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?
Not all weather football is good football. Snow football? That’s great! It makes some aspects of football harder, but generally makes up for it with enhanced prettiness. Rain football? That can be ugly, but it can cause some fun fumbles and special teams mishaps. Wind football? That’s a nope. Passing and kicking are impossible.
And cold football? That’s really low on the fun list. The games are ugly; the stands are empty, and there’s a little part of each player’s brain that is probably telling them they’re going to freeze to death. Icicle hands are bad at catching and throwing; brick-like footballs are tough to grip and kick; the frigid, rigid ground takes an extra toll on tackled players.
Saturday was a bad day of football—one of the coldest days in NFL history, as a brutal Arctic weather front swept across most of the United States. Eight games kicked off with temperatures below freezing, and three with wind chills below zero. NFL players pretended it was OK, like when the Seahawks took the field in Kansas City shirtless to “warm up” in a timeless proof of football bravado.
But the issue wasn’t a lack of bravado. It was a lack of degrees Fahrenheit. It doesn’t matter how macho you are: If you can’t feel your damn fingers, it’s going to be hard to play. The teams in those eight frigid games on Saturday scored a combined 291 points, an average of 18.13 per team per game, while the teams that played in six indoor or warm-weather games this weekend (including the three games on Sunday) combined for 330 points, 27.5 per team per game.
It was nice to have football on Saturday—it sure as hell beat going outside. But it wasn’t necessarily the most prudent idea. The Titans had to bump back kickoff by an hour to help keep electricity demand low as Tennessee’s power grid buckled. The Browns had so few fans that they opened up the lower decks of the stadium to fans from the cheap seats. Fans hoping to trick themselves into feeling warm through the wonders of alcohol quickly found that their beers might freeze and explode. All this to see a team score 10, maybe 14 points.
I imagine the era of cold football will likely come to an end someday. The Vikings built themselves a dome to shield their team from the Minnesota cold; even though the weather was sub-zero in Minneapolis on Saturday, Kirk Cousins threw three touchdowns in front of a capacity crowd indoors while some other cold-weather teams advised the few fans in the stands to huddle together for warmth. The dome also allowed them to host a Super Bowl, which is a big selling point for team owners. The Bears, who hosted the Bills in a game that was 9 degrees, with minus-12-degree windchill on Saturday, are reportedly considering a dome for their next stadium, and days like Saturday will shift other teams in that direction.
Although cold football is ugly, part of me is wistful about what will be lost when all these games are played indoors. Can they at least fill the stadium up with artificial snow sometimes so we can get a snow game? Those are actually fun.
Winner: The Bucs, but Only in the Fourth Quarter
When we hear about the concept of the black box—the poorly named flight recorder that survives plane crashes—we often ask, “Why don’t they just build the whole plane out of that stuff?” A few weeks ago, reporters asked Todd Bowles football’s version of the black box question.
With the Buccaneers, their problem seems similarly fixable. Their offense is dog crap for somewhere between 45 and 59 minutes per game, only to suddenly look competent when the Bucs need points late and Tom Brady gets to run an up-tempo no-huddle offense to try to score points quickly. So the question was raised: Why don’t the Buccaneers just do that all game?
Their Christmas night win may have been the most baffling Buccaneers performance yet. It should’ve been an easy win against an Arizona Cardinals team embroiled in front office intrigue and down to their third-string quarterback, Trace McSorley, whom Kliff Kingsbury inexplicably asked to throw forty-five passes. McSorley was the first quarterback so bad that even DeAndre Hopkins couldn’t catch passes from him. Hopkins has played with Tom Savage, Brandon Weeden, T.J. Yates, Ryan Mallett, Brock Osweiler, and many more, but recorded a career-low 4 yards Sunday night. But the Buccaneers couldn’t take advantage! Brady failed to complete a single pass more than 5 yards downfield in the entire first half, and through three quarters, he was 15-for-25 for 112 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. He was averaging fewer yards per attempt and throwing interceptions at a higher rate than Zach Wilson was when he got benched by the Jets on Thursday night.
And then, of course, the Bucs rallied back from a 16-6 deficit in the fourth and won in overtime to remain in first place in the NFC South.
