Week 11 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: Aaron Rodgers
Rodger Sherman: Before Washington handed Green Bay its sixth loss on Sunday night, even the most loyal cheeseheads were starting to point out that something seemed off with Aaron Rodgers’s game. His throws weren’t as crisp or accurate as they used to be. He didn’t seem quite as capable of pulling off the seemingly impossible passes that he used to regularly complete with ease, and even his routine throws were starting to turn into adventures. Personally, I’ve never thought that his poor play stemmed from his strained relationship with his reality-TV-famous family or his non-strained relationship with his movie-famous girlfriend, but the fact that conspiracy theorists have peddled both as possibilities hasn’t been a good sign.
Green Bay fans got a good sign on Sunday night against Washington, though. Rodgers’s outing was a flashback, an evening of dimes dropped and discounts double-checked. He had 351 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, zipping passes into a filthy wind that ruined both teams’ kicking games.
Unfortunately for the Pack, Rodgers was all that was good for the team. He led Green Bay in rushing, even though that’s not really his gig, managing 8 more yards than James Starks on six fewer carries. Meanwhile, the defense was gruesome, allowing three passing touchdowns and three rushing touchdowns as injuries piled up in both the secondary and linebacking corps.
In recent weeks, Rodgers has earned criticism for playing below his past best, but this week he did everything he could while a failing team collapsed around him. I wonder which of those feels worse for a famously motivated personality like Rodgers.
Winner: The Steelers’ Inevitable Playoff Push
Kevin Clark: The Steelers, now 5–5, won in a few different ways on Sunday. They beat the Browns, obviously, but also got a few breaks that put their playoff positioning in good shape. The Bengals, 3–5–1 coming into Sunday, laid an egg against Buffalo and lost A.J. Green to a hamstring injury. The previously division-leading Baltimore Ravens, despite looking good early, flatlined against the Dallas Cowboys. Baltimore’s offense still doesn’t look like that of a playoff team. Now, the Steelers are tied with the Ravens for the division lead at a great time: The Ravens and Bengals play next week, meaning one of them will pick up another loss. Pittsburgh needs those teams to lose because the Steelers are entering one of the hardest stretches of their schedule: They play the Colts, the Giants, and the Bills in the next three weeks. The Steelers are not the juggernaut we thought they would be, but that may not matter. As long as their AFC North competition looks as bad as it did this week, the Steelers can sneak into the playoffs, get to full health, and try to put a run together.
Loser: The Rams Defense
Sherman: The Rams finally benched Case Keenum and started no. 1 draft pick Jared Goff at quarterback against the Dolphins on Sunday. That’s good! It was getting quite silly that Goff was still on the bench.
Goff looked about as good as Keenum. In Keenum’s final start, he went 17-for-30 for 165 yards. Sunday, Goff went 17-for-31 for 134 yards. In Keenum’s last three starts, the Rams scored 10 points, 10 points, and nine points. In Goff’s debut, they scored 10.
Goff’s performance was fine. It wasn’t notably different from Keenum’s, but the Rams weren’t going to the playoffs with Keenum. If they’re going to be utter crap offensively, they might as well do so while giving meaningful snaps to a player whose future could change the franchise instead of a veteran we already know stinks.
But as the offense has sputtered, the defense has continued to do work. The Rams haven’t allowed more than 17 points in over a month, and Sunday, they held Miami scoreless for 55 minutes. It wasn’t enough. The Dolphins scored two touchdowns in the game’s final five minutes, and because Goff and crew had managed only 10 points, that meant Miami won.
The Rams are now 1–3 in their past four games despite fielding a defense that played well enough to spark a 4–0 showing in that span. It’s not a Goff or Keenum question: Either option leads to bad offense. Playing Goff right now is the best move for this team’s future, but it has to be demoralizing for a defensive unit that’s built to win now.
The Rams defense put in the kind of work that should lead to an A on this group project. But their partners are the NFL equivalents of a slacker who will never amount to anything and a freshman who can’t find the classroom. Sorry you’re failing, guys.
Loser: Extra Points
Clark: Football is not perfect, so the league is constantly tinkering with the rules. Sometimes this benefits fans — like the defensive-contact rules that led to an era of unprecedented passing (and scoring). Sometimes, those rule changes lead to a day like Sunday, when fans had to watch a record number of missed extra points. Great rule change, guys.
