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?
This was the third week of the NFL season, and one where the idea of the league making sense officially fell apart.
- The Patriots—you know, the team that wins the Super Bowl every year, every day, every hour, every minute, the team that has won the Super Bowl 7,000 times—lost to the previously winless Lions. It’s the first time the Patriots have lost back-to-back games by double digits since 2002. The Lions, you may remember, got completely rocked by the Jets in Week 1, with Matt Stafford throwing four interceptions. The Jets, you may remember, have not won the Super Bowl 7,000 times, and in fact, lost to the Browns on Thursday. The Browns went 0-16 last year, and now they have a transitive-property win over the Patriots. And a better record—1-1-1 is better than 1-2.
- The Jaguars beat the Patriots last week in an AFC championship game rematch. This week, Jacksonville lost 9-6 to the Titans. Tennessee started Blaine Gabbert due to an injury to Marcus Mariota, then played Mariota, who was still injured, after a first-quarter injury to Gabbert. An injured mashup QB named Blarcus Gabriota is officially a better quarterback than Tom Brady.
- And last but not least, the Buffalo Bills pulled off the biggest upset in decades. Yes, the Bills! Buffalo was 0-2, having lost 47-3 to the Ravens and trailed 28-3 against the Chargers. The Vikings made the NFC championship game last year and were at home. This is why the Bills were 17-point underdogs.
But the Bills won! They became the largest underdog to win since 1995. And they didn’t just win—they won by 21. Underdogs of at least 15 points had a 4.2 winning percentage since 1990, with no wins by more than seven points. The Bills won by three dang touchdowns. Buffalo looked legitimately great. The Bills didn’t allow any points until the fourth quarter. Josh Allen jumped over a guy.
Josh Allen, track star. pic.twitter.com/OSheUoD2tN— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) September 23, 2018
Josh Allen is 6-foot-5! You ever seen an oak tree jump?
A week ago, I said the Bills were “a football disaster.” Today they beat a Super Bowl favorite, comfortably, on the road, with a quarterback I called “bad at throwing” posting a 111.2 QB rating. Is it possible that I was wrong? That I should reconsider my previously held opinions? That I know literally nothing about football and should just shut up all the time in hopes that nobody will notice that I’m so stupid and bad? That sounds possible, but, uh, I think it would be easier for us to just say the NFL is total nonsense and move on and not think about it too much.
Loser: Vontae Davis
Last week we praised Davis for retiring at halftime of a Bills game instead of putting his body on the line for the sake of a team doomed to weekly demolition. But now that the Bills are America’s Team, the situation is flipped. Now we know what the Bills’ problem was: It was Vontae Davis.
Before Davis retired, the Bills played six quarters and were outscored 75-9. Since Davis retired, the Bills have played six quarters and have outscored the opposition 41-9. Never mind that Davis didn’t even play in the Bills’ Week 1 game—just being on the roster caused Nathan Peterman to post a 0.0 QB rating in that game.
This same scenario happened in Friday Night Lights—quarterback Ray “Voodoo” Tatum walked out of a Dillon game at halftime, revealing that it was actually Voodoo’s negative energy holding the Panthers back, and after that they went undefeated and made the state championship game, where they played Voodoo Tatum’s new team. So, when Vontae Davis comes out of retirement to play for another team, look for that squad to play the Bills in the Super Bowl.
Winner: The High Five
The high five is a replacement-level celebration. You can high-five your uncle, your boss, your teacher, 3-year-olds, and some particularly talented dogs. It can only be botched by the squarest of squares. It is unimpressive, especially compared to more complex and fun football celebrations. The only time the high five seems to be of note is when somebody gets left hanging.
However, as Dolphins wide receivers Albert Wilson and Jakeem Grant proved Sunday, sometimes context can turn even a mundane celebration into something spectacular:
High-fiving itself might not be cool—but high-fiving during a touchdown? Crossing wide receivers are actually coached to high-five each other when running mesh, but this is different.
The degree of difficulty on this play is ridiculous. The Dolphins needed to run a play so successful that two receivers could have the ball miles beyond any opposing defenders. They had to be running in the same direction with no responsibilities—no moves left to make, no defenders left to block—nothing to do besides match speeds and slap skin.
This is the most technically complex method of performing a relatively simple gesture since Lieutenant Pete Mitchell flipped the bird to a MiG pilot during an inverted dive. Wilson also threw a touchdown in the Dolphins’ win, but rebranding a mundane celebration is probably the most important thing he did.
