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: Rookie Quarterbacks
The story of the 2018 draft was the story of quarterbacks: Five were taken in the first round, tied for the second most of all time. Now, all five are the starting quarterbacks for their teams—and the early results are good.
Baker Mayfield looks like a no. 1 pick. In his past two games, he has seven touchdowns and no interceptions in two wins. Two wins! For the Browns! The team that had won one combined game over the previous two seasons! He dropped four TDs on the Bengals on Sunday.
He also is a rare football player who seems to be inspired by the ill-fated NFL Street franchise.
Mayfield has the second-best QB rating in football since Cleveland fired Hue Jackson a month ago … but we’ll talk more about that later.
Lamar Jackson made his second start Sunday and got his second win. Once again, the world gasped in awe as the Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback proved capable of completing passes:
I didn’t fly home for Thanksgiving, but I absolutely will fly to Baltimore to fight John Harbaugh if he gives Joe Flacco back the starting job after Jackson single-handedly revitalized the Ravens offense to once again give them a shot in the playoff race.
I didn’t think Josh Allen would be a good NFL quarterback. Neither did Jaguars receiver Jalen Ramsey, who notably called him “trash.” (I’m proud of Jalen for taking the term “trash talk” literally.) Notably, Ramsey is not seen in this video of a 75-yard touchdown thrown by Allen.
Josh Allen's rocket arm to Robert Foster for 75 yards! Foster gets 14.50 FPTS on this play alone.pic.twitter.com/X4V5J8UubZ— DraftKings (@DraftKings) November 25, 2018
Allen actually didn’t have a great day passing—the above clip was his only passing touchdown and represented almost half of his passing yardage, as Allen went 8-for-19 for 160 yards—but he’s proved to be a surprisingly adept runner. He had 99 yards Sunday and now has four rushing touchdowns—more than all Bills running backs combined. Allen might not be great, but as a rookie, he’s good enough for Buffalo to scrape together wins with the team’s top-notch defense: They’re 3-3 in his six starts.
Josh Rosen also had a decent day, although the Cardinals got whupped by the Chargers. The four rookie quarterbacks who played Sunday looked fine. Absent was the fifth—Sam Darnold, who leads the league in interceptions and is currently out with a foot injury. Surely the fact Darnold is out has nothing to do with the fact the rookie quarterback crop had its best week of the season!
Loser: Hue Jackson
The easy comparison is to say that Hue Jackson’s Sunday was like seeing an ex happy with a new partner. But that doesn’t quite do it justice.
Jackson, you may remember, was fired by the Browns after a 2-5-1 start. (Or, more accurately, after a 1-31 start over his first two seasons as Browns head coach followed by a 2-5-1 start to this season.) Two weeks after his firing, the Bengals made the unusual decision to hire Jackson. Most fired coaches take their buyouts, spend the rest of the season chilling, and perhaps look for work in the offseason, but the Bengals felt Jackson could be useful—after all, Cincinnati still had two games remaining against the team from the other side of Ohio. How easy would it be to win those games if Cincinnati hired the dude who coached Cleveland for the first half of the season?
The plan backfired: Cleveland played its best game in years. The Browns jumped out to a 28-0 start and coasted to a 35-20 win. It would be embarrassing enough for Jackson if the Browns were merely better than they were under his watch—and they are, significantly. Sunday marked the first Browns win streak since November 2014, as well as the first time the Browns led by 28 points in a game since October 12, 2014—both two years before Jackson was hired. Baker Mayfield never threw more than two touchdowns under Jackson; he had three last week and four this week.
But the Browns weren’t just better: They seemed to be better because they wanted to show Jackson up. Defensive back Damarious Randall intercepted a pass and handed it to a visibly confused Jackson on the sideline:
At first, Jackson seemed to think the right thing to do was be courteous to his ex-player, giving him a light congratulatory head tap. Then he drops the ball like a baseball fan who just caught a big home run, got excited, and then slowly realized the other team hit the dinger as the excitement faded.
