Every week of the 2022 NFL season, we will celebrate the explosive plays, investigate the colossal gaffes, and explain the inexplicable moments from the previous slate. Hello and welcome to Winners and Losers. Which of these are you?
Massive Comebacks is the winner.
Unless they’re in a movie, teams that are kicking ass don’t just stop kicking ass. Teams that are getting their asses kicked don’t usually flip the switch—not only are they likely to be slower, weaker, and worse than the team that has built a big lead, but they’re also likely to be demoralized by the whole “ass-kicking” thing. Upsets occur in sports because we may have underestimated the strength of the teams prior to the game, or the favorite simply has a bad day. But what about comebacks? Those necessitate a mid-game miscalculation. There were 61 games last season in which a team won by 20 points or more—and zero games in which a team came back from a 20-point deficit to win.
The NFL experienced movie magic on Sunday. There were two such comebacks in a few hours—infinity percent more than all of last season—and those two miracles may have only been the second- and third-best comebacks of the day.
The Ravens appeared to be running away with the game against Miami on Sunday, with three touchdowns of 75 yards or more. Lamar Jackson appeared to have a turbo button on his 79-yard touchdown run, while Miami’s defenders did not. At the end of the third quarter, Baltimore led 35-14. But Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw four fourth-quarter touchdown passes to turn the game around, including a gutsy game-winner with 15 seconds remaining:
It was the first 21-point comeback in the fourth quarter since 2010. The last 711 teams trailing by three touchdowns or more in the fourth quarter, according to ESPN Stats and Info, all lost. The Ravens averaged 8.8 yards per offensive play, which was the second-most by any team in any game last year, didn’t commit any turnovers, and scored on special teams… and they lost. This was more than a thriller; it was a miracle.
The Cardinals trailed the Raiders 20-0 in the afternoon game. But Kyler Murray kept waiting… and waiting… and waiting… and waiting… and waiting… and waiting… and waiting… and waiting… and waiting… and waiting… and waiting… and waiting… and waiting… and waiting… and and ultimately scurried to victory:
Murray had a signature game, making play after play like this, buying time until defenders couldn’t keep up with his adorable speed. In the fourth quarter, the Cardinals scored two touchdowns and two two-point conversions, including one with no time remaining in regulation. This forced overtime, where Arizona’s defense won the game. In overtime, the Cardinals forced Hunter Renfrow to fumble twice and returned the second for a game-winning touchdown:
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And we haven’t even gotten to the most unlikely comeback of all—the one involving the New York Jets, a team that has never had anything good happen to them. (To be fair, they were playing the Browns, a team that has never had anything go right for them.) With less than two minutes remaining, Cleveland led 30-17. In exactly one minute, the Jets scored a touchdown, recovered an onside kick, and scored again to win the game by one point.
The Dolphins and Cardinals were led by young stars, recent first-round pick quarterbacks who represent the franchise’s future. The Jets were led by Joe Flacco, 37, who had not won a game as a starting quarterback since 2019. Things like these three games are usually only seen in movies, but what is NFL RedZone if not a seven-hour, commercial-free film?
Tua was the winner.
Tua Tagovailoa was abandoned by a large number of you. You roasted viral highlight videos of him tossing lollipops to a visibly bored Tyreek Hill during training camp. You mocked his allegedly weak arm. You pleaded with the Dolphins to move on for the sake of their incredibly talented wide receiver room.
Not me. When Tagovailoa was a backup quarterback at Alabama, my podcast cohost, Ben Glicksman, spent half of every episode yelling about how the Tide needed to bench Jalen Hurts for the five-star freshman from Hawaii, despite the fact that they were winning almost every game. Then they benched Jalen in favor of Tua, which won them the national championship. Tua-pilled me. He is, in my opinion, the greatest college quarterback of all time.
I have not changed my mind. Not with a potentially career-ending hip injury. Not when he was competing for playing time with Ryan Fitzpatrick. I have stayed on Tua Island through thick and thin. Because, just as Tua established himself as a college football legend in that national championship game, coming from nowhere to capture glory, I knew Tua would do it again.
