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: A Cure for the Winless
Everybody suffers when a team goes 0-16. The team’s fans suffer—sure, they’ll get a good draft pick, but the stain of a winless year hangs with a franchise forever. The NFL suffers, as the league’s claim that every game is worthwhile entertainment fades when one team is completely incompetent. It sucks when football conversation focuses on tank jobs rather than the teams that actually win games. We all know that the 1972 Dolphins pop champagne when the last undefeated team loses; we know that the 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns don’t celebrate when the last winless team gets off the schneid. (If they did, I assume it would involve Steel Reserve instead of champagne.)
Luckily, the NFL never has to worry about a team going 0-16 ever again. There is a solution for any team headed deep into the season without a W next to their name—the New York Jets.
In October, the Dolphins and Bengals were both winless almost halfway into the season, and it looked like the Week 16 game between the two rudderless ships would be an epic Pooper Bowl to determine who would get the no. 1 pick. However, in Week 9, the 0-7 Dolphins played the 1-6 Jets and won, 26-18. They haven’t looked back, winning against the Colts and Eagles to move to 3-9.
The Bengals, however, kept losing, and entered Sunday 0-11. Their defense was dead last in the NFL in yards per play (6.5, nobody else was worse than 6.2), yards per passing attempt (9.0, nobody else was worse than 8.6), and yards per game (417, a smidge worse than the Cardinals’ 415).
And then they got to play the Jets. Every other team had scored at least 16 points against the Bengals; the Jets got six, becoming the first team to fail to find the end zone against the Bengals. In fact, they never even got into the red zone. The Jets averaged just 4.0 yards per passing attempt and 3.9 yards per play, and gained 271 yards against the worst team in the league in all categories. Against the Dolphins, the Jets committed 10 penalties for 105 yards; against the Bengals, they committed 10 penalties for 105 yards. It was a truly pitiful offensive performance. The Jets used the no. 3 pick in the 2018 draft on Sam Darnold, hired a supposed quarterbacking guru in Adam Gase this offseason, and just went an entire game without reaching the red zone against the worst defense in the NFL.
Meanwhile, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton returned to the lineup after Cincinnati tired of testing out fourth-round draft pick Ryan Finley, and the Jets kindly allowed Dalton to set the Bengals franchise record for career touchdown passes:
With the loss, the Jets became the first team in NFL history to lose to two 0-7-or-worse teams in the same season. This is what the Jets do. Thirteen teams have finished NFL seasons with one win since the AFL-NFL merger, and three of them got that sole win against the Jets, including losses against the 0-9 1991 Colts and 0-14 1980 Saints.
The strange thing is, in between the losses to the winless Dolphins and Bengals, the Jets seemed OK, reeling off back-to-back-to-back wins, scoring 34 points in each game. But when football has needed somebody to lose to these hapless, hopeless squads, the Jets have stepped up to save the league from the ignominy of a winless team.
I have only one question: What will the NFL do if and when the Jets are the team cruising toward an 0-16 season?
Winner: Lamar Jackson
The obvious game of the week was a matchup between two surprise squads on top of their respective conferences—the 10-1 San Francisco 49ers and the 9-2 Baltimore Ravens. It was a tough moment for Jackson—the Niners have the best defense in the league, and the game was played in a pouring rain, limiting his throwing ability and execution on option run plays.
Sure enough, Jackson played arguably his worst game of the year. He threw for a season-low 105 yards and a season-low 4.6 yards per attempt, and lost his first fumble of 2019. The Ravens entered Sunday averaging 433 yards per game and 6.4 yards per play; Sunday they had just 283 total yards and averaged 4.6 yards per play.
And they won. In Jackson’s “worst game of the year,” he ran for 101 yards and threw for 105, accounted for two touchdowns, didn’t throw any interceptions, and led the Ravens on a 12-play last-minute field goal drive to give the Ravens a 20-17 win. He made a 49ers defender’s ankles turn to dust.
