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?
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots won Sunday night. The sky is still blue, water still makes things wet, and the Pete-Ariana relationship wasn’t meant to last. We don’t need news flashes about any of these things. But Sunday night was not an average Patriots victory.
The narrative was all set for hotshot youngster Patrick Mahomes II to bring the undefeated Chiefs into New England and be revealed as a flash in the pan by the franchise with a fistful of Super Bowl rings. He played into that story line early, throwing as many interceptions in the first half (two) as he had in the first five games of the year. It was the stuff of talk radio come to life: Sure, Mahomes had great stats and flashy highlights against other teams, but that seemingly meant nothing against the experience and grit of the Patriot Way.
PICKED!— FanDuel (@FanDuel) October 15, 2018
Dont'a Hightower comes up with the interception off Mahomes pic.twitter.com/Akbm3dSB1J
After a touchdown-free first half, Mahomes threw for four in the second. Kansas City rallied from a 24-9 deficit to a 33-30 lead. When the Patriots took a seven-point lead, Mahomes erased it with a 75-yard touchdown to Tyreek Hill.
After Kansas City tied the game at 40, Brady threw a long pass to Rob Gronkowski to set up a game-winning field goal. It’s telling that after Gronk caught the pass, I found myself yelling “LET HIM SCORE” at the Chiefs, who followed their instincts and chose to tackle him instead. Yes, conventional football dictates you should always try to make the tackle—but I figured that the Chiefs would have a better chance of winning if they let the Patriots score the touchdown and gave Mahomes a chance to throw another 60- or 70- or 80-yard touchdown to tie the game and force overtime. That’s Madden strategy, but for a moment there, it seemed like real football strategy. Mahomes makes the NFL seem like a video game.
Yes, New England won 43-40. But by turning a torpid blowout into an 83-point barn burner, Mahomes made the mighty Patriots play a game more fit for Texas Tech. This game started out as a perennial contender handily downing a start-up. It ended as what felt like an AFC championship-game preview—and if the game were played in Kansas City and not Foxborough, I might like the Chiefs’ chances.
This was the game of the year, and the Pats won. But by making the Pats play on his terms, it also feels like Pat won.
There was one punt in Chiefs-Patriots. It was a fine punt! It came on fourth-and-7 from the Chiefs’ 28-yard line, and it went 51 yards! Good job, Dustin Colquitt!
Chiefs-Patriots was nearly perfect, and when I try to think about what could have made it absolutely perfect, I think about eliminating that punt. The Chiefs averaged over 8 yards per play, so I would’ve liked their chances of picking up that fourth down.
If the best game of the year is the one with the fewest punts, and the team that punted one time lost by one possession, and they did so perhaps because they were the only team to voluntarily give up possession, maybe we should just ban punts.
Winner: Nathan Peterman’s Pursuit of Historic Badness
Last year, Nathan Peterman played the worst passing game in NFL history, managing to throw a stunning five interceptions on just 14 passing attempts to sink his team into a 37-7 hole before halftime. I try not to be hyperbolic in my writing, but that game really is in the running for the worst any quarterback has ever played.
Normally, if a player plays one game and it’s the worst game any quarterback has ever played in the history of the league, that guy generally doesn’t get many more chances to play quarterback. But Peterman did: In fact, the Bills gave him the starting quarterback job out of training camp this year. And he was almost as bad, going 5-for-18 for 24 yards (while getting sacked three times for a loss of 12 yards) in a 47-3 loss to the Ravens. That gave him a 0.0 passer rating.
Now, if a quarterback plays one game and it’s the worst game any quarterback has ever played in the history of the league, and then that same player plays another game and they have the worst passer rating you can possibly have, that guy definitely doesn’t get any more chances to play quarterback. But Peterman did. The Bills kept him on the roster as a backup to Josh Allen. And when Allen got hurt Sunday, Peterman came into a tight game against the Texans.
Peterman looked like he could be en route to salvaging his thus-far dismal pro career, throwing a touchdown on his first full drive. Later, the Bills and Texans were tied at 13, giving Peterman a chance to lead a game-winning drive in the two-minute drill.
He did not.
Having given the Texans a seven-point lead, Peterman still had an opportunity to lead a game-tying drive in the two-minute drill.
There is no good reason for the Bills to continue employing Peterman. He has now thrown nine career interceptions on just 79 career attempts, a preposterously high 11.4 percent interception rate. The worst qualifying player in the league last year was DeShone Kizer, and his interception rate of 4.6 wasn’t half as bad as Peterman’s. It’s a small sample size, but it’s not like Peterman has had a few freak accidents. He’s played a prominent role in four games and three of them have been absolute catastrophes. (In the fourth, third-string QB Joe Webb III took over and led the Bills to a 13-7 overtime win over the Andrew Luck–less Colts in a blizzard.)