It was the 45th comeback win of Brady’s career, adding to his NFL record. But Brady comebacks in 2022 look a lot different than they used to. In Brady’s first 41 career comebacks, his team scored at least 20 points 34 times—82 percent of the time. This year, all of Brady’s comebacks have ended with the Buccaneers scoring 20 points or less. Vintage Brady comebacks featured Brady playing great for three quarters, then finding a new level to win the game. Now his team doesn’t find the end zone until they absolutely need to.
This has happened time and time again. They were down 13-6 in the fourth quarter against the Rams, scoring their first touchdown with nine seconds to go and winning the game 16-13. They were down 16-6 against the Saints, scoring their first touchdown with three minutes to go and winning the game 17-16. Tampa Bay averages just 11.0 points in the first three quarters of games—31st in the league, ahead of only the Broncos. Brady has only thrown just one first-quarter touchdown this year. But he has 11 touchdown passes in fourth quarters, accounting for more than half of his 21 total TDs.
There are a few potential explanations. Maybe late-model Brady is capable of winning only against the conservative coverages played by defenses trying to hold on to leads—there was a clear strategic shift from the Cardinals on Sunday night, as they started playing off coverage in hopes of limiting big plays to avoid a loss. Maybe Brady is better at calling plays at the line of scrimmage than the Bucs’ coaching staff is at calling them in from the sideline. Or maybe Brady is just clutch. I guess he needs to build the whole plane out of clutch.
Loser: Russell Wilson
The Broncos didn’t just hit rock bottom on Christmas. They also hit Bikini Bottom. Nickelodeon aired a broadcast of Sunday’s Broncos-Rams game, meaning we got to hear Spongebob’s brainless starfish friend Patrick Star commenting on yet another Wilson interception.
Wilson threw three picks for the first time with the Broncos, and his mistakes were a big reason Denver lost 51-14 to the 4-10 Rams. Let me repeat: a 51-14 loss to the 4-10 Rams. That’s tied for the most lopsided loss of the NFL season, but the other 37-point win was by the Cowboys, who are headed to the playoffs. A team that finished the season with a losing record hadn’t won a game by 37 points since 2017—and that 42-point win by the Texans was in October, well before they realized they would finish the year 4-12. The Rams are eliminated from the postseason, and have shut down Matthew Stafford, Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp, Allen Robinson II, and many more for the year. They’ve been shuffling their offensive line on a weekly basis due to stepped-on-a-black-cat-level injury luck, and they’re starting Baker Mayfield, their fourth quarterback of the year, whom they acquired earlier this month. And they won by 37. The Broncos got their asses handed to them by a team rolling out randos and waiting for the season to end.
Wilson’s first year in Denver has been an abject disaster. His acquisition was supposed to make the Broncos a Super Bowl contender; instead they’re 4-11 and last in the NFL in scoring. For most of the season, the defense had held up, but on Sunday, Wilson threw two interceptions before he completed a pass, setting the Rams up for quick, easy scores. The Rams went up 17-0 within 10 minutes and hit their season high (31 points) in the first half. And now the Broncos are a laughing stock from a mile high down to a pineapple under the sea.
Winner: T.Y. Hilton
The most stubborn rumor of the 2022 NFL season was the prospect of Odell Beckham Jr. joining the Cowboys. Part of it was practical: The Cowboys’ offense was near perfect, but often felt like it was missing a piece after losing Amari Cooper in the offseason, and OBJ joined the Rams mid-season last year and helped them win the Super Bowl. And part of it was the fact that the Cowboys and Odell Beckham Jr. are both catnip for sports talk radio and debate shows; combining them both into one topic was a Skip Bayless fever dream. Beckham visited Dallas and went to a Mavs game with Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs, but for whatever reason, it never materialized.
So two weeks ago, the Cowboys settled for T.Y. Hilton. It barely made a splash in the NFL newscape. Although Hilton made four consecutive Pro Bowls from 2014 to 2017 with the Colts, Hilton, I imagine, has never been the topic of a single sports debate show segment. (He’s supposedly very nice, which is tough to get angry about on TV.) And besides, it seemed like the 33-year-old was pretty much cooked after posting a career-low 331 yards last year and going unsigned in the offseason. Hilton was inactive last week and didn’t play a role in the first three quarters of Sunday’s game against the Eagles.
