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: Kyler and Nuk
There’s a reason we named the Hail Mary after a prayer. Even when the play works, it often feels like the players on the field were less responsible for the outcome than a benevolent deity. But when Kyler Murray threw a game-winning touchdown to DeAndre Hopkins on Sunday, it didn’t look like divine intervention. It looked like Kyler Murray throwing a pass that only Kyler Murray could throw, and DeAndre Hopkins making a catch only DeAndre Hopkins could catch.
HOP CAUGHT IT!!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/lyAG9gWYPn— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) November 16, 2020
The Bills defended this end-game heave about as well as a team could possibly defend an end-game heave. They brought pressure from Murray’s right side, forcing the right-handed quarterback to run to his left. They had their All-Pro cornerback, Tre’Davious White, guard Hopkins from the line of scrimmage to the end zone, while also playing several deep safeties that blanketed the end zone. Three defenders swarmed Hopkins as the ball flew to the end zone.
It didn’t matter. Murray was fast enough to outrun the Bills’ defenders, buying himself enough time to completely flip his body around, plant his feet, and make a throw that flew 50-plus yards downfield in the air while his momentum was carrying him out of bounds and backward. Hopkins was capable of out-jumping the three Bills defenders enveloping him while holding onto the ball as they wrestled him for it on the way to the ground. Hopkins, famously, has some of the largest, strongest hands of any receiver, and wears XXXL gloves modified to fit his hands.
Two years ago, Kyler Murray was a fun college quarterback who I feared would stick with his pro baseball future, Kliff Kingsbury was a college football coach I assumed would get hired as an offensive coordinator somewhere, and DeAndre Hopkins was stuck laboring for a team Bill O’Brien couldn’t figure out how to run. How the hell did they wind up together? You couldn’t even get them onto the same team in Madden, unless you had some weird version of the game that allowed you to import MLB draft picks and Big 12 head coaches. It seemed impossible that their futures would converge—or that they’d be able to find a destination that made the most of their talents.
Kingsbury’s former college team, Texas Tech, which fired him in November 2018, is 4-12 in Big 12 play since letting him go; Murray, drafted by the Oakland Athletics in the 2018 MLB draft, might not have made the majors yet if he’d chosen to focus on baseball; and the Texans are 2-7 while David Johnson, whom Houston acquired in exchange for Hopkins, is not leading the NFL in anything per game. But now the Cardinals are very real. They’re 6-3; they’re first in the NFC West and lead the NFL in yards per game. Murray, who had two rushing touchdowns on Sunday, is on track to become the first player in NFL history with 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards. Hopkins is behind only Davante Adams in receiving yards per game. The Cardinals’ trio is living its best possible future.
Hail Marys often need to be deflected to work; they’re sometimes thrown from forgettable quarterbacks to forgettable receivers. It rarely feels like the success of a Hail Mary is directly linked to the talents of the players involved. None of those were the case with the Cardinals’ score. It was one superstar throwing directly to another superstar, both showcasing their very specific talents to pull off the play. It felt like something very much within their control, rather than an act of divine intervention—but the fact that Murray is throwing to Hopkins very much feels like an answered prayer.
Loser: Taysom Hill’s Spot on the QB Depth Chart
The Saints are one of a few NFL teams that use three slots of their 46-player game day roster on quarterbacks. One is for Drew Brees, the team’s franchise player and the all-time NFL leader in passing touchdowns. (For those keeping track, he’s currently one ahead of Tom Brady.) Last year, the Saints listed Teddy Bridgewater as their backup quarterback while listing utility man Taysom Hill as the third-stringer. But in the offseason, the Saints signed Hill to a surprisingly big contract, and head coach Sean Payton talked him up as the potential future franchise quarterback. This season, Hill has been listed as second string on the depth chart, while longtime Buccaneers starter Jameis Winston, acquired in the offseason via free agency, has been listed as third string.
But in Sunday’s win over the 49ers, the Saints revealed the truth about their quarterback situation. Drew Brees came out of the game after halftime with a rib injury. He clearly wanted to come back into the game; he appeared to argue with Payton on the sideline, and left his helmet on just in case, but he didn’t reenter the game. Who came in for him? Winston, who went 6-of-10 passing for 63 yards. After becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions last year, Winston surprisingly avoided throwing a touchdown or an interception Sunday. He kept things nice and easy as the Saints held on to their halftime lead and won 27-17. Despite the depth chart, I think Winston knew he was the Saints’ actual backup—you think a third-stringer would warm up like this?
