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 2018 Heisman Race
My two favorite football players are Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa. I’ve been yelling about Tua since his very first college game—actually, slightly before that—and I’ve been yelling about Kyler since people thought he was going to play professional baseball. On Sunday, they played for the first time in the NFL, and it was basically my personal Super Bowl but played at 4 p.m. during Week 9. Despite both players being on teams that have recently been bad, it was a game with somewhat serious NFL playoff implications: Both the Dolphins and Cardinals were on three-game win streaks and between a game and a game and a half back of the lead in their respective divisions.
Simply put, the Kyler-Tua Bowl ruled. Both quarterbacks displayed their unique running styles, which was particularly fun to watch since Tua’s mobility was in question after the hip injury that ended his college career.
And both made picture-perfect touchdown throws:
In the 2018 Orange Bowl, when their two college teams met, Kyler and Tua combined for 744 total yards and seven touchdowns with no turnovers in a 45-34 Alabama win. In their first NFL matchup, Kyler and Tua combined for 672 total yards and six touchdowns with one turnover in a 34-31 Dolphins win. So the NFL is slightly harder for these guys—but not that much harder. The game probably should’ve gone to overtime, but Cardinals kicker Zane Gonzalez missed a 49-yarder to tie the game late in the fourth quarter.
As a football analyst, it can sometimes be tough to describe why one player is better than another, besides the fact that one averages 8.7 yards per attempt and another averages 7.9. That’s never been true with Kyler or Tua, two one-of-a-kind quarterbacks who play differently than everybody else in the sport. But individuality doesn’t guarantee pro success. (Tim Tebow was a unique quarterback!) Sunday showed that Kyler and Tua can be equally successful and irreplicable. As exciting as it was to watch Kyler and Tua play Sunday, I’m more excited thinking about all the future Sundays I’ll get to watch them play.
Loser: The 10-Man Lions
Dalvin Cook is a fantasy football inferno. After having 226 scrimmage yards and four touchdowns last week against the Packers, he had 252 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns on Sunday against the Lions. Cook now leads the NFL in both rushing yards (858) and touchdowns (12), which is particularly impressive considering he’s played seven games while most of his competition has played nine.
But the Lions didn’t exactly put 11 superstar defenders on the field to stop Cook. In fact, they didn’t even always put 11 defenders on the field period. On a 70-yard Cook touchdown run in the fourth quarter, the Lions only had 10 guys on the field.
Guys, you're not going to believe this, but on Cook's 70-yard TD, Lions had 10 men on the field. pic.twitter.com/bEG5m5QSFq— Justin Rogers (@Justin_Rogers) November 8, 2020
You get called for a penalty if you have too many players on the field; you merely get called a dumbass if you have too few. Which means that Lions coach Matt Patricia has been getting called a dumbass a lot lately. The same thing happened last week in a blowout loss to the Colts … only in that game, it happened twice.
This feels like picking at an old sore for Lions fans. Late in the 2017 season, Detroit had two important plays when they didn’t field the right number of defenders. One came in a Thanksgiving game against the Vikings when they allowed a touchdown with just 10 guys on the field; it happened again the next week, but they had only nine. This was viewed as a sign that head coach Jim Caldwell was generally incompetent, and when general manager Bob Quinn fired him a month later, Quinn brought up those two plays in his press conference. “It’s something that will get straightened out,” Quinn said.
Supposedly, he straightened it out by hiring Patricia, who had just lost a Super Bowl in which his Patriots defense allowed 373 yards to the Eagles’ backup quarterback. But nope: Three seasons later, Detroit still can’t send the right amount of players onto the field.
Quinn didn’t trust Caldwell to run the Lions, but I wouldn’t trust Patricia to microwave a burrito without setting off a nuclear reaction. Caldwell was the only Detroit coach since the 1970s to have a winning record with the team, while Patricia is 12-27-1. Caldwell made the playoffs twice in four years with the Lions; I feel confident in saying Patricia could be the Lions coach from now until 2030 without making the playoffs. Caldwell was a former offensive coordinator who currently worked with the Dolphins’ surprisingly good quarterbacks last season; Patricia is a former defensive coordinator who hypothetically should know how to design defenses with the right amount of players.
With Caldwell, the Lions were outmatched when they didn’t have enough players on the field; with Patricia, the Lions are outmatched all the time—and sometimes they also don’t have the right number of players on the field.