And then Hilton made one of the plays of the season. With Dallas trailing by seven in the fourth quarter, Dak Prescott took sacks on first and second downs to set up a third-and-30. That’s a situation that doesn’t come up often, and almost always ends in failure when it does: NFL teams were 0-for-8 at converting third-and-30 or longer this year, and 0-for-26 last year. Many teams will run a draw play or a throw underneath and hope somebody misses a tackle instead of actually trying for a miracle.
But the Cowboys threw a bomb to their newest—and oldest—weapon. Hilton’s first catch as a non-Colt was a 52-yarder to pick up the longest third-down conversion of the year:
The Cowboys tied the game a few plays later and held the Eagles offense scoreless for the rest of the day to win, 40-34. It was a win that required break after break: The Cowboys recovered all three fumbles in the game, and wrestled two passes away from Eagles receiver Quez Watkins for interceptions. But third-and-30 wasn’t a lucky break: It was a beautiful throw to a receiver that clearly has a little more left in the tank than anybody realized. Good thing the Cowboys had to settle.
Loser: Mac Jones
Mac Jones keeps failing the plausible deniability test. I guess we could imagine that on this Bengals fumble return (which was eventually overturned on replay), the Patriots quarterback was trying to take out Cincinnati cornerback Eli Apple because he posed a threat to New England receiver Tyquan Thornton’s chances to chase down ballcarrier Germaine Pratt.
Wait! What? Hahaa. I mean I have no idea if Mac is a dirty player or not, but this play is not dirty at all. I read on Yahoo or somewhere that he tripped Apple, but that’s not what happened. Jones is a QB that threw a block the best way he could. With his body! They teach this!
— Wade (@_oneWade) December 25, 2022
But it’s a stretch. Thornton was well ahead of Apple and is one of the fastest players in the NFL—and even in that case, Jones could’ve gotten the job done by simply getting in Apple’s way. Instead, Jones specifically goes for Apple’s legs, which is illegal and dangerous. (The rulebook specifically outlaws blocks below the waist after changes of possession.)
This is becoming a trend for Jones. The Patriots quarterback was flagged for unnecessary roughness after a Rhamondre Stevenson fumble at the end of Saturday’s game, a call that eventually set the Pats 15 yards farther back from the end zone on their failed game-winning drive. (CBS didn’t show any replays of what Jones did to get called for the penalty.) Last year, he was criticized for visibly twisting the ankle of Panthers defensive end Brian Burns after being strip-sacked, a play that left Burns writhing in pain on the ground while Jones calmly walked away. And against the Bears, Jones appears to spear Bears safety Jaquan Brisker in the groin with a cleat on a slide, again leaving Brisker in pain on the ground. (It also appeared as if Jones tried to trip Brisker on another slide.) Pretty much the only time Jones hasn’t done something like this was last week, when he needed to take down Chandler Jones to prevent a game-winning touchdown, but instead was run over.
At this point, we’ve got a solid trend: When Mac Jones gets a little bit pissy about something—generally a Patriots turnover—he makes plays targeting the lower bodies of defenders, minimizing his personal chance of injury while maximizing opponents’ chance of injury. (It feels particularly messed up to try to kick opponents on slides, when quarterbacks are protected from contact.) It’s well-documented that Jones has a bit of a temper in games—he was recently fined for throwing a ball at an opponent after a sack, and when cameras find him on the sideline, he’s often yelling at somebody. That’s not unique among QBs; everybody from Tom Brady to Aaron Rodgers to Peyton Manning has been seen screaming when things don’t go their way. But those players don’t try to take out opponents! Hurt feelings aren’t an excuse to hurt bodies!
Jones has managed to escape punishment for his cheap shots, and his opponents have largely managed to escape injury. The first one probably needs to change, or else the second one will.
