NFL 2021 Season: In Review
There were some amazing moments in the biggest season ever, as there should have been. From Week 1 to 18, we got to witness game winning field goals, broken records, incredible comeback wins, and some of the best moments the NFL has ever seen. The GOAT left the game after playing some of the best football of his career, the playoff bracket outcome came down to the last possible second in Week 18, and the playoffs were entertaining from start to finish. Let's rewind and recap some of the best moments from the 2021 NFL Season!
Photo: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
Contrary to last year's recap, I will be adding another category, best games, while condensing each list. We will review the top 3 plays, controversial moments, biggest surprises, best moments, and games. If there are any I miss, please feel free to reach out and let me know what you think deserved to make it.
Top 3 Plays
#3: Scary Terry Over The Shoulder Catch
In Week 1, the Washington Football Team trailed in Chargers 13-9 early in the third quarter. On a crucial 3rd & 4, Taylor Heinicke uncorked a 34 yard pass towards the left sideline to Scary Terry McLaurin. Terry ran an inside out release route, where he bent his route inside the numbers and then belled back out towards the sideline. Taylor put the ball only where Terry could get it, but at the last moment, Terry had to readjust to make the catch. After facing inside towards the pass, he bent backwards, turned his body towards his right side, and made a spectacular breadbasket catch, all while a defender was right on top of him. It's one of the most amazing catches I've seen in years, and was honestly a perfect throw (NFL ranked this play at #67 for 2021).
#2: Ja'Marr Chase Outspeeds The Chiefs D
In a Week 17 battle between two of the best teams in the AFC, the Bengals trailed the Chiefs early 14-0. With 2 minutes left in the first quarter, Joe Burrow found rookie sensation Ja'Marr Chase on a 10 yard hitch route, and the rest was pure athleticism. From his own 39 yard line, Ja'Marr juked out a blindside pursuing backer in Nick Bolton, and then proceeded to sprint past 6 chiefs defenders, 5 of which came within a 1 yard distance to Ja'Marr at some point during the play. Ja'Marr coasted to the endzone, capping off an explosive 72 yard TD, with 61 of those yards coming after the catch. (NFL ranked this play at #22 for 2021).
#1: Herbert Hits Guyton For TD
I am in the small crowd that believes this play had one of the best throws we've seen in nearly a decade. With the first half winding down in a Week 14 matchup between the Chargers and Giants, Justin Herbert knew he needed to make a big play. He took the snap from his own 41 yard line, escaped pressure by rolling out to the right, and chucked a deep ball while getting hit, finding Jalen Guyton in double coverage for a 59 yard TD. The ball traveled at least 65 yards through the air to hit his target, and Guyton didn't have to slow down at all to make the catch. It was a perfect play, and one of the best throws I've seen in my life, which is more than deserving of the number 1 spot in this year's top plays (NFL ranked this play at #33 for 2021).
Top 3 Controversial Moments
#3: Aaron Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers is widely considered one of the top 3 QBs in the league, and one of the best QBs ever. For someone in his position, it's strange to get all of the negative attention that he does, but he somewhat deserves it in my opinion. Throughout the 2021 postseason, he made it abundantly clear he was unhappy in Green Bay and threatened to not participate on the team this year unless he was given a new contract or there was a change in upper management. He made it clear if these conditions weren't met, he wanted to be traded. I don't have a problem with this as I believe players should be compensated what they're worth, and Rodgers had done more for the Packers organization than any other QB before him had done.
