Week 10 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: The Goal Line
Rodger Sherman: Why do teams struggle so much at the goal line, when the thing they crave is so close? Some of the problem is logistical. There’s less field to operate on, so you can’t run deep routes, and the defense can cram all 11 defenders in 10 yards. They know the line they have to protect, and they protect it with their lives.
But some of it is spiritual, and Sunday night, the Patriots and Seahawks were visited by the Ghost of Bad Football Decisions Past.
When we think about Patriots-Seahawks, we think about that play. The one where the Seahawks had the ball on the goal line in Super Bowl XLIX and opted to run a slant to a weak wide receiver instead of giving the ball to Marshawn Lynch. Patriots fans, you can watch it by clicking this link. Seahawks fans, you can send hateful tweets for picking at an old scab to @rodger_sherman.
We knew that when those two teams played again Sunday night, NBC would replay that play a few times, maybe a few dozen. What I didn’t expect was for the entire scenario to replay itself repeatedly throughout the game.
The Seahawks found themselves baffled by the goal line, with four red zone trips turning into piddly field goals. In the fourth quarter, they got to the 1-yard line on first down … and went backward, eventually kicking a field goal from the 5.
But the Patriots would get their turn. In the game’s closing minute, the Patriots found themselves on the 1-yard line, needing a touchdown to tie.
They had so many good options! Tom Brady may be as slow as the statues they’ll someday build for him in Boston, but he’s great on the QB sneak — his ability to succeed on that play has been profiled, and he boasts a success rate of over 90 percent in his career. Running back LeGarrette Blount is as tough to tackle as anybody in football, and had already carried multiple defenders across the goal line on one of his previous three touchdowns. And while I hate goal-line fades, Rob Gronkowski is the one person I condone throwing them to. Normally the fade is an artful throw, the ball delicately dropped into the hands of a receiver nimble enough to create space. Not with Gronk, a booze-filled cyborg built on another planet and sent here to humiliate our race, starting with defensive backs. He muscles his way to that ball more often than not.
The Seahawks stopped two Brady sneaks and a Blount carry, and on the fourth down, a fade to Gronk failed. Seattle won 31–24.
The Seahawks achieved fame and ridicule for attempting their lowest-percentage play in the simplest situation, and they’ve spent the past two years wallowing in regret. Sunday night, the Patriots tried four plays I’d bet my life savings on. All four failed.
Scoring from the goal line seems easy, but the Ghost of Bad Football Decisions Past wants you to know that it isn’t. And he wants you to know that the things that seem the simplest hurt the most.
Winner: Incredibly Fun Football
Sherman: We’ve had some trash football this year, folks. Don’t deny it. Part of the reason — maybe the whole reason — the NFL’s ratings are down is because so many of the prominently billed games have been uninspiring drivel. I don’t think this has happened because the players suddenly got bad or because the NFL outlawed general enjoyment. It just happened.
The Cowboys-Steelers matchup Sunday was the first step in de-trashifying this NFL season. It was wildly fun, featuring a really good team and a probably good team doing tons of wacky stuff, culminating in the final two minutes wherein the teams combined for three lead-changing touchdowns.
Here are my five favorite things from Dallas’s 35–30 win:
- Ezekiel Elliott playing behind the Cowboys offensive line. Zeke is everything we knew he was in college: powerful, speedy, and vicious. Now he’s playing behind the best group of blockers in the world, and he’s destroying the competition. He finished with 114 yards and two rushing touchdowns, both in the final two minutes, to go with an 83-yard receiving score that was made possible by the Cowboys’ bulldozers up front doing work down the field. Zeke’s 2016 season continues to be an absolute joy.
- The Steelers letting Zeke score with 1:55 remaining. With regard to those two Elliott touchdowns in the game’s closing minutes: On the first of them, the Steelers made a business decision. They could have tried to tackle Elliott, but that would have allowed the Cowboys to hold the ball and run down the clock for a game-winning field goal attempt by Dan Bailey, who basically hasn’t missed a kick this millennium. In Madden, this is a common strategy; video game defenses suck, so we let our opponents score in an effort to get the ball back all the time. It was fun to see an NFL team execute the GET OUT OF HIS WAY drill in a close, meaningful game.
