Week 7 of the NFL season is here, bringing highs, lows, and everything in between. And each Sunday, throughout the day, the Ringer staff will be celebrating the insane plays, admonishing the colossal blunders, and explaining the inexplicable moments of the NFL season. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Winners: Neutral Observers of Chargers Games, Falcons Games, and Sunday’s Chargers-Falcons Game
Rodger Sherman: The Chargers and Falcons are the same team, blessed with high-octane offenses and holey defenses. San Diego entered Sunday as the no. 2 team in the NFL in points, while Atlanta was no. 1. But those high point totals haven’t led to big wins, as both teams give up nearly as many points as they score. The Chargers have played five games decided by one possession, the Falcons have played four.
Sunday, these two beautiful, horrible teams faced up against each other, a matchup of Mentos and Diet Coke. Somebody at the NFL should’ve stopped it: The league’s Vice President of Anti-Fun Initiatives should’ve seen the game on the schedule and stepped in to ensure fans weren’t actually exposed to something enjoyable.
But they didn’t, and the game went as planned. Julio Jones made some gasp-worthy catches and finished with 174 receiving yards; Philip Rivers made some giggle-worthy faces and finished with 371 passing yards. With the game tied at 30, the Falcons tried a 58-yard field goal to win the game but Matt Bryant juuuuuuuuuuuuust doinked the massive kick off the upright. Of course, they went to overtime, where the Chargers prevailed, 33–30.
Rooting for either of these teams must be awful. They’re each capable of beating good teams and losing to awful teams. The wins give you heart attacks, and the losses break your heart. Still, in the grand scheme of the NFL season, who won or lost today doesn’t matter. Neither team is a Super Bowl contender. But if you watch next time either team plays, you can be a winner.
Winner: Andrew Luck
Chris Ryan: Ah, the Cardiac Colts, how my blood pressure has missed the sight of you galloping towards the cliff’s edge as a heroic, bearded architecture major tries to pull you back from oblivion. Indianapolis plays tight games with one hand tied behind its back and the most valuable player in the league at the controls. Andrew Luck smashed the smashmouth Titans in the mouth on Sunday, leading the Colts to a 34–26 victory despite the best efforts of his teammates to stop him. He threw for 353 yards and three touchdowns. He had his best game of the season on Sunday, full of back-shoulder beauties and laser-beams tossed while the whole world collapsed around him. His passes were caught by men named Jack, Chester, and Swoope. What is even going on here?
Not even Frank Gore’s stupid penalty could screw up Luck’s game-winning/game-saving drive. In an NFL season that repeatedly makes us ask the question, “Football: Are we sure it’s good?” Andrew Luck is emphatically answering, “Sometimes no, but man, am I good at it.” Can the MVP of the league be the quarterback of a constantly self-destructing 7–9 team? Why not?
Loser: Mike Tomlin
Kevin Clark: Tomlin, one of the NFL’s best coaches, is nonetheless prone to coaching some weird games. He once offered this motivational go-for-it statement: “I make a conscious effort not to live in fear but to aggressively take the calculated risk associated with seeking victory.” The Tomlin who said that last year was nowhere to be found on Sunday in a winnable game against the Patriots. With nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, down 27–16, Tomlin elected to try a field goal from 54 yards out on a fourth-and-3. The kick missed, and it effectively sealed a game that featured a shockingly conservative game plan from Tomlin. Later, there was almost no urgency from starter Landry Jones when the Steelers got the ball back down two scores with 3:02 left in the game. Twice in the second half, the Steelers kicked a field goal and the Patriots immediately answered with a touchdown. The Patriots played a wonky game and let Jones hang around too long, and Tomlin, at home, should have let it rip to try to pull off the upset. It would have been, in his words, the calculated risk associated with seeking victory.