Weeks after this fiasco had died down and he "restored" his relationship with upper management, he was asked in a press conference meeting if he was vaccinated against COVID-19. He responded with "I'm immunized", and then proceeded to say he doesn't judge those who get it or not. At the time, no one seemed to read into his answer and just passed it off as he was vaccinated. Come Week 9, Rodgers had been diagnosed with COVID and had to sit out for the game. Many people were left confused, as they believed he was indeed vaccinated. When Aaron said he was "immunized", he was talking in reference to taking hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, two unapproved, but somehow, to some people, believable treatments to COVID-19. The media went into an outrage against Rodgers, asking how could he lie and say he was vaccinated when he wasn't. Although he never deliberately said "I'm vaccinated", he didn't tell the truth to the question by not really answering it. It's a simple yes or no question, and he opted with a third answer that didn't answer the original question, but alluded to the fact that he was protected against the virus. Whether you believe these alternative treatments work is something you should consult your doctor about. In later weeks, Aaron shot back at the media for throwing him under the bus, and at the NFL for "unscientific" mask mandates for the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated.
Rodgers went on to dominate subpar NFL pass defenses en-route to a second consecutive MVP award, after getting knocked out of playoffs in the Divisional Round against the 49ers. In the end, Rodgers has still yet to make up his mind about retiring, but he has made it clear he wants a hefty $50 million contract if he were to come back to Green Bay. His future is yet to be determined, but one thing is for certain: Rodgers backed down to no one this year and made himself one of the more polarizing athletes in all of sports today.
#2: Taunting Penalties
We all knew before the season started that the adjustments to the Taunting penalty definition were going to be ridiculous. It only took until Week 1 of the preseason to realize that this rule adjustment was a grave mistake for the game. From Week 1 until the Super Bowl, there were a total of 55 taunting penalties called (the most since 2014 when 31 were called), 43 of which were enforced and totaled 589 yards, and 12 of which were offset by another penalty. These penalties were called for a few severe actions, like cursing out another player and making death threats, but these were miniscule compared to what they were actually called for. In these penalties, some included Darren Waller spiking a ball on the sideline and getting himself pumped up after a huge play, Cassius Marsh staring at the opposing sideline without saying a word, Ryan Jensen defending himself after getting slapped in the face, and others. I think we can all agree as football fans that the taunting penalty needs to go, especially after the amount of no calls throughout playoffs in moments where "taunting" was seen on the field.
#1: Jon Gruden
Jon Gruden, who some believe is one of the smartest offensive minds in the NFL, was off to another hot start with the Raiders, beating some tough competition in the Ravens and Steelers. After Week 5, Gruden stepped down after emails he had sent and been a recipient of began surfacing to the public. The emails contained homophobic slurs towards NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and former SEC Defensive Player of the Year and NFL draftee Michael Sam, as well as racist remarks towards NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith. He also added that those who protest police brutality during the national anthem should be fired, and it was later found that Gruden was in a chain of emails containing topless photos of some of the Washington Football Team's cheerleading team. I am refraining from adding what specifically was said and shared as to not upset or trigger anyone, but the contents of the emails are available through multiple outlets at your own discretion.
While some believe Gruden shouldn't have stepped down over what was shared in private, and that he didn't directly say anything racist or homophobic, he used the words in derogatory and demeaning ways. And while some will point to cancel culture as the reason he ultimately stepped down, that draws away from the bigger concern that we are still dealing with people who feel that it's okay to treat people a certain way just based on their skin color or their sexual orientation. If someone makes a seemingly bad decision or does something that seems incorrect to some degree, then comment on the action instead of attacking someone's character through means of derogatory remarks and slurs. I'm happy Gruden is out of the NFL and the door has been open for coaches more deserving of the opportunity, namely Rich Bisaccia, who I'll touch upon later.
Top 3 Biggest Surprises
#3: The Patriots Quick Turnaround
After a less than ideal 2020 season led by Cam Newton at QB, the Patriots made some solid moves during free agency, signing Hunter Henry, Kendrick Bourne, and Matt Judon, while also finding studs in the draft like Mac Jones, Christian Barmore, and Rhamondre Stevenson. With the addition of new faces, as well as returning members who sat out in 2020, including Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Bolden, the Patriots looked like a threat for a good chunk of the season. If not for an early playoff exit against the red hot Buffalo Bills, the 2021 Patriots season looked to be a farcry from the previous season. If they can win the division and make a solid playoff push, the Patriots may very well launch themselves back into the top 5 team conversation.
