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 Jets’ Tank
We best understand greatness when it is tested. Hypothetically, the best team ever should win every game by huge margins. But we don’t remember the time Michael Jordan and the Bulls beat the Jazz 96-54. We remember the time the Bulls would have lost if it wasn’t for Jordan getting a steal and hitting a last-second game-winning shot. We remember the moment when he needed brilliance, and that moment when he dug deep and proved he was the best.
Similarly, Sunday’s game will be the way we remember the campaign of the 2020 New York Jets, the losing machine that’s en route to becoming the third NFL team ever to go 0-16. We won’t remember them for their biggest losses—the time they gave up 37 points to the Broncos’ backup QB; the time Sam Darnold had two pick-sixes and a safety against the Colts; the time they got outscored 44-3 in two games against the Dolphins. We’ll remember them for Sunday, when they were seconds away from beating the potentially playoff-bound Raiders, but instead dug deep and proved they were the worst.
The 0-11 Jets played stunningly well on Sunday. Sam Darnold threw more touchdowns than interceptions for the second time all season (it’s Week 13). Running back Ty Johnson, who had just 60 rushing yards on the season, had 104 yards and his first career touchdown. Cornerback Arthur Maulet intercepted Derek Carr, the Jets’ first pick since Week 6 (it’s Week 13). And New York had a season-high 376 yards on offense.
Because of all that, the Jets somehow led 28-24 in the game’s closing seconds. Las Vegas had the ball around midfield with no timeouts, meaning they essentially had only one way of winning: a game-winning touchdown pass. Instead of continuing their top-notch play, though, the Jets somehow let a receiver get open in the end zone—but Derek Carr overthrew Nelson Agholor on what would’ve been a game-winning touchdown.
It’s ridiculously embarrassing that the Jets let Agholor get open over the top. Letting a receiver get open in the end zone was the only way they could lose. A field goal would do nothing, and any play stopped short of the goal line would end the game. How could they possibly fail in that specific way when it was the only way they could lose?
Then, on the next play, they let it happen again. This time, Carr connected with Henry Ruggs III for a game-winning 46-yard touchdown:
The only thing the Jets couldn’t do was get beaten over the top—and they did. But they didn’t just get beaten over the top: They were playing a defense that was especially vulnerable to getting beaten over the top. At the snap, New York blitzed seven defenders, with an eighth watching the running back and joining the pass rush when the running back stayed in to block. That left just three defenders deep, all in man-to-man coverage. On a play when the Jets could lose only via a deep completion, they did not play a deep safety to aid in pass coverage. Here are the Dots, which really allow you to see how baffling the coverage was:
Raiders-save-the-Jets-from-themselves dots! pic.twitter.com/6TVUA6kmq2— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) December 6, 2020
It’s one thing to want to send some pressure in a Hail Mary situation—otherwise, the quarterback has all day to pass. But the Jets sent the damn house. They called the play I used to call in Madden when I was 12 because I didn’t have time for things like “strategy.” ESPN determined that the Jets were the first team ever to send six or more rushers in a situation where their opponent had 40-plus yards to the end zone and needed a last-second score. The NFL noted that the Jets were the first team all season to send eight pass rushers within the last 30 seconds of a game, in any situation.
The play call left rookie cornerback Lamar Jackson in single coverage against Ruggs. Ruggs was picked in the first round of April’s NFL draft after running a 4.27-second 40-yard dash. Jackson was completely undrafted in all seven rounds. Entering Sunday, Jackson had been targeted 27 times on the season, allowing 20 catches for 295 yards and three touchdowns with one pass breakup and no interceptions. (That’s a 146.4 passer rating.) Pro Football Focus graded Jackson 104th among 132 eligible cornerbacks in pass coverage. He is, notably, the second-best player in the league named “Lamar Jackson.” With all due respect to Adrian N. Peterson, that’s a bad sign.
After the game, Jets safety Marcus Maye openly complained about the play call:
Marcus Maye with some criticism of Gregg Williams' call that led to the go-ahead TD by the Raiders:— Jets Videos (@snyjets) December 6, 2020
"That situation, just has to be a better call. We gotta execute, but you gotta help us out at the same time" pic.twitter.com/pX9o8lqTO8
This is a complaint about defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who historically has a thing for overly aggressive blitzes and was also the defensive coordinator for the last team that went 0-16, the 2017 Cleveland Browns. Williams didn’t get fired after that campaign in Cleveland, though—he was put in charge as interim head coach when the Browns decided to move on from Hue Jackson. Maybe Williams is angling to be next up if the Jets move on from 0-12 Adam Gase. I don’t really think Williams is dialing up coverages with hopes of becoming the Jets’ next interim head coach, but … what other explanation is there? This is literally the worst possible play call in this situation!
