If Week 7 confirmed one thing, it’s that we’re in the midst one of the wildest, most entertaining NFL seasons ever. We saw a few lopsided blowouts, sure, but the week was headlined by another six one-score games and a bevy of edge-of-your-seat endings: When a Marcus Mariota touchdown pass pulled the Titans to within one point of the Chargers with 35 seconds to go, head coach Mike Vrabel opted to go for two and the win rather than play for overtime—but Mariota’s throw missed its mark. The Buccaneers beat the Browns 26-23 in overtime thanks to a 59-yard Chandler Catanzaro field goal. The Patriots survived the Bears’ last-second Hail Mary attempt by stopping receiver Kevin White at the 1-yard line after Mitchell Trubisky somehow found him in a group of defenders. The Saints beat the Ravens 24-23 when Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker missed his first extra point ever with 24 seconds to go. And the Redskins squeaked past the Cowboys 20-17 when Brett Maher bounced a 52-yard field goal try off the left upright.
Those plays were just the tip of the iceberg. Sunday’s action delivered plenty of excitement and late-game thrills, but a few moments stood out as more pivotal or illuminating than the rest. Here’s a handful of the biggest game-changing plays, along with what they can tell us about both the teams involved and the season at large.
James White’s Fourth-Quarter Touchdown “Sweep”
The Patriots offense, already short-handed due to Rob Gronkowski’s late-week back injury, took another hit early in the second quarter, when starting running back Sony Michel went down with a knee injury. New England lacks a backup similar to Michel, who’d helped revive a listless offense the past month with a LeGarrette Blount–like physicality between the tackles—so offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady did what they do best: adapted the game plan on the fly.
After running the ball an average of 34 times a game over the past three weeks, the Pats pivoted away from a ground-and-pound approach and made pass-catching specialist James White the focal point of the offense. The 26-year-old veteran did pick up some of the slack on the ground, running the ball a career-high 11 times for 40 yards—but made his mark through the air, leading the team in targets (10) and receptions (eight) while gaining 57 yards and scoring twice. His first touchdown—an option route from the 5-yard line on which he torched linebacker Leonard Floyd in the open field—gave New England a 21-17 lead at the half. His second touchdown helped seal the game for good: With the Patriots leading 31-24 and 8:44 to go, White lined up on the left wing and scored on what ended up being an, uh, well-disguised sweep. Instead of sprinting across the formation as expected on this type of play, White lulled Chicago’s defense to sleep, jogging in toward Brady on what looked to be a simple motion back into the backfield; at the snap, though, he hit the afterburners, exploded down the line, and got the angle on the Bears’ edge defenders to find pay dirt.
That score pushed the Patriots’ lead to 38-24 and gave them a 97.3 percent win probability, according to numberFire. They’d go on to hold off a Bears comeback attempt to win their fourth straight game and improve to 5-2 on the season.
No Gronk, no Michel, no matter: The Patriots offense, which had finally picked up steam over the past few games after getting reinforcements in the form of wide receivers Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman, didn’t revert to the listless unit we saw early in the year. White picked up the lion’s share of the slack for his injured teammates—and could keep up his production moving forward regardless of how much time Michel misses. Including last year’s postseason, White has scored 11 touchdowns in his past 10 games. He’s on pace to shatter career highs in rushing yards, receiving yards, and total touchdowns.
Kerryon Johnson’s 71-Yard Run
“Balance” is a relative term in the modern NFL—even the league’s most dedicated smashmouth teams still pass more than they run—but for the Lions, balance has been a foreign concept for most of the past four seasons. That finally may be changing, thanks to the team’s retooled and mostly healthy offensive line and a new two-headed running back rotation of LeGarrette Blount and Kerryon Johnson. Blount is the type of battering ram the Lions have lacked in previous years—Detroit finished dead last in short-yardage and goal-line “power situations” last season but leads the league in the same metric this year, according to Football Outsiders—and the 31-year-old vet punched in a touchdown from 2 yards out Sunday, his third of the year. More importantly, though, Johnson has emerged as a big-play creator everywhere else on the field, showcasing explosive speed and elusiveness with the ball in his hands.