Winner: The First-Place Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jags beat the Jets on Thursday night, which means they got to spend Christmas weekend sitting at home watching everything go their way. The Titans entered Week 16 as the leaders in the AFC South, and had a matchup with the 1-11-1 Texans. But things didn’t bounce Tennessee’s way—literally, on this Texans fumble-for-a-touchdown, which worked out so well that announcers speculated it was intentional:
This Titans team was not particularly great with Ryan Tannehill at QB. But Tannehill had ankle surgery this week, which will keep him out for the rest of the regular season, and with rookie quarterback Malik Willis, they don’t really seem to have any offense outside of giving the ball to Derrick Henry over and over again. Willis has now started three games and still hasn’t thrown a touchdown. Trailing late with three minutes on Saturday, I was yelling at my TV screen over a attempted Titans two-minute drill that began with four runs on five plays—but quickly understood why they weren’t throwing when they actually let Willis drop back to pass, resulting in a horrific interception:
Willis finished 14-for-23 for 99 yards with two interceptions as the Texans won, 19-14. The Jags and Titans are now tied for the AFC South lead at 7-8—yes, there are now two entirely sub-.500 divisions in the NFL. The way the tiebreakers work out, whoever wins the Week 18 matchup between Tennessee and Jacksonville will win the division, rendering their Week 17 games meaningless when it comes to the division race. But the Jags have to feel good about their odds in two weeks, when they’ll go up against a team whose quarterback has literally never thrown a touchdown.
Winner: The Vikings’ Celebration Unit
We’re reaching the point where virtually every sport has been covered in a post-touchdown celebration: baseball, basketball, rowing … bowling … curling? It’s all been done before. But apparently the Vikings had a good idea while watching the World Cup over the last month. After a Patrick Peterson interception in the win over the Giants, they decided to act out a penalty kick:
While Peterson does a fine job scoring and pretending to celebrate, I think cornerback Duke Shelley delivered the best performance. He actually agreed to be the shamed goalkeeper in this celebration, the Hugo Lloris to Peterson’s Lionel Messi. And Shelley sells the celly by hurling his body to the ground, going all out to really convince the crowd that he’s a goalkeeper.
This is the second time I’ve highlighted exceptional acting in a celebration this season, and the second time it’s been the Vikings’ defense. (Previously, I was infatuated with Jordan Hicks’s performance as a wobbly pin on a bowling celly.) They’re clearly the best celebrators in the league. They combine impressive performances and high-level, timely concepts—they also earned some headlines for a Call of Duty celebration against gaming enthusiast Kyler Murray. It’s almost award season, both in Hollywood and the NFL. Hopefully the Vikes get some attention.
Winner: Another Vikings Miracle
Saturday’s Vikings-Giants game was a battle between two teams that have been blessed. Both have postseason résumés built almost entirely on slim, magical wins, often won with the clock heading toward zeroes. The two teams ranked first and second in the NFL in one-score wins, with the Vikings a statistically improbable 10-0 in one-score games and the Giants a more-plausible-but-still-wild 8-3. Just last week, the Vikings had the biggest comeback in NFL history and the Giants beat the Commanders with a goal-line stand (with a little assistance from the refs). So you were pretty much safe fast-forwarding through the first 57 minutes of this one, since it would obviously come down to the two teams launching fireworks over each other’s heads in the closing seconds.
Indeed, the two teams traded touchdowns in the final three minutes, including a game-tying 75-yard drive ending with a two-point conversion by the Giants. But it was the Vikings who got to pull another win out of their Scandinavian keisters. They won the game on a 61-yard field goal by Greg Joseph, the longest kick in Vikings history:
I don’t feel like listing all the Vikings’ ridiculous wins again—I just did that last week, when they pulled off the aforementioned biggest comeback in NFL history. But needless to say, it’s been miracle after miracle. Today’s miracle was the fact that Joseph even kicked the ball 61 yards—his strength as an NFL kicker has been his accuracy, not his leg: He was 18-for-18 on kicks of less than 50 yards this year, and 2-for-7 on 50-yarders; his career long was 56 yards. Of course, with the game on the line, he crushed it, right down the middle, with room to spare.
So it’s official: The Giants are just a team that has happened to win some close games; the Vikings are the chosen ones who literally can’t lose in the clutch. They are 11-0 in those games, and have now taken down the next clutchest team in the league. Stay as far away as you can from these Vikings; it’s clear the football gods favor them the most.
Loser: Deshaun Watson
The Browns made a deal with the devil this offseason. They made Deshaun Watson, a man who had been sued by over two dozen women for sexual misconduct and assault during massage sessions, the face of their franchise in exchange for good quarterback play. But a month into Watson’s Browns career, Cleveland has to be wondering: Is he going to uphold the football end of their morally disastrous bargain?
