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: Damar Hamlin
This was the first Sunday after a Monday that no NFL fan will ever forget. When Damar Hamlin went down, suffering cardiac arrest on the field on Monday Night Football, we were collectively horrified and heartbroken, and reflected on the absurdity of risking a life to play a sport. How would it feel to watch that sport again?
Luckily, every piece of news we’ve gotten over the past six days has been good. Just a few days ago, we weren’t sure if Damar Hamlin would be alive, let alone conscious and lucid and breathing and watching the Bills. But he lived, he breathed, he woke, he spoke. And while watching his teammates play on Sunday, he tweeted.
The scene in Buffalo was raucous, as 70,000 fans and 53 players did everything they could to show their support for Hamlin.
And then, on the very first play of the game, the Bills returned a kickoff for a touchdown:
It was the Bills’ first kickoff return touchdown in three seasons. (And, quite frankly, it was the worst kickoff coverage you will ever see in an NFL game, by a team coached by the NFL’s all-time greatest special-teams obsessive. Thanks, New England, for taking the L on this one.)
I’m a little wary of the understandable instinct to turn the Damar Hamlin situation into a feel-good story. A player nearly died on the field after a relatively routine football play, a sign that for all of the NFL’s claims that it cares about player health and it is constantly trying to make the game safer, it will never truly be a safe game. And it highlighted needs for changes in the NFL’s cheapskate policies on guaranteed contracts and long-term healthcare and disability coverage for the players damaged by the sport.
But we also saw the best of football. Heroic healthcare professionals saved Hamlin’s life on the field as the NFL’s emergency plans snapped into place. The league made the unprecedented decision to cancel the game, even if it did take them a little bit of time to make the call. Basically everybody has chosen to prioritize humanity over the competitive details. We’ve learned about how great a human Damar Hamlin is; we’ve seen the humanity in his teammates and their opponents.
And… man. The feeling of watching the Bills run this kick back … unreal. I don’t know if the rewards of football outweigh the risks, but I know nothing matches the joys and shocks and twists of this unscripted drama we watch every week. On Monday night, we contemplated how a game can take everything away, but on Sunday afternoon, we saw what the game can give us back.
Winner: The Eliminated Lions
Detroit got a bad rap from the NFL’s schedule maker. When the Seahawks beat the Rams in overtime during Sunday’s afternoon slate, Detroit was eliminated from the postseason, rendering their impressive rally in the second half of this season irrelevant. They’d fought hard and come up short. They had nothing to play for in their Sunday Night Football game against the Packers, meaning Green Bay seemed likely to waltz over a depressed Detroit team and clinch the final spot in the NFL postseason.
But if you watched the game, you’d have no idea Detroit was the eliminated team and Green Bay was the squad fighting for a playoff spot. Aaron Rodgers was the one looking listless after throwing an arm punt to Lions rookie Kerby Joseph, the third time Joseph picked him off this season—more interceptions than Rodgers threw total in 2018. And with the Packers needing a red zone stop in the fourth quarter, Packers rookie Quay Walker drew a penalty and was ejected for shoving a member of the Lions’ training staff—not that there’s ever a good time to shove a trainer, but, like, really dude? While the rest of the NFL is going out of its way to celebrate the work of NFL medical and training staffs?
This is one of the dumbest things you’ll ever see in a football game.
Quay Walker shoved the athletic trainer and was ejected.
— Fantasy Football Today (@FFToday) January 9, 2023
The Lions were playing for nothing more than pride and spite, and seemed determined to leave everything on the field. In the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, they called a gutsy lateral play that was inches from disaster but turned into a big gain; moments later, they hit on a fourth-down conversion to seal the game. And after the game, running back Jamaal Williams showed more emotion than your average Super Bowl winner, seamlessly shifting from mourning a late family member to reminding the haters that they were wrong to doubt Detroit.
Sure, the Lions had nothing to play for Sunday night. But they also had nothing to play for last year, Dan Campbell’s first as Detroit’s head coach. They started last year 0-10-1, but kept putting up a fight in tough losses—and one tie—and won three of their last six games. And it seemed like they had nothing to play for this season when they started off 1-6, only to turn things around behind a talented young core of rookies and keep their hopes alive until the closing hours of the regular season.
