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: Fourth Quarters
An NFL game is as likely to be a blowout as it is to be a thriller. Entering Sunday, there had been 136 NFL games this season. Seventy-one, or 52.2 percent, were decided by eight or fewer points, meaning the losing team could’ve hypothetically won or tied with one more score. Last year, when the NFL briefly flirted with an average margin of victory under 10 points, it was noteworthy enough that Kevin Clark wrote an article about it. (It eventually bounced up over 11 points.)
Sunday, though, something weird happened: Every NFL game was good. Eleven games were played, and nine were decided by one score. Even the blowouts were kinda good—the 1-7 Falcons inexplicably blew out the 7-1 Saints, and Lamar Jackson did this to the Bengals.
Every other game had something going on at the end: The Packers won on a game-ending goal-line stop; the Titans won on a game-ending field goal block; the Dolphins won by stopping a Colts player just short on fourth down; the Vikings won by intercepting Dak Prescott’s Hail Mary; the Steelers won by intercepting Jared Goff; the Buccaneers won by keeping the Cardinals out of field goal range; the Browns won on a Bills missed field goal; the Bears won when the Lions’ desperation heave was flagged because quarterback Jeff Driskel crossed the line of scrimmage; the Jets won when the Giants’ lateral play fell short.
There have been Sundays with bigger highlights and Sundays with more meaningful results, but for me, heaven is a Sunday where I sit on a couch and watch Scott Hanson try to keep up with seven simultaneous confusing finishes. Heaven is a Sunday like this Sunday.
Loser: Everybody in Every Survivor Pool
There were three obvious mismatches in Sunday’s NFL games: The 7-1 Saints, who were riding a six-game win streak, hosted the 1-7 Falcons, who were riding a six-game losing streak. The 5-3 Colts, sitting in playoff position, hosted the tanking 1-7 Dolphins. There was also a matchup between the 6-2 Ravens and the 0-8 Bengals, but the most popular picks in survivor pools were the Saints and Colts—the Ravens were on the road, only beat the Bengals by six in Baltimore, and besides, if you’re alive this deep in a survivor pool, you probably used the Ravens already, right?
But things did not go according to plan. In one of the strangest games of the season, the Saints, somehow, lost to the Falcons. Got whooped, really. Drew Brees was sacked six times, tying a career high:
Believe it or not you are indeed watching the Falcons defense.— Carlton (@SlopingGiraffe) November 10, 2019
Clayborn sacks Brees to force the punt pic.twitter.com/QWsGCzbSZn
New Orleans never got into the end zone and finished with just nine points. That’s the fewest points Atlanta has allowed in a game all season, and the fewest points New Orleans has scored in any home Drew Brees start in his entire career.
And the Colts lost after three interceptions thrown by backup quarterback Brian Hoyer, starting in place of injured backup turned starter Jacoby Brissett. Hoyer, making his first start since 2017, enthusiastically hurled the ball to the Dolphins all night long:
Before facing Hoyer, the Dolphins had intercepted only three passes all season long. Hoyer threw three picks in an afternoon. Entering Sunday, the Dolphins had allowed 256 points in eight games, nearly on pace to set the NFL record for most in a season. The Colts managed just 12, the fewest of any team against the Dolphins this season.
According to Action Network, the Saints and Colts accounted for 69 percent of all Week 10 survivor picks. In my pool, 41 percent of picks were on the Saints, and another 26 percent on the Colts. (Including mine!) So congratulations to the extremely slim percentage of people with still-active entries, who are now in line to win huge sums of money. And another, smaller congratulations to the people in pools where every single entry died today—I guess, technically, you’re all winners, and because you all failed, you all win a small amount of money.
Winner: The Cincinnati Bengals
Just two weeks ago, the Bengals seemed to be the peak of misery—not only were they winless, but the Dolphins seemed more committed to tanking than any team in recent NFL memory, trading away good players for draft picks, committing backbreaking turnovers, or allowing inconceivable touchdowns whenever games got close. The Bengals were on track to lose a lot, but not enough to earn the top pick in the draft. You may think finishing second to last is somehow better than dead last, but let me assure you: The absolute worst thing anybody can be is second worst at sucking.