There is, however, a bad reason for the Bills to continue employing Nathan Peterman. If the Bills had been rational and cut Peterman after his five-pick game, he would be remembered for only one bad performance. But if the Bills keep letting him hang around and he keeps finding his way into games and he keeps throwing hideous interceptions in pivotal moments, he can truly become the worst quarterback of the modern era. The Bills shouldn’t let him continue his pursuit of anti-greatness, but I hope they do.
Loser: Everybody on the Raiders’ Plane Ride Home
The Raiders played the Seahawks in London, a scheduling decision that forced both teams to travel about 5,000 miles. Jon Gruden was not pumped about this:
Gruden on the flight to London: "I hope I can make it. I’m not great, claustrophobic, (went to Belarus to watch his son) I had to fly 14 hours. had vertigo for a month. I couldn’t even lay down the house was spinning. I’m not a great traveler. I’ll be honest. I hate it."— Ann Killion (@annkillion) October 8, 2018
Sending the OakVegas Raiders overseas probably ruined the head coach’s day, or week, or month. But was the trip at least fruitful?
It was not.
Oakland lost 27-3. Their quarterback had just about the worst time imaginable, their only points came when Gruden sent a kicker out to try a field goal down 27-0, and the only positive spin came from Bruce Irvin, who had nothing good to say about the game besides the fact that he gets to have sex later:
Some possible personal perspective from #Raiders DE Bruce Irvin? "We lost, but I've got a beautiful wife I get to go home to, boy. I'm going to try to make some babies, man."— Paul Gutierrez (@PGutierrezESPN) October 14, 2018
It’s one thing to get your ass kicked; it’s entirely another to take a 10-hour flight to get your ass kicked and then have to take another 10-hour flight back—a 10-hour flight with a vomiting coach and a horny defensive end. Brutal.
Winner: The Baltimore Ravens
This is the year of offense. This year, and every subsequent year until football ceases to exist, is the year of offense. Quarterbacks are getting better, offensive schemes are improving, and new rules—some in the name of safety, some just because we like offense—will eventually restrict everything defenses try to do to stop offenses. I’m fine with this: Points are great.
Sunday, we saw two of the best defenses in the league get their asses kicked. Chicago—which came into the day having allowed just 65 total points, the fewest in the league—gave up 31 to Brock Osweiler and the Dolphins. That’s right—Brock Osweiler. He had 380 yards passing and three touchdowns and is now 3-0 in his career against Chicago. They say that when confronted with a bear, you’re supposed to act as tall as possible in an attempt to convince the bear not to attack you. It sounds foolish, but now we’ve seen a quarterback whose primary skill is being 6-foot-7 dominate Bears three straight times, and I get it.
The Jaguars, who were second in the league in scoring defense last year and third this year, gave up 40 points to the Cowboys. Dallas was averaging 16.6 points per game and hadn’t scored more than 26 in a game. And the Cowboys got 40. (Maybe Jerry Jones was right when he said there were similarities between the Cowboys and Rams.)
The league’s best defense can’t be a team that would get roasted so thoroughly by the Osweiler-led Dolphins (let’s call them the Brocktopi) or the Cowboys. There’s only one conceivable candidate for that title right now, the Baltimore Ravens—and they had themselves a day.
Marcus Mariota dropped back to pass 26 times. He completed 10 passes, threw five incompletions, and got sacked 11 times. He got sacked on 42.3 percent of his dropbacks. It shouldn’t be anywhere near as easy for the defense to beat their blockers and bring the QB to the ground as it is for the quarterback to simply release a pass. Those 11 sacks were a franchise record—and the Ravens have had several players who have been good at recording sacks in their franchise history.
Baltimore has the best defense in the league again. Maybe if they realize Lamar Jackson is better at throwing stuff than Joe Flacco, they can get to the Super Bowl.
Loser: The Vikings’ Dancing
The Vikings believe they have the next dance craze that’s sweeping the nation. It looks like … this:
Kirk Cousins with the keeper and the dance pic.twitter.com/IjImEFLkSt— The Sports Quotient (@SportsQuotient) October 14, 2018
It sure looks like the Bernie Dance from Weekend at Bernie’s, but that requires craning your neck and head back and making it clear you’re making fun of yourself. Whenever I see any dance I’m unaware of these days, I presume it’s something from Fortnite … but aren’t the Fortnite dances, like, cool-looking?
What was that touchdown dance from Kirk Cousins?— Andrew Krammer (@Andrew_Krammer) October 14, 2018
Kyle Rudolph: "Apparently it was made up. He's like 'Do whatever you want, just make sure your arms are dead.'"
Kirk Cousins admitted why he’s so into the Dead Arm Dance: He’s not very good at dancing.
Important info: Vikings call their dance celebration the "dead arm dance." Said Kirk Cousins: "I've been at some parties where people who can't dance do that. I like to embrace my limitations as dancer. I said, well, that's a dance I can get behind."— chipscoggins (@chipscoggins) October 14, 2018
Last year, the Vikings were innovators in the category of post-touchdown choreography, even winning our title for best celebration. And they rode that wave of innovation and camaraderie all the way to the NFC championship game. (As we’ve said before here: Celebrating wins games.)
