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: Travis Kelce, Charger Killer
Travis Kelce is not the only Charger killer out there. When the Chargers have a chance to win a game late, any number of things can cause them to lose—their coach’s fourth-down decisions, kickers (from either team), strange bounces, uncharacteristically great opposing performances, obscure rules, the El Niño effect, dark magic, poorly timed interceptions, moderate-to-severe plaque psoriasis—at some point, the Chargers have been, or will be, thwarted by all these things and many more. The Chargers’ franchise exists to bring pain to the people who love it, and somewhere along the line they figured the way to maximize that pain was to give fans hope first.
But holy crap, Travis Kelce is up there on the list of the Chargers’ biggest nemeses. Kelce apparently didn’t have beef with the Chargers when they played in San Diego—in his first 10 career games against the Chargers, he had zero receiving touchdowns. But since the Chargers moved north and into SoFi Stadium in 2020? He has seven touchdowns, six of them to tie games or take the lead. Last year, he scored a touchdown to force OT against the Chargers, then scored a monster 34-yard walk-off game-winner. Sunday night he essentially did the same thing. He scored at the beginning of the fourth quarter to give the Chiefs a lead:
Then, after the Chargers struck back, he scored the game-winner with 30 seconds to go:
Even more frustrating for the Chargers is that Kelce keeps scoring in roughly the same way. His two go-ahead touchdowns Sunday night (as well as last year’s game-winner) were on crossing routes that gave Kelce the ball a long distance away from the end zone and asked him to pick up yards after the catch—and there was nobody to stop him. This isn’t how tight ends are supposed to work! Normally, if a TE catches a TD, they do so by catching a pass in the end zone and falling down. Not Kelce. He beats the Chargers in man coverage and rumbles to the end zone.
Kelce now leads the NFL in receiving touchdowns with 11; he’s hoping to be the first tight end to lead the NFL in that category since 2013. The good news for the Chargers is they don’t have to play Kelce again until next year. The bad news is I’m sure they’ll find other horrifying ways to lose games before then.
Loser: The Vikings’ Point Differential
I fall somewhere in between the nerds and the normies. I don’t think wins and losses are the best way to assess which teams are the best, but I couldn’t use a spreadsheet for the life of me. When I’m trying to rate teams, I tend to rely on one stat: Point differential. Call me old-fashioned, but I think “how many points has a team scored and allowed?” is a pretty good indicator of quality. Are you blowing teams out? It shows. Are you getting lucky? That shows, too. This belief system is about to make me the least popular man in Minnesota. (Luckily, they’re Minnesotans, so they’ll still pretend to like me—it’s sort of their whole deal.)
Vikings fans were complaining that they had been handicapped as 2.5-point underdogs to Dallas just a week after defeating the Bills in an overtime thriller. They were on a seven-game win streak and at home—and Vegas thought the Cowboys would win? The disrespect! The Vikings were the first 8-1 team to be home underdogs in almost 50 years. But as it turns out, Vegas was overestimating the Vikes. They lost by 37, the largest margin of defeat in the NFL this season.
It was as thorough a thumping as you’ll see in the NFL. The Cowboys scored on their first seven possessions; the Vikings only scored once all game. Last week, Vikings WR Justin Jefferson went for 193 receiving yards in a career-defining performance for the young superstar; this week, the Vikings entire offense combined for just 183 yards. Both teams were able to play their backups, allowing fans across the nation to learn that Nick Mullens is the Vikings’ no. 2 QB. CBS ended up pulling the plug and transferring the national TV audience to Steelers-Bengals—a stunning choice considering the Cowboys are a ratings juggernaut.
The Vikings now have the NFC’s second-best record—and a negative point differential. They’ve scored 229 points; their opponents have scored 231, which places them in between the Giants (+1) and the Commanders (-9). They’ve trailed in the second half in eight of their 10 games, managing to eke out seven one-possession wins. Their biggest win (a 16-point W over the Packers in Week 1) was by fewer points than their smallest loss (a 17-point L to the Eagles in Week 2.)