On the first play of the second quarter, with Detroit backed up deep into its own end, the rookie back out of Auburn took the handoff and sprinted through a crease, accelerating through Miami’s defense before getting tracked down 71 yards downfield.
On that field-flipping play, Johnson hit 21.21 miles per hour—the third-fastest speed on a rush attempt this year, according to NFL Next Gen Stats—and took the Lions to the Dolphins’ 20-yard line and into scoring range. The drive stalled, but a Matt Prater field goal pushed the Lions’ lead to 10-0 and gave them a win probability of 76.9 percent. They’d go on to win 32-21 and improve to 3-3.
Detroit racked up 35 rush attempts for 248 yards, the most for any Lions team since 1997, against a strong Dolphins front that had come into the week ranked 10th in rush defense DVOA. Johnson finally got a bigger piece of the offensive pie, carrying the ball a career-high 19 times for 158 yards. The team’s newfound punch in the ground game took some pressure off of quarterback Matt Stafford, who’s had to do it all for the one-dimensional Detroit offense for virtually his entire career. The Lions’ balanced, unpredictable approach kept the Dolphins on their heels while Stafford efficiently picked them apart, completing 18 of 22 passes for 217 yards and two touchdowns. The team’s passing attack—with Stafford, Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, and upcoming star Kenny Golladay—still makes up the backbone of coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s offense. But with a viable ground game, Detroit has an insurance policy for those days when Stafford’s not at his best. The team just has to keep feeding Kerryon.
Alshon Jeffery’s 11-Yard Touchdown Catch
Carson Wentz has put fears of a post–ACL tear slump to rest. The third-year quarterback, who took back the reins as the team’s starter in Week 3, notched his fourth straight strong performance Sunday, posting a 119.6 passer rating while completing 30 of 37 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns in the Eagles’ 21-17 loss to the Panthers. He’s averaged 311 yards a game and tossed nine touchdowns and zero picks in the team’s past four outings, showing few signs his surgically repaired knee is holding him back. He’s gotten a boost from another player coming off major injury, receiver Alshon Jeffery, who returned in Week 4 to hit the ground running as the team’s mismatch-creating outside threat.
Jeffery, who had offseason surgery to repair his rotator cuff, has been mostly unguardable in his first four games back. Sunday, the 6-foot-3, 218-pound pass catcher grabbed seven balls for 88 yards and a touchdown, which came on a second-quarter isolation route and gave the Eagles a 7-0 lead.
Alshon Jeffery or Ronaldo? pic.twitter.com/ZE2yUH8O0o— Def Pen Sports (@DefPenSports) October 21, 2018
Jeffery, who also had a leaping fourth-down sideline grab and caught a deep bomb, has emerged as more than just a complementary piece of a balanced offense. Despite the loss, he’s racked up 12 touchdowns in the past 17 games that Wentz has started and is looking like a dominant no. 1 receiver for the Eagles. His chemistry with Wentz has reached a whole new level. This could be the beginning of a beautiful quarterback-receiver relationship.
Cam Newton Hits Devin Funchess for a Touchdown
It’d be easier to get excited about the Wentz-Jeffery relationship had the Panthers not erased a 17-0 fourth-quarter deficit to come back and win the game. And Carolina needed a crucial seven-play, 87-yard touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter to give itself a chance to do just that.
Trailing 17-6, the Panthers got the ball back at their own 13-yard line with 6:52 to go. They went right into their no-huddle, hurry-up offense, turning up the tempo to get the Eagles on their heels. It worked: The Panthers sliced through the bewildered defense with relative ease; Newton completed five straight passes for 61 yards and added an 8-yard scramble to set up Carolina at the Philly 18-yard line. That’s when he found Funchess in the end zone on a slick double move.
The drive, along with the successful two-point conversion, cut the Eagles’ lead to 17-14, took just 2:44 off the fourth-quarter clock, and gave the Panthers new life, boosting their win probability by 22 points (to 25 percent). Newton and the Carolina offense would need another big drive—and a huge fourth-down conversion—late in the game to take the lead and seal the win, but those heroics would never have been possible without the decisive, aggressive, and, most importantly, quick scoring drive in the middle of the quarter.
