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: The London Giants
We have not given the people of England a particularly convincing argument for supporting American football. Our sport is massively complicated and our biggest games are played in the middle of the night over there. While the NFL has sent a handful of games over per year, they were always the dregs: For the first 14 years of London games, there was not a single matchup between two teams with winning records.
Sunday broke that streak. It was the highest-profile game in London history: The 3-1 Giants facing the 3-1 Packers, who were playing their first game overseas. (Green Bay hasn’t wanted to give up home games, and other teams haven’t wanted to give up the sweet money generated by hosting 30,000 cheeseheads.) According to international data research site YouGov, the Giants and Packers are two of the four most popular teams in England. Packers fans always show up wherever the Packers play, and that includes London, prompting locals to ask why all these weirdos were walking around town wearing blocks of Gruyere-like hats. And apparently London has also accumulated a sizable portion of Giants fans. (Maybe because the Giants played the first game of the NFL’s annual international series there and went on to win the Super Bowl the same season?) Before Sunday’s game, British Giants fans were spotted singing soccer-style chants, advising the Packers on what to do with their cheddar.
Surprisingly, the game itself lived up to the billing. Even though both teams had the same record, the Packers were 9-point favorites: They’ve been to the NFC championship game in two of the past three seasons, and had the two-time reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers at QB. Meanwhile, New York’s QB is Daniel Jones, whose mobility was expected to be limited due to an ankle injury—and mobility has been more or less Jones’s only positive trait in his first few years in the NFL. And the Giants were missing their top four receivers—Kadarius Toney, Wan’Dale Robinson, Kenny Golladay, and Sterling Shepard, who is out for the year. New York’s top receiver was Richie James, who had three touchdowns in three years with the 49ers, followed by David Sills V, most famous for being recruited by Lane Kiffin as a 13-year-old quarterback. They also lost two starting defenders—defensive end Azeez Ojulari and cornerback Aaron Robinson—this week.
During the game, New York’s injury woes got worse. Saquon Barkley, their best player by far, suffered a shoulder injury, and missed roughly half of the game. Jones started bleeding out of his hand for unexplained reasons. (Some of his blood got on his center’s butt.) New York’s top two healthy cornerbacks, Adoree’ Jackson and Fabian Moreau, both left the game with injuries, as did starting defensive tackle Leonard Williams. The Packers took a 17-3 lead in the first half.
AND THE GIANTS WON, 27-22. Without their top three cornerbacks and half of their defensive line, they held Aaron Rodgers scoreless for the entire second half. (The Packers did score once after halftime … but it was two points on an intentional safety taken by the Giants in the closing seconds.) With a limping Jones, an injured Barkley, and Dickie Roberts: Former Child QB Star at wide receiver, the Giants scored 17 unanswered points in the second half. Gary Brightwell and Daniel Bellinger scored touchdowns—and yes, those are real NFL players, not random British lads grabbed from the crowd. Head coach Brian Daboll was understandably pumped:
It was the biggest upset by point spread of the young NFL season—but that undersells the miraculous nature of pulling this comeback without their most talented players. It was not just the best London game on paper; it turned out to be the best game they’ve ever had.
Loser: Everybody on the Cardinals, Including Their Kicker
It’s fun to have a scapegoat, and Cardinals fans have a very easy one: Kicker Matt Ammendola, signed to the Cardinals’ practice squad earlier in the week because of an injury to Matt Prater. Ammendola’s the guy who missed the big kick to lose the big game. Trailing by three points with 22 seconds remaining against the undefeated Eagles, Arizona had a chance to tie the game on a 43-yard field goal. As Ammendola prepared to kick, FOX showed a gut-wrenching video of Ammendola in practice, missing kick after kick to the right. Sure enough, Ammendola’s kick swerved off his foot like a Randy Johnson slider. Wide right.
After the game, reporters swarmed Ammendola at his locker—but starting left guard Justin Pugh interrupted them. “It’s not on one fucking guy,” Pugh said to the press, before giving Ammendola a lineman-sized pat on the back and telling him to keep his head up.
