Week 8 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?
Loser: Falcons Fans With Weak Constitutions
Micah Peters: The Falcons, like the rest of the teams in the NFC South, are never to be trusted.
The Falcons, like the rest of the teams in the NFC South, have a tendency to build up false hope and cruelly snatch it away at the death. Against the Seahawks, Matt Ryan slang it for 220 yards and three touchdowns in the third quarter, only to come up empty in the fourth and lose on a late field goal. Against the Chargers, the Falcons fumbled a 17-point lead, and again, lost on a late field goal.
Atlanta started 4–1, but two weeks of fourth-quarter mishaps made Sunday’s game against Green Bay feel like a must-win.
The Falcons, like at least one other team in the NFC South, have a pretty awful defense. In fact, going into Week 8, they’d allowed the seventh-most yards per game, owing to some combination of coaching (I never know what Richard Smith is doing, you know?), personnel (Robert Alford was getting worn out by Jordy Nelson), and commitment. Instead of scoring 33 points and winning without breaking a sweat, this Falcons team has to also give up 331 yards of total offense and four touchdowns. A late Mohamed Sanu touchdown followed by — of all things — a four-play turnover on downs forced by the defense clinched a 33–32 win.
It doesn’t matter that they won the game. It doesn’t matter that with that win, they’re currently 5–3 and first in the division. The Falcons, like the rest of the teams in the NFC South, are never to be trusted
Winner: The Literal Oakland Raiders
Rodger Sherman: The NFL has a long, complicated rulebook and the Oakland Raiders don’t care. They entered Sunday with 86 accepted penalties against them on the season, a whopping 20 more than anybody else in the league. Twenty! Coming into the weekend, they had been penalized 30 percent more than the second-most penalized team in football. This is nothing new: ESPN says they have over 200 more penalties than any other team since the 2001 season.
Then came the Raiders’ masterpiece: A 30–24 overtime win against the Buccaneers. They broke pretty much every rule. They were called for holding seven times — five times on offense, twice on defense. They committed four unnecessary roughness fouls and were flagged for taunting. They lined up wrong on offense twice — two illegal formation penalties — and lined up wrong on defense twice — two penalties for having 12 men on the field. They even received a flag for something called an “ineligible downfield kick.”
All told, Tampa Bay accepted 23 penalties against Oakland, an NFL record. This game should have been a blowout. Derek Carr threw for 513 yards, while Jameis Winston threw for just 180, and the Raiders outgained the Bucs on the ground too. But thanks to the TWO HUNDRED yards of penalties on Oakland, the game went to overtime.
The football team is named after pirates, swashbuckling rule breakers of the high seas who took people’s gold but had enough guns that they got away with it. The difference between those raiders and the Oakland Raiders is that the football-playing ones are getting caught. Like, all the time. They’re not sailing away; they’re getting pulled over by the ocean cops and thrown into pirate prison pretty much every time they try to do anything.
Somehow, they’re still winding up with enough booty that it’s worth it. The rulebook says what they’re doing is illegal, but the standings say they’re 6–2 and en route to the playoffs.
Tie-er: The NFL
Sherman: This column is supposed to be about winners and losers, because normally, those are the only two options. After all, this is football! It’s not like soccer, a sport beloved in WUSSY countries like England. Over there, fans manage to derive meaning from an evenly played game between two competitive teams. Like I said: Wusses.
That’s why we send England three NFL games a year: to show them how true competitors play. Except Sunday’s game in London ended in a 27–27 tie. Washington set up kicker Dustin Hopkins with a 34-yard field goal to win with two minutes to go in overtime, and he shanked it, giving us a second straight week with an NFL tie, after last week’s 6–6 Seahawks-Cardinals tie on Sunday Night Football, a trip to football purgatory.
Ties confuse us. Are we supposed to be happy our team didn’t lose, or sad our team didn’t win? I mean, the simple fact that ties exist in football often confuses us. And every time there is a tie, some players express surprise. (Today, Washington coach Jay Gruden seemed shocked, which is a tad more embarrassing.)