The rule — which requires extra points to be kicked from the 15-yard line — was put in place last season, but we finally had our masterpiece of incompetence Sunday. Teams missed 11 extra points. The previous post-merger record was 10, which happened most recently in 1985, according to ESPN. The most crucial of Sunday’s misses occurred in Cincinnati, where Mike Nugent’s two failed extra points loomed all game in the Bills’ 16–12 win over the Bengals. Extra points are “more exciting” now and two-point-conversion attempts are up, which was Roger Goodell’s whole rationale for the change. But it’s time to wonder how much we want wins and losses determined by Nugent or Robbie Gould missing kicks. It was a bad day for kickers overall — Adam Vinatieri missed a field goal for the first time in 45 attempts, ending an NFL-record streak. New Orleans is reportedly going to hire a second special teams coach to fix the fact the Saints can’t stop getting kicks blocked. Something tells me more coaches aren’t going to solve this.
Bryan Curtis: Since about Week 5, Cowboys fans have been waiting for the Pothole Game. It’s the game when Dak Prescott falls to earth from Mount Staubach and Zeke Elliott fumbles two or three times. During this wait — which now includes the franchise’s first win over the Ravens — we’ve discovered another type of game. It’s the Pothole Tease. The game starts out looking like the inevitable loss but winds up proving the Cowboys were even better than previously thought.
Cowboys-Ravens was a classic Pothole Tease. By halftime, Baltimore had drawn Dallas to an effective stalemate. The score was 10–10. The teams were 1 yard apart in total offense. Dallas had a mere one-minute advantage in time of possession. Given a chance to throw the ball into the end zone with four seconds left in the half, Jason Garrett got cautious and kicked a field goal. As the team walked off the field, Garrett flashed that eerily upbeat, atta-boy smile that seemed to spell certain doom.
Here were the Cowboys’ drives after the half: 10 plays, 92 yards, 5:49 — touchdown. Thirteen plays, 88 yards, 7:54 — touchdown. Thirteen plays, 72 yards, 6:26 — game-icing field goal. The Ravens scored a touchdown to get the game within seven points with 8:16 left to play. By the time they touched the ball again, the clock was effectively empty. In fact, the only reason the Ravens got the ball back at all was because Elliott (on a beautiful, first-down run) accidentally ran out of bounds.
If the Cowboys teased disaster at the beginning of the game, they got going on their fifth possession. Dallas had a first-and-30 after two offensive-line penalties — indeed, about the worst thing you can say about the Cowboys this year is their vaunted O-line draws a lot of penalties. On first down, Prescott ran for 12. On second, he found Bryant on a post route for another dozen. On third-and-6, Prescott went big and found Brice Butler — a miracle in a season of miracles — for a gain of 41. The Cowboys scored three plays later.
To this point in the season, the Cowboys had mostly let Elliott’s first-down runs set up their passing game. As the CBS announcers noted, they call the highest percentage of running plays in the NFL. But the Ravens have a good defense and, as the cliché goes, they kept Elliott in check. (In this case, “in check” means Elliott had a mere 127 total yards.)
Today, Prescott played offensive catalyst. Here were his passes on the Cowboys’ go-ahead drive: 6, 9, 8, incomplete (but a pass interference call netted 33 yards), incomplete (though he recovered nicely after Travis Frederick gutter-balled the snap), 7, and 4 (for the touchdown). It was as if they had run the ball down the field after all. By game’s end, the Cowboys had a 10-minute advantage in time of possession.
The Cowboys also got clever about who they attacked. The Ravens started Tavon Young, a rookie from Temple, at corner. He made it through the first half largely unscathed. On the go-ahead drive, Young was beaten by Bryant; he committed pass interference on a deep throw to Terrance Williams; and he was hurdled by Elliott.
The Pothole Game will come, of course. Like a survivalist hoarding dry goods for the apocalypse, you could list all the things the Cowboys did wrong today. Prescott, Elliott, and Jason Witten took more and harder hits than they have all season. (Prescott and Witten were both looked at on the bench but came back.) Joe Flacco had a lot of success working the middle of the field on the drive that got the Ravens to within a touchdown.
On the plus side: When Young limped off the field on the Cowboys’ final drive, Prescott calmly walked up to the line and milked just about every second from the play clock before snapping the ball. When Elliott ran out of bounds a few plays later, he immediately pointed to his chest and owned the mistake. Dak and Zeke aren’t just “playing like veterans.” They are veterans. After all, it’s Week 11.
After putting the game away in the fourth quarter, the CBS cameras found Prescott sitting on the bench. He drained a cup of Gatorade and tossed the cup over his right shoulder. Prescott seemed almost startled when the cup missed the trash can. If that’s what counts as a pothole, baby, sign me up.
Winner: The Rain
Michael Baumann: It rained in both Los Angeles and San Francisco, and sprinkled on and off in Seattle. And look, y’all are smart people — I’m not going to tell you that the Dolphins, Rams, Eagles, and 49ers played sloppy games because it was raining, only that those things happened at the same time.
