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: Divisional Games
One of the best things about the NFL is that teams in the same division play each other about eight times more frequently than other teams. A team from the AFC will play any NFC team only once every four years. They’re only guaranteed to play certain teams from other AFC divisions once every three years. But they play the teams from their own divisions twice every year, and for some reason, those games always rule.
There were six divisional games on Sunday. One of them was an NFC East game, so let’s not even bother counting that one. The others, though, were the best games of the day. The Bills beat the Patriots for the first time in seven tries thanks to a last-minute forced fumble against Cam Newton:
The Steelers forced four turnovers from Lamar Jackson, who had just three turnovers all season entering Sunday. They simply have a hold over Jackson, and are now responsible for five of his 13 career picks. Pittsburgh remained undefeated with a 28-24 win to take control of the race for the AFC’s lone first-round bye.
The Broncos defeated the Chargers on a last-second touchdown by Drew Lock. The Chargers have played two divisional games this year and lost both on the last play of the game.
Even the 1-5 Vikings managed to take down the 5-1 Packers, with Dalvin Cook posting an impossibly brilliant 163-yard, three-touchdown game in a return from injury. Oh yeah, he also had a receiving touchdown:
The NFL’s choice to force divisional teams to play each other so frequently seems like a recipe for monotony—but the truth is, divisional games simply bring it. Football teams that know and dislike each other play more entertaining games—and Sunday was living proof of that.
Loser: The Ben DiNucci Experience
I like to use this column to highlight the stories of players who took unusual or unlikely routes to the NFL. A kicker who has never kicked a field goal gets to kick a field goal! A massive Australian rugby player actually figures out how to block people! Mr. Irrelevant makes a game-winning play!
This week, the NFL brought us something that almost could’ve swerved into that category. In Sunday night’s game against the Eagles, the Dallas Cowboys started Ben DiNucci, a 2020 seventh-round draft pick who became the first seventh-rounder to start an NFL game since Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2005. Once upon a time, DiNucci transferred away from Pitt to James Madison, a team in the second tier of college football—but DiNucci thrived, leading the Dukes to a national championship game. Now he’s not only made it to the highest tier of the pros, he started a prime-time game for America’s team. Wow!
Sadly, though, DiNucci lacked both the throwing skills and the processing speed to run the Cowboys offense. He was clearly overwhelmed by the speed and tenacity of the Eagles’ pass rush, dropping 48 yards on four sacks while losing two fumbles, one of which was returned for a touchdown. On the plays in which he actually managed to figure out what was happening, he missed a lot of throws. He did throw a cool sidearm pass that swerved in mid-air like a bullet in Wanted. Unfortunately, he was throwing to a guy who was already out of bounds, and he missed.
The novelty of seeing a player as lowly drafted as DiNucci playing in the NFL as a rookie quickly turned into the novelty of watching an NFL offense quarterbacked by a player as bad as DiNucci. It was, quite frankly, a bit fascinating. Just a month ago, the Cowboys were hanging nearly 40 points on every team they played. Now, they’ve gone two weeks without a touchdown.
When you hear that the last seventh-rounder to start an NFL game as a rookie was Fitzpatrick, your mind lights up with a bit of hope for DiNucci. Hey! That guy’s had a pretty good NFL career! But when you read the names of the last 10 seventh-rounders to start NFL games as rookies, things get bleaker. The list goes like this: DiNucci, Fitzpatrick, Matt Mauck, Ken Dorsey, John Navarre, Koy Detmer, Moses Moreno, Steve Matthews, Tony Graziani, and Paul Justin. You don’t know any of their NFL highlights unless you’re related to them.
The Cowboys playing a seventh-rounder at QB is not a feel-good story. They’re stuck with such a dismal option because Dak Prescott, one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, is out for the season after suffering a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle. Dallas’s backup, Andy Dalton, is an experienced starter, but he also missed this week while he works his way back from a concussion. The Cowboys didn’t invest heavily in a third-string QB because they didn’t need someone to compete with Prescott or even Dalton—so they took a late-round flier on a guy who could maybe develop into a competent backup down the line. Then Prescott’s ankle broke his skin, and Dalton suffered a concussion after a brutal illegal hit. To say Ben DiNucci shouldn’t be playing isn’t an insult, it’s a fact.
Winner: The Punch Nonreaction
NFL referees and kindergarten teachers have long struggled to punish the people who start ruckuses. Too often, their head turns just in time to see the second punch or shove, and they end up punishing the reactor rather than the instigator. I almost think an NFL player could make a pretty good career out of getting in the face of opposing stars, making them respond, and then watching them get ejected. They’d be the least popular player in NFL history, but they’d get results. (And fines.)