And I gotta say: Pugh’s right. After all, Ammendola was only called in to attempt the tying field goal because of a mistake by quarterback Kyler Murray. On second down, Murray scrambled out of the pocket and slid at the 25-yard line—more than a yard short of the first down. However, Murray believed that he had picked up the first down, and spiked the ball to stop the clock.
The spike brought up fourth down. If Murray had gotten the first, the Cardinals would have been able to continue trying to throw to the end zone. With 22 seconds left, they probably could’ve gotten two or three attempts. They could’ve won without getting Ammendola involved. Instead, they had to kick a relatively long 43-yarder. Reports from Arizona indicate Murray may have been tricked by the scoreboard, which briefly flashed “first-and-10.”
And to be honest, Ammendola shouldn’t have been in this spot in the first place. Last year, Ammendola was dead last in the NFL in field-goal accuracy, including a dreadful 2-for-8 on kicks longer than 40 yards. (You know, like the one he attempted Sunday.) And just two weeks ago, Ammendola lost a game for the Chiefs, missing an extra point and a 34-yard attempt in a game Kansas City lost by three points. There are surely dozens of fringe NFL kickers who the Cards could have signed! The Eagles were also without their starting kicker on Sunday, but Philadelphia found a better option than Arizona did in Cameron Dicker, who hit a 42-yarder and the eventual game-winner. Why did Arizona’s front office choose to sign the worst kicker in the league, with a recent history of game-losing failure? What about our sweet bespectacled king Rodrigo Blankenship? What about this guy, who went 10-for-10 on field goals (including a game-winning 48-yarder!) last year and is totally unsigned? Why’d Arizona pick the bad kicker?
If Cardinals fans want to blame someone, Ammendola is the easy option—and a correct one, since he made a mess in his first (and presumably last) game with Arizona. But a player can’t lose a game: a whole organization does, from the GM to the QB to the coach to the scoreboard operator. (Maybe look at the refs before flipping “first down” on the big screen next time.)
Winner: Cam Dantzler’s Theft
If you read the play-by-play of the Vikings’ 29-22 win over the Bears, the words on the page will lie to you. They say that with the Bears driving, down seven with 1 minute and 12 seconds remaining, Bears receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette fumbled, and that the fumble was recovered by Minnesota’s Cam Dantzler. In your head, you picture Smith-Marsette taking a huge hit and the ball popping out; it skitters across the grass until Dantzler finds it and picks it up as his teammates wildly signal that their team has made a recovery.
That is not what happened. You need to watch it. You need to bear witness to the play so good that the play-by-play didn’t know what to say:
After taking a 21-3 lead, Minnesota seemed content to choke away a win against the worst offense in football. In the closing moments, Chicago had cut the lead to seven, they had the ball, and they were driving. And on this play, Dantzler got embarrassed. Smith-Marsette easily got separation on a hitch route and made a catch for a first down—normal enough, whatever. But then he dropped Dantzler to the ground with a juke/stiff-arm combo. One second, Dantzler was in front of Smith-Marsette and ready to make a tackle; the next, he’d been shoved to the ground like a child.
But Dantzler’s play is not over. He gets up, runs up behind Smith-Marsette, gets both hands on the ball, and rips it away. It’s not a fumble; it’s a bold-faced robbery, in broad daylight, in front of nearly 70,000 fans and millions of viewers at home. He took that ball from Smith-Marsette in front of all of Smith-Marsette’s friends and family and whatever higher power he believes in. He took that ball, and the game was over.
The way Dantzler tells it, his moves were calculated. He saw that Vikings safety Harrison Smith was in position to make a tackle, and figured that Smith-Marsette would likely be more concerned with getting out of bounds to preserve the clock than making moves—and besides, he knew the way Smith-Marsette carried the ball from the receiver’s stint with the Vikings in 2021. The time was ripe to play for a turnover.