Luckily for Cincinnati, the Dolphins got fed up with people saying they were tanking. Thanks to the Jets last week and Brian Hoyer’s Interceptionfest 2019 this week, the Dolphins are on a two-game win streak. The Bengals are the last winless team in the league—and that’s not all! In Week 10, three of the four one-loss teams won: In addition to Miami, the 1-7 Jets beat the Giants, and the 1-7 Falcons beat the Saints. Washington is on bye, but they should win soon—they have upcoming home games against the Jets and Giants.
The Bengals, meanwhile, remain the lone winless team in the league. Sunday, they got crushed 49-13 by the Ravens, and lost by only that little because Baltimore removed Lamar Jackson from the game with a full quarter remaining.
The Bengals are cruising to the no. 1 pick in the draft. Earlier, it looked like their Week 16 matchup against the Dolphins would be must-lose material, but now, it looks like the Bengals can win a game and still get their pick. Of course, they’re probably not going to—did you see how viciously they lost Sunday?—but it’s nice to know they have some wiggle room in case they screw up and actually do something right.
Did Christian McCaffrey score a touchdown that could have extended Sunday’s Panthers-Packers game? The official word is “maybe.” He got the ball on the 1-yard line with two seconds left and Carolina trailing 24-16. He got roughly 1 yard. But whether he got exactly 1 yard or slightly more or slightly less than 1 yard would decide the game. So, you tell me: Did he get in?
Was that a touchdown for Christian McCaffrey?pic.twitter.com/aaAGlfDn4L— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) November 11, 2019
Normally, the NFL or various team Twitter accounts will tweet out official videos of exciting plays, and I’d say a game-sealing goal-line stop counts as one. But the NFL and official team Twitter accounts don’t tweet out controversial plays, so, uh, that video up there is the best video I could find on Twitter!
It’s tough to tell, since it’s from such a bad angle. Because it was an NFL game, there was a camera on the goal line … but the critical view of the play was blocked by Panthers receiver Curtis Samuel, unfortunately standing directly in between the camera and the ball:
The official ruling was that the call on the field “stands”—notably, not confirmed or overturned because replay officials literally couldn’t see what happened on the play.
I personally think McCaffrey got into the end zone from all the other angles. They’re inconclusive, sure, but that’s my hunch. I believe the Panthers could have won this game if Samuel was a bit more transparent. I’d tell NFL teams to coach their receivers not to stand on the goal line on these plays, but, hey, if the ruling on the field had been “touchdown,” Samuel’s goal-line stand would’ve been huge for the Panthers.
But I could also use a little transparency from the NFL—it’s kinda silly that the league intentionally avoids sharing videos of genuinely exciting plays like this because some people could get mad at the decision. It’s sports—we’re going to get mad anyway, and we’re going to get even madder if you hide stuff from us!
Loser: The Chiefs’ Holder
Reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes returned from injury Sunday, and was incredible, throwing for 446 yards, three touchdowns, and doing this. Aaaaaand Kansas City lost, ruining Mahomes’s beautiful return for everyone. The Chiefs had a pair of late-game field goal attempts, and because I’m talking about late-game field goal failures, you know where this is going: Surely some bum kicker screwed up and he’s the least popular man in the entire Show-Me State. But that’s not what happened! The problem with Kansas City’s field goals wasn’t the kicker—in fact, the ball never even got past the line of scrimmage.
On the first attempt, leading by five with 1:27 to go, Chiefs long snapper James Winchester snapped the ball before holder Dustin Colquitt was ready. This never happens! Sometimes centers snap the ball in shotgun to quarterbacks who aren’t expecting it, but that’s only because centers are looking forward when they snap the ball. This rarely happens on field goal snaps, when the snapper is looking directly at the holder. In a panic, Colquitt hurled the ball instead of getting tackled, resulting in an intentional grounding penalty:
The Titans quickly scored a touchdown to take a three-point lead—the 10 yards from the intentional grounding put them 10 yards closer to the end zone, which was helpful. But the Chiefs quickly got in field goal range again. This time, kicker Harrison Butker got his foot to ball on a potential game-tying attempt—but the kick was blocked by Titans cornerback Joshua Kalu, who got around the edge and swatted the ball:
Two attempted kicks, two catastrophes. And while it seems like the two plays failed for very different reasons, there is a common problem on both: Colquitt’s signal to Winchester that he wanted the ball snapped. To understand, let’s watch a normal, successful field goal by Butker. Focus on the holder before the snap:
Colquitt has his fist up the entire time, even when he’s looking back at Butker to make sure Butker is ready for the kick. When Butker lets Colquitt know he’s ready, Colquitt turns his head toward the snapper—and as you can see, the snapper knows to snap when Colquitt turns his head forward.
The problem on the first snap is that Winchester looked back, saw Colquitt looking forward, and thought that meant Colquitt was calling for the ball.
Some ICYMI: James Winchester on the field goal snap. "I looked back, Dustin Colquitt was looking forward, then I started to see him look back, but I had already started the snap. It was just miscommunication." @Chiefs— Harold R. Kuntz (@HaroldRKuntz3) November 10, 2019
In this case, it’s pretty easy to see how this has to do with the holder’s signal—the snapper said it after the game. But what about the field goal block?
After the game, many people claimed the Titans were offside on the field goal block, because Kalu got off so early. But Kalu wasn’t offside—he just timed the snap perfectly. And as Kalu explained after the game, he was able to do that because of the Chiefs’ consistent, predictable, and noticeable routine.
A few years ago, I wrote about the now-illegal trend of defenders jumping over the line of scrimmage to block field goals. The defenders were able to time the jump because they were able to read the signal from the holder to the snapper. When Kalu saw Colquitt’s helmet begin to move, he knew to start going—and he won the Titans the game because of it.
A football team is this enormous machine, with 53 players, dozens of coaches, and hundreds of plays. In the scale of this machine, the Chiefs had a problem the size of a speck of dust—a tiny, barely notable issue on one of the most routine elements of football. But that speck brought about their downfall.
Winner: King Lamar
Lamar Jackson was Sunday’s MVP, both from an on-field perspective and a content perspective. He completely dominated the Bengals in a 49-13 romp, going 15-for-17 for 223 yards and three touchdowns. He had a perfect 158.3 passer rating for the second time this year and became just the second player in NFL history to record a perfect rating twice in the same season. (The other: Ben Roethlisberger in 2007.) He is now responsible for two of the top 10 games in ESPN’s QBR ranking … ever.
Efficiency isn’t supposed to look cool, but Lamar’s incredibly efficient days are sprinkled with the league’s best highlights. Lamar had Sunday’s two coolest plays. First was this 47-yard touchdown run:
Lamar Jackson is the my favorite player to watch ♂️ pic.twitter.com/2wqIrhoi8Z— Reggie Bush (@ReggieBush) November 10, 2019
It’s unfair to say this was the coolest play of Sunday. It’s, like, maybe the coolest play I’ve ever seen? He’s running at full speed and then completely loses two NFL defenders with a video game spin move. (Calling things “a video game ____” feels played out, but I honestly did not know it was possible to hit a spin move at full speed unless you’re a digital sprite who does a 360 when your teenaged master hits the circle button.)
The second-coolest play of the day was when the Ravens debuted what they call the Heisman Package—a play when Jackson, who won the Heisman in 2016, lines up with backup quarterback Robert Griffin III (the 2011 Heisman winner) and running back Mark Ingram (the 2009 Heisman winner). In the spirit of celebrating college success, the Ravens ran the triple option—Jackson could have handed off to Ingram up the middle, but instead ran the speed option to the outside and picked up a first down before pitching to Griffin.
(Because Jackson got across the line of scrimmage before pitching, he technically was the ballcarrier on this play, meaning that Griffin ended the day with zero carries for 9 yards. Talk about efficiency.)
The Heisman package made me reflect on how far Jackson has come—not just since he was a college great, but since last year. It might seem ridiculous now, but just 12 months ago, Jackson was essentially in the same role Griffin was today—a backup quarterback who came into games only if the Ravens wanted to run an unusual package in which Jackson lined up at slot receiver or running back. A year ago, he was the gimmick. Now he’s the real deal, and the most exciting offense in the NFL is built specifically around his skill set.
