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 Choker Bowl
Sometimes the most anticipated matchups deliver. Ali and Frazier go 15 rounds; LeBron comes back to beat the 73-win Warriors in seven games; the Red Sox topple the hated Yankees en route to snapping a decades-long curse. When the greats know what’s at stake, they find a way to do something they haven’t ever done before.
On Sunday, we saw another game that will enter that pantheon. Since Week 2, I’ve been using this column to hype up Sunday’s Choker Bowl: a game between the Atlanta Falcons, the first team in NFL history to blow 15-point fourth-quarter leads in back-to-back weeks, and the Detroit Lions, the first team to ever blow six straight double-digit leads. One found new, spectacular ways to choke—remember the onside kick?—while the other managed workaday, lunchpail chokes week in, week out. Somehow, the game exceeded expectations, as the Falcons invented yet another way to bumble the game away.
Trailing by two with under two minutes to go, the Falcons had the ball deep in Lions territory. Todd Gurley broke through the line of scrimmage and had the end zone in his sights, but as he approached his goal, he realized that he didn’t break free because the Lions did a bad job defending—he broke free because the Lions were letting him score. The Lions knew their best hope of winning was to get the ball back, and therefore wanted Gurley to get into the end zone as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, Gurley realized what was happening just a moment too late and couldn’t stop his momentum. You can see Lions defender Jamie Collins celebrating the touchdown like it was his team who scored.
Lions celebrate Gurley's accidental TD for the Falcons, peak 2020 pic.twitter.com/zzxA3BoeHs— Vikings Blogger (@firstandskol) October 25, 2020
The Lions therefore got the ball back with 64 seconds to score and used all of them. With zero seconds on the clock, Matt Stafford threw a game-winning touchdown to T.J. Hockenson.
In an era in which teams can move the ball virtually at will, the “let them score” strategy employed by video game users since NFL Blitz has actually become a decent ethos. Just last week, Titans coach Mike Vrabel earned praise for giving the Texans a free first down so he could stop the clock, essentially betting that the best strategy was to give up a touchdown and then win on offense. And in yesterday’s Indiana–Penn State game, the exact same thing happened. Indiana let a Penn State running back score a touchdown (which they celebrated), then came back, scored a touchdown, and eventually won the game in overtime.
But of all the players I would expect to know when scoring a touchdown was actually the wrong thing to do, Gurley would be at the top of my list. In 2018, he held himself out of the end zone twice while cementing Rams wins. He knew that in certain situations, time was more valuable than points, and was willing to pass up personal glory to let the team win. Sunday, he realized it again—but this time, he was a Falcon. So he did what Falcons do: fail by a slim margin in a never-before-seen disaster.
Even when the Falcons have the talent and the game plan, failure finds a way. They’re the only team in the NFL that can score touchdowns in a way that helps them lose. We can be mad at Gurley for scoring—but let’s be honest. The alternative was burning the clock and kicking a field goal with the clock expiring. And these are the Falcons. After giving this win to the Lions, they’ve officially cemented themselves as the NFL’s Kings of Choking. If Gurley had dove at the 1 and the Falcons attempted a game-winning 18-yard field goal, the kick would’ve drilled the goalpost with a 700-decibel doink.
Loser: Time vs. Larry Fitzgerald
Larry Fitzgerald is a 37-year-old wide receiver, which doesn’t make sense. He’s in his 17th NFL season and has risen to no. 2 on the all-time leaderboards for receiving yards and receptions. Sunday night, he had a catch in his 250th consecutive game. But time is slowing him down. It’s been three years since he’s had a 1,000-yard season, and this year, Fitzgerald is recording career lows in receptions per game, yards per game, and yards per reception. Time has made him less effective at playing wide receiver—so Fitzgerald has decided to battle time itself.
As it turns out, Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury may be entirely unfamiliar with the concept of time. (His name’s not Klocks Kingsbury, after all!) In overtime of Sunday’s game against the Seahawks, his team almost committed a delay of game while trying to kick a game-winning field goal, forcing him to call a timeout that essentially ended up icing his own kicker. But he wouldn’t have even gotten to overtime if the team hadn’t kicked a game-tying field goal in the fourth quarter—and for the timesaving heroics of Fitzgerald.