I don’t want to call the Vikings a fraudulent contender with a pyrite record, but the facts don’t lie. Only one team—the 2011 Giants—has gone on to win a Super Bowl with a negative point differential; nobody has ever won a Super Bowl after losing a game by 37 or more points during the season. Luckily for the Vikings, the NFL selects playoff teams based off of wins and losses—but it’s hard to build a champion out of clutch wins and blowout losses.
Winner: Kickoff Return GOAT Cordarrelle Patterson
Earlier this year, Atlanta’s Cordarrelle Patterson said if he were to break the NFL record for career kickoff return TDs, he’d stop handling kicks.
Now it’s happened, and we’ll see if Patterson keeps his word.
On Sunday, he scored his ninth career touchdown on a kickoff return, breaking free for a 103-yard score in the Falcons’ 27-24 win over the Bears. And Patterson’s career tells the story of why we’ll never see anybody get close to that record—and why this is the last time we’ll ever see him hit fifth gear while sprinting clear through a kickoff unit:
Patterson tied the all-time record in 2020 when he played for the Bears, joining Josh Cribbs and Leon Washington in first place with eight TDs apiece. That was two years ago. That’s two years of waiting, two years of hoping, two years of wondering whether he’d ever take sole possession of the record. But this wasn’t like Aaron Judge taking half a summer to hit his 62nd homer—it’s not like people were watching every Patterson return with baited breath, with kickers trying to kick away from Patterson to keep him from entering the record books, nerves building the entire time. The reason Patterson hadn’t broken the record is largely because … the Falcons hadn’t been letting him return kicks. They had the GOAT—they just weren’t using him. He returned 18 kickoffs in 2021, and before Sunday, had just four returns this season.
Since shortly before Patterson’s arrival in the NFL, the kickoff return has fallen out of style. Kickoffs have proved to be the most dangerous play in football, with players crashing into each other at high speeds, so the NFL has instituted a series of rules to discourage returns. The league banned the wedge in 2009; moved the kickoff spot up 5 yards to the 35 in 2011; then moved the touchback up 5 yards to the 25 in 2016, Patterson’s fourth year in the league. Teams averaged about four kickoff returns per game from 2000 to 2009; this year teams are averaging an all-time low 1.8 kickoff returns per game. While Cribbs had over 400 returns in his career, Patterson has 264.
Also over the course of Patterson’s career, Patterson has become good at things besides returning kicks. Drafted by Minnesota as a wide receiver in 2013, he never really took to the role, and never managed a 500-yard season as a wideout. He stuck on rosters in Oakland and New England primarily due to his returning ability and for occasional gimmicks. But with the Bears and the Falcons, he’s proven effective as a running back. He won Atlanta’s starting RB job last year, and the Falcons no longer wanted him to return kicks. Why would they risk a key player getting injured on an unimportant play? In between Week 9 of last year and Week 9 of this year, Patterson had just five total returns. In the modern NFL, the GOAT kickoff returner is less valuable than a good running back.
This bugged Patterson, who knew he was on the verge of history. In the offseason, he told reporters that he’d been nagging Falcons special teams coordinator Marquice Williams, demanding to return kicks. “Every two weeks, every other week, texting, calling … talked to him two days ago and told him, ‘Listen, I’m going to be back there, now. I don’t know how much you want me back there, but I got to be back there,’” Patterson said. He understood that he was a big-time starting running back, but he wanted glory. “I’ve got a record to break, man. I need one more before I can hang it up being back there, man. If I get one more, I’ll stop doing it.”
Sunday, Patterson got that one more. I guess he’ll stop doing it. This was probably the last we’ll see of Patterson, a man born to return kicks in a time that simply didn’t appreciate his art.