Hill’s role in the Saints offense did increase and change after Brees’s injury. He took more snaps from under center and fewer at wide receiver, and finished the game with a career-high eight carries, which went for 45 yards. But he never threw the ball, and his only passing dropback resulted in a sack for a loss of 5 yards.
Hill is an exceptionally talented football player. He’s fast and strong, evasive as a ball carrier and superb as a route runner. But Sunday proved what’s been clear for some time: He’s not actually New Orleans’s backup quarterback. And considering he’s 30 years old and Winston is only 26, he’s probably not going to grow into a suitable backup either. He’s a good enough passer that he can be used on gadget plays, but as high as the Saints are on him, they aren’t confident enough to let him throw the ball on conventional dropbacks—even when their starting quarterback is sidelined with an injury.
Winner: Rain God Bill Belichick
Most of Sunday night’s showcase game between the Ravens and Patriots was played in a downpour. Ravens center Matt Skura, who had been credited with two fumbles in four years as Baltimore’s center, was credited with three fumbles as he repeatedly failed to snap water-soaked balls accurately:
How it's going right now for the Ravens. pic.twitter.com/RsFYhBOaWU— The Comeback (@thecomeback) November 16, 2020
The rain looked bad for the first 58 minutes of the game, but it looked absolutely awful for the final two, as Lamar Jackson tried to engineer a game-winning drive with the Ravens trailing 23-17.
It is a testament to the skill of NFL players that the Ravens were able to do anything in this weather. My dog won’t even poop in a drizzle—I have no idea how I would snap, throw, or catch a football during a monsoon. But the Ravens didn’t do much in that weather. Their last-ditch drive gained 4 yards and ended with running back J.K. Dobbins dropping a lightly tossed ball with no defenders in sight.
As it turns out, the final minute of the game was played exactly as a massive weather front moved over the stadium:
And it more or less cleared up as soon as the game ended:
and just like that the weather cleared up pic.twitter.com/DwTyz9r9B3— Doug Kyed (@DougKyed) November 16, 2020
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a tactically devastating weather pattern outside of the lightning strike power-up from Mario Kart. It’s as if Bill Belichick harnessed the system they used in The Truman Show to make sure it rained on Truman, and used it to unleash a downpour on the Ravens.
The scientific explanation for Deflategate ended up being that the cold weather in New England simply caused balls to deflate such that they happened to be easier to throw and catch. (For a few years there, Patriots fans loved talking about the ideal gas law.) I suspect that incident caused Belichick to begin thinking about other ways he could work the elements. Mastering football got boring; now he’s going to try to power subpar teams to wins by bending weather in his team’s favor. Maybe he spends his time saying ancient prayers to end droughts; maybe he’s figured out how to raise humidity in the exact vicinity of Gillette Stadium. Or maybe he has become Belichickus, god of special teams and rain. Only by sending him sweet offerings of draft picks will he spare your team the misery of monsoon football.
Loser: Intentional Non-Covers
Nick Chubb picked the perfect day to return from his MCL injury, by which I mean he picked one of the ugliest days imaginable. It was extremely windy and rainy Sunday in Cleveland, and a lightning strike delayed the game by a half hour. I don’t know why they always make hell fiery and hot in movies—for me, hell would look a lot like footage from inside the Browns’ stadium on Sunday. (After the GRAUPEL attack of Week 8, I’m starting to get the sense Cleveland weather might suck.)
Would you trust Baker Mayfield to throw the ball in a monsoon? (Would you trust Baker Mayfield to throw the ball in regular weather?) Of course not. So the Browns ran the ball: Chubb had 126 yards; his backup, Kareem Hunt, had 104. They’re the only teammates to run for 100 yards in the same game this season and the first Browns teammates to run for 100 yards in the same game since 1966. With both teams’ passing attacks neutralized by the lovely Northeast Ohio weather, the teams combined for two touchdowns—but it should’ve been three. With the Browns leading 10-7 in the final minute, Chubb broke loose and was headed for the end zone, but unlike another University of Georgia running back alumnus, avoided scoring to maximize his team’s chances of victory.
