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?
Winner: The Saints’ Unnecessary Scores
The Saints are growing dissatisfied with the competition. They haven’t lost since Week 1, and nobody has come within 10 points of New Orleans in nearly a month. It’s gotta be boring, trouncing the supposed best teams in the world week after week.
Sunday could have been a challenge for them. They were playing the Eagles, a team that I’m told won last year’s Super Bowl. If that’s true, it must have been a different team, because this year’s Eagles were no match for New Orleans. (Maybe they changed quarterbacks or something since winning the Super Bowl? I don’t know.) The score was 24-7 at halftime, and it got worse from there. Carson Wentz threw three interceptions and no touchdowns; Drew Brees threw four touchdowns and no interceptions.
This had to have been disappointing to the Saints. All they want to do is play 60 minutes of football, but they can’t find a team capable of playing them close enough. In the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game, the Saints faced a fourth-and-6 up 38-7. Most teams would punt out of politeness. But the Saints are getting tired of being polite. So Brees threw a 37-yard touchdown to Alvin Kamara.
According to Pro-Football-Reference’s Game Play Finder, which tracks games dating back to 1994, there have been six touchdowns scored on fourth down by teams leading by 30 points or more. Two of those touchdowns have been scored by this year’s Saints in the past two weeks. In addition to this week’s score, Brees ran a QB sneak on fourth down last week when New Orleans was up 38-7 against the Bengals. The first five touchdowns scored on fourth down by teams leading by 30 were all done near the goal line. The Saints are the first team since at least 1994 to launch such an extravagant fourth-down play while winning by so much. To be fair, the Saints get more of these chances than anybody else: They’ve already tied the record for 40-point games in a single season. They’re the NFL’s kings of running up the score.
Some might think it’s unclassy for the Saints to score touchdowns in such an uncouth manner, but I feel for New Orleans. It’s not their fault that no team in the league is capable of playing them close for 60 minutes. They just want to keep playing football, and nobody in the league right now is good enough to force them to do it.
Loser: Smart Decision-making
Ron Rivera made the right call toward the end of Sunday’s game against the Lions. The Panthers scored a touchdown trailing 20-19 in the game’s final minutes, and Rivera opted to attempt a two-point conversion to try to win instead of kicking an extra point to tie. The math backs this call up: Teams make two-point conversions roughly half the time—in 2018, they were exactly 41-for-82 entering this week; since Rivera took over as coach of the Panthers in 2011, Carolina was 9-for-18 before Sunday. For an extra point to be a better bet, kickers would need to convert literally 100 percent of them; but they do not. This season, kickers were hitting 94.6 percent before Sunday; Carolina’s kicker, Graham Gano, actually missed an extra point earlier Sunday.
So Rivera went for two. The play call was a good one: Carolina’s offensive line blocked spectacularly, giving Cam Newton seven or eight hours in a clean, undisturbed pocket. Detroit’s coverage broke down by Hour 6 of the play, allowing receiver Jarius Wright to come open over the middle. It should have been easy for Newton to find a wide-open player just a few yards away from him. Unfortunately, as Newton wound up to pass, he decided it might be fun to play catch with one of the photographers standing at the back of the end zone instead of throwing to Wright.
You just can't get overthrows out of Cam Newton's game.— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) November 18, 2018
They lie there, dormant, just waiting for the moment to pop up and kill a game.
This has to be a completion. pic.twitter.com/b2JYTXkJxA
Everything about the play was perfect, except for a simple throw by a quarterback who is very capable of making simple throws. I really like the Panthers, but I also kind of like it when they lose in heartbreaking fashion, because it means Newton has to stand on a podium and accept responsibility while dressed like a mournful Darkwing Duck.
“I gotta make that play. Got to make that play.” Cam Newton on two point conversion pic.twitter.com/in97y9YuTm— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) November 18, 2018
And because Newton failed to do a thing he normally does, many fans questioned Rivera. The Panthers are probably better than the Lions—should Rivera have let the Panthers play for another 10 minutes? Why not bet on Carolina’s talent winning out over time?