Which is why we need to praise the work of Saints safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who may be the NFL’s most talented player at angering wide receivers. Earlier this year, Gardner-Johnson’s teammate Michael Thomas got suspended for a game after Thomas punched Gardner-Johnson in practice. Sunday, Gardner-Johnson got in the head of Bears receiver Javon Wims. As Evan Saacks uncovered via an impressively detailed Twitter thread, Gardner-Johnson irritated Wims earlier in the game by removing Wims’s mouthpiece and throwing it on the ground, where it sat for minutes. After putting his grody mouthpiece back in, Wims had to sit on the bench for an extended period of time, apparently planning out his revenge. Then, in the third quarter, Wims sprinted over to punch Gardner-Johnson—who wasn’t even guarding him—in the back of the head (well, helmet). It was truly the definition of a sucker punch—a full-windup smash to the back of the head of a guy who wasn’t looking.
This has to be the most embarrassing moment of Wims’s life. He punched a person in the face and the person didn’t react. I’m sure Wims is a strong person and could probably beat me in a fight. But in this moment, he looks like a 7-year-old with spaghetti arms trying to beat up his 13-year-old brother. He looks like the least powerful character in a video game trying to take down the final boss. He looks like a cartoon mouse trying to fight a cartoon bulldog. Sure, Gardner-Johnson is wearing a helmet, but you can still feel hits in a football helmet. Gardner-Johnson doesn’t even flinch. He turns around with more surprise than pain. Who is this dude? Thanos?
But by not reacting, Gardner-Johnson does more than make Javon Wims look like Javon Wimps. He avoided the omnipresent reaction penalty NFL sucker punchers have long counted on. Things worked out poorly for Wims. The Bears lost 15 yards, Nick Foles immediately threw an interception leading to a Saints field goal, and the Saints ended up winning in overtime. By that one non-act, Gardner-Johnson erased decades of NFL sucker-punching strategy.
Loser: Anybody Dumb Enough to Bet on the Jets
Pro Football Reference has a database of every NFL point spread since 1978, and within that database, nine of the 10 biggest point spreads ever have been covered by the underdog. It makes sense—this is the NFL. The difference between the boys who play on Fridays and Saturdays and the men who play on Sundays is that everybody in the NFL is a pro. In college, you might see a future top-10 pick squaring off against a future dentist. In the National Football League, even the best team and the worst team both belong on the same field.
Except, I guess, when the Jets are involved. On Sunday, the 0-7 Jets took on the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs. Kansas City has Patrick Mahomes, who may turn out to be the greatest quarterback of all time. I think the Jets might be a Ponzi scheme disguised as a football team. Every week they lose, thanks to one of the worst offenses in recent NFL history. Then, a few hours after they lose, they trade away another player from their competent-by-comparison defense. This week, it was linebacker Avery Williamson, the player who tore his ACL last season when head coach Adam Gase unnecessarily left him in a preseason game. Williamson now goes from the last winless team in the NFL to the last unbeaten team in the NFL. Fly free, Avery.
The Chiefs came into this contest as 20-point favorites, a huge spread which should almost always get covered. Instead, the Jets cruised to a 35-9 loss. Mahomes threw for an effortless 416 yards and five touchdowns before Kansas City subbed in Chad Henne; the Jets failed to score a touchdown for the second time in three games. What’s amazing about watching a Jets game is that it doesn’t seem like anybody associated with their coaching staff really wants to win. Facing a team that scores only touchdowns, Adam Gase acquiesced and sent out his kicker for field goals every time the Jets came close to the end zone. Despite the fact that New York trailed the entire game (and had released the team’s best running back a couple weeks before), the Jets ran the ball more times than the Chiefs. Down multiple scores, Gase simply fed Frank Gore, grinding Football Grandpa’s bones to dust in the name of getting 3 yards per carry.
The Jets have now played eight games this season. As you know, they’re 0-8—but more impressively, they’re 0-7 against the spread. The only time they’ve beaten the spread was when they lost 18-10 to the Bills as 9.5-point underdogs. Sunday was the third time the Jets were double-digit underdogs, and they’ve lost all three. Please don’t bet on the Jets—they’re not even betting on themselves.
The weather in Cleveland on Sunday featured something called “graupel.” So far as I can tell, graupel—which comes from the German language—is like a colder version of hail. You know a weather pattern is bad when English doesn’t quite have a word to describe it. I mean, think about how bad the weather is in England; then think about the fact that, to describe this weather, we had to loan words from a place that has worse weather than England.
We should’ve seen plenty of points in Browns-Raiders. Both teams have good offenses—the Raiders outgunned the Chiefs in a 40-32 game three weeks ago; the Browns hung 49 on the Cowboys and scored touchdowns on back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back possessions to beat the Bengals last week. But more importantly, both teams have terrible defenses. Cleveland and Las Vegas entered the game ranked 29th and 31st in the NFL, respectively, in points allowed. The game opened with an over/under of 55.5, the seventh highest in the NFL this season. But unfortunately, this game happened in November in Northeast Ohio, almost next to a Great Lake. The weather report: 41 degrees, with 34-mile-per-hour winds, and graupel.
How does a 34-mph wind affect a football game? Well, it makes it look like kickers are capable of throwing MLB-quality sliders with their feet.
The Raiders won 16-6 and scored the game’s only touchdown. But both teams set or tied season lows in points scored and points allowed. It was the first time the Raiders held an opponent without a touchdown since 2015, when they held Brock Osweiler’s Broncos to four field goals. With two dismal defenses, this game should’ve been one of the highest scoring this season; instead, it set season lows for combined points (22) and combined passing yards (223). The previous low score was a 24-0 Dolphins win; the previous low in combined passing yards was last week’s Washington-Dallas game when Kyle Allen, Andy Dalton, and Ben DiNucci combined for 248 yards. Remember: Next time you see “graupel” in the forecast, you will want to reset your fantasy lineup—or move.
Winner: The Drew Lock
While some guys like group celebrations, Drew Lock is a solo celebrator. You can see him on the sideline, rapping along to songs nobody else seems to notice. (See his Yung Joc imitation here.) It’s not clear if he knows other people are nearby, or that football games are internationally televised. He just likes vibing by himself.
Sunday, Lock led one of the most impressive comebacks of the NFL season. (Although at this point, there have been so many unlikely comebacks that it’s getting really hard to rank them.) The Broncos trailed the Chargers 24-10 at the start of the fourth quarter, but Lock led Denver on back-to-back-to-back touchdown drives, going 16-for-22 for 172 yards on those three drives. (One of the incompletions was a spike.) Then, he won the game on this last-second pass to rookie K.J. Hamler.
The Broncos immediately erupted in celebration, jumping and shoving and screaming and tackling each other in an unfiltered display of sheer jubilation. Plenty of NFL teams plan out their celebrations, but when you’re really, truly happy, plans go out the window.
Away from all the pandemonium, a lone Bronco celebrated by himself. It was Lock, once again dancing on his own.
The world’s foremost dancing experts have studied Lock’s moves and are perplexed. I don’t want to say Lock is bad at dancing—he has rhythm, which can’t be taught. But it’s unclear whether he’s ever seen anybody dance. He’s a raw dancing prospect who needs a few years under an experienced dance coordinator so he can begin to dance on an NFL level. Maybe a Day 2 pick.
But when you do something extremely cool, your celebration doesn’t have to be cool. Your actions have already done the celebrating for you. Sunday, Drew Lock planked on the summit of Mount Everest. Kids across Colorado will be doing the Drew Lock on TikTok for years to come, even if nobody has ever danced anything like the Drew Lock before.
Winner: Brian Flores’s Super Bowl LIII Game Plan
The Dolphins received plenty of criticism this week when they decided to start rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa over Ryan Fitzpatrick in Sunday’s game against the Rams. Why turn to a developmental prospect in the middle of a surprise playoff race? Why send a player recovering from a devastating injury into a game in which he’d face a defensive line that wrecks quarterbacks’ dreams and bodies? Things looked bleak on Miami’s first possession, when Tagovailoa was strip-sacked by former back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. If the Dolphins had to make the switch, why not do it in an easy game like Miami’s previous contest against the Jets?
But Dolphins head coach Brian Flores knew that actually, this was an easy game. Miami hired Flores after he helmed the Patriots’ defense in a dominant Super Bowl LIII victory over the Rams. In that 13-3 win, Flores squashed the hypercharged offense of NFL darling Sean McVay by using an unorthodox six-man front. Flores’s defense allowed a few more points on Sunday, but it still obliterated the Rams’ hopes of winning. Miami hounded Jared Goff into four first-half turnovers—two interceptions and two forced fumbles—with a variety of vicious blitzes.
BRIAN FLORES OWNS SEAN MCVAY— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) November 1, 2020
first the Super Bowl, now this half
put some respect on Flo’s scheme pic.twitter.com/v6Go3v8ZJW
The Dolphins pressured the hell out of Goff, just like the Pats did in that Super Bowl. And if the pressure didn’t come, Goff threw picks to guys he thought were blitzing.
The Dolphins scored 14 points with the offense off the field, via an Andrew Van Ginkel scoop-and-score TD and a Jakeem Grant punt return TD. They almost got 28, as Kyle Van Noy was tackled at the 1-yard line on a fumble return and Eric Rowe probably should’ve picked this off and taken it to the house.
The result was a win for Tua, but a win with training wheels. The QB went 12-for-22 for 93 yards and a touchdown, while the Dolphins had just 145 yards of offense in a 28-17 win, the lowest offensive production by a winning team since Seattle won a game with 136 yards in 2017.
McVay may have a reputation as the NFL’s youthful offensive wunderkind, but Flores is also under 40—and has now twice figured out how to completely obliterate the boy genius’s best plans. Last year the Dolphins’ defense was the worst in the NFL, allowing a league-high 494 points and forcing just 16 takeaways. This year, Flores has turned a forgettable franchise around. Now that the McVay hype has cooled, maybe Flores is the young coach we should be freaking out about?