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: Exciting NFL Games
The first two weeks of the season brought about a narrative that the league was boring. Most of the early games this season were low-scoring and lopsided, a great combination for fans who love tragedy but hate plot twists and suspense.
This week, the NFL got its good games back. Here’s a quick look at the best of Week 3:
• Everybody was ready to make fun of a Thursday Night Football matchup between the Rams and 49ers, and then it turned into a 41–39 shootout, the most fun Thursday night game in recent memory.
• Chicago walked off with a 23–17 overtime win over the Steelers that was defined by wackiness.
• The Falcons held off the Lions, 30–26, when a potential game-winning touchdown turned into a game-ending video review.
• Tom Brady’s fifth and final touchdown of the game gave the Patriots a 36–33 win over a shockingly competitive Texans team.
• The Giants scored 24 points in the fourth quarter, only to lose when Eagles rookie Jake Elliott blasted a 61-yard field goal to win the game for Philadelphia.
• Aaron Rodgers had never won a game in overtime and never beaten the Bengals, but felled both monsters in a 27–24 win.
At their worst, NFL games are dull filler that happen to provide answers on whether our bets hit or missed. But Sunday, the league was at its ridiculous best, providing a slew of back-and-forth battles decided by astounding plays by some of the best athletes on the planet. For a few minutes during Falcons-Lions, I almost stopped paying attention to whether or not the involved players were on any of my fantasy teams. (Almost.)
The NFL relaxed its celebration rules this offseason, to much fanfare. It didn’t, however, change its taunting rules. That’s fair — the league does have an interest in curtailing taunting that could lead to on-field fights.
And thus, when Broncos defensive end Von Miller hit Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor with a truly vicious rendition of the infamous “too slow” handshake feint, officials flagged him:
The call against Miller turned out to be critical. Before the penalty, the Bills were facing a fourth-and-6 and were likely going to punt the ball away to the Broncos, who trailed 23–16 with more than seven minutes to go. But the flag gave the Bills a fresh set of downs. By the time the Broncos got the ball back, they were down 10 points with three minutes remaining.
Miller’s non-handshake was not worth penalizing. This gag doesn’t even elicit emotional reactions from children, and children have emotional reactions to basically everything. NFL players don’t need officials protecting them from schoolyard gags. If a critical Giants drive is derailed because a defender has convinced Eli Manning that he can join the Pen 15 Club by writing “PEN 15” on his hand, well, that’s Manning’s burden to bear.
Relaxing the celebration rules was a good idea that got positive reviews from basically everyone. But there are still places where common sense could overrule the NFL’s strictly defined rulebook.
Winner: The London Jaguars
In advance of their first-ever game in England, the Ravens posted an image of Queen Elizabeth wearing Ravens facepaint, a quickly deleted tweet that was off-putting and possibly a violation of British law. Allow me to paraphrase a famous Baltimore poet: If you come at the queen, you best not miss.
The Jaguars obliterated the Ravens, 44–7. That doesn’t quite do the game justice: Joe Flacco went 8-for-18 for 28 yards with two interceptions, good for a QBR of 0.5. His two sacks for a loss of 12 yards gave Baltimore a whopping 0.8 yards per dropback before Flacco was benched. Meanwhile, Blake Bortles threw four touchdowns for the first time since 2015.
Up 37-nil, the Jags ran a fake punt, for no reason other than to continue their pure, unbridled humiliation of the Ravens. It went for 58 yards:
Jacksonville has won its last three “home” games in London while going 7–25 stateside since 2015. Perhaps the team is more used to the oddities of an international game-week than their opponents; perhaps Wembley Stadium is secretly the most fearsome home field in the NFL. Perhaps Bortles has grown tired of a life lived entirely within central-to-north Florida and yearns for his annual trip to the land of mushy peas and jellied eels. Regardless, the Jags are England’s greatest football team. Give Jacksonville the Intercontinental Belt.
Loser: Bill O’Brien
The Texans nearly did something magical. Starting rookie Deshaun Watson on the road against Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, Houston almost got a win. They almost got a win instead of won because Brady threw a touchdown pass — his fifth of the game — with 23 seconds remaining to give New England a 36–33 lead and the victory.
But the Pats had the opportunity to go on a game-winning drive only because Houston coach Bill O’Brien allowed New England to have it. O’Brien’s Texans had a fourth-and-1 from New England’s 18-yard line with 2:28 left and a two-point lead. Fourth-and-1 is overselling it: The Texans needed about a foot to pick up the first down. O’Brien opted to kick a field goal to take a five-point lead rather than fight for a new set of downs and the potential to score a touchdown.
The Texans had two ways to seal the win: bleed the clock or push their lead from one possession to two. Kicking a field goal accomplished neither of these. The decision to take the points was also the decision to give New England the ball with more than two minutes remaining in a one-score game.
Sure, the Patriots might have stopped Houston on fourth-and-short, and then needed only three points to win the game. But if you’re a coach, what should you have more faith in? Your team’s ability to gain a single foot? Or your team’s ability to stop one of the best quarterbacks of all time from scoring a touchdown in a clutch situation at home? Going for it on fourth down sounds risky, but I think giving Tom Freakin’ Brady the ball with plenty of time in a one-possession game is much riskier.