The Panthers are perfectly built for those no-huddle looks, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they go to those more and more as the season goes on. With Newton under center and backed by über-versatile offensive weapons like Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, and Curtis Samuel, Carolina can vary its formations and strategy without substituting by running the ball against light fronts or passing it if opponents get stuck in base looks. The Panthers have the athleticism and speed on offense to tire out teams, and the best part is they can do it all game long without hurting their defense.
The no-huddle isn’t always synonymous with the hurry-up: Even when the Panthers don’t huddle, they can still go to the line and let seconds tick off the play clock—giving Newton the time to survey the defense and get the right play dialed up. As Newton said after the game, “Our edge at some particular times is the hurry-up. ... Hurry-up doesn’t mean panic.”
Andrew Luck Finds T.Y. Hilton for a Touchdown
Hilton wasn’t lying when he said after the game, in reference to the Colts offense, that “it seemed like they missed me.”
During the team’s previous three games, all losses, Luck shouldered an enormous weight, throwing the ball 164 times for 1,130 yards—an average of almost 55 attempts and 376.7 yards a game—while collecting 11 touchdowns and five picks. Luck’s stat line seems more impressive knowing he did it mostly without Hilton, running back Marlon Mack, and trusty tight end Jack Doyle, all of whom missed time with hamstring injuries. Indy’s injury spate left Luck throwing to a ragtag collection of late-round picks, middling veterans, and no-namers, who combined to drop an unbelievable 18 passes in that three-game stretch.
Hilton’s return after two weeks out was just the spark this Colts offense needed. The 28-year-old pass catcher didn’t post an eye-popping line—just four catches for 25 yards—but he didn’t have to: He made the most of his four targets by finding the end zone twice. His first score all but put the game away and demonstrated the type of quarterback-receiver chemistry that can be earned only with years of experience together. On a third-and-4 from the 5-yard line, Luck escaped pressure, drifted to his right, and, just when it looked like he was going to throw the ball away and settle for a field goal, fired a pass through three defenders and right into Hilton’s waiting arms.
That score pushed the Colts’ lead to 21-0 and gave them a 98 percent win probability going into the half. They coasted from there, with the help of another Hilton touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Mack made a huge difference for the Colts offense too. The second-year pro carried the ball 19 times for 126 yards and a touchdown, giving us a glimpse of what the Indianapolis unit can do when healthy―against a Buffalo defense that came into the week ranked third in DVOA, no less. Luck’s arm seems to have gotten stronger as the season’s worn on—there’s more zip on his passes and he’s attacking further downfield—but, crucially, he didn’t have to throw the ball 55 times for the Colts to win: The veteran passer tossed four touchdowns on just 23 attempts.
DeAndre Hopkins’s One-hander
I can’t end this column without mentioning Hopkins. It’s almost trite at this point to write about how good the sixth-year pass catcher is, but he continues to make an astonishing play or two just about every week. Sunday, he lined up against cornerback Jalen Ramsey, got off the press, and separated late with a subtle push-off before reeling in the pass with one hand.
DeAndre Hopkins burns Jalen Ramsey pic.twitter.com/R6SEnZkLzk— 360°FantasyFootball (@360FFB) October 21, 2018
Later in the game, Hopkins again beat Ramsey, this time for a touchdown. That play was the final nail in the Jaguars’ coffin.
DeAndre Hopkins beats Jalen Ramsey for a 10-yard TD. His hands are insane.pic.twitter.com/aclwZLtIsJ— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) October 21, 2018
For all that’s wrong with the Houston offense, including its porous offensive line, the lack of a consistent run game, and the at-times-mystifying play-calling from head coach Bill O’Brien, Hopkins continues to be the most matchup-proof, coach-proof, and just-about-every-variable-proof pass catcher in the NFL. The guy just gets it done, and he gives the Texans a chance to win every week.