Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, investigate the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Last week was a wild week in the NFL, highlighted by the Patriots getting rocked by the otherwise-hapless Lions and the Bills not just winning as 17-point underdogs, but absolutely crushing the Vikings, the largest upset in the past few decades. It’s why we said the biggest winner in the league last week was nonsense.
This week, it was the opposite:
• New England faced the Miami Dolphins, who came into the game as the undefeated leaders of the AFC East. They are very much not undefeated anymore. The Pats took a 38-0 lead before Brock Osweiler threw a garbage-time touchdown. That’s how garbage the garbage time was: Brock Osweiler was playing.
If at any point during the last week, you thought, “Are the Dolphins the best team in the league?” Bill Belichick heard you thinking that (of course they have mind-reading technology and of course that technology is illegal—both according to the NFL and the laws of man—and of course Bill Belichick continues to use it) and he’s going to show up at your house to scowl at you.
• The Bills played the Packers but did not continue their conquest of the NFC North. They lost 22-0, and they don’t even have Brock Osweiler on the roster to play in garbage time. They just have Josh Allen, who went 16-for-33 with two interceptions and, of course, no touchdowns. Here’s one of those interceptions, where Allen sprinted toward the sideline and should have thrown the ball away, but instead decided to huck the ball back into the middle of the field:
The full Josh Allen experience on this play pic.twitter.com/C3JTuCyF5x— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) September 30, 2018
Allen threw for 151 yards, but he also lost 64 yards on sacks. The Bills’ O-line is terrible and Allen’s pocket awareness … could use some work. Maybe everybody was right about him.
All in all, 11 of the 14 games thus far this week have been won by the Vegas favorite. I was wrong last week when I said I was wrong before last week.
Winner: Tie Avoidance
The NFL is in the midst of a tie epidemic. The reason is simple—the league has its most protracted process of deciding a winner in its history (the “modified sudden death” rules implemented in 2012), as well as its shortest overtime period ever (10 minutes instead of 15), and the combination will lead to deadlocks more often than ever.
Sunday, two games nearly ended in ties, either of which would have given the league its first three-tie season since overtime was introduced in 1974. Instead, we got one fascinating win and one fascinating loss.
After the Eagles opened their overtime period against the Titans with a field goal, the Titans had the opportunity to match. With 1:17 to go, the Titans’ drive appeared to have stalled out at the Philadelphia 32-yard line. The conventional option would have been to send kicker Ryan Succop out for a 49-yarder. But rookie Titans coach Mike Vrabel weighed his options. Kicking a field goal with so little time remaining would almost certainly lock in a tie. But his Titans would still have the chance to lose—if the kick missed, or if the Eagles won the game in the final minute. And any kick would all but kill Tennessee’s chances of winning.
So Vrabel went for it on fourth-and-short. And got it. And three plays later, the Titans won on a touchdown pass to Corey Davis:
The Colts and Texans traded field goals on the first two possessions of overtime. That gave Indianapolis the ball with under two minutes to go. Their drive stalled a bit quicker than Tennessee’s, as the Colts faced a fourth-and-4 from their 43-yard line with 24 seconds left in overtime. It seemed like the best option was to punt, essentially ensuring a tie—it would be hard for Houston to scramble into field goal range in just a few seconds. But rookie Colts coach Frank Reich weighed his options and also took an unusual route.
First, Reich sent his Colts onto the field in hopes of drawing Houston offside, which didn’t work. After this, Indianapolis had to burn a timeout, making the team’s chances of driving into field goal range less likely. Then, on fourth-and-4, he sent his offense back out onto the field, where they ran this play:
Hypothetically, both coaches were doing their best to play for a win instead of a tie. But Reich’s decision was considerably worse: Even if his team had converted, they would have still needed some improbable plays to get into field goal range. And because they didn’t, the Texans were set up to kick a game-winning field goal. Vrabel took a possible tie and turned it into a chance to win with a mild risk of a loss; Reich took a near-certain tie and took on a massive risk of losing with relatively little chance that the Colts could pull out a win. According to ESPN, going for it lowered Indianapolis’s win probability by a whopping 5 percent. Reich stood by his decision, saying he’d go for it “10 times out of 10.” And the Colts stood by him, proud that their coach had continued fighting for a win instead of settling for a tie. It was the gutsy call, if a bad one more times than not.
At first, I was strongly against the league’s rule changes that led to a resurgence in ties. But on Sunday, we saw an interesting angle inadvertently caused by the uptick in split decisions. When teams get particularly deep in overtime, coaches reveal their opinions on the tie, powering their way into wins or derping into losses. It’s a fascinating side effect to the strange choice to make ties more common.