Loser: Tampa Tom and the NFC South
During Tom Brady’s run with the Patriots, it was always tough to tell whether he coasted to the playoffs every year because of the ineptitude of the AFC East, or whether Brady’s brilliance broke the brains of his divisional competition and caused them to be inept year after year. Like, sure, the Washington Generals make the Harlem Globetrotters look good by losing every game, but believe it or not, the Harlem Globetrotters will play you in 5-on-5 with refs and kick your ass. (In 2003, the ’Trotters whooped defending NCAA champions Syracuse in an exhibition game; they haven’t repeated the feat because the next year, the NCAA banned teams from playing the Globetrotters.) For Tom Brady, the AFC East was like a whole division of Generals. In 19 years in the AFC East, Brady never lost two games to a divisional opponent in the same season, and never had to open the postseason on the road. And when you don’t have to open the playoff on the road, life is a lot easier.
But now Brady is Tampa Tom, and he plays with the Buccaneers, which gives him an opportunity to prove that his successes weren’t just powered by the Pats (and their inept opponents). It also set up twice-yearly matchups with Drew Brees, the man Brady is battling for the all-time touchdown record.
Sunday night was supposed to be a classic between these two legendary quarterbacks. Instead, it was the most aggressive ass-kicking of the NFL season—and of Brady’s 20-year career. Before Sunday night, Brady had never trailed at any point of any game by more than 31 points. But in this contest, Brady threw three interceptions as the Buccaneers fell into a 38-0 hole. It was historic for enough reasons that I’m gonna stop trying to make them into a paragraph and just do bullet points. It was:
- The worst loss of Brady’s career (35 points—before that, he had never lost by more than 31)
- The biggest loss of the NFL season (35 points—before that it was the Browns’ 32-point loss to the Ravens in Week 1)
- The fewest rushing attempts by any team in NFL history (five, since the Buccaneers were trying to catch up by throwing all night)
- The third-worst QB rating of Brady’s career
- The first game in which Brady threw multiple interceptions with no touchdowns since 2009
- The most receivers from one team ever to catch passes in one game (12 different Saints, becoming just the third team to do so in the last 30 years)
- The second-saddest shutout-breaking field goal in NFL history (the Buccaneers kicked a field goal down 38-0; two teams have kicked field goals down 41-0)
Not to mention, Brees took over first place on the all-time passing touchdowns leaderboard and now leads 564-561.
Brady entered Sunday night having a remarkably successful year. Before Brady, every 43-year-old quarterback in NFL history had thrown a combined 22 touchdown passes; Brady threw 20 in eight games. He’d thrown only four picks and was outperforming many of his career rate stats. He wasn’t playing the best ball of his life, but he wasn’t far off, which was absolutely stunning for a guy in year 20. Then came Sunday night.
The Bucs have now lost three times this year, and two have been double-digit defeats at the hands of the Saints. New Orleans now has a half-game lead in the NFC South race, but functionally, it’s a game and a half—thanks to the season sweep, the Saints win the division if the teams tie. Brady thought he could establish a new legacy with a new team, and maybe he will. But he also moved into a neighborhood where he no longer has the biggest house. He might be able to win, but he’ll have to do it without the structural advantages that were baked into his old life.
Winner: The AAF
Before Week 9, it was getting really tough to tell just how bad the Cowboys were. They started the year by failing to cover the spread in each of their first eight games, the first team since 2003 (and just the third in NFL history) to start the year 0-8 ATS. Basically, no team in NFL history had underperformed expectations like these Cowboys. Their few wins came by slim margins against the NFL’s worst teams, and that was before their superstar QB Dak Prescott got injured. After Dak went down, they got blown out by increasingly bad teams while starting increasingly bad quarterbacks. Sunday’s matchup with the Steelers seemed certain to bring Dallas’s biggest embarrassment ever: Pittsburgh was 7-0, the last undefeated team in the NFL. And the Cowboys had benched last week’s starting QB, developmental prospect Ben DiNucci, and were deciding whether to start Garrett Gilbert or Cooper Rush.
They chose Gilbert, a journeyman’s journeyman, who is most famous for a relief appearance in the 2010 BCS Championship Game, when he was forced into action as an untested freshman due to an injury to Colt McCoy. He threw four interceptions in that game, an ugly 37-21 loss to Alabama. He later transferred to SMU; was drafted by the Rams in 2014; won the 2015 Super Bowl (kind of) while on the Patriots’ practice squad; was signed and cut by the Lions and Raiders without ever stepping foot on the field, then threw three passes for the Panthers.