- Ben Roethlisberger’s fake spike. This was not the only fake spike attempted since Dan Marino was in the league, but it was certainly the most effective one. After the Steelers let Elliott score, they quickly marched down the field, and with just under a minute left, Roethlisberger gave the signal to clock the ball. Except upon watching the replay, you can see him give Antonio Brown a thumbs-up while telling the rest of his teammates about the spike. The Cowboys bought Roethlisberger’s fake, and Brown corralled a touchdown pass that seemed like it would win the game. (It didn’t!) A well-executed fake spike is one of football’s best plays, because it’s so simple and so preventable. The opposition would lose nothing by simply being prepared, yet time and time again poker players like Roethlisberger succeed by calling the defense’s bluff.
- Clips of Tony Romo on the sideline. Look, I have nothing against Tony Romo. I actually like him! But at this point that doesn’t matter: Dak Prescott is playing great and the Cowboys are winning. With every magnificent play that Prescott makes, the TV cameras find Tony, who has spent the 2016 season turning into a walking “This Is Fine!” meme. Romo is probably happy to see his team improve to 8–1, yet every one of those sideline shots provides a golden opportunity for fans to imagine his frustrated personal monologue masked by his smile. Quarterback drama is the best football drama.
- Football. Beautiful, chaotic football.
Loser: Two-Point Conversions
Sherman: The Steelers like to have fun with two-point conversions. When the NFL made extra points more difficult last year by pushing the attempts back to the 15-yard line, Pittsburgh opted to play the odds. If it went for two more frequently and converted more than half the time, it could pick up a few additional points over the course of the season. That approach worked! In 2015 the Steelers led the league in two-point conversion attempts, with 11, and they scored on eight of them. The Steelers, it seemed, were outsmarting the NFL.
On Sunday, Pittsburgh attempted a two-point conversion after its first touchdown against the Cowboys. It resulted in an incomplete pass. To make up for that lost point, the Steelers attempted another two-point try following their second touchdown. It also did not work. When they scored a third touchdown to take a 24–23 lead midway through the fourth quarter, they went for two to extend their lead to three — that try missed, in comical fashion, with one Steelers player swatting the ball away from another.
And on Pittsburgh’s final touchdown of the day, Roethlisberger’s two-point conversion pass was intercepted. The Steelers scored four touchdowns and earned the bare minimum of 24 points from those four touchdowns.
Hypothetically, those four missed points didn’t cost them the game — they lost by five, after all, 35–30 — but situationally it did. With less than two minutes to go, Pittsburgh decided to let Elliott score a touchdown rather than allow Cowboys kicker Bailey to attempt a relatively easy game-winning field goal. If the Steelers had converted a few extra points along the way, they could’ve tried to make a defensive stand.
You can criticize the Steelers’ execution — they didn’t seem to have designed two-point plays, as it looked like they were just running their regular offense — or you can criticize their theory. The bottom line is that the Steelers got one point less than they should have over and over and over again, and it opened up a path to losing where they otherwise could have won.
Winner: The Dolphins’ Secondary, in Spite of Itself
Katie Baker: Miami’s secondary did not exactly cover itself in glory in Week 10. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers completed 23 passes for 326 yards with three touchdowns in the Dolphins’ 31–24 win over the Chargers, and CBS began showing a graphic spotlighting the league’s all-time leaders in passing touchdowns midway through the broadcast. San Diego was the beneficiary of 11 penalties totaling 81 yards, and a great number of those were the fault of Miami defensive backs like Bobby McCain and Tony Lippett. (McCain was responsible for two pass-interference calls — one of which came in the end zone — as well as a face mask call and a holding call that nullified a sack.) With safety Reshad Jones going down with a season-ending shoulder injury a few weeks back, the Dolphins’ secondary has had a tough slog of late.