That day had come. Tua had 469 yards and six touchdowns, making him one of the most prolific passers in NFL history. (Only seven players have thrown for more yards and six touchdowns—three are Hall of Famers, three will be, and one, for some reason, is Matt Flynn.) He was throwing bombs and dimes. Ignore how long Tyreek Hill had to wait for this pass—maybe Tua just wanted to enjoy the moment.
After the game, Hill sent a message to Tua’s detractors, urging them to jump on board. It’s rewarding for those of us who have stuck by Tua throughout—but our goal is not to exclude. There will be more touchdowns.
The Indianapolis Colts, who are owned by Jacksonville, are the losers.
If you’re an Indianapolis Colts fan, you don’t believe in the traditional version of hell, with its fire and brimstone and the horned devil with the pointy tail and pitchfork. Your hell is much more real, and possibly more terrifying: it’s Jacksonville, Florida, home of TIAA Bank Field and the perpetually pitiful Jacksonville Jaguars, a team with an odd connection to hell.
The Colts have now lost eight straight games in Jacksonville. Eight. Eight! Since the Colts last defeated the Jaguars in Jacksonville on September 21, 2014, the Jaguars have gone 37-91, with only one winning season; 21.6 percent of their total wins in that time period have come against the Colts in Jacksonville. Last year, Indianapolis needed only a win in Jacksonville to make the playoffs, but they were defeated 26-11, effectively ending their season.
The Colts were in Jacksonville again on Sunday, and it was as embarrassing as ever. Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence had one of his best games as a pro, going 25-for-30 for 235 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. Indy quarterback Matt Ryan had one of his worst games, going 16-for-30 with three interceptions as the Colts were defeated 24-0:
The Colts’ last three shutouts have all come against the Jaguars, including Sunday’s game, a 6-0 loss in Jacksonville last year, and a 27-0 loss in 2017. Meanwhile, the Jaguars have only had eight shutout victories in franchise history, including three against the Colts.
I’m a Jets fan, and we always lose to the Patriots. (Usually twice!) But, at the very least, that makes sense. In the last two decades, the Patriots have won six Super Bowls; the Jets drafted Mark Sanchez and Sam Darnold. The Patriots should win. The Colts are also a relatively successful franchise, having appeared in two Super Bowls and 15 playoff games since 2000. In 27 years, the Jaguars have finished last in their division nine times. Despite this, Jacksonville has a stranglehold on Indianapolis. During their eight-game losing streak, the Colts have been favored in six of their eight games in Jacksonville, including Sunday’s game. They just can’t seem to win.
It’s like being squished by a toddler. It’s the same as not being able to beat your Labrador retriever in Connect 4. It’s as if Sisyphus looked over his shoulder and saw everyone else effortlessly rolling their rocks up their hills. It’s hell, and the Colts are doomed to play there unless the NFL changes its divisions.
Backup is the winner. Jimmy G’s
First, some bad news. Trey Lance of the San Francisco 49ers is out for the season after breaking his ankle and requiring surgery. Lance’s final season at North Dakota State was wiped out by the pandemic, save for one showcase game for pro scouts in 2020; his rookie NFL season was spent backing up Jimmy Garoppolo; and now his first season as an NFL starter has been cut short after five quarters due to injury. If he returns to the starting lineup in 2023, he’ll be four seasons removed from his last full season as a starter. It’s difficult enough to figure out how to be a quarterback in the NFL, and Lance’s situation has made it even more difficult.
Jimmy Garoppolo, who led the Niners to a Super Bowl appearance after the 2019 season and the NFC championship game last season, took over for Lance. But the Niners had traded up to get Lance because they needed more from their quarterback than Garoppolo was providing. The Niners insisted this offseason that they would trade Jimmy. Garoppolo did not practice with the team, did not attend meetings, and did not even receive a team playbook during the preseason. He was the NFL’s version of Milton from Office Space, showing up for work every day despite having no legitimate role in the company; that side field could as well have been a tiny desk in the dark basement. Only after other teams refused to trade for him did the Niners restructure Garoppolo’s contract and move him behind Lance to the depth chart.