There were predictable results: Colin Kaepernick made a nice scoop on a ground ball snap (he’s been watching Brandon Crawford, I bet), while the Dolphins and Rams had that universal incontinence look we get when teams wear white pants on a muddy field.
Then there was Jeff Fisher.
Did the rain inspire Fisher to turn his hat around? I hope not, because if anything, the bill of the cap would keep the rain out of your eyes, right? But for whatever reason, my man was out here wearing his hat like a half-drunk 19-year-old named Jason who’s going to do a flip off the dock at the 1997 Sig Ep lake party at Iowa State because he thinks it’ll impress Jenny Evans.
It will not impress Jenny Evans. Particularly not when that hat’s on a hangdog 58-year-old NFL coach who’s not only soaking wet, but lost 14–10 to Touchdown Tannehill after being up 10–0 with five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Winner: Russell Wilson, Wide Receiver
Sherman: Hi, NFL draft expert Rodger Sherman here. This play caught my attention:
Russell Wilson was in the game at quarterback, but on this play he flipped the ball to receiver Doug Baldwin and then ran a wheel route. Nobody followed Wilson and Baldwin hit him for an easy touchdown, the first receiving touchdown of Wilson’s professional career. He had scored on a similar play at Wisconsin.
Now, I haven’t really kept my eye on Wilson since the Seahawks made the mistake of wasting a third-round pick on the diminutive quarterback. But I know that at 5-foot-10, he’ll never succeed under center. But look at him catching the ball! He shows plus speed, the ability to run a crisp route, and soft hands. On this play, he hit the end zone shortly after hauling in the ball, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he could also use his maneuvering ability to create great yardage after the catch in the open field.
I’ve been a bit baffled by Wilson staying on an NFL roster all these years, but this play makes it clear that he can make it in this league as a wide receiver. Hopefully the Seahawks are smart enough to use him that way.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go back to criticizing 20-year-olds for having small hands.
Loser: Almost Every Running Back Who Played in the Eagles-Seahawks Game
Baumann: Eagles-Seahawks was a pretty rough game for injuries: Fletcher Cox and Jason Peters got banged up before returning later on, and the Seahawks lost Earl Thomas and DeShawn Shead. If I wanted to watch a bunch of people in Seattle writhing around in pain, I’d have gone to that Alice in Chains concert.
But running backs were hit particularly hard. Of the seven tailbacks who got carries in this game, four left the game with injuries, and to four different parts of the body no less: C.J. Prosise (shoulder), Troymaine Pope (ankle), Darren Sproles (ribs), and Ryan Mathews (knee).
With the Eagles offensive line largely unable to block and their wide receivers unable to catch, third-string back Wendell Smallwood led the Eagles with 13 carries and 48 yards. That would be a hell of a sentence if this one weren’t following it: Late in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks had Trevone Boykin line up at tailback.
That’s right, backup Seahawks quarterback Trevone Boykin (or to use the name he went by at TCU, Trevone Boykin, Who Used To Be A Receiver) played running back, and even took a handoff. That handoff, because this game was so rough on even ersatz running backs, ended with Cox subsuming Boykin’s body into himself 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Considering how this game went, Boykin’s lucky he lost only 5 yards and not, you know, an arm.
Winner: Titans Center Ben Jones
Sherman: The Titans got a penalty on this play because of a false start, but really, they got a penalty on this play because of four separate false starts.
As official Walt Anderson notes, “everyone but the center” committed a false start, drawing a chuckle from the game’s commentators. It’s actually not the first time this has happened. Anderson himself dinged “everybody but the center” in a 2013 Eagles-Chiefs game, again to the delight of commentators. And a college referee made a similar announcement in a 2011 Baylor-TCU matchup, a call deemed “a classic!” by the announcers.
It’s easy to see why we find this so funny. Refereeing convention asks the official to identify which player committed the foul, but on these plays there is such a flurry of failure that it’s impossible to pick just one player to penalize. In this case, he singles out the center, Tennessee’s Ben Jones, as the only player who didn’t screw up.
But that’s actually the opposite of what happened. If one lineman jumps for a false start, that lineman messed up. If four linemen jump for a false start, it’s the fifth player’s fault. Jones was supposed to snap the ball, and all his teammates accurately began playing football. But Jones stood there, still as a statue, waiting for a snap count that had already passed.
Jones is the one who made a mistake, but in the eye of fans and whoever watches the giggle-worthy video of the announcer’s call, he was the Titans’ lone bastion of football competence. He was Lucy and his teammates were Charlie Browns, publicly blamed for somebody else’s decision to hold onto a football.
