Week 5 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?
Winner: Tom Brady and Friends
Danny Kelly: So it turns out that taking a month off to get away from the office, toss the ol’ pigskin around with your wife, and sunbathe on the shores of the Mediterranean might be good for a person. Tom Brady returned from his four-game Deflategate suspension on Sunday, and if anyone wondered whether the 39-year-old would look rusty, the man with four Super Bowl rings quickly scoffed in reply: Brady led New England on scoring drives for its first three possessions, and on the back of his predictably dominant first-half performance (18-of-25 for 271 yards at 10.8 yards per attempt, with two touchdowns and a 133.9 rating), New England carried a comfortable 23–7 lead into intermission. You can probably guess how the second half went.
Brady wasn’t the only bright spot, though: This game, a 33–13 Patriots win, gave us our first glimpse of what Martellus Bennett can bring to the real, actual Patriots offense, and the early indications are that when he’s teamed up on the field with fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski, New England is going to be absurdly difficult to defend. Gronk finished with seven targets, five catches, and 109 yards, but as the Browns defense predictably keyed in on no. 87, Brady looked to Bennett often, connecting with him on six passes and three touchdown strikes. Brady now has the fiercest tight end combination in the NFL at his disposal. Yeah, it’s safe to say he’s back.
Winner: Aaron Rodgers’s Personal Space
Katie Baker: Remember during the Olympics, before evil copyright lawyers ruined all the fun, when someone overlaid the beginning of Santana’s “Smooth” onto a Katie Ledecky swim to highlight the yawning expanse of time between her first-place finish and all the rest of her competitors? Because I got to thinking about that just about every time Aaron Rodgers got the ball on Sunday night. Rodgers was able to drop back, drop back, survey his options, sext Olivia Munn, feud with his family, take up fly fishing, leave rude comments on recipe blogs, and probably get a load of some of the debate before he ever had to get rid of the ball.
If Rodgers’s receivers hadn’t kept bobbling straightforward catches, the Packers could have blown the game wide open. (It was surprising, given all that time, that Rodgers’s completion percentage was only 51 percent, and that the mostly hapless Giants were never completely out of it.) But the Packers were able to make the plays that mattered, including some third-down conversions by Randall Cobb. And despite facing a Giants pass rush unit that includes Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon, Rodgers was rarely hassled. On the very few occasions that he was under pressure, Rodgers threw some incompletions and two interceptions, both recovered by the Giants’ Janoris Jenkins. For the most part, though, there he was in the backfield, chilling out, humming “Man, it’s a hot one …” in his head.
Winner: Zeke Elliott
Bryan Curtis: Six months ago, before the Cowboys were a world-beating juggernaut cruising toward their sixth Super Bowl title, the city of Dallas was divided. One faction wanted the Cowboys to do the prudent thing and use the fourth pick in the draft on Jalen Ramsey, a defensive back from Florida State. The other faction wanted the Cowboys to do the wildly exciting, antiquarian thing and draft Ezekiel Elliott, a running back.
The people on Team Zeke were gonzo optimists in the mold of Jerry Jones himself. They insisted that no matter what the analytics people say — don’t pick backs high in the draft; they’ll never last; the Cowboys already have a great O-line, etc., etc. — Elliott would descend on Dallas like the second coming of Emmitt Smith.
I still don’t think I believe these people. But to this point, that’s exactly what has happened. After Elliott tore up the Bengals for 134 yards on just 15 carries Sunday, he is first in the NFL in rushing. He’s the first Cowboys rookie to reel off three straight 100-yard games.
To get a taste of what happened, watch this play. It was the third quarter. The Cowboys were already ahead, 21–0. Elliott took the handoff and started right. His pals did most of the work for him. Zack Martin, who was great all day, rode Geno Atkins out of the play. And Geoff Swaim, a backup tight end, sealed defensive end Carlos Dunlap. Elliott ran 60 yards to the end zone and barely had to deviate outside the hashmarks.
Or go back to the Cowboys’ first drive of the game. Elliott went left on a misdirection play for 17 yards. Next play: left for nine. Next play: right for 13 and a touchdown. Martin made a great block on that play, too. Before the game, the Bengals’ Adam Jones declared, “If you go back and look at some of the film, some of the holes are so wide open that my little girl could run through there.” Against Cincinnati, it could have been three or four little girls, and they could have been holding hands.
The funny thing is, those of us on Team Ramsey saw this happening. Zeke would be amazing, we conceded before the draft. But behind the Cowboys’ line, Darren McFadden or Alfred Morris would also be pretty good. And you could spend that primo draft pick on a defense that’s pretty terrible. Team Zeke spits back: Wait, why WOULDN’T you want one of the best running backs in the game?