With less than a minute left in regulation and the Cardinals needing a field goal to force OT, Arizona ran three plays to the middle of the field, including two runs. Since they had no timeouts left, each play required the Cardinals to spike the ball to stop the clock. (His name’s not Kliff Klocksbury, after all!) To execute three QB spikes in a minute, a team needs to be really good at getting the ball back to the line of scrimmage and getting set up. Normally, the job of getting the ball to the line of scrimmage belongs to the referees—but Fitz took matters into his own hands, knowing that every second mattered. After the Seahawks tackled Chase Edmonds in the field of play with 10 seconds to go, Fitzgerald instantly swarmed to Edmonds, snagged the ball, and rushed it to the middle of the field so the Cardinals could spike the ball and run another play.
It’s an incredible display of awareness by Fitzgerald—and it’s not the first time he’s done it this year. In a Week 1 win over the 49ers, Fitzgerald also enabled a field goal by sprinting to a tackled teammate, snagging the ball, and hustling it to the center of the field:
Larry Fitzgerald just made SUCH a heads-up play. With the clock running out and no timeouts, Fitz sprints the ball to the middle of the field to ensure Kyler could kill the clock. Arizona drilled a FG on the next play. It’s the little things!— Field Yates (@FieldYates) September 13, 2020
Fitzgerald began his career as a Vikings ball boy. He’s not the Cardinals’ star wide receiver anymore—that’s obviously DeAndre Hopkins—but he can be the best damn ball boy the NFL has ever seen. On Sunday, the Cardinals proved they can defeat time, thanks to a guy who’s been fighting it for years.
Winner: Terminator DK Metcalf
Earlier this year, DK Metcalf forgot to finish a play. He caught a ball well behind the Cowboys defense—I think every wide receiver who’s played Dallas this season has caught at least one ball well behind the Cowboys defense—and instead of running to the goal line, he slowed down and celebrated. The defender caught up to him and popped the ball out. It was an embarrassment! A shame! I called him “Leon Lett with a gym membership”!
If I had an embarrassing blooper that played on national TV, I would probably delete all my social media accounts and spend the next few months trying to hit 100 percent completion in every video game I own. When a 6-foot-4, 230-pound guy who ran a 4.33 40-yard dash and set bench press records at the NFL combine suffers an embarrassing blooper on national TV, he has other options.
Sunday, Metcalf provided the cosmic inverse of the goal line fumble, playing the role of the defender stopping an end-zone-bound ball carrier from scoring a touchdown. After a rare Russell Wilson interception, Cardinals safety Budda Baker looked home free. Metcalf chased him down:
Every player on an NFL field is faster than you. Yes, the linemen too. But the linebackers are faster than the linemen, and the running backs are faster than the linebackers, and the defensive backs are faster than the running backs. Budda Baker is a fast defensive back. He ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash at the NFL draft combine, making him the fourth-fastest safety in his class. Metcalf gained on him and took him down with ease. He’s faster than fast.
Metcalf runs like a Terminator—every stride is efficient and perfect. He is not merely capable of catching Baker. He is designed and programmed to chase down Baker. He runs like if he doesn’t catch Baker, his entire existence will have been pointless.
The Seahawks kept the Cardinals from scoring after Metcalf’s chasedown—Arizona turned the ball over on downs—meaning Metcalf has karmically earned back the seven points he cost Seattle weeks ago. But more importantly, we’ve learned something about Metcalf. After a prominent and hilarious failure, he is never going to give up on a play ever again. He’s always been built like a perfect, efficient football machine. Now he’s going to play like one.
Winner: The Man Who Stopped Derrick Henry
For the past year or so, NFL fans, coaches, and players have been asking: Can anybody stop Derrick Henry? Henry is faster than most of the NFL’s players and stronger than everybody else. Henry has made running the ball cool again. It seems impossible that he’s 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds and fast, but trucks weigh like 5,000 tons and they’re still faster than me. What would it take to stop Henry? A piano falling out of the sky and crushing him? Can defenders use flamethrowers? (There’s nothing specifically against it in the rulebook!) Unless an NFL team lined up Godzilla at middle linebacker, who could possibly contain Henry?
Sunday, we got our answer: some dude named Robert Spillane. On the goal line in the fourth quarter of a matchup of unbeaten teams, the Titans opened up a hole for Henry. Then Spillane stepped in, voluntarily jumping in front of a speeding truck, and shut the play down.
oh my goodness the sound of Robert Spillane meeting Derrick Henry pic.twitter.com/Cg4eOYw01j— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) October 25, 2020
Spillane was a surprise hero for the Steelers—he was only in the lineup on Sunday because Pittsburgh middle linebacker Devin Bush suffered a season-ending injury last week. That Spillane was next up should be a massive problem for Pittsburgh. This is a guy who went undrafted out of Western Michigan and had only played nine career defensive snaps before Bush’s injury. (As a rookie in 2018, he played special teams for ... the Titans.) But Sunday he proved capable of filling in gaps—both the metaphorical one in Pittsburgh’s depth chart, and the literal one Henry tried running through.