Winner: Jay Ajayi
Danny Kelly: O.J. Simpson. Earl Campbell. Ricky Williams. … Jay Ajayi. The list of NFL runners with back-to-back games of 200-plus rushing yards is short and (mostly) illustrious, and the Dolphins’ second-year back added his name to the record books when he accomplished the feat in a victory over the Bills. A week after dropping 204 yards on the Steelers defense, Ajayi rushed for 212 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries in Miami’s shocking 28–25 win, cementing himself as the Dolphins bell cow even with a healthy Arian Foster back in the lineup. The former Boise State product looked explosive and agile, breaking tackles, bursting through seemingly invisible holes, and administering fierce stiff-arms as he overwhelmed a solid Bills defensive front throughout the day.
Buffalo came into the game surrendering just 3.8 yards per carry (tied for 10th in the NFL), a number that Ajayi nearly doubled by averaging 7.4 yards per tote. The Dolphins beat the Bills at their own ride-our-rushing-attack-to-the-win game. Miami made Ajayi the foundation of the offense — his 212 yards on the ground outpaced the passing-yards total for quarterback Ryan Tannehill (15-for-25 for 204 yards) — and the Dolphins proved that when their run game is clicking, they can hang with anybody.
Winner: Bobby Wagner
Sherman: The Seahawks linebacker did this against the Cardinals on Sunday Night Football:
He leaped Arizona’s line and swatted a Cardinals field goal attempt to keep the game tied at zero. He’s not the first player to pull off this feat: Daren Bates of the Rams did it twice, the Patriots’ Jamie Collins did it, and Wagner’s teammate Kam Chancellor did it on back-to-back attempts (although he got called for a bogus penalty). Troy Polamalu had a knack for doing it on non–field goals, even harder since the center on those plays isn’t crouched over like the long snapper.
It seems likely that there’s a science here. There has to be some sort of tic opponents give that allows these defenders to play a point-saving game of leapfrog.
On the other hand: HOW THE HELL DID HE DO THAT? HOW DID HE KNOW WHEN THE BALL WAS GONNA BE SNAPPED? HOW DID HE JUMP OVER HIM?
I believe that each of these plays is caused by the player receiving a supernatural blessing. May Wagner use his blessing wisely.
Winner: The Atlanta Falcons’ “Fauxbacks”
Donnie Kwak: The smartest look of Week 7 goes to the Falcons, who were technically sporting replicas of their inaugural 1966 design against the Chargers — just minus the original red helmets. Instead, the Falcons wore the all-black-everything shells popularized in the Jerry Glanville era, back when Prime Time and Bad Moon Rison (and MC Hammer) made ATL the swaggiest team in the NFL. Please go back to this look, Atlanta. Julio deserves it.
Loser: The Vikings’ Air of Invincibility
Kelly: The Vikings looked like a complete team coming into their game against the Eagles. They boasted a dominating defense, an excellent special teams group, and an efficient offense with Sam Bradford at the helm. With all three phases clicking, they had cruised to a perfect 5–0 start.
But in their 21–10 loss to Philly, the blueprint for Minnesota’s perfect season looked more like a house of cards. Even with a defense that produced four turnovers, Bradford and his offense failed to capitalize. Minnesota has been playing with fire with its leaky, injury-riddled offensive line, and that weak-link showed up big time, as Bradford was sacked six times — coughing up the ball twice. The former Eagles QB failed to exploit any insider knowledge he might have had from his stint with the team. Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz made sure he kept Bradford confused by incorporating more zone blitzes — something that the quarterback hadn’t seen much in preseason practices with Philly — and the Vikings signal-caller finished just 24-of-41 (58.5 percent) for 224 yards, with one touchdown, and one pick. The nonexistent Vikings run game couldn’t pick him up, gaining just 93 yards on 27 carries.
The Vikings won each of their previous games by balancing all three phases, but just one — the defense — showed up to play in Philadelphia. The efficient, ball-control offense gave the ball to the Eagles defense three times, and explosive return man Marcus Sherels fumbled the ball away on a muffed punt. Not even Minnesota’s swarming defense could overcome those kinds of mistakes.