It’s all academic now. The Cowboys are winning because they’re running the ball at will, keeping it away from the other team, and making it very easy for rookie quarterback Dak Prescott. Sometimes you stop quoting Football Outsiders and give in. At this rate, we can table Elliott versus Ramsey until 2019.
Winner: Old-Ass Running Backs
Sam Schube: We’ve heard it repeated over and over. Really, in our everyone’s-a-GM, I-watch-All-22, thinking-man’s NFL, it’s as close to an inarguable truth as you’ll get: Running backs are fungible assets. So: Don’t waste high picks on them. Don’t shell out for their second contracts. And the second they start to slow down, send ’em home. All of which made it particularly affecting to see a group of over-the-hill (or at least over a hill) tailbacks on their second or third teams — DeMarco Murray, Frank Gore, LeGarrette Blount, and Matt Forte — putting up numbers on Sunday.
Back in February, The Wall Street Journal pegged the average running back’s career at two years and five months. Here’s a related fact: Players are fully vested under the NFL’s pension plan after three years in the league. I’ll leave you to decide whether that’s fair, and instead say simply this: It’s no fun to be an aging running back. And, sure, only Murray had a great afternoon, rushing for 121 yards to beat the Dolphins. But his day, along with Blount’s (scored a touchdown) and Gore’s (played bully ball) and Forte’s (still tap-dancing out of the backfield) felt bigger than “good” or “bad” or “murdered my fantasy team.” Because they’re not even supposed to be here.
Loser: Eli Manning, Elite QB
Baker: When I did a search of my Twitter feed for “eli” following Sunday Night Football, the following tweet came up:
Tough but fair, I thought, tough but fair. Manning has the kind of wide receiver corps that could bolster his statistics and lengthen his career. And yet his play this season has been increasingly distressing. It’s not just the usual derpy fumbles and weird wobblers over the middle; it’s the panic-spikes and the attempts that are just plain off.
When Manning’s throw to an open Will Tye grazed through the tight end’s outstretched arms, it was easy to blame Tye’s grapevine-y footwork for missing the pass by inches. But by that point, Manning had lost all rights to the benefit of the doubt; he’d already screwed up passes to Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard. With the Packers secondary reeling from injuries to top corners Damarious Randall and Sam Shields, this was supposed to be a night for Manning and the offense to break out of last game’s slump. Instead, it was a frustrating showing in a winnable game. On the next play, Manning lost the ball when he was sacked.
Those who insist, or who used to anyway, that you can’t spell ELITE without ELI always did so with a little twinkle in their eye; even the biggest Manning stan recognizes his absurdities. But if there was one thing Eli was always genuinely good at, it was distracting people from his boneheaded plays by whipping out some legitimately gorgeous drives. Perhaps not anymore. Sure, there was the late-game TD against the Packers that led to Beckham embracing the kicking net, but it was too little, too late. Then it turned out that the tweet I found wasn’t about Eli Manning — it was about Donald Trump. But since you can’t spell FEELING SORRY without ELI, it came up in my search.
Loser: The Dolphins Offense
Kelly: Adam Gase, the renowned quarterback whisperer who made Tim Tebow look capable of throwing a football and Jay Cutler look temporarily incapable of melting down in every single game, was supposed to fix the Dolphins offense. Miami’s first-year head coach was supposed to be the guy who helped Ryan Tannehill reach his considerable potential.
That hasn’t happened. Tannehill completed 12 of 18 passes for 191 yards, threw two interceptions, and was sacked six times in Miami’s home loss to the Titans on Sunday. Combined with an ineffective run game (17 rushes for 51 yards), the Dolphins became just the third team to gain 200 or fewer net yards in a game this season. They matched the league’s 2016 low mark for first downs in a game (eight, a bar they set last week), and their 41 total offensive plays were a leaguewide season low. Only one team ran 41 or fewer plays in a game in all of 2015. That team? The Dolphins. Gase’s offense can’t pass or run, and the Dolphins’ 1–4 record reflects that.
Winner: Matt Ryan
Kevin Clark: Dominant receivers can often make a quarterback look great. How many times have we seen a monster day from Ben Roethlisberger because Antonio Brown owned the opposing secondary? Same with Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. Last week against Carolina, Matt Ryan had a 503-yard day that he didn’t get much credit for because 300 of those yards came via Julio Jones, who set a franchise record for receiving yards. On Sunday, however, it was clear that the Denver Broncos were going to eliminate Jones as an option, and they held him to just 29 yards on two receptions.
But Ryan responded. With Jones locked down, he still put up 267 yards through the air, proving he’s a huge part of what makes this Falcons offense one of the NFL’s best. Tevin Coleman, a running back, had 132 receiving yards. Mohamed Sanu had 43. Jones, in fact, was the team’s fourth-leading receiver, but that didn’t slow down the Falcons offense much.