I want to see the 49ers and Ravens play in better conditions. Maybe during prime time? Considering the Ravens are now the no. 1 seed in the AFC, thanks to New England’s loss, and the 49ers will remain the no. 1 seed in the NFC if the Seahawks lose on Monday night, I think they could possibly find a date to play in February.
But even if that doesn’t happen, Sunday’s thrilling game told a fascinating story. We had seen Jackson at his best, but Sunday we saw Jackson hampered by strange conditions and an elite defense—and still prove good enough to win.
Loser: The Mason Rudolph–James Washington Friendship
Imagine a high school kid who decides to go to the same college as his best buddy. They’re gonna have so much fun! They requested each other as roommates! Ooh, let’s get a U-Haul and drive our stuff to school together—I’ll bring the course catalog so the person who isn’t driving can read it! And then freshman year starts, and that buddy realizes there are thousands of new people he can be friends with. When Friend A stocks up on chips and soda for their dorm room video game party—just like in high school!—Friend B is out, realizing that people from other places are arguably more interesting than people from his hometown.
That’s sorta what’s happening with Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington. In last year’s NFL draft, the Steelers picked both Rudolph and Washington out of Oklahoma State, where Rudolph became the school’s all-time passing leader and Washington won the Biletnikoff Trophy for the nation’s best wide receiver. I honestly can’t think of any other examples of a team drafting a QB-WR battery from the same school in the same draft class. Surely, their existing rapport would help them blossom into exceptional pros.
But Washington had a disappointing rookie year—just 217 yards and one touchdown, weak production for a second-round pick—while Rudolph rode the bench. An injury to starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made Rudolph the starter earlier this year, but Rudolph underwhelmed and their connection failed to blossom. In Rudolph’s first seven starts, Washington had 19 catches for 295 yards and one 3-yard receiving touchdown. Then, last week, the Steelers decided they’d finally had enough of Rudolph and benched him for backup Devlin “Duck” Hodges. Within minutes, Washington caught a 79-yard touchdown pass.
Sunday, Hodges got his first start over Rudolph (he started earlier this season with Rudolph hurt) and led the Steelers to a 20-13 win over the Browns—the same Browns that intercepted Rudolph four times just a few weeks ago. The win was highlighted by a truly incredible catch by Washington:
Half of Washington’s career touchdowns—and certainly his two biggest highlights—have come in the game-and-a-half since the Steelers turned to Hodges. Somehow, the Steelers are 7-5, and have a really good shot at the playoffs thanks to the newfound Hodges-Washington connection. To quote the meme: Friendship ended with Mason. Now Duck is my best friend.
Hodges-Washington seems to be a legit on-field connection—and they seem to be friends off the field, too, as Hodges took Washington duck hunting.
(Again, I remain unclear whether Duck Hodges is nicknamed “Duck” because he considers himself a duck or because he likes killing ducks so much. I had the same problem when Ghostface Killah began releasing albums as Ghostface.)
Rudolph has been abandoned, like that poor high school kid who went to college with his high school buddy. But what’s more selfish—that Friend B moved on, or that Friend A expected his pal to abandon opportunities for growth to keep doing the same thing over and over again in a new place?
Winner: Tennessee’s Hyperclutch Field Goal Block Unit
A few weeks ago, we wrote about how Tennessee spotted a minuscule tell on Kansas City’s field goal unit and used it against them, perfectly timing the snap on a game-winning field goal attempt and blasting through the line of scrimmage to steal a win. I thought it was a neat, unique moment in a likely meaningless game and wanted to highlight it so somebody might remember it.
Things have changed. The Titans have been reinvigorated since switching from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill at quarterback in Week 6, winning all but one of his starts. On Sunday, they played a game against the 6-5 Colts that essentially served as a playoff-elimination game. And again, the field goal block team won it. With the game tied at 17 in the fourth quarter, the Titans crashed through the line and not only blocked the kick, but returned it for a touchdown.