Photo: AP Photo/Danny Karnik
#2: The Bengals Almost Winning The Super Bowl
Two seasons removed from the worst record in the NFL, and one season removed from their franchise QB tearing multiple key muscles and ligaments in his knee, the Bengals made a huge turnaround, making a Super Bowl appearance this season. With breakout seasons for Joe Mixon and Tee Higgins, as well as a stellar rookie performance from Ja'Marr Chase, the offense was firing on all cylinders. The defense was just as impressive, with key free agent acquisitions in Trey Hendrickson, Chidobe Awuzie, and Larry Ogunjobi all disrupting opposing offenses all season long. And let's not forget Joe Burrow who, not even a full year after his gruesome injury, finished near the top in all key passing metrics, as well as earning the highest PFF grade (91.7) among all QBs in 2021, despite getting sacked the most in the NFL, was a pivotal piece to the puzzle. Zac Taylor was on the hotseat after two bottom finishes in the AFC North; fast-forward 6 months, and he earned a well deserved contract extension through 2026. Despite losing the Super Bowl, they fought all the way until the end and are now on everyone's radar to be even better next season, pending a solid offseason with the only focus on offensive line and a better cornerback than Eli Apple.
#1: The Raiders Making Playoffs
Even with the Jon Gruden controversary I stated above, key players in Henry Ruggs, Damon Arnette, and Nate Hobbs getting into legal trouble, and losing 5 of the first 6 games after their bye week, despite a 5-2 start, the Raiders won an incredible Week 18 game against their division rival, the Los Angeles Chargers, to make the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. Rich Bissacia was a huge piece to the Raiders success, with multiple players and organization members praising him for his composure on the sideline, love and admiration for the players, and overall love of the game. It's never a bad idea to turn to a special teams coach to lead your team - unless you're Joe Judge and the Giants. Rich, in my mind, deserves a chance to be a head coach in this league, just due to the sheer fact he made playoffs while the Raiders had the most controversary and horrible incidents happening inside and outside of their franchise. Also Josh McDaniels is a good hire, I still can't help but feel that Bisaccia earned his right to be the Raiders head coach going into next season. I digress, the Raiders making playoffs after the season they went through is one of the best parts of this NFL season.
Top 3 Best Moments
#3: Tucker Hits 66 Yard Game Winner
With the game on the line, no coach in the NFL would have turned to their kicker and not only trust them to make a 66 yarder, but to almost feel like it would be a guarantee that they would make it. If you're John Harbaugh and your kicker is Justin Tucker, arguably the best kicker in NFL history, you have the luxury of not having to worry about that. After beating the Chiefs the week prior, the Ravens found themselves losing to the Lions, a team on the opposite side of the NFL spectrum than the Chiefs, late in the 4th quarter. After a controversial no call on a delay of game, the Ravens sent out Justin Tucker, the longest tenured kicker besides Mason Crosby, to win the game.
Most kickers take a 3 step approach, with a jab step to start their momentum, a gather step to get their kicking foot aligned with the ball, and a plant step to anchor themselves into the turf, as their kicking leg swings through like a catapult. In this case, however, Tucker gave himself enough room to lead with a hop step, before taking 2 more gather steps and his final plant step, making it a 4 step approach. The result? Justin Tucker shattered (and yes, I say shattered because to break a field goal record by two yards is much harder than it looks) the longest field goal record of 64 yards, previously held by Matt Prater since 2013. It's even more impressive considering Tucker did it in a dome, where if he had Prater's conditions, it might have been good from 70. The Ravens won 19-17, and Tucker furthered etched himself into the greatest kicker ever conversation.
