Another wild NFL Sunday is in the books. Ben Roethlisberger threw three touchdown passes to lead the Steelers to a blowout win over the Falcons. The Chiefs defense finally stood up in a victory over the Jaguars. The Bengals came back to beat the Dolphins, the Browns edged the Ravens in overtime, and Graham Gano nailed a ridiculous 63-yard field goal as time expired to give the Panthers a narrow win over the Giants. The Vikings beat the Eagles and the Lions held off the Packers, further muddling the NFC North standings, and the Rams remained perfect, outlasting a plucky Seahawks team 33-31.
The Week 5 Sunday slate featured nonstop action, but a few moments stand 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.
Dee Ford Strip-Sacks Blake Bortles
The Chiefs offense has carried most of the weight this year, propping up a defense that came into this week surrendering 28.5 points per game (24th), 328.5 pass yards per game (30th), a passer rating of 100.1 (21st), and an offensive drive success rate of 80.1 (dead last); the unit had also notched just three takeaways (tied for 25th). Still, despite those struggles, Kansas City’s defense has done one thing well, getting after opposing quarterbacks with the fourth-highest pressure rate through the first month of the season. That group’s led by Ford (23 pressures, second among edge players for weeks 1 to 4, according to Pro Football Focus), Justin Houston (14 pressures, tied for 18th), and Chris Jones (15 pressures, tied for eighth among interior defenders). Fueled by that trio, the Chiefs racked up five sacks and 11 quarterback hits Sunday, including this strip-sack of Bortles late in the second quarter.
That play rendered moot Patrick Mahomes II’s first interception of the season, which had happened on the previous snap, and set up the Chiefs around midfield. They converted a field goal on the ensuing possession to up their lead to 13-0, pushing their win probability to 83.8 percent. Then, on the next defensive snap, this happened:
Bortles throws a screen pass directly to Chris Jones. Pick 6 pic.twitter.com/TawdZqxOYl— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) October 7, 2018
That all but sealed it. K.C. built a 20-0 first-half lead with the help of those two crucial takeaways before coasting to a 30-14 win. The Chiefs pressured Bortles on 48 percent of his dropbacks in the first half, giving the Jags a taste of their own medicine while providing a major boost to the offense for the first time this season. Kansas City’s already proved it’s the class of the AFC, but if the defense―which is talent-strapped basically everywhere but on the defensive line―can continue to pressure opposing passers and force more of these types of turnovers, it’ll make the Chiefs all but unbeatable.
Kirk Cousins Throws a Touchdown to Adam Thielen
It’s going to get harder and harder for NFL coaches and executives to get Cousins’s name wrong. A few days after Eagles head coach Doug Pederson mistakenly called Cousins “Kurt” (the second time that’s happened, the first coming from Cousins’s former team president in Washington), the Vikings’ new $84 million man sliced up the Philly defense, completing 30 of 37 passes for 301 yards and a touchdown. That score came on this ultra-fluffy touch pass to Thielen in the back of the end zone, which gave Minnesota a 17-3 lead and an 82.3 percent win probability going into the half:
Excellent throw, excellent route pic.twitter.com/9MwLWil6Nz— Arif Hasan (@ArifHasanNFL) October 7, 2018
The Eagles would keep Cousins out of the end zone the rest of the day, but the veteran passer consistently made plays when he needed to. That’s what he’s done all season too.
With his efficient performance Sunday, Cousins became the first player in league history to complete 30 or more passes in four straight games. And for all the hype around the Rams’ and Chiefs’ pass offenses this season, Cousins trails only Jared Goff in passing yards (1,688), on pace for 5,401—just off Peyton Manning’s record. Minnesota’s defense has been up and down and the run game has been quiet, but Cousins has given the Vikings a remarkably consistent foundation. He’s getting plenty of help from the NFL’s top receiver duo in Thielen and Stefon Diggs, but the 30-year-old passer has been one of the most dynamic in the league this season.
