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The Winners and Losers From NFL Week 9

Michael Thomas had the touchdown celebration of the year so far — but how did he pull it off? Plus: Nathan Peterman’s latest disaster, Lamar Jackson’s puzzling usage in Baltimore, and how the Jets set up Sam Darnold to fail.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

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: Your Local Motorola Razr Distributor

Fifteen years ago, Saints receiver Joe Horn did the best celebration in pro football history. He scored a touchdown and stunned the world by removing a cellphone from the padding on the uprights and pretending to call somebody. It was iconic. Back then, having a flip phone was basically a status symbol, a sign that you could play Snake even if stranded in a desert. This is why Kelly Rowland texted Nelly using Microsoft Excel during the “Dilemma” video. Nobody had ever celebrated with an item hidden on the field before — Terrell Owens had hidden a sharpie in his sock, but Horn’s usage of the end zone’s lone hiding spot was a brilliant innovation.

On Sunday, Saints receiver Michael Thomas paid homage to his phone-fetching forefather:

Thomas paid attention to details, making sure that he found a flip phone just like the one Horn used a decade and a half ago. This makes him the only NFL player in the past 10 years to use a flip phone besides Andrew Luck. While it’s easy to understand why this celebration was cool, I don’t think we quite appreciate the logistics that went into it. I have some questions:

  • Thomas hadn’t scored a touchdown at home since Week 2. Did he hide the phone in that upright two months ago and then leave it? Or did he hide it and then go back to remove the phone every time he failed to score a touchdown? Can you think of anything sadder than a player returning to a football field to extract an unused celebratory prop?
  • Thomas scored this touchdown in the same end zone where Horn scored his. Were there cellphones in both end zones? Or did Thomas know he needed to score in this end zone, calling his shot so he could make his call?
  • Is it possible Horn put a spare cellphone in the upright back in 2003 and nobody ever found it until Sunday? Is Thomas’s celebration the greatest in-game treasure find in football history?
  • This was the sixth and final touchdown New Orleans scored Sunday night. That means five times, Thomas’s teammates had the opportunity to celebrate with the phone, but didn’t. Did Thomas’s teammates know about his planned celebration and leave the opportunity to him, or did Thomas plan and execute the hidden phone in complete secrecy?
  • While most celebrations are legal now, using an outside object as a prop is still forbidden, and Thomas was penalized. Did Thomas plan on celebrating with the phone in any circumstance, or was he specifically waiting for the type of game-sealing score where a 15-yard penalty wouldn’t matter?

No matter the circumstances, I’m in awe of Thomas. There are a near-infinite number of possibilities for legal celebrations, but Thomas opted to take a penalty (and likely a fine) so he could celebrate history.

Loser: The Lamar Jackson Wide Receiver Experiment

Lamar Jackson should probably play quarterback for the Ravens. Joe Flacco is 25th in the NFL in quarterback rating. (Eli Manning is 23rd, if you want to know how bad 25th is.) The Ravens have the best defense in the league, entering Sunday allowing the fewest yards per play and points per game. They are squandering that incredible defense by having Flacco play quarterback. Sunday, Flacco failed to throw a touchdown in a 23–16 loss to the Steelers, Baltimore’s third straight loss in a stretch that has seen the team fall to 4–5 and relinquish the AFC North lead to Pittsburgh.

But Flacco could have thrown a touchdown Sunday. On a first-quarter red zone play, he had a wide receiver open with a clean path to the end zone but chose to throw elsewhere. That receiver? Backup quarterback Lamar Jackson:

Jackson explained that he was rarely open in practice on this play, and that the play wasn’t designed for him. Still, I feel like maybe Flacco should have thrown to him instead of the extremely covered player he airmailed his pass toward.

