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 1-Yard Line
The Patriots and Seahawks should play for a rivalry trophy, like college football teams, and that rivalry stick should be exactly 3 feet long. Because every time these two titans of the modern NFL square off, the game is decided by one team’s inability to get into the end zone from 1 yard away.
The famous instance, of course, is Super Bowl XLIX, when the Seahawks threw the ball from the 1-yard line and Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson, giving Tom Brady his pinky ring. But let’s not forget the 2016 meeting between these teams, when the Pats got the ball down to the 1-yard line but a fourth-down pass to Rob Gronkowski sailed over his head and fell incomplete.
Sunday night was another thriller between these two, easily the best game of Week 2. Russell Wilson tied a career high with five touchdown passes, but Cam Newton had 397 passing yards to keep New England in the game. (Julian Edelman recorded a career-high 179 receiving yards in just his second game with Newton after catching passes from Tom Brady for 11 years; Brady could not be reached for comment but is presumably close to unfollowing Edelman on Instagram.) It was a back-and-forth brawl, with styles making the fight. Wilson kept converting on deep bombs, throwing touchdowns of 18, 21, 38, and 54 yards; Newton kept getting the ball down to the 1-yard line and hammering it in, with two 1-yard rushing touchdowns and a 1-yard passing touchdown to his fullback.
Newton got the ball back with under two minutes to go trailing 35-30, and sure enough, he led his team down to the 1-yard line. There were 36 inches between victory and defeat, and boy, were those 36 inches haunted. The ghost of Malcolm Butler was chilling in a La-Z-Boy at the goal line; Gronk’s ghost was shotgunning a Four Loko in the end zone. (“When you’re a ghost,” screamed Ghost Gronk, “the carbonation doesn’t hurt!”) But nobody should be better at getting the ball in from the 1-yard line than Cam Newton—after all, he’d already done it three times on three tries Sunday.
The Patriots gave the ball to Newton … and he didn’t score:
It’s a spectacular defensive play from the Seahawks. About a second into the play, it looks like the Patriots have blocked a clear lane for Newton, but L.J. Collier, the team’s 2019 first-round pick, got off his block and submarined Newton, flipping Superman end over end. Some have questioned the Patriots’ decision to run, but the odds were with them. Before the play, Newton had 20 career carries from the 1-yard line and 16 touchdowns. Sure, some of those were probably scrambles, but most of the time Newton powers through. Sunday night, he couldn’t. There’s nobody on earth I’d trust more to get the ball in from the 1 than Newton—although I’m sure Boston fans are hollering about how Touchdown Tawmmy woulda snuck it in.
Whatever happens between these two teams, the ball always ends up 3 feet from the goal. And no matter who is in the game, no matter how skilled the teams are at scoring on the goal line, chaos reigns in those 3 feet. They should make that trophy—the Ol’ Brass Yardstick—and present it when these teams play again. They’re not supposed to meet for four years due to the NFL’s cross-conference scheduling, but hey—maybe they’ll be able to play for the Yardstick in February.
Loser: The Jets’ Aggressively Bad Run Defense
Hypothetically, the Jets’ run defense is their strength. Their strength can’t be their passing game, because three years in, Sam Darnold is still one of the 10 worst quarterbacks in the NFL. Their strength can’t be their running game, as the Jets finished dead last in yards per attempt in 2019 and had just 52 rushing yards in their season opener. It can’t be their passing defense, as they allowed Josh Allen to go for 312 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions Week 1. But supposedly, they have that run defense, which finished second in the NFL in yards per attempt allowed last year. We can debate how meaningful it is to be a team built around stopping the run in a league where passing is king later; for now, let’s just accept that hypothetically, the Jets’ run defense is their strength.
Sunday, the Jets’ run defense was gashed on two of the most embarrassing plays that will happen to any team all season. On the very first play of the game, they allowed this 80-yard touchdown run by Raheem Mostert.
This isn’t a trick play or exceptional scheming. It’s just about the most basic play any team could run, an RB sweep—“Student Body Right.” And the Jets were totally, completely unable to reckon with it. The Niners owned the line of scrimmage while their center, tight end, and fullback got to the second level to pick up Jets’ linebackers and secondary players. No Jets were able to get off of their blocks. Mostert was untouched. He hit the fastest speed by any ball carrier in two years on this play, according to the NFL’s tracking info. As it turns out, players can hit really high speeds when allowed to run in a straight line for 80 yards.
