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: The Game of the Year
Maybe it’s dumb to be blown away by high-scoring football games. Football is this massively complex game with 22 players of different shapes and sizes and skill sets, each with different responsibilities on every play, and every touchdown is a failure for half of them. Maybe when we’re drawn to big point totals we’re like moths believing a lightbulb is the most important thing on the planet. There’s more to football than points.
But watching Sunday’s 48-46 thriller between the Saints and 49ers, I couldn’t help but feel we just watched the best and most important game of the 2019 NFL season. We have every reason to believe that these are two of the league’s preeminent teams on both sides of the ball. We saw one of the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks of all time vivisect a team that certainly looked like the best (or second-best) defense in the NFL through the first 13 weeks of the season—and fall short as one of the league’s most innovative coaches figured out how to win the game anyway.
A high-scoring game can be an example of piss-poor defense, but that’s not what the Saints and 49ers brought to the table. The Niners entered Sunday with one of the top-10 defensive DVOA figures of all time. The Saints aren’t historically good, but had a defense good enough to go undefeated while Teddy Bridgewater subbed in for Drew Brees earlier this year.
And yet, the two teams kept figuring out ways to outsmart one another. Brees kept finding open players in San Francisco’s zones:
Saints strike first blood & the protection makes the play. If the New Orleans OL can give Drew Brees time like this against the league's most ferocious defensive front, it will be a long day for the 49ers.— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) December 8, 2019
Brees punishes SF here with a gorgeous throw on the deep over to Cook. pic.twitter.com/duYHEYzYdx
The Niners entered Sunday allowing the fewest yards per pass (5.5). Brees averaged 8.7 yards per attempt. The Niners entered Sunday leading the league in sack percentage, taking down the opponent on 11.3 percent of dropbacks. But Brees never got sacked, as his O-line kept him clean and he got the ball out quickly. The Niners hadn’t allowed 300 yards passing this year; Brees had 349. The Niners hadn’t allowed 30 points this year; the Saints had 27 in the first half and finished with 46.
But the Niners kept scheming up ways to move the ball. Here’s the fullback pitching the ball on an option play:
Here’s a WR coming around on a reverse and throwing a pass for a touchdown:
Oh yeah, and Jimmy Garoppolo matched Brees’s 349 yards exactly, except on five fewer attempts. The Niners won, 48-46. It wasn’t as high-scoring as last year’s 54-51 game between the Rams and Chiefs, but that game featured multiple defensive touchdowns. In this game, both teams threw for five touchdowns and ran for a sixth. The over/under set by most sportsbooks for the game was 45 points. Both teams hit that total by themselves, the first time both teams individually passed the projected combined total since 2008. The game was critical in the big picture for the NFL season: The Saints and 49ers both entered Sunday 10-2, with the winner in line for a huge leg up toward getting a first-round bye in the playoffs and possibly home-field advantage through the Super Bowl. If the Niners had lost, FiveThirtyEight projected them as having a 6 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl. Because they won, that jumped to 16 percent, vaulting them over the Saints. (Getting a first-round bye is important.)
Watching Saints-49ers, it seems impossible to call it dumb to be blown away by high-scoring football games. We saw two of the NFL’s best teams take on defenses that should have shut them down, and figure out ways to excel anyway.
Loser: George Kittle’s Opossum Babies
The deciding play of the game of the year wasn’t a touchdown, but a 39-yard pass to George Kittle. Except at the beginning, it didn’t look like a 39-yard pass—the Niners were just trying to pick up a fourth-and-2, and Jimmy Garoppolo threw to Kittle just past the sticks. The tight end immediately ditched the only defender who attempted sticking with him on the route and headed upfield, where he started accumulating Saints defenders like a snowball rolling downhill picks up snow. But he kept churning his legs, no matter how many Saints climbed on top of him, like a mother opossum transporting her entire litter on her back:
Marcus Williams—who you may remember as the guy from this play—makes contact with Kittle at the 45-yard line. Kittle doesn’t stop. Vonn Bell joins the party at the 35. Kittle keeps going. Finally, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson literally jumps on top of Kittle at the 31, hoping his sheer body weight can fell the rumbling giant. It works, but Kittle falls forward to the 28-yard line.