Michael Jordan hit that shot over Bryon Russell, and the Jets put a rookie cornerback with a history of failure on an island against one of the NFL’s fastest players in a situation when the team could lose only by allowing a deep touchdown. I guess the Jets could’ve really proved their crappiness by losing by 50, but only by allowing this touchdown did they show their true talent for losing.
Loser: The NFL’s Replay System
Tyreek Hill scored a touchdown in nine of the Chiefs’ first 11 games this year, including three last week. It seems impossible to keep the speedster out of the end zone, but somehow, the Broncos did it Sunday night—kind of. On one play, Hill backflipped into the end zone, but it was called back due to a penalty. (It was for holding, not the fact that he can’t actually stick the landing on a backflip.) And on another play, Hill caught a touchdown … but nobody realized it.
The second-quarter pass hit Hill in the hands, but he bobbled it. The ball bounced off cornerback A.J. Bouye’s helmet, up into the air, off Hill’s helmet, then off of his shoulder pad, before coming to rest between Hill’s hand and his shoulder. It was a miraculous set of bounces and clearly would have been ruled a touchdown upon review. (Like, there are so many ruled touchdown catches that are much more questionable than this one.) But Hill assumed that no miracle had taken place. Remember, this is a guy who backflips for touchdowns that he knows are coming back on holding penalties—he would’ve done something if he thought this was a TD. And so the Chiefs didn’t challenge the ruling of an incomplete pass and punted on the next play
So Kansas City left seven points on the field. But of course, they brought this upon themselves. For some reason, the Chiefs were in a real rush to punt from their own 36-yard line, snapping the ball with nine seconds left on the play clock instead of holding off to see whether they had scored a touchdown.
But the bigger problem here is that an NFL team scored a touchdown that didn’t count. The refs missed the call on the field, and nobody corrected them. There’s a mechanism in place to make sure no team ever gets a touchdown that shouldn’t count—all scoring plays are reviewed—but no mechanism to make sure all touchdowns count. For all other plays, the coaches are in charge of throwing a challenge flag, which is kinda strange. An assistant coach up in the booth tells the head coach what just happened on the field, and the head coach takes a brief break from calling plays to become his team’s Head Lawyer and issue an objection.
There is a more accurate system possible, though, and it’s staring the league right in the face. The NFL already has a replay official in charge of every game. Currently they’re only allowed to call for plays to be reviewed in the final two minutes of every half and all of overtime. But why not have them take over the whole thing? The fear is that if replay officials were in charge of the entire game, they would extend games unnecessarily by calling for reviews of meaningless plays—by giving teams just two challenge flags, the coaches have to decide which plays are actually worth reviewing.
But everybody watching on TV knew that Hill caught this pass before the Chiefs punted the ball away. Why isn’t there a way for replay officials to quickly overturn obviously wrong calls? Why do we have the most accurate system for four minutes per game, and 56 minutes of a minigame where coaches decide which miscarriages of football justice are worth fighting?
The Chiefs beat the Broncos 22-16, because they’re generally good enough to leave a touchdown on the field and still win. But football is also about more than football: The Chiefs were favored by 13, and won by six, and didn’t get credit for this seven-point touchdown that they scored. And surely, somebody out there failed to qualify for next week’s fantasy football playoffs because of this play. Actually, that’s pretty funny and I’m OK with it.
Winner: The Giants’ NFC East–Leading Defense
The Giants were without starting quarterback Daniel Jones on Sunday after he strained his hamstring last week. So they started Colt McCoy, the same Colt McCoy who took over at starting QB for Texas after Vince Young won the national championship in 2005. McCoy had lost his last six NFL starts dating back to 2014, and going up against the Seahawks seemed like a guaranteed L. Seattle was 8-3 and on top of the NFL’s best division, the NFC West, while the Giants were hanging onto a slim, sad lead on top of the NFL’s worst division, the NFC East. Could the old gun somehow prove good enough to win games in the NFL?
Not really! McCoy went 13-for-22 for 105 yards with a touchdown and a pick. (The one touchdown was to Alfred Morris, to complete the entire 2014 Washington Experience.) But the Giants still won because they shut down one of the most effective offenses in the NFL. Seattle entered the game averaging 31.0 points per game, the third most in the league. But on Sunday, they scored 12 points, their fewest of the season. And really, the offense was only responsible for 10 of those points—two came on a safety after a blocked punt. The Giants won the game with just 100 passing yards (tied for the fourth fewest of any team in any win this season) and 17 points (tied for the fifth fewest of any team in any game this season). New York managed to sack Russell Wilson five times and forced him into two turnovers, a pick and a lost fumble.
We make fun of the bedraggled NFC East a lot, but after Sunday’s games, it actually kind of feels like the division’s current leader deserves to be there. The Giants defense is good enough to win games in spite of a hampered offense, even when they’re playing one of the league’s better teams. The Giants are 5-7—a modestly respectable record!—and earned the division’s best win of the season. FiveThirtyEight now gives them a 69 percent chance to win the NFC East. And honestly? With a defense like this, I could see them potentially winning a playoff game.
Loser: JK Scott, the NFL’s Worst Tackler
Who is the worst hitter in all of baseball? You probably want to say it’s your favorite team’s backup catcher who hit .184 with one home run last year. But it’s not. It’s actually some American League pitcher who hasn’t swung a bat since he was in high school and if actually allowed to hit would look like a drunk uncle trying to ruin an 8-year-old’s birthday party by taking swings at the piñata.
Who is the worst tackler in all of football? You probably want to say it’s your team’s cornerback who keeps letting receivers break free and pick up a ton of yards after the catch. But it’s not. Baseball keeps its worst hitters away from the plate, and football generally keeps its worst tacklers from ever having to tackle. But after Sunday, I feel pretty confident in saying that the NFL’s worst tackler is Packers punter JK Scott.
The Packers beat the Eagles 30-16 on Sunday, but it probably should’ve been 30-10. Midway through the fourth quarter, with Green Bay up 13, Eagles first-round draft pick Jalen Reagor returned a Scott punt 73 yards for a touchdown. Although Reagor initially bobbled the kick, he zoomed past the Green Bay coverage unit and nobody really got a good shot at him—except for Scott. Scott had Reagor one-on-one near the end zone with a chance to be a hero, but he got juked and stiff-armed before Reagor tiptoed into the end zone.
Reagor’s touchdown was just the fourth punt returned for a score this year—and one of the other three was also against the Packers. In Week 10, Jacksonville visited Green Bay and Jaguars receiver Keelan Cole made Scott look like a CPU character in NBA Street Vol. 2.
Maybe Scott is kicking the ball too far and too low. Maybe the Packers’ coverage unit is to blame. But regardless, Scott keeps ending up one-on-one with returners—and he keeps letting them score.
You’re probably thinking Scott is totally overmatched out there—he’s some slow, dopey punter going up against a speedster wide receiver. LOL, punters, right? But punters are more athletic than you think. Reagor ran the three-cone drill at the combine in 7.31 seconds and ran the 20-yard shuttle in 4.46 seconds. Scott was actually faster at both, running the three-cone in 7.28 seconds and the shuttle in 4.41 seconds. He’s more agile than Reagor, and taller and heavier. He just has no idea how to tackle, and he let the guys with the ball make the first move both times.
Scott supposedly had two tackles back in 2018, and he gave an interview while at Alabama explaining that he wasn’t afraid to make tackles. But I dunno—he looked pretty afraid out there on Sunday. Scott is now responsible for half of the punt-return touchdowns in the NFL this season. Try to make a play! It’s better than getting juked again!
Winner: The Cleveland Browns and the Comfortable Lead
When you’re a fan of a bad team, you don’t get excited when your team is up big. Instead, you start thinking about how they could screw up. There are some leads, though, that are so big it’s virtually impossible to blow them. The line here is about 30 points. Think about how ridiculous the Patriots’ 25-point Super Bowl comeback was—then think about how much harder it would’ve been if the Pats needed another score to win it. In NFL history, only one team has ever blown a 30-point lead, and that team, the Houston Oilers, doesn’t even exist anymore.
On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns took a 38-7 lead over the Tennessee Titans, thanks to four first-half touchdown passes by Baker Mayfield. And after that, nothing mattered. The Browns were outscored 28-3 the rest of the way, allowing four touchdowns while managing a measly field goal—but it wasn’t enough to blow a 31-point lead. Just about nothing is.
It must have been an odd sensation for Browns fans. Sure, there was probably some part of their brains that was worried about the team losing, but even having a lead that big had to be disorienting. Before Sunday, the Browns hadn’t led a game by 30 points since 2003—back when Kelly Holcomb was the QB, and Baker Mayfield was in grade school.