It would have been understandable if Garoppolo had arrived unprepared—he hadn’t practiced in over two weeks. But he knew enough of the offense to know that this play involved a guy totally wide open with no defenders near him:
The Niners easily handled the Seahawks, 27-7. Their future is on hold with Lance on the sideline, and they’ll have to re-live their recent past with Garoppolo. Luckily, that hasn’t been so bad.
Loser: Nathaniel Hackett, Clock Doofus
It’s a good thing Nathaniel Hackett doesn’t seem to understand the concept of time, because otherwise he’d be a little flustered by how quickly his welcome has worn out in Denver. Hackett, a product of the esteemed Doug Marrone coaching tree, was hired to be Denver’s head coach this offseason after thriving as Aaron Rodgers’s offensive coordinator. (Pretty much everybody thrives as Aaron Rodgers’s offensive coordinator.) It’s going poorly. After trading for Russell Wilson in the offseason, the Broncos have only 32 points in their first two games under Hackett, which is pretty bad—but that’s not even what people are mad about. It turns out that Hackett is terrible at making decisions, which is probably the most important aspect of being an NFL head coach.
Things were clearly off from the beginning of his first game as head coach—it took an unusually long time for Hackett to get play calls in from the sideline, leaving the Broncos scrambling to snap the ball before the end of the play clock. But then he epically botched the endgame: The Broncos needed a field goal to win, and crossed midfield with a little bit over a minute left. At that point, he should’ve run a play or called a timeout. Instead, the Broncos let 40 seconds go off the clock, then called a timeout, after which Hackett asked Brandon McManus to kick a 64-yard field goal, which would have tied for the second longest in league history, in one of the toughest stadiums to kick. Thanks to Hackett’s indecisiveness the Broncos didn’t even have a chance to get the ball back.
Those issues continued on Sunday. At the end of the first half, the Broncos were on the goal line with all of their timeouts remaining. Hackett was indecisive about whether to go for it, and wasted enough time that the play clock expired. Now facing fourth-and-6, the decision was made for him, as Denver settled for the field goal.
But his masterpiece came in the second half, with Denver trailing by three points. On third-and-1, Hackett called an option with fullback Andrew Beck as the primary ball carrier (???), losing a yard and bringing up fourth down. Hackett left the offense on the field, then changed his mind, bringing on the field goal unit. McManus drilled a field goal—but not before the play clock expired, bringing about another delay of game. And instead of kicking a game-tying 59-yarder, which McManus clearly had the leg for, Hackett opted to punt. His indecision had officially cost his team points.
Please watch this entire sequence. Nate Hackett has officially lost it. Denver went from 3rd and inches, a TE rush attempt, a long FG attempt, and then a punt. Lord pic. twitter.com/3Eugrn7sHG — Billy M (@BillyM_91) September 18, 2022
Hackett burned two second-half timeouts—one because the team forgot to send a punt returner onto the field, and one because the play clock was about to expire. That left them without any timeouts in the final 7:30 of the game, when timeouts tend to be very valuable.
Two games in, Broncos fans are already fed up. After turning the field goal attempt into a punt, Broncos fans started counting down the play clock en masse to help Hackett’s offense successfully snap the ball without drawing a delay-of-game penalty.
Hackett has made some bad choices, but so do all coaches. What’s scary are the times when he makes no choice at all. At least 53 players pulling in one direction have a chance of getting somewhere. They’re doomed when they just stand around, waiting for their coach to make a call as he waffles on his decision. If you order a bad item off the restaurant’s menu, at least you have food. Hackett is standing out on the street, unsure which restaurant he wants to go to, watching shop after shop close for the night until there’s nothing left open. The worst decision an NFL head coach can make is indecision.
The Broncos won Sunday, because they have better players than the Houston Texans. He’d better figure out this whole “head coaching” thing fast, because NFL fans and owners tend to be more decisive than he is.