This year, they have Cousins, who admits that he is aiming for utter swaglessness in his celebrations. They are doomed.
Winner: Whoever Came Up With the Buccaneers’ Final Play
Tampa Bay was 21 yards away from a win. They were trailing by five with seven seconds left and no timeouts. Everybody assumed they had only one option—the same thing nearly every team with no timeouts needing a touchdown has done on their final play in the history of the sport: throw the ball into the end zone and hope for a touchdown.
But the Buccaneers innovated.
Jameis Winston ran a QB draw and got 13 yards downfield before Atlanta defenders swarmed him. But that wasn’t the end of the play: Winston lateraled the ball in the direction of wide receiver Adam Humphries, who was trailing him by design. Humphries lateraled to receiver Mike Evans, who lateraled to receiver DeSean Jackson, all of whom were lined up behind each other to facilitate a series of laterals. The last pitch to Jackson spilled out of bounds, but if Jackson had caught it, he would have had a clean road to pay dirt and a Tampa Bay win.
The Buccaneers aren’t the first team to run a frenzied lateral play, but the design of this one is impressive. Most such plays start with a pass about 10 yards downfield. That takes a long time to set up, and the defense is expecting it. The Bucs’ play started with Winston shot out of a cannon, and he attacked a part of the field the Falcons weren’t expecting.
Most frenzied lateral plays’ only chance of success is a cross-field lateral that catches the defense on the wrong side of the field. But that’s hard to pull off, because wide receivers aren’t great at hurling the ball 40 yards across the field, and even if they do, a lateral of that length typically gives the defense time to adjust. The Bucs’ play, though, depended on a series of short laterals on the same side of the field. It was almost like a rugby play—multiple players were ready to take the ball, and if the defense scrambled to one, a short pitch would find another open. If the quick pitches were executed well, the defense wouldn’t be able to tackle every player before one reached the end zone.
The play didn’t work. But Tampa Bay devised a unique strategy that could catch an opponent off-guard in this specific circumstance, and their outside-the-box thinking almost paid off.
Loser: Whoever Came Up With the Buccaneers’ Final Play
On the other hand, the Buccaneers were 21 yards from the end zone and needed a touchdown to win with no timeouts and ran a QB draw.
They have Mike Evans! A 6-foot-5 fade-catching machine! And they ran a QB draw!
I can’t decide whether the Buccaneers’ play was the smartest or stupidest play call of the week. They defied conventional logic, but sometimes conventional logic makes sense.
Winner: The Goal Line
A rush at the goal line seems so easy. But the battle for the goal line is the most important thing in football, and things get a little bit wild down there, as both the Bears and Dolphins found out Sunday.
First, Bears running back Jordan Howard had the opportunity to punch in a game-tying score in the second quarter. Instead, somebody punched the ball out.
Later, in overtime, Kenyan Drake had the opportunity to win the game for Miami on the goal line. He had broken loose from the grasp of Bears lineman Akiem Hicks and basically just had to walk into the end zone. But a late swipe from Hicks knocked the ball out, and Drake stumbled forward as it left his grasp:
Drake was devastated. In his feelings, you could say. “I’m upset!” he might have said.
But he was redeemed: The Bears missed a game-winning kick, and the Dolphins responded with one of their own. Drake was somehow even deeper in his feelings:
Kenyan Drake fumbled on the goal line, forcing overtime.— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) October 14, 2018
After his team rallied back to win, he couldn’t hold back the emotions. pic.twitter.com/IY1oMy723V
Lost in all of the strategy and personalities of football is the fact it’s a game about sticking a ball over a line. Merely inching the ball over the line gets you the maximum number of points, and failing to do so gets you nothing. Even in rugby, the most football-like sport, you at least have to hold the ball over the goal line long enough to touch it to the ground. In football, it’s simpler, and sillier. In football, that line is hyper-important—so important that the rules surrounding fumbles down there border on stupid. The battle for the goal line is ridiculous, but games like Bears-Dolphins reveal why the game’s fundamental battle over a field stripe can be so riveting.
Loser: The Dallas Conors
Sunday, a dude who has gotten a ton of money to get the crap kicked out of him twice in the past 15 months showed up to watch the Cowboys play.
Conor McGregor does not know how to throw a football pic.twitter.com/T2gqqPsHIb— Athlete Swag (@AthleteSwag) October 14, 2018
The Cowboys weren’t just tolerant of the dude who just got sat on and choked by a much stronger person—they were thrilled. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott both dedicated celebrations to the fact the famous guy walks funny sometimes.
Zeke doing the McGregor strut now pic.twitter.com/GI3qXp7DgN— Adam Collins ✭ (@AdamCollinsCN) October 14, 2018
The Cowboys won, but they shouldn’t keep imitating Conor McGregor. Otherwise, they might turn into a franchise that hasn’t won anything in a long time but is still immensely profitable and draws tremendous viewership in spite of their lack of recent success.
Wait a second ...