The confusion is understandable. Ties are eminently uncommon in the NFL. This is the first season with two ties since 1997, and of the 4,096 NFL games from the year 2000 to the start of this season, only five had ended in ties, giving every game about a 1-in-820 chance of ending in a tie.
And while the NHL and college football have gotten rid of the tie, the NFL stands pat. Everybody likes college football overtime! It’s wildly entertaining, guarantees both teams the ball, provides more action in less time than NFL overtimes, and always ends with a clear victor.
Clearly, the NFL values something about the bewilderment and disappointment that come with its rare ties. If its goal is to make us gather around and go “huh?” then it’s succeeded. But that shouldn’t be its goal. Nobody likes ties. So today, the NFL is neither a winner nor a loser, and I guess that’s appropriate.
Loser: The Seahawks’ Invisible O-Line
Danny Kelly: The Seahawks have an elite defense and an offense that features Russell Wilson, Jimmy Graham, and Doug Baldwin. That’s enough to make them contenders, sight unseen. But their refusal to dedicate any money to their offensive line―they’ve allocated just over $9 million of their cap to their line, dead last in the NFL―just might derail their season. Seattle let starting left tackle Russell Okung and starting right guard J.R. Sweezy walk this past offseason, and looked to fill the void with a collection of first-contract draft picks and veteran journeymen. When starting tackle Bradley Sowell (a minimum-contract veteran free agent) got hurt last week, Seattle turned to a player, George Fant, who had literally last started a game in eighth grade. Honestly, how does this happen?
Unsurprisingly, Seattle’s offensive line struggled to protect Wilson throughout Sunday’s 25–20 loss to New Orleans — he was sacked once and hit three times by the Saints, but was under pressure on almost every snap — and the normally dominant Seahawks run game once again failed to launch.
After failing to eclipse the century mark just once in 16 games last year, Seattle was held under 100 yards rushing (74 yards on 17 carries) for the fourth straight game, and for the fifth time in seven games this year. Sure, Russell Wilson’s mobility has been thoroughly sapped due to early-season knee and ankle injuries; he’s a big part of the run game and that element is missing. But most of the Seahawks’ problems stem from the fact that their front five can’t sustain blocks and create holes for their backs. Seattle’s longest run Sunday was 10 yards, and even against New Orleans’s depleted, struggling defense, they looked outmatched. The Seahawks are good — but until they straighten out their O-line issues, they won’t be great.
Winner: Tyler Eifert
Danny Kelly: Cincinnati was among the league’s best in the red zone in 2015, turning 65 percent of its trips inside the 20-yard line into touchdowns — tied for fifth-best in the league. But up until the team’s 27–27 tie with the Redskins in London on Sunday, this year’s squad has been one of the league’s worst in that area of the field, converting on just 43 percent of its red zone trips, tied for 28th in the NFL.
Cincy’s red zone struggles can be chalked up to the losses of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu in free agency, as well as to the Bengals’ inability to protect Andy Dalton from pressure. But the biggest obstacle has been the absence of their unstoppable red zone threat, tight end Tyler Eifert, who missed the first six games of the year with a back injury.
Eifert was limited in his first game back last week, but played a bigger part in his team’s offensive game plan on Sunday morning. He was targeted 12 times, catching nine passes for 102 yards, and his most important grab was a 15-yard third-quarter touchdown from Andy Dalton.
The athletic, versatile tight end is a mismatch nightmare for defenders — a guy that can run routes from an in-line position, flexed into the slot, or out wide as a de facto receiver. And he’s even more nightmarish inside the 20: He caught 13 touchdowns last year, and 11 of those scores came on Cincy’s red zone plays. Dalton and the Bengals couldn’t finish in London, but as his team claws for a wild-card spot, the Red Rifle will certainly be glad to have his favorite end zone target back.