Sam Darnold Throws a Dime to Robby Anderson
Darnold flashed his potential at times over the first month of the season, but for the most part looked a lot like a 21-year-old rookie quarterback who was still catching up to the speed of the pro game. Coming into this week’s matchup with the Broncos, the third overall pick had thrown four touchdowns and five picks and averaged a paltry 6.8 yards per attempt, and the deep game was conspicuously absent from his repertoire. Darnold had gone deep plenty, throwing 20-plus yards downfield on 13.4 percent of his passes (11th in the NFL, according to PFF)—but had completed just three of 17 attempts while registering a 43.3 rating, 31st out of 34 qualifying passers. Those struggles left the speedy Anderson, who led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns last year, as an all-but-forgotten piece of the Jets offense. Until Sunday, that is.
Early in the second quarter, Darnold found Anderson—who’d gotten free up the numbers with a nice double-move—for a 76-yard touchdown strike, giving the Jets a 14-7 lead.
Sam Darnold feels no pressure and delivers a career long of 76 yds to Anderson! pic.twitter.com/D9Ei5G8YnC— uSTADIUM (@uSTADIUM) October 7, 2018
It was this throw, though, that broke the game wide open for New York. On a first-and-10 from the Denver 35-yard line with 1:13 to go in the first half, Darnold looked off the deep safety to the right, turned to his left, and dropped this pass into the proverbial bucket in the back corner of the end zone.
Sam Darnold throws a LASER to Robby Anderson pic.twitter.com/yqBZ6KdOGr— RotoQL (@rotoqlapp) October 7, 2018
That toss gave the Jets a 21-10 lead, pushing their win probability to 77.6 percent. From there, New York never looked back, racking up explosive play after explosive play. Darnold added a 20-yard touchdown toss to Terrelle Pryor in the fourth quarter, and the offense notched runs of 77, 54, 38, and 36 yards. It’s a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, but the more the Jets picked up chunk plays on the ground, the more it opened things up for the deep passing attack, and the more Darnold attacked deep, the more it unlocked the run game. That balance offered a glimpse of the upside this Jets offense has with the rookie under center, and if Darnold can build on that deep connection he showed with Anderson on Sunday, it could completely change the complexion of New York’s offense.
Michael Johnson Picks Off Ryan Tannehill, Rumbles for a TD
The Bengals weren’t quite as unbalanced as the Chiefs through the first month of the season, but Cincy did cruise to its 3-1 start largely on the strength of an explosive, efficient offense that came into this week’s matchup with the Dolphins ranked fifth in offensive DVOA. Sunday, that offense stumbled, particularly in the first half, when Miami jumped out to a 14-0 lead. The Bengals made it 17-10 with an impressive touchdown grab by Joe Mixon on the first play of the fourth quarter, but Cincy’s odds for victory at that point were still just 22.1 percent. On the ensuing Dolphins drive, though, this unlikely pick-six—an errant throw by Tannehill that bounced off of two different players before ricocheting into Johnson’s hands—tied up the game and made it a virtual 50-50 proposition.
TOUCHDOWN! Michael Johnson tied it 17-17 with a 21-yard pick-six. Holy amazenalls. pic.twitter.com/Uj1IESoznp— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) October 7, 2018
From there, the Bengals defense stiffened up, forcing a punt on Miami’s next possession. Then, with 1:42 left and Cincy leading 20-17, this happened:
Another crazy play for the Bengals that results in a touchdown. Tannehill gets stripped as he's winding back for the throw and Sam Hubbard has the ball go right to him pic.twitter.com/DWnuGj736h— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) October 7, 2018
One of the main reasons I thought the Bengals looked like a dark horse to win the AFC North was that the team’s talented pass rush group, led by Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap and buttressed by Carl Lawson, Jordan Willis, Johnson, and Hubbard, looked capable of taking over games. Sunday, we finally saw that group come together and do just that: Cincy’s defensive front racked up three sacks and eight quarterback hits, and it created two of the most pivotal plays of the game to lift up a struggling offense.
Denzel Ward Picks Off Joe Flacco at the Goal Line
The Browns have quietly transformed into the league’s most opportunistic defense after finishing dead last in the takeaways category last season. Cleveland’s young unit, under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, has already racked up a league-high 14 forced turnovers on the year―one more than the NFL-worst 13 they finished with last season―and the biggest one yet might’ve been Ward’s savvy interception early in the second quarter against the Ravens. Keeping an eye on Flacco the entire play, Ward lurked in the flats and jumped the quarterback’s ill-advised throw, robbing Baltimore of a chance to score and preserving the Browns’ narrow 3-0 lead.
