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: Teleporting No-Name Quarterbacks
NFL teams couldn’t see Kyle Allen or Gardner Minshew II. I’m guessing that’s the explanation for why these two quarterbacks who are winning games in the NFL received virtually no draft hype, with Allen going undrafted out of Houston in 2018 and Minshew lasting until the sixth round of April’s NFL draft. And quite frankly, I’m still not quite sure NFL teams can see Allen and Minshew. How else can we explain their ability to escape crowds of defenders unscathed?
Allen got his second start of the season with Cam Newton out for an indefinite period of time with a foot injury—and got his second win. With less than three minutes remaining and Carolina nursing a three-point lead, Allen needed to play safe, smart football to preserve the win. That strategy seemed doomed by a third-down play where Carolina failed to block 6-foot-5 quarterback-destruction machine J.J. Watt. If Allen had been sacked, the Panthers would’ve had to attempt a 50-plus-yard field goal and then given Houston the ball in a one-possession game with plenty of time to score.
But Allen ducked under Watt’s sack attempt and completed a 17-yard pass for a first down.
Thanks to Allen’s disappearing act, the Panthers burned the clock down to 31 seconds, kicked a field goal, and won after a desperate Hail Mary attempt by Houston.
Minshew made several daring escapes in Jacksonville’s comeback win over the Broncos. Here he is sliding out of the grasp of Denver’s Dre’Mont Jones, wheeling out to the right, and completing a 19-yard pass on third-and-14.
And here he is avoiding [checks notes] every single player on the Denver Broncos on third down before throwing a touchdown to Ryquell Armstead.
THE MINSHEW MAGIC IS REAL.— NFL (@NFL) September 29, 2019
He avoids the sack multiple times and throws for the TD! @GardnerMinshew5 #JAXvsDEN #DUUUVAL
: NFL app // Yahoo Sports app
Watch free on mobile: https://t.co/lm0vvtP8ei pic.twitter.com/WeJVm6WQaI
Minshew can really do anything—with less than two minutes to go and the Jaguars trailing by one, Minshew figured out how to dribble the football despite its oblong shape, plopping it on the ground, picking it up, and completing a pass. I’m looking forward to when Minshew escapes a pass rusher by hitting them with a Shammgod next week.
Gardner Minshew kept the Jags alive with the dribble-throw pic.twitter.com/cJZcIXUI9i— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) September 29, 2019
After ditching the sack attempt, Minshew drove the Jags down the field for a game-winning field goal, completing a comeback from down 17-3. Between Minshew Magic and Allen’s apparitioning, the Jaguars and Panthers are 4-1 with their previously unknown quarterbacks.
Loser: Buffalo’s Quarterbacks
I dream of a world where the Buffalo Bills have, like, a B-plus/A-minus quarterback and are a Super Bowl contender. Instead, they have perhaps the best defense in football and more offensive turnovers than touchdowns a month into the season.
Sunday, the undefeated Bills hosted the undefeated Patriots with an opportunity to show they could end New England’s stranglehold on the AFC East. And on defense, the Bills put forth an all-time defensive effort. The Pats were held to just 3.6 yards per play, their worst performance since 2010, and managed just a single offensive touchdown. Tom Brady went 18-for-39 for 150 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. It was his first full game with no touchdowns and at least one interception since 2017; it was his first game averaging less than 4 yards per pass attempt since 2006.
But Buffalo lost, 16-10, despite outgaining the Patriots by 151 yards, because their quarterbacks combined for four interceptions. Starter Josh Allen threw three picks, all three falling into the same category: Allen launching a ball downfield just to see how far he could throw it, a fun game when played without a team of Patriots defenders on the field.
If Josh Allen steps into the throw he probably would have had a big play. Instead, this is all arm and it gets picked. That's 2 interceptions and a fumble (Bills recovered) and we just finished the first quarter. #Patriots #Bills pic.twitter.com/l3sQTEjc52— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) September 29, 2019
All three of Allen’s interceptions were on first down, killing potentially productive drives. At one point, Allen was 1-for-8 with two interceptions, having completed more passes to the opponent than his own team. After three picks, Allen was injured on a brutal, possibly illegal hit to the head, after which backup Matt Barkley entered the game.
Trailing 16-10, Barkley had a chance to throw for a go-ahead touchdown, but threw this pass. Yes, the Bills nearly ended up throwing five interceptions before this one was overturned.