#2: Lions Get First Win
The Lions were the most fun 3 win team to watch in NFL history. Every game they came out fighting, led by kneecap-biting head coach Dan Campbell. Despite having a lackluster roster, it felt like the Lions had a chance to win every game they played in. They suffered multiple heart breaking losses, including a near comeback victory against the 49ers in Week 1, last second game winning field goals against the Ravens and Vikings in Week's 3 and 5 respectively, a tie against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 10, and another last second field goal by the Bears in Week 12. They also had near wins against the Bears in Week 4 and the Browns in Week 11, where their offense stalled out late in both games. It all led up to a Week 13 fight against the division rival Minnesota Vikings.
Detroit got off to a solid first half start, leading the first two quarters by a score of 20-6. Minnesota began to rebound, outscoring Detroit 21-3 from the start of the second half until 1:50 left in the game. Kirk Cousins shined by throwing for 207 yards and 2 TDs in the second half, while hitting 22 out of 26 passes. Detroit would need a miracle to comeback and win, as they had no timeouts. After a methodical drive, going 64 yards in 13 plays, the Lions had four seconds on the clock to win the game from the 11 yard line. After taking the snap, Jared Goff found underrated rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown on a post stop route just inside the endzone for the touchdown as time expired. Jared Goff sprinted over and embraced Dan Campbell, mayhem ensued, and the Lions won their first game of the 2021 season.
This may seem like a normal win, but earlier that week, there was a school shooting at Oxford High School, a school a little less than an hour outside of Ford Field where the Lions play. Four people, three students and a teacher, were killed during the shootings, while seven others were injured. One student in particular, Tate Myre, was a football player at the school and was being scouted by colleges. He attempted to disarm the shooter, giving his life in the process. This act of bravery was held deeply by the Lions, as they dedicated their game for Oxford High School and Tate Myre; this win was much bigger than football.
#1: The Rams Win The Super Bowl
After coming up short in multiple seasons, Sean McVay knew it was Super Bowl or bust at this point in his career. Being the youngest head coach in the NFL, and quickly becoming one of the most successful, he needed to win a Super Bowl soon, and with the Rams cap room situation for later seasons, he knew he needed to win it this season. In the offseason, he traded former first round QB Jared Goff for Lions franchise QB Matt Stafford. As a result, they let defensive pieces in Troy Hill, John Johnson, Michael Brockers, who was traded to the Lions, and Morgan Fox walk. After a quiet offseason outside of the Stafford trade, they added Sony Michel via trade with the Pats, Von Miller via trade with the Broncos, and Odell Beckham Jr via free agency. Despite losing their first three games with OBJ and Von, the Rams rallied and went on a run of 10 straight wins, including a victory over the Bengals in the Super Bowl. With the addition of an unretired Eric Weddle, they had held off the defending Super Bowl Champion Buccaneers, cameback against the San Francisco 49ers after being down 10 points, and had a miraculous game winning drive against the Bengals. They made this happen without stud receiver Robert Woods and key defender Jordan Fuller, as well as winning the Super Bowl without tight end Tyler Higbee. It was a season to remember in the NFL, but definitely a season to remember for the Los Angeles Rams.
Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images
Top 3 Best Games
#3: Divisional Round Chiefs vs Bills
After three crazy games leading up to the Sunday Night bought between the Bills and Chiefs, this game did not disappoint. Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen proved they are the top QBs in the NFL, making incredible plays drive after drive. It was a wild fourth quarter, and one of the closest finishes we've seen in the final 2 minutes of regulation. Gabriel Davis had the game of his life, including an ankle breaking corner-post route to score a go-ahead touchdown with 1:54 left in the game. He amassed 8 receptions for 201 yards and 4 TDs, breaking the NFL record for most receiving TDs in a playoff game. The Chiefs answered back quickly, with a five play, 75 yard drive, capped off 64 yard catch and run on a dig route by Tyreek Hill, who chucked up a peace sign to Matt Milano, who was three yards ahead of him, on his way to a TD.