After finding that stat, I got curious whether the Browns had held the longest 30-point lead drought in the NFL. Sure enough, they did—by a decade. Six teams (excluding the Browns) have led games by 30 points this year; 15 teams have done it in the past two years; 27 have done it since 2016. The Dolphins, Raiders, and Washington did it most recently in 2015, and the Buccaneers’ most recent 30-point lead was in 2013. So before Sunday, 31 of the NFL’s 32 teams had held a 30-point lead within the past eight seasons—and the Browns hadn’t done it in seventeen years.
The Browns are a good team now. They’re 9-3, meaning they will finish above .500 for the first time since 2007, and they’ll probably make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. They lead the NFL in rushing, and their quarterback sometimes looks good. They can even sometimes take leads so big that it’s not possible to blow them.
Loser: Carson Wentz’s Shot at History
I was really enjoying watching Carson Wentz this year, because I’m not an Eagles fan. Wentz was in the running to lead the NFL in the Triple Frown of Quarterbacking: interceptions, sacks, and fumbles. (To the best of my knowledge, Blake Bortles is the only person to ever actually take home the Triple Frown.) Entering Sunday, Wentz led the league in the first two categories and was just a fumble away from tying Derek Carr for the league lead in the last. Then, after Wentz got sacked for the 50th time in the season on Sunday, I started to believe there was a real shot that Wentz would eventually break the all-time sacks record of 76 set by David Carr in 2002. (Why won’t the Carrs let Wentz be great?)
But unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like we’ll get a chance to see Wentz fart his way to glory. After the Eagles fell into a 23-3 hole behind Wentz’s early performance (6-for-15 for 79 yards), they turned to backup quarterback Jalen Hurts. Hurts got the Eagles their first touchdown of the day (and the first of his career) a few plays later on a 32-yard pass to Greg Ward:
I hate to get technical here with football terminology, but I’ve noticed something this year: While Jalen Hurts is “good” at playing quarterback, Carson Wentz is “bad.” (Sometimes you’ll hear analysts say that Wentz “sucks ass” or “is trash”—these are also advanced football terms.) Hurts had 104 net yards on 15 dropbacks; Wentz had 57 net yards on 19 dropbacks. Hurts also ran for 29 yards, nearly making him Philly’s leading rusher on the day.
The Eagles’ offensive line is disastrous—they’ve had a lot of injuries, leading to rugby convert Jordan Mailata playing left tackle and Jason Peters playing with a broken toe (poorly). So of course Hurts—who ran for more yards in his senior season at Oklahoma (1,298) than Wentz did in his entire college career at NDSU (1,028 yards)—is better suited to play when there are rushers in the backfield on every play. He can actually avoid getting tackled, while Wentz is historically good at getting sacked and fumbling.
The Eagles will surely start Hurts going forward—which sadly will prevent Wentz from achieving his dreams of making history. But that’s why the Triple Frown is such a coveted prize: It’s hard to suck this bad and play for 16 games without teams finding somebody better to play.
Winner: Fighter Brian Flores
Last year’s Dolphins-Bengals game looked like it would be the Tank Bowl between a pair of teams that started the season on tremendous losing streaks. But Dolphins head coach Brian Flores didn’t give up on the season, leading his team to a 5-11 finish after its 0-7 start. Flores got his team on the right track, and this year, Dolphins-Bengals looked like a matchup between a team bound for the playoffs and a doomed squad with nothing to play for. The Dolphins are 8-4; the Bengals are 2-9-1. So the most interesting parts of the game were a pair of fights.
In the first half, Tyler Boyd and Xavien Howard were ejected over an extremely minor tussle that barely deserved to be called a fracas. (Tussle and fracas are on the lower end of NFL fight words.) But later, the teams got involved in a full-on donnybrook after an illegal hit on punt returner Jakeem Grant. Right in the middle of the brouhaha? None other than Flores, who is young and athletic enough that he put big hits on somehow-still-active NFL player Frank Gore in college. (Donnybrook and brouhaha are on the high end of NFL fight words.) Flores was one of the first people to cross the field and get in the Bengals’ faces about the incident. In fact, he was so fired up that he needed to be restrained by Bengals staffers.
benches are clearing after another dirty hit on jakeem grant pic.twitter.com/O91L0cBNWA— josh houtz (@houtz) December 6, 2020
“I’m going to stick up for my players,” Flores said after the game. “These are like my kids.” His players clearly appreciate it: “He’s not just a coach out there,” said quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Grant’s agent tweeted, “I know how Jakeem feels about him, and after something like this, it’ll only reinforce that.”