4th down in the 4th quarter. Bills, with Matt Barkley at QB for the injured Josh Allen, can't find anyone. Patriots remain up 6. Interception overturned. Pats take over at their on 2. #Patriots #Bills pic.twitter.com/4ciHqqtI2P— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) September 29, 2019
And Buffalo’s last-ditch attempt at pulling out a win ended in—you guessed it—an interception:
The Bills are 3-1. Their defense is lockdown; they’re getting quality production from 36-year-old Frank Gore, who became the oldest player to rush for 100 yards in more than 40 years on Sunday. Last year was a similar story, as the Bills were the third-best team in defensive yards per play and the second-worst team in offensive yards per play. They’d really be a dynasty if they could get their quarterbacks to stop averaging multiple turnovers per game.
Winner: The Patriots’ D/ST Cheat Code
Every once in a while there’s some unexpected development in the world of fantasy football that gives one team such a decided advantage that the game hardly seems fair. There was that one year Marques Colston was randomly listed at tight end; last year Patrick Mahomes managed the second-most fantasy points of all time with an average draft position in the 11th round. This year, it’s New England’s defense, which is probably the best defense in the league—and a fantasy nightmare.
Sunday the Pats had four interceptions and five sacks, and scored a touchdown on a punt block. That gave New England 23 fantasy points under standard scoring, the second most of any team in Week 4.
The Patriots defense recorded 35 points in their Week 2 romp over the Dolphins, and are averaging 19.8 points per week. The Bears, averaging 12.5 points per week, are in second place. That means the gap between the Patriots and the second-best D/ST is 7.3 points per game. Last year, only five teams had a D/ST that averaged 7.3 points per game.
And it’s probably going to stay this way. Next week, the Pats will play Washington, which scored three points and committed four turnovers Sunday. The week after that it’s rookie Daniel Jones and the Giants. Then it’s the Jets, who scored no offensive touchdowns against New England in their Week 3 matchup. I’m betting the Patriots D/ST will manage at least 10 points in all of those games.
So if you have the Patriots defense, you’re probably coasting this year, getting an extra 10 to 20 points every week from a position you didn’t think about for the first two hours of your draft. And if you did, you probably didn’t think about the Patriots, who weren’t considered a top-five fantasy defense—ESPN ranked them ninth; a consensus ranking of over 100 experts put them 11th. The Patriots defense was probably one of the last picks in your fantasy draft, if they were picked at all. Somebody paid one dollar for them in your auction league, maybe two if you’re in a league with Patriots fans who bid them up. Outside of Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski, the Pats haven’t been a particularly explosive fantasy option—until now, when thousands of Americans have laughed their way to 4-0 starts thanks to autodraft queueing up New England’s defense while they were closing their computers and opening seventh beers.
Loser: Tight End Hurdles
The hurdle is simultaneously one of my favorite football plays to watch and the one that scares me the most. It is thrilling to watch a human attempt to leap over another human; it is horrifying to think about the dozens of ways a hurdle could go awry—a flipped hurdler falling on his neck, a flying knee to a player’s head, and let’s not even consider what would happen if a helmet were to ever meet with genitals.
However, in 2019, tight ends have decided that it’s their job to jump over opponents. This is probably a bad idea: Tight ends are the slowest, heaviest players who routinely touch the ball on most NFL teams, and therefore the least likely to be effective hurdlers. Here’s Logan Thomas of the Lions on Sunday:
If you're a tight end in 2019 and you're not trying to hurdle defenders, you're doing it wrong! pic.twitter.com/1fVsttSRwt— Sporting News Fantasy (@sn_fantasy) September 29, 2019
In past weeks, Marcedes Lewis hit a quality hurdle:
As did Vernon Davis:
Loved the hurdle by 35-year old Vernon Davis taking it 48 yards to the house. Nifty little side arm throw by Keenum too pic.twitter.com/qsBRa1JGsM— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) September 10, 2019
However, it feels like this trend has to end after Sunday. A few drives after Thomas’s hurdle, Lions first-round draft pick T.J. Hockenson tried to hop a pair of Chiefs defenders, with frightening consequences:
Detroit Lions TE TJ Hockenson’s scary fall. Most likely going into concussion protocol and will be monitored. pic.twitter.com/r1hvJFdIWY— Alex Cutler (@alexcutler247) September 29, 2019
Hockenson lay motionless on the ground for a pretty extensive period of time after his fall, and his arms appeared to make the fencing response typical of concussions. He was carted off the field and did not return to the game. Hockenson is 6-foot-5 and has a 37.5-inch vertical leap, so his head essentially slammed into the turf from 10 feet in the air. It’s the second hurdle-related injury of the year—in Week 1, Rams safety Eric Weddle got extremely bloody after Christian McCaffrey’s knee slammed into his helmet.
