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?
They let Josh Allen play Patrick Mahomes again and we watched it. Jaws on the floor, hearts in our throats, beers in the air because we kept accidentally swinging our arms around reacting to the big plays—just like we did in January. They could have Allen play Mahomes again tomorrow and the day after that, and I’d watch it every time.
Compared to January’s overtime thriller, this game was relatively tame. The teams combined for just 44 total points, thrilling bookmakers across the country after the public bet heavily on the over. BUT STILL: Josh Allen hurdled a guy, and then later on the same drive, threw a game-winning touchdown. I cannot believe he is a real football player.
This time, there was no answer from the Chiefs. Unlike in January, Mahomes did not drive for another go-ahead touchdown after Allen’s go-ahead score. This time, Mahomes threw an interception and the Chiefs lost. Buffalo’s status as the Super Bowl favorite is even more solid.
But it’s still remarkable how evenly matched these two teams led by these two superstars are. On Sunday, the Bills had 318 passing yards, and the Chiefs had 319. Their moves seem designed to counter each other—Von Miller, the Bills’ big offseason signing, had two sacks; JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Chiefs’ big offseason acquisition, had a season-high 113 yards and his first Kansas City touchdown. The two teams have now played five times in the last three seasons. In 300 minutes of regulation, the Chiefs have scored 140 points and the Bills have scored 139. (If we add overtime, it’s 146-139, but that stat is less fun.)
I hope these two teams play again in the playoffs. I hope they play again in each of the remaining 12 weeks in the regular season. I hope Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes play on a field that is one million miles long for eternity. Have them play flag football or do a long-throw competition or wrestle each other and I’ll watch that too. Just not golf. They tried that and I super did not watch it. I have my limits.
Loser: The Old Guys
We’ve had enough false alarms that I probably shouldn’t even bother anymore, but here goes: Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, with their seven combined Super Bowl victories and seven combined MVP trophies, are looking moldy out there.
Yes, these two legends met in the NFC championship game for the 2020 season; yes, Rodgers has won the last two MVP awards; yes, Brady will outlive us all and eventually stand alone on a burnt Earth, surrounded only by cockroaches, with no humans around to understand the greatness of his NFL accomplishments. I know that these men are immortal legends.
But let’s face the facts. The Buccaneers are 3-3. The Packers are 3-3 as well—and one of their wins came against Brady’s Buccaneers. They are 20th and 24rd in the NFL in scoring, respectively. Sunday, Brady and Rodgers combined to throw two touchdowns, and their teams lost to the Steelers and Jets.
When the Bucs lost to the Packers last month, I blamed Tampa Bay’s decimated receiving corps—they were without Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and Julio Jones in that game. When they lost to the Chiefs, I blamed K.C. QB Patrick Mahomes, who put up 41 points on Tampa Bay’s defense. What’s the excuse for losing to the Steelers, who were 1-4 before Sunday? The Bucs’ receiving corps is healthy now. The Steelers started Kenny Pickett, then had to put in Mitchell Trubisky when Pickett suffered a concussion. Brady seemed to blame his offensive line, screaming at them during a stoppage in play:
When the Packers lost to the Vikings Week 1, it was just another bad Week 1 performance for Rodgers—he laid an egg last year, too. When they lost against the Giants last week in London, you could blame the weird travel conditions. What’s the excuse for losing to the Jets on Sunday? Or for scoring just 10 points—fewer than the Jets allowed against Skylar Thompson, Pickett/Trubisky, and Jacoby Brissett in previous games? Jets rookie cornerback Sauce Gardner celebrated the win by donning a cheesehead; an act that apparently angered a Packers player enough to slap it off his head:
Like I said, it’s still relatively early in the season, and Brady and Rodgers are legends. But this is about as bad as these two players have ever started; their teams have been 3-3 through six games before, but it hasn’t happened since 2012. The Bucs and Packers each have winnable games next week, against the floundering Panthers and the Commanders, respectively, but after what we saw Sunday, perhaps we shouldn’t assume they’ll win those games. At the very least, we should make fun of these players now—when one of them is holding the Lombardi Trophy in four months it won’t be as funny.
Winner: NEW YOOOOOOOOORK, CONCRETE JUNGLE WHERE … Etc. Etc. You Get the Point
New Yorkers have an annoying tendency of thinking that New York–related things are more important than things elsewhere—that even if you don’t live in New York, you should understand jokes about the subway, and know why we’re mad at our mayor today, and that New York’s corner stores are called bodegas. New Yorkers think that people watching their favorite teams should have to watch Aaron Judge at-bats, because of course the big-city baseball man is more important than your small-town hillbilly college. Luckily, the NFL has provided a respite from NYCentrism. New York City may have two NFL teams, but neither has been good. For the past five years, New York’s two football teams were the worst—and most embarrassing—teams in the league.