Winner: Clutch Return GOAT Marcus Jones
Last year, the Southern Methodist Mustangs learned not to kick to Marcus Jones with the game on the line. Jones had eight combined punt and kickoff return touchdowns in his collegiate career at Troy and Houston, and had just returned a kickoff for a touchdown the previous week against East Carolina. With the game tied and 30 seconds to go, the announcers tried warning the SMU kicker not to give Jones the ball; I guess he couldn’t hear them down on the field. Jones went 100-plus yards and gave Houston a thrilling 44-37 win:
I guess the Jets weren’t watching that game. Jones didn’t do much on the Jets’ first nine punts Sunday—yes, the Jets punted 10 times on Sunday, tied for the most by any NFL team all season—but he got his chance when the Jets kicked to him in a tie game with 26 seconds to go. Braden Mann’s punt was low and long, and there were no Jets within 20 yards of Jones when he caught the ball. He cut to the right sideline, raced back to the middle of the field, evaded tackle attempts by Mann and CB Justin Hardee, and crossed into the end zone with five seconds remaining. His 84-yard score was the first punt return touchdown by any player at any point in any game this season—and it won the Patriots the game.
The Jets and Patriots’ offenses had struggled and squirmed for nearly 60 minutes without reaching the end zone; in a flash of brilliance, Jones scored the game’s only touchdown. It’s the first time since 1994 that a game’s only touchdown was scored via punt return. Game-winning return touchdowns are exceedingly rare—this was the first go-ahead kick or punt return TD in the final two minutes of a game since DeSean Jackson’s famous walk-off return for the Eagles against the Giants in 2010.
Cordarrelle Patterson may be the kick return GOAT, but Jones is a budding star. Although he hasn’t really managed to break into the Patriots’ defensive rotation at cornerback, the third-round draft pick is second in the NFL in both kick return average and punt return average. But apparently he’s best in moments when the game is on the line—a rare clutch return man. A message to the rest of the NFL: Please, when there’s 10 seconds left in the game, just boot it out of bounds.
Loser: Antihero Zach Wilson
The Jets’ problem is obvious to anybody who watches the Jets—and, apparently, many of the people who play on the Jets. Their defense was strong Sunday, holding the Patriots without an offensive touchdown and recording six sacks on Mac Jones. Rookie CB Sauce Gardner had another pass breakup to hold his league lead; defensive tackle Quinnen Williams had another sack and is now second among defensive tackles in that category.
But the Jets offense gained just 103 yards, the fewest of any team in any game this season. (Yes, fewer than the Sam Ehlinger Colts game that got Frank Reich replaced by Jeff Saturday.) In the second half, the Jets ran 26 plays for 2 yards, with Wilson getting sacked four times and completing four passes.
The issue? Hi! It’s Zach Wilson! He’s the problem, it’s him! (Considering his rumored off-field activity and complete inability to grow facial hair, Wilson is kind of a sexy baby.) Wilson went 9-for-22 for 77 yards, giving him the fewest yards per attempt of any QB with at least 10 attempts in a game this year. He didn’t throw any picks … but he almost threw roughly five.
Normally, quarterbacks take responsibility after losses, or at least pretend to. But Wilson insisted that he didn’t let the Jets defense down after the 10-3 loss.
It was a sharp contrast to Jets special teamer Justin Hardee, who personally blamed himself for the loss for failing to make a play as the gunner on the side of the Pats’ game-winning punt return touchdown. (Maybe he would’ve been able to make a play if he weren’t exhausted from seven straight Jets drives ending in punts!)
It’s starting to frustrate the team. Connor Hughes of SNY reported that Wilson’s teammates were upset with his lack of accountability. After the game, rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson called the offensive performance “sorry,” saying “this shit’s not OK.” He’s the second highly drafted young Jets receiver to publicly complain this year, if we count Elijah Moore’s trade request.
Ultimately, Wilson’s behavior doesn’t matter if he sucks. He could be the nicest guy in the world, and if he doesn’t turn his performance around, he’ll still be the guy the Jets drafted no. 2 when they could’ve had Justin Fields. (I have been banging this drum for two years.) But as brutal as it is to watch 52 players on a team do enough to win a game, only to be thwarted by the 53rd, it’s somehow more upsetting to see that player fail to acknowledge it.