And yet, and yet. Between 2002 and 2015, no NFL quarterback threw four interceptions in the fourth quarter of a game, according to Football Perspective’s Chase Stuart. This season, that has now happened thrice: Carson Palmer against Buffalo on September 25, Ryan Fitzpatrick against Kansas City on the same day, and Rivers versus the Dolphins on Sunday afternoon.
Lippett bookended the four-interception effort, making up for his earlier struggles, by snagging a ball in the end zone early in the fourth quarter and then sealing the game with what was essentially a walk-off interception. The latter was the second pick the Dolphins recorded in the final few minutes alone. (The first was a 60-yard pick-six by Kiko Alonso that gave them their ultimate seven-point lead.) And it offered Miami — which opened the season 1–4, and has now won four straight — a glimmer, however tiny, of playoff hope.
Loser: Chargers Fans, Again
Baker: Early in the fourth quarter of the Chargers-Dolphins game, with San Diego trailing Miami 21–17, the Chargers punted deep into turquoise territory. The Dolphins’ Jakeem Grant lined up to catch the ball, bobbled it, and then watched helplessly as San Diego recovered the football and took over for first-and-goal on the 5-yard line. The sequence was like the world’s trippiest onside kick. And somehow things only got weirder, which is to say: They got more San Diego.
First, the Dolphins were flagged for a holding penalty on a third-and-goal, giving San Diego another first-and-goal attempt, this time from the 2-yard line. On that first down, Rivers — who seemed particularly demonstrative on Sunday — purposely sidearm-spiked the ball into his own offensive lineman to avoid an oncoming sack. And on second down, he threw an end zone interception, the first of four picks he would hurl in the final quarter of the game.
The play wasn’t a game killer, per se; about 10 minutes (and another Rivers interception) later, the Chargers would take a 24–21 lead. But all that meant was that San Diego was perfectly poised to bolster its most glum statistical category: number of games lost despite holding a fourth-quarter lead. This was the fourth time in 2016 San Diego has blown a game that way.
“It seems like each loss,” Rivers said previously, “we say: ‘I don’t know if it can get any tougher than that.’ Somehow, we found a way to top each one. This one is really unlike any other I can remember.”
River said that back on October 2, when the Chargers fumbled away a 35–34 game against New Orleans and reduced Rivers to fighting back tears. Since then, little has changed: San Diego has endured so many fourth-quarter losses that it’s possible to build a compendium of them during the Mike McCoy era alone.
For Chargers fans, the 31–24 loss was particularly difficult for two reasons. For one, it all but eliminated the 4–6 squad from playoff contention. With three AFC West teams sitting at seven wins, San Diego would need to win all of its remaining games to have even an outside shot at the postseason. And second, the loss came just a few days after 57 percent of voters rejected a ballot initiative that was related to the franchise remaining in San Diego. At least California voters approved recreational marijuana on the same day. Chargers fans sure do need it.
Loser: The Patriots Pass Rush
Sherman: The Patriots traded away Jamie Collins, an athletic freak and All-Pro outside linebacker, for a third-round draft pick. Sunday, they faced a Seahawks team literally starting a guy who had never played offensive line in a competitive football game before a few weeks ago at left tackle. Still, Russell Wilson stayed clean for most of the night.
The Patriots traded away Jamie Collins for a third-round pick. We don’t quite know why, but we assumed it had something to do with reasonable on-field replacements. After Sunday night, my best guess is Bill Belichick really likes third-round picks.
Winner: The NFL’s New Extra-Point Rule
Sherman: Before last season, the NFL changed the point-after-touchdown try in two critical ways. One of them — the one we’ve talked about more, by far — is that the league moved the spot of the extra-point kick to the 15-yard line, back from the 2-yard line. The main upshot of this rule is that now about 6 percent of extra points are missed, instead of less than half a percentage point.
This change sucks. Hypothetically, these occasional misses make football more interesting. In reality, they just serve to get everybody periodically mad at their team’s kicker.