BUT NOT ANYMORE, BALL BAGS! The Jets and the Giants are each riding three-game win streaks—remarkable since the two teams combined for eight wins total in the 2021 season. It’s the first time both teams have had three-game win streaks in the same season since 2015, let alone simultaneously.
After beating Aaron Rodgers in London last week, the Giants faced another MVP as 5.5-point home underdogs to Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. They would’ve won by double digits if Saquon Barkley hadn’t slid short of the end zone to run out the clock. (Get over it, fantasy managers; if you have Saquon you’re probably doing pretty damn well.)
The Jets faced Rodgers at Lambeau, and were underdogs by a touchdown. Yet they averaged 5.4 yards per rush, blocked a punt and a field goal, and were the first regular-season team to hold the Packers under 300 yards of offense since the Saints did it in Week 1 of last season. Rookie running back Breece Hall had a career-high 116 rushing yards, including this beauty of a touchdown run:
The Jets haven’t lost since second-year QB Zach Wilson returned from his knee injury; all their losses can be pinned on the questionable decision to have 37-year-old Joe Flacco as their backup QB. For the Giants, Barkley looks like the dynamic superstar that was promised when he was drafted, and Brian Daboll looks like an exceptional head coach.
And I’ve got to admit, I’m a little bit scared. After all, I am a New Yorker, and a Jets fan since 1994. Because the Jets have been consistently awful since I first got a job writing about the NFL in 2012, I’ve been able to carve out a career writing about the other 31 football teams. The Jets’ consistent failures allowed me to suppress my urge to shove New York–related things in everybody’s faces. What will I do if the Jets are good? Will I become too obnoxious to write about all the other teams? Will I be able to cover a Jets playoff game without making life unbearable for my readers? I’m thrilled and terrified by the exciting new era of New York football.
Loser: The Cooper Rush Era
On Sunday Night Football, Mike Tirico and Cris Collinsworth told a cute story about Cowboys quarterback Cooper Rush: His wife wanted to attend the Cowboys-Eagles game in Philadelphia, and Rush apparently protested—he said his wife said something like, “You’re the starting QB for the Cowboys, of course I’m going to come to the game,” and he said something like, “Oh, it’s not that big a deal, and plane tickets are expensive.” The gist, as the SNF crew told it, is that the Rushes aren’t quite used to the big-time life of an NFL starting quarterback—but I think they might have missed the actual story. Maybe Cooper Rush just didn’t want his wife to watch him lose his job!
Rush took over as the Cowboys’ starter after Dak Prescott’s Week 1 thumb injury. They lost their only game with Prescott at QB; they went 4-0 in Rush’s first four starts. They’d also won the only game he’d ever started before this year, making him 5-0 as an NFL starting QB. Debate shows had their hot new topic: Should Dallas ditch Dak and stick with their inspiring backup who just knew how to win games? (I’m not joking: Every debate show did this.)
But Sunday night’s game was against the Eagles, one of the best pass defenses in the NFL: first in yards per attempt allowed, second in passer rate against; tied for fourth in sacks, tied for sixth in interceptions. It’s a “tell your family to stay at home and watch on TV”-type defense. And it showed.
Rush had completed at least 55 percent of his passes in all of his starts; Sunday night, it was 47.3 percent. He’d averaged at least six yards per attempt in all of his starts; it was 4.8 yards on Sunday night. Perhaps most importantly, Rush hadn’t thrown an interception coming into Sunday night’s game. He threw three picks against the Eagles, and it could’ve been more. The Eagles won to remain undefeated and in first place in the NFC East; Rush lost for the first time as an NFL starter.
Prescott will probably be ready for the Cowboys’ Week 7 game against the Lions—but even if he isn’t, the debate here is over. People pretended Cooper Rush was an option for the Cowboys moving forward not because of his performance, but because of their defense-driven win streak. Now that’s over, and so is the faux-debate. I guess the commentators left out another reason Mrs. Rush probably wanted to come to Sunday night’s game—deep down inside, the Rushes probably knew that there wouldn’t be that many chances to see him be the Cowboys’ starting QB.
Winner: Bailey Zappe
Let’s play a game! Click on this picture. Now click on this picture. One of these men is Michael McCorkle “Mac” Jones, a quarterback for the New England Patriots. The other is Bailey Michael Zappe, also a quarterback for the New England Patriots. Both of them are youthful-looking white men, clean-shaven with blue eyes and short-cropped brownish-blond hair.