The Ravens have given the appearance that they will use Jackson as a versatile weapon. They’ve used him on over 10 percent of the team’s offensive downs on the year — sometimes as a quarterback, sometimes as a running back, sometimes as a wide receiver. The problem is, they’re not actually using him. He’s really just been a decoy. For all the snaps he’s taken at wide receiver, Jackson had only one target on the season before today — a play on which he had a better chance of getting a season-ending injury than a reception:

The Ravens are on to something by putting Jackson on the field so frequently. Unfortunately, they’ve decided one of the most dynamic players in recent college football memory shouldn’t actually do anything substantial. I think Jackson should be the Ravens’ starting quarterback. If not, he should at least be an actual option on the plays where he has the potential to help the Ravens win instead of an open receiver for Flacco to ignore.

Loser: Philip Rivers’s Blood Pressure

I’ve never seen an athlete get as visibly upset as Rivers. Nothing can go wrong in his vicinity without his making it extremely clear that he was not on board with the thing that went wrong. Dropped pass? He didn’t like it. Bad call? Oooh, no, I’d say he hated it. Teammates couldn’t get set and the Chargers had to take a delay-of-game penalty? Fire will shoot out of his eyes and the ground will shake.

Rivers has been cursed with one teammate to be extremely mad at, week after week, for the past two seasons. No team has had a worse kicking situation than the Chargers, who have cycled through six kickers in the past two seasons. Sunday, the team re-welcomed Caleb Sturgis, who began the season as the team’s starter but suffered a quad injury in October.

Sturgis had just about the worst day possible, missing two extra points and a field goal, and even picking up a personal foul penalty for tackling an opponent with his feet. (Any tackle with the feet is, by rule, a tripping penalty, although I’d argue kickers should be allowed to slide-tackle opponents.)

Rivers does not like Caleb Sturgis.

Sturgis nearly cost the Chargers the game: Los Angeles beat Seattle 25–17 with a last-second goal-line stand, but if Sturgis had hit even one damn extra point, L.A. would’ve been up nine, a two-possession lead. Sturgis will almost certainly be cut by Monday — head coach Anthony Lynn says the team will “reevaluate” the kicker position, which basically means, “I am not allowed to say that we’re cutting this player yet.” But Sturgis has more to worry about than getting cut. Rivers is going to haunt him until the day he dies, and probably a few millennia past then.

Winner: Anybody Who Already Thought Tom Brady Was the GOAT

Sunday night was a Goat Battle. No, not this — although I do strongly recommend watching that video of goats play-fighting — it was a game between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, two of the quarterbacks in the discussion for the greatest of all time. Because Brady has spent his whole career on the Patriots in the AFC and Rodgers has spent his whole career on the Packers in the NFC, they have barely played each other: Teams play opponents from the opposite conference just once every four years, and when the Packers and Pats met in 2010, Rodgers was hurt, turning the game into a matchup between Brady and Matt Flynn. Rodgers and Brady really had played only once before, in 2014, a Green Bay win. Considering that Brady will be 45 the next time the Packers and Pats meet in the regular season, Sunday night is probably the last time the two quarterbacks will ever play, barring a Super Bowl matchup.

And it doesn’t look like the Packers are going to make a Super Bowl run anytime soon. After Sunday night’s loss, Green Bay is 3–4–1. For the second straight week, Rodgers kept his team in a ballgame, only to watch a critical fumble prevent him from taking the lead — last week, Ty Montgomery fumbled a kickoff return that would have set up a game-winning Rodgers drive. The Packers instantly traded him, but this week Aaron Jones followed suit, fumbling the ball in New England territory with the score tied 17–17 in the fourth quarter. The Pats scored the final two touchdowns, and Brady emerged with a 31–17 win.

Rodgers and Brady had pretty similar statlines — Rodgers had 259 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and Brady had 294 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions — but Brady emerged the convincing victor.

