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: SUPER WILD-CARD WEEKEND
During Sunday’s Bills-Dolphins telecast, Tony Romo risked the ire of Roger Goodell by questioning the concept of “Super Wild-Card Weekend.” “What makes it super?” Romo dared to ask, “It used to just be wild-card weekend.” It’s a fair question. The last thing the NFL called “Super” was the Bowl, and that’s basically the most important NFL thing. This is just the first weekend of the playoffs.
There is a technical answer. Last year the NFL added an extra team and an extra game to each conference’s postseason: Where wild-card weekend used to feature the 3-vs.-6 and 4-vs.-5 matchups, SUPER Wild-Card Weekend has 2-vs.-7 games. And one of those games was pretty bad this year—the Niners blew out the 7th-seeded Seahawks, 41-23, after a somewhat competitive first half.
But spiritually, this wild-card weekend was, in fact, super. All five games played on Saturday and Sunday hit the over. Four of the five saw a team come back from a double-digit deficit to tie or take the lead in the game. (The fifth featured the Ravens erasing a 9-0 deficit—so close.) And all but one of them was competitive in the game’s closing minutes.
The Jaguars pulled off the third-largest comeback in playoff history, storming back from 27-0 to beat the Chargers 31-30 and set a new record for loudest “DUUUUUUU-VALLLLLLLLL” chants. Trevor Lawrence threw four interceptions in the first half, then threw four touchdowns—he’s the first player since at least 1975 to go pick-pick-pick-pick-TD-TD-TD-TD in the same game.
The Jags are the official Kings of Comebacks—they started out 2-6 this year and wound up division champs, then they went down by four touchdowns in the playoffs and won. They even came back from the Urban Meyer Experience. Can they be killed? I guess Patrick Mahomes is about to find out.
The Bengals beat the Ravens, 24-17, on the longest fumble return in NFL playoff history.
Josh Allen seemed determined to get all his worst turnovers out of the way in the Bills’ first playoff game, turning a game in which the Bills were 13-point favorites over Miami into a 34-31 thriller:
And in a rematch of the most clutch teams in the NFL, the Giants outlasted the Vikings. Minnesota went 11-0 in one-score games in the regular season, but then they went 0-1 and bounced out of the postseason.
After a season of improbable game-winning plays, Minnesota’s final snap of the season was a 3-yard checkdown on fourth-and-8, leaving them in solid fifth-and-manageable position.
I think the weekend has officially earned its super status, joining the Mario Bros., particularly strong glue, and the water guns you have to pump up. There’s still one game to go—Cowboys-Buccaneers on Monday night, which will surely be 37-35 and decided on a Tom Brady safety in overtime.
Loser: The Goal-Line Fumble
The worst play in football is the 14-pointer. It’s not just a touchdown and not just a turnover—it’s a play that looks like a touchdown for one team, but instead is a touchdown for the other team, resulting in a 14-point swing and the loss of roughly 75 yards of field position, including the ensuing kickoff. And on Sunday night, one of those 14-pointers swung the fate of an NFL playoff game.
The Ravens were on the brink of pulling an upset as 9-point underdogs against the Bengals, last year’s AFC champions. Normally, this would be a more even matchup, but Baltimore was without former MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson and instead had to rely on Tyler Huntley—a QB with fewer career passing touchdowns than interceptions, a losing record as a starter, and, well, zero MVP trophies. (At least San Francisco’s Brock Purdy was the last pick in the draft! Huntley went undrafted in 2020.)
And yet the Ravens were inches away from scoring a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter when disaster struck. The Ravens called a QB sneak for Huntley, he fumbled, and Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard returned the fumble 98 yards for a touchdown. It was quite a spectacle: Huntley reaches for the goal line, gets basketball-style rejected by Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson—wearing no. 55, temporarily inhabited by the spirit of Dikembe Mutombo—and the ball pops directly to Hubbard, and suddenly everything is going the other way. (Hubbard ran a 4.95-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, which is much slower than wide receivers, but also much faster than you. You’d look more like the middle-aged referees left in the dust before Hubbard crosses midfield—and those guys are in good shape!)