The other change: Both teams are now capable of scoring on PATs. Previously, if a kick was blocked or a two-point conversion pass was intercepted, the play was dead. It was the only play in football in which only one team team was allowed to score. But now, the ball remains live, and in the incredibly unlikely scenario that a defending team attains the ball and returns it the length of the field, it gets two points.
The Saints were the first team to take advantage of this rule, as they ran back a blocked extra point for two points against the Panthers last December. But this rule hadn’t really affected the outcome of a game … until the Saints ended up on the wrong side of it on Sunday:
New Orleans had been in line to take a 24–23 lead on the Broncos. Instead, the Broncos got two points, and won 25–23.
This rule change hasn’t been talked about a lot, because it almost never comes up. This was, by my count, only the third defensive conversion in the season and a half that they’ve been allowed.
But I love it. Every once in awhile, a team will expect to pick up a point in the easiest way football allows, but 100 yards of sprinting later, their opponent will end up with two extremely difficult points. Football is preposterously complex, with so many rules even officials can’t keep track of them all. But all of those complexities sometimes lead to wonderful madness like this. I’m glad the NFL legalized one more silly outcome.
Of course, it’s worth noting that the dude returning for the Broncos here probably stepped out of bounds. But I’m gonna let Micah holler about that.
Loser: The Scales of Justice
Micah Peters: There was almost nothing to suggest that the Saints could’ve held the one-point lead they would’ve gained had Wil Lutz converted the PAT after a 32-yard touchdown by Brandin Cooks with 1:22 left in Sunday’s game against the Broncos. But it might have been nice to find out, you know? Instead, Justin Simmons hurdled the line and blocked the kick, and Will Parks scooped it up and took it all the way to the house for a two-point conversion. The Saints, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, again, lost 25–23.
The replay showed that Parks clearly stepped out of bounds on the return.
Regardless, the original no-call couldn’t be overturned because there wasn’t enough evidence to go on. Because Parks was wearing white cleats. That’s literally the only reason.
Now, look: It would’ve been a different game if the Saints didn’t allow a touchdown on the Broncos’ very first drive.
It would’ve been a different game if the Saints hadn’t turned the ball over four times — specifically, if Drew Brees hadn’t chucked interceptions on back-to-back possessions in the first half.
It would’ve been a different game if the Broncos hadn’t hogged the time of possession (39 minutes, 22 seconds), or if Kenny Vaccaro hadn’t committed that stupid unnecessary roughness penalty to improve upon already-good Broncos field position late in the fourth quarter. And, though he did get leveled, it would’ve been nice if Michael Thomas could’ve held onto the ball on the ensuing Saints drive.
But none of those decisive plays could possibly be as decisive as Parks’s return, and looking inward and addressing one’s own shortcomings doesn’t feel half as good as railing against officials for making decisions that are mostly correct within the scope of rules that can only be mostly understood.
Winner: The 2015 NFL Draft
Sherman: The top two picks in the 2016 NFL draft were both quarterbacks. On Sunday, one didn’t play because his team has decided Case Keenum should; the other struggled to score points against the Falcons’ turnstile defense.
The top two picks in the 2015 NFL draft were also quarterbacks. And Sunday, both made me literally gasp.
Jameis Winston made a miracle:
On third-and-10 from the 23, Winston ran backward 25 yards, evaded three Bears defenders looking to bring him down for a ruinous sack, then launched the ball 39 yards past the line of scrimmage for what’s probably the most impressive individual play of the NFL season.
Think about those Bears defenders. Chicago has a reasonably good defense. These linemen possess incredible skill, size, and strength, and all have lives and families. But here they’re just extras in Jameis’s movie, props to make his eventual throw more incredible.
Meanwhile, Marcus Mariota lit up the Packers. His Titans moved the ball effortlessly against a Green Bay team that has much bigger problems than whether or not Aaron Rodgers is as good as he used to be. (He isn’t.) On Tennessee’s first four drives, in order, DeMarco Murray ran and threw for a touchdown, and Mariota threw for two more. Mariota finished 19-for-26 with 295 yards and four TDs in the Titans’ 47–25 rout.
