Every week this 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 Brady-Belichick Game
I used to think the NFL Films music was the most dramatic football soundtrack possible. Booming horns, thumping timpani—these were the signs that a football game was an epic clash of gridiron titans.
And then, last Sunday, NBC played Adele. Do you realize how dramatic something has to be to justify the unironic usage of Adele? After many decades of trying, we had finally discovered a football game worthy of a British woman hollering to heaven about heartbreak: the first and perhaps only matchup of Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, two legends of the game who spent two decades together:
The broadcast repeatedly played sound bites of conflicted Patriots fans interviewed in the parking lot in an attempt to understand what they were trying to get out of this game. Were they coming to cheer their former hero, or to boo him? Did they still love Brady? We heard from someone named “Schwartzy.” The Foxborough fans began the game by chanting their departed GOAT’s name, even though he was wearing rival colors:
Personally, I got tired of Tom Brady in about 2007. Less than halfway into his career of unparalleled greatness, I wanted to tap out. What’s the difference between four or five or six or seven Super Bowls? Greatness is great, but we can only take so much of it. It’s why we get brain freeze while eating delicious ice cream. I guess Brady got tired of it too—it would explain why he ended the greatest player-coach partnership in football history to play for a team as random as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But a decade and a half after I got tired of Tom Brady, I was riveted Sunday night. His matchup with the Patriots was a story we’d never seen before. There has never been a seven-time Super Bowl winner before, and therefore, there has never been a seven-time Super Bowl winner playing against the coach with whom he won six Super Bowls.
The game, of course, was great. After Brady threw 10 touchdowns in his first three games, he threw none Sunday night, just his second game with no touchdowns since joining Tampa Bay. And New England called a smart game for rookie quarterback Mac Jones. They didn’t ask Jones to do too much, and he finished the game with more yards and more touchdowns than Brady. NBC should’ve done a “NEVER MIND I’LL FIND SOMEONE LIKE YOUUUUUUUUUUU” montage about Belichick drafting Mac.
But of course, Brady got the ball with under five minutes left in the fourth quarter and led Tampa Bay on a game-winning field goal drive. He has now defeated all 32 NFL teams in his career:
I kept realizing throughout the game that I couldn’t tell whom I was rooting for. I got tired of Brady in 2007, or maybe I got tired of the Patriots in 2007. Maybe I got tired of Brady on the Patriots? Sunday night, we were forced to figure this stuff out in real time. It wasn’t just a great football game; it was an opportunity to figure out exactly what stirred up so many emotions in us for so many years. This one game couldn’t provide a definitive answer to whether Belichick or Brady is greater at their job—nothing can—but like an Adele song, I feel like I just worked through something I wasn’t going to work through by myself.
Loser: A Very Long, Rainy Field Goal
The Patriots came a few inches from beating Brady. Trailing 19-17, Belichick sent kicker Nick Folk out to attempt a potential game-winning 56-yard field goal. It slammed off the left upright, unleashing one of the most powerful DOINKs in NFL history. Just a beautiful timbre, richer and deeper than any upright you’ve ever heard. That upright, honestly, is the Adele of uprights.
The Patriots’ 20-year dynasty was built with help from the legs of two incredible kickers. The early Pats championships featured multiple game-winning kicks by Adam Vinatieri, who holds the NFL’s all-time scoring record. He left in free agency in 2006, and somehow, the Pats found an even better kicker—Stephen Gostkowski, who is ninth all-time in field goal accuracy. It’s an almost unrivaled stretch of kicking excellence; there’s no other team in the NFL that hasn’t had at least one period in the last 20 years when they couldn’t find a kicker worth a damn.
That streak ended in 2019, when Gostkowski struggled deeply and eventually got injured. The Pats turned to Folk, who was cut by the Buccaneers during a brutal 2017 campaign, couldn’t find an NFL team in 2018, and played in the AAF in 2019. Considering his last few seasons before signing with New England, Folk has been pretty good—he came into Sunday having made 49 of 54 attempts with the team.
But Folk was injured all week—he was listed as questionable for Sunday night’s game with a left knee injury. (Believe it or not, both legs are important for kicking field goals.) And Folk’s career long was 56 yards, the exact length the Patriots needed him to hit. Oh, and it was pouring rain in Foxborough Sunday night. The Pats had a fourth-and-3; they obviously should’ve gone for it instead of asking their injured kicker to attempt the longest kick of his life in the worst possible weather conditions for kicking.
All things considered, Folk kicked the hell out of that ball. He had the leg, despite the conditions, and was only a few inches off. Justin Tucker will be remembered forever for a kick that would’ve missed if it had been a foot shorter; Folk won’t be remembered as the guy who helped the Pats beat Brady because his kick was a foot too far left. What a doinking game.