The Ravens are in the running for a first-round bye—they have the second-best record in the AFC, and just took down the team with the best record. But while Jackson might be accomplishing serious things, he’s fine participating in gimmick plays like this one if it’s what the Ravens want. That’s what makes Jackson incredible: He blends efficiency with cool; he pulls off meaningful moments and just-for-shits-and-giggles gags within a few breaths of each other, and both are beautiful. He’s the king of the NFL, and his crown is this pair of sunglasses:
lamar jackson had a 99.8 QBR and 158.3 passer rating today pic.twitter.com/bORbwxmMwB— charles (ronald) mcdonald (@FourVerts) November 10, 2019
Loser: Returning Superstars
Every single quarterback in the NFL has been injured this season—don’t fact-check me on this, but it’s true—and that includes the greats. Last year, Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes would have played each other in the Super Bowl, if not for a pair of unfortunate overtimes, and both missed significant time this year. Brees returned from his broken thumb two weeks ago, and Mahomes returned from his dislocated knee this week.
However, their returns have not been happy. Sunday, Brees’s Saints lost one of the most confusing games of the entire season, losing 26-9 to the 1-7 Falcons. And Mahomes’s Chiefs lost to the sub-.500 Titans. Sure, he threw for 400 yards and three touchdowns during the game, but they lost.
It’s time for us to bust out the take machines. We need to argue that the Saints need to go back to Teddy Bridgewater, who went 5-0 in his stint filling in for Brees. Sure, the Saints won with 13 points and 12 points during that 5-0 stint, but it’s clear Teddy knows how to win. And the Chiefs need to ditch this 24-year-old so-called phenom and go back to experienced veteran Matt Moore, most recently seen taking down the 7-3 Vikings.
Talent doesn’t win games. Leadership does, and it’s clear that—wait, did Skip Bayless already do these?
Matt Moore beats Kirk Cousins, as I predicted on Undisputed. I'm certainly not saying Moore is better than Mahomes. But the Chiefs are playing with more spirit and fight than they did for Mahomes, who lost his last two home games.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) November 3, 2019
Mahomes gets away with the jump-pass Play of the Day ... then loses his third straight start when 52-yard FG to tie was blocked. Mahomes was wild-high more than usual after missing the time for his knee injury.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) November 10, 2019
Ah, crap, Bayless already did these. Alright, I’m gonna start over with something new—I’m thinking it’s gonna be something about how Blake Bortles came closer to beating the Patriots in the playoffs than Jared Goff.
Winner: Football Innovator Kenny Golladay
You know that scene in the heist movie when the crew leader reveals that they’re going to steal the diamonds, and the rest of the gang is like, “But wait, what’s our escape plan?” and he’s like, “That’s easy: We’re just going to walk right out the front door with them,” and he reveals a plan so simple and beautiful that it actually might work? Kenny Golladay knows that scene. Sunday, he stole a yard in plain sight, and nobody stopped him.
The Lions, playing with backup quarterback Jeff Driskel, needed to score a late touchdown to tie the Bears. With 15 seconds left, Driskel was flushed out of the pocket and completed a desperation pass to Golladay, who couldn’t get out of bounds. Out of timeouts, the team needed to scramble to the line of scrimmage to spike the ball, so Golladay decided to expedite the process by running to the middle of the field … and, just for the hell of it, he ran forward a few yards too. Referees didn’t see any problem with this, and accepted Golladay’s spot as fact.
Kenny Golladay spots the ball himself almost two yards ahead of where went down.— Bad Sports Refs (@BadSportsRefs) November 10, 2019
Ref: OK cool, thanks Kenny that looks okay.pic.twitter.com/J3nWLTwqKF
I’d say Golladay’s forward progress got him to the 26, but Golladay plopped the ball on the 25, and that’s where it stayed for the team’s desperate shot at the end zone. In the grand scheme of things, the extra yard doesn’t matter too much—the difference between a 26-yard shot at the end zone and a 25-yard shot at the end zone is negligible. And while accounts titled “Bad Sports Refs” are tweeting the video out, I honestly don’t think the ref did anything wrong here—he used his judgment to just go with the flow instead of forcing the entire team to move back a yard and get set, something which could have ended the game considering the clock was rolling with eight seconds left.