After the game, Jackson felt obligated to congratulate Mayfield, but after Mayfield gave joyous dap to Bengal after Bengal he’s probably never met, he had nothing but a frosty handshake for his ex-coach.
Hue Jackson went for the hug and Baker hit him with the “we’re just friends” handshake pic.twitter.com/khycq8Vhik— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) November 25, 2018
It feels unfair to compare Jackson’s day to seeing an ex happy with a new partner because right now, Jackson is in some sort of weird relationship that’s primarily based on making his ex unhappy. Instead, his ex is personally and professionally succeeding in ways they never did before, and everybody can tell it’s primarily because he’s not around anymore. It’s a level of personal failure that requires so much more than jealously scrolling through Instagram.
Winner: Kickers’ Arms
Even in the world of special-teams trick plays, kickers rarely have the chance to get tricky. Most fake special-teams plays occur on punts, because it’s hard to get wide open out of the packed-in field goal formation. And even on fake field goals, the ball usually goes to the holder, generally either a punter or backup quarterback. Sure, the holder begins the play in an awkward starting position, but apparently most special teams coaches have decided they’d rather give the ball to a guy squatting than ask a kicker to make a play.
But on Sunday, the Steelers decided to let Chris Boswell shine:
CHRIS BOSWELL— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) November 25, 2018
(Yes, you read that correctly.) pic.twitter.com/0FtvWfCkCO
Boswell didn’t struggle at all to hit offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, who was eligible in the field goal formation. To be fair, Villanueva is 6-foot-9 and played wide receiver in Army’s triple-option offense. (It also probably helped that the Broncos had only 10 men on the field for the play.)
Boswell became just the seventh kicker since the merger to throw a touchdown (not including kicker/quarterback George Blanda) and the first since 2011. This put Boswell’s fantasy owners in the incredibly rare situation of getting offensive points from a kicker, although his passing touchdown was worth only one fantasy point more than the field goal he didn’t attempt.
Teams have their reasons for not running fake field goals—why give up a shot at three points for an attempt at six points out of a really awkward formation? But Boswell and the Steelers made it look easy Sunday—perhaps kickers should get to use their lesser extremities more often. And perhaps the Steelers should have given the ball to Boswell on their final play of the game—when Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception from virtually the same spot on the field as Boswell’s touchdown.
Loser: Leonard Fournette
Things seemed to be going well for the Jaguars on Sunday. Leonard Fournette had two touchdowns, and Donte Moncrief appeared to have a third that would have given Jacksonville a 21-14 lead on Buffalo.
Then things got really Jacksonville really fast:
This Jaguars-Bills fight should be in the Smithsonian. pic.twitter.com/FOozSY36Do— Big Sad Country (@BigCatCountry) November 25, 2018
First of all, I just wanna point out that there’s no need for Fournette to be involved here at all. He wasn’t even in the game on the play where the commotion happened. The two players who should be fighting over the ball are Moncrief and Levi Wallace, and they keep all of their scrapping possession-related. Even after chaos breaks out around them, they’re still on the ground, yanking at the ball, because that is all they want and they don’t care about punching anybody.
But even after Fournette decides to make things personal, he doesn’t have to get ejected. He starts by shoving, which you can sometimes do without getting penalized. But then he throws his dukes up.
Leonard Fournette vs Shaq Lawson is better than Jaguars vs Billspic.twitter.com/FFo5Q5eIC1— NFL Retweet (@NFLRT) November 25, 2018
Fun fact: You don’t actually have to pose like a 1920s bare-knuckle boxer before punching somebody. But Fournette really wants everybody to know that he’s about to throw a punch, which makes it particularly easy to eject him.