Let’s play another game—but instead of comparing their faces, let’s compare their best career games. Jones, who has played 20 career games and made the Pro Bowl last year as a rookie, had his best game last year against the Titans in Week 12 of 2021, going 23-for-32 for 310 yards with two touchdown passes and no interceptions. Zappe, a rookie fourth-rounder who has played in just three games, essentially matched Jones’s career-best performance stat-for-stat on Sunday, going 24-for-34 for 309 yards with two touchdown passes and no interceptions in a 38-15 win over the Browns.
The Patriots are one of three teams that were forced to play their third-string QB on Sunday, and it didn’t go well for the others. The Dolphins started rookie Skylar Thompson after injuries to Tua Tagovailoa and Teddy Bridgewater; Thompson completed just seven passes for 89 yards before leaving the game with a thumb injury in the second quarter. He was replaced by Bridgewater, who had only cleared concussion protocol on Saturday. The Panthers started P.J. Walker after an injury last week to Baker Mayfield and with Sam Darnold still on injured reserve; they didn’t score any offensive touchdowns on Sunday in a loss to the Rams.
The Patriots, though? They’re thriving. After an ankle injury to Jones and a concussion to Brian Hoyer, they were down to Zappe. But Zappe isn’t just any rookie: He set the FBS record for single-season passing touchdowns and single-season passing yardage in his lone season at Western Kentucky after transferring from Houston Baptist. His lone successful college season and lack of outstanding physical traits meant he fell to Day 3—but he’s shown he can hit open receivers, no problem. The Pats are 2-0 with Zappe as starter, putting up an average of 33.5 points per game.
The Pats have weathered the storm with backups before. (Have you heard of “Tom Brady”?) In 2016, they were also down to their third-stringer in the first month of the season, after Brady’s Deflategate suspension (that really happened!) and an injury to Jimmy Garoppolo. To win then, they changed around their whole offense on short notice to win with Jacoby Brissett. But now? Their offense looks basically the same with Zappe as it does with Jones.
That Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe have identical faces is funny. That their games are identical as well is a bit strange. Is it a good thing that New England’s offense is plug-and-play, so effective that third-stringers can come in and win games? Or is it a bit worrisome that their supposed franchise QB looks the same as their fourth-rounder?
Loser: San Francisco’s Endless Drive to Nowhere
We used to just get in our car and drive around without Google Maps or anything. Sensible drivers would purchase road maps of the area where they were headed; humble ones would get out of the car and ask strangers for directions. Eventually, we were able to print out directions on MapQuest. But some were still too proud to ask for directions. In the fourth quarter of their upset loss to the Falcons on Sunday, the Niners looked like a pre-smartphone driver: no directions, no aim, just driving, driving, driving, stuck in their ways and stuck on the road. Where were they going without ever knowing the way?
The Niners were 3.5-point road favorites against the Falcons, but found themselves down 14 in the fourth quarter. After a beautiful Atlanta punt, San Francisco got the ball on their own 1-yard line with 10 minutes remaining. They needed points, and they needed them quickly. Instead, they took forever to not score, embarking on one of the longest, most pointless drives in NFL history. Over the course of 8 minutes and 8 seconds, the Niners ran 16 plays, not including three voided due to penalties. Even if they had scored, the drive would have been a disaster, draining 80 percent of the remaining clock and leaving them little time to make a comeback. But they didn’t score— and they barely got into the red zone. They turned the ball over on downs on the Falcons’ 19-yard line. According to Pro Football Reference, it’s the second-longest scoreless fourth-quarter drive by a team trailing by 14 points, only surpassed by a 2010 drive by a Jaguars team down 27.
It was shocking to see a team which hypothetically still had a chance to win play with negative urgency. Of the 16 plays, three were incomplete Jimmy Garoppolo passes and only two featured players getting out of bounds. That means that 11 of the 16 plays resulted in a running clock, and yet the play-by-play indicates the Niners didn’t go no-huddle until the eighth play of the drive, after five minutes had come off the clock. According to TruMedia, only three of the 16 plays on the drive were passes beyond the first-down marker. They ran the ball five times and Garoppolo threw the ball short of the sticks eight times. It would have been a great job if they were trying to kill the clock—but they were the ones trailing by two scores! The only thing they killed was their chance to win the game.
The drive feels like a summary of what’s wrong with the Niners. They had hoped to have a dynamic offense with Trey Lance, but after his season-ending injury, they reverted back to Garoppolo, who has a weaker arm and less playmaking ability. Their offense is built around a strong run game and yards after the catch—which left them more or less doomed when they needed to chase points late in the game. Like a lost driver in the days before the internet, they didn’t seem to realize that the longer they drove, the farther they were from getting to their destination. They looked lost, and sure enough, they lost.