Loser: The Bengals
Curtis: Look at the Bengals’ schedule and you have a pretty good idea of what kind of team they are. They’ve beaten the Jets and the Dolphins. They’ve lost to the Broncos and Steelers and Cowboys. Before today’s blowout, you could have wondered whether it was Cincy or Dallas that had feasted on bad teams and was a little worse than its record indicated. You don’t have to wonder anymore.
The Bengals were godawful today. The 28–14 score looks somewhat close only because Cincinnati scored a couple of garbage-time touchdowns. A bad sign: Garbage time started with 11:38 left in the third quarter, when the Bengals went down 28–0. Why were they so bad? The Bengals defense couldn’t get off the field in the first half, allowing three touchdowns on the Cowboys’ first three drives. Their defensive line got shoved around by Dallas’s offensive line; their secondary couldn’t make a play on the occasions when they got the Cowboys into third down. (Terrance Williams, in particular, feasted on the defense.) On Thursday, Bengals tackle Domata Peko said, “We might be hearing about this Bengals defense after this.” We will probably be hearing about it for the wrong reasons.
The Bengals’ offensive stats are better than the team was. On their first drive, Giovani Bernard looked like he was going to go carry-for-carry with Ezekiel Elliott. But then, on first down, the Bengals called a shovel pass to receiver Brandon LaFell, who was tackled for a 3-yard loss. It was a weird decision; they had to punt two plays later. On the next drive, Andy Dalton couldn’t find a receiver and had to scramble on third down. They punted again. On the next drive, Dalton’s third-down pass came up a yard short. The ball was at the Bengals’ 34-yard line, and Marvin Lewis didn’t go for it. That might have been the right decision, intellectually, but it basically ended the game. The Bengals were already down 21 points.
The sample size is small. There’s plenty of time to carve out a very Bengalsy 9–7 season with a reassuringly close loss in the first round of the playoffs. In the meantime, the will head to New England. And considering what Tom Brady did today, they’re in trouble.
Winner: Charlie Whitehurst
Micah Peters: The Browns vs. the Patriots. Just under a minute and a half left in the first quarter. Second-and-forever inside of Cleveland’s own 10. Cody Kessler turns on the second step of a leisurely two-step drop and is greeted by the much larger Dont’a Hightower. Kessler gets folded like a piece of construction paper and the Browns give up the safety; Kessler leaves the game.
[Cues up Toto’s “Africa.”]
Sorry, too early.
[Cues up Toto’s “Africa” again.]
AW YISS. Nashville’s most beautiful Charlie Whitehurst flipped back his gorgeous, flowing mane, pulled on his helmet, and threw for a first down on his first pass; this made him the fifth — good lord, fifth — quarterback to play a snap for the Browns this season.
Of course, Tom Brady was finally #free from his four-game suspension and in full Fuck You mode, so this outing was doomed from the start. But do you think Whitehurst cared about that? Do you think Whitehurst even knew what the score was? Or is it easier to believe that Whitehurst was just out there to hear the fans chant his name and feel the wind in his hair as he completed a pass or two? He threw for 182 yards and a neat little 17-yard touchdown to Connor Hamlett. He didn’t convert the ensuing two-point attempt, and he was picked off in the third quarter, but so? Whitehurst broke a sweat and didn’t get (seriously) injured. And given that the Browns are basically the Book of Job in practice at this point, that counts as a win.
Loser: The Texans Offense
Shea Serrano: The Texans punted five times against the Vikings on Sunday. One of those punts was returned 79 yards for a touchdown. That’s nearly as many yards as the Texans were able to muster in the entire first half. That’s not that great of a thing, in case you were wondering, which you likely weren’t, because of course it’s not that great of a thing. Before today, the Texans ranked 25th in total team offense, averaging 334.5 yards per game over the first four contests. Today, they got 214 yards, which — and I can tell you this because I went to college and took several math classes — is fewer than 334.5.
My feelings are hurt.
Watching the Texans on offense right now is like taking mustard out of the refrigerator and being able to feel from its weight that it’s basically empty, but you’re still like, “Fuck it, I’ma make it work,” and you just keep on shaking the bottle and squeezing the bottle and spurting out teeny, tiny, unsatisfying amounts.
My feelings are so hurt.
Loser: Los Angeles Football Fans
Clark: The Rams came into Sunday winners of three straight. The mood around Los Angeles was one of genuine excitement — there’s plenty of Rams gear on display throughout the city. Returning home for the first time since September 18 today, they had a real chance to get the city in a frenzy with a win over an average-at-best Bills team. Not only did they lose, they lost with some head-scratching decisions and a boring style of play that is the exact opposite of what you’d want to fire up a new fan base.