This seemed to be the end of the night for the Bills, who had a little over a minute to answer back. Josh Allen wouldn't be denied, as he found Gabriel Davis three times on the drive for 59 yards and what seemed to be the game winning touchdown with 13 seconds left in the game. We've all seen this before, with minimal time left, great QBs like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Peyton Manning found a way to get their team a win. Patrick Mahomes needed to do the same to not only elevate his legacy, but to get his team to the AFC Championship. After a questionable decision to kick the ball out of the endzone, Mahomes started the drive by hitting Tyreek Hill out of a bunch set on a smoke screen, where he gained 19 yards. On the next play, he found his favorite target in Travis Kelce on an inside seam route for 25 yards, putting them on the Buffalo 31 yard line. Mahomes said that Kelce was the one who called that play, knowing that the Bills would leave the middle of the field wide open. After a Harrison Butker 49 yard field goal, the Chiefs sent the game to overtime with a score of 36-36.
After winning the toss, the Chiefs elected to receive the kick, and Mahomes made sure not to give Josh Allen another chance. After 7 plays and 67 yards, Mahomes found Kelce again on an out and up route to the back right corner of the endzone for an 8 yard TD, effectively ending the game and sending the Chiefs to the next round. It's been disputed that the Bills should have had a chance to try and score, and that the overtime rules are too one sided, but we'll talk more about that in the next game.
#2: AFC Championship Bengals vs Chiefs
One week later, two of the hottest offenses in the NFL squared off to claim the AFC crown. The two teams met in Week 17, where the Chiefs got off to a hot start and went up 14-0 early. This game was no different, and the Chiefs were cruising up and down the field, gaining 231 yards and 3 TDs on three separate drives, to go up 21-3 in the 2nd quarter. The Bengals closed out the first half with a catch and run by Samaje Perine for 41 yards and a TD, making the score 21-10. The Chiefs tried to score again, after moving the ball downfield quickly thanks to a pass interference call in the endzone, the Chiefs tried to score another TD. The sent Tyreek Hill on a jet motion from right to left, faking the flip to him, then faking the handoff to Jerrick McKinnon. Tyreek carried out his motion and caught a pass in the flat from Mahomes, only to be stuffed by Eli Apple as the half expired. Mahomes had an incredible first half, posting a total QBR of 98 (out of 100). The second half would be a different story, as the Bengals defense found an answer to stopping Mahomes and the Chiefs impressive offense. After both teams exchanged punts, McPherson hit another field goal. On the ensuing drive, Mahomes threw a pick to Bengals defensive tackle BJ Hill. Four plays later, Burrow hit Ja'Marr Chase on a fade route to the left side for a 2 yard TD, and followed it up with a two-point conversion to Trent Taylor, who had just been moved up from the practice squad, on an inside out double move to the left side, making the score 21-21.
After forcing two Chiefs punts, with an interception by the Chiefs defense sandwiched between them, the teams traded field goals, with Butker hitting another one as time expired in regulation. The Chiefs once again won the toss, and elected to receive the ball to start overtime. After two incomplete passes to Demarcus Robinson, Mahomes took a deep shot to Tyreek Hill in double coverage, where Jessie Bates batted the ball into Vonn Bell's hands, giving the Bengals excellent field position at their own 45 yard line. After moving the ball down field on 8 plays for 42 yards, they brought out Evan McPherson to win the game. He sunk his 31 yard field goal with ease, winning the game 27-24 and sending the Bengals to the Super Bowl. Even though the Chiefs got the ball first, the Bengals found a way to get the ball back and win the game. This game was only the second time in NFL playoff history, since the OT rule change in 2010, where the team who got the ball first ended up not winning the game. In nine other instances, the team who received the ball first won the game, with seven of those games being won on the first drive, giving the other team no chance to respond. While this does seem lopsided, we have to remember that the team who kicks the ball has to play defense first in order to give themselves a chance. In addition, you have 60 minutes before overtime to not tie and win the ballgame. I personally hate the NFL overtime rules and think they should adopt the NCAA's overtime rules, but games might end up going on for longer than anticipated. Either way, it was a great performance by the Bengals, who outscored the Chiefs 17-3 in the second half and earned themselves a spot in the Super Bowl.
