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: Patrick Mahomes’s Inevitability
I promise to never get bored of Patrick Mahomes. It seems like an easy promise to keep, since he is the most exciting football player alive, and because at any point on any play, he can throw to any player on the field. Even when he’s running toward the boundary, the universal symbol for “I’m throwing this away,” he sometimes whips the ball across the field and into the arms of a receiver you didn’t know existed. He is completely unpredictable.
And because he’s so unpredictable, he’s impossible to guard, and because he’s impossible to guard, his victories have started to feel inevitable. Sunday night, the Las Vegas Raiders played a nearly perfect game. Quarterback Derek Carr went 23-for-31 for 275 yards and three touchdowns—and about five of his passes were blatantly dropped. The Raiders defense actually picked Mahomes off, just the second time all season he had thrown an interception—the other came in Vegas’s first game against the Chiefs. The Raiders even took a lead with a minute and 43 seconds remaining on a pass from Carr to Jason Witten.
ESPN’s win probability said the Raiders had an 81 percent chance of winning after the Witten touchdown. But probability meters don’t really know how to handle a version of the NFL where Patrick Mahomes exists. When Witten caught that ball, I never thought, “Oh wow, maybe the Raiders are going to win this game!” I just wondered how long it would take Mahomes to score. The answer was 75 seconds.
It was the least dramatic game-winning touchdown drive in NFL history. The clock barely seemed like a factor, as the Chiefs scored with almost 30 seconds remaining. Mahomes’s only incompletion was a throwaway, so all of his passes intended for receivers hit their targets. There was absolutely no crowd noise, and nobody came near Travis Kelce on the game-winning touchdown. Did Mahomes sweat? He certainly doesn’t play football like other humans, why should he have the same glands?
Last year’s postseason proved that you probably should expect Mahomes to win, even when he’s losing. The Chiefs trailed all three of their playoff games by double digits—and not only won all three games, but won them all by double digits. You can’t dig a hole big enough for this guy.
Mahomes didn’t play much as a rookie in 2017, so when historians write the history of football, they’ll probably call that Year Zero. In 1 A.P., Mahomes won MVP and probably would’ve won the Super Bowl if his team had won a coin flip in the AFC Championship Game. In 2 A.P., Mahomes did win the Super Bowl, despite suffering an injury during the season. In 3 A.P., Mahomes already has more touchdowns than he did last year, and is the MVP favorite playing for the Super Bowl favorite. The Chiefs are still trailing the undefeated Steelers in the season standings, but I’d pick Kansas City over Pittsburgh straight-up 10 times out of 10. Plus there is no end in sight: Mahomes and all the Chiefs’ key contributors are locked up in long-term contracts.
I promise to never get bored of Mahomes—but I also promised I would never get bored of the Golden State Warriors. Mahomes is better at passing than anybody ever; they were better at shooting than anybody ever. There will always be something spectacular about simply being the best at the most important aspect of a sport, but there’s something even more spectacular about never having to wonder who’s going to win the game.
Winner: Empty Stadium Audibles
Outside of Warren Buffett and the College World Series, the best thing to ever happen to Omaha was when NFL broadcasters figured out how to train parabolic mics on quarterbacks as they made pre-snap adjustments. And the best thing to ever happen to the guys holding the parabolic mics was when fans stopped going to football games. Sure, the lack of spectators is a real bummer for the directors who make a living finding the most hilariously sad fans in the crowd, but nowadays, those audibles are … well … audible. (Still haven’t figured out why those goofy plays are called “flea-flickers.”)
And no team has had more audible audibles than the Las Vegas Raiders. Derek Carr’s voice boomed through an empty Allegiant Stadium on Sunday night as his Raiders took on the Chiefs. But while quarterbacks normally yell things that are one word before the snap—Elvis!, Obama!, Tupac!—Carr’s directions often required multiple words, like purple walrus!, Sammy Davis!, and Pistol Pete!