Loser: Jeff Fisher
To be fair, every week is an embarrassment for Fisher. Fisher was coach of the Rams just two years ago, and he did an awful job: Fisher was fired as the Rams finished 4-12 and everybody assumed Jared Goff was an all-time draft bust. Now the Rams are Super Bowl favorites and Goff looks like one of the league’s best quarterbacks, making Fisher a retroactive fool. I spend a lot of time thinking about how much happier I would be in general if the Patriots had hired Jeff Fisher once upon a time.
But this week, Fisher made a mistake. Instead of just hanging out in whatever house he bought with the millions upon millions of dollars he made coaching bad-to-mediocre football teams, he decided to try his hand at a new job.
At first, I didn’t know that Fisher was the guy calling Sunday’s game between the Jets and Jaguars. I just assumed the regular color commentator had been struck by a tranquilizer dart just before kickoff. I wasn’t the only one bewildered by the guy calling a football game who didn’t seem to think football was particularly interesting.
Who is the analyst in the Jags game? He sounds like he's calling the game from his hotel bed.— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) September 30, 2018
Who is calling Jets-Jaguars? Dude sounds like he's lost— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) September 30, 2018
Who is doing the Jags game? He sounds like he'd rather be anywhere else in the world.— Ollie Connolly (@OllieConnolly) September 30, 2018
Soon, I learned that the announcer was none other than the Seven-and-Nine Sensei himself. Sure enough, the guy who made football boring as a coach could also make football boring as an announcer. But even funnier was some of the stuff Fisher said. It seemed as if the only things that could excite him were poor play and bad decision-making.
If Jeff Fisher is trying to find something that he’s worse at than coaching, broadcasting might be it. #Jets went 3 and out on first drive and his reaction: “That’s a win for Sam Darnold.”— PJ Kinsella (@PJKinsella19) September 30, 2018
Jeff Fisher is so boring it’s hard to pay attention, but I’ve heard him so far:— Adam Stites (@AdamStites_) September 30, 2018
A) Praise Sam Darnold for throwing a 3rd down pass short of the sticks
B) Agree with the Jaguars kicking a 22-yard field goal instead of going for a 4th & short
Jags kicking a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the four-yard line with Blake Bortles having completed 11 straight passes and Leonard Fournette back. Jeff Fisher approves of the decision on commentary. “This game is going to be about field goals,” he says.— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) September 30, 2018
Sadly, this was probably Fisher’s last turn in the booth—Sunday’s game was the only one he was scheduled to call, and he was so outrageously bad at the gig that I can’t imagine them giving him any further games. Then again, I thought the same thing about his coaching career, and he got to do that for 22 years.
Loser: The Falcons Offense
The Falcons might have the best offense in football. Since Week 1, the team is averaging 34.7 points per game, with Matt Ryan averaging 355 passing yards per game, completing 76.5 percent of his passes at an average 10.4 yards per attempt with 10 touchdowns and just one pick. Calvin Ridley looks like perhaps the best offensive rookie in a class filled with talented offensive rookies; Julio Jones is still Julio Jones. Their problem was red zone scoring, but since Week 1, they’ve scored touchdowns on 11 of 13 red zone drives.
And they’re 1-3 because their defense is a banged-up mess. Last week it was a 43-37 loss to the Saints, this week it was a 37-36 loss to the Bengals. The Falcons lost two Pro Bowlers early in the season, safety Keanu Neal and linebacker Deion Jones, as well as starting safety Ricardo Allen. That means that wide receivers can get open enough to score touchdowns even if they get injured during a play:
John Ross comes up limping on a reported groin injury but still able to make it in for the touchdown, Bengals lead 21-14 in Atlanta pic.twitter.com/6OzJSc4F14— No Huddle NFL (@NoHuddle_NFL) September 30, 2018
Truly, John Ross put the team on his back here.
The Falcons might be the most fun team to watch, since every game is a thrilling shoot-out. They might be the best fantasy bet in the league, with a whole squad of wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends all feeding out of a generous stats buffet. But playing offense for them has to be existentially dreadful—no matter how well they do, a loss is incoming.
Loser: Todd Bowles
You probably tuned out of the Jets’ game against the Jaguars after Jacksonville scored the first 18 points. A smart decision. I didn’t, because I’m a Jets fan and an idiot. Jets coach Todd Bowles apparently did, because after Jacksonville scored the first bunch of points, he decided that nothing he did mattered.
- Trailing 25-3, Bowles had his team kick a field goal. Before the field goal, the Jets trailed by three possessions. After the field goal, they trailed by three possessions.