Winner: Steve Belichick
The one problem with Bill Belichick repeatedly playing in massively important NFL games is that he’s one of the least interesting people to film in the history of cameras. He celebrates massive wins by frowning and vents after devastating losses by frowning slightly harder. We’ve been repeating the same jokes about Belichick’s lack of emotion for 20 years because it’s been 20 years and he has still never done a single emotion. One time, he had too much champagne after celebrating a Super Bowl and smiled for four seconds, a moment his friends and family still talk about to this day.
So the cameras picked someone else on the Patriots sideline to film. Tonight is the night the nation learned about Stephen Belichick, Bill’s son and the Patriots’ outside linebackers coach. While the elder Belichick remains completely stoic during games, his son apparently spends the entire game firing off every muscle in his face at random intervals.
Stephen Belichick has been a Patriots assistant since 2012; The Ringer’s Kevin Clark profiled him in 2017. He played lacrosse at Rutgers before joining the football team as a long snapper. Although the Patriots haven’t had a defensive coordinator since Matt Patricia left after the 2017 season, Stephen calls the team’s defensive plays. There’s obviously some nepotism at play here—Stephen’s younger brother, Brian, is also a defensive coach for the Patriots—but Stephen seems to be doing a pretty good job. The Pats finished first and seventh in scoring defense the past two seasons and held the Buccaneers to 19 points tonight, their lowest total of the season.
I can explain his rise to prominence, but I cannot explain his facial expressions. Here he is looking like he just ate an entire container of edibles before sitting down to take the SAT.
Every time the cameras showed him, he was doing the worm with his tongue, flexing his nostrils, or doing the wave with his upper lip. He seems to have inherited defensive acumen from his father, which deeply worries me. I can’t handle watching this guy on the sidelines for the next 20 years.
Loser: Drew Brees
As if the Brady-Belichick reunion wasn’t enough, we also saw an all-time record go down Sunday night. Brady entered just 68 yards shy of the all-time passing-yardage record, which he quickly broke. What a preposterous coincidence, that this major record was broken in such a ridiculous matchup.
Before Brady, the record was held by Drew Brees, who broke Peyton Manning’s record in a Monday Night Football game in 2018. The Saints made a big deal out of the moment: When Brees broke the record, the game came to a halt to celebrate the achievement. The Saints gathered around Brees, cheering and hugging him; Brees’s family came down to the sideline to hug him; Brees spent several minutes saluting the crowd; ESPN cameras caught a fan crying. The Hall of Fame’s extremely large president David Baker popped up to receive the ball, which he handled in white gloves. (He has a really impressive knack for unexpectedly appearing places; he’s the world’s sneakiest 6-foot-9, 400-pound man.) Strangest of all, the game’s referee presented Brees with a laminated sheet of paper which read “DREW BREES, MOST PASSING YARDS.” Was this an official document? Was it notarized? Was he supposed to put it on his mantle?
Now, Brees is an analyst for NBC’s Sunday Night Football team—which means he was in New England in person Sunday night to watch his record be broken. From his own experience, he probably expected a similar treatment. When Brees’s hallowed record fell, surely the Foxborough fans would rise as one to salute their former hero, moved to tears as a referee returned from Kinko’s with Brady’s own certificate of authenticity.
Instead … nothing happened. The Buccaneers just kept playing. There was no ceremony, no pomp, no circumstance. There wasn’t even a laminated sheet of paper.
Cameras caught Brees clapping, apparently expecting others to join in:
A referee apparently tried to get Brady to hang onto his ball … but Brady just wanted to keep playing:
And they just tried to stop the game, the official ran the ball over to Brady, and Brady fired it to an equipment guy and went back into the huddle.
(Was pretty funny in real time.) https://t.co/0DBODy0NRl
— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) October 4, 2021
The passing-yardage record probably isn’t a huge deal to Brady. He’s already got the records for most Super Bowls, most quarterback wins, and most passing touchdowns. When Brees set the passing-yardage record, it felt like the crowning achievement of a lengthy career filled with statistical excellence. But while Brees broke down, Brady has simply kept playing, and has now broken most of Brees’s individual records in addition to long ago surpassing him in team success. While Brees only held the career passing-yardage record for three years, Brady will hold it for much longer—Ben Roethlisberger is the only active player within 20,000 yards of him.
When the camera caught Brees clapping on the sideline, we were watching him realize something: Even if somebody did give Brady his very own laminated piece of paper, he might not have cared enough to hold onto it.
Winner: That Motherfucker
There are so many exciting plays in football—Hail Marys! Fake punts! Whenever Kyler Murray starts scooting around like a little tiny roadrunner!—but none more consequential than the overtime coin toss. For all the strategy and spectacular talent in this complex and beautiful sport, some games are decided by a referee flipping pocket change, since the toss-winning team can end the game with a walk-off touchdown.