You might think this sort of thing is common, because you’ve seen highlights of field goal blocks returned for touchdowns, and because a team sends a field goal block unit out on the field every time. But I can assure you, it is not. Punt blocks for touchdowns are pretty common, because the snap is so long, the blockers also have to worry about releasing downfield to cover the punt, and the punter’s windup is pretty long. That’s why there have been three punt blocks returned for touchdowns this year. Field goal blocks returned for touchdowns, though, are extremely rare, because the snap is short, the entire offense is solely focused on protecting the kick, and the run-up is quick—before Sunday, there hadn’t been a field goal block returned for a touchdown since 2016.
Every time there is a field goal attempted, the defense sends its field goal block unit out on the field—but you have to understand, they’re not trying to block the kick every time. Sure, they’ll push against the offensive line and jump, but that’s not really gonna do much unless the kicker kicks the ball way too low. Field goal block units actually have plays which are designed to break through the opposing line of scrimmage and get to the kicker, but they can’t run them every play for a few reasons—first of all, if they did, the opponent would pretty quickly figure out how to block them and the schemes wouldn’t work, and second of all, legitimate attempts to block field goals often lead to roughing penalties which give up first downs, and sometimes you’d rather take your chances with the kick. It’s the same reason NFL offenses don’t run trick plays every time—they wouldn’t work all the time, and they’re risky if things go wrong.
But every once in a while, the field goal block unit gets to go 100 percent. And the Titans are apparently exceptional in these scenarios. There have been only 10 field goal blocks in the league total this season, and two of them were Titans game-winners.
These Titans have an incredible superpower. They spend four quarters learning everything about the exact process of their opponents’ field goals, charging up for their moment of destruction. And when their unfortunate opponent kicks the ball in a critical moment, the damn ball isn’t even gonna cross the line of scrimmage.
Winner: The Punter-Kicker Connection
Kickers and punters do everything together. Nobody really knows how to coach them and they don’t have backups, so they basically spend all of practice hanging out, booming a few kicks (but not so many that their legs get overworked), critiquing each other’s form, and goofing off. The punter even holds for the kicker—backup quarterbacks used to do this, but, like, why bother a non-special-teams guy for a special-teams job?
Sunday, the Miami Dolphins honored this connection in historic fashion. In their game against the Eagles, the Dolphins ran the greatest trick play of the 2019 season, lining up in an unusual formation before punter Matt Haack threw a touchdown pass to kicker Jason Sanders:
I consider myself a connoisseur of special-teams trick plays, and I’ve never seen one like this. Yes, teams line up in the swinging gate formation from time to time, like the Dolphins did here. But normally, if the defense matches up with the swinging gate, they check back in to the field goal formation and kick. Here, the Eagles matched up correctly—and the Dolphins still snapped the ball, setting forth one of the most unusual plays I’ve ever seen.
Let me just write down what happened here so you can look at the words and realize how ridiculous they are. The Dolphins ran a play where the ball was snapped to their punter with absolutely no blocking just a few yards behind the line of scrimmage. That is a ridiculous idea that should have been destroyed. That punter was then supposed to run toward the line of scrimmage and draw defenders. That also is a ridiculous idea that was supposed to be destroyed. Then, when the punter drew defenders, he was supposed to flip the ball at the last possible moment. This is perhaps the most ridiculous of these ideas, and the previous two were also ridiculous. And on top of everything, the person he was flipping the ball to was the kicker.
The Eagles should have destroyed this play. They had two guys standing over the snapper, both of whom should have rushed the punter and gotten to him within a half-second. (Remember: no blockers.) Instead they hesitate, allowing the snapper to block one of them and allowing Haack to begin the play.
But don’t let the incompetence of the Eagles distract us from the excellence of the Dolphins, who not only dreamed of this unusual play, but also executed it. Haack was perfect, looking less like a punter and more like a quarterback running the speed option, waiting until the last possible moment before making his flip.