San Francisco took a 21-3 lead in the first half, while Mostert and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo suffered injuries. By the second half, the Niners were more or less content to run out the clock. And yet the Jets still struggled to stop a team without its starting quarterback and running back and with little interest in moving the ball. On third-and-31 in the third quarter, the Niners handed the ball off to Jerick McKinnon, just hoping to take 40 seconds off the clock and punt the ball away. Instead, McKinnon picked up 55 yards and a first down:
The Jets were damn sure they weren’t going to give up an 80-yard touchdown on a sweep again; instead, they overcommitted to defending the right half of the field, leaving the middle of the field almost entirely undefended. McKinnon cut back through a massive hole, beat one defender with a juke, and there was nobody else in between him and the first-down marker. On third-and-31. It’s only the second time in the Pro Football Reference database that a team has picked up a first down by running on third-and-30 or longer; nobody had done it since 1999. (I highly recommend that you watch the video of the first time it happened.)
The Jets lost 31-13. The Niners played this game without Pro Bowlers George Kittle, Richard Sherman, and Dee Ford, and then lost Garoppolo, Mostert, Nick Bosa, and Solomon Thomas—and still demolished the Jets. Hypothetically, the Jets’ run defense was a strength—but after giving up these two embarrassing gains on plays that should’ve been easy to defend, I feel pretty comfortable saying they don’t have any strengths.
Winner: The Cowboys’ Miraculous Onside Kick
Throw out the obits: The onside kick isn’t dead. Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys pulled off one of the finest onside kicks in the history of the game en route to a spectacular comeback after trailing by 20 points against the Falcons.
Atlanta scored the first 20 points, and led by 15 with eight minutes remaining. But Dak Prescott threw for 450 yards, most of which he accumulated in a furious comeback, and cut a 39-24 lead to 39-37 with under two minutes to go. That’s when Greg Zuerlein pulled off this absolute masterpiece of a kick, taken without a tee:
For most of the ball’s trajectory, it doesn’t look like it’s going to go 10 yards. The kicking team can’t recover the ball within 10 yards, so if the receiving team doesn’t think the ball will make it 10 yards, it’s not necessarily a great idea to attempt a recovery. After all, if they botch the recovery, the ball becomes live, and then the kicking team can recover it. And with the funky spin on the ball, it looks like it’s going to be hard to recover. The Falcons’ hands team is thinking they probably shouldn’t risk jumping on the ball—with that spin, they might fumble, and if it’s not going 10 yards, it’s not worth the risk.
But that spin didn’t just make a recovery difficult: It also enabled the ball to take a massive turn in its last few yards. It reminds me of this viral bocce shot. The ball starts out traveling toward the sideline but hooks and essentially travels vertically downfield. Soon, it has gone 10 yards, and the Falcons need to jump on it. But it’s too late.
The Falcons stood there staring at the ball like dweebs. The Falcons’ hands team has rightfully gotten plenty of flak for their complete and utter inaction.If any of these four players had just picked up the ball, the Falcons would have won. Instead, they stood slack-jawed as a slowly rolling ball befuddled them:
The Falcons just kept staring at that onside kick— SB Nation (@SBNation) September 20, 2020
... and the Cowboys recovered it! pic.twitter.com/MjzTWhqA2D
But let’s give this kick the credit it deserves. It’s ingenious: The same spin that makes it difficult to recover this kick makes it urgent that the receiving team try to recover it. Everything about the kick tells the receiving team to stay away, but they can’t. I can’t imagine how tough this kick is, even though Zuerlein made it look effortless.
When the NFL changed its kickoff rules in 2018 for safety reasons, it inadvertently made onside kicks much more difficult. But making things harder doesn’t make them impossible. It just means kickers have to be more clever and more skilled than ever before. A few years ago, I chronicled ways kickers were trying to get around the onside kick rules, including one no-tee approach that resembled this one. But Zuerlein’s was the cleverest and best-executed kick I’ve ever seen.