Loser: Geno Smith’s Luck
Sherman: In my heart of hearts, I think Geno Smith is an average-ish NFL quarterback. He threw a lot of interceptions in his first year, but so do a lot of rookies. But every time something good happens to Geno, something significantly worse happens to Geno.
NICE THING: Geno Smith thrives in Dana Holgorsen’s offense at West Virginia, tossing dozens of touchdowns and completing 71.2 percent of his passes to seal his status as one of the best quarterbacks in the 2013 NFL draft.
MUCH WORSE THING: The Jets need a quarterback in the 2013 draft. They pick Geno. Do the Jets have a tendency to draft doomed players, or are the players doomed because they are picked by the Jets? There’s no way to know.
NICE THING: Going into 2015, Geno is safe as the Jets starter. And his backup is Ryan Fitzpatrick, a career journeyman known to most NFL fans for where he went to school rather than his passing. (He went to Harvard.) The job was Smith’s.
MUCH WORSE THING: Teammate IK Enemkpali punches Geno in the face, breaking his jaw. Normally people sympathize with injured players, but not when you get rocked in the face by your teammate. When that happens, people laugh at you and question your ability to lead a team. Insult was literally added to Geno’s injury. Plus, Fitzpatrick had the best all-around passing season in Jets history. Harvard’s endowment soars, and Geno loses his job.
NICE THING: In 2016, Fitzpatrick plays like the Fitzpatrick of past years, throwing more picks than Rookie Geno did in his first six games, while the Jets stumble to a 1–5 start. Smith earns a start against the Ravens.
MUCH WORSE THING: Smith injures his knee within a half. Fitzpatrick’s first drive results in a touchdown, and the Jets win. Somehow, Fitzpatrick looks like the savior, when the only thing he saved the team from was his own trash play.
Never smile, Geno. Some evil spirit is watching you, and your every joy will be punished with twice as much pain.
Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Clark: Wait a second — the Bucs are relevant? Now winners of two straight after their 34–17 win over the awful 49ers, the Bucs are 3–3, just a win behind the 4–3 Falcons — a small gap unthinkable a few weeks ago. The 49ers defense is miserable, but even so, the Bucs looked downright competent and appear to have depth at every offensive position. Jameis Winston passed for 269 yards, three touchdowns and a pick, while Jacquizz Rodgers — Jacquizz Rodgers! — had 154 yards on the ground. Peyton freaking Barber added 84 yards. In a weird year for the NFC South, it’s possible the Bucs are ready for a run. Next week, they host the Raiders and the week after will face a home test against the division-leading Falcons, who they already beat in their season opener. These next two weeks will determine if the Bucs are actual playoff contenders. They’re probably wondering if they can play the 49ers a few more times.
Winner: A.J. Green
Claire McNear: Here is a rough list of things a player must overcome during a football game: gravity, the wiles of the other team, the frailty of the human body, the twanging shiftiness of oblong cowhide, and massive superhumans attempting to rob and/or flatten you. A.J. Green basically took care of all of those at once, remaining on his feet like goddamn Boromir as Browns defender after Browns defender leapt onto him, en route to Cincinnati’s 31–17 victory.
Look at that! Look at how many people are on him! They are draped on him, like tires in that ad with the Rock, only he is not just standing there and gazing at you, which would be a reasonable expectation of the limits of even a very strong person — instead, he is juggling a football, the product of a 48-yard Hail Mary from Andy Dalton, in and out and in and out and finally totally in one hand. One hand! While he more or less ignores the yanking/pushing/pulling of people who yank/push/pull for a living. Sure. Fine.
Winner: The Cleveland Browns
Sherman: Look, the Cleveland Browns haven’t won anything. After a 31–17 loss to the Bengals, they’re 0–7. The only thing they’re going to win is the no. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
By definition, they are losers. But I know that they’re trying really hard, and I’m proud of them, so I’ve decided to give them one win, in this column.