It’s a bummer that Fournette gets ejected, because Moncrief’s catch set up first-and-goal from the 1-yard line—the perfect place to give a stunningly powerful back like Fournette the ball. He’d already scored two touchdowns Sunday, from the 5- and 1-yard lines. If Fournette hadn’t been ejected, the Jaguars probably give him the ball and go up 21-14. Instead, here’s what happened:
- Run for a loss of 1 by Fournette’s backup, Carlos Hyde, putting Jacksonville at the 2
- False start, putting Jacksonville at the 7
- Holding penalty, putting Jacksonville at the 17
- Rush for 1 yard, putting Jacksonville at the 16
- Sack, putting Jacksonville at the 24
- Missed 42-yard field goal
Then the Bills scored a touchdown. The Jaguars never really had a chance to win after Fournette’s ejection: Instead of going up by seven, they gave up 10 straight points and eventually lost 24-21. On the plus side, Fournette got to hit a guy wearing a metal helmet with his bare hand.
Winner: Matthew Judon
I think if a player records a sack on three straight plays, the game should be over. If one team can’t even get a pass off on three straight pass plays, that’s bad enough. If the same guy is responsible for dragging down the quarterback on all three plays? Even after the offense saw him get two sacks in a row? Just call the damn game. It’s like catching the snitch, but with more destruction of strong people.
Anyway, Ravens pass rusher Matthew Judon got three straight sacks on Sunday. First, he forced a fumble that was returned for a touchdown by Terrell Suggs:
Then, after Judon caused a touchdown on defense, he got two more sacks, becoming the first player to record back-to-back-to-back sacks since 2002. (Incidentally, the last guy to do it got three sacks on David Carr, the brother of Derek, whom Judon triple-sacked.)
Judon apparently agrees with me that three straight sacks by the same player should end the game. After his third straight sack, he sprinted off the field and up the tunnel, even though it was only second down and he was still needed on the field.
Matthew Judon collects a sack on three straight plays and then decides it's time to go home pic.twitter.com/auOOYj4Kvf— Seth Guttman (@Seth_Guttman) November 25, 2018
Loser: Andrew Luck, Wide Receiver
The Colts are one of the hottest teams in football, having won five in a row thanks to the passing of Andrew Luck, who should run away with Comeback Player of the Year honors after missing the entire 2017 season with injury. But each of the past two weeks, the Colts have run a play that called for a pass to Luck. Last week they ran the play you know as the “Philly Special”—a reverse pass to the quarterback, in this case thrown by Eric Ebron. But the defense read the play well and defended Luck, making sure it wouldn’t be the easy completion teams typically get on this trick play. Ebron’s throw was also inaccurate, way ahead of Luck, who dove for the pass.
This week, on fourth-and-1, the Colts came out in a package with backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett under center and Luck split out wide. Lots of teams come out in packages like this, and the pass almost never goes to the quarterback. So the Dolphins opted not to guard Luck—leaving him wide open for a pass:
BRISSETT TO LUCK!— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) November 25, 2018
BRISSETT TO LUCK!
BRISSETT TO LUCK!
BRISSETT TO LUCK! pic.twitter.com/R1oQd4kOP2
The play worked! The Colts got the first down.
But for the second straight week, the Colts asked their franchise player, WHO MISSED THE ENTIRETY OF LAST SEASON WITH A MYSTERIOUS SHOULDER AILMENT THAT SOME THOUGHT MIGHT END HIS CAREER, to put HIS SHOULDER in harm’s way. Last week it was diving for Ebron’s inaccurate pass; this week he had to jump to catch Brissett’s inaccurate pass, leaving him exposed to a hit. (Did Brissett throw an intentionally bad pass to expose the guy ahead of him on the depth chart to injury? Uh, no, of course not, why would you ask.)
I love trick plays, especially ones that work. But there’s no first down or touchdown that’s worth risking the health of your team’s surgically repaired franchise player.
Winner: Bad Jumps
On Wednesday, my colleague Danny Heifetz wrote about hurdles in football. They look really cool! But they’re also kinda dangerous on the extremely high chance that a player can’t jump clean over a 6-foot-tall defender sprinting full speed in his direction.