Winner: The NFL’s Choking Contest
Some NFL fans see their team take a big lead and realize that they’ve been blessed with a pleasant Sunday. Others see their team go up big and become filled with dread. Their brains have been so broken by failures past that they can’t even enjoy objectively enjoyable things. They see a big lead, and think: It’s happening again.
The no. 1 It’s Happening Again franchise in the NFL is the Atlanta Falcons. I’m not even sure Falcons fans even feel anything when their team starts blowing a big lead anymore—I think 28-3 inoculated them to any and all sports disappointment from here on out. You could hit a Falcons fan in the face with a shovel and the 28-3 antibodies running in their veins would protect them from the pain.
But Sunday was perhaps a more impressive loss, although obviously it took place on a smaller stage. The Falcons started the game by taking a 20-0 lead, and still led 39-24 with eight minutes to go. In those eight minutes, they gave up a touchdown, almost instantly punted, gave up another touchdown, failed to recover that onside kick, and then allowed a game-winning field goal drive in the two-minute drill. They are the first team in NFL history to score 39 points, commit zero turnovers, and lose. Before today, teams that did that were 440-0.
But the Detroit Lions are giving the Falcons a serious run for the It’s Happening Again crown. Last week, they blew a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter, sealed by D’Andre Swift’s baffling drop of a would-be game-winner in his debut. Sunday’s loss to the Packers wasn’t quite as painful—the final score was 42-21—but Detroit started off the game with back-to-back touchdowns. And after taking a 14-3 lead, they were outscored 39-7 and allowed Aaron Jones to go for 236 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns.
The Lions have now lost 11 in a row, which is embarrassing, but happens to NFL teams every once in a while. (It happened to these very Lions in 2008, and then some!) But what’s never happened before is that the Lions have now lost four straight games in which they had a double-digit lead. They took a 14-0 lead on the Packers in last year’s regular-season finale and lost 23-20, and had a 10-0 lead on the Broncos in Week 16 before losing 27-17. They are the first team in NFL history to have a double-digit lead in four straight games and lose them all.
The battle to be the NFL’s biggest chokers is on. Both the Falcons and Lions are 0-2, and probably going to miss the playoffs. (Yes, even two weeks into the season, we can say this with a pretty high degree of certainty.) And if they can’t be the best, why not be the best at something?
The Falcons are the most dramatic, explosive chokers; the Lions are the most consistent chokers (although the Swift drop last week was pretty dramatic and extravagant). The Falcons are the Patrick Mahomes of choking; the Lions are the Tom Brady of choking. They’ll go head-to-head Week 7. I fully expect both teams to blow multi-touchdown leads in a game that ends in a tie.
Winner: Stefon Diggs
Maybe you laughed at Stefon Diggs. The star wide receiver got fed up with the Vikings, where he’d put up back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, and demanded a trade—and Minnesota shipped him off to Buffalo. Tired of the cold weather and Kirk Cousins? Have fun with lake-effect snow and Josh Allen. Why not send him to Siberia to play with JaMarcus Russell?
But two games in, Diggs is thriving. He had several spectacular catches in Buffalo’s 31-28 win over the Dolphins to move the Bills to 2-0:
Diggs had 153 yards, the second most of any receiver in Week 2, and a touchdown. Diggs seems to have unlocked the best version of Allen: The third-year quarterback had his first 300-yard game in a victory over the Jets Week 1, and followed that up by throwing for 417 yards Sunday. He’s thrown for six touchdowns and no interceptions. As a member of the Buffalo-hating media, I can’t bring myself to say that Allen is actually good at quarterback, so I have to say something convoluted and weird like “Allen’s play is similar to that of a good quarterback.”
Meanwhile, Minnesota had 113 passing yards … total. Kirk Cousins had the worst game of his career, going 11-for-26 with no touchdowns and three interceptions.
Kirk Cousins throws an INT.pic.twitter.com/lHYp1RvBRD— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) September 20, 2020
The Bills are 2-0, the Vikings are 0-2. I’m sure Diggs is paying attention.
Loser: Tyrod Taylor
It’s unclear exactly what happened to Tyrod Taylor, but we might not see him for a while. Taylor came into Sunday as the Chargers’ starter, but mysteriously vanished before kickoff. At the time it was reported that he had suffered a “chest injury” after warmups; later reports indicate that he had chest pains and was taken to a nearby hospital. No updates were given, except that Taylor was eventually discharged. It’s unclear what, if anything, this has to do with a rib injury that put Taylor on the injury report earlier this week.