Winner: Case Keenum
Murder was the case for the Vikings, as the sixth-year quarterback had 369 yards and three touchdowns while throwing no interceptions and taking no sacks in a 34–17 win over the Buccaneers. Watch this video of Keenum highlights if you can stand to hear the Vikings’ gjallarhorn blaring every time Keenum hits a big play, which happens quite often, because it’s a highlights video:
Seriously, I hope the actual Vikings didn’t play that stupid horn so much while pillaging enemies. That would’ve added insult to injury. Have some class.
Sure, a lot of Keenum’s success was due to third-year wideout Stefon Diggs, who snagged balls over, under, and behind defenders all day long, finishing with 173 yards and two touchdowns. But, like, Keenum looked kinda good.
This is the second time a Vikings QB has stunned the NFL with an uncharacteristically brilliant passing performance this season. In Week 1, checkdown king Sam Bradford boomed bomb after bomb past the Saints. It wasn’t what we expected from Bradford, but hey, it was Week 1. Maybe this was Bradford’s new look.
Then Bradford hurt his knee, and we presumed all was lost. Keenum is the Vikings’ third choice ; he’s subbing in for Bradford, who himself is the long-term replacement for the perhaps permanently injured Teddy Bridgewater. And things looked bleak: Week 2 against the Steelers, Keenum managed just 4.5 yards per attempt. But then he more than doubled that Sunday, averaging 11.2 yards per attempt in one of the best performances of the week.
I wish no injury on Keenum. But I am super curious to see how many weeks it would take the Vikings to get Keenum’s backup — an undrafted rookie named Kyle Sloter whom I have never heard of even though I write extensively about college football — up to speed.
Winner: Fans of Every Team Besides the Chargers
There are a lot of reasons to be disappointed by the Chargers’ move to Los Angeles. The team abandoned its fan base in San Diego because the franchise’s owners and the league make more money if the Chargers play in Los Angeles. It’s the worst of sports: owners choosing an enormous pile of cash over tens of thousands of fans who have spent their entire lives rooting for a team.
But hey, enough about the negatives. Why don’t we focus on the positives — like the fact that with no Chargers fans in Los Angeles, every Chargers home game is an opportunity for another team’s fan base to take over the smallest stadium any NFL team has called home in decades, an intimate, unique environment to watch your team win. Philip Rivers commented that the Dolphins had “a lot” of fans at StubHub Center after the team’s home opener, and Sunday, Chiefs fans practically owned the place in their team’s 24–10 win.
The Chargers left their home so that the NFL’s other 31 teams can occasionally play home games in Los Angeles. Everybody wins! Well, everybody wins except the Chargers, I guess — they’re 0–3. At least the team’s owners are still rich.
Loser: The Jets
No, they didn’t lose ; in fact, they whupped the absolute hell out of the Dolphins, taking a 20–0 lead before Miami scored a meaningless touchdown on the game’s final play. The Dolphins played just about the worst game in the NFL this season, punting on their first seven possessions before running a fake punt on their eighth. (The punter threw an interception.)
But Winners and Losers isn’t about simple game results. It’s about the grand scheme of things, and WHAT ARE YOU DOING, NEW YORK JETS? At 1–2, New York has relinquished the driver’s seat in their ultimate quest this season: to get the no. 1 pick. The Jets now have a better record than the 49ers, Bengals, Browns, Chargers, and Giants. The Giants. You realize how this is going to go down, right? The Jets, stripped of every valuable asset, are going to go 2–14, and the Giants are going to go 1–15 and take the quarterback for whom the Jets have spent most of the decade tanking. It’s destiny.
Winner: Odell Beckham Jr.
Through three weeks, it’s pretty clear the Giants don’t have much of an offense. They scored zero touchdowns on Sunday Night Football against Dallas in Week 1, with Beckham out of the lineup. They had one touchdown in Week 2 against the Lions on Monday Night Football. And in Week 3, they didn’t score for the first 47 minutes of game time, until their first possession of the fourth quarter.
And then Odell Beckham did some stuff. His first touchdown was this brilliant toe-tapper at the back of the end zone:
Odell Beckham somehow froze his body in mid air so that he could keep both feet inbounds pic.twitter.com/JyUMOaWDS4— Ollie Connolly (@OllieConnolly) September 24, 2017
Two minutes later, he made a one-handed touchdown catch:
After his first touchdown, he peed like a dog:
Odell Beckham pretending to be a peeing dog is really what this day needed pic.twitter.com/POmzWtdSzM— Dave Lozo (@davelozo) September 24, 2017
That drew a flag. I’m a bit confused why ; under the NFL’s new celebration rules, most celebrations are OK, except for violent and “sexually suggestive” ones. Does the NFL think peeing is sex? Why would they think that? Should I ask?
Beckham’s critics argue that his antics — occasional celebration penalties, emotional sideline outbursts, a boat trip with his teammates whose names everybody forgot for some reason — make him too big of a headache to handle. Never mind how intensely dull a human would have to be to dislike a tremendous talent whose biggest flaw is harmless methods of entertaining himself. Games like Sunday’s prove how silly that line of thinking is. Beckham is capable of single-handedly breathing life into an offense without a competent quarterback, offensive line, or running game. Sure enough, New York tabloids are focusing on Beckham’s faux pas — faux piss? — more than anything else, as if Beckham’s lone penalty somehow cost his team the game. The truth is the Giants have two choices: Beckham occasionally picking up penalties after scoring touchdowns, or nobody scoring touchdowns ever.