It’s a bummer that the 9-8 Lions will miss the postseason, especially since a team with a worse record (the 8-9 NFC South champion Buccaneers) will qualify. But Week 18 showed that the most captivating thing about a football team doesn’t have to be their record, their ability to perform under pressure, or their impact on the championship race. I have a funny feeling the Lions will contend next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. But I’ll never forget the way they played when it didn’t matter.
Loser: Houston’s Extremely Unadvisable Win
Nobody wants to be the worst team in the NFL, except the owner and general manager of the worst team in the NFL. Finishing dead last in the standings gives teams the no. 1 pick in the NFL draft, a golden opportunity to select a franchise player. And at 2-13-1 heading into Week 18, the Texans were in prime position to bottom out and get that top pick.
Unfortunately, the Texans players and coaches had no reason to go along with the tank. It seems pretty obvious Houston will draft a new quarterback in April—all the reason for Houston’s current QBs to ball out in an attempt to get spotted by another team. The team’s captain and best receiver, Brandin Cooks, already requested a trade this season, to no avail. Everybody on the field had something to play for, and it wasn’t the Texans’ draft odds.
So it was time to anti-tank. Two weeks ago, the Texans beat the AFC South–leading Titans. And this week, they pulled out a miracle fourth-quarter comeback against the Colts—arguably the second-most miraculous comeback against the Colts this year—to drop Houston to no. 2 in the draft order.
Trailing by seven with under two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, they converted on a fourth-and-12 pass to Cooks, wide open down the sideline:
The Texans went backward from there, with Davis Mills taking a 10-yard sack on third-and-10 to set up a fourth-and-20. Somehow, the Texans converted again on that play, with Mills throwing a 28-yard touchdown to Jordan Akins.
Converting on fourth-and-12 is difficult: NFL teams were 10-for-58 on fourth-and-12 attempts this NFL season—17.2 percent. Converting on fourth-and-20 is impossible. NFL teams were 0-for-9 on fourth-and-20 this season before the Mills-to-Akins touchdown. They’re the only team with two fourth-and-10 conversions in the same game this season—let alone the same drive. Then instead of playing for overtime, they went for two, basically a 50-50 shot at deciding a win or loss on one play. They hit on that too.
The win sent the no. 1 pick to the Chicago Bears—a nice gift from Lovie Smith to the team he coached from 2004 to 2012. It’s an awful result for the Texans, who might miss out on a superstar who could turn the franchise around. But it was a great moment for the players on the Texans—their raucous celebration could be heard through the walls before postgame interviews. The Texans, presumably furious at the stunning win, fired Smith late Sunday night for his competence. It’s one of the best last games anybody has ever coached. He will be remembered for his sacrifice.
This was not just a Week 18 win. It was the most devastating miracle in the history of the NFL. The worst team in the league needed to do difficult and impossible things nobody had done all season … and they did them, back to back. NFL teams can try tanking, but they’d better make sure their players and coaches are on board. Because when the Texans got down to their last breaths in a season full of defeats, they realized they had nobody pulling for them but themselves, and that knowledge made them unstoppable.
Winner: The Chicago Bears’ Tank Specialists
Week 18 is a wonderland for quarterbacks you’ve never heard of. You think you pay a lot of attention to football—inhaling fantasy football and NFL draft prospects, gluing yourself to the TV every Saturday for college ball and Sunday for the NFL—and then Adam Schefter tweets “The Broncos are turning to Brayden Crunklesmith at quarterback, hoping to see what the sixth-round pick can bring to the offense” and you Google it and it turns out Brayden Crunklesmith is a real guy. In essence, that’s what happened this weekend: The Giants started Davis Webb, a sixth-year veteran with zero career passing attempts before Sunday; the Titans started Joshua Dobbs, who was on the Lions three weeks ago and the Browns two months ago. Sam Howell started for the Commanders, Anthony Brown for the Ravens, Skylar Thompson for the Dolphins, and David Blough for the Cardinals, while Nick Mullens and Kyle Trask got playing time. If you’re a professional quarterback and you didn’t play on Sunday, you need to rethink things.
