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The Michael Thomas TD That Broke the Rams and Week 9’s Game-Changing Plays

Forget the flip-phone celebration—this play is worth talking about because of what it shows about the Saints. Plus: the Vikings D is looking like itself, Travis Kelce is a sandlot-football dream, and Nathan Peterman is the most efficient pick-tosser of the modern era.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Here’s a tweet-length summation of another fun NFL Sunday:

Pittsburgh dealt Baltimore its third straight loss, prevailing and strengthening its hold on the AFC North. The Panthers held off a furious second-half comeback by the Buccaneers to improve to 6-2. The Vikings dominated the Lions to keep pace with the Bears, who blew out the hapless Bills; the Falcons won their third straight in an authoritative victory over the Redskins; and Patrick Mahomes II outdueled Baker Mayfield to lead the Chiefs over the Browns. The Dolphins beat the Jets, the Bears blew out the Bills, the Chargers knocked off the Seahawks in Seattle, and the Texans held on to beat the Broncos in Denver—aided by a 51-yard field goal miss by Brandon McManus as time ran out. The Saints’ barn-burning win over the Rams might’ve been the game of the season, and the Patriots ran past the Packers on Sunday Night Football.

Sunday’s action delivered plenty of excitement, 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.

Michael Thomas Puts Away the Game With a 75-Yard TD

New Orleans owned the first half in this one, roaring out to a huge 35-14 second-quarter lead, but L.A. wouldn’t go down without a fight. The Rams erased what looked like an insurmountable deficit. As the Saints took the ball back at their own 25-yard line with 4:50 to go and a slim 38-35 lead, it looked like anybody’s game. Drew Brees and Co. were holding serve but needed a strong drive to stop the bleeding and give themselves some much-needed breathing room for the final few minutes. They did just that.

On third-and-7 from the 28-yard line, Brees got the matchup he was looking for with Thomas drawing Rams cornerback Marcus Peters in man coverage out of the slot. At the snap, the future Hall of Fame passer never hesitated, lofting a pass down the numbers to his most dependable receiver. Thomas reeled it in, then did the rest—then paid homage to former Saints receiver Joe Horn by pulling a flip phone out of the goal-post padding in celebration.

That play was the backbreaker for the Rams. It pushed the Saints’ lead to 10 points and their win probability to 96.2; capped a near-perfect performance from Brees, who completed 25 of 36 passes for 346 yards and four touchdowns; and was emblematic of just how dangerous the Saints are going to be down the stretch. We’ve all become conditioned to watching Brees dice up opposing defenses over the years, but the 39-year-old signal-caller is playing some of the most impressive football of his career—on pace for personal bests in passer rating (120.6) and completion percentage (76.3) while averaging 8.4 yards per attempt with 18 touchdowns and just one pick in the first eight games.

The team’s offensive line, which bowed up and held the Rams’ fearsome front to zero sacks and just four quarterback hits, has started to hit its stride. The run game is multifaceted and explosive with Alvin Kamara (19 rushes, 82 yards, two touchdowns), Mark Ingram (nine rushes for 33 yards), and an occasional Taysom Hill (two rushes, 10 yards) play. The team’s role-playing pass catchers have all been effective, including ageless tight end Ben Watson (three catches, 62 yards, one touchdown) and rookie Tre’Quan Smith (two catches, 23 yards, one touchdown). And, of course, Brees has never had as talented a no. 1 receiver as third-year pro Thomas, who racked up a career-high and franchise-record 211 yards on 12 catches. The 6-foot-3, 212-pound pass catcher mixes top-notch body control with elite route-running skills, great hands, and a huge catch radius, and he’s played a big part in Brees’s late-career surge. He’s now caught an absurd 70 of 79 targets on the year—88.6 percent, or 18 percent above expectation (based on factors like separation, air yards, and his location on the field), according to Next Gen Stats. That’s the best rate in the league. Put another way, all Brees has to do is put the ball somewhere in Thomas’s area code—almost every time, he comes down with it.

Add all that together, and this Saints offense has the chance to be the most dangerous group Brees has ever led.

Patrick Mahomes II Threads Needle to Travis Kelce for a TD

The Browns’ talented and injury-riddled young defense hung tough with the Chiefs for two quarters―Cleveland went into the half trailing by just six, 21-15―but the sheer power of the Mahomes-led Kansas City offense soon proved just too much to bear. The proverbial dam finally broke with back-to-back third-quarter throws from Mahomes to Kelce. The first was a demoralizing conversion on third-and-11, which saw Mahomes step up into a broken pocket and unleash a diving, side-arm toss to his dependable tight end. That gave the Chiefs new life and knocked the wind out of the Cleveland defense.

The next play was even more crushing. On first-and-10 from the 13-yard line, Mahomes zipped a pass up the hashes and into double coverage, somehow finding Kelce for the score. Browns safety Jabrill Peppers couldn’t have covered Kelce a whole lot better―he had position on the Chiefs tight end and got a hand up, coming a hair short of deflecting the pass. But Mahomes put the ball exactly where only Kelce could get it, and the All-Pro playmaker made a great leaping catch.

That connection gave the Chiefs a 28-15 lead, pushed their win probability to 90.3 percent, and raised a valid question: What can a defense do to combat Kansas City’s combination of sandlot football and dropback-passing precision? The Chiefs offense is almost impossibly good—Mahomes has now thrown 29 touchdown passes on the season and is averaging 9.2 yards per attempt—and whether the second-year pro is making a play out of the structure of the scheme or hitting his back foot and putting the ball on a dime downfield, it’s hard to see any defense coming up with a consistent strategy for holding him, or the team’s talent-packed offense, down.