Winner: Joe and Ja’Marr
LSU plays in Death Valley in Baton Rouge, but the Tigers have a knack for producing great achievements just a bit down the river. In the past 20 years, there have been four national championship games played at the Superdome in New Orleans; in the past 20 years, LSU has reached the national championship game four times. By some stroke of fate or Louisiana magic, all four of the Tigers’ title game appearances have been in New Orleans. The most recent was in January 2020, when Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase linked up for 221 yards and two touchdowns and completed one of the greatest college football seasons of all time. I was there, and it didn’t feel like a game; it felt like fate.
Sunday, Joe and Ja’Marr made their triumphant return to the Superdome, their first game against the Saints since they were reunited on the Bengals last season. Burrow showed up to the game wearing the LSU jersey supposedly worn by Chase in that national title game. New Orleans fans were… feeling confused.
There is an insane amount of people wearing Joe Burrow jerseys waiting to get into the Superdome.
— Ben Baby (@Ben_Baby) October 16, 2022
Interesting reaction in the Superdome stands. #Saints fans at one moment screaming wildly in anticipation of a possible sack, then quieting as Burrow scrambles into the open field, followed by a sort of polite applause by a number of fans after he scores.
— Brett Martel (@brettmartel) October 16, 2022
New Orleans built a 23-14 lead—but it was Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase in the Superdome. The Saints may have been more competitive than Clemson was nearly three years ago, but they were just as doomed. Chase caught two second-half touchdowns, including this 60-yarder. (The Superdome magic apparently does not apply to all LSU grads—the second guy flailing at Chase’s feet is Louisiana legend Tyrann Mathieu.)
They’re Cincinnati Bengals now instead of Bayou Bengals, but it doesn’t matter: There’s no beating Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase in Louisiana. Luckily for the Saints, this matchup is only going to happen once every four years or so (and even less frequently at the Superdome) because the Bengals are in the AFC and the Saints are in the NFC. Because clearly, there’s something that makes those two unstoppable in that state, in that building.
Loser: The Carol-emple Panth-ewls
Last Monday, the Panthers fired Matt Rhule after a dismal 11-27 record over two-plus seasons with the franchise. It’s often tough to move forward when teams fire a coach mid-season, but it had to be especially awkward for the eight players on the Panthers roster who played for Rhule in college: two from Baylor and six from Temple. Rhule was very interested in imprinting his culture on Carolina—on Sunday, someone leaked a document called “The Way of the Panther,” in which Rhule described the “brand” he was trying to build—and filling the roster with his guys was a critical part of that process. Surely, the vast majority of this current Panthers team was happy to be done with Rhule, an overmatched coach with annoying catchphrases—but what about his guys?
Judging from Sunday’s performance against the Rams, they’re not doing so great. Panthers WR Robbie Anderson, who played for Rhule at Temple, was spotted sitting away from his team on the sideline:
Later, Anderson got into a big argument with wide receivers coach Joe Dailey—notably, not a coach who came with Rhule from his college jobs. Anderson told reporters he was mad about being taken out of the game on a third down. In the second half, interim head coach Steve Wilks decided he was done with Anderson, sending the receiver back to the locker room for the rest of the game.
The game didn’t go well for his Temple-to-Carolina teammates, either. P.J. Walker, Anderson’s QB at Temple, got the start on Sunday after an injury to Baker Mayfield last week; Walker had an absolutely disastrous game, going 10-for-16 for 60 yards before leaving with an injury. Miraculously, Walker did not complete any passes more than one yard downfield. His replacement, Jacob Eason, threw for 59 yards on just five passes; it took him just one drive to have as many yards as Walker had all game.
Temple alum Matt Ioannidis, a starting defensive tackle, played his usual role, but down the roster, safety Sean Chandler got no defensive snaps after playing 38 snaps the last two weeks. The Panthers are reportedly looking to trade Anderson, and it feels unlikely they’ll go back to Walker after his dud Sunday—even if Mayfield and Sam Darnold are out, they might as well see if they have anything in Eason.
The plight of Rhule’s leftover chosen ones on the Panthers roster underlines the foolishness of the way Carolina handled this situation. It should have been clear ahead of the season that the Panthers were going nowhere with Rhule. If they’d reconfigured in the offseason, they could have had a chance in a poor NFC South division that currently has no teams over .500. Instead, they’ll spend two-thirds of a season flailing with a roster built around their ex-coach’s failed vision. By giving Rhule a third chance to try to put together a good NFL team, they wasted this season. I’d mope on the end of the bench too.