There have been 10 overtime playoff games since the NFL instituted its current overtime format in 2010; nine have been won by the team that won the toss, whether on the first possession or later. There have been six overtime games this season; all six have been won by the team that won the toss. Winning the toss is a massive advantage, although it’s unclear whether other systems would be more equitable.
Giants safety Jabrill Peppers clearly knew this when given the option to call the toss at the beginning of Sunday’s game against the Saints. His team was winless, and their hopes largely rested on his guess of which side of the coin would flop in the right direction. He chose heads, boldly defying the common convention that tails is incapable of failing. The referee turned to ask him whether he’d like the ball—but Peppers was already answering. “BOOM,” he yelled. “WE WANT THAT MOTHERFUCKER.”
Peppers is not the first player to improvise his answer. In the 2003 playoffs, Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck famously guaranteed victory by telling the official, “We want the ball, and we’re going to score.” Instead, he threw a game-ending pick-six.
Peppers was spicier, as peppers often are. But unlike Hasselbeck, he wasn’t overly cocky. He didn’t make a promise he couldn’t keep. After all, he’s a safety, not an offensive player. He was actually celebrating the possibility that he wasn’t going to have to play another snap. The Giants took the ball and went 75 yards to win on a walk-off Saquon Barkley touchdown.
Peppers’s nationally broadcast “MOTHERFUCKER” probably introduced some children who have lived sheltered lives to a word they’re not allowed to use in school. I’m sure he’ll be fine with the FCC coming after him—his guessing skills just won his team their first game of the season.
Loser: Fourth-Down Ben Roethlisberger
Don’t insult pasta by saying Ben Roethlisberger is noodle-armed. Most of his throws are short—of his 40 passes, only nine went more than 10 yards in the air—and if he does throw a pass downfield, he has to put his entire body into lofting a loopy ball that typically sails over his receivers’ heads. He looks comically bad right now.
Roethlisberger looks worst on fourth down, when he is required to make throws that he simply can’t make. But instead of trying, he’s given up. Last week, Roethlisberger was widely criticized for throwing a swing pass to running back Najee Harris 6 yards behind the line of scrimmage on a late fourth-and-10, giving the rookie no choice but to pick up 16 yards after the catch. Instead, Harris was dropped for a loss.
Sunday, the Steelers attempted two more fourth-down conversions. Both were pass attempts, and both were completions—but neither of them was remotely near the first-down marker, resulting in two more turnovers on downs. The first was another pass to Harris behind the line of scrimmage, resulting in another loss of yardage.
The second was a pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster, again nowhere near the line they needed to gain. Again, the Steelers were hoping for yards after the catch, but those are hard to come by when the defense is forming a wall at the first down marker. Look at Smith-Schuster’s doomed attempt to stretch out for a first down, which James Washington optimistically tried to sell with one of the least convincing “first-down points” in NFL history.
Entering Sunday, there had been 37 completed passes on fourth downs in the NFL; 34 of those 37 completions went for first downs. (That’s over 90 percent.) That’s because pretty much every fourth-down pass is designed to go to a player beyond the line to gain. It’s obvious, right? Even someone who has never played or coached a down of football in their life knows to yell at the TV when a QB tosses a fourth-down pass short of the sticks. Completing a pass to a receiver short of the line is as good as committing a turnover.
But Roethlisberger has completed three passes on fourth down this season, and none have been first downs. (That’s zero percent.) Two of his fourth-down passes have actually resulted in a loss of yardage; according to ESPN, he is the first player ever to do that twice in a season. He’s got 13 weeks to add to that “record.”
Either the Steelers coaches don’t trust Roethlisberger to complete passes to the first down marker, or Roethlisberger lacks the confidence to make those throws. Either one is troublesome. Like I said, we’re past pasta here. His arm is not al dente; it’s so cooked that it’s just a bunch of mushy wheat in the bottom of a strainer.
Winner: The Streaky Ravens
In sports, we care when someone does something a bunch of times in a row. We know that Joe DiMaggio had hits in 56 consecutive games, that Joe Thomas played over 10,000 snaps without missing one, that Oklahoma once won 47 games straight. But some streaks are a bit more … arbitrary. Do you know which NFL team has the most games in a row with 100 yards rushing? Of course you don’t! But it was the Steelers, who had 43 straight 100-yard rushing games from 1973 to 1977.