Winner: Mike Evans
The fiercest rivalry in the NFL is not any pair of teams you can think of. It’s the matchup between Buccaneers Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans and Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who have to face off twice a year. There is sometimes football involved, but they’re really more like the Tom and Jerry of the NFL—no words, no plotlines, just violence from jump.
In 2017, Evans was suspended for a game after crushing Lattimore with a post-play blindside cheap shot:
In 2020, the two got frisky after a play, resulting in Lattimore shoving Evans in the back and Evans punching Lattimore hard enough to pop his helmet off:
You might notice that Evans tends to win the literal fights between these two, on account of his being 5 inches taller and 40 pounds heavier—which probably makes it even more frustrating that Lattimore is so effective at defending him, and leads to more fights.
So you already knew what was going to happen Sunday in New Orleans. When Lattimore got in Tom Brady’s face, Evans emerged out of nowhere to battle his sworn enemy. Both players were ejected.
And that double-ejection turned out to be a huge win for the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay had been shut out in the first half, and had managed only a field goal in the third quarter. Brady was so frustrated that he slammed one of the Microsoft Surface tablets on the sideline. (Good thing the tablets are child-proofed with rubber cases, to protect them from 45-year-olds having temper tantrums.)
The double-ejection left the Saints without their top two cornerbacks—Lattimore and Paulson Adebo, who did not play in Sunday’s game because of an ankle injury. And on the very first possession after Lattimore’s ejection, Brady threw a 28-yard touchdown over the top of New Orleans’s defense, with Breshad Perriman easily defeating backup free safety P.J. Williams in one-on-one coverage.
The Buccaneers held on for a 20-10 victory—their first win in five regular-season matchups against the Saints since Brady came to Tampa Bay in 2020. Evans won the battle and the war. As good at football as he is, the smartest strategy against these Saints may be to drop gloves right at the puck drop and get Lattimore ejected. I’m not one to endorse violence, but if Evans can’t beat Lattimore on the field, fighting him seems to be a pretty good option.
Loser: The 0-2 Cincinnati Bengals
Over the last three NFL seasons, 27 teams have started their seasons 0-2—an average of nine per season. All 27 missed the playoffs. But the first two weeks of the NFL season have been … strange. Teams expected to finish near the bottom of the league like the Bears, Giants, Jets, and Seahawks have all won at least one game. Even the Texans got a tie! With most of two weeks of games in the books, there are only four 0-2 teams, each of whom will face a massive uphill battle to the postseason. And one of those is the defending AFC champion, the team that America fell in love with last postseason: Welcome the Cincinnati Bengals to 0-2-ville—I think they’ve been here before.
Week 1 was bad for Cincinnati. Joe Burrow threw four interceptions, and the Bengals lost due to a long snapper SNAFU (long SNAPFU?) in overtime to the Steelers. But Week 2 was even worse. Cincinnati was favored by a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys, who’d failed to score a touchdown in Week 1 and lost star QB Dak Prescott to a thumb injury. Their backup, Cooper Rush, was undrafted in 2017 and threw only 50 passes in his first four NFL seasons.
But the Cowboys were the better team on Sunday—offensively and defensively: passing, throwing, everything. They averaged 5.7 yards per play; the Bengals averaged only 3.8. Rush had 235 passing yards, averaging 7.6 yards per attempt; Burrow had 199 on 5.5 per attempt. Perhaps most worrisome: The Bengals’ continued inability to protect Burrow, despite their “revamped” offensive line. After seven sacks last week against the Steelers, Burrow was sacked six times by the Cowboys.
Micah Parsons is so so good, plays like he’ll win the next 10 Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Another sack today. He also had countless other hits on Burrow. pic.twitter.com/86wESwDHD7 — Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) September 18, 2022
At one point, Burrow was caught on camera asking his coach for more pass-blocking help. It didn’t matter.
The Cowboys won on a last-second field goal, Cincinnati’s second straight loss on a walk-off kick. The Bengals should have won both of those games, but at least those games have been close.