- Trailing 25-12 with 4:33 remaining in the game, Bowles had his team punt on fourth-and-6. Before the punt, his team trailed by two possessions; after the punt, the Jets ran one offensive play.
It’s unlikely that the Jets would have won even if they’d gone for a touchdown down 22 or tried to pick up a first down trailing by 13. I’d still like to think they should have tried.
Winner: The 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship Game
Last year’s national title game was the best football game I’ve ever seen in person. Georgia jumped out to a 13-0 lead, Alabama changed quarterbacks at halftime and won on a 41-yard pass in overtime. Sunday, I got to sit on a couch and watch the stars of that game shine in the pros.
Georgia running back Sony Michel was drafted in the first round by the Patriots—the first time New England had used a first-rounder on a running back since 2006, a stunning move for a team that seems to cycle through backs like they’re worthless and is as pass-oriented as anybody. It was tough to see what the Patriots saw in Michel through the first three weeks of the season, but on Sunday he had the best game of his young career, rushing for 112 yards and a touchdown:
Georgia running back Nick Chubb was drafted in the second round by the Browns, the second-highest Georgia RB drafted behind Michel, and the second-highest Chubb drafted behind Broncos defensive end Bradley. He had just seven touches for 41 yards through the first three weeks of the year, but on Sunday he had his breakout game, going for 105 yards and two touchdowns:
Apologies to all the college teams that had to reckon with both Michel and Chubb in the same backfield. That was unfair, and at least now you can point at the NFL and say: LOOK! THEY’RE BOTH VERY GOOD! THAT WAS REALLY HARD TO STOP!
Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley was drafted in the first round by the Falcons—not particularly surprising, since they already drafted an Alabama wide receiver named Julio Jones in 2011, and that guy’s pretty good. But something weird has happened in 2018: Jones doesn’t score touchdowns. Ridley does, including six in the past three weeks:
So I guess my advice is to watch the next college football national championship game. That way you’ll be able to smugly say, “Hey, I watched that guy in college!” when Tua Tagovailoa destroys the 31 NFL franchises that don’t draft him one by one.
Winner: Two-QB Systems
Typically, bench players and starters rotate in and out at every position on the field except the most important one. Barring injuries or blowouts, the starting quarterback plays every snap, and the backup happily collects checks for standing on the sideline with a clipboard. But on Sunday, three teams threw that paradigm for a loop.
First up, the New Orleans Saints. Ever since claiming Taysom Hill off waivers last season, head coach Sean Payton has been enamored of the third-stringer’s athleticism and willingness to play literally any position, and he’s used the BYU grad on special teams, both on coverage units and as a kick returner. But Sunday’s game against the Giants was his real coming-out party. Hill threw his first career pass on a fake punt attempt:
Teams run fake punt passes like this all the time with less skilled passers—the Saints have the luxury of having a QB on the punt team.
But that wasn’t all! Hill also played a few snaps at quarterback, busting out a big run:
Taysom Hill 19-yard run pic.twitter.com/kCfSbt2ilx— Brenden Ertle (@Brenden_Ertle) September 30, 2018
Hill also had a catch, and he threw a pass that probably should have been caught by Alvin Kamara for a touchdown. Sometimes he plays alongside Drew Brees; sometimes he actually gets to take snaps. The Saints seem to think he’s particularly useful in the red zone, where he’s more of a threat to run than Brees and also capable of blocking. He’s quickly going from gimmicky sideshow to a guy who gets used by one of the league’s better teams on a regular basis.
Next up: The Baltimore Ravens, who have used rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson as a wide receiver all season but actually let him take some snaps under center Sunday night against the Steelers, letting him run for 17 yards. He didn’t throw, because for some reason the Ravens still believe that Joe Flacco is better at throwing footballs, but baby steps.
But my favorite of the three: The Chicago Bears, who ran this play against the Buccaneers.
What you see there is starting QB Mitchell Trubisky standing alongside backup Chase Daniel, with both holding their arms out to potentially receive the snap. When Trubisky gets the snap, he fakes a handoff to Daniel.
I imagine a world where Daniel took the handoff. Or a world where the ball was snapped to Daniel, and he handed off to Trubisky, who then threw a pass. I imagine a world where Lamar Jackson was also on the field for this play as a wide receiver, and Taysom Hill was a running back or tight end or right tackle. I imagine a world where all 11 players on the field are at least somewhat skilled at throwing footballs, a world in which the defense can never safely assume that no pass is coming.
We love talking about quarterbacks. Why must we limit ourselves to a world where only one is on the field at any given time?