But the way it looks on tape? Nothing looks calculated. It looks like he gets up with fire in his brain and hate in his heart. Players have done things like this before—I can think of a defensive lineman stealing the ball from a backup QB and running it into the end zone, and of course, Ed Reed doing this to his teammate—but this was special. Dantzler got juked and bullied, got up, and decided he was going to take the ball and the game from his opponent’s hands. It’s a play so special that the play-by-play simply didn’t have the words to describe it.
Loser: Roughing the Passer
How has Tom Brady managed to have the longest, most successful career in NFL history, maintaining an elite level of play for about a decade after the average quarterback starts to tail off? Is it because he drinks so much water? Is it because of his pliability exercises, or his weird diet? Is it because he’s ignored his beautiful supermodel wife to focus entirely on football, leading to the impending breakdown of their billion-dollar marriage? NFL fans have another theory: It’s because Brady has received incredible protection—not only from wonderful offensive lines in New England and Tampa Bay, but from his friends in stripes, the officials who have called penalties on just about anybody attempting to harm him.
That storyline played out Sunday, as the Buccaneers got a referee assist in their surprisingly tight win against the Falcons. After taking a 21-0 lead, Tampa Bay’s offense vanished. Atlanta scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to draw within one possession, and with three minutes left, got a third-down sack that would’ve forced a Tampa Bay punt. But officials ruled that Grady Jarrett’s takedown of Brady was illegal, claiming Jarrett roughed the passer:
The Bucs got a first down, the Falcons never touched the ball again, and Tampa Bay won. Referee Jerome Boger said after the game that Jarrett “unnecessarily threw Brady to the ground.” But on replay, that throw doesn’t seem particularly vicious. It really looks like Jarrett simply wrapped Brady up and rolled down to the ground—if there is a throw, it certainly was not the WWE-style suplex that roughing is meant to eliminate.
Pass rushers have complained about Brady’s preferential treatment for most of his seemingly infinite career—all the way back to Ray Lewis, who has been retired for nearly a decade at this point. In 2018, a Kansas City linebacker claimed he let go of Brady on a would-be sack because he’d been warned about penalties on Brady; the Chiefs later missed out on a trip to the Super Bowl in 2019 after a phantom roughing call on Chris Jones in the fourth quarter of New England’s comeback win. The NFL even changed its rules over Brady: After Brady suffered the one major injury of his career in 2008, the NFL promptly enacted a rule to protect the quarterback’s knees. (You know how we were just complaining the NFL doesn’t do enough to protect quarterbacks? Sometimes we complain they actually do too much when it’s a guy we don’t like!)
But the data doesn’t back up his rivals’ theory. Brady is nowhere near the leader in roughing penalties drawn—according to NFLPenalties.com, he’s had 34 since 2009; Matt Ryan is miles ahead with 56. Even adjusting on a per-sack basis, Brady is towards the middle of the pack. The only area where Brady really stands out here is in the postseason penalty stats—he’s drawn five roughing penalties in the postseason, nobody else has more than three—but that can be explained by the fact that he’s played in more playoff games than anybody ever.
Brady doesn’t have the most roughing the passer penalties—he just has the ones which make us the most angry. And after the officials handed Tampa Bay a win with a bad call on Sunday, that perception won’t go away.
Winner: The Return of Taysom Hill
I thought we were done with Taysom Hill. When Sean Payton was head coach of the Saints, the pesky playmaker was Payton’s pet project—Payton claimed Hill was the potential future of the franchise at QB while simultaneously playing him at kick returner and tight end and everything in between. But in reality, Hill was rarely more than a gimmick, despite Payton’s words and Hill’s big contract. And when Payton abruptly retired this offseason, Hill seemed set to fade into irrelevance.
The Saints removed Hill from the QB depth chart, restructured his contract, and signed Andy Dalton as the backup quarterback. Hill was a full-time tight end—and sounded pissed about it. “This isn’t necessarily what I want,” Hill told reporters of his new role. “I’m at peace with knowing how the league works. Things aren’t up to me.” He even complained a little bit about having to learn to play out of a three-point stance.