The game sums up the debate over who’s the better player. Brady’s case as the GOAT revolves around his five Super Bowl rings. Rodgers has only one ring, but his supporters believe he’s the more talented quarterback. In their eyes, the difference in titles stems from Brady being coached by all-timer Bill Belichick and often aided by Hall of Fame wide receivers and league-best defenses. Meanwhile, Packers fans believe that Rodgers’s longtime coach, Mike McCarthy, is a big dimwit, and the only offensive All-Pro the Packers have had besides Rodgers during his time with the team has been fullback John Kuhn.

If you want to believe that Rodgers is the better quarterback, you can watch his team lose and still believe he’s the better player. But if you believe in Brady, you believe team results are more important. And Sunday night, Brady beat Rodgers during the lone prime-time game between these two greats. One game shouldn’t change anybody’s opinions about either quarterback’s legacy — and considering the way the result lined up with what each of their supporters already wanted to believe, it almost certainly won’t.

Loser: Rob Gronkowski Fantasy Owners

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Melvin Gordon Fantasy Catastrophe, when the seemingly healthy Chargers running back was surprisingly scratched from Los Angeles’s lineup at 5 a.m. West Coast time ahead of a 6:30 a.m. game in London, stunning hundreds of thousands of Americans who woke up Sunday morning to learn that (a) there was a football game already happening and (b) their most productive fantasy player was locked into their lineup with a total of 0.0 points.

Sunday, the opposite thing happened, but with almost exactly the same results. Rob Gronkowski is widely considered the most valuable fantasy tight end (although he’s been surpassed in actual production by Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz, among others). This is because, when healthy, he consistently puts up big numbers at the shallowest position in fantasy. Gronk was expected to play Sunday night — he’d missed New England’s game two weeks ago with a back injury, but rebounded to play last week against the Bills. Gronk participated in practice Wednesday and Friday, and was listed as questionable for Sunday night, but there was little indicator that he might get scratched.

But Sunday night, after 11 of the week’s 13 NFL games had already kicked off, Gronkowski was ruled out of the Pats’ game. Gronkowski owners had virtually no options. Even if they had a backup tight end, that player had almost certainly already played, and was unable to be subbed into the starting lineup. With almost every game in the books, they couldn’t drop most players on their roster. And even if they could, there were probably no meaningful players available to add. Maybe they added the Patriots’ backup, Dwayne Allen (who caught one pass!), or somebody from tomorrow night’s Cowboys-Titans matchup. Either way, not ideal!

I played against two fantasy owners who had Gronkowski on their rosters. Both probably expected big days from one of the most productive tight ends in the league; instead, both got zero points. I won both matchups, not because I did anything smart, but because fantasy football’s quirks are dumb and often punish players who do everything right. It’s a dumb game and we shouldn’t play it. (That said, 2–0 baby!)

Winner: Every Free-Agent Quarterback

Nathan Peterman had one of his best NFL games Sunday. For the first time in his nine career games, he managed to throw for more than 100 yards! Sure, he threw no touchdowns and three interceptions, but it took him 49 attempts to throw those picks — actually lowering his career interception percentage from 11.1 to 9.2. (I cannot believe that fact. Nathan Peterman threw three interceptions in a game and significantly lowered his career interception percentage.) Peterman wasn’t even at fault on two of the interceptions, which hit receivers in the hands and were jarred loose.

Unfortunately, Peterman having his best career game was not much good for the Bills. They were blown out 41–9 by the Bears, the third straight game (and fifth time in nine games) in which the Bills failed to score 10 points. But that score line doesn’t quite explain how brutal the blowout was — Buffalo trailed 28–0 at the half and only got to nine points because of a Peterman QB sneak with 5:41 to go. Peterman’s 189 yards took him 49 attempts, a pathetic 3.9 yards per attempt.

Somehow, the fact that Peterman played his best Sunday is more depressing to me than if he’d just thrown five interceptions again. There is no game that is winnable when a quarterback’s “good game” features 3.9 yards per attempt, multiple interceptions, and no passing touchdowns.