Loser: Patrick Surtain II
Highlight context is important. It is harder to dunk on Rudy Gobert than it is to dunk on Rudy Ruettiger from the movie Rudy. (Dude was 5-6 and did not appear to have any ups.) So when watching highlights of Sunday’s game between the Raiders and Broncos, please remember: The guy guarding Davante Adams is Patrick Surtain II, the top-10 pick from last year’s draft who has drawn praise as one of the league’s best cornerbacks this season. In this clip, Surtain is the guy Adams sends halfway to Kansas with a nasty move on his way to scoring a game-winning touchdown:
This game may have been between the 2-7 Raiders and 3-6 Broncos, but Adams-Surtain was still an elite matchup. Surtain entered Sunday as the league’s highest-rated cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus. He hadn’t allowed a touchdown or a completion of more than 20 yards this season. Those two stats are extremely not true anymore. Adams had seven catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns Sunday, mainly against Surtain. (I don’t know if PFF will give credit to Surtain for Adams’s first touchdown, since there was a safety nearby … but I think they probably will.) Adams was spotted after the game yelling about Surtain, “He’s too young! He’s not there yet!”
The thing is, against pretty much everybody else, Surtain is there. Adams just happened to make Surtain look like the Rudy Rudy, with fewer sacks.
Winner: Touchdown Machine Jamaal Williams
The player who’ll win you a fantasy football league is not always the guy who scores the most points. It’s the guy who scores the most points that nobody drafted highly. Last week, I wrote about how it was probably Justin Fields, who didn’t even seem like he’d be good until about Week 7—but he’s not the only out-of-nowhere monster. Because the NFL’s rushing touchdown leader is, stunningly, Jamaal Williams, the 145th player off the board in the average fantasy draft. Williams had 13 rushing touchdowns in his first five NFL seasons—and he has 12 this year, including three on Sunday in the Lions’ third straight win:
If NFL fans knew about Williams before this year, it was because of his fun quotes (he used an extended ex-girlfriend metaphor to describe the Packers last year) or his emotional Hard Knocks speech. But coming into the season, it seemed like he’d be RB2 behind D’Andre Swift in a subpar Detroit offense.
But two weird things have happened: Against all odds, the Lions have one of the most explosive offenses in football. (The defense? Don’t ask.) The offense has reached goal-to-go situations 23 times (third-most in the NFL) and scored touchdowns in them at an 87-percent rate. Translation: They get down to the goal line a lot and they are extremely efficient when they get there.
And how do they score? They give the baal to Jamaal. The Lions have run 15 plays from the 1-yard-line—most in the league. Eleven of those have been handoffs to Williams. (Just one handoff has gone to Swift, who is swifter than Williams, but much smaller.) Williams has turned those 11 carries into seven touchdowns. His scores barely count as highlights, but you can see it takes skill to punch the ball in.
Williams is not a dynamic rusher. He does not have quick feet or slick moves. But his ability to plow forward is why the Lions have been so successful at the goal line, why the Lions probably aren’t going to start giving the ball to Swift instead—and why you might win your league if you got him for $1.
Winner: Bills Fans
Late last week, 77 inches of snow fell in Orchard Park, New York, home of the Buffalo Bills. That’s exactly one Josh Allen of snow, and about as hard to tackle. So the Bills’ home game against the Browns was moved to Detroit. I’m sure Josh would’ve loved to play in snow as tall as he is, but the blizzard was a life-threatening emergency, and the logistics of safely holding an NFL game had to override Josh’s wishes.
But Bills fans still came through—on Saturday in Buffalo, and on Sunday in Detroit. There are ample reports of random Buffalonians helping snowbound Bills clear their driveways and get to the airport. Buffalo is called the City of Good Neighbors for a reason, and they’re probably even better neighbors if you’re on the Bills and you might win the Super Bowl.
And when you watch clips of the game in Detroit, you’ll notice that the crowd is filled with Bills fans.
The official attendance was 52,146. That’s lower than the attendance of a 2014 Bills-Jets game relocated to Detroit (56,044), but that game was free. These fans bought tickets. And there were way more Buffalo fans in attendance than Cleveland fans, even though Buffalo is about twice as far from Detroit, and there was snow as deep as one of the NFL’s most massive QBs is tall outside their houses. Maybe the home-field advantage helped play a role in Buffalo’s 31-23 win—but we know for damn sure Buffalo’s fans made a difference in getting the Bills to the game.