The Browns went 3–13 last year, fired their head coach and GM, and then traded away the great draft pick they earned. This year was going to be bad. But with Robert Griffin III and Josh Gordon making comebacks, perhaps they could look reasonable while building for the future.
Then Griffin got hurt and Gordon’s four-game suspension turned into an indefinite — possibly permanent? — departure from football. Next up was 37-year-old career backup Josh McCown, who also got hurt. So McCown’s backup, rookie Cody Kessler, got pressed into action in a year he expected to be a third-stringer — and also got hurt. And Kessler’s backup, signed-off-the-street hair legend Charlie Whitehurst, got hurt. Kessler got healthy and started again, but Sunday, he suffered a concussion, forcing Kevin Hogan, a rookie already on his second NFL team, into action.
This is a football cataclysm. SB Nation’s Jon Bois found that no other team has even had five players throw passes since 2003. Counting WR Terrelle Pryor, who was forced into QB duty, the Browns have used six quarterbacks in seven weeks. The Aztec God of Football cackled at the Browns, demanding live, violent quarterback sacrifices. The Browns complied, yet he demanded more.
The Browns were supposed to be bad, and then their first 17 quarterback options got hurt. They should be playing absolutely abysmal football. And yet, the Browns aren’t losing by 30. They’ve lost by one score three times, and have been truly blown out twice. I’d say that’s a success.
Yes, Cleveland lost to Cincinnati. But the offense operated somewhat effectively with Hogan, as he ran for 104 yards and a touchdown. Yeah, he threw two picks, but he’s a fifth-stringer. That’s a Fifth-Stringer Pro Bowl performance.
Sherman: The game between the Giants and Rams in Twickenham Stadium wasn’t a bad game. It was evenly contested! Both teams had identical records and played each other pretty evenly. Compelling! There was even a meaningful last-minute drive, as the Rams drove all the way to the red zone in hopes of tying the game. Exciting, technically!
But it was interesting only if you are aroused by mediocrity. By saying “identical records,” I mean “both teams were 3–3.”
The Giants’ offense was dismal. Eli Manning couldn’t do anything exciting even with Odell Beckham on his team, and they ran for only 36 yards.
Luckily, Case Keenum was there in New York’s time of need. He threw four picks, including one on each of the Rams’ final three drives. One was returned for a TD, one set the Giants up in great field position to score their other TD, and his last was the decisive play of the game. He threw the ball up to a receiver who wasn’t there:
A fun thing to remember while watching Keenum toss pick after pick is that the Rams drafted Jared Goff and aren’t playing him. Perhaps Goff is too good and Jeff Fisher knows that the hex a voodoo shaman placed on him means he will die if the Rams don’t finish with a 7–9 record.
Somebody at the NFL clearly believes its product is so brilliant that even the most farty, punty games can fool foreign nations into falling in love. The score was close and there were important plays, so people will think it’s thrilling, right? But I think that’s an insult to the foreign fans who do love football.
Chelsea–Manchester United was on at the same time. If any Englishmen did choose to watch Giants-Rams instead of that, I doubt they’ll come back for more.
Winner: Anquan Boldin; Loser: Father Time
McNear: When Anquan Boldin won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Matthew Stafford was in high school. Boldin’s fellow Lions wide receiver Marvin Jones, who made a 52-yard catch in Sunday’s 20–17 win over Washington, was 13 years old. Boldin is 36 now, in the midst of his 14th season in the league, and he is still — with 16 seconds left on the clock and the Lions down — capable of things like this:
Stafford, by the way: pretty good at football! He now has an NFL-leading 12 game-winning drives since 2014, this latest one ending a four-game Washington win streak; Boldin’s catch came at the conclusion of a six-play, 75-yard drive over a whopping 49 seconds. He even talks like an #elite quarterback now: