Another week, another cluster of down-to-the-wire NFL matchups, as the Sunday slate produced nine one-score games. The Dolphins took the cake with an unbelievable walk-off hook-and-ladder play, beating the Patriots 34-33 and keeping their playoff hopes alive. They had plenty of company in the late-game thrills department: The Cowboys knocked off the Eagles 29-23 in overtime, strengthening their spot atop the NFC East; the Chiefs battled to a 27-24 overtime win over the Ravens to clinch a playoff berth; the Raiders came back to beat the Steelers 24-21, further muddling the AFC North race; the Colts ended the Texans’ nine-game winning streak with a 24-21 victory; and the Chargers held off the Bengals 26-21 to move to 10-3. The Browns beat the Panthers 26-20; the 49ers dispatched the Broncos 20-14; and the Jets overcame the Bills 27-23. Elsewhere, the Packers dominated the Falcons 34-20, the Lions beat the Cardinals 17-3, and the Giants ran all over the Redskins, 40-16. And the Bears held on to beat the Rams in 15-6 defensive slugfest 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.
Amari Cooper’s Overtime Winner
Cooper benefited from a little bit of luck on his overtime touchdown grab, reeling in a perfectly deflected pass before waltzing in for the game-winning score. It was just that kind of night for the Cowboys’ resurgent new playmaker.
That was the cherry on top of a dominant performance from the 24-year-old pass catcher. Cooper finished with 10 catches for 217 yards and three touchdowns, with each of his receptions seemingly more important than the last. From his impressive, leaping 27-yard grab late in the second quarter, to his pair of fourth-quarter, tiebreaking touchdown grabs (a 28-yard bomb and a 75-yarder), to his walk-off touchdown grab, Cooper proved that when the team needed a big play, he was the man for the job.
The Cowboys were widely panned for giving up a first-round pick to acquire Cooper, but the former Raider has all but eliminated the issues with drops and inconsistency that had plagued him over the past year and a half in Oakland. He’s acted as the catalyst for Dallas’s five-game win streak and unexpected run to the top of the division. The trade saved the Cowboys’ season. Cooper’s almost instantaneous chemistry with quarterback Dak Prescott has changed the Cowboys offense; on Sunday’s 75-yard touchdown bomb, for instance, Prescott gave Cooper a subtle pre-snap signal to go deep instead of running the called play. Cooper’s even helped open up the team’s Ezekiel Elliott–led ground game.
Since coming to Dallas in Week 9, Cooper has reeled in 40 catches for an NFL-high 642 yards and six touchdowns (more than doubling his production in six games with the Raiders this year). With a true go-to guy on the outside, Prescott has broken out of an alarming early-season slump, posting nine touchdowns against three picks and a 105.7 passer rating. Meanwhile, Cooper’s defense-stretching presence has given Elliott more room to work. He’s notched 100-plus yards in four of the past five weeks and become a much bigger part of the passing game underneath.
Cooper’s sparked a renaissance for the Cowboys offense; pairing that newly potent group with a playmaking defense means no one is going to want to face Dallas once the postseason kicks off.
Patrick Mahomes II Converts a Game-Saving Fourth Down
There’s no doubt that Mahomes landed in a near-ideal situation in Kansas City, helming an innovative hybrid spread offense under Andy Reid and throwing to a pair of the league’s most dynamic pass catchers in Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. In the midst of what’s already been one of the most statistically impressive quarterback seasons in NFL history, Mahomes somehow outdid himself against the Ravens on Sunday, strengthening his MVP résumé by proving once again that he’s unique and irreplaceable in the Chiefs system.
Against one of the best defenses in football, Mahomes came up with a new handful of jaw-dropping, highlight-reel throws—each coming out of structure, off-balance, and into tight coverage. Running the two-minute drill late in the first half, Mahomes escaped pressure, moved up in the pocket, and threw a Jason Kidd–esque no-look pass to his left, somehow not only seeing his target, but also generating enough torque to get the ball there in a hurry.
WHAT IS THIS Mahomes is an alien pic.twitter.com/9jkJJX8uD2— Ben Baldwin (@benbbaldwin) December 9, 2018
Here it is in slo-mo. I mean, who does this?
On the next play, he again escaped pressure, moving up into the pocket before dropping his arm angle to “submarine mode” so he could fit a pass past outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.
Every week, Patrick Mahomes does a bunch of things that shouldn't be possible for a human pic.twitter.com/GpBRykJJE7— Ben Baldwin (@benbbaldwin) December 9, 2018
Mahomes wasn’t done yet. His most crucial throw came with 1:29 left in the fourth quarter and the Chiefs trailing 24-17. On a do-or-die fourth-and-9 from the Kansas City 40-yard line, Mahomes took the snap, drifted to his right, and uncorked a pass across his body, back to the middle of the field, somehow finding Hill streaking downfield for a first down.
Four plays later, on fourth-and-3 from the Baltimore 5-yard line, Mahomes hit Damien Williams for the game-tying score. The Chiefs held on to win in overtime.
We’ve already run out of ways to describe Mahomes’s football genius. He wasn’t perfect Sunday—the Ravens threw the kitchen sink at the 23-year-old signal-caller, sacking him three times and adding 15 hits—and he tossed a brutal third-quarter interception. But Baltimore couldn’t hold down Mahomes for long: He finished with a flourish, throwing for 377 yards and a pair of touchdowns and carrying Kansas City to a playoff-clinching win. Mahomes makes throws that no one else can, and it’s becoming more and more apparent that he’s matchup-proof. It’s also clear that he’s the league’s most valuable player.