This creates a dilemma for the NFL. Really, it should ban the hurdle from the game—it’s an inessential play that drastically increases the chance of the type of head injury the league is trying to eliminate. High school football has outlawed the hurdle, and, well, it’s still football. But when executed properly, hurdles are awesome. Does the league take the PR hit of outlawing highlight fodder because of the obvious health risk? Or does it just hope players realize every leap could lead to their skull slamming into the turf?
Winner: Betting Against the Dolphins
After watching every snap of the Dolphins’ season, I’m no longer wondering whether they can win a game. With the worst offensive line in the league, a perpetually confused secondary, and a slew of wide receivers who can’t catch, I don’t even think they can beat the Jets.
At this point, I’m wondering whether they can beat the spread. In weeks 2 and 3, Miami faced two of the top 25 spreads in NFL history, playing as 18-point underdogs against the Patriots and 22-point underdogs against the Cowboys. They lost by 43 and 25. Sunday, the Dolphins got 15.5 points against the 1-2 Chargers. It wasn’t enough. Miami took its first lead of the season and had the game tied 10-10, but then gave up 20 unanswered points to lose 30-10.
Miami was the only team in the NFL to go 0-3 against the spread in the first three games of the season; now they’re the only team in the NFL that’s 0-4 against the spread. So far as I can tell, no team has ever gone 0-16 against the spread; I think the record is the 2003 Raiders (3-12-1) and 2007 Ravens (3-13). Presumably, if they keep losing, Las Vegas will keep hitting them with higher and higher spreads. But right now, it seems like you can make a killing betting against the Dolphins. No matter how bad Vegas thinks they are, they’re worse.
Loser: Vontaze Burfict
Six times in NFL history, a player has been suspended for multiple games due to an on-field play. Two of those times, the player in question has been Vontaze Burfict. Prepare for that figure to be bumped up to seven all-time multigame suspensions, with three of them belonging to Burfict, as the Raiders linebacker was ejected from Sunday’s game after a blatantly dirty hit on Colts receiver Jack Doyle.
KICK VONTAZE BURFICT OUT FOREVER!!! pic.twitter.com/91IQghasuf— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) September 29, 2019
I try not to crucify players for on-field hits. The game moves so fast, and players are taught their whole lives to bring down opponents by any means possible. Even on the most dangerous hits, can we really be sure we’re dealing with malicious intent, and not a player making a split-second decision that happened to bring his helmet into contact with another player’s helmet? On this play, that’s not the case: Doyle is more or less stationary, with a knee on the ground—the easiest way to end this play would’ve been to just tap Doyle, making him down by contact. And Doyle’s head was unusually low because of the position he was in—Burfict really had to contort his body to make this hit happen. I think it’s pretty clear that Burfict had time to consider what to do here, realized he had a free shot at a defenseless player, and took it.
I also try not to assume that a player has done something bad in the present just because of their past behavior. People change! That is, people besides Vontaze Burfict, who has been in the NFL for eight seasons and never given any indication he will stop headhunting. Burfict has been fined or suspended 13 times for dirty play in his career. He was suspended three games for taking out Antonio Brown in the 2016 playoffs (weeks after getting fined $70,000 for dirty hits on the Steelers in a regular-season game), suspended three games for a completely unnecessary blindside block on Anthony Sherman in the 2017 preseason, and fined $112,000 for a pair of hits on Brown and James Conner last season.
If Burfict had tried to injure an opposing player once, shame on him. If he’d tried to injure an opposing player twice, shame on whatever team employed him. He’s now tried to injure opposing players at least 14 times. The NFL will likely suspend Burfict for a few games, but I think it’s clear no suspension or fine will get him to stop. The Raiders need to cut Burfict, and nobody should sign him. Any team that employs Burfict is complicit in the damage he does.