It was the longest fumble return in NFL playoff history, and the first 14-pointer in the postseason since James Harrison’s 100-yard interception return in the 2009 Super Bowl.
Huntley seems to have ignored recent advances in QB-sneak technology—the players behind him seemed ready to push the pile into the end zone, but he was determined to go over the top. (In a brutal twist, the Ravens would’ve been better off if they’d had a running back standing in the backfield doing nothing, like most QB sneaks historically have—that player could’ve attempted to make a tackle here!) The easy take is that Lamar Jackson scores this, but Jackson was involved in a 14-pointer last season against the Colts.
The NFL’s Next Gen Stats later shared that a chip in the football determined that Huntley had gotten the ball within 0.6 yards of the end zone—1.8 feet.
How close was Tyler Huntley to crossing the plane with the football?
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 16, 2023
Which, of course, was sort of a fumble of its own—IF YOU HAVE A CHIP IN THE FOOTBALL, WHY DO WE HAVE TO WATCH ALL THE REPLAYS FROM BAD ANGLES TO DETERMINE WHETHER THE BALL HAS CROSSED THE PLANE!?!?!?!
On a 100-yard field, the Ravens were 0.6 yards away from taking the lead. Instead, the Bengals scored, that touchdown turned out to be the game winner, and now Baltimore’s season is over. They were so close to pulling off the ridiculous; instead, the ridiculous happened to them.
Winner: Isaiah Hodgins
The Giants’ playoff win was powered by two former first-round picks who have had massive turnarounds this year. Quarterback Daniel Jones has been rescued from mediocrity under Brian Daboll, and became just the third player in NFL history with 300 passing yards and 75 rushing yards in a playoff game. (The others? Steve Young and Lamar Jackson. Yes, this arbitrary stat means DANIEL JONES SHOULD BE NFL MVP.) Running back Saquon Barkley looks like the physically dominant star he was as a rookie before a series of injuries, sprinting past the Vikings defense for one touchdown and powering through them for another.
But the biggest rise comes from someone Giants fans never had high hopes for: wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins, signed off the Bills practice squad in November. Eleven weeks ago, he was not on the Giants; now he’s an indispensable receiver for a team winning with offense. On Sunday, he got open for a touchdown:
He made highlights with his hands:
And he made big plays with his feet:
Hodgins had eight catches (on nine targets) for 105 yards—his first ever 100-yard game. His performance on Sunday accounts for roughly 21 percent of his career yardage since the Bills drafted him in the sixth round out of Oregon State in 2020. Hodgins missed his rookie season with injury, but was healthy in 2021 and 2022 and saw the field in only three games for the Bills, drawing targets in just a 35-point blowout win over the Steelers.
But maybe his best play? A block on Saquon’s long touchdown, in which he took out two Vikings defenders to clear a lane. Not something you always see from receivers!
Hodgins is a star now—what else are we supposed to call the WR1 for one of the most popular teams in football as they head on a playoff run? But luckily, he still plays like a practice squadder.
Loser: Miami’s Time
Sometimes the greatest football minds are baffled by the concept of time. Coaches can break down the complexities of X’s and O’s with the ease of an adult skimming a coloring book, but they look at play clocks and game clocks like that Dali painting. And now it appears Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel may enter the ranks of the NFL’s horologically challenged football geniuses.
It took a string of miracles to keep Miami in their playoff game with Buffalo on Sunday. They were 13.5-point underdogs with ample injuries on both sides of the ball, starting a seventh-round draft pick (Skylar Thompson) at quarterback, going up against the preseason Super Bowl favorite. But the Dolphins made huge plays on defense and special teams and only trailed by three points in the game’s closing minutes. That’s a huge testament to McDaniel.