Before Sunday, only one person knew that record, and apparently, that person was John Harbaugh. His Ravens entered Sunday’s game with 42 straight 100-yard rushing games—but the Ravens’ dominant running game has hit hard times after their top three running backs suffered season-ending injuries in the preseason, leaving Lamar Jackson standing in the backfield with a bunch of recent free agents. Sunday, Baltimore’s recently unemployed trio of Latavius Murray, Devonta Freeman, and Le’Veon Bell averaged 3.2 yards per carry, leaving Baltimore with 97 rushing yards in the game’s closing moments. They were about to fall 3 measly yards short of destiny.
But with three seconds left, Ravens cornerback Anthony Averett intercepted Drew Lock, giving the Ravens one last play. Baltimore could’ve kneeled to end the game—but Harbaugh had Lamar Jackson run an actual play to tie the record. They picked up 5 yards to tie the Steelers’ semi-legendary streak.
I don’t have a problem with this, although personally, if my team’s running backs kept spontaneously combusting, I would try to run as few nonessential running plays as possible. But I am sort of curious how Harbaugh knows about his team’s obscure records. Clearly, he knows and cares about them. For example: This August, the Ravens set an NFL record by winning their 20th straight preseason game, capping a five-year run of unofficial dominance. Every year, Baltimore shows up to these exhibition games looking for blood, dominating teams that are simply hoping to make it to September without injury. Harbaugh said that his players will be able to tell their kids about it.
I’m actually kind of intrigued to watch Harbaugh pursue more obscure records. I want to see him call four straight goal-line runs because they’ve scored at least two rushing touchdowns in nine straight games. I want to see him dial up an entire game of cover-zero blitzes because the Ravens have had three-plus sacks in 17 straight games. I want to see him demand Lamar Jackson throw some passes to the team’s fourth-string tight end because he’s completed passes to at least eight receivers in nine straight games. Somebody please get Harbaugh a laminated sheet of paper to commemorate all these streaks nobody else knows about.
Winner: The Undefeated Arizona Cardinals
It’s already a pretty chaotic NFL season; almost anybody can beat anybody. At this time last year, there were six undefeated teams and four winless teams. After Sunday’s games, there are just two remaining undefeated teams and two winless teams. The two winless teams, the Jaguars and the Lions, don’t seem that execrable—both have lost games on last-second field goals. (Seriously, Detroit really deserved a win—damn you, Justin Tucker!) And one of the two undefeated teams, the Raiders, still has to play Monday night—they’ll be underdogs against the Chargers.
So Sunday was the last possible matchup between two undefeated teams this season, as the 3-0 Rams played the 3-0 Cardinals. Los Angeles was favored—they were at home, they’d just beaten the defending Super Bowl champs, and they’re only two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance of their own. They’ve had four straight winning seasons under Sean McVay, while the Cardinals haven’t had a winning season since 2015. They seemed like the legit undefeated team.
The Cardinals kicked their asses, winning 37-20. (It was 37-13 before a last-minute touchdown by Robert Woods.) Of course, Kyler Murray did some wild stuff:
But Arizona’s defense also looked surprisingly good, limiting one of the league’s most explosive offenses to one second-half score well after the game was out of reach. They also got a pick on Matt Stafford:
The Cardinals came into the season with the longest odds to win the NFC West. A month into the season, they’re the division’s last undefeated team and just walloped the favorites in their own home. This is unprecedented stuff: Since moving to Arizona in 1988, the Cardinals have been 4-0 only once, in 2012. They finished that year 5-11. I understand that people are still wary of a team that’s won so little, but I’m too busy getting excited about Kliff and Kyler finally putting together the thing I’ve wanted to see for so long.
Winner: New York Football
The worst teams in the NFL are classic NYC roommates, paying way too much to live way too far from everything. Entering Sunday, the Jets and Giants were each 18-49 since the beginning of the 2017 season, tied for the worst record in the NFL. Neither team has made the playoffs in that span, and nobody is particularly close—the Jaguars were third-to-last at 22-45, four games better than the two New York teams. The two New York teams stood alone in suckitude, matching each other loss for loss in the swamps of North Jersey. Both teams started the year 0-3, winless and hopeless.
But Sunday, a minor NFL miracle happened. Both New York teams won, both in overtime, wrecking survivor pools and upending the 2022 NFL draft standings. The Jets took down the Titans with this beautiful bomb from Zach Wilson to Corey Davis, who left the Titans for the Jets in free agency this year. (Clearly, the biggest matchup between a star player and his former team on Sunday.)
And Daniel Jones threw for a career-high 402 yards, including this bomb to John Ross, to beat the Saints in OT:
These two teams hadn’t won on the same day since 2019; they probably won’t do it again until 2023. It’s as rare, beautiful, and unpredictable as all the subway lines running with no delays. These cursed roommates can sleep easy tonight; the commute is gonna suck tomorrow.