Nick Chubb just broke all of his fantasy managers’ hearts— PFF (@PFF) November 15, 2020
If Chubb had scored, the Browns would’ve taken a 17-7 lead—but they would have given the Texans the ball back and the opportunity to score a touchdown, recover an onside kick, and potentially win the game. Because he went out of bounds, they went into victory formation and won the game without another competitive play. But it hurt people who bet on the Browns: Cleveland was favored by 4.5 and won 10-7.
But it wasn’t the only intentional non-cover of the day! After Hopkins’s miracle reception, the Cardinals led the Bills, 32-30. With just two seconds left in the game, the Bills had two ways of avoiding a loss: They could somehow score in two seconds, or they could block an extra point and return it for a defensive conversion, worth two points. It’s unlikely, but possible—there were 1,332 touchdowns scored last year, and after two of those, the defense managed to return the try for two points. So the Cardinals decided to kneel instead of kicking the extra point. The Cardinals had been favored by either 3 or 2.5 depending on when and where you placed your bet, so the kneel ended up costing Cardinals bettors their cover.
If you bet on the Browns or the Cardinals, you probably feel taken advantage of. The team you bet on was good enough to win your wager. Why couldn’t they just score when they had the option to? But, of course, the teams that chose not to score were playing it smart by eliminating the small risk of disaster. We’re the ones who played it dumb, by taking money that could have been used to purchase actual goods or services and risking it on a sport whose rules are so complicated that it’s sometimes better to avoid trying.
Winner: The Dream of a Four-Win NFC East Champion
In October, I wrote about the abject horror of the NFC East, explaining why it’s the worst division in NFL history. (“Abject” is one of my favorite types of horror!) I explained that while the most likely record for an NFC East champion will be 6-10 (or, in the case of the Eagles, 6-9-1), there was a small possibility of the Eagles winning the division at 4-11-1. Two things need to happen to pull it off: First, the NFC East’s teams have to lose every single game they play against teams from other divisions; second, the team with the better record has to lose every intradivisional game.
The first part has been easy. When I wrote the post, the NFC East was 2-15-1 against teams from other divisions; now it is 2-18-1, including Washington’s 30-27 loss to the Lions on Sunday. The Football Team erased a 21-point deficit … but still lost on a 59-yard Matt Prater field goal.
The second one has been going pretty well too—and it got even better on Sunday. The 2-7 Giants hosted the 3-4-1 Eagles and emerged with a 27-17 victory. Daniel Jones even managed to run for a touchdown without falling over:
Everything’s setting up well: The 3-5-1 Eagles are still leading the division, and the 3-7 Giants are now in second place, just a game back. The dream scenario of a 4-11-1 division champion is still alive (and, honestly, not that implausible). The Eagles need to finish the season at 1-6—and considering they’re playing terribly and five of their final seven games are against teams currently above .500, that’s entirely possible. The rest of the NFC East also needs to continue sucking—but I don’t think that’s going to be particularly tough.
It’s not that uncommon for a division to have three bad teams and one competent team that feasts off them en route to a playoff berth. What makes the NFC East special is that there’s no one team capable of doing that. It’s bad from head to toes, which is why its head is lower than Kyler Murray’s shoulders.
Winner: Jalen Ramsey
I have spent large swaths of the NFL season watching DK Metcalf and wondering whether anybody can stop him. He is 6-foot-4, runs a 4.33 40-yard dash, and is capable of bench-pressing more than any NFL wide receiver has ever been able to bench-press. Some thought that he would just be a combine superstar and an NFL bust, but he’s become a superstar in 2020, his second season in the league. Entering Sunday, Metcalf was second in the NFL in receiving touchdowns and receiving yards per game, while the Seahawks averaged a league-high 34.3 points per game.
But Sunday, Metcalf went up against Jalen Ramsey, whom the Rams made the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history this offseason. Ramsey used to be famous for trash-talking any quarterback he was playing against (and some he wasn’t playing against), but he’s become much calmer—he spent last week praising Metcalf and assuring reporters he wasn’t thinking so much about their one-on-one matchup.