But time and time again, McDaniel searched for the perfect play as the 40-second play clock drained. Miami burned all three of their second-half timeouts to prevent delays of game—not ideal for a team hoping to pull off a comeback. And on a late fourth-and-1, the Dolphins had a catastrophic breakdown, completely failing to run a play. They were still subbing players out with 12 seconds left on the play clock, still in the huddle with five seconds to go, and were eventually called for delay of game. The fourth-and-1 became fourth-and-6, turning difficult into near-impossible. The Dolphins didn’t pick up the first down, didn’t have enough timeouts to get the ball back, and lost.
McDaniel explained that he believed the team had picked up the first down, and then needed to get in a fourth-down play call. But the officials accounted for this potential confusion, resetting the game clock to 25 seconds after a brief communication about whether the Dolphins had gotten the first. The Dolphins should’ve tried running something—anything!—rather than subbing in a new package with 12 seconds left on the play clock. And as you can see at the end of the clip above, the Bills would’ve stopped the play the Dolphins did call. It certainly wasn’t good enough to risk a potential delay of game.
But clearly, this was an issue that plagued the Dolphins all day—and all season. According to TruMedia, Miami took an average of 42.4 real-time seconds between plays this year, the third-most in the NFL. They were called for delay of game six times on offense, also the third-most in the NFL. None of those six seem to have been intentional delays—to burn clock, or set up a punter with a better kick. They took a delay of game in each of the last three games, including a fourth-quarter drive against the Patriots that turned a third-and-2 into third-and-7.
It takes time to figure out time. NFL head coaches basically don’t have to deal with clock stuff until they’re head coaches, and then all of a sudden it’s their job. It took Andy Reid damn near a decade in a Hall of Fame career to avoid screwing up clock situations. McDaniel is a first-year head coach, and a damn good one. But he kept looking for perfection when he needed to be practical. And as he searched for the ideal play call, the clock ran out on Miami’s season.
Winner: Seventh-Round Quarterbacks
If you’re starting a quarterback picked in the last round of the NFL draft, your team has almost certainly suffered some sort of QB catastrophe. Before this year, 14 rookie QBs had started playoff games since 2001. Eight were first-round picks. Four of the six non-first rounders were forced to play because their team had lost its regular quarterback to injury at some point during the season—and some of those performances were disastrous, including three-interception games by players like Connor Cook and T.J. Yates. The remaining two, Andy Dalton and Russell Wilson, were second- and third-rounders, respectively. If a GM thinks their team might need to start a rookie at QB, they’ll likely pick one in the first round, or the second, or the third, or somewhere before the seventh. You never want your season to come down to a player selected after they start letting animals announce the picks.
The 49ers and Dolphins both suffered QB catastrophes this year. The 49ers lost Trey Lance in Week 2, then re-adjusted to life with Jimmy Garoppolo, only for Garoppolo to get hurt in December. Next up? Third-stringer Brock Purdy, the 262nd and final pick in this year’s draft. Miami has seen Tua Tagovailoa suffer multiple concussions, and each time Tagovailoa went down, backup Teddy Bridgewater also suffered an injury, leading to extended playing time for third-stringer Skylar Thompson, the 247th pick in the draft.
It’s an unprecedented scenario. Before this year, no seventh-round rookie had thrown a pass in a playoff game since 2000, when Jarious Jackson threw a handful of passes for the Broncos after backup Gus Frerotte went down with an injury. No player drafted below the seventh round had ever really started a playoff game—technically Doug Flutie and Pat Haden did it, in the 1970s and 80s, but they both had played professionally in international football leagues before making their NFL debuts, so they weren’t true rookies. But both Purdy and Thompson were their team’s best options this weekend. Who would’ve thought watching Thompson go 5-for-12 for 57 yards in a win over Purdy in the 2019 annual Farmageddon game between Kansas State and Iowa State that they were watching two future NFL playoff starters?
Purdy is a household name at this point. He’s screwed up the stats surrounding late-round draft picks badly enough that I can basically never say “a seventh-round draft pick has never done XYZ” for the rest of my writing career. This week, he threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns and ran for a fourth touchdown in the 49ers’ win over Seattle. Some of it was due to Kyle Shanahan’s schemes, a freak-filled offense with Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, and George Kittle, and a great offensive line. But … man. He makes a lot of plays that Jimmy G could not make. Sometimes, he looks like a legitimately great player.