Another Denzel Ward interception. He is an incredible magnet to the ball pic.twitter.com/xdpSfQI4Qm— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) October 7, 2018
Ward’s quickly made his mark in Cleveland. Many questioned the Browns’ decision to select the cornerback out of Ohio State over pass rusher Bradley Chubb (who went to the Broncos with the next pick), but the early returns have more than validated that choice―particularly Sunday, when the Browns likely would have lost if not for the playmaking rookie, who, combining that goal-line pick with a blocked field goal late in the half, almost single-handedly erased 10 Baltimore points. That sure mattered in the Browns’ 12-9 overtime win. Five games is a small sample size, but Ward―who’s racked up three interceptions, six pass deflections, and a forced fumble on the year―looks like a franchise cornerstone for the Browns.
Kenny Golladay Goes up High to Pluck a Deep Pass
It’d probably be way too obvious to insert an A Star is Born meme here ... so I won’t. But Golladay’s play Sunday further cemented what we’ve seen during the first month of the season: The Lions’ second-year pro is a superstar in the making.
Coming into the season, it looked like Golladay would function as Detroit’s no. 3 option behind Golden Tate and Marvin Jones II, but through five weeks, he’s starting to look like the de facto no. 1 in that offense, doing his best to earn his Babytron nickname. It might be a little much at this point to compare Golladay to Calvin Johnson, but he does offer a Megatron-esque combination of size, speed, and a seemingly limitless catch radius. This week, Golladay caught four passes for 98 yards and a score, including this impressive catch-and-run late in the first quarter.
Kenny Golladay about turned Ha Ha Clinton-Dix into Chris Conte. pic.twitter.com/4My9ejJ2y8— Field Yates (@FieldYates) October 7, 2018
Leading 7-0 with the ball at the Lions’ 35-yard line, quarterback Matt Stafford heaved what looked to be a prayer in the direction of his big pass catcher. Green Bay corner Josh Jackson was in decent position on the play, but Golladay was just too big, reaching up to reel in the pass over Jackson and run down the sideline for 60 yards—aided by a beastly stiff-arm on Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. That catch led to a LeGarrette Blount touchdown run two plays later, which pushed Detroit’s lead to 14-0 and its win probability to 82.2 percent. When the Packers tried to make it a game, cutting the lead to 10 late in the third quarter, it was Golladay again who sealed the deal, catching a 5-yard touchdown pass from Stafford at the 13:00 mark of the fourth.
That was Golladay’s third touchdown catch in four weeks, and he had another 45-yard score erased by an illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty on center Frank Ragnow. Golladay’s emergence has helped make Detroit’s receiver corps one of the most unstoppable in the NFL. The Lions are hardly a complete team; the defense has mostly been bad, the run game is still a work in progress, and their special teams unit came into Week 5 ranked 30th in DVOA—but in a wide-open NFC field right now, their explosive passing game gives them a chance to compete with anyone.
Jared Goff With the QB Sneak FTW
I love watching the Rams offense. It’s designed to attack the entire field, stretching teams both horizontally and vertically while keeping the pedal to the metal from start to finish. Head coach and play-caller Sean McVay doesn’t believe in traditional ideas like staying on schedule or playing the field position game. He wants to keep the pressure on the defense almost every snap, rarely hesitating to throw deep on second down or look to convert on third-and-long rather than conceding a punt. That aggressive nature showed up again Sunday when the Rams, facing a fourth-and-1 from their own 42-yard line with 1:39 to go, eschewed convention and decided to go for it to seal the win against the Seahawks. Goff picked up 2 yards on a QB sneak.
That conversion was the final nail in Seattle’s coffin. L.A. held a strong 75.2 win probability prior to the sneak, but its lead was no sure thing. Had the Rams punted—as many coaches would have—they would have given the ball back to a Seahawks offense that moved well and just needed to get into Sebastian Janikowski’s above-average field goal range for the chance to win. Instead, L.A. went with the option situational analytics indicated would give it the best odds for victory.
Asked after the game about the decision to take his punting unit off the field during the Seahawks’ timeout and send Goff and the offense back out there, McVay offered a simple response: “If you have to get six inches to win the football game, what better opportunity is there going to be?” You have to love the aggressive philosophy there, and it’s even more encouraging that his type of against-the-grain decision-making on fourth down is becoming much less rare.