I feel pretty confident that this is the first touchdown pass from a punter to a kicker in NFL history. Normally, special-teams trick-play passes involve the ball getting snapped to a kicker or punter, and the kicker or punter throwing to another player already on the line of scrimmage, generally a player more skilled with the ball. No kicker or punter has caught a touchdown pass since 1980, and the guys who did it back then were generally players who also doubled as receivers rather than legitimate kickers or punters who got open on trick plays.
Kickers and punters spend all day working on their rapport—and now it’s time for them to turn it into quarterback–wide receiver chemistry. I dream of a punter dropping back in shotgun, with his kicker running a go route for seven. Of course, there’s no reason anybody would ever want to do this—but there’s also no reason for the Dolphins to do what they did Sunday, and somehow, it worked.
Loser: Not Cam Newton
It feels harsh to say the Panthers lost to Washington because of Kyle Allen on Sunday—I think it might have something to do with the fact that Carolina let a 2-9 team ranked 28th in total rushing yardage run for 248 yards and three touchdowns. Previously, Washington’s season high in rushing was 145 yards—Sunday, Derrius Guice ran for 129 yards and Adrian Peterson ran for 99.
However, on one of the biggest plays of the game, Allen failed about as prominently as a player can fail on one play. Trailing 29-21, Carolina got to the 1-yard line. On first down, Christian McCaffrey lost a yard. On second down, McCaffrey lost another yard. On third down, Allen threw an incomplete pass, and on fourth down, this happened:
Allen had an open pass to Jarius Wright in the flat, and normally, I would say, “He didn’t see it.” But we can see Allen turn his head in the direction of Wright, stare for a couple of seconds, and simply decide not to throw. Instead, he rolls out, and gets into trouble, and is soon getting bullied by Washington edge rusher Chris Odom. Allen goes back to the 26-yard line—remember, this play began at the 3-yard line—is sacked, and fumbles the ball. On the NextGenStats dancing dots presentation of the play, Allen literally ran off the screen:
Here’s fourth-and-the-season for the Panthers. pic.twitter.com/VresISdjTj— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) December 1, 2019
This wasn’t just any play—it was a do-or-die down where the Panthers had a chance if they scored and were guaranteed a loss if they didn’t. And Allen saw an open receiver and opted not to throw. It was only a second later, as he dropped farther and farther and farther back, that he remembered that a failure to score would end the game.
Would Cam Newton have completed a pass in this situation? I don’t know. But I feel confident in saying this: If the Panthers had first-and-1 from the 1-yard line with the game up for grabs, the Panthers would not have ended up turning the ball over on downs. Newton has 67 career carries from inside the 5-yard line; 40 of those were touchdowns. They would have given him the ball on first down, and second down, and third down, if need be. I feel pretty confident there wouldn’t have even been a fourth down.
Comparing Allen to Newton is getting a bit tired at this point—we’ve already done it a few times in this space, even though it should be plainly clear that there’s no legitimate comparison between the two—but there’s never been a starker example of when Newton’s talents would have been useful. I’m not sure there’s ever been a quarterback as good at powering through other humans with his body as Newton. Meanwhile, Allen ran 23 yards backward.
Loser: The NFC East
The NFL playoffs are coming up, an exciting opportunity for fans to watch 11 of the league’s best teams and whoever wins the NFC East. See, there’s this weird loophole where you don’t actually have to have a good record to make the playoffs—all you have to do is win a division. It’s not a great system.
Thanks to this format, there have been two playoff teams with losing records since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978 (not counting strike-shortened seasons). And this year features one of the worst divisions in NFL history: The Cowboys, Eagles, Giants, and Washington have combined to go 16-32 this season, with five of those wins coming in intradivisional matchups. It seems like the worst overall record of any division ever was the 2008 NFC West, which went a combined 22-42. The Eagles are the only team in the division that has beaten somebody with a record above .500, having won games against the Packers and Bills. And yet, one of these teams will get a home game in the playoffs, where they will almost certainly lose to a team with a record above .500.
