Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, admonish the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Winner: Adrian Clayborn
Adrian Clayborn has had a good NFL career. Good, not great, perhaps even a little disappointing considering he was a first-round draft pick in 2011 and recorded 7.5 sacks as a rookie but has been relatively quiet since. The Falcons defensive end has never been a Pro Bowler, or All-Pro, and he didn’t play in the Falcons’ run to the Super Bowl last year after tearing his biceps in the team’s first playoff game. Those 7.5 sacks in his rookie year had been his career high—until Sunday. In a 27-7 win over the Cowboys, Clayborn played one of the greatest games any defender has played.
Dallas was without Tyron Smith, the star left tackle who has anchored an offensive line widely considered one of the best in the NFL over the past few seasons. His backup was Chaz Green, who began the season as the Cowboys’ starting left guard before being benched. I’d say Clayborn was Green’s worst nightmare, but that would imply Green could stop Clayborn by waking up. And nothing Green did could stop Clayborn.
Adrian Clayborn out here collecting sacks like they were trading cards...— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) November 13, 2017
Watch ALL 6️⃣ sacks pic.twitter.com/iMiRRcTGHQ
Most of the time, Clayborn just sprinted past Green’s outside shoulder, getting virtually free runs at Dak Prescott’s unprotected back. But on the few plays where Green managed to cut him off, Clayborn spun past, anyway. Green will spend the rest of his life dreading Clayborn—and Clayborn’s dreads.
Clayborn had six sacks—five against Green and a sixth against Byron Bell. That makes him just the fourth player in NFL history to drop the quarterback so many times. (The NFL record belongs to Derrick Thomas, who managed a seven-sack game in 1990.) No Falcon had ever recorded six sacks in a game; the Cowboys had never allowed six sacks to an individual player. Alone, Clayborn’s Sunday was the second-best season of his six-season career. Two of those sacks forced fumbles, and Clayborn had an additional QB hit. Only 14 players entered Sunday with more sacks on the season than Clayborn had on Sunday.
I guess this is why they call him Chaz Green—just one game, and you’ll hit most of your contract incentives.
Update: by reaching 8.0 sacks this season, Falcons DE Adrian Clayborn has triggered a $750,000 incentive bonus if he finishes the season on the 53-man roster. https://t.co/yibqZQyHqL— Field Yates (@FieldYates) November 13, 2017
The Cowboys lost 50 yards on sacks, and managed only seven points to the Falcons’ 27. It was a career game for Clayborn—for many players, literally a career’s worth of sacks; for Clayborn, a game that will define his career.
Loser: The Guy in Charge of Counting How Many Players Are on the Field for the Broncos
First, the Broncos tried to stop the Patriots with 10 players. It didn’t work, and Dion Lewis scored a touchdown:
Later, the Broncos got caught with 12 men on the field for a punt on fourth-and-5. That should never happen; it’s one thing to have 12 men on the field when your defense is trying to substitute in between plays, but the 11 guys on your punt-return team should know damn well whether they’re on the punt-return unit or not. Someone on the Broncos missed the cue, New England was awarded a first down after the penalty, and the Pats went on to score a touchdown a few plays later.
The good news is that the Broncos averaged 11 players for the entire game. The bad news is that Denver’s two deviations from the correct number of players each managed to cost them a touchdown in the 41-16 loss.
Winner: Bill Belichick
What does Bill Belichick love most in the world? Your first answer was probably “winning,” but be honest—does Bill Belichick actually love winning? No: Winning is something he does because he needs to do it to live. Saying Bill Belichick loves winning is like saying trees love sunlight. It’s a necessity, not a passion. It doesn’t make him smile.
So far as I can tell, Bill Belichick loves three things: lacrosse, Rutgers (and Rutgers lacrosse), and special teams. Holy hell, does he love special teams. I love special teams too; they’re weird vestiges of rugby that bear little resemblance to the rest of football, yet they possess the potential to shift the balance of otherwise normal games. But I don’t love special teams as much as Belichick, whose early coaching jobs were in special teams roles with the Lions, Broncos, and Giants. Normally terse, he has gone on epic monologues about punters, long snappers, and holders.
He might not love winning, but he must have loved Sunday night’s win. Dion Lewis returned a kickoff for a touchdown:
Rex Burkhead blocked a punt:
And the Pats recovered a fumble after Denver’s Isaiah McKenzie muffed a punt:
And, of course, there was the previously mentioned 12-men-on-the-field penalty that gave the Pats that other first down. I suppose you could say these are all Broncos’ mistakes—Denver failed to get in position to tackle Lewis, couldn’t get a body on Burkhead, dropped the punt, and didn’t get the right number of guys on the field. But I bet Belichick would say how Lewis’s return was blocked so well, how the Pats overloaded the left side of the Broncos’ punt team, how the spin provided by Ryan Allen’s punt fooled McKenzie, and how Allen was smart enough to call for a snap while the Broncos still had 12 guys on the field. Somebody ask him: I’m sure he’d love to talk about it.