Watson gave the Browns a chance to beat the Saints on a brutally cold day in Cleveland on Saturday, throwing two passes that could have been caught for touchdowns on the final drive of the game; they were dropped by Donovan Peoples-Jones and David Njoku, respectively, and the Browns lost 17-10, officially eliminating the team from playoff contention. Watson finished the day 15-for-31 for 135 yards, running for a touchdown and throwing an interception.
Watson has now played a significant amount for the Browns after returning from his 11-game suspension—four games, almost a quarter of the season. The Browns are 2-2 in those games, but haven’t scored more than 13 offensive points in any of Watson’s four starts. (They put up 27 points against the Texans thanks to two defensive touchdowns and a punt return TD.) It’s the only four-game stretch of Watson’s career in which he has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. Of the 42 quarterbacks that have thrown at least 100 passes this season, here’s how Watson ranks:
- 41st in yards per attempt (between Joe Flacco and Colt McCoy)
- 41st in completion percentage (between Joe Flacco and Zach Wilson)
- 42nd in passer rating (below Zach Wilson and everybody else in the league)
- 40th in touchdown percentage (between Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett)
- 40th in completion percentage under pressure (between Kyler Murray and Zach Wilson)
- 41st in Dropback EPA per game (between Joe Flacco and Colt McCoy)
- 32nd in Pro Football Focus’s adjusted completion percentage, which removes drops, throwaways, and spikes (between Tyler Huntley and Justin Fields)
- 37th in Pro Football Focus’s passing grade, which accounts for drops, dropped interceptions, QB decision-making, etc. (between P.J. Walker and Justin Fields)
Long story short: He’s been pretty bad. And he’s been bad enough that turning a drop or two into a touchdown wouldn’t suddenly put him among the league’s elite passers. It’s a massive drop-off from 2020, Watson’s last season before the lawsuits, when he led the NFL in yards per attempt and finished second in passer rating.
Maybe it’s the fault of Watson’s teammates and coaching staff. But that argument doesn’t seem to hold up—after all, it’s the same supporting cast and coaching staff that Jacoby Brissett had in his 13 starts, and Brissett ranked toward the middle of the pack in most of those passing categories. He was 19th in yards per attempt, 20th in passer rating, and even higher in subjective rankings—eight in PFF’s passing grade and ninth in ESPN’s QBR. And besides, Watson’s supporting cast and coaching staff was pretty bad his last season in Houston—they fired head coach and primarily play-caller Bill O’Brien four games in, making Romeo Crennel interim head coach, and they had just traded DeAndre Hopkins for David Johnson; they had an awful offensive line, an awful run game, and their top receiver in yards per game, Will Fuller, is out of the NFL just two years later. In spite of all that, Watson put up top-of-the-league numbers, which he is not coming close to doing in Cleveland.
And it’s also possible that Watson is just rusty after two years of not playing, which would be entirely reasonable. But Watson was healthy throughout the 2021 season as well as throughout this year’s suspension, so it’s not like he’s recovering from an injury or re-learning how to throw. When Watson actually did suffer injuries that kept him out for significant amounts of time, like when he tore his ACL as a rookie, he returned looking as sharp as ever. Players have returned from longer absences from bigger setbacks and played better than Watson is now—most of his stats are worse than 34-year-old Alex Smith after he had to relearn how to walk due to a compound leg fracture or 30-year-old Michael Vick’s return after spending multiple years in prison. And despite the suspension, Watson was able to work with the Browns offense in preseason and training camp, and has now been practicing with the team for six weeks and playing for four. It’s fair to allow for some rust for a guy who hasn’t played for two years—but this much rust, for this long?
I used to be a fan of Watson, from his college career to draft season through his time in the NFL; just weeks before dozens of women came forward with their accounts of Watson’s misconduct, I was begging my team to trade for him. And through four weeks, he doesn’t look like the player I’m used to, or even particularly close to that superstar. He’ll probably improve on his current performance, but there’s a big gap between where Watson is right now at the bottom of the league and where the Browns clearly thought he would be. What if Deshaun Watson is worse than he was two years ago? What if the Browns gave up all those draft picks, paid Watson hundreds of millions of dollars over multiple years, and laid bare their ugly priorities as a franchise—and still don’t get the franchise QB they were looking for?