Coach Jeff Fisher had an … inconsistent day. With under six minutes to go and down a touchdown, the Rams kicked a field goal from the 4-yard line to make it 23–19. Fisher rediscovered his aggressiveness a drive later when he fake punted at the Rams’ own 23-yard line, but the team was stuffed and turned it over on downs. The Bills scored on the next drive and made it 30–19, which put the game out of reach.
Schube: Rough day for receivers not named Antonio Brown in the Steelers’ 31–13 victory over the Jets. Dudes on both sides treated the football like a pesky fly to swat, rather than an infant to be lovingly embraced, or an object whose reception and successful conveyance down the field is the, uh, point of the game. Steelers deep threat Sammie Coates had what appeared to be a good game — six catches, 139 yards, two touchdowns — but those six catches came on 11 targets, which included a dropped sure-thing touchdown, a dropped slightly-less-sure-thing touchdown, and whiffs on other eminently catchable balls. I’m told he played with a laceration on one hand, to which I say: That didn’t stop Jesus, did it?
Meanwhile, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s predilection for firing rockets 2 to 4 yards behind his wideouts resulted in a large … handful of drops for the other team, too. (Related: Has anyone generated more “receiver X in the vicinity, can’t make the grab” play calls than Ryan Fitzpatrick? It’s football’s version of the Kobe Assist.) There’s nothing quite as jaw-dropping as well-played football. My jaw spent the morning firmly fixed.
Winner: Lowered Expectations
Serrano: I’m about to tell you something that’s going to blow your mind. Frankly, I’m a little bit worried about telling you, for fear that your mind will be so blown that your brain will turn into goop on account of the extreme blown-ness. I’d hate to be the one responsible for you going goop-brained. Normally, I would recommend that you sit for this big news, because I’ve seen several movies and that’s what the person who is delivering the news says to the person who is going to receive it, but I don’t think sitting down will be enough. Perhaps you should lie down? Although, honestly, I don’t think that’s enough of a precaution, either. Because what I’m going to tell you is news of such an unexpected, unpredictable nature that neither sitting nor lying down is enough. Rather, do this: Go in your backyard, dig a grave, then climb inside that grave and lie down in it, because surely you are going to die when you read it.
Are you ready?
Because it’s time.
OK, here it goes:
Brian Hoyer was not terrible today.
Loser: Consistent Logic
Peters: Or, like, virtue? Tact, maybe?
Before we name it, perhaps it’s best to explain: When Steelers wideout Antonio Brown was fined for twerking in Week 1 (lol) he was also fined for wearing blue cleats, to which he said, “Nothing to a boss,” which was possibly the most baller shit of all time, but that’s beside the point. The NFL made a concession to its dumb “Foreign Substances on a Body/Uniform” rule for Brown’s tribute to Arnold Palmer in Week 4, but this week, Brown’s Muhammad Ali cleats became grounds for a potential ejection. Brown was forced to leave the game and return with plain black ones in the first quarter.
It’d be fun to have the reasoning behind this explained to me, to hear the flips and turns and twists it would take.
Winner: Anyone Who Knows a Philly Fan
Mallory Rubin: Carson Wentz was actually great on Sunday. Coming off his first bye — which he used to prove that he can conquer man and beast alike — the rookie quarterback completed 25 of 33 passes and threw two touchdowns. He also threw his first career interception, and boy was it costly: Down 24–23, the Eagles had a chance to drive for the winning score with 1:30 remaining, but instead of keeping the Wentz Wagon rolling, the QB threw his first career interception.
This was actually a beautiful throw. It’s not Wentz’s fault that Darius Slay briefly held Nelson Agholor, then reached around the second-year wideout’s face to haul in the pick. In fairness, it’s also worth noting that even Wentz’s first real mistake allowed him to secure his place in the record books:
But I root for the Ravens, who looked like dog shit on Sunday. You might root for the Colts, who barely escaped the Bears (the Bears!). Surely some of you pull for the Jets, who were so offensively inept at times in Week 5 that they earned Brian Billick’s wrath. In a league where even elite passers have to apologize for embarrassing the home crowd, it’s just too damn annoying when something seems to go so right for another franchise for so long. No one wants Wentz to fail. But in the fifth week of the 2016 NFL season, it’s comforting that Eagles fans now have a little bit of the agita that the rest of us (well, other than the Vikings faithful) have experienced at some point this year. It’s an unapologetically immature stance, and one unabashedly fueled by schadenfreude, but it’s football, so if you don’t like it, go lock yourself in a bathroom with Carson Wentz.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Ezekiel Elliott is second in the NFL in rushing; he is first.