The Niners beat the Seahawks, 41-23. If for some reason you played fantasy football for wild-card weekend—why would you play fantasy football for wild-card weekend?—Purdy would’ve been the highest scorer.
Thompson’s stat line didn’t look as good—he went 18-for-45, averaging 4.9 yards per attempt, throwing a touchdown and two interceptions against the Bills. But he played well enough to keep Miami in the game despite a slew of Dolphins drops.
The Niners and Dolphins QB depth charts were decimated this season. Their parachutes had failed; their emergency parachutes had also failed. Their hopes of survival came down to guys named Brock and Skylar whose teammates didn’t bother getting to know until Week 3 of the preseason. And yet they both had a chance, thanks to spectacular coaching performances and the resilient men drafted well after you turned off the NFL Network last April.
Loser: Brandon Staley
When we talk about a player not listening to a coach, normally that’s metaphorical. But not with Brandon Staley, attempting to snap star defensive lineman Joey Bosa out of a game-long temper tantrum that resulted in two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. After Bosa threw his helmet on the field Saturday night following a Jacksonville touchdown, setting the Jaguars up with a short two-point conversion that helped them win the game, Staley tracked down the headgear and handed it back to Bosa, presumably telling him to calm down and keep his cool. Bosa immediately threw it to the ground again, like that hopping sheep who couldn’t stay out of that ditch.
Staley is on the scalding seat. Already widely criticized due to his game management and decision making (like when he played his team’s starters for nearly all of a meaningless Week 18 game and lost wide receiver Mike Williams to injury) and lack of results with Justin Herbert, Staley now has a 27-0 blown lead in a playoff game on his résumé. And as with all blown leads, it seems to come back to coaching.
The best way to ice a big lead in a football game is to run the ball, picking up steady yardage which keeps the clock running. But the Chargers could not. Star running back Austin Ekeler had five carries for zero yards in the second half; the team’s longest run after halftime was a 13-yard scramble by Herbert. It was the job of the coaching staff to anticipate the run game would struggle—they were 30th in yards per rushing attempt during the regular season—and scheme up easy completions to keep the clock moving. Instead, Los Angeles had more clock-stopping incompletions (nine) than designed runs (seven) after halftime. Herbert attempted three passes of at least 20 air yards after halftime, missing on two of them; Lawrence only attempted one while trying to come back from a 20-point halftime deficit.
But while remaining aggressive with a pass-heavy attack, Staley chickened out on the fourth-down decisions which have come to define his coaching career. The Chargers kicked field goals from the 4-yard line and the 5-yard line in the first half, and passed up a fourth-and-3 in the fourth quarter to attempt a field goal, which missed. The Chargers consistently declined to maximize their lead—something they did well in 2021, when they led the league with 22 fourth-down conversions—and this made the Jags’ target easier to hit. I can sort of understand why Staley’s players might not listen to him: In the most embarrassing loss of his career, he didn’t even seem to listen to himself.
Winner: The T Formation
There are lots of new things to be scared of. Cybercrime! Deepfakes! Misinformation! But at the same time, it’s entirely possible for somebody to simply beat your ass with a large plank of wood—a theory the Jaguars acted on in their 31-30 comeback win over the Chargers.
Trailing by two points, Jacksonville faced a pivotal fourth-and-1 on the Chargers’ 41-yard line. A field goal would win the game, but they were slightly out of kicker Riley Patterson’s range. So they had to go for it—but a fourth-down stop would end their season. So the Jags lined up in a formation we wrote about a few weeks ago: The We’re Definitely Going To QB Sneak It Formation, which the Eagles have run to perfection this year. For whatever reason, the concept of simply shoving the quarterback forward had never caught on in the past, but now everybody’s doing it—it’s been so effective that there are rumblings about banning the play in the offseason. With 6-foot-6 Trevor Lawrence under center, the Chargers defense packed the middle of the field.