I think Rivera made the smart call—not just the smart one, but the more exciting one. I’d always rather watch a single play that decides a game than a modified sudden death overtime session, especially since overtimes are often sloppy and weird. Understanding that Rivera’s decision was right also involves understanding that it won’t work every time—in fact, about half of the time it’s going to fail. But so far this season, the two teams that have gone for two in these scenarios have failed: The Panthers on Sunday, and the Titans against the Chargers in Week 7 in London. And those failures risk making football a little bit dumber and a little bit less fun.
Rivera’s decision wouldn’t have been a huge deal if not for a spectacular play earlier in the game. The Panthers got the ball to rookie receiver D.J. Moore, a speedster who ran a 4.42 40-yard dash at the 2018 NFL draft combine. He busted loose for 82 yards, by far the longest play of the Panthers’ season.
Funny thing about 82-yard plays: Most of them are touchdowns, because going 82 yards downfield means you burned pretty much everybody. But not this time:
Considering Moore was already farther downfield than anybody else and was one of the fastest players in the most recent draft class, I presumed he was home free. But Lions cornerback Darius Slay—who started the play about 10 yards behind Moore, on the complete opposite side of the field—turned on the nitrous, Fast & Furiously chasing Moore down at the 12-yard line. (I assume that Moore was shouting “NOOOO! MONICAAAA!” when he repeatedly slammed the ground after getting caught.) It was the longest play from scrimmage that didn’t result in a touchdown since 2015. Moore might be fast, but Slay is faster. He ran a 4.36 40-yard dash at the 2013 NFL draft combine.
I’ve often thought that it’s kind of dumb how much importance we put on the 40-yard dash. How often do players sprint side-by-side downfield? Isn’t it more useful to see players’ relative speeds while performing actual football tasks than obsessing over hundredths of seconds in a drill? But Sunday, we got to see the 40-yard dash come to life. It was thrilling as hell, and resulted in one of the strangest plays in years—and swung the result of a game. Instead of getting seven points, the Panthers had to settle for a chip-shot field goal, which Graham Gano missed. (And you wonder why the Panthers went for two.)
Loser: Whoever Is Responsible for Blake Bortles Still Starting
The Jaguars kicked the Steelers’ asses Sunday. That’s hard to do! Pittsburgh came into the game averaging 31 points per game, scored 52 last week against the Panthers, but was hapless Sunday against a Jacksonville defense that reminded the world it’s supposed to be elite. Pittsburgh went scoreless in the first half, committed three turnovers, and finished the game with just 20 points—the Steelers’ second-lowest output of the season. Jalen Ramsey said before the season that Ben Roethlisberger is “decent at best,” and Sunday backed up his mouth; he picked off A Ben of Above Average Size twice.
Unfortunately, the Jaguars quarterback is Blake freakin’ Bortles. The Jags offense was bad in the first half, as Jacksonville settled for three field goals and no touchdowns. But that was merely dull: In the fourth quarter, the offense went from dull to actively negative. The Jaguars ran four pass plays in the fourth quarter: a checkdown on third-and-11, an incomplete pass, and three sacks. On five fourth-quarter drives, the Jaguars got a grand total of -3 yards. You technically had more yards in the fourth quarter than the Jaguars. Meanwhile, the Steelers scored 14 points and Jacksonville lost a winnable game.
Bortles sucks, and the Jaguars know this: When the game is on the line, Jacksonville does whatever it can to keep Bortles from having to make difficult plays. It happened in last year’s AFC championship game, and it happened again Sunday. Jacksonville knows its quarterback is bad—it’s just unwilling to do anything about it.
Winner: The Lamar Jackson Era
The Ravens stumbled into something transcendent Sunday. Joe Flacco, the team’s usual starter, was inactive with a hip injury, forcing them to start rookie Lamar Jackson.