I expected the Bengals to drop off this year. They overperformed last year against a weak schedule and enjoyed incredible injury luck. This year they’re playing a first-place schedule, and who knows what could happen with injuries. I picked them to miss the playoffs in The Ringer’s NFL predictions … but I wouldn’t have predicted back-to-back losses to Mitchell Trubisky and Cooper Rush. I wouldn’t have predicted a five-turnover game from Burrow, or an offensive line that may be even worse than last year’s. FiveThirtyEight now projects the Bengals to have a 26 percent chance to make the playoffs. If Burrow is getting sacked six or seven times a game, that might be optimistic.
In 2014, NFL fans noticed Aaron Rodgers making a pre-snap signal that sure looked like he was holding up his fingers and pretending to smoke a joint. When asked about it, Rodgers explained that it was, in fact, weed-related—but not an endorsement of the drug. “It’s a dummy signal,” he said. “That’s the whole thing … you’re a dummy if you smoke dope. That’s why it’s a dummy signal.”
Suffice it to say, Rodgers has changed his stance on illegal substances. Rodgers says that he went on a therapeutic ayahuasca journey to Peru this offseason, which he credits with changing his mindset and improving his mental well-being. Sunday night, we confirmed that his teammates are down with their quarterback’s spiritual journey. They celebrated a touchdown in their semiannual beatdown of the Bears with an ayahuasca-themed celebration. (Ayahuasca contains the active chemical dimethyltryptamine, which is classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a hallucinogen. It is not specifically banned in the NFL’s drug policy.)
Until the Packers are asked to explain the celebration, we can fill in the details: Allen Lazard acted as shaman, pouring little tiny cups of brew for his teammates. Most of them reacted by falling down. Rodgers, however, raised his arms to the side and began pulsating with ecstasy—I’ll trust his interpretation of what happens to people on ayahuasca over his teammates’. (None of them vomited—I guess that would’ve been a bit weird to act out during a celebration, but shamans believe the purge to have therapeutic value.) It could’ve been divisive when a team leader announced that he’d been going to South America to trip on psychedelics—but when you’re dealing with the back-to-back MVP, you celebrate instead of ask questions. The ayahuasca-inspired celebration was the most thrilling moment Sunday night, as Rodgers’s Packers cruised to a 27-10 win over the Bears.
Loser: Gunner Olszewski
Gunner Olszewski is the most Bill Belichick NFL player ever to have Bill Belichick’ed. A cornerback out of Division II Bemidji State presumably named after a special teams position on the punt coverage unit. The only way he could’ve been more Belichick is if he was a left-footed punter from Rutgers who played lacrosse in high school. The Patriots signed Olszewski as an undrafted free agent in 2019, converted him to wide receiver, and he quickly became one of the best return men in the NFL. In 2020, he led the NFL in punt return yards, yards per return, and was named first-team All-Pro.
But everybody’s time in Belichick’s special teams paradise runs out eventually. The Pats didn’t re-sign Olszewski this offseason, and he went to the Steelers—who faced off against New England on Sunday. Olszewski told the media that he was especially motivated for Sunday’s game: “Any time you play the ex, you want to show out,” he said.
Instead, Olszewski found a way to help the Pats win. Olszewski only had one opportunity to return a punt on Sunday—New England punted four times, but two went into the end zone and one was downed by the kicking team. And on that one opportunity, the ball smacked Gunner in the damn face mask, bouncing directly to the Patriots’ gunner (not named Gunner):
The Pats offense struggled all day, but they easily converted this instant red zone opportunity into a touchdown and won, 17-14. It’s a strange mishap for Gunner—remember, this man was literally the best punt returner in football two years ago—and essentially gifted a win to his former team.
Am I alleging that Bill Belichick has arranged a shadowy cabal of ex-Patriots to sandbag their new teams and bring glory to New England? No. But what other explanation is there for one of Bill’s most special guys suddenly faltering at his best skill, booping the ball with his nose like a damn seal to ensure the Patriots score a decisive touchdown? It’s gotta be a shadowy cabal, right?