Loser: Matt Stafford, MVP
Kevin Clark: Matthew Stafford was gaining some MVP buzz after three straight wins and a great stat line (15 TDs, four INTs coming into Sunday). There were plenty of ways to further that narrative this week, and one great way to send it crashing to a halt: lose to Brock Osweiler and the Houston Texans. And that’s just what he did. Stafford’s hot streak ended with a mediocre one-touchdown performance — the Lions didn’t even score a touchdown until the fourth quarter of the Texans’ 20–13 victory. Stafford gets to face the Vikings in two of his next three games, so he’ll have an opportunity to reinsert himself into the NFL’s elite — though it’s an opportunity that comes against one of the league’s stoutest defenses. It’s certainly not a good look to struggle against a team so bad their coaches were literally fighting on the sideline.
Loser: Mike McCoy’s Management Skills
Sherman: The Chargers ride or die with Philip Rivers. He seems like an uncomfortable person to ride with — always screeching and screaming and and sometimes driving the car off a cliff — but he’s the Chargers’ guy, always has been and always will be. With Rivers, they have one of the best offenses in the NFL; without him, they don’t have much of anything.
Down eight against the Broncos with under three minutes to go, San Diego drove the ball down to the 2-yard line. You’d expect them to run, but on first down, they passed, and it was incomplete. That’s OK! Keeps the defense honest and stops the clock.
On second down, they passed, and it was incomplete. Bet the Broncos weren’t expecting two passes in a row!
On third down, they passed, and it was incomplete. Here we should mention that running back Melvin Gordon had a career-high 111 yards rushing. The Chargers needed only 2 yards, and had four attempts to get it. Time is an issue late in games, sure, but the important thing was the touchdown, and they still had three timeouts and the two-minute warning.
On fourth down, they passed, and it was incomplete. They would not get the ball near the end zone again.
Rivers went just 20-for-47 with two touchdowns and three picks, and San Diego lost 27–19. It’s one thing for Chargers coach Mike McCoy to make a bad decision. It’s another to show how little confidence he has in the rest of his team — four plays in a row.
Winner: The dildo on the field
Sherman: The Bills defense had a chance to make a statement Sunday against the Patriots. Buffalo had held New England scoreless in Week 4 while Tom Brady was suspended — could the Bills complete the season sweep?
No, no, hahahahaha no, Jesus, no. Brady threw four touchdowns before deciding to take a nice afternoon nap, Rob Gronkowski scored his 69th career touchdown — his crowning achievement — and the Pats scored 41 points without really trying.
Only one Buffalo defender proved up to the task: the Bills dildo. The Billdo, if you will.
On a goal line screen to Chris Hogan, the Bills’ floppiest, pinkest player threw his body in between Hogan and the end zone. His effort paid off. Hogan was stopped mere feet from the end zone, presumably thanks to the stoic selflessness of the dildo.
The Billdo wasn’t on the field for long, just enough time for us to identify that it was, in fact, a dildo, and not some other footlong, phallus-shaped pink object.
Video from the stands reveals that it was hurled onto the field by a fan, and quickly scurried off by a ref who hoped nobody was watching.
The Billdo displayed the type of stiff defense more teams could use. The NFL, we’ve been told, is a copycat league. To that end, more teams should consider adding the flying dildo to their defensive strategy — at the very least, it would certainly help fix the NFL’s ratings problem.