Thus far this season, Jackson hadn’t really been used as a quarterback—he had 12 passing attempts, primarily in mop-up duty, and had been asked to line up at wide receiver and play wildcat-style quarterback with no true passing options. Sunday, Jackson got the full reins of the offense—an offense unlike any the NFL has seen, recently or perhaps ever. He had 27 carries, the most by a quarterback in the Super Bowl era. He went for 117 rushing yards, the first 100-yard rushing game by a QB since Colin Kaepernick had one in 2016. Many of his plays came on zone-read-style looks with rookie running back Gus Edwards, who ran for 115 yards, making them the first 100-yard QB–running back duo since Kaepernick and Frank Gore in 2014. (Truly odd that Kaepernick hasn’t had any 100-yard rushing games recently! What an unusual slump!) The guy’s fast:
But Jackson also got to throw, and guys, here’s a surprise: The guy who won the Heisman Trophy two years ago for being really good at playing quarterback knows how to play quarterback.
Behind Jackson, the Ravens got their first win in over a month, a month in which Baltimore slid below .500 and out of the playoff picture. Maybe they can get back into the mix if they stick with their dynamic first-round draft pick instead of the guy who ranks 32nd in the league in yards per attempt.
Loser: Philip Rivers’s Grasp of Time
Rivers threw a touchdown to Antonio Gates on Sunday, as he has one million times. Rivers is an ageless wonder, having been in the league long enough to father a football team worth of children, but is still producing at a really high rate. Time does not faze him.
The Chargers lost a close game Sunday, as they have one million times. They are cursed. Specifically, the Chargers lost by one point in a game in which new kicker Mike Badgley, the team’s sixth kicker in the last two seasons, missed an extra point, meaning the Chargers once again lost a game by a margin less than or equal to the value of the kicks missed by their inconsistent kickers, which has also happened one million times.
But Sunday’s game was different, because it didn’t end with a dramatic missed kick. It actually ended with a made field goal by the Broncos as the clock expired. Denver was able to do that because of a strange choice by Rivers: On third-and-7 after the two-minute warning and Denver out of timeouts, the Chargers called a screen pass. Rivers immediately realized that the Broncos had properly read the screen pass and that it would be unwise to attempt to complete the throw.
What Rivers should have done was fall over, or take a knee, or otherwise make it clear he had no intention of advancing the ball. This would have kept the clock running, taking 40 seconds off the clock. Instead, Rivers threw the ball into the ground, stopping the clock. Essentially, he was choosing to value a few yards over time—a terrible decision when trying to preserve a lead late in the game.
If a wide receiver ran out of bounds while trying to preserve a lead instead of staying inbounds, they’d be crucified for a stupid decision. But I didn’t see or hear much criticism of Rivers, even though his failure to understand the situation essentially cost Los Angeles the game. Rivers has shown he’s unfazed by time; his decision-making on Sunday indicates he should probably start caring more about it.
Winner: A Team of 22 Julio Joneses
The Falcons are 4-6, and it’s not Julio Jones’s fault. He had his fifth-straight 100-yard receiving day (and his sixth in seven games), and after beginning the season with seven scoreless games, he’s now gotten into the end zone in three straight weeks. With 1,158 yards in 10 games, Jones is on pace for 1,853 receiving yards, the third most of all time, behind only Calvin Johnson in 2012 and Jones’s own 2015 season. Only two other players, Michael Thomas and Adam Thielen, even have 1,000 receiving yards this season.
But Jones didn’t just do a spectacular job catching Matt Ryan’s passes Sunday: He also did an amazing job preventing one from being intercepted:
Many wide receivers have broken up interceptions, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a receiver do it with defensive form as pure as Jones’s. As Cowboys safety Jeff Heath tried to make this catch, he looked up and saw a taller, heavier player sprinting and launching at him. I think Julio Jones is a better safety than Jeff Heath.