Right now, neither the Buccaneers nor the Titans are that great. Both teams are in semistriking distance of playoff berths, but that’s only because of the overall mediocrity seeping through just about every NFL division. But Winston and Mariota are everything you want from young quarterbacks, possessing obvious, large amounts of occasionally spectacular talent with room to improve. They should be fun for a while.
Winner: Ryan Mathews (At Least This Week)
Danny Kelly: Good luck figuring out the Eagles’ backfield rotation. Prior to last week’s game against the Giants, Philly head coach Doug Pederson told reporters that Mathews was “still the guy” — meaning, the team’s starting running back — but then played him on just eight snaps in the Eagles’ 28–23 loss. Mathews ceded most of his playing time in that game to the explosive Darren Sproles, who carried the ball 13 times for 57 yards. Pederson flip-flopped after the game, admitting that “Darren is the no. 1 back right now.”
On Sunday, Pederson went back to Mathews.
The former Charger carried the ball 19 times for 109 yards and two touchdowns in Philly’s 24–15 win over the Falcons. He added a key two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter, and looked every bit the part of the lead back in the Eagles offense. Meanwhile, Sproles carried the ball just two times as Pederson instead went with the hot hand in Mathews, who ran with explosiveness and vision, carrying the ball up the gut and bouncing it outside when nothing opened up in the middle.
What does Mathews’s play means for the future of the starting job in Philadelphia? Who the hell knows, but it’s probably best not to take Pederson’s word for it this week.
Winner: “Fat” Robert Kelley
Donnie Kwak: We didn’t really learn anything new about Washington in its 26–20 win over Minnesota — Kirk Cousins can be lethal when protected, Dustin Hopkins is the team’s most reliable scorer, and the defense is still porous — but at least we now know that the Skins have a legit starting RB. “Fat” Rob Kelley was given first-string duties earlier this week and after Sunday he doesn’t seem likely to give them back. In his most productive outing yet as a pro, the undrafted rookie from Tulane ran for 97 tough yards on 22 carries, 14 of them in the second half. Kelley hits holes with purpose, cuts with precision, and usually fights through first contact. And, most importantly, unlike healthy scratch Matt Jones — Fat Rob doesn’t fumble. The Skins bent but didn’t break against the Vikings, and Kelley’s hard running helped seal the deal.
Loser: The Vikings
Kelly: They can’t run the ball. They can’t protect their quarterback. Their kicker has the yips. Their offensive coordinator abruptly quit. Everyone is injured. Even their defense — which looked absolutely impenetrable early on in the year — has struggled. In summation, this is how the Vikings feel right now:
Minnesota started 5–0, but after falling to Washington 26–20 on Sunday afternoon, the Vikings have lost their past four games as well as relinquished control of first place in the NFC North. There were a few positives for the team — Sam Bradford was an efficient 31-of-40 for 307 yards and two touchdowns and Stefon Diggs went off for 13 catches and 164 yards — but no team in the league is nose-diving more than the Vikings right now.
Winner: The Hook-and-Ladder Play
Peters: The New York Jets are 27th in the league in points per game, and the Los Angeles Rams are dead last, so that the two teams were tied at six points well into the fourth quarter wasn’t that surprising. The Rams would end up victors in a 9–6 contest that was as exciting as that score suggests. But for at least one drive, in the beginning of the second quarter, Jets-Rams was less boring than Jets-Rams was supposed to be.
Bryce Petty, in his first start under center, marched the Jets down the field on a 99-yard, nine-play scoring drive, ending with a ballsy trick play. “Hook-and-ladder” doesn’t sound quite on the square because 4 yards is a little short for a hook route. Also, Brandon Marshall, the pitch man, ran a screen instead of a hook before flipping it to Bilal Powell for the walk in. But “Sort-of-hook-like screen-and-ladder” is unwieldy and “hook-and-ladder” sounds as cool and fun as this looked, so we’ll just go with that.
This play capped the franchise’s longest scoring drive since 1995. But Nick Folk missed the ensuing point-after attempt, because … Jets.