Many of the calls seemed to have basketball origins: In addition to Pistol Pete! and Mamba!, Carr yelled out James Harden!:
And Chris Mullin!:
Chris Mullin gets the shout-out from Derek Carr at the line of scrimmage pic.twitter.com/IFtkGloecE— KNBR (@KNBR) November 23, 2020
As always happens when intriguing things get yelled out during games, former football players began speculating about what the code words meant. One theory was that since Harden is famous for “iso” plays where he isolates and refuses to pass, the “Harden” call was for an iso run—so called because the blocking scheme “isolates” a leading fullback against a linebacker:
"James Harden" was the Raiders code word for an Iso run play— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) November 23, 2020
Another theory was that when the Raiders called out the name of a right-handed player—like “Mamba” or “Pistol Pete”—the play call was a run to the right, and vice-versa.
I love being able to hear the QB’s talk without a crowd.— Emmanuel Acho (@EmmanuelAcho) November 23, 2020
Derek Carr checks, “James harden” (left handed), #Raiders run left.
“Chris Mullin” (left handed) Raiders run left.
When Derek Carr has checked to right handed NBA players. Raiders run right. #SNF
I remember one year, my intramural flag football team tried a similar system. If the quarterback yelled out the name of one of our friends who was a sophomore, it was a play to the left; if it was a junior, it was a play to the right. I remember thinking this plan was flawless. We knew dozens of guys and could just keep naming them—and while the defense was trying to remember what Ben! or Steve! meant, we’d be gashing them for touchdowns. I think the system lasted one game, because it actually had plenty of flaws—the quarterback would yell out Ben! and some guys would think it was our friend Ben the sophomore and others would think it was our friend Ben the junior, or we’d come back to the huddle and our running back would say I forgot Steve was older than me, he always hangs out with us.
The Raiders’ system is a bit more sophisticated, but I like to imagine every guy on the offensive line being like “wait ... Ben Simmons is NATURALLY right-handed, but he shoots lef—” as a 300-pound defensive tackle levels him at the line of scrimmage. I can’t wait for there to be fans at football games again—but I hope the audibles remain audible so we can think about things like this some more.
Loser: The Bengals’ Bargain-Bin Offensive Line
What would you do if you won the lottery? If the answer is something boring and smart, like “make wise financial investments,” you’re probably not going to win the lottery, because buying lottery tickets is just about the worst financial investment you can make. The same can be said of the NFL draft: If you have a good idea about what you’d do with the top pick, your team probably isn’t going to make the bad decisions that would allow you to get the no. 1 pick.
That brings us to the Bengals. This year, the Bengals essentially won the lottery, spent all their winnings on a Ferrari, and then immediately drove the Ferrari into a ditch. Joe Burrow, the top pick in the 2020 NFL draft, has been stuck behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league this season. Coming into Sunday, Burrow had been sacked 32 times, the third most in the NFL. He’d taken 72 hits in the team’s first nine games, which is tied for the most by a rookie in their first nine games since 2000. And according to Pro Football Focus, the Bengals rank 26th in the league in pass blocking. On Sunday, Burrow got sandwiched between a pair of Washington defenders, twisted his leg up something awful, and was carted off the field. He is believed to have torn his ACL—but at least he seemed to be in good spirits while tweeting that his rookie season is over.
If you’d like to watch the video—which even CBS refused to show on replay—it’s a testament to how bad the Bengals’ offensive line is. The right side of the line gets breached by Washington defensive end Montez Sweat, who blows clear past right tackle Hakeem Adeniji. Meanwhile, left guard Michael Jordan essentially knocks Washington defensive tackle Jonathan Allen into Burrow’s lower body. With Sweat coming in high from the left and Allen coming in low from the right, Burrow’s body gets jackknifed.