#1: Week 18 Raiders vs Chargers
The game itself was amazing, all of the implications surrounding this game made it even more wild. There was a crazy scenario, where if the Colts win, they're in, but if they lost, they were out of playoffs. To their advantage, they were playing the worst team in the NFL, the Jacksonville Jaguars. To everyone's surprise, the Jaguars smoked the Colts, beating them 26-11 and effectively eliminating them from playoffs. Since the Colts lost, the Chargers and Raiders could take a tie, and both of them would get into playoffs. If they played the game out, whoever won was in, and whoever lost was out. Many fans were hoping for a tie and for both teams to kneel the entire game, but that wouldn't be right. The teams played hard the entire game, with the Raiders taking a 10-0 first quarter lead, before the Chargers would answer back and make it 14-10 with less than two minutes in the half. The Raiders put a solid drive together, capped off by a Josh Jacobs 1 yard rushing TD with 37 seconds left. The second half started with a solid drive by the Chargers, but ended with a missed 51 yard field goal from Dustin Hopkins. After getting the ball back, and a questionable 4th down call by the Chargers on their own 18, they got stuffed and gave the ball right back to the Raiders. The Chargers defense held their own, forcing a field goal to make the game 20-14.
The Raiders would get the ball back quickly on their next two drives, forcing a punt and picking the ball off, resulting in a TD and a field goal respectively, giving them a 29-14 lead after failing on a 2-point conversion following the TD. It would take a lot for the Chargers to win the game, but Justin Herbert put the team on his back and gave them a chance. On next drive, Herbert converted two key 4th down plays, including a crucial 4th & 21 conversion for a 23 yard TD to Joshua Palmer in the middle of the endzone. They elected to go for 2 to make it a 7 point game. After going through his progression, Herbert stepped up into the pocket and hit Ekeler towards the front left side of the endzone for a successful attempt, making the game 29-22. After chewing more than half of the remaining clock from the game, the Chargers forced a punt with 2:16 left in the game.
Herbert threw three incompletions to start the drive, forcing a 4th & 10 early. Herbert, while facing pressure, found Keenan Allen on a shallow route, crossing right to left, and he scooted by two Raiders defenders to barely get the first. After three more incompletions, Herbert faced another 4th & 10, where his pass would fall incomplete, but would be nullified due to defensive holding, giving the Chargers a fresh set of downs. After picking up a few first downs, Herbert threw three straight incompletions for the third time in the same drive, forcing another 4th & 10. Herbert dropped back, and found Mike Williams on a post hitch route, giving them another first down. 2 plays later, with 5 seconds left on the clock, Herbert found Mike Williams a fade stop route in the front left side of the endzone, giving them a chance to tie with no time left. Hopkins drilled his extra point and sent the game into OT. The Raiders won the toss, and both teams would drive down the field and exchange field goals. With 4:30 left in OT, the Raiders hit a few passes before starting to run the ball and chew the clock. Everyone was thinking the Raiders were gonna run out the clock and tie the game, sending both teams to playoffs. On 3rd & 4 from the Chargers 39 yard line, right before the Raiders snapped the ball, the Chargers called a time out. This gave the Raiders a chance to rethink their play. They came back out, ran the ball with Jacobs, who got a 10 yard gain, putting them in prime field goal position. They called a timeout with 2 seconds left, and sent out Daniel Carlson, who drilled a 47 yard field goal, sending the Raiders to the playoffs, and sending the Chargers home. It was an awesome game to watch and a perfect way to send of the 2021 regular season.
Photo: Steve Marcus/Getty Images
This NFL season was one to remember, and arguably the best season yet. From close games, to crazy scenarios, incredible individual and team performances, and a playoff to remember, this season delivered on every level imaginable. Hopefully 2022 can pick up where 2021 left off.