Honestly, it feels like Jones would be the best safety on the Falcons right now. Their best, Pro Bowler Keanu Neal, has been out for the season since Week 1. Damontae Kazee, who came into Sunday’s game with shoulder injuries, suffered more injuries during the game. The Falcons are 29th in points allowed, which is why they’re below .500 even though they have an explosive offense.
The Falcons would be best off with Jones at every position. He’s obviously Atlanta’s best wide receiver; I think he’d probably be their best running back, tight end, safety, and edge rusher too. He’d be great at everything except kicker.
There's a reason that Julio Jones plays professional football and not kickball... pic.twitter.com/wY3CB0vYht— Tim and Sid (@timandsid) June 4, 2018
Loser: Everybody in Khalil Mack’s Way
The Bears got to play on Sunday Night Football, which was great for two reasons: First, it’s nice that a national audience got to watch Mack. Second, it’s important that Mack play late at night when children can’t accidentally stumble upon his play and be scarred for life by the graphic things he does to offensive linemen. I would rate this play PG-13, for violence and sexual content.
Khalil Mack is making Riley Reiff look like a high school player pic.twitter.com/2jPNTPXAvx— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) November 19, 2018
(Yes, sexual content. I find destructive play by edge rushers arousing. Don’t kink-shame me.)
It seems like Aaron Donald will run away with the Defensive Player of the Year award, but Mack is just so damn impactful. Sunday night Mack got his eighth sack in eight games, added his league-leading fifth forced fumble, and recorded his third takeaway of the season. But the plays where he gets the ball or makes a sack don’t state his full impact on their own: He spent the entire night haunting Kirk Cousins, who threw two picks, one of which was returned for a score.
Mack turns every game into a horror movie. He’s the unstoppable slasher, and the quarterback is the blond in an abandoned cabin in the woods watching all her friends get axed in gruesome, mysterious ways. By the end of the game the quarterback is so spooked by every creak and squeak that he can barely move without crippling fear of impending death—a mind-set that, incidentally, plays into Mack’s hands, as he has a much easier time getting his hands on opponents when he’s already living inside their heads. Like I said, this stuff really shouldn’t be on TV before sundown.
Winner: Buccaneers Drama
Three weeks ago, Ryan Fitzpatrick won the Buccaneers’ starting quarterback gig with a stunning comeback in a seeming blowout that fell just short after a dismal performance by the starter. Jameis Winston had apparently thrown a game against the Bengals away, tossing four interceptions to put Tampa Bay in a 34-16 hole. Then Fitzpatrick came in, and the Bucs scored 18 consecutive fourth-quarter points. Tampa Bay lost, 37-34, but it was clear that if the Bucs had just given Fitzpatrick more time instead of letting Winston repeatedly hurl the ball away, they would’ve won the game.
Sunday, Winston probably won back the Buccaneers’ starting gig with a stunning comeback in a seeming blowout that fell just short after a dismal performance by the starter. Fitzpatrick had apparently thrown the game away, tossing three interceptions to put Tampa Bay in a 24-7 hole. Then Winston came in, and the Buccaneers scored four touchdowns. Tampa Bay lost, 38-35, but it was clear that if the Bucs had just given Winston more time instead of letting Fitzpatrick repeatedly hurl the ball away, they would’ve won the game.
The Bucs’ QB situation at this point is one of my favorite things about this season. Neither Winston nor Fitzpatrick is the long-term answer, because both of them commit turnovers at an untenable rate. They are the absolute worst buccaneers in pirating history, intent on hurling booty to passing ships. But both are susceptible to moments of brilliance—Fitzpatrick’s come with a nickname!—but their defining trait is their cascades of turnovers.
The only thing consistent about Fitzpatrick and Winston is their inconsistency. The team has six games left in this NFL season: That means five more quarterback changes, five pick-filled starts, and five comebacks by recently benched quarterbacks in relief of more recently benched quarterbacks leading to small rays of hope in surprisingly close losses.