That alone would’ve probably won the Niners the game—it would’ve set up a 45-yard field goal with the Niners trailing by one. With reliable kicker Robbie Gould inside of a dome, I’m sure they would’ve been fine. But in trying to bring down Kittle, Williams committed one of the most blatant face mask penalties imaginable. Williams grabbed onto that face mask, but couldn’t get Kittle down. He never let go, even as Kittle kept carrying him and his opossum baby friends downfield. Look, they only give you one penalty for facemasking, no matter how long that face mask lasts, so you might as well hold on. At a certain point, I think Williams was holding on to that face mask less to try to bring Kittle down and more to avoid falling off.
Kittle has claimed the tight end throne abandoned by Rob Gronkowski, and scrubbed it clean of the stench of spilled Four Loko. He’s a great route runner and a great pass catcher, but so are many football players. What makes Kittle special are moments like Sunday’s, when it becomes clear that multiple professional football players are incapable of matching the strength of one Kittle.
Loser: The 52 Miami Dolphins Who Aren’t Jason Sanders
The Miami Dolphins scored 21 points Sunday, which seems normal. Seven times three is 21, and touchdowns are seven points, and a lot of NFL teams score three of them.
But the Dolphins did not score any touchdowns Sunday. Although they got into the red zone six times and inside the 10-yard line three times, they never got into the end zone. They did, however, ask Jason Sanders to attempt eight field goals, and he hit seven.
Last week, Sanders became the first kicker in decades to catch a touchdown in an NFL game on a spectacular, one-of-a-kind trick play. Does this guy have to do everything around here?
Sanders and the Dolphins became the fifth NFL team to score at least 21 points without scoring a touchdown. In 1989, the Vikings won a game 23-21 where they hit seven field goals in regulation and then blocked a punt for a game-winning safety in overtime, so let’s say the Dolphins tied the record for most points without a touchdown in regulation.
On the one hand, it was a very successful day for the Dolphins! They averaged 5.6 yards per play, and scored on seven of their 10 drives, and it should’ve been eight—Sanders’s miss was a 34-yarder.
On the other hand: The Dolphins lost 23-21, because they got into the red zone six times and inside the 10-yard line three times and never got into the end zone. What the hell? Head coach Brian Flores, who has made it very clear that he’s not trying to tank this season, turned some heads for getting extremely heated when a late official review of a pass interference call allowed the Jets to hit a game-winning field goal. But how can Flores be angry at the refs when he’s the guy who lost by two in a game where he ordered eight field goal attempts and never went for it on fourth down once?
The thing is, if your team has the opportunity to kick eight field goals, they’re probably doing pretty well! They’re moving the ball! They’re getting into scoring position! They’re dominating the game clock! Three of the previous four teams to hit 21 points without a touchdown won. The Dolphins managed to lose. We could be mad at Sanders for not hitting that eighth field goal, but I’m pretty sure the blame belongs elsewhere.
Winner: The Legend of Ryan Tannehill
It’s funny when a mediocre-to-bad quarterback has an unexpectedly good game. We can send tweets like “lol Brock Osweiler is better than Tom Brady!” or whatever. It’s a laugh, because it’s unusual. It’s still funny when a mediocre-to-bad quarterback has two unexpectedly good games back to back. We can send tweets like “LOL, TOM BRADY IS NOT FIT TO LICK BROCK OSWEILER’S SOCKS,” or whatever, and it’s still a laugh, because it’s still clearly unsustainable. We have years of evidence to show the quarterback is mediocre-to-bad, and just a few silly games in which he’s good.