It was an incredible sell job. According to Pro Football Focus, Hill has taken more snaps as a QB (24) than tight end (16). He scored a rushing TD from the QB position in Week 1, and then another last week in London against the Vikings. And with Jameis Winston sidelined this week against the Seahawks with a back injury, the Saints, even without Payton calling plays, clearly committed to returning Hill to his role as a gadget god. Yes, Dalton was the starter, and Jake Luton was his backup—but Hill was the Saints’ star in their 39-32 win over the Seahawks on Sunday:
Not only is Taysom Hill back—he’s somehow better than ever. Hill had career-highs of 112 rushing yards and three touchdowns on Sunday. He also had a career-high in kick return yards, because why not? (Congratulations to whoever started Hill in fantasy, where he is eligible as a tight end. You almost definitely won, and if you lost you should feel very bad about it.) Hill still isn’t really a quarterback, only throwing one pass on Sunday while Dalton threw 24 … but Hill’s lone pass went for a 22-yard touchdown:
And yes, he’s still doing all that other Taysom Hill stuff, too. Hill hopped on a fumble on special teams when Seahawks punter Michael Dickson temporarily lost his mind and forgot to punt:
As it turns out, Hill pretending to be bummed that he had to play tight end back in training camp was his greatest trick play to date. Hill is like a football hydra. When you cut off one of his roles, he grows two more. At 32 years old, he’s still as fast as ever. (One of the guys chasing him on his 60-yard TD actually hit the fastest speed of any NFL player in three seasons, but still couldn’t catch Hill.) Hill is actually most interesting when we stop questioning whether he can be a starter at QB (he can’t) and instead celebrate his ability to succeed despite failing to fit within football’s traditional roles. Nothing can stop Taysom Hill—not time, not his coach retiring, not his spot on the depth chart vanishing, and certainly not Seahawks defenders.
Winner: Concussion protocol optics
Loser: Miami Dolphins
The NFL this weekend tried to spin its handling of Tua Tagovailoa’s concussion as a success. Clearly, something awful happened to Tagovailoa’s brain—he was allowed to return to the team’s Week 3 game against the Bills after what looked like an obvious concussion, then play four days later and suffer a concussion on Thursday Night Football in Week 4. Following a review that took nearly two weeks, the NFL says its protocol was properly followed, and furthermore, that it has made changes to the protocol to further improve its player safety policies. Under the new rules, players who exhibit a condition called ataxia, defined as an abnormality of balance or stability, motor coordination, or dysfunctional speech caused by a neurological issue, cannot return to a game, no matter what. The NFL’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, said that if those rules had been in place in Week 3, Tagovailoa would not have been allowed to return against the Bills. And given the short timeline to prepare for Thursday Night Football, if the new rules had been in place two weeks ago, Tagovailoa almost certainly would not have been allowed to play against Cincinnati. The NFL got its preferred headline, that the original protocol was followed, and yet, those protocols were flawed enough that they needed to be immediately changed.
The new policy was in effect for Sunday’s games—and as fate would have it, the Dolphins were the first team impacted by the changes. On Teddy Bridgewater’s first play of the game, his head slammed against the turf as he tried to get rid of the ball under intense pressure.
Bridgewater—who was hospitalized last year after sustaining a season-ending concussion—did not return. Without Bridgewater, the Dolphins were doomed: Their third-stringer, a seventh-round draft pick named Skylar Thompson, threw no touchdowns and an interception in a 40-17 loss to the Jets.
According to Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel, Bridgewater passed concussion evaluations and is showing no symptoms of a head injury. But a spotter identified that Bridgewater was exhibiting ataxia—poor muscle control—and that meant he was automatically ruled out. To some, Bridgewater’s removal seems like an overreaction. After all, Bridgewater was seemingly healthy. He would’ve been allowed to continue playing if this game were last week, or last year, or at any other point in NFL history. I haven’t seen the wobble which got him removed from the game. It’s a situation that Sills on Saturday acknowledged to reporters could happen. In removing the ability to prescribe gross motor instability to a non-neurological cause, more players could wind up being ruled out. “Ataxia will be assumed to come from the brain,” Sills said. “We may mislabel some situations, but I think we and the players association have agreed that we’re willing to be conservative in that situation.”