Except it wasn’t the We’re Definitely Going To QB Sneak It Formation. In that alignment, there are three players directly behind the QB—mere inches, maybe millimeters behind the QB; rush-hour subway close; close enough to sniff butt. The Jaguars’ backs weren’t aligned like that: They were yards behind Lawrence. Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson, the man who helped cook up the Philly Special, had a new fourth-down sensation—or rather, an extremely old fourth-down sensation.
This was the T Formation, invented in the 1880s, around the same time as “cars” and “North and South Dakota.” It’s referenced in the Chicago Bears fight song, which was written in 1941. It fell out of fashion, along with gramophones and smallpox, over the course of the 20th century, as football teams discovered spacing and forward passes. When the Bears ran it a few years ago as a gimmicky tribute to their storied history, Pro Football Journal noted that no team had seriously used the T Formation since 1979. Penn State used it this year in short-yardage situations, which may have inspired Pederson.
As The Ringer’s Ben Solak notes, there was a method to Pederson’s Duval madness: The Jags’ goal was to get the Chargers to concentrate their forces in the middle of the formation, making it easier to isolate the weak tackling skills of Chargers corner Asante Samuel Jr.
Had to talk about the Travis Etienne game-winning run.
Doug Pederson made Asante Samuel Jr. try to step up and tackle in a short yardage situation…AGAIN! Same as in Week 3. pic.twitter.com/7nTZh1NEQS
— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) January 15, 2023
Things in football are cyclical—teams get good at passing, defenses spread out to stop the pass, running becomes easier; defenses bulk up to stop the run and then passing gets easier, and so on and so forth until our beloved sport gets outlawed in the 2140s. But it’s hard to be more cyclical than the hot QB sneak trend of 2022 bringing back the hot T Formation of the Grover Cleveland era.
Loser: NBC’s backup booth
The NFL gave NBC two of the six wild-card weekend games, since the network won’t be broadcasting either of the conference championship games or the Super Bowl. Which kind of puts the Peacock in a pickle. While CBS and Fox broadcast most of the NFL’s games every weekend, NBC waits all day for Sunday night. (They even wrote a song about it!) Which means they really aren’t set up to produce two games in a weekend.
It’s always been a tall order for the network. Last year, NBC had Mike Tirico and Drew Brees call the Saturday wild-card game, one of the few games Brees worked as a color analyst for the network as part of a failed one-year foray into broadcasting. Tirico became the lead announcer after Al Michaels went to Amazon to helm their Thursday Night Football coverage. But Michaels is still affiliated with NBC—he’s on “emeritus” status, which essentially means he’ll stick around for this one game every year and biennial Olympics duty—so this year NBC paired Michaels with Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy for the Chargers-Jaguars game. Michaels is 78 years old and has a new boss; Dungy is 67 and is so unexcitable that he was pulled from NBC’s Notre Dame coverage in 2021 in favor of Brees, who has since been replaced by ebullient personality bomb Jason Garrett.
The game was a thriller, an iconic comeback in front of a frenzied crowd featuring a career-defining performance from one of the game’s young stars. But Michaels and Dungy were not thrilled. As Jacksonville brought the dream closer and closer to reality with highlight after highlight, Michaels struggled to bring his enthusiasm meter up to a 4.
Dungy is nowhere to be heard on most of the highlight calls, apparently believing that big plays need 30 or 40 seconds to marinate. Michaels seemed slightly annoyed by the game-winning field goal, like he didn’t like the look of the food when the waiter brought it out and wanted to send it back to the kitchen even though it was exactly what he ordered.
Broadcasting is a ridiculously competitive field with hundreds of young voices yearning for a shot. It shouldn’t be hard to find a second pair of commentators. NBC should be a little bit embarrassed that in one of the biggest, most exciting games of the season, they were stuck with two guys who sounded like the dentist just called them in for a root canal.