Entering this week, the Cowboys were the lone team above .500 in the division—but they got blown out at home by the Bills on Thanksgiving, dropping to 6-6, meaning there are now zero NFC East teams above .500. That loss provided a prime opportunity for the Eagles to win a game and tie them, especially since Philadelphia was favored by 10 points to beat the 2-9 Dolphins. But Miami, which hadn’t scored more than 30 points all season long, beat the Eagles 37-31. Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker absolutely humiliated the Eagles’ secondary, going off for a career-high 159 yards and his first multi-touchdown game:
And so, the 6-6 Cowboys remain in line for a playoff spot. Every other NFL division leader is currently 8-4 or better. There are six NFC teams 7-5 or better, and one of them will miss out on the playoffs to make way for the NFC East’s representative.
There is only one winner here—and it’s certainly not anybody in the NFC East, even if they’re playing the damn Dolphins. It’s whichever TV network gets a Cowboys playoff game, considering Dallas’s past two games have been the two most-watched NFL games of the season and the Cowboys’ last playoff game was the most-watched divisional-round game of all time. Giving a 7-9 or 8-8 team a home playoff game obviously sucks, but if that 7-9 team is the Cowboys, the NFL won’t mind.
Loser: The Absolutely Cursed Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers are 4-8 this year, which might lead you to believe that they suck ass. Which is weird, because the Chargers have actually outscored their opponents this year. Every single game they’ve lost this year has been a one-possession game—including yet another heartbreaker Sunday against the Broncos.
Sunday’s loss was particularly gripping. The Chargers tied the game on a field goal with 14 seconds to go—then, on Denver’s first play after the score, they were flagged for a 37-yard pass interference penalty that put the Broncos in field goal range.
This is not a new thing for the Chargers. Two years ago, they outscored their opponents by 83 points and missed the playoffs thanks to five one-score losses. In 2010, they outscored their opponents by 121 points, but missed the playoffs thanks to five one-score losses. In 2005, they outscored their opponents by 106 points, but missed the playoffs thanks to five one-score losses. In 2001, they outscored their opponents by 11 points and went 5-11 with eight one-score losses.
But even in the annals of Charger sadness, this year is special. Every single one of their losses has been close. I don’t know what to say to Chargers fans besides I don’t know why this is happening and I’m sorry.
Winner: The “Tom Brady Washed” Dialogue
I am not going to say Tom Brady is washed. This is because I want the Patriots to stop winning Super Bowls, and because Bill Belichick built a machine that captures all of the energy from people uttering the phrase “Tom Brady is washed” across the globe and converts it into an extremely powerful salve that Brady rubs on his skin and regenerates his talents. I have said “Tom Brady is washed” in the past, and it has caused the Patriots to win, and it has hurt me deeply.
However, I am going to say that on Sunday, Tom Brady played a game that will cause people to say that Tom Brady is washed. Brady went 7-for-19 in the first half with an interception, the worst first half of his career. He threw passes that seemed like only defenders could catch:
Seemingly every play ended with Brady gesturing in frustration at one of his receivers, wondering why they weren’t in the patch of empty grass where he’d just thrown a football. Cameras caught him yelling at the Patriots’ increasingly unimpressive band of receivers on the sideline:
Brady finished with pretty good numbers—24-for-47 for 326 yards with three touchdowns—but a lot of those stats came after the Texans were well on their way to a 28-22 win. Brady averaged just 6.9 yards per attempt, his sixth straight game below his career average of 7.5 yards per attempt. The last time Brady had even five games in a row below 7.5 yards per attempt? The final five games of the 2003 season, when Brady hadn’t really become Brady yet. (The Patriots won the Super Bowl that year, because nothing matters.) Sunday was his seventh straight game with a QB rating below 100, which is the first time he’s ever done that in a single season.
Normally, if there were a 42-year-old putting up career-worst numbers, I would be compelled to say that he was, in fact, washed. But I refuse to do such a thing with Brady. Even if I believed it in my heart—which I do not—I would not utter the words. That is where he gains his power.
But I fear other people will speak these words, on Twitter, around water coolers, even on national TV. We are doomed.