The takeaway from all of this is that it’s extremely hard to diagnose brain injuries, and it will continue to be so for as long as we are unable to slice open people’s brains while they are alive. And NFL players will continue to suffer brain injuries as long as football remains a contact sport.
On its first gameday, the league’s new policy had an easy test to pass, featuring a player at the same position on the same team as the one which caused the latest controversy. To that end, the NFL passed that test, even if it meant removing a critical player from the game with relatively little evidence and dooming his team to a lopsided defeat. It’s ugly—but the NFL’s old protocol, even when successfully followed, led to something much uglier.
Winner: Drama King Justin Tucker
It has been written many times that Ravens kicker Justin Tucker is the greatest ever to play his position. You know it, I know it, the NFL-watching public knows it, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. He’s the greatest kicker in the greatest era for kickers. So it’s not particularly surprising that Tucker went 4-for-4 Sunday night, including the game-winner against the Bengals. Tucker has now made his last 27 field goals, dating back to Week 10 of last year. Nothing groundbreaking has happened here.
But we don’t give the guy enough credit for just how good he is at selling his greatness. This week’s Sunday Night Football game was a field goal fest between the Ravens and Bengals, and on a night when Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow both underwhelmed, Tucker was the star.
With the game tied in the third quarter, the Ravens asked Tucker to hit a 58-yarder. Easy. He drilled the kick and pimped it, like a 500-foot home run:
He kicked another field goal on the next drive, only for the Bengals to strike back with a go-ahead touchdown. (Unfortunately, touchdowns are worth significantly more than field goals in the current scoring system—we’ll work on it, for Justin’s sake.) But that just set Tucker up for the chance to win the game. And he did, right down the middle, Tucker’s 25th lead-changing field goal in the final two minutes of a game. (He’s 25-for-26.)
And when I say “right down the middle,” I mean right down the middle. NFL data analyst Michael Lopez tweeted that according to the NFL’s ball-tracking data, we know that Tucker’s kick was 0.15 yards off from the exact middle of the field—about five inches.
The kick was perfect, and so was Tucker’s postgame interview. (Yes, they interviewed the kicker after the game on TV .) He credited his punter with “his first game-winning hold” and described himself as “a system kicker.”
Nice Justin Tucker interview crediting the snapper and Jordan Stout’s “first game-winning hold”. Don’t think I’ve ever heard that before. Kinda wanna play with a guy like that. pic.twitter.com/GIwTdIOdr0
— ChuckModi (@ChuckModi1) October 10, 2022
Greatness can often be boring—especially at a position like kicker, where greatness is defined by simply doing the same thing over and over again. But Tucker has somehow made himself the first-ever must-watch kicker. The same thing happens every time he winds up, and yet he might be the best spectacle in the NFL.
Loser: The Pointless Detroit Lions
There was a Honolulu-blue-and-silver lining for the early-season crappiness of the Detroit Lions: At least they were fun. Yes, they were 1-3, a disappointing start after winning new fans across the nation via Hard Knocks. (This happens basically every year; the 2020 Los Angeles Rams are the only Hard Knocks team since the 2010 New York Jets to win a playoff game. DAMN YOU, LIEV SCHREIBER AND YOUR COMPELLING NARRATION!) Yes, they were dead last in the NFL in defense, and more than a touchdown per game worse than the closest team heading into Week 5. But at least they were scoring, leading the NFL in points scored and points against. All of their losses had been by exactly three or four points, with Dan Campbell’s do-or-die squad fighting until the very end.
The fun football streak died on Sunday, as the Lions were shut out 29-0 by the Patriots. This should have been a winnable game: New England was starting their no. 3 quarterback, Bailey Zappe, a rookie picked in the fourth round of April’s draft. But Detroit’s defense was, as usual, made up of cowardly Lions. Detroit failed to pressure Zappe once, as the rookie went 17-of-21 for 188 yards. And the score could have been a lot worse; the Patriots only had one offensive touchdown, settling for five field goals.
