Week 12 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 of Fingers: Derek Carr
Michael Baumann: Football players, in case you haven’t heard, are really tough dudes. So imagine how much pain one of them would have to be in to completely disregard the ball and run to the sideline while the other team recovers the fumble.
Somehow, while receiving a snap in the third quarter, Derek Carr injured the pinkie finger on his throwing hand — “dislocated” is probably the medical term, but I’m thumbing through my list of ICD-10 codes for “finger is sticking out of his hand sideways” — potentially damning the Raiders to field a compromised Carr, or worse, a healthy Matt McGloin, for the rest of the game.
Carr returned, wearing a glove to keep his finger from falling off, and quickly hit Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis in … I was about to say “the numbers,” but Carr’s a little squeamish talking about digits anymore. But Carr answered Carolina’s 25 straight second-half points with two fourth-quarter scoring drives of his own, finishing with 315 passing yards to move the Raiders to 9–2.
Winner: Khalil Mack, Human Wrecking Ball
Baumann: I don’t blame Cam Newton for throwing that pick-six near his own goal line, because in the time it took Newton to get through his throwing motion, Mack went from “blocked” to “running the other way with the football.” A quarterback and his linemen can no more account for Mack than they could account for a telepathic bear with a butterfly net.
Mack finished with six tackles, hit Newton three times, scored as many points as Latavius Murray, and snuffed out Carolina’s final drive with a fourth-down strip-sack near midfield with 54 seconds left. With his left arm, Mack guided 310-pound Trai Turner backward the way you would lead your blindfolded friend into a surprise party. He then crossed inside and leaped at Newton, swatting the ball out of his hand and falling on it to seal the victory. Not that this is a huge surprise to anyone who’s seen a Raiders game in the past three years. Human offensive tackles are just not capable of staying in front of someone as big and quick as Mack play in and play out — this week, Newton found out at the worst possible time.
Winner: Crafty John Harbaugh
Rodger Sherman: One of the most annoying things about football: you don’t just get to keep playing offense forever. Ugh! This is especially frustrating when you’re leading with a few seconds left and get to fourth down. If you give the ball back to your opponent, especially if you’re pinned near your own end zone, they might score and win.
What do you do in this scenario? Do you just run around and hope the clock expires? If it doesn’t, you’re giving the ball to the opponent close to the goal line. Do you just hurl the ball up in the air and hope the clock expires? Oklahoma State tried this, and thanks to some poor refereeing, it didn’t work out. Do you punt? Michigan, coached by Jim Harbaugh, tried this, and it DEFINITELY didn’t work out.
But Harbaugh’s brother, John, has a strategy. He used it with 12 seconds remaining to seal a win over the Bengals:
He gave punter Sam Koch the ball and ordered his offensive line to do whatever it took to stall defenders, even if it resulted in a penalty. Mostly they held. Flags flew, Koch danced around, and after the clock expired, he exited the end zone. Penalties on the offense don’t extend the game (like a time-expiring penalty on the defense does), and you don’t have to punt the ball away after a safety with no time remaining unless the safety is caused by penalty, which in this case it was not. So the game was over, and the Ravens won.
It’s the second time Harbaugh has done this — he killed seven seconds from the end of Super Bowl XLVII with this strategy, although that time no penalties were called and the Ravens didn’t quite kill the clock, forcing a post-safety free kick. ESPN’s Kevin Seifert says the officials could hypothetically rule an intentionally committed foul like this “a palpably unfair act” and force a replay of the down, but they would need to issue a warning first. If you’re trying something sneaky like this on the last play of the game, there’s nothing the officials can do besides throw their (meaningless) flags.
Soccer fans scorn intentional handballs to save goals, and basketball fans roll their eyes when teams repeatedly foul bad shooters. But in those situations, there’s some punishment for the team’s actions: A clear handball leads to a red card, and a poor shooter might hit free throws. Harbaugh has found a rare instance in sports where an obvious violation of the rules doesn’t result in any consequences. Maybe it’s unsportsmanlike, but I don’t think any NFL coach would care. Until the rulebook changes to disincentivize this, coaches can and should do it. Harbaugh deserves credit for his craftiness.