Loser: DeShone Kizer
The Browns almost won Sunday. But don’t worry, the Browns always manage to Brown everything, except for their helmets, which are orange, which is its own way of Browning. Here is one of the stupidest plays of the year: a QB sneak from the 2-yard line with 15 seconds left in the first half run by a team with no timeouts:
Dumbest play call of the year goes to Hue Jackson. QB sneak from the 2 with 15 seconds before half and no timeouts. pic.twitter.com/3XMCetOdWG— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) November 12, 2017
Kizer gained maybe half a yard, and the resulting pile took about 12 seconds to sort out. Presumably, the Lions knew they could severely hamper Cleveland’s chances of running another play by remaining tangled in the middle of the field. The Browns couldn’t quite get off a spike to stop the clock, so this was their last play of the half.
At first, the blame went to Browns coach Hue Jackson, because when a coach has one win and 23 losses (24 after the Lions won 38-24 on Sunday) with a team, he loses the benefit of the doubt. But Kizer’s teammates seemed to confirm that the quarterback audibled into the play, although Jackson and Kizer wouldn't reveal anything about the play.
DeShone Kizer would not answer if he audibled into that QB sneak.— Daryl Ruiter (@RuiterWrongFAN) November 12, 2017
Mystery solved b/c TE Seth DeVavle told @treed1919 that wasn’t the play called “that was DeShone doing his thing but he has the freedom to do that” #Browns
It’s emblematic of the Browns in so many ways. It seemed like even if Cleveland failed on this play, the team would make something out of its situation by kicking a chip-shot field goal. There was a check in place for them to get some return, even if they failed. It also seems like each awful Browns season is a worst-case scenario, and that the draft picks they get from their bad performances should enable them to get some return from their failures. And yet they keep coming away with nothing.
Loser: The Josh McCown–vs.–Ryan Fitzpatrick Revenge Battle
With Jameis Winston injured, the quarterbacks in Buccaneers-Jets were Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh McCown. Fitzpatrick, a 34-year-old who has started for seven NFL teams, had one of the best passing seasons in Jets history in 2015 before a horrendous 2016 season, which featured a six-interception game. McCown, a 38-year-old who has started for six NFL teams, went 1-10 as Tampa Bay’s starter in 2014. A revenge game!
Ever watched a friend—or, uh, “a friend”—try to show off in front of an ex, going above and beyond to make it clear how good things are with a new partner? But instead they spend so much time and effort appearing to have a good time that it becomes clear they’re miserable? Anyway, these two plays came on back-to-back snaps.
To be fair, these were the only two interceptions of the game. But the game was bleak. It was tied 3-3 at halftime. Fitzpatrick went 17-for-34 for just 187 yards; McCown had a decent 262 yards on 39 passes, but also got sacked six times by a team that entered Sunday with just eight sacks on the season. Tampa Bay won, 15-10, but the real winner was anybody who watched this game and realized how much they love the one they’re with.
Winner: The Jags’ Long Snappers
Look, I told you I like special teams. The Jaguars long snapper is supposed to be four-year veteran Carson Tinker, but he tore his ACL in August. Teams don’t have a backup long snapper because long snappers get injured so infrequently and have a job that’s different from anybody else’s, so the Jaguars signed 32-year-old Matt Overton. Sunday, Overton made one of the biggest plays of the game. He delivered a one-handed diagonal snap on a fake punt to Corey Grant, who ran 56 yards for a score. Sure, Grant did a lot of the work, but Overton deserves some love for keeping the Chargers completely unaware that a fake was coming and executing perfectly.
But later, Overton suffered a shoulder injury of his own. Remember, teams don’t have backup long snappers. An injured long snapper is the NFL’s secret disaster scenario. No, you can’t just sub in the center—a shotgun snap is a completely different skill from a long snap. Teams have literally lost games due to a complete inability to execute on special teams after a long snapper injury—punt snaps go over the punter’s head, resulting in safeties or opposing touchdowns; field goal snaps are too inaccurate, making it impossible for the holder to get the ball down for the kicker in time for a successful field goal; snaps take too long, resulting in blocks. In a close game like Sunday’s, this could have doomed the Jaguars.
But the Jags had a plan. Fullback Tommy Bohanon snapped on punts, and offensive guard Tyler Shatley snapped on field goals—the first time Shatley had ever snapped in a game.
Jacksonville needed to kick a field goal in regulation to force overtime. Shatley’s snap was high, but holder Brad Nortman got it down. They needed another field goal to win it in OT, 20-17. Shatley nailed the snap, and Josh Lambo nailed the kick, even as a Charger got a hand on it:
Incidentally, Lambo was cut by the Chargers in preseason. Now that is how you make an ex jealous.
It’s unusual enough that the Jaguars are good. But for the Jacksonville Jaguars—a lightning rod for catastrophes—to have specific, effective plans for once-every-few-season emergencies that have felled other teams in the past? Unreal.