But nobody played weirder, worse quarterbacks than the Chicago Bears, who understood the no. 1 draft pick assignment. With starter Justin Fields and backup Trevor Siemian both injured, the Bears trotted out a pair of 28-year-olds with abysmal career stats, Nathan Peterman and Tim Boyle. Peterman is famous for playing one of the worst games in NFL history, when he threw five interceptions in the first half of his first career start. Boyle has less name cachet but threw one touchdown and 13 interceptions in his career at UConn before transferring down to Eastern Kentucky and continuing to throw more interceptions than touchdowns.
Combined, Peterman and Boyle had six career touchdown passes and 19 interceptions entering Sunday. For some reason, the Bears committed to playing both of them against the Vikings, even though neither of them will ever have any impact on the Bears’ future beyond Sunday. Sure enough, Peterman and Boyle delivered. Here’s Boyle, throwing a pass that could’ve been caught by nobody but Minnesota’s Patrick Peterson.
The two quarterbacks finished the day 13-for-27 with one touchdown and two interceptions in a franchise-changing loss for Chicago. Now the Bears can either take edge rusher Will Anderson Jr., considered one of the best defensive prospects in years, or they can trade the pick and get a massive haul from a team interested in jumping ahead of Houston to draft Bryce Young or C.J. Stroud. (It seems unlikely the Bears would draft a QB at no. 1 and move on from Justin Fields, but it isn’t impossible—just ask Josh Rosen.)
Playing Peterman and Boyle on Sunday will boost the Bears for years to come. When you’re hoping for the top spot in the NFL draft, who better to play than literal experts in picks?
Winner: Ring Around Mahomes-ie
It’s sometimes tough to tell whether an Andy Reid trick play is football genius or pointless shenanigans. Maybe he unlocked some element of football nobody had ever considered in a state of cheeseburger-inspired nirvana; maybe he simply thought, “Lmao, I literally have Patrick Mahomes as my quarterback, so nothing matters,” and asked his worst assistant for their dumbest idea just to see whether it would work. Like when he had players do cute little spins on a play in the Super Bowl against the 49ers. It was unclear what purpose the cute little spins served … but it was the freaking Super Bowl. Reid wasn’t screwing around, right?
Saturday’s game against the Raiders brought a classic of the genre. It was an important game for the Chiefs, who were trying to secure the AFC’s no. 1 seed and earn a bye next week. But it was also against a Raiders team playing Jarrett Stidham at quarterback and a defense that had zero hope of stopping Mahomes. Up 14-3 in the second quarter, the Chiefs did yet another set of cute little spinnies—this time as a team.
The Super Bowl spinnies were supposedly inspired by a play from the 1948 Rose Bowl. I believe this play was inspired by one of the all-time great clutch sports performances in movie history: Florence Pugh’s surprise victory as an outsider underdog in the maypole competition in Midsommar, where she overcame powerful psychedelic drugs, an unfaithful boyfriend, and a complete lack of understanding of the rules of the competition to become May Queen of the Harga.
It’s possible there’s some football logic to the spinning huddle play design. It’s really tough to keep track of where any of the players are when they spin and spin. Mahomes stops the spinning when he’s all the way at the back of the huddle, screened by all 10 of his teammates, and then lines up behind three upbacks. I think the idea was to disguise Mahomes’s location so that when running back Jerick McKinnon took the snap and pitched him the ball, the Raiders defense would be surprised that Mahomes had the ball.
It didn’t really work. The Raiders didn’t completely bite on anything, played back, and were ready to defend the pass. They had a player in position to make a tackle on receiver Kadarius Toney after Mahomes threw him the ball.
On the other hand, it kinda did work! Toney ditched the tackle and went into the end zone. The play was called back on a phantom hold, which also didn’t matter because Toney scored a touchdown on the next play anyway. The Chiefs won 31-13 and will take the next week off.
So was this football genius or pointless shithousery? It doesn’t matter. They have Patrick Mahomes. They’re gonna score anyway.
Loser: The Coin Toss That Will Never Be
For the most part, everybody behaved when it came to the competitive consequences of the unprecedented decision to cancel the game in which Damar Hamlin suffered his medical emergency. (Even people in my fantasy leagues! That never happens!) However, it did seem as if things were a tad unfair to the Bengals. They were beating the Bills at home when Hamlin went down, but stood by Buffalo and Hamlin and endorsed the cancellation. The NFL announced late last week, however, that even though the Bengals are AFC North champions (because of a better winning percentage than the Ravens), they might have to play a road playoff opener. If Cincinnati lost to Baltimore in Week 18, the NFL would administer a coin toss to decide whether the division-winning Bengals or the wild-card Ravens would host—the rationale being that Baltimore would have swept Cincinnati but was unable to win the division because of Cincinnati’s Week17 no-contest result.