His breakthrough came in the Alliance of American Football, which you may remember as a league which launched and folded in the spring of 2019. (Not the XFL—believe it or not, that was earlier this year.) The AAF didn’t complete its first season, but Gilbert was its star. He led the league in passing yardage for the Orlando Apollos, who “won” the league’s championship. (Head coach Steve Spurrier decided they should be champions because they had the best record when the league folded, and nobody really put up much of a fight. They made rings! Well, one ring, for coach Spurrier.)
Only a handful of AAF products have managed to land on NFL rosters. The most prominent, by far, is Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo; others include Eagles WR Greg Ward and Browns RB D’Ernest Johnson. Besides Gilbert, there’s only one other AAF quarterback in the NFL, Rams third-stringer John Wolford. But the league served as an opportunity for a forgotten benchwarmer to prove what he could do if given reps. So Sunday, six years after getting drafted, Gilbert made the first start of his NFL career. And in his grand return to Texas, he played the best game by any non-Dak Cowboy this year, throwing for 243 yards and a touchdown.
The Cowboys held a 19-9 lead over the Steelers at the start of the fourth quarter. Sure, they blew it by giving up 15 unanswered fourth-quarter points. But for the first time this year, they beat the spread, losing 24-19 as 14-point underdogs. The Cowboys have Gilbert to thank for their first cover of the season, and they wouldn’t have signed Gilbert if he hadn’t thrived two years ago in the AAF. I feel like finally beating the spread is the spiritual equivalent of being champion of a league that never completed its season.
Loser: The Perma-Cursed Chargers
Both the Raiders and Chargers have been outscored by exactly 11 points over the course of this season. But after Las Vegas won the teams’ matchup on Sunday, the Raiders moved to 5-3, while the Chargers fell to 2-6. Los Angeles (that’s the Chargers, by the way, not the Raiders) has now lost six games this season by a single score.
The Chargers lost to the Super Bowl champion Chiefs by three points in overtime; they lost to the Saints, who were tied for the best record in the NFC last year, by three points in overtime; they led in the fourth quarter against the then NFC South–leading Buccaneers, but eventually lost by seven. And when they weren’t losing to good teams by close margins, they were losing to bad teams by close margins. They lost to the Panthers by five, and last week, they lost to the Broncos by one on a last-second touchdown. They got swagged on by Drew Lock, whose swag levels are very questionable.
But Sunday might have been their most crushing defeat of the year. Trailing 31-26, the Chargers got the ball to the goal line with five seconds to go. Justin Herbert then threw a perfect fade to Mike Williams, who seemed to catch it—but when he crashed to the ground, the ball popped out and Williams knocked his head on the ground.
Mike Williams with tremendous effort on this but he smokes his head on the ground. Hope he’s alright. pic.twitter.com/LQLeLTNjhY— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) November 9, 2020
For a second, it looked like the Chargers had finally won. And then it became clear that one of their best players was lying motionless on the ground. Euphoria transformed to grave concern, though Williams would eventually walk off under his own power. Then, with one second remaining, the Chargers had one last chance to win the game.
Herbert threw another perfect fade, this time to Donald Parham Jr., an undrafted tight end out of Stetson. At first, Parham appeared to make a spectacular game-winning catch:
He went down with the ball, and he came up with the ball. The first replay looked like a catch. The second replay looked like a catch. The third replay looked like a catch. And then the Fox crew showed a side angle that revealed the ball slammed into the ground beneath Parham’s body, and the call was overturned. The Chargers seemed to have won twice on two incredible Herbert passes; instead they watched a teammate suffer an upsetting injury and saw their fate sealed.
The Chargers’ ability to lose close games is bordering on unbelievable. Fans of this team should be excited, because Herbert looks like the real deal. Early results show him as the best of the four quarterbacks picked in the first round of last year’s draft—and the others have been pretty good. (Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa are good at football, Jordan Love is good at telling Aaron Rodgers he’s doing a great job in all those funny commercials.) But they’re 2-6. The Chargers’ six losses have come by a combined 24 points; meanwhile the Browns have lost games by 32 and 31 points and are in the fight for the playoffs.
Unfortunately, this is nothing new for the Chargers. Since entering the NFL in 1970, the Chargers are second in the league in one-possession losses, behind just the Lions, a team that has lost significantly more total games. (Their yearslong quest to put the correct amount of players on the field has not helped.) Thanks to their six one-possession losses this season, the Chargers have stormed into first place on the close-loss leaderboard since 2010—in spite of the fact that they’ve actually been relatively successful since 2010, with just four losing seasons. Most years, they lose only a handful games, and those games are generally close calls. The Most Chargers Season is a year when they go 9-7 with five one-possession losses and miss the playoffs despite having a winning record—this happened in both 2010 and 2017.