Sunday, two NFL players made poor decisions to leap opponents and were handily rewarded. First: Browns tight end David Njoku decided to jump into the end zone from the 5-yard line despite the presence of multiple Cincinnati Bengals between him and the basket. It didn’t work, except it kinda did:
Njoku was caught out of the air by Bengals safety Jessie Bates III—honestly kinda embarrassing considering Njoku is 6-foot-4 and 246 pounds and had a running start, while Bates is 6-foot-1, 200. But before Bates could get Njoku to the turf, the entire Browns offensive line showed up and carried Njoku to the end zone.
And then there’s Seahawks running back Chris Carson, who failed to clear a crouching Eric Reid. He basically smacked his shin against Reid’s face, and all of a sudden he was flipping through the air like the dude who hit the propeller in Titanic. Except Carson somehow flipped right onto his feet and stuck the landing.
These are two failed jumps. Njoku got literally snatched out of the sky by a smaller, weaker man; Carson could’ve been paralyzed. Instead Njoku looks like Superman and Carson looks like Simone Biles.
Jump, kids: You’ll look cool.
Loser: Fired Cleveland Coaches
Hue Jackson wasn’t the only guy who just got axed in northeast Ohio who had a bummer of an NFL Sunday. The Cleveland Cavaliers fired head coach Tyronn Lue the day before the Browns parted ways with Jackson, and on Sundaym Lue was the subject of a post-touchdown celebration by the Seahawks. Well, I guess not the subject—Tyler Lockett pretended to be Allen Iverson, and fellow Seahawks wide receiver David Moore agreed to be Lue.
Lue, of course, fell over while guarding Iverson, who hit a long 2 and stepped over Lue’s defeated body. Lue’s Lakers won the NBA title that year, but is winning a championship really worth having a moment so embarrassing that players are reenacting it in entirely different sports more than a decade later? Moore, who played Lue, was 6 years old when Lue got stepped over. He probably didn’t even watch the game. He just knows Lue got owned.
Between this and Thursday’s Markelle Fultz celebration, it’s clear that NFL players are on top of their NBA memes—particularly the ones that involve one player’s soul being ripped apart on national television.
Winner: Philip Rivers
Rivers made history Sunday, which isn’t a thing he does often. He’s never won a Super Bowl, he’s never been MVP, he has no shot at topping any major statistical leaderboards. He’s just been consistently great for about 13 years, so it’s fitting that the records he set Sunday were about consistency. Rivers completed his first 25 passes Sunday and finished the game 28-for-29 with 259 yards and three touchdowns. Both are records—nobody had ever completed more than 23 straight passes to start the game, and Rivers’s 96.6 completion percentage is the highest in league history. (Of course, some players have managed a 100 percent completion rating, but never on more than 10 attempts, and Rivers threw the most passes in a game with just one incompletion.)
He made some damn difficult throws, too.
Philip Rivers is a replay review away from starting 25-of-25. This was his best throw of those 25. pic.twitter.com/1S6n78vRPK— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) November 25, 2018
I wrote about a bad decision Rivers made last week, and I wrote about his facial expressions two weeks ago. I wanna give Rivers the respect he deserves—the respect he isn’t really getting. He’s not the best quarterback in his division—that’s Patrick Mahomes II. He’s not on the best team in his city—that’s the Rams, and besides, it feels like a stretch to call Los Angeles the Chargers’ city. He’s a part of the group of the golden age of quarterbacks that started playing well in the early 2000s and is somehow still going into their mid-to-late 30s—but will never get mentioned ahead of Tom Brady. The Chargers dumped Drew Brees for Rivers, and Brees is going to end his career in the GOAT discussion. The Chargers swapped Eli Manning for Rivers on draft day, and while Manning’s career statistics aren’t as good as Rivers’s, Manning has two Super Bowl wins and will be remembered for them. Rivers gets left by the wayside.
Sunday, Rivers was as close to perfect as any quarterback has ever been. It was the sixth- or seventh-most noteworthy game Sunday, and that seems fitting.