After the third game, you start touching the couch you’re sitting on to make sure the couch is real. Was the part where the quarterback was bad real, or is this real? After the fourth game, you acknowledge that you can feel the couch, but begin to wonder whether the couch and the rest of the world you live in is actually part of a simulation.
We are in Game 7 of the Unstoppable Ryan Tannehill Experience. Sunday, Tannehill threw for 391 yards and three touchdowns in Tennessee’s fourth-straight win and sixth in the seven games he’s started. The highlight of Tannehill’s day was a 91-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Brown, on which Tannehill absorbed a massive hit but remained composed enough to deliver the throw:
Even when he just kind of lofts the ball hopefully in the direction of a receiver, it’s a touchdown:
Even when Tannehill threw an interception, he was the star of the play—he chased down defensive tackle Maurice Hurst Jr. and laid out the big man with a perfect-form tackle:
Ryan Tannehill ruins an all time fat guy TD with an epic open field tackle pic.twitter.com/xTLPfgQhkY— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) December 8, 2019
After Sunday, Tannehill is the NFL’s leader in passer rating and yards per attempt. Last year, at age 30, Tannehill was 20th and 21st in those categories. Since entering the NFL in 2012, Tannehill is 33rd and 36th in those categories. Tannehill spent six years as the starter of the Dolphins, never leading the league in any categories besides sacks taken and sacks yardage taken. He was a certified OK quarterback, but never spectacular. Now, his poops are golden—even his interceptions are highlights. If he wins Tennessee’s remaining three games, he will have more quarterback wins in half a season as the Titans’ starter than he did in any of his seasons with the Dolphins.
When Tannehill made his first start, FiveThirtyEight gave the 2-4 Titans an 8 percent chance to make the playoffs. Now, that’s up to 64 percent. Sunday, it was reported the Titans see Tannehill as their quarterback of the future.
The Titans are internally discussing a new contract for Ryan Tannehill after the season per source. Not franchise tag, a new deal to be the future starting QB of Tennessee. #titans— Dianna (@diannaESPN) December 8, 2019
I started out laughing at Tannehill, but now I believe in Tannehill, and only Tannehill. He created all of this, even the couches we sit on and the televisions we watch on. He even created the parts where Tannehill was bad. That was his way of weeding out the nonbelievers.
All football fans fall into one of two categories: Patriots fans, who believe the NFL rigs things so that the Patriots lose, and the fans of the other 31 teams, who believe the NFL rigs things so that the Patriots win. Both get to be happy sometimes and right other times, but never both at the same time.
Sunday, Patriots fans got to feel unhappy and right. The Patriots lost their second game in a row, with several critical and obviously incorrect calls going against them. First was a play where Travis Kelce fumbled, but was ruled down on the field. A challenge by Bill Belichick gave the Pats possession, but the early whistle prevented the Pats from returning the fumble for a touchdown, much like what happened with the Saints earlier this season.
Later, the referees ruled N’Keal Harry out on this tiptoeing play where he actually stayed inbounds and reached the end zone. The Pats had to settle for a field goal.
Normally, this is the type of play that could have been reviewed and overturned. But Belichick had already burned a review on an incorrect challenge to overturn the spot on a Chiefs’ first down, meaning he couldn’t challenge. Of course, any scoring play is subject to automatic review, but because refs ruled Harry short on the field, it wasn’t a scoring play.
Lastly, there was a pretty blatant pass interference committed by the Chiefs on Pats receiver Phillip Dorsett, which, again, Belichick was unable to review:
gonna be tough to suggest the refs are in the Pats' pockets after this one. no PI called on 3rd down pic.twitter.com/93mgcJ9gC9— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) December 9, 2019
The Pats lost 23-16, having lost roughly 11 points due to referee error. What makes the two Patriots plays especially frustrating is that if the officials had merely let the plays carry on, they both would’ve been subject to automatic review—all turnovers and scoring plays are—which could’ve caught any mistakes on the play. Instead, the refs blew their whistles early, leaving any reviews up to coach’s challenge. And because of the NFL’s arbitrary two-to-make-three challenge system, Belichick had none.