Loser: The New York Jets’ Future
Sam Schube: As the Jets wrapped up a 31–28 win over the Cleveland Browns, the team in green looked pretty happy. I was miserable. Because nothing is gained from beating a previously 0–7 Browns team. Nothing is gained from allowing Ryan Fitzpatrick to take a single solitary snap the rest of the season, least of all after heading to the sideline with a potential concussion. Nothing is gained from having a terrible choice between young QBs Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg, and nothing is gained from refusing to make that choice at all. Nothing is gained from trotting out Darrelle “I’m breaking down, but in a good way” Revis to get toasted by second-string wideouts, and nothing is gained from pretending that the team’s three all-world linemen can play the same position at the same time. Nothing is gained from adding another game in the standings between the Jets and the presumptive first-pick-holding Browns. Nothing is gained from a feel-good win that won’t get the Jets any closer to the playoffs, and almost assuredly knocks the Jets out of contention for a top-tier quarterback in April’s draft. And nothing is gained from an afternoon that props up the illusion that second-year coach-GM combo Todd Bowles and Mike Maccagnan can fix the mess they’ve made, straw hats included. Sure, it counts as a win — but it really doesn’t feel like one.
Winner: Mohamed Sanu
Peters: Back in March, the Falcons shelled out $32.5 million for the 2015 Bengals’ fifth-best receiving option. Seven games into this season, calling Mohamed Sanu a nonfactor as the second-choice receiver felt a little generous. With 258 receiving yards and two touchdowns total going into Sunday’s game against the Packers, Sanu was a mild inconvenience to opposing defenses; a job the no. 2 cornerback could capably handle.
All that said: Raise your hand if you thought Mohamed Sanu was going to be Atlanta’s saving grace against Green Bay.
If your hand is raised, put it down. And also shame on you, for lying on the Lord’s Day.
Sanu finished the game with 84 yards, the winning touchdown, and nine receptions on 10 targets. That’s infinitely better than his usual 58 percent catch rate, but doesn’t necessarily point to a corner being turned. The Falcons won 33–32, but until we see Sanu do this again and then again and then again, this much remains true: They still gave a slightly-above-average receiver $14 million in guaranteed money.
Loser: The Cardinals as a Super Bowl Pick
Clark: Just two months ago, the Cardinals were a trendy Super Bowl pick. Now? They’re … well, they’re just bad. Sunday’s Panthers-Cardinals game was a rematch of last year’s NFC title game, but this time the only thing at stake was the inside track on the ninth pick in next year’s draft. With the Panthers controlling the whole game, the Cards look like the favorite there. To get a little election-y: There wasn’t a clear path to the playoffs for Arizona after last week’s tie, which left them at 3–3–1. Given the state of the race, the Cardinals have to get to at least 10 wins, meaning they needed to win seven of their remaining nine games. After Sunday’s loss, seven-of-eight looks even harder. And this isn’t just a math problem anymore — it’s a football problem. Against the 2–5 Panthers, they were bedeviled by mindless penalties, big drops, and a total lack of defense that looked much worse than the score suggested most of the afternoon. But one lowlight was simply a cut above: Early in the fourth quarter, the Cardinals faced a second-and-44. It’s been that kind of year in Arizona.
Winner: Mass Psychogenic Illness
Schube: Remember when all the teenagers in the town where the Salem witch trials happened came down with the hiccups? Or when the girls in Le Roy, New York, couldn’t stop twitching? It was terrifying (something in the water? #witchcraftback?), and then it was just bizarre — a lesser Don DeLillo novel come to life. But it makes a certain kind of sense: We’re awash in information, but mostly in the dark about its consequences. With all that in mind, I don’t think it’s completely far-fetched to string my line of conspiracy-yarn from last week’s Seattle-Arizona game, which saw each team’s kicker miss a potential game winner from gimme distance, to Sunday’s Washington-Cincinnati joust, marked by D.C.’s Dustin Hopkins’s geeked 34-yarder. Or even to Tampa Bay, where Buccaneers kicker (and infamous kick misser) Roberto Aguayo shanked a game-tying extra point in the fourth quarter against the Raiders. There is something in the water, it turns out — and that something is “terrible, terrible field goal attempts.” Think of the kicker yips as a virus, or an extremely effective meme, or the video from The Ring. Once you’ve seen two kickers blow gotta-have-em kicks, you’re basically doomed to yank your own wide left. Which, all things considered, is a good deal less horrifying than a townwide case of YouTube-induced hiccups.