Winner: The Hook-and-Ladder
Somehow, the Detroit Lions held Patrick Mahomes to no touchdowns, the first time he’d been kept out of the end zone since he made his NFL debut with Kansas City’s backups in a Week 17 game in 2017. On the one hand, that’s kind of a fluke. Mahomes threw for 315 yards and got Kansas City down to the 1-yard line three times before Chiefs running backs punched the ball into the end zone. But the Lions also did something impressive by taking away big plays for the Chiefs, who are stocked with supersonic speedsters at wide receiver. The Chiefs had had a touchdown of at least 40 yards in every game thus far this season.
Sunday, the Chiefs had just two plays of over 30 yards—a LeSean McCoy run and another that looked like this:
Mahomes threw the ball 10 yards downfield to Travis Kelce, who lateraled the ball to McCoy. A defender tackled Kelce; McCoy ran for 23 more yards. The hook-and-ladder got the Chiefs down to the 13-yard line, setting up a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. You can tell the play wasn’t done by design, because McCoy actually jumped thinking the pass was for him. Kelce made a split-second decision to pitch the ball. He saw the defense was closing in on him, and that McCoy had nobody in front of him. And it helped Kansas City win the game.
Last year, I pointed out the extreme efficiency of the hook-and-ladder after Week 14, when the Dolphins stunned the Patriots on a multilateral last-second play (how times have changed!) and the Steelers set up a potential game-tying field goal with another H-and-L. The Chiefs, by accident, have unlocked another element to the play. Ninety percent of hook-and-ladders come in the final seconds of the game as teams desperately try to advance the ball downfield and are willing to risk a turnover on the lateral. I think teams should run the hook-and-ladder throughout games, and not just in the closing moments. So far as I can tell, the last NFL team to run a hook-and-ladder in a non-desperation situation was the Jets in 2016, and that was on the goal line, while I believe the true strength of the hook-and-ladder is as a chunk play. Sure, the risk of turning the ball over is high, but look at how easy Kelce and McCoy made the handoff look even while improvising! If a pair of receivers practiced short, undefended laterals, the hook-and-ladder could be a legitimate weapon, an unstoppable method of getting receivers already deep downfield into open space. This play might not have been intentional, but I can’t wait for the Chiefs to bust out the all-hooks-and-ladders offense.
Winner: The San Francisco 49ers
Sunday began with three undefeated teams in the NFC: the Rams, Cowboys, and, for some reason, the 49ers. Los Angeles made the Super Bowl last year, and Dallas has been a pretty consistent contender over the past five years. The Niners, on the other hand, went 4-12 last year. They haven’t had a winning season since 2013. Since then, the 49ers have fired three coaches, and NFL teams stopped considering Colin Kaepernick as an option at quarterback.
Sunday ended with just one undefeated team in the NFC. The Rams gave up 55 points to the Buccaneers. Fifty-five! Fifty-five football points! It’s the most points the Buccaneers have ever scored, and the most points the Rams have ever allowed. Although the defense looks bad for, you know, allowing 55 points, some of the blame absolutely falls on the Los Angeles offense, as Jared Goff routinely set Tampa Bay up with excellent field position by throwing three interceptions and fumbling for a game-sealing scoop-and-score.
Jared Goff got $134 Million over 4 years including an NFL record $110 Million guaranteed pic.twitter.com/nyxLzohkKZ— Eric Rosenthal (@ericsports) September 29, 2019
The Cowboys allowed only 12 points, but struggled on offense, as the Saints defense continued to carry the team in the absence of Drew Brees. Ezekiel Elliott had 18 carries for just 35 yards, the second-worst game of his career in terms of yards per attempt. Dak Prescott couldn’t make up the difference.
That leaves just one undefeated team—the Niners, who didn’t play on Sunday, who stand alone atop the conference. You can lock in a thrilling Super Bowl matchup between Jimmy Garoppolo and the team that traded him, the New England Patriots. I mean, it’s probably unfair to say the Niners are the top team in the conference considering they’ve played three games and everybody else has played four. And we probably should wait until after Week 6’s pivotal matchup with the Rams to anoint the Niners. But still! Tommy B. vs. Jimmy G! The sensei vs. the student! Clean-shaven vs. bearded! Yeah, it’s hard coming up with story lines when the same damn team is in the Super Bowl every year.