So the Bengals got their prize in Burrow, but did almost nothing to protect him. This is either by choice or by negligence. The team has one good offensive lineman—left tackle Jonah Williams, who was drafted 11th overall in 2019. (He was busy steering Chase Young far away from his QB on the play that resulted in Burrow’s injury.) Williams has the second-largest contract of any Bengals offensive lineman, but only the 77th largest OL contract in the NFL—and it’s only that big because Cincinnati was mandated to pay him that much because of his draft slot.
Elsewhere, the offensive line is staffed by no-names and fill-ins. Adeniji, the right tackle who got beaten on the play, is a rookie out of Kansas who was picked in the sixth round of April’s draft. (Do you follow college football? I just said this dude played for Kansas.) Jordan, the left guard, is not the GOAT, but rather a 2019 fourth-round pick. Quinton Spain, the right guard, was cut by the Bills in October. The Bengals did try to improve at center by using a 2018 first-round pick on Billy Price, but Price has turned out to be one of the worst first-round picks in recent NFL history, and he got benched this year in favor of undrafted center Trey Hopkins. The Bengals’ starter at right tackle to open the year, Bobby Hart, was healthy Sunday after missing time with a knee injury, but apparently wasn’t good enough to win his job back from Adeniji. And there is no depth: The Bengals have also given starts to Fred Johnson (undrafted in 2019) and Alex Redmond (undrafted in 2016) this season.
Up to Sunday, Burrow had been having a decent year. Even though the Bengals were just 2-6-1, Burrow was averaging 276 yards per game (the third most of any rookie ever) and throwing interceptions on just 1.35 percent of his throws (the fourth lowest of any rookie ever). He was even on pace to break Andrew Luck’s record for passing yardage by a rookie. Now he’s out for the season, and the team’s lone bright spot is gone. Any Bengals fans who are upset with Adeniji or Jordan should refocus their anger at a front office that allowed such dismal protection for the best thing to happen to the team in years. If it wasn’t this play that got Burrow hurt, it would’ve been another.
The Bengals were awful without Burrow, turning a 9-7 lead into a 20-9 loss. Backup Ryan Finley actually lost yardage as a passer, throwing for 30 yards and losing 31 yards on four sacks. With just two wins on the season and no plan without Burrow, the Bengals should have another top pick in next year’s draft. Hopefully, they use it on an offensive lineman—it only makes sense. But then again, you don’t get top draft picks by being a good team.
Winner: Fantasy Loophole Taysom Hill
When Drew Brees got injured last week and Jameis Winston came on in relief, it seemed clear that Taysom Hill’s title as backup QB was nothing more than smoke and mirrors. But on Sunday, New Orleans gave the 30-year-old hybrid role player his first career start under center—and the team got a 24-9 win out of it. Hill’s performance gave both his critics and fans fodder to feed their prior beliefs. How you feel about his game can probably be explained by your reaction to this Rorschach test of a bomb to Emmanuel Sanders: Do you see a 44-yard completion that helped set up a touchdown, or do you see a terrible underthrow that was bailed out by Sanders?
there's a lot going on here, like:— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) November 22, 2020
-Taysom Hill underthrowing Sanders by a solid 10 yards
-Sanders adjusting and getting it anyway
-Sanders, then blissfully unaware he's about to get smoked and fumbling
-what is, technically, a tackling effort from Michael Thomas pic.twitter.com/THK1cLHJLo
Hill displayed his trademark versatility as a runner on Sunday, largely kept the ball safe, and helped star WR Michael Thomas get his first 100-yard receiving game of the year. But his confusion on what to do with traditional dropbacks led to some big sacks, and he was the first opposing quarterback to fail to throw for a touchdown against the Falcons this season. Hill got the win and pushed the Saints past the Packers into first place in the NFC—but just about anybody would have won a game where the Falcons didn’t score any touchdowns and Matt Ryan got sacked eight times. The debate on whether Hill is a functional quarterback will continue for at least another week.