So Cincinnati simply made sure that awkward scenario never came to pass. They beat Baltimore 27-16 to cancel the coin toss. After a Joe Mixon touchdown, the running back removed a quarter he had hidden on him, flipped it, and kicked it:
The NFL will probably fine Mixon about 40,000 of those for using a prop during a TD celebration.
Hypothetically, I would enjoy a coin flip with massive importance in an NFL playoff race. (Would they televise it? Who would be the flipper—a ref, or Roger Goodell? Would the team captains make the call, or would it be a guy in a suit? Would it be a special commemorative coin, or just a quarter?) But now that we know Hamlin is on the road to recovery, we can hope that the decision to call last Monday night’s game causes as little unfairness as possible. I’m glad the Bengals made their own luck on Sunday.
In Week 11, the Titans were 7-3 and the Jaguars were 3-7. The fact that the teams were scheduled to play their regular-season finales against one another in Week 18 seemed like a mere formality, a chance for the Titans to rest their starters while the Jags played for the draft positioning.
But Jacksonville is a land of football chaos. The Jags closed their season on a five-game win streak; the Titans closed theirs on a seven-game losing streak, going from Ryan Tannehill to Malik Willis to Joshua Dobbs at QB. When the Jaguars beat the Titans 20-16 on Saturday night, it completed one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent NFL memory.
Perhaps more than any other team, Jacksonville is the butt of our NFL jokes. Last year, they hired Urban Meyer, who kicked and grinded his way to a season of disaster. This year, they were criticized for their surprising no. 1 draft pick and for overpaying their biggest free-agent signing. People make fun of their ownership and their front office and their fan base. Outside of their strange one-year run to the AFC championship game in the 2017 season, they never seem to improve—even when they had the top pick in the 2021 draft and got one of the best quarterback prospects ever, they improved so little that they had the first pick again in 2022.
And then, Jacksonville transformed into a great NFL team overnight with no warning. Between Week 16 of the 2019 season and Week 8 of this season, the Jaguars went 7-36. From Week 9 of this season on, they went 7-2, cramming three years worth of Jacksonville joy into two months. It would be one thing if they went from worst to first over the course of an offseason—but they were bad this year, and now they’re division champs.
Loser: Meaningful Injuries in a Meaningless Game
The Chargers had literally nothing to play for this week. If they beat the Broncos, they would get the no. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs and go on the road to face the Jaguars. If they lost to the Broncos, they would get the no. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs and go on the road to face the Jaguars. And the Chargers didn’t have any obligation to play for competitive purposes—their opponent, the Broncos, was eliminated from postseason contention weeks ago.
And yet, for some reason, the Chargers played all of their most important players for almost the entire game, even after watching stars go down with injuries that could hamper the Chargers in the playoffs. Wide receiver Mike Williams suffered an ugly back injury and needed to be carted off the field; reporters said he couldn’t walk under his own power after the game. Edge rusher Joey Bosa, who missed 12 games this year after groin surgery, also left the game in the first half, though the team did not announce an injury update on Sunday.
And yet, the Chargers kept their starters in the game well into the second half. Justin Herbert, who has dealt with a painful rib fracture all season, didn’t come out of the game until the fourth quarter. Defensive starters like cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. were in the game until the closing moments. It’s especially surprising from Brandon Staley, who has firmly adopted a strategy of benching everybody in preseason games—Herbert, Williams, Bosa, Khalil Mack, and Keenan Allen haven’t played a single snap in either of Staley’s two preseasons as head coach. Why did he go so hard in a game which had the same impact on their season?
There’s no consensus about what to do in these scenarios—some prioritize rest; others fear rust. The Buccaneers, locked into the NFC’s no. 4 seed, played Tom Brady and the starters for a bit; the Giants, locked into the NFC’s no. 6 seed, pulled basically every meaningful player. The Chargers were the only team to play everybody all game—and all it got them was at least one critical injury and a loss to the 5-12 Broncos.