Winner: The Grey Cup
Sherman: I suggest any football fan watch at least a few minutes of Canadian Football League action at least once in their life. It’s just like the football Americans play, but everything is … a little bit different. There are only three downs, the field is 110 yards long with 20-yard end zones, 12 players line up on the field per team, and there’s a three-minute warning. It’s an interesting twist on the game we love, with a heavy emphasis on passing and a weird amount of points scored. It’s like how all those Galapagos finches evolved to be slightly different from one another, except here one of the finches starts Jeremiah Masoli at quarterback.
The Grey Cup is the CFL’s Super Bowl, but unfortunately, it takes place smack dab in the middle of November on an NFL Sunday. Most years, I wouldn’t try to convince a casual NFL fan to take a break from a pivotal week to check out Bizarro Football. But this NFL Sunday kinda sucked. Broncos-Chiefs? Jets-Patriots? That’s the best you have to offer? I happily flipped over to watch the Ottawa Redblacks play the Calgary Stampeders (Ottawa ended up beating Calgary in overtime, 39–33). It made no sense and it was wonderful.
Winner: Malcolm Mitchell
Sean Fennessey: “It’s still a learning process. I’m a rookie. Every day is a day that I can try to get better and do something better than I did the day before.”
That is a perfectly anodyne quote from Patriots wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell from a brief Boston Herald story that ran Saturday. That quote may be familiar to you, as it is the same paint-drying aphoristic claptrap we hear from all manner of NFL players, particularly those who play in New England. Last week, Mitchell had his first NFL game of consequence, hauling in four catches for 98 yards and a touchdown. This week, he had more. As Rob Gronkowski quietly exited the field after aggravating an injury on Sunday, Tom Brady turned to a receiver with 11 career catches entering the game. That person torched the slow-footed husk formerly known as Darrelle Revis for four catches and two touchdowns, including this elegant little grab.
In recent years, the Jets have given up TDs of note to such Patriots legends as Aaron Dobson, Jonas Gray, and Brandon Tate. Brady has a habit of lifting unknowns for brief spurts of glory. But few have felt as ignominious as the unheralded Mitchell embarrassing Revis, who now feels more like an expensive manifestation of daily failure than a historically relevant defensive figure. Mitchell, on the other hand, is a fourth-round 2016 pick earning $594,498 this season. Once upon a time, he was considered a top-10 receiver in his class, but that was years ago. Now? Maybe he’s Dobson. Or maybe he’s more.
Loser: Phillip Gaines
Sherman: What’s the most embarrassing thing that can happen to an athlete? Getting dunked on? Getting nutmegged in soccer? Striking out by swinging half a second ahead of a changeup?
To me, the answer is easy. It’s when you’re a cornerback and you get picked on. This lasts longer than just one play. It’s an opponent saying, “Hey, we know you’re the worst player on your defense and that you don’t have a chance of stopping whichever wide receiver you guard, so we’re going to design our strategy around attacking you.” And sometimes it happens on national TV.
Look at this face.
Sunday Night Football was a battle of two great defenses. In last year’s Super Bowl, Denver’s Von Miller showed how a defensive end can take over a football game. Sunday night, Kansas City outside linebacker Justin Houston arguably outperformed him. Both teams struggled to accomplish much of anything offensively for three quarters.
And then the Broncos found out about Gaines. He was so lost, he didn’t quite know where the football was at times.
Maybe Gaines got tired because of a tough game in high altitude. Maybe the Broncos were throwing his way only because they wanted to avoid All-Pro corner Marcus Peters on the other side. Maybe this was just a bad night.
But most NFL fans probably had never heard his name before Sunday night, and the first time they did, they watched him get rotisseried. Sorry, Phillip.
Winner: The Number Five
Sherman: We don’t get a lot of fives in football. There are four downs and four quarters, three points for field goals, six for touchdowns — but nothing for five besides the uniform numbers of Donovan McNabb and Joe Flacco.
To score five points in a game, you can’t score a touchdown. You need to be offensively inept enough to score just one field goal and defensively strong enough to get a safety. The college football guide to Weird Scorin’ affectionately terms these games “fünfers.” They used to be somewhat common in the NFL, with 15 fünfers between the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 and the 2004 season. But before Sunday, we had a 12-year drought.