But there is one world where Hill’s performance was an undisputed success: fantasy football. Because Hill spent most of the last few seasons playing positions other than quarterback, ESPN decided in April to stop listing him as a quarterback and instead label him a tight end. It made sense: While Hill’s occasional appearances weren’t enough to make him a meaningful fantasy option at quarterback, the highest-scoring position in fantasy football, his occasional receptions and touchdowns made him a potentially useful option at tight end, the lowest-scoring position in fantasy football. (Fanduel also listed Hill as a tight end; so far as I can tell, all other servers considered Hill a quarterback.)
That means on Sunday, fantasy managers lucky enough to snag Hill in ESPN leagues were able to play a starting QB as their tight end, reaping a scoring bonanza from a typically weak position. Hill recorded 24.42 fantasy points this week, while no other tight end had more than 18.9 points. Hill’s tally would be the third most by any tight end this season—behind a three-touchdown day from Robert Tonyan and a 183-yard day by George Kittle—and one of the top 100 performances by any tight end ever going back to 1950.
It’s an unprecedented loophole. Normally players’ positions are very well defined. The only similar situation I can think of is also Saints related—the great Marques Colston Tight End Incident of 2006—but that was one where a big-bodied rookie wide receiver was listed at the position many scouts thought he would play out of college, which is a lot more understandable than listing a starting quarterback as a tight end. Sadly, this current loophole seems likely to close—ESPN said they would reassess Hill’s tight end eligibility after the game, but that they didn’t feel comfortable making the swap mid-week.
Fantasy football is an extremely dumb game, and we play it so we can be infuriated or overjoyed by extremely dumb moments like these. If you started Hill at tight end, you almost certainly won your fantasy matchup in a way you’ll never be able to win a fantasy matchup again. Cherish it.
Winner: Overtime Derrick Henry
It was either Marshawn Lynch or William Shakespeare who once said: “If you just run through somebody’s face, a lot of people ain’t gonna be able to take that over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.” (I’m pretty sure that’s iambic pentameter. You can’t prove I’m wrong because let’s be honest, nobody knows what iambic pentameter is.) On Sunday, that adage was proved true once again.
This week, the Titans played the Ravens, the team that Derrick Henry eliminated from last year’s postseason by running for 195 yards. This time, Henry had just 37 yards on 13 carries at halftime, and it looked like the Ravens had figured out how to stop the gargantuan Titan back. But Henry finished the day with 133 yards, including a walk-off game-winning 29-yard touchdown in overtime:
So far this season, there have been seven overtime games. Four have been won on field goals; one ended in a tie; and the other two have been won by Derrick Henry. In Week 6, the Titans forced overtime against the Texans, then won after Henry recorded 63 scrimmage yards and the game-winning touchdown on the only drive of overtime.
If Derrick Henry is on your fantasy team, you probably look at your phone every week around halftime and think he’s letting you down. Then you check your phone a few hours later and see he’s powering you to a victory. This isn’t an illusion: Week after week, Henry turns mediocre first halves into spectacular performances.
Since 2017 (not including Sunday’s game), Henry has 2,592 second-half rushing yards and 28 touchdowns. That’s the most in the NFL in that span, and nobody else is really close—Todd Gurley is second in both categories, with 2,070 yards and 24 touchdowns. But Henry’s in fourth place in first-half rushing yards, 642 yards behind Ezekiel Elliott, and has just 12 first-half touchdowns to Gurley’s 27. It’s not just a matter of volume—Henry is significantly better in the second halves of games.
That’s not true for most NFL running backs. So far this year, first-half running plays go for an average of 4.42 yards, while second-half running plays go for 4.27. Henry is actually below average in the first half, averaging just 4.01 yards per carry—but he explodes to 5.49 yards per carry in the second half. When the Titans feed Henry in first halves, it may seem futile. But he’s a 6-foot-3, 240-pound tenderizing mallet who softens up opponents and turns seemingly stiff defenses into tasty cuts for him to carve up later.