But officially, Golladay got that yard—it’s in the record of the game that he picked up 3 yards on this pass and got to the 25-yard line. Surely, somebody out there won their fantasy matchup by .1 points because Golladay had the gall to simply lie to the referees’ faces and tell them he got to the 25 when he knew he actually didn’t.
Loser: Ezekiel Elliott
The Cowboys made Zeke Elliott the highest-paid running back in the NFL earlier this year, which is neat, because they also have the most expensive offensive line in the NFL. You’d think every game would feature 25 carries for 175 yards. At the very least, you’d think the Cowboys could reliably hand the ball to Elliott behind their mashing O-line in short-yardage situations, knowing they’d get the first.
Sunday, they found themselves in that situation. Trailing the Vikings by four points with 1:33 to go, the Cowboys faced a second-and-2 at the Minnesota 11-yard line. Their path to victory was easy—pick up a first down, run some clock, score a touchdown. Elliott hadn’t had a great game—he had 18 carries for 50 yards—but this is the situation he’s paid for.
On second-and-2, Elliott got the ball. He gained 0 yards. On third-and-2, Elliott got the ball. He lost 3 yards. On fourth-and-5, the Cowboys threw to Elliott. The pass fell incomplete, and they lost.
Two of the Cowboys’ offensive stars showed out Sunday, Prescott threw for 397 yards and three touchdowns, and Amari Cooper had 147 yards and a spectacular touchdown catch. But Elliott is the star who got paid big money, and he failed to pick up 2 yards on three plays when the team needed him.
Winner: The Back Pages
I have come to the conclusion that my quest to determine the most embarrassing team in New York will never reach a conclusion. They are always undercutting each other. When you play in a swamp, there is no bottom, just miles and miles of mud.
Entering Sunday, I was sure the Jets were the most embarrassing of the two. They were 1-7, dead last in virtually every offensive category and the subjects of multiple grievances arguing they mishandled player injuries, their quarterback’s crappiness was a meme, and they’d just lost to the winless Dolphins. The Giants were bad, sure, but come on. The Jets lost to a team whose front office did not want to win games.
And then, in the once-every-four-years showdown between the two New York teams, the Jets embarrassed both of the Giants’ foundational draft picks. Jets safety Jamal Adams stole the ball out of Giants quarterback Daniel Jones’s hands and ran it into the end zone for a touchdown:
Adams apparently has also seen that heist movie Golladay saw about stealing something and taking it right out the front door. It was one of three fumbles by Jones, who soared into the league lead in that category. Also note the pathetic job in pass protection by Saquon Barkley, the no. 2 pick in the 2018 draft, who gets bowled over as Adams coasts to the quarterback.
But the Giants didn’t draft Barkley for his pass protection—they drafted him because even in an era when running backs supposedly don’t matter, Barkley is a dynamic playmaker who can bust things open.
Except Sunday, he had 13 carries for a grand total of 1 yard, the first time in his career he was held below 10 yards. His first carry of the day went for 2 yards, and if you were watching, you probably thought “pretty meh start for Saquon.” But after that he had 12 carries … for negative-1 yards. Stunningly, it’s not the most carries any player has had for that few yards, but it’s close. The record for most carries with one or fewer total yards is 14, and nobody has done that since 1978. The inaugural Texans team in 2002 had a 13-carry, 1-yard performance from Jonathan Wells, and nobody had matched that line until Sunday.
The Jets won, 34-27, giving them a 2-7 record and the Giants a 2-8 record—and ensuring that both New York teams will finish with more than 10 losses for the third consecutive year. Who will the New York tabloids roast on Monday? Jones? Barkley? Head coach Pat Shurmur? General manager Dave Gettleman? There’s only one thing better for New York media than one awful football team, and it’s two awful football teams.