Two defensive coaches from the latter end of the Patriots’ dynasty have been hired as head coaches elsewhere. One was former New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who was hired as head coach of the Lions in 2018 and fired last week. Patricia’s teams turned out to be terrible on defense—this season, Patricia’s third in charge, the unit ranks 31st in points allowed. Perhaps more notable: His players hated him. Kalyn Kahler of Bleacher Report detailed how Patricia made a point of criticizing players in front of their teammates for dumb stuff like their social media posts, and that his players celebrated the end of the 2018 season by drinking locker room mimosas.
Flores, on the other hand, has reshaped the Dolphins as a defensive powerhouse. He was never New England’s DC, but served as New England’s defensive play-caller after Patricia left, and he helped hold the Rams to three points in Super Bowl LIII. This season, Miami is second in the league in points allowed, and its 19-7 win against the Bengals was the third time it held their opponents to less than 10 points this season. Plus, Flores’s players seem to genuinely love him. When Patricia was fired, former Lions players celebrated on Twitter. (The Lions came back from a 10-point deficit to win their first game without Patricia on Sunday.) When Flores went across the field to fight the Bengals, at least one former Miami player sang his praises. “I’m not gonna get into my time as a Dolphin,” said 49ers long snapper Taybor Pepper, who played for Miami last year, “but what I will say is that Coach Flo will pop the trunk on anyone for his guys. Much respect for Flores, always.”
We’re now not only learning that Flores was the brains behind the Patriots’ defenses that won a few Super Bowls—we’re learning that NFL teams might play better for coaches they actually respect. And I imagine a lot more players respect Flores after he stood up for his team on Sunday.
Loser: Chargers Special Teams
The good news is that the Chargers didn’t lose a close game Sunday. After having a negative-42 point differential over their first eight losses, they fell 45-0 to the Patriots on Sunday, the largest loss by any team all season. Everything was bad: Justin Herbert had just 209 passing yards on 53 attempts, and threw two interceptions. (Also no touchdowns—remember the whole “45-0” thing?) The defense, meanwhile, allowed the Patriots to run for 165 yards and two touchdowns.
But somehow, L.A.’s worst unit on Sunday was special teams. In this game, the Patriots became the first team all season to score two special teams touchdowns in one contest. The first was a 70-yard punt return touchdown by Gunner Olszewski, the first touchdown of the former Bemidji State cornerback’s career. (He also had a receiving touchdown in the game, because Bill Belichick doesn’t let former Bemidji State cornerbacks get complacent after one touchdown.)
Gunner Olszewski with the punt return for a touchdown .— Pats Buzz (@PatsBuzz) December 6, 2020
This time it’s not called back due to a penalty. pic.twitter.com/YsHtujZxmh
The second was a blocked field goal for a touchdown, the first blocked field goal returned for a score all season.
Part of the reason for this lopsidedness is that the Patriots are consistently great at special teams. Their last two kickers are two of the best of all time, they had two blocked punt returns for touchdowns last year, and they have the world’s only famous special teamer in Matthew Slater. But the other part is that the Chargers are consistently the worst at special teams. This isn’t an exaggeration: They’ve been last or second-to-last in special teams DVOA in five of the last 11 seasons:
Chargers special teams DVOA rank, by season:— Riley MaskAtee (@RileyMcAtee) December 6, 2020
A decade of nearly-uninterrupted abysmal performances
It’s really amazing stuff. The Chargers’ kicker, Michael Badgley, went 0-for-2 on field goals on Sunday and is now 17-for-24 on the year. That puts him second to last in the NFL in field goal percentage. He’s also hitting less than 90 percent of his extra points, which puts him 24th in the league. The Chargers have had three punts blocked on the year, more than any team in the NFL, and one was returned for a touchdown. But it’s not much better when punter Ty Long gets the kicks off—the Chargers are allowing 15.9 yards per punt return, the worst in the NFL. (Olszewski had three returns for 145 yards this week; 20 NFL teams have not allowed 145 total yards on punt returns yet entering Week 13.) The Chargers are also allowing 27.9 yards per kickoff return, the third worst in the NFL. Plus, they’re bad at returning kicks, ranking 26th and 23rd at punt and kickoff returns, respectively, entering the week. The sum of this is that the Chargers have the third-worst starting field position in the NFL (their own 26.3 yard line) and the fourth-worst opposing starting field position in the NFL (the opposing 32.3 yard line.)
The Chargers surely would’ve lost anyway Sunday—they allowed 31 points on non-special teams (regular teams?) and scored none. But the outsized role special teams played in this blowout draws attention to the way they lost all those close games.