So far this season, the Bills have already signed Derek Anderson, a 35-year-old who hadn’t played more than six games in a season since 2010, and Matt Barkley, who has eight career touchdowns against 18 interceptions and hasn’t thrown a pass since 2016. Anderson suffered a concussion, and Barkley apparently wasn’t good enough to displace Peterman from the starting lineup. The Bills play the Jets next Sunday, and basically any quarterback will give them a better chance of winning than Peterman. That includes Barkley, and anybody the Bills can find on the street. Sam Bradford! Paxton Lynch! Matt Moore! Ryan Mallett! Call them up! Of course, the Bills are too stubborn and stupid to call Colin Kaepernick, but we knew that already.

Winner: People Who Bet on Sports

The house always wins. There are people in Las Vegas who know what’s going to happen in the future, and they use this knowledge to separate us from our money. They set lines for football games that will do one of two things: Either get half of us to bet on either side of the line, ensuring a slight profit for the house; or coax a significant amount of us into betting on the wrong side of the line, ensuring a huge profit for the house. They are super good at their job — the house always wins.

Except for Sunday, when the house got its ass kicked. According to David Purdum at ESPN, Nevada casinos lost between $7 million and $10 million on football bets Sunday, one of the worst weeks ever — or one of the best, if you don’t work for a casino.

The casinos’ biggest failure was making the Chiefs eight-point favorites over the Browns. The Chiefs, one of the greatest offenses the NFL has ever seen. The Browns, a team that fired its head coach and offensive coordinator Monday. Vegas only thought the Chiefs were eight points better than the Browns, but we were smarter. Eighty-eight percent of the money wagered on the spread was put on Kansas City to cover, and it did, winning 37–21. The Vikings and Steelers also covered spreads as heavily bet-on favorites, costing sportsbooks more.

This was the biggest upset of the NFL season: On the one side, the clairvoyants who have turned sports bookmaking into a science. On the other side, all of us, idiots, who think we know things about sports. Typically, the bookies separate us from millions of dollars a week. But on this Sunday, we won.

The difference between our stunning victory and actual football upsets: When a huge underdog wins a game on the field, they keep the win permanently. We’re going to take our surprise cash, convince ourselves we’re smarter than the casinos, and give them twice as much money next week.

Loser: The Jets’ Center

There were no offensive touchdowns scored in Jets-Dolphins. The only touchdown was scored on this pick-six thrown by Sam Darnold, making it the first game whose lone touchdown was a pick-six since 2006.

This play ends with Darnold making a bad decision and a worse throw. But it starts with a snap that forces Darnold to take his eyes off the play and make a one-handed snag. Darnold threw four interceptions Sunday to bring his league-leading total to 14 — I knew all along that Sam Darnold could lead the NFL in a major statistical category as a rookie! — and true, most of those are not on his center. But it’s probably not the best idea to have your rookie quarterback spending the first second or so of every down trying to find and catch the ball.

But that’s what happened Sunday. Last week, center Spencer Long missed a game with a finger injury. This week, Long was cleared to play, but clearly whatever is going on with his hand is preventing him from cleanly snapping the ball, as Darnold had to work around bad snaps for much of the afternoon.

The Jets have a backup, Jonotthan Harrison, who started last week in Long’s absence. But Sunday, New York chose to keep Long in the game until deep in the fourth quarter, when Long’s scatterplot snaps had already doomed play after play after play.

NFL teams don’t choose centers based on how good they are at snapping the ball. They choose them based on their blocking capability and their ability to make the right calls against opposing rush packages. But it’s presumed that NFL centers can snap the ball consistently. If they can’t, everything is ruined — the quarterback’s rhythm is thrown off, run plays are DOA due to poor timing, and every once in a while there’s a fumble.

I’m guessing that Long is still better at blocking than Harrison in spite of his injury, and therefore the Jets continued playing him. But as it turns out, the easy part of being a center is actually the most critical part. The Jets’ failure to bench Long proves the coaching staff wasn’t smart enough to realize that.