Overtime is when Henry is at his best. The defense may have been excited to tackle Henry when they got off the bus, but after 60 minutes on a field with him, they’re excited to get back on the bus—and he’s happy to send them there. Seems like Derrick Henry must be an avid Shakespeare fan.
Juju Smith-Schuster generally seemed to have a good 24th birthday—the Steelers remained undefeated, trouncing the hapless Jaguars 27-3, and his wide receiver friends let him blow out an imaginary birthday cake after a touchdown. But midway through Sunday’s game, he tweaked his ankle stepping on a flag:
This might be confusing to you if you’ve never contemplated a penalty flag before—aren’t they just little pieces of cloth? But if the refs were just holding little pieces of cloth, they wouldn’t be able to throw them very effectively, and they would get blown away on windy days. So flags are equipped with little bags of sand to give them heft and weigh them down. (Downfield referees who need to make longer throws actually use “long toss” penalty flags that carry extra weight.) Refs used to DIY their own flag weights, but that practice ended after the only other flag-related injury in NFL history—when Jeff Triplette hurled a flag weighted down by ball bearings into the eye of Orlando Brown, who missed three seasons as a result of vision problems. Brown—whose son, Orlando Jr., now plays for the Ravens—decked Triplette and was suspended indefinitely, but the NFL lifted the suspension two months later because he’d been hit in the eye by the referee. Brown later sued the league, settled for millions, and now, when a player does get beaned in the eye with a flag, it’s not as serious.
But if you step on a sandbag when you’re expecting to step on nothing, it’s still notable. Smith-Schuster left the game after his flag incident, and was seen limping on the sideline. Luckily, it doesn’t seem as if it’s a serious injury—but with the Steelers playing Thursday night, it could be a factor.
Winner: The XFL
This year has warped my perception of time. Sometimes I think something I did in April happened last week; sometimes something I did on Tuesday feels like it happened in 2009. I’m pretty sure I’ve already written this exact paragraph in another post, and I can’t tell whether it’s just omnipresent 2020 déjà vu or I’m a lazy writer. But here is the thing that feels the most unbelievable to me: Earlier this calendar year, the XFL happened.
Remember the XFL? It feels like the last time the league was in business was 2017. But nope! It was February. (I wrote about the winners and losers of its debut weekend—it’s all I know how to do.) Of course, we’re not talking about the original version of the XFL, which was played in 2001 and had an emphasis on wrestling-like theatrics and unwatchable football. We’re talking about the second iteration of the league, which seemed like it could push football in an interesting direction before the pandemic hit and erased any hopes of a startup football league surviving.
But the Carolina Panthers watched the XFL. They drafted Kenny Robinson, the safety who left West Virginia a year early to play in the XFL, and signed P.J. Walker, who led the XFL in passing touchdowns and yardage, as their backup quarterback. Walker was absolutely electric in the XFL, and his Houston Roughnecks finished the season 5-0, making them the rare sports franchise to never lose a game. (It’s just them and the Tune Squad for now.)
So with Teddy Bridgewater out with a knee injury this week, the Panthers turned to Walker—and the dude balled out:
Walker did make two absurdly bad decisions in the red zone, which led to two interceptions—but he also threw for 258 yards and a touchdown in an easy, breezy 20-0 win that should’ve been larger.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Garrett Gilbert’s stint as the superstar of the similarly ill-fated AAF led to a career revitalization that allowed him to get his first career start with the Cowboys. The same is true for Walker. I assumed his NFL career was over when the Colts cut him last August after a preseason in which he threw for two interceptions with no touchdowns. (It was a particularly insulting cut because Andrew Luck had just retired and they didn’t have any other backups.) But when Walker shined in the XFL, he got back on NFL radars.
So now we’ve seen the best QB in the AAF and the best QB in the XFL prove they’re NFL worthy. There’s currently no league lined up for next year, though the XFL could relaunch in 2021 after it was purchased by an investor group headlined by The Rock. I, for one, hope it succeeds, because football is a little more fun when these leagues provide opportunities for forgotten players to shine.