But then came Seattle! The Seahawks’ origami offensive line allowed Tampa Bay to sack Russell Wilson six times on the afternoon, and the Buccaneers committed a hold in the end zone to give Seattle exactly five (to Tampa Bay’s 14). Sesame Street tries to sprinkle its love to a variety of numbers and letters — the NFL is rarely so generous. But today, five got to shine.
Winner: The Titans’ Improbable Playoff Odds
Kevin Clark: My goodness: The Titans are legitimate playoff contenders, at 6–6 and a half game behind the AFC South–leading Texans. This is not the doing of the Titans, exactly. On Sunday, they did what they always do: look decent against a bad team, this time beating the Bears 27–21. But it just might be working. The Titans are perhaps the most inconsistent team in football — they’ve alternated wins and losses for the past seven weeks — but they are just mediocre enough to take advantage of a bad division in which the Colts are incapable of protecting Andrew Luck, the Texans start Brock Osweiler at quarterback, and the Jaguars have produced this statistic:
The big difference now is that Marcus Mariota has gone three games without an interception. He’s slowly shedding his label as a turnover-prone QB, and we’re a long way from his season-opening four straight games with an interception. The Titans’ alternating wins/loss shtick will likely continue since they play the Broncos next week, but it’s worth mentioning that all they need to do to make the playoffs is stay average. The Texans and Colts will do the rest.
Loser: The Bears’ Passing Game
Danny Kelly: The Bears’ passing game is a complete train wreck right now. Starting quarterback Jay Cutler is injured. His backup, Brian Hoyer, who might be better than Cutler, is also injured. The team’s best receiver, Alshon Jeffery, is suspended. Their most promising young receiver, Kevin White, is on injured reserve. Their best tight end, Zach Miller, is on injured reserve. And their best offensive lineman, Kyle Long, is on injured reserve. Like I said: train wreck.
That left Matt Barkley starting on Sunday against the Titans. He brought his zero touchdowns (career) and 18.3 passer rating (this year) to the table, and threw to people named Marquess Wilson, Cameron Meredith, Deonte Thompson, and Josh Bellamy. It went … fine? Until it didn’t. Barkley finished the game 28-of-54 (52 percent) for 316 yards, three touchdowns, and two picks, but that stat line looks a lot worse than it should have. Unofficially, Bears receivers dropped 10 passes. That included two in the end zone in the closing seconds that could have won Chicago the game.
Trailing 27–21 with 46 seconds remaining, Barkley took a snap from the Titans’ 7-yard line and hit Bellamy right in the hands a few yards deep into the end zone, and after Bellamy needlessly jumped for it, the 27-year-old receiver let it fly through his mitts, incomplete. Three plays later, on fourth-and-goal from the same spot with 34 seconds to go, Barkley hit Thompson in the back of the end zone. He, too, let the ball slip through his fingers. The Bears lost.
There is a silver lining to this offensive incompetence: At least the Bears didn’t win a meaningless game to further damage their upcoming spot in the draft order.
Winner: Vontaze Burfict, Flopper
Sherman: Vontaze Burfict is the NFL’s biggest jerk. The Bengals linebacker is tremendously talented, but he has a well-documented history of dirty play. It costs him personally (he racks up massive fines and missed the first three games of the season with a suspension), it costs his teams (the Bengals kinda lost in the playoffs last year because of his actions), and it puts his opponents in physical danger. Five years in, it’s no longer cute.
But he’s rebranding:
That’s Burfict, flopping after a scuffle with Steve Smith and convincing the referees Smith violently headbutted him, leading to a 15-yard penalty.
Burfict is still a jerk — flopping like this requires calculated disrespect for your opponent. But at least now he’s a jerk we can laugh at. Flopping is funny! Trying to win via fooling referees is much, much better than trying to win by injuring your opponents’ knees.
We can tolerate this level of jerkery. Burfict is a winner, at least until the next time he launches himself at a defenseless wide receiver’s head.