At least the Lions defense made some plays. Jared Goff and the offense scored zero points and lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown, essentially gifting the Patriots seven points while scoring none of their own.
Trailing big in the second half, the Lions got desperate, going for it on fourth down on their first four drives … and failing each time. In all, Detroit went 0-for-6 on fourth-down attempts, a new NFL record for fourth-down futility. (The Patriots went 0-for-5 on fourth downs in 1995; nobody else has ever gone worse than 0-for-4 in a game.) At a certain point, missing on fourth down over and over again stops meaning that you’re being aggressive—it just means that your offense is so bad that it can’t be productive, even with 33 percent more downs than usual.
Before Sunday, the Lions could argue that they were just a play or two away from winning. Not Sunday. They could’ve kicked field goals on all of those fourth downs and still been losing by double digits. The Lions still have the worst defense in the NFL—potentially the worst of all time, as they’re allowing 34 points per game, which would be the worst defense since the AFL/NFL merger if they keep it up. But now they also have an offense capable of getting totally blanked, led by a coaching staff that can’t draw up a successful fourth-down conversion. They’re still bad, and now they’re not even fun.
Winner: Brandon Staley’s Math
The Fourth Down Debate can get boring. Oh, wow, another analytics-vs.-historical football logic argument? The nerds think one thing, the talking heads think another? For the 103rd week in a row? Is this really what we spend all week dreaming about? Not the game—but the opportunity to yell at other people without ever changing anybody’s opinion about anything? Time after time, we find ourselves debating individual outcomes as evidence that our particular line of thinking is correct, even though the entire idea is that individual outcomes shouldn’t be used that way. I’m sick of it!
But a critical call by Chargers head coach Brandon Staley during Sunday’s win over the Browns added another element: Immediate, fervent disagreement by a member of his own team.
Leading by two points with under two minutes to go, Staley’s Chargers faced a fourth-and-1 on their own half of the field. The conventional wisdom here is obvious: Punt. Don’t risk giving the opponent the ball near field-goal range when they can win with a field goal! That seemed like it would be an especially wise decision, considering the Browns’ quarterback, Jacoby Brissett, is not exactly among the most feared QBs in the league.
But fourth-down models say something different: Go for it! A success would win the game—and even with a failure, the defense could get a stop, or the Browns could miss a field goal.
—> LAC (30) @ CLE (28) <—
LAC has 4th & 1 at the LAC 46
Recommendation (YOU BETTER DO THIS): Go for it (+11.7 WP)
Actual play: (Shotgun) J.Herbert pass incomplete short right to M.Williams (M.Emerson). pic.twitter.com/K0r3N8jnhi
— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) October 9, 2022
Staley kept his offense on the field and went for it. And the play the Chargers called was a disaster—a downfield pass to Mike Williams.
You’d think this call would be a popular one among, say, Chargers wide receivers, regardless of the outcome. After all, the play was essentially giving a Chargers wide receiver a chance to win the game. But wide receiver Keenan Allen—out since Week 1 with a hamstring injury and therefore able to use Twitter during the game—shared his extreme displeasure.
Luckily, Browns kicker Cade York missed the 54-yard, game-winning field goal attempt. The Chargers won. Allen seemed less excited and more relieved:
So glad he missed that. Cause man man man
— Keenan Allen (@Keenan13Allen) October 9, 2022
Sunday should have been a win for Staley’s thinking—his choice failed, but the models account for that, and still recommend going for it. But somehow, people were still mad. Perhaps Staley has failed too many times before.
I’m an analytics fan. But I had operated under the assumption that most players prefer their coach to be aggressive and take risks, putting the ball in star players’ hands to go for the win. If that’s not the case? If players are actually kinda pissed off about all this, and are privately griping about it? If those decisions are causing players to distrust their coaching staff? That could have effects on win probability which can’t be captured by data.