Scheduled Tweet: Nathan Peterman Throws a Pick

On the other hand, I present to you, the Bills. With Derek Anderson out with a concussion, Buffalo was forced to turn back to the most efficient interception-throwing quarterback of the modern era. Peterman did what he does best, throwing three more picks, including this pick-six in the second quarter. In fairness, this was not really his fault.

Still, it did a nice job of representing this unit’s systemic, near-total team effort in an offensive implosion.

The Bills wound up getting a garbage-time touchdown late in the game before succumbing to the Bears 41-9, but Buffalo’s offense, almost impossibly, seems to be getting worse by the week. On the year, they’re averaging 10.7 points per game, on track to become the 12th worst in league history. Over the past six games, this team has scored just 46 points, total—or 7.7 points per game, a pace that would make it the second-lowest-scoring squad ever over the course of a full season. Adjusting for era, and considering we’re in the middle of an offensive explosion the NFL’s never seen, Buffalo’s well on its way toward the ignominious honor as the worst offense ever assembled.

Curtis Samuel’s Double-Reverse Touchdown

Last week, Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner unlocked a new dimension to his offense by setting rookie first-round receiver D.J. Moore free in the open field, scheming up ways to get him touches on screen passes, end-arounds, and even a triple-option pitch play. This week, Turner added another layer to what’s quickly become one of the most innovative and fun offenses in the NFL, getting 2017 second-rounder Curtis Samuel more involved against the hapless Buccaneers defense. The explosive second-year pro made the most of his opportunities, catching two passes for 25 yards and a touchdown while taking this double-reverse to the house for another score. That play will go down as a 33-yard touchdown run, but according to NFL Next Gen Stats, Samuel covered 103.8 yards—most of any run this year—while bobbing and weaving through the Tampa Bay secondary.

The Panthers have long based their rushing attack around Cam Newton and the college-style option game, but after adding Christian McCaffrey, Moore, and Samuel over the past two years, it continues to evolve—and the team has more speed and dynamic open-field elusiveness than ever before. More importantly, they’re finding ways to exploit that speed: Under Turner, Carolina’s marrying its foundational option game with a bevy of speed-based options that stress defenses both vertically and horizontally, and it’s paid huge dividends for Newton, who’s playing some of the most efficient football of his career.

Tevin Coleman’s Third-Quarter Touchdown Dagger

After dominating the first half to build a 21-7 lead over Washington, the Falcons kept the pedal to the metal to open the third frame, engineering an eight-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with this 10-yard catch-and-run score by running back Tevin Coleman, his second touchdown of the game.

Coleman drew Redskins linebacker Mason Foster in coverage and easily beat the slower defender in a footrace to the outside with a simple swing pass. That wasn’t the deciding play of the game, but it was, in effect, the game-sealer, as it pushed Atlanta’s win probability to 95.4 percent. The Falcons coasted from there, and, in the process, the offense chipped away at (or obliterated) a handful of narratives carried into the season—like, say, that offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian can’t call plays in the red zone, that Matt Ryan’s washed up, and that Julio Jones doesn’t score touchdowns.

As we saw Sunday, Sark has exorcised the red zone demons. Atlanta came into the game sixth in the NFL in touchdowns per red zone trip and, with the help of that Coleman score, found the end zone on two out of three trips. That’s a big boost from last season’s performance, when the team ranked 23rd in red zone efficiency. Matt Ryan, who threw for 350 yards with four touchdowns and one pick for a passer rating of 121.6, is back to playing at an elite level too. His numbers this year match up well with his 2016 MVP performance, as he’s on pace to pass for 5,370 yards for 38 touchdowns, six picks, and a 115.1 rating (compared with 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns, and seven interceptions for a 117.1 rating in 2016). Hell, even Jones found the end zone this week. He’s got a long way to go before people stop talking about his shortage of touchdowns, I’m sure, but it’s a start.

The Falcons’ injury-decimated defense has been a major weak link, but thanks to an offense that’s firing on all cylinders, Atlanta’s now won three in a row—and could be knocking on the door for playoff contention.

Danielle Hunter Scoops and Scores

The Minnesota defense got off to an uncharacteristically slow start to begin the season, but Sunday, that group looked a lot like the fearsome unit that we saw last year anchored by a return to dominant play up front. Thanks to a retooled offensive line and resurgent run game, the Lions had given up just 13 sacks and 24 quarterback hits all season coming into the game. Sunday, the Vikings posted a franchise-record 10 sacks and hit Detroit quarterback Matt Stafford 17 times in the team’s 24-9 blowout win. Minnesota was led by superstar pass rusher Danielle Hunter (3.5 sacks) but got help from veteran defensive tackle Tom Johnson (2.5 sacks) and defensive end Everson Griffen (1.5 sacks), who returned to the team last week after missing five games to receive mental health treatment.

Those incredible stats don’t even include this play, which didn’t go down as a sack or QB hit but functioned as the last gasp of a Lions team tormented all day by the Vikings defensive pressure packages. After being flushed from the pocket, Stafford looked to pitch the ball to running back Kerryon Johnson, but Johnson couldn’t corral it and Hunter scooped it up and returned it for a score.

That play all but sealed the deal, pushing the Vikings’ lead to 24-6 and their win probability over 99 percent. After coming into the game as the NFL’s least pressured quarterback (20.7 percent), Stafford had a pass rusher in his face on a season-high 35 percent of his dropbacks Sunday. The Vikings defense has struggled at times to re-create the formula it used last year to dominate opposing quarterbacks, and there’s never just one culprit for regression. But it’s clear that Minnesota’s success is rooted in getting disruption up front with an elite, deep defensive line. That group hit its stride Sunday, and that could signal a shift in the entire unit’s performance going forward.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the defense should have been called for pass interference on one of Nathan Peterman’s interceptions on Sunday.