Taysom Hill’s Blocked Punt
Last week, New Orleans’s typically explosive offense was stifled by a surprisingly stingy Dallas defense, posting season lows in points (10) and yards (176) in a losing effort. Sunday’s matchup with the Buccaneers’ 30th-ranked defense offered an opportunity for that Saints group to right the ship and get back to their high-flying, explosive ways. That didn’t quite happen … at least not at first.
Drew Brees and Co. totaled just 104 yards in the first two quarters, went into the half trailing 14-3, then opened the third quarter with back-to-back failed drives. After slicing and dicing opposing defenses with incredible efficiency for most of the year, mixing a dizzying array of deep bombs, screens, and misdirection plays, the Saints were stumbling again, staring down a second straight loss, and in dire need of a spark. They got it in the form of a blocked punt.
After a Tampa Bay drive stalled out at the team’s own 41-yard line midway through the third quarter, Saints utility man Hill sliced through the line and blocked the Brian Anger punt, sending the ball tumbling back into Buccaneers territory. Saints running back Dwayne Washington recovered it at Tampa Bay’s 30-yard line.
Five plays later, Brees hit fullback Zach Line for the Saints’ first touchdown of the game. The blocked punt signaled the start of what would end up being a 25-0 run by New Orleans en route to its 28-13 win, and was just the latest in a long line of big plays for Hill this year. The 28-year-old has hit offensive and special teams bingo, contributing in a variety of roles:
Taysom Hill blocked a punt for the Saints today. So this season he has...— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 9, 2018
- Completed passes
- Run for a TD
- Caught a pass
- Returned kicks
- Recorded tackles on special teams
- Blocked a punt
With the win, the Saints clinched the NFC South title and improved to 11-2, moving ahead of the Rams in the race for the no. 1 seed in the conference (thanks to their tiebreaking win over L.A. in Week 9). It’s apt that the catalyst for the Saints’ crucial come-from-behind win was a positionless player like Hill; while New Orleans is headlined by stars like Brees, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas, the team has relied on under-the-radar playmakers throughout the season—whether that’s receivers Keith Kirkwood, Austin Carr, or Tre’Quan Smith, or tight ends Dan Arnold, Ben Watson, or Josh Hill.
Baker Mayfield Throws a Dime for a TD
Trailing the Panthers 14-7 midway through the second quarter, the Browns appeared to sputter with an eight-play drive. On third-and-17 from Cleveland’s own 49-yard line, the team looked likely to punt the ball back to Cam Newton and Co.—giving Carolina the opportunity to take control of the game. Instead, Mayfield did this:
Stepping up and drifting to his left to avoid pressure, Mayfield saw receiver Jarvis Landry breaking across the field on a deep crossing route. He tossed a rainbow into what looked like triple coverage, but put it where Landry—and only Landry—could come down with it. It was a beautiful throw, perfectly representative of the direction the Browns offense is going with Mayfield under center. Under the guidance of interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens, the rookie signal-caller has hit his stride as a passer and the Browns offense has flourished.
Mixing new-school passing concepts with old-school run game designs (like full-house diamond formations against the Falcons and the Wing T–esque runs this week) and a handful of trick plays (like double throws and end-arounds), the Browns have found a new balance on offense, manufactured plenty of explosive plays, improved in the red zone, and cut down drastically on sacks. Comparing the numbers under Hue Jackson and Todd Haley with those under Kitchens is staggering:
Baker Mayfield with Hue Jackson/Todd Haley: 58.3% complete, 6.6 yards per pass, 8 TD, 6 INT, 78.9 passer rating, 20 sacks.— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) December 9, 2018
Mayfield since Hue/Haley firing: 73.2% complete, 9.2 yards per pass, 11 TD, 4 INT, 114.5 rating, 3 sacks.
The Browns have faced a relatively light lineup of defenses in their past five games, but it’s clear that Mayfield’s the real deal and that this offense is going in the right direction. Kitchens has shown that he can design an offense that caters to Mayfield’s skill set. If the Browns don’t officially elevate him to offensive coordinator after this season, he’s going to be a hot name in teams’ searches this winter.
Saquon Barkley Takes One to the House
Over the past few seasons, Odell Beckham Jr. has been the backbone of the Giants offense, the one player capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. With Beckham out Sunday, Barkley picked up that slack:
Barkley’s 78-yard touchdown run came at the 8:42 mark of the second quarter but essentially put the game away for New York, pushing the Giants’ lead to 17-0 while boosting their win probability over 89 percent. They coasted from there.
From 2014 to 2017, Beckham scored a league-high 10 touchdowns of 50-plus yards (especially impressive considering he played in only four games last season). This year, Barkley’s taken that mantle.
Players with 3+ TDs of 50+ yards this season:— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) December 9, 2018
Saquon Barkley (5)
Tyreek Hill (4)
Jakeem Grant (3)
DeSean Jackson (3)
Tyler Lockett (3)
The team is going to have to figure out its quarterback situation over the offseason, but the offense’s arrow is pointing up. With Barkley and Beckham in the same unit, New York might have the two best breakaway playmakers in the NFL. Whichever quarterback the Giants get to replace Eli Manning will find himself in an enviable situation.