When it came time for the game, Ramsey locked down Metcalf. Ramsey finished the game with no interceptions and no passes defended—but that’s because for large swaths of the game, Russell Wilson didn’t even feel comfortable throwing the ball toward Metcalf with Ramsey on him. Metcalf wasn’t targeted in the first half of the game and finished with just two catches for 28 yards. (Ramsey says the two catches were made in zone coverage rather than man-to-man.) Wilson played his worst game of the season, finishing with 248 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions. He hadn’t had a game without a touchdown since last December; he hadn’t had a game with no touchdowns and multiple picks since 2016. It feels like Ramsey’s trash-talking days are over—but he’s certainly earning the right to keep it up if he wants.
Winner: Newbie Punt Returner Keelan Cole
Normally, heavy winds lead to lower scores, but it contributed to something else in Sunday’s matchup between the Packers and the Jaguars. In the second quarter, Green Bay punter JK Scott lined up and gave a bigger boot than he could’ve possibly imagined, with the wind carrying the ball 59 yards. It flew faster than Green Bay’s punt coverage team could possibly go, allowing Jaguars returner Keelan Cole to reach full speed without encountering any resistance. The phrase “outkicking the coverage” has broken contain and become a part of common American parlance—but you don’t actually see it happen on the field very often:
I imagine Scott was pleasantly surprised by his big kick, and then became filled with fear as Cole sped his way. I’m not sure it’s fair to label what Scott did when Cole ran his way as a tackle attempt—I think it’s best described as a flinch. Not exactly what you want from your last man back.
JK Scott might have to retire after this. pic.twitter.com/I7nJWD8oWg— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) November 15, 2020
It was just the second punt-return touchdown of the NFL season—and so far as I can tell, the very first of Cole’s life. The Jaguars’ usual return man is Dede Westbrook, who tore his ACL returning a kickoff two games ago. Cole was not even listed as the backup punt returner—that was rookie cornerback Chris Claybrooks. There was no reason to believe Cole could or would be great at punt returns, considering he had no history of busting loose as a return man. He barely played at all in high school, only becoming a star after going to Division 2 Kentucky Wesleyan and adding significant muscle. Cole occasionally took punt returns in college, but none went for touchdowns.
So when Cole tracked backward to settle under Scott’s punt, it was just the second punt return of his pro career. (The first, last week, went for 4 yards.) And a few seconds later, he had just a poor punter between him and the end zone. Players can return punts for their entire careers and never have a highlight like Cole’s vicious juke of Scott; Cole did it on a whim as he tried out something he wasn’t used to doing on a football field.
Winner: Multiple Witching Hours
Sunday was a strange day, if you’re someone so accustomed to the traditional sports calendar that even slight deviations make you feel like the planet is in retrograde. The Masters golf tournament had its final round Sunday, even though the COVID-19 pandemic has actually gotten significantly worse since April, when it was originally scheduled. CBS, which broadcasts the Masters and roughly half of all NFL games on Sunday, aired the former until its conclusion rather than any NFL games during the 1 p.m. ET window. Normally, there are about seven to 10 NFL games in the early window and two to five in the late window. Sunday, there were five in the early window and six in the late window. It was the most games played in the 4 p.m. slot in nine years. (There was also, oddly, a Cal-UCLA game played Sunday afternoon, because the teams they were scheduled to play on Saturday could not field a team because of positive COVID-19 tests.)
The result? We got to watch a lot of fun sports! Instead of one stacked early NFL window and a sleepy late one, we were treated to seven straight hours of consistently exciting football. Three of the five games in the early window were decided by one possession; three of the six games in the late window were decided by one possession. NFL RedZone’s Scott Hanson made a big deal out of the fact that he got to narrate two “witching hours,” his term for the flurry of activity when every game is ending at the same time. (I hope Hanson gets “the witching hour” trademarked before the NFL does.)
Earlier this year, I wrote about a strange day where the NFL stacked nine games in the early window and just two in the late window. I understand why the NFL chose to do that—its broadcast partners would rather the largest possible number of fans focus on the biggest matchups of the week, and after all, TV networks are the ones who primarily finance the NFL. But for the many fans who pay for NFL Sunday Ticket so we can watch every game at once—and I think there are a lot of us!—Sunday was a much better set-up. (I’m sure it wasn’t so great for anybody who wanted to watch the Masters and the Packers at the same time, but, hey, you’re not reading “Winners and Losers of the Masters,” so that’s not really my problem.)