Loser: The Patriots’ Playoff Streak
My favorite NFL scheduling rule is that you must play all the teams in your conference that finished with the same divisional rank as you the previous season. If you win your division, you must play every other division winner; if you finish last, you play every other last-place finisher. It ensures a level of parity—bad teams get to play other bad teams—and means that fans get some marquee matchups. Heading into the season, Sunday’s Pats-Texans showdown was supposed to be one of the great games. New England has won the AFC East every season since 2008; Houston had won the AFC South four of the last five seasons.
And it honestly was one of the more exciting games of the day: Deshaun Watson and Cam Newton combined for 709 passing yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. If you told me last year that we’d get a game like this between those two stars, I’d have been thrilled. Unfortunately, the Pats came into the contest with a 4-5 record and the Texans were 2-7, so Houston’s 27-20 win was empty brilliance:
Deshaun Watson made all 3 of these throws on the same drive, in a span of about two and a half minutes. pic.twitter.com/TFxw3TlkCJ— Robert Mays (@robertmays) November 23, 2020
New England is now 4-6, ensuring they’ll be below .500 until at least Week 13. Before this season, the latest they’d been below .500 during Bill Belichick’s tenure was Week 8, and that happened all the way back in 2002.
The good news for the Patriots’ hopes of making the playoffs for a 12th straight season is that there are seven playoff teams per conference this year, as opposed to six in most years. The bad news is that there are nine AFC teams with at least six wins. Entering Sunday, FiveThirtyEight gave New England a 20 percent chance of making the playoffs. But after botching one of their few remaining games against a sub-.500 opponent, their chances have dropped to 8 percent. I honestly think that’s optimistic. The Patriots are in 11th place in the AFC, two full games behind the teams in ninth place, and four of their six remaining games are against teams above .500.
We knew the Patriots had taken a step back this year, but after beating the Ravens last week, it seemed like they may have still had a chance to contend. Sunday was the first time I truly allowed myself to believe that the reign of dominance was over. So of course, that means it’s probably time for Belichick to unleash 11 undrafted free agents that will force interceptions on every drive, power the Pats to a 10-game win streak, and win another Super Bowl.
Winner: The Three-Win NFC East
Suffice it to say that I am completely fascinated by the 2020 NFC East, easily the worst divisional showing in NFL history. It’s like if one year, the only people to enter the Olympic high jump competition were Shawn Bradley and Glen “Big Baby” Davis. I’d be all-in on watching them knock the bar over.
I’ve written previously about the possibility that a team would win the NFC East this year with as few as four wins, but unfortunately, one successful week has completely derailed those dreams. Entering Sunday, the NFC East had gone just 2-18-1 against its opponents. This week, though, the division doubled its win total against the rest of the league. Washington got a win over the Bengals after Burrow’s exit, and the Cowboys snapped a four-game losing streak against the Vikings:
Andy Dalton to Dalton Schultz.— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) November 23, 2020
Cowboys 31, Vikings 28. Vikings ball, now with 1:30 to play
The division-leading Eagles, meanwhile, lost an embarrassing game 22-17 to the Browns, and Carson Wentz seems determined to become the first player since Blake Bortles to pull off the Triple Frown of quarterbacking: He leads the league in interceptions, sacks, and fumbles, and added two picks, five sacks, and a fumble against Cleveland:
Given all those results, every NFC East team now has three wins.
NFC East standings:— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) November 23, 2020
This is by far the most competitive division in football, and also the worst. The Eagles currently hold the lead, because a tie counts for half a win and half a loss. But they’ll probably lose that lead on Thursday, since 3-7 Dallas and 3-7 Washington will play in the Cowboys’ annual Thanksgiving Day game. Whoever wins that game will move to 4-7 and have a .363 winning percentage, which edges out the Eagles’ .350 winning percentage. I’m already thankful that we all get to watch the race to clear the NFL’s lowest hurdle.