It is, of course, impossible for the NFL to both be biased in favor of the Pats and biased against them. It is, however, quite possible for officials to be generally human and prone to failure, regardless of who is playing. That’s the conspiracy theory I subscribe to—that all officials mess up sometimes, often in ways that ruin critical games.
Winner: The Refs Who Didn’t Call Pass Interference in the SuperDome
The defining play of last season was the blown pass-interference call in the closing minutes of the NFC championship game. A New Orleans player trying to catch a pass was straight-up tackled by a Rams defender, which, in case you did not know, is very illegal. However, the officials somehow did not notice it, a decision that not only changed the course of the season—the Saints likely would have made the Super Bowl instead of the Rams—but also the course of the NFL’s future. The missed call reignited the debate about what can be done to improve the human nature of sports officiating, and as a reaction, the NFL allowed coaches to challenge pass-interference calls, opening the floodgates to overturn officials’ subjective judgment calls that had previously been unreviewable. It was the biggest play of the year, and the biggest nightmare for every official on the planet.
In Sunday’s critical Saints-49ers game, New Orleans receiver Tre’Quan Smith was trying to catch a pass and was more or less straight-up tackled by 49ers defender Tarvarius Moore while the ball was in the air. Again, no flag was thrown.
How, after January’s firestorm, could refs miss that call against that team in that stadium?
The officials were actually right not to penalize the 49ers here. This throw came on a fake punt, and the rule book specifically explains that “whenever a team presents an apparent punting formation … defensive acts that normally constitute pass interference are permitted” on the coverage team’s gunners. It’s a little-known rule, and seemingly a strange one, but I think it’s necessary—on punt plays, the return team needs to block the gunners virtually the whole way down the field. If they could be flagged for pass interference, they would have to either repeatedly turn around to look at the punter while trying to block—impossible—or kicking teams could throw the ball and get a PI call on basically every play. (It’s still possible for defensive holding to be called on a fake punt, but I don’t think the 49ers player committed anything that resembles holding here.)
We crap on referees constantly, and often with good reason. But we should also acknowledge that there’s something miraculous about what they do. The NFL rule book is like 55,000 words long. That’s 122 pages of 12-point font, single-spaced. Sure, sometimes they fail to see things they should, but I’m always amazed that they can remember strange rules from the depths of football’s novella-sized rulebook and deliver on-the-spot interpretations of how those rules apply to the play that just unfolded in front of them.
Sunday, 11 months after every official in the world saw their worst nightmare come to life, it sure looked like the same play happened on the same field to the same team. And somehow, the officials on the field remembered this obscure exception, knowing that 70,000 fans were about to boo them mercilessly for being right. Refs might not be perfect—did you read that stuff we just wrote about the Patriots game?—but let’s not forget that what they do is damn impressive.
Winner: Deshaun Watson’s Garbage-Time Fantasy Heroism
Last week, Deshaun Watson and the Texans comfortably beat the Patriots, the defending Super Bowl champions, led by Tom Brady, perhaps the greatest quarterback in football history. This week, Deshaun Watson and the Texans got blown out by the Broncos, a 4-8 team on the verge of playoff elimination, led by Drew Lock, a player starting his second career game. In the third quarter, the Texans trailed 38-3. In NFL history, no team has ever come back from a deficit larger than 32 points, so this one was over.
But you know what wasn’t over? Lots of fantasy playoff matchups—and considering Watson had the fifth-most fantasy points of any player this season, Watson was probably in many of those. And with his actual game well out of hand, Watson kept balling out. Look at him risking life and limb for your fantasy team:
In the second half, Watson had 172 passing yards, 39 rushing yards, and three touchdowns (two rushing, one passing). That’s 26.7 fantasy points—more than most quarterbacks get in entire games. All of it pointless from a real football perspective, all of it critical from a fake one. And millions of fans across the country are grateful for his service.