Winner: Old-Man Milestones
Danny Kelly: You had to appreciate Steve Smith’s honesty when he told reporters back in June that the main reason he decided to come back from Achilles tendon surgery and play in his 16th season was to reach the 1,000-career-catch milestone. Well, the hard work paid off. The fiery Ravens receiver accomplished his goal early in the third quarter of a 27–17 loss to the Cowboys. Smith is the newest member of an exclusive club: He’s just the 14th player in NFL history to move into the four-digit catch territory, joining Jerry Rice, Tony Gonzalez, Marvin Harrison, Cris Carter, Tim Brown, Larry Fitzgerald, Terrell Owens, Reggie Wayne, Jason Witten, Andre Johnson, Anquan Boldin, Isaac Bruce, and Hines Ward.
It wasn’t as good of a day for his team though, which fell to 5–5 and fell into a tie with Pittsburgh for first place in the AFC North. Meanwhile, the Steelers won in Cleveland, and another longtime veteran notched an impressive career milestone. When 38-year-old outside linebacker James Harrison sacked Browns quarterback Cody Kessler in the third quarter on Sunday, he moved into first place on Pittsburgh’s all-time sacks list with 77.5, passing Jason Gildon. Harrison’s now 66th on the NFL’s all-time career sacks list.
Loser: Blake Bortles
Sherman: Last week, we laughed at Blake Bortles for throwing a ball that bounced off of a teammate’s foot, leading to an interception. Bortles was trying to throw the ball away, but somehow turned that throw into a turnover. This week, he managed to do it again.
The Jaguars were driving, down 26–19, with less than 30 seconds to go, hoping to manage a game-tying touchdown. Bortles had an open receiver, Marqise Lee, but threw the ball behind Lee, forcing Lee to try to swat the ball with his left hand, forcing Lee to try to kick the ball in the air with his foot, forcing the ball to pop to a Lions defender for a game-sealing interception.
Part of what caused these two picks was crap luck, the unfortunate bounces of a funnily shaped ball. Part of this was that Blake Bortles is bad at throwing footballs where he wants them to go, which is an unfortunate trait for a professional quarterback. His attempt to ground the ball should not have hit his teammate’s foot. His attempt to pass the ball to his teammate should not have been yards behind his teammate.
One of those things will probably change: Bortles isn’t cursed, so far as we know, and there’s no reason to expect every Bortles-related doink to send a ball flopping into an opponent’s hand. The other thing is a bit more worrisome.
Winner: Robert “Fat Rob” Kelley
Sherman: Robert Kelley is my new favorite person named “Robert” whose last name is pronounced “Kelly.” For too long, R. Kelly has held this title by default: Even though I’m morally disgusted by him, I didn’t know that I had other options.
But in the past few weeks, Washington’s tailback has run into my heart, just like he ran through Green Bay’s defense on Sunday night. For one, we share a distaste for the similarly named singer. Robert had historically been nicknamed “R. Kelley,” but didn’t want to be associated with “the peeing on people and stuff,” so he let everybody know about his preferred nickname: Fat Rob. It takes pride to promote a nickname proclaiming your portliness, and Fat Rob has it. He could’ve left the nickname behind in college, but showed up to his rookie training camp this year with a FAT ROB backpack, and now it’s his NFL nickname, too.
I’m not quite sure how Robert came to be in the NFL. Last year he received the third-most carries at Tulane, which finished 3–9. He’s 24, and ran a 4.68 40, which makes him obscenely old for a rookie and obscenely slow for a running back.
But there he was, dissecting the Packers on Sunday Night Football. He had 137 yards and three touchdowns, the best output any Washington running back has had all year. In fact, Washington’s leading rusher on the season, Matt Jones, had only three touchdowns on the season before going down with an injury that allowed Kelley to start. Fat Rob’s not fast, no, but he sneaks through unseen holes and can bully for yards.
If I were Rob, I’d barely have been able to keep my composure for the Sunday Night Football bit where starters say their name and college for the camera. A few months ago, Rob wasn’t considered noteworthy enough to be one of the featured players in a blurb about Tulane’s pro day, yet he just started at running back in one of the premier NFL games of the week. He stared into the camera and said his name: “Fat Rob.”
I love this dude.
Loser: The Titans
Kelly: The Titans have their best, most balanced team in years. They have a budding superstar quarterback in Marcus Mariota. They’ve got one of the most dominant run games in the league. And they’ve got a strong, tough defense. But they still haven’t figured out how to beat the Colts.
Tennessee lost its 11th straight matchup with its division rival on Sunday — that’s right, the Titans haven’t beaten Indianapolis, a team they play twice a year, since October 30, 2011. The last time the Titans beat the Colts, Moneyball had just hit theaters. “Party Rock Anthem” by LMFAO was still topping the charts. Breaking Bad was still on TV.
With the win, the Colts move in front of Tennessee in the AFC South and have set themselves up well for a run at the Texans, who play the Raiders in Mexico City on Monday Night Football.