Loser: Clay Matthews
Matthews was called for four roughing-the-passer penalties in the first nine seasons of his career. He’s been called for three in the first three weeks of this season, thanks to the league’s new emphasis on penalizing sacks where pass rushers land on top of quarterbacks. Last week, Matthews’s regular-looking sack was flagged, turning an interception into a first down, allowing the Vikings to continue a drive that tied the game. This week, he was flagged for this.
Roughing the passer. Clay Matthews may actually kill a referee at this point pic.twitter.com/ta9zJqrAOO— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) September 23, 2018
As with last week’s tackle, it’s not clear what Matthews is supposed to do here. His hit is near perfect—he doesn’t lead with his head, hits Alex Smith in the midsection (not high enough to hit his helmet, not low enough to endanger his knees), wraps Smith with his arms, and tries to get his body weight off of Smith as quickly as possible after the tackle. Perhaps he could have learned to levitate at the exact moment Smith’s body touched the ground.
But the league’s officiating office has stressed that the calls against Matthews have both been accurate, because Matthews is landing on the opposing quarterback with his body weight. Last week’s hit was reportedly added to the teaching tape, and after this week’s hit, the league tweeted about how the call was correct. (It was a tweet that will go down in ratio history—at time of publication, it had 500 retweets, 1,500 likes, and a stunning 8,700 replies.)
I refuse to believe that the league has actually made the types of hits Matthews is making illegal. They’re safe—or at least as safe as any football hit can be—and wouldn’t be considered illegal on running backs or wide receivers. So it’s my understanding that the NFL is just penalizing all sacks by Clay Matthews. What a tough situation he’s in—his job is to sack people, but he’s also not allowed to sack people.
Winner: Bill Belichick
Last week I put the Patriots’ coach into the losers column, which was a mistake. Bill Belichick is a genius, and I am but a pathetic writer who is not fit to wash Belichick’s hoodie. (Side note: it appears nobody is fit to wash Belichick’s hoodie. That thing looks dirty as hell.) So this week, I am making him a winner out of penance.
There’s really only one thing in between Belichick and universal acceptance as the most brilliant coach or person ever to live: His assistant coaches have all sucked as head coaches. The Belichick coaching tree includes massive failures Al Groh, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Jim Schwartz, and Nick Saban, whom nobody has heard of since he quit the Miami Dolphins in early 2007. Maybe this shows that Belichick is such an overwhelming genius that his assistants are useless. Maybe it shows that all of New England’s success comes because of Tom Brady, rather than Belichick’s system. Let’s stick with the latter, because it’s more fun.
Anyway, new Lions head coach Matt Patricia got off to a start we’d expected from Belichick disciples, going 0-2, including a blowout loss to the Jets. The Patriots coach had to do something to save his reputation—and he did, letting the Lions pull off a stunning upset on Sunday Night Football.
Brady threw for just 133 yards, his fewest in a non–Week 17 game since 2013. The Lions had a 100-yard rusher for the first time since 2013. And Detroit won 26-10. Truly masterful work from Belichick, whose reputation is unblemished now that Patricia is no longer a winless coach.
Loser: The Guy Who Had to Block J.J. Watt
The Giants’ starting right tackle was Ereck Flowers, whose season highlights include getting beaten so badly he had to trip the defensive end sprinting past him and the time he thought Calais Campbell relied more on speed than power. (Campbell, who barely lost last year’s Defensive Player of the Year vote, is 6-foot-8 and weighs 300 pounds. He is not a speed guy.) So this week, the Giants replaced him with Chad Wheeler. Flowers was a top-10 pick in 2015; Wheeler went undrafted in 2017. Neat!
Unfortunately, Wheeler’s first start of the season was against the Texans. Who have a guy named J.J. Watt.
Watt gets round Wheeler and swats the ball out of Eli's hands in about two seconds flat here. Unreal. pic.twitter.com/JfsMD2de7H— Gordon McGuinness (@PFF_Gordon) September 23, 2018
Congrats, you’re starting! Now you have to stop this guy:
Due to injuries, Watt hadn’t recorded a sack since 2016. He had three Sunday, blowing past Wheeler again and again and again. But Wheeler survived his trial by extremely strong guy—here’s video evidence that he’s alive—and life will only get easier.