Winner: Jared Goff, Big Enough to Fail
Sam Schube: For a moment there, it was all going Jared Goff’s way. The Rams QB tossed three first-half touchdowns against the Saints, a mix of quick reads, 18-yard outs, and other assorted Professional Quarterback Throws. Rams fans — the #MobSquad — had reason to feel excited. Because it’s been a trying rookie season for Goff: He frowned his way through the preseason, spent 10 weeks sitting behind Case Keenum, and made a wet fart of a debut in last week’s loss to the Dolphins. A Google image search for Goff yields a treasure trove of “I could have been an agent instead” faces:
So a single half of competent QB play was enough to get people excited. Maybe the Rams had drafted the right player. Maybe Goff was the perfect (weird) face for an L.A. franchise.
And then the Saints went on a 42–7 run.
After a 167-yard, three-TD first half, Goff put up 47 yards and an interception in the second as the Rams continued their march to 7–9. Toward the end of the first half, the commentators quoted Goff as saying: “I feel like the starting quarterback.” Then he fumbled the ball away deep in his own territory. But Jared Goff — third-string no. 1 pick, maker of bad faces, fumbler of footballs — feels like the starter. It’s a start.
Danny Kelly: NFL kickers are back … with a vengeance. The much-maligned position group, which has long faced the question of whether or not its members are actually football players, missed a collective 12 extra-point attempts last week, the worst kicking performance in a single week in the league’s history. A few of these poor saps — Mike Nugent and Robbie Gould — both missed two extra points apiece in the disastrous meltdown. It was a dark day for kickers and their supporters.
Undaunted, these fearless few banded together early Sunday. Led by a charismatic new hero, the truest football players not only proved that they are, in fact, football players, but defiantly stated that they’re the best football players. Through halftime of the early-game slate, just one extra point went wide, and zero field goals failed to hit their mark. Ravens kicker Justin Tucker led the way, hitting an NFL record three kicks of 50-plus yards in the first half of Baltimore’s matchup with Cincinnati, connecting on attempts of 52, 54, and 57. And the 57-yarder would’ve been good from about 65.
The 27-year-old Raven is making his claim as the best kicker in the league: He’s yet to miss a field goal or extra point this season, and he alone has already outpaced all NFL kickers from last week, who combined to hit just two from 50 or more yards. Kickers are back, and Justin Tucker is their king.
Loser: The Off-Brand Rams
Clark: Some teams have their brands. The Patriots “do their job.” The Browns lose. The Chargers blow leads. And the Rams play Rams football all the time. (What is Rams football? Rams football is a continuous streak of 10–9 games expertly designed to be so visually uninteresting as to force a football-starved market, without the sport for two decades, to grow bored before December.)
In this respect, the Rams played extremely off-brand football on Sunday. Jared Goff threw his first career touchdown pass, breaking a longstanding franchise rule against touchdown passes. And the defense gave up 42 points in the first three quarters of their shootout against the Saints, and then a 50-yard pass by wide receiver Willie Snead in the fourth. The fact that the offense looked competent is welcome news. The downside is that the defense turned into a wreck against Drew Brees — the kind of pyrotechnic QB the Rams usually turn into Case Keenum, and who had four touchdown throws in the first three quarters. Any Rams fan — or fan of competent football — who wished the Rams didn’t play those 10–9 slogs every week is getting their wish today. But, surprise: “via slog” may be the only way the Rams can win games at all.
Winner: The Future of QB Play Circa 2013
Schube: I remember what the future used to look like. It looked like this:
And it looked like this, if you squint the right way:
In the post–Michael Vick era, NFL fans, GMs, and coaches were hungry for quarterbacks who could expand our imaginations, who pushed the boundaries of what quarterbacks could and would accomplish. Colin Kaepernick and Ryan Tannehill seemed like potential answers to that question: swift and strong, able to beat defenses with their arms, feet, and simple athleticism. (They weren’t the only ones: RG3’s rookie year will live forever, and Cam Newton remains deeply futuristic.) But things didn’t quite work out for these two: Kaepernick now makes more news on the sideline than on the field, and Tannehill has finally found some measure of success by becoming a more traditional (read: boring) pocket passer.
But when the two took the field in Miami on Sunday, they were good for fireworks. Kaep rushed for 113 yards, Tannehill flung the ball around, and each threw three touchdowns. It was 2013 all over again. Their future — one where quarterbacks resemble Fox’s Cleatus the Robot — was all but gone. But on a mostly boring Sunday, they gave us a glimpse. It looked pretty.