that he was Michigan’s starting quarterback in the famous game they lost to Appalachian State. His NFL debut was in relief of Chad Pennington against a team starting Kurt Warner, two quarterbacks who have been retired since 2010. A good backup QB is like a spare tire, capable of handling the road until things can return to normal—and when Henne took the field Saturday night, it felt like the Chiefs had just realized they hadn’t checked their spare since 2013.
But Henne has become a surprise postseason hero in Kansas City: Two years ago, he had to close out the Chiefs’ first-round win over the Browns and hurled his creaky old body headfirst into a pack of Cleveland defenders to pick up a late third-and-14. And against the Jaguars on Saturday, Henne came off the bench and instantly led a 98-yard touchdown drive.
There were 84 drives that began within a team’s own 2-yard line this season; only seven ended in touchdowns. Henne tacked on an eighth. It wasn’t highlight-reel stuff: Henne went 5-for-7 for 23 passing yards—3.3 measly yards per attempt—and all seven passes were classified as “short” in the official NFL play-by-play log. He was helped by a 39-yard gain by running back Isiah Pacheco and a 15-yard roughing-the-passer penalty. But it showed Henne was ready to execute the offense in case of a Mahomes catastrophe.
The Chiefs won the game and made the AFC championship game because of a heroic performance by Mahomes, who returned in the second half and threw touchdowns while clearly hobbled. But Henne put them in position to win. They scored seven points on Henne’s improbable field-length TD drive—his only drive of the game—and they eventually won by seven points.
Henne could be forgiven for slacking off. He’s already made enough money that he can happily retire, and he knows that he’s never going to be an NFL star or even an NFL starter. And he gets to play only in the league’s ultimate disaster scenario; when Mahomes is hurt, all of Kansas City is gnashing their teeth and panicking. But he came in Saturday and did his job. Mahomes’s injury still looms over the postseason—we have no idea whether he’ll be 100 percent next week against the Bengals—but Henne did enough to keep Kansas City’s season alive.
There are a lot of ways to explain Philadelphia’s 38-7 ass-kicking of the Giants. They ran for 268 yards on 6.1 yards per carry, the 16th-most rushing yards of any team in any postseason game in NFL history. (I don’t think anybody is touching the all-time record of 381 yards in Chicago’s 73-0 win in the 1940 championship game.) The Giants had 216 punting yards and just 109 passing yards. But what I’ll remember is the Eagles defensive linemen hitting Daniel Jones so hard that the quarterback’s contact lens popped out. Congrats to Fox commentator Daryl Johnston for nailing the “It’s a contact sport!” joke; he gets a perfect 10.
Jones was sacked five times; the contact came out on a play in which Jones scrambled and barely made it back to the line of scrimmage. The Giants weren’t quite sure how to handle the delay: They initially sent backup QB Tyrod Taylor in to take the next snap but then determined that Jones wouldn’t take that long to pop the lens back in and called a timeout so that he could return to the game. It appears Jones put the same contact right back in, even though it likely touched grass and his metal face mask, horrifying contact wearers across the country. Vision is kiiiiinda important for QBs, which explains why so many of them get corrective surgery—but that’s not advised for younger players, since the human eye changes well into our 20s. But Jones is 25 now—get those eyes fixed to save your team a timeout next year!