Winner: Efe Obada
You probably hadn’t heard of Panthers defensive end Efe Obada before he made his NFL debut Sunday. After all, he’d never played a pro game. He didn’t play for your favorite college team, or in the same conference as your favorite college team, or at a high school in your home state. Obada was born in Nigeria, moved to the Netherlands as a child, and was homeless in London at the age of 10, abandoned by the person who was supposed to help him adapt to life in his new home. Four years ago, a friend convinced him to join a local American football team in England. The level of competition wasn’t high, but at 6-foot-6 and with incredible athleticism, Obada was hard to miss.
Obada joined the Panthers as part of something called the NFL’s International Pathway Program, which gave teams an extra offseason spot on their practice squads if they were willing to use it on an inexperienced rando from overseas. While the majority of players in the Pathway Program got cut at the end of the offseason, Obada was one of just two (along with Eagles draft pick Jordan Mailata, who is from Australia) to make his team.
And he had himself a game:
Obada got a sack, an interception, and a game ball. (He would’ve had a forced fumble, but officials ruled Andy Dalton’s arm was moving forward on the pass.)
The performance is awesome for Obada—it’s truly amazing that somebody who had never even seen a football game four years ago just had a sack and an interception in a live NFL game. But it also could be huge for the development of the game in other countries. With Obada’s productive game, NFL teams can see that developing foreign talent isn’t just part of some useless initiative to please the league office or win a few dozen fans in some far-flung country where their team will never play. There are amazing athletes around the world who, with the right coaching, can help NFL teams win games.
Loser: The Josh Rosen Plan
Through two weeks, all indications pointed to the Cardinals having the worst offense in football, and yet the team seemed set to continue with starter Sam Bradford instead of rookie Josh Rosen. The team wanted Rosen to develop at his pace, even if that meant the team would take some bumps along the way. Then on Sunday, Bradford blew the game against the Bears. After leading the Cardinals to a 14-0 lead, Bradford threw two picks and lost a fumble.
With Arizona trailing 16-14 and under five minutes to go, the Cardinals ditched the plan. In came Rosen. And he, uh, did not play well:
Rosen had an opportunity to throw a Hail Mary for the win. Except, he didn’t really have much of an opportunity—the Bears made the unusual decision to blitz on the Hail Mary, sending six rushers at Rosen. His receivers didn’t even get downfield before he was crushed.
Chicago didn't give Josh Rosen a chance for a Hail Mary on the game's final play as the #Bears sack the Arizona rookie to complete a 16-14 win over the #AZCardinals. #CHIvsAZ pic.twitter.com/MPrMkmntRz— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) September 23, 2018
I strongly endorse rookies playing over subpar veterans. And I get the idea with playing Rosen—Bradford obviously couldn’t get the job done, and it would’ve been really cool if Rosen had pulled out the win! Look at Baker Mayfield, the new king of Cleveland!
But while it was a neat idea, the execution was unfortunate. A kid who had only infrequently practiced with the first team was thrown into the most critical moments of a game. He had no time to adjust—he was forced to lead his team to victory or get eaten alive by Khalil Mack. It was like driving a car for the first time in the final lap of a NASCAR race. It backfired, and now Rosen is saddled with some of the responsibility for a defeat in his very first pro game.
Winner: Steve Sarkisian
The Falcons seemed doomed after their opening-night loss to the Eagles. Yes, they had excellent offensive talent, with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Devonta Freeman, but those people were coached by offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Sark’s inability to coach in the red zone has become legendary. The Falcons scored touchdowns on 64.6 percent of their red zone opportunities in 2016 with Kyle Shanahan as OC; that dropped to 49.2 percent in Sarkisian’s first year in Atlanta, with the season ending just a few feet from Philadelphia’s end zone in the divisional round of the playoffs due to some confusing play calls by Sark. That appeared to carry over into 2018, as Atlanta went 1-for-5 in the red zone against the Eagles, the game once again ending just a few feet from Philadelphia’s end zone due to some confusing play calls by Sark. How could anybody trust the one dude who managed to lose a game at Alabama?
But Sarkisian has killed the red zone monster. Since Week 1, the Falcons have scored touchdowns on every one of their eight trips inside the 20-yard line, including 28 points off of four trips to the red zone Sunday against the Saints.
Of course, the Falcons still lost, 43-37 in overtime, but at least it wasn’t Sark’s fault this time.
An earlier version of this story included the incorrect draft year for Ereck Flowers. He was a top-10 pick in 2015, not 2017.