As it turns out, jumping in front of a truck takes its toll. Spillane left the game after the tackle holding his shoulder. A few plays later, Henry dove into the end zone, unbothered by Pittsburgh’s third-string middle linebacker. Spillane returned to the game later and didn’t address his injury in interviews.
But the Steelers won, and Spillane proved two things. That the drop-off without Bush might not be as bad as expected, and that it is, in fact, possible to stop Derrick Henry. You’ve just got to be willing to risk everything.
Loser: The Ghosts of Patriots QBs Past
I’ve gotten used to watching NFL games without fans in the stands, but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to watching the Patriots get their asses kicked. It feels like we hit high school, and the middle school bully isn’t the biggest kid in school anymore—and I’m kinda enjoying watching him get whooped. On Sunday, the Niners beat up New England for four straight periods in a 33-6 win.
At the start of the year, it seemed the Pats had possibly upgraded at quarterback when an aging Tom Brady left and a resurgent Cam Newton showed up. But Newton was terrible against the Niners, throwing for 98 yards and three interceptions with no touchdowns.
It was a historically bad showing for Newton—he’d never thrown for fewer than 100 yards in a start before—and it was historically bad for the Patriots, as Brady had only two no-touchdown, three-pick days in his 20-year Patriot career, and those were in 2003 and 2006. Since returning from the COVID-19 list, Newton has thrown no touchdowns and five picks in two games.
Pats fans were haunted by their past quarterbacks on Sunday: They lost to Jimmy Garoppolo, whom New England traded away in 2017 for a second-round pick. Meanwhile, Brady has turned things around in Tampa Bay. He threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in a 45-20 Bucs win on Sunday. Brady even passed Drew Brees on the all-time passing touchdown leaderboard, although Drew isn’t done yet.
Tampa Bay is 5-2 and is third in the NFL in scoring with 31.7 points per game. New England is 2-4 and getting worse. Every negative about the Pats’ season will always be placed side-by-side with a positive about the Bucs’ season. The haunting will continue.
Winner: The Jets’ Tank
The NFL’s worst team got off to an alarmingly good start Sunday, as the 0-6 Jets jumped out to a 10-0 lead on the Bills. After having just 263 yards in a 24-0 shutout loss last week, the Jets had 193 yards on their first three drives. They were firing on all cylinders: The defense held Josh Allen in check and forced turnovers and field goals; Sam Darnold hit passes; rookies Denzel Mims and La’Mical Perine seemed to provide sparks the team had been missing.
Want to know how many yards they had in the second half? Four. Four yards. 12 feet. If you put the Jets on a basketball court instead of a football field, they wouldn’t have gotten to the free throw line. My 2007 Toyota Prius is 175 inches long; the Jets gained 144 inches in the second half. After leading 10-0, the Jets lost 18-10. The Jets’ red zone defense was stunningly stout, allowing zero touchdowns. But Buffalo never punted, attempting eight field goals and hitting six.
It was a truly clutch evaporation by the Jets, as all the promise they displayed in the first half was nowhere to be found when they were at risk of potentially winning a game. The millions of Americans picking the Jets’ opponents every week in their survivor pool stayed alive, as did the dream of an 0-16 season.
Loser: The Titans’ One Weakness
Week after week, the Titans have stunned me by proving their weaknesses to be strengths. I thought it was dumb to build a team around a running back; Derrick Henry has trucked me and any other naysayers into the ground. I didn’t think Ryan Tannehill was an effective NFL QB; he’s now put together more than 16 games of near nonstop success. I thought Mike Vrabel would flop just like every other guy hired because they’re in Bill Belichick’s rolodex; instead he’s proved to be a savvy schemer, a rulebook maven, and a leader of men. (Yes, Bill Belichick probably uses a rolodex.) I thought the weeks-long shutdown of the Titans’ facility due to a COVID-19 outbreak would dim their hot start, but they’ve now beaten two teams that had actually been practicing. The Titans are a 52-man dynamo—alas, there are 53 guys on a roster.
On Sunday, the Titans played a much-anticipated matchup with the Steelers. Both were 5-0, making it just the fifth matchup of undefeated teams at Week 7 or later in NFL history. And the Titans played great. The defense picked off Ben Roethlisberger three times, and on offense, they bumped the Steelers from tied for third to eighth in scoring defense by putting 24 points on the scoreboard. But then there’s special teams, where the Titans lost on a 45-yard missed field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.