Winner: Teddy Bridgewater
For the first time since January 2016, the Vikings quarterback was in pads and a helmet on an NFL Sunday. He didn’t play, but just taking the field with a uniform and cleats caused Bridgewater to make facewater:
What a moment.— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) November 12, 2017
Teddy Bridgewater was emotional in his first game back since his horrific knee injury. pic.twitter.com/6sXIZ7BGJT
Bridgewater explained his emotions in a way that might cause you to make some facewater, too:
BRIDGEWATER: Man I was trying to keep it together. But it's just, opportunities like these don't come around twice. When you get that second opportunity, you cherish it. And you hold it. You never want to let it go. Today it got the best of me.— Dianna Russini (@diannaESPN) November 12, 2017
After his brutal knee injury last offseason, there was fear Bridgewater would never play again. As of Sunday, the Vikings think he’s capable of playing—third-string quarterback Kyle Sloter, who had backed up Keenum since Sam Bradford’s injury, was inactive, so Bridgewater was the only available player in the event that Keenum left the game, an eventual 38-30 win over Washington.
The next victory will be for Teddy to actually play; the victory after that will be for Teddy to play as well as he played before all this happened. Right now, I think Bridgewater can pick up both W’s.
Winner: JuJu Smith-Schuster
JuJu has quickly emerged as the greatest actor of the NFL’s group celebration era. But a few weeks ago, I found myself disappointed in JuJu for taking tiny roles when he’s clearly a star.
On Sunday, he fixed that:
This was Smith-Schuster’s first biopic; he’s playing Jalen Ramsey in a recreation of the incident last week where A.J. Green choke-slammed and punched Ramsey. Le’Veon Bell played A.J. Green. I think Bell dropped the ball here, grabbing Smith-Schuster’s neck only once rather than twice and failing to reenact Green’s punches. But Smith-Schuster captured the flailing desperation of Ramsey.
What makes an actor is not just their talent, which Smith-Schuster possesses in droves, but the roles they choose. And what a choice this was: With his captivating portrayal of a man getting choked out on a football field, Smith-Schuster managed to not only celebrate a touchdown, but cast a negative light on the actions of his divisional rival. The academy will surely remember this come awards season.
(Also, JuJu had 97 yards receiving in addition to the touchdown in the Steelers’ 20-17 win over the Colts.)
Winner: The New York Giants
Sunday, the 1-7 New York Giants played the 0-9 San Francisco 49ers, one of the worst games in NFL history. Really—it was the first time since 1984 that two teams with just one combined win played each other in Week 10 or later.
The Giants didn’t just lose; they gave up 31 points (and scored 21) against a team that had scored 30 points in its past three games combined. Just look at this effort (to not be anywhere in between 49ers receiver Marquise Goodwin and the end zone):
Nobody else was going to lose to the 49ers and help the Giants into the top two of the draft order. The Giants had to go out and do it for themselves. Sometimes you have to make your own destiny.
Loser: Vontaze Burfict
Burfict has earned a reputation as one of the league’s dirtiest players. He’s acted dangerously toward fellow players both during and after plays since he was in high school. The NFL knows that, and punishes him in kind—he was suspended for five games earlier this year (which was later shortened to three) for a hit that, while clearly illegal, might not have earned most other players a suspension at all.
In Sunday’s 24-20 loss the Titans, he got called for a late hit on this play:
Officials came over to make sure things didn’t get out of hand. One put his arm across Burfict’s chest, and Burfict moved the hand away. He was ejected for it:
Of course the NFL is right to penalize the dangerous actions Burfict commits more harshly than those committed by first-time offenders. But does it really make sense to penalize and eject him for two actions that wouldn’t even be considered illegal when committed by the vast majority of NFL players? How exactly does heavily punishing Burfict for non-dangerous plays make him more likely to play safely in future?
Loser: Jeff Fisher
The best quarterback in Week 10? Jared Goff, who went 25-for-37 with 355 yards passing and three touchdowns, including this 94-yard bomb to Robert Woods:
The 94-yard touchdown pass from Goff to Woods pic.twitter.com/o5McPzm4ae— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) November 12, 2017
Goff started off poorly but had a stretch in the third quarter of L.A.’s 33-7 win in which he went 8-for-9 for 182 yards and three touchdowns. The Rams are 7-2, on top of the NFC West, and Goff is leading the NFL in yards per attempt.
The second-best quarterback in the NFL in Week 10? I’d cast my vote for Case Keenum, who threw for 304 yards and four touchdowns.
Signed to be a backup, Keenum has led the Vikings to a 5-2 record as a starter. (And that doesn’t count a victory over the Bears, a game he entered in reserve of a hobbled Sam Bradford.)
Both of these quarterbacks were on the Rams last year, and, under Jeff Fisher’s tutelage, both of them sucked. Keenum’s 76.4 passer rating ranked 27th in the league; Goff didn’t throw enough passes to qualify, but his 63.9 passer rating would have been worst in the league. Both threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and the Rams were the worst offense in the NFL by any conceivable measure.
And now look at them. We could chalk up Goff’s excellent sophomore campaign to Sean McVay being the greatest coach the NFL has ever seen. But for both players to experience massive upticks in 2017 is explicable only through the crappiness of 2016 Rams coach Jeff Fisher. May Goff and Keenum’s success keep NFL teams from paying Fisher to ruin their quarterbacks in the future.