Winner: The Tennessee Titans Celebration Heist
Last year, the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl. You may have heard about it, as I do 47 times per workday at The Ringer offices, where 72 percent of the city of Philadelphia is employed. But they weren’t just the football champions of the world—they were the greatest touchdown celebrators in the league.
Their greatest work? A bowling celebration, so far as I can tell, the only 11-man celebration of the year. Ten players served as pins, an 11th as a bowler.
Sunday, the Titans played the Eagles, and jacked their finest celly:
The Titans weren’t as technical in their celebration—only nine players managed to make it into the pin formation, with wide receiver Corey Davis serving as a rogue walking pin. (Perhaps this was the second roll of a turn, and the first had been a near gutterball.) But the Titans made themselves clear: They weren’t scared of the Eagles, as a football team or as a mime comedy troupe. Tennessee beat the defending champions, 26-23, in overtime.
If the past two years have proved anything, it’s that post-score choreography is not just useless fun: The teams that are best at celebrating touchdowns are also the best at scoring touchdowns. Because if you know you’ve got choreographic heat in the chamber, you’re not gonna let it go to waste.
Loser: As Always, the Browns
With the debut of Baker Mayfield, I was optimistic that we had reached an era in which good things happened to the Cleveland Browns. But alas.
The Browns seemed to have secured their second win in a row Sunday—a win that would have been the team’s first on a Sunday since 2015; a win that would have given Cleveland a winning record for the first time since 2014. Up 42-34 with under two minutes to go, it sure looked like Carlos Hyde got a first down that would have allowed Cleveland to run out the clock.
Did he get the first down? Probably. It’s tough to see from the camera angles available, which is why when officials ruled that he got the first down, it seemed like the game was over. But the play was reviewed, and officials somehow overturned the spot.
Nobody seems to be sure of how or why the spot was overturned. Spots are rarely overturned on replay review. Officiating blog Football Zebras (which tends to side with officials in such situations) said there was “no angle shown that demonstrated” that the spot should have been changed. Former NFL officiating head Dean Blandino spoke on Fox about how he thought the spot was likely to stand before the call and then just kind of shook his head in disbelief after the officials proved him wrong:
Reaction of FOX’s Dean Blandino after refs blow another call and make a ridiculous overturn says it all. pic.twitter.com/g4F7VoO4hB— Jimmy Traina (@JimmyTraina) September 30, 2018
And this was the second massive, confusing call against the Browns: Earlier, a play on which the Browns recovered a fumble that could’ve been returned for a touchdown was ruled a mere sack, also prompting surprise from the officiating community.
Ruling of "in the grasp" in Oakland, is not reviewable. It is also not in the grasp. It is a clear fumble before he would have been in the grasp.— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) September 30, 2018
Of course, the Browns could have won in spite of this. After Hyde’s spot was overturned, the Browns could have:
- picked up a first down on fourth-and-millimeters;
- stopped Oakland from driving for a touchdown;
- stopped Oakland on the ensuing two-point conversion attempt to tie the game;
- won the game in overtime.
Cleveland did none of these things. Some teams are bad; others are unlucky. Down the stretch Sunday, the Browns were both, because the gods who conspire against Cleveland sports are extremely thorough.
Winner: Seattle Management
Earl Thomas broke his leg Sunday. The last major member of the Seahawks secondary that brought Seattle its first and only Super Bowl, Thomas had spent most of the season loudly expressing his displeasure that his contract ends after this season, badgering Seattle to give him a longer-term contract. He held out through training camp and even during the season, refusing to practice when he felt less than 100 percent. In spite of this, he was perhaps the team’s best player, intercepting three passes in Seattle’s first three games to give the Seahawks hope in spite of an anemic offense.
But now he is likely out for the season because his leg is broken. He gave the finger to the Seattle sideline as he was carted off with his leg in a cast.
Earl Thomas leaving the field looking across the field to the Seahawks sideline. pic.twitter.com/aoIkUYu88f— Terry Blount (@TBlountSports) September 30, 2018
Seattle could have paid one of the most important players in franchise history his fair-market value and ensured that he would be a part of the team for the future. But that was too risky: With all football players, the potential exists that some awful crap will happen to their bodies, causing any money committed to them to be wasted. The franchise didn’t want to pay Thomas in the future because of this exact scenario, where injuries to Thomas make him less useful.
And so, with Thomas’s broken leg, Seattle has won this contract showdown. Thomas will hit free agency next year; as damaged goods, he will receive significantly less money than he would have if he’d survived the season unscathed. Seattle will be off the hook, as it won’t need to pay the guy who risked his physical health for the sake of the team. Congrats to the Seahawks front office and ownership. Well played.