Gostkowski’s miss turned Big Ben into Bewildered Ben:
Ben Roethlisberger's reaction is perfect after Gostkowski misses the game tying field goal.— Michael Schwab (@michaelschwab13) October 25, 2020
He says: "He missed it?" pic.twitter.com/6DWwBXxB2U
As the Titans have improved, their kicking has regressed. Last year they became the first team since 1987 to hit less than 50 percent of their field goals. They cycled through four kickers, and between Week 12 and the AFC championship game, they did not connect on a single field goal attempt. So they went out and got Gostkowski, Vrabel’s former Patriots teammate. It seemed like a smart move. Gostkowski had spent 14 years with the Patriots, kicking all sorts of critical field goals, and rising to fifth on the all-time field goal accuracy list.
But earlier this season, Gostkowski came out and missed his first three field goals with the Titans, turning an easy win against the Broncos into a barn burner. He’d seemingly rebounded, hitting nine field goals in a row, including game-winners against the Jags and Vikings. But he missed both attempts against the Texans last week, and missed the critical kick today.
Gostkowski entered the day dead last in the NFL in kicking accuracy (9-for-14, 64.3 percent). By going 1-for-2, he dropped even lower, to 62.5 percent. It’s not a matter of distance: All six of Gostkowski’s misses have been from closer than 50 yards. In half a season, he’s fallen from fifth to ninth on the all-time field goal accuracy leaderboard. (That’s like falling from Tony Romo to Kirk Cousins on the all-time passer rating leaderboard.) And while Gostkowski has struggled, three of the kickers the Titans had last year (Cody Parkey, Cairo Santos, and Ryan Succop) have combined to go 28-for-32—missing fewer combined kicks than Gostkowski despite taking twice as many attempts.
To an outsider, this has an easy solution. Cut him! Go sign somebody else! But it’s not that simple. There aren’t that many NFL-quality kickers out there. Last week, injuries forced the Jaguars to play Jon Brown, a kicker who had never made an NFL or college field goal; this week, the Jets played Sergio Castillo, a kicker who had spent six years kicking in the CFL, AAF, and XFL. There aren’t many guys available, and the ones who are tend to be available for a reason—as the Titans are quickly finding out about Gostkowski.
Winner: Ohio’s No. 1 Picks
Ohio has been cursed with years of bad football. The northeast side of the state has the Browns, a team that failed even at choosing the right color for its logo. (Guys. You’re not the Orange. That’s Syracuse.) The southwest side of the state has the Bengals, who have actually won fewer playoff games since 1990 than the Browns, even though the Browns basically stopped existing for a few years. (Granted, the middle of Ohio has Ohio State. Ohio football is kinda like a Pop-Tart—awful tasting stuff around the edges and a delicious interior.)
But all the trash has a payoff: no. 1 picks. Both the Browns and Bengals are guided by top picks at QB, and Sunday, they both played the best games of their careers. Baker Mayfield gave the Browns the lead early in the fourth quarter …
But Joe Burrow answered back to give the Bengals the lead …
But Mayfield answered back to give the Browns the lead …
BUT BURROW ANSWERED BACK TO GIVE THE BENGALS THE LEAD WITH UNDER TWO MINUTES ...
Joe Burrow is going to be a great one for Cincy. 1:06 left, touchdown to take the lead.pic.twitter.com/aCeXbOjWZW— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) October 25, 2020
BUT MAYFIELD THREW A GAME-WINNING TOUCHDOWN WITH 11 SECONDS LEFT TO A GUY NAMED DONOVAN PEOPLES-JONES, WHO HAD ZERO CAREER CATCHES BEFORE SUNDAY!
THE ROOKIE DONOVAN PEOPLES-JONES GAME WINNER— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 25, 2020
The teams scored on all seven of their second-half possessions, including back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back touchdowns. It was the first time in NFL history that a fourth quarter featured five go-ahead passing touchdowns, and a finish so nuts that I slipped in a Brazilian tweet there and you probably didn’t even notice.
Mayfield threw an interception on his first pass of the game, but went 22-for-27 with five touchdowns after that. Burrow, meanwhile, had a career-high 406 passing yards. Burrow led the NFL in passing yardage this week; Mayfield led the NFL in passing touchdowns. There’s finally fun professional football in Ohio—maybe they’ll figure out defenses someday.