This year is different, I suppose—because they’re losing a lot of games, and they’re all close. At this point, a playoff run is impossible, so the Chargers should instead try to go 2-14 with 14 one-score losses. They’ll be confident they have the quarterback of their future, and will be able to use another high pick on somebody else. And maybe they’ll finally rid themselves of the Chargers curse.
Winner: The Jaguars’ Sixth-Round Pac-12 Quarterback Machine
Jacksonville QB Gardner Minshew missed Sunday’s game against the Texans with a thumb injury. (He actually suffered the injury in October, but failed to inform the coaching staff until Sunday—a shocking lack of injury honesty from a man who once tried to get drunk and smash his hand with a hammer so he could get a medical redshirt.) After trading away Nick Foles in the offseason, the Jaguars didn’t really have a solid backup option. So they were stuck with Jake Luton, a rookie picked in the sixth round of this past year’s NFL draft, who went 8-15 at Oregon State.
And guess what? Luton almost won the Jags the damn game. He threw a 73-yard touchdown on his second NFL pass:
And with the Jags trailing by eight late, the 6-foot-6 Luton had a genuinely spectacular touchdown run:
This TD run might be the least probable thing to happen in the NFL this season. In three years at Oregon State, Luton had negative-204 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown. (Just so we’re clear, he didn’t literally run backward—sacks count against quarterbacks’ rushing totals in college.) In his first NFL game, he got in the end zone, stiff-arming Texans linebacker Jonathan Greenard and hitting cornerback Keion Crossen with a video game spin move. (Crossen has preliminarily been ruled out of next week’s matchup with the Browns with “severe embarrassment.”) Luton finished the game with 304 passing yards and two touchdowns—one passing, one running. That’s the eighth-most passing yards by any NFL player in their debut, just ahead of Peyton Manning (302) and Patrick Mahomes (284).
On the one hand, it seems ridiculous to suggest that the Jaguars should consider an open QB competition between Luton and Minshew. Minshew has established himself as an NFL starter over the last two seasons, while Luton is just some sixth-round rookie out of a Pac-12 school who had a surprisingly good debut. On the other hand—last year, Gardner Minshew was just some sixth-round rookie out of a Pac-12 school who had a surprisingly good debut. (Minshew went 22-for-25 for 275 yards Week 1 last season.) Jags fans have gotten attached to Minshew, but according to NFL evaluators, there’s no reason to believe Minshew should be significantly better than Luton.
Not every unheralded QB prospect can step in and succeed. We all saw Ben DiNucci play last week, right? Clearly the Jags have a knack for scouting late-round QB prospects—specifically, sixth-rounders out of the Pac-12. So if you see a Jags scout checking out [quickly Googles 2020 Pac-12 statistics] Colorado’s Sam Noyer, you can book it—he’s gonna be an NFL stud.
Loser: Stampede Victim Philip Rivers
Philip Rivers has turned one of the strangest throwing motions in football history into a 17-year NFL career and a top-10 spot on many all-time passing leaderboards. He also sometimes turns a gawky, seemingly unathletic body into a damn torpedo when he gets mad at someone who intercepts his passes. In 2017, he dropped Jaguars cornerback A.J. Bouye at the goal line to prevent a pick-six; in 2010, as the last man back against the Cowboys, he delivered a textbook hit and smacked the ball away from the Dallas defender. He honestly might have better tackling form than throwing form.
On Sunday, Rivers once again found himself the last man back against a defender roaming toward the end zone. After a fumble by running back Jonathan Taylor, Rivers got in perfect position to stop Ravens safety Chuck Clark on a runback. But Rivers lost his footing, fell, and wound up on his back. Clark hurdled him and scored.
In a vacuum, this tackle attempt is one of the most pathetic things I’ve ever seen on an NFL field. Not “pathetic” as in “extremely poor quality,” but “pathetic” as in “inspiring pity.” Rivers throws his arms up in an attempt to trip Clark up, but arms aren’t as strong as legs. Clark easily powers past him.
Rivers fully deflates when he realizes he has failed. It looks like a “before” and “after” for one of the beaten-up old cars that gets driven over by monster trucks at a monster truck rally. Rivers does have an oddly successful history of getting stops in these scenarios, but Sunday, he looked like Mufasa trying to stop that wildebeest stampede.