And so Justin Herbert, the Chargers’ first-round pick in the 2020 draft, suddenly became his team’s starter. And Herbert thrived.
Herbert reportedly found out that he’d be starting just seconds before kickoff: “He thought I was joking,” says Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn. “I had to tell him a couple times ‘No, seriously, you’re the starting quarterback.’” It didn’t matter. Herbert went 22-for-33 for 311 yards with two touchdowns, one through the air and one on the ground. He did have one bad interception, but otherwise looked the part of an NFL starter. The Chiefs allowed 300 passing yards only twice in the regular season last year en route to a 12-4 record and then won the Super Bowl. Herbert almost beat them in his first career game, as the Chargers pushed the Chiefs to overtime.
Lynn says the job is still Taylor’s if he’s healthy, but I think he’s just being nice. The goal was always to use this season as a transition from Taylor to Herbert, and that transition was made Sunday. It would be counterproductive to go back to Taylor just for courtesy’s take. It would be one thing if Herbert was clearly unready for the spotlight, but he performed about as well as Taylor would’ve, if not better. Herbert and Taylor are now tied with one career 300-yard game apiece—the difference is Taylor has been in the NFL since 2011 and Herbert made his NFL debut on Sunday. Taylor was supposed to be good enough until Herbert was good enough, and now we know that Herbert is good enough.
But you’ve really gotta feel for Taylor, who has once again been usurped by a rookie. Taylor was an NFL starter for the first time in 2015, and instantly made a Pro Bowl. In the five seasons since, he’s been benched for a rookie three times. In 2017, Buffalo benched him for Nathan Peterman, even though Taylor was in the midst of powering Buffalo to their first playoff appearance since 1999 and Peterman is one of the worst quarterbacks in NFL history. The next year, he was traded to Cleveland, where he was supposed to ease a transition to Baker Mayfield, but suffered a concussion Week 3; Mayfield led Cleveland back from a big deficit to win a game, and Taylor never started again. And now this.
Taylor is now 31 years old, and it seems like the running ability that made him a dynamic threat earlier in his career may have faded—Week 1 against the Bengals, he had just six carries for 7 yards. He deserves a better ending than this—but we don’t know whether he’ll get one.
Winner: Empty Stadium High Jinks
I’m gonna go ahead and say it: Most things about the coronavirus pandemic are bad. Sorry for getting political. However, every once in a while, the situations the pandemic has created reveal a moment of absurdity that otherwise would never take place. For example: When Kerryon Johnson scored to give Detroit a 7-0 lead over the Packers, the Lions running back took a Lambeau Leap into the stands.
Opposing players have tried to Lambeau Leap in the past, and it generally ends up with the player getting shoved back onto the field while disgruntled fans pour beer onto their head. (Ha ha, just kidding—Wisconsinites wouldn’t waste beer on dousing opposing football players.) But with no fans, Johnson was free to lounge in the first row.
But my favorite empty-stadium high jinks of the day came from an attempt to restore normalcy. The NFL has made a point of pumping fan noise into empty stadiums, and is supposedly trying its best to make the fan noise as realistic as possible. In Philadelphia, that realism shone through—when the imaginary fans heartily booed Carson Wentz after bad plays:
Wentz finished with no touchdowns and two interceptions as the Eagles got trucked by the Rams, falling to 0-2. The ersatz boos may have been piped in, but the feeling was real. Philadelphia has Meek Mill, the Rocky theme song, and this news jingle, but its most distinctive sound is an entire stadium united in sheer disgust at the Eagles’ trash quarterback, no matter how long he’s been there or how much he’s owed.
Loser: Punting to Patrick Mahomes
There are some situations when there are no good choices but one of them can still be way better than the others. For example: Let’s say you’re on a boat, and the water is filled with icebergs, and you’re being chased by a giant killer shark, and the only person who knows how to pilot a boat has just been eaten by the giant killer shark. Your options are trying to pilot the boat through the icebergs or just letting the shark eat you. Even though you’ve never piloted a boat before, you gotta try to pilot the boat, because there’s a chance you might not die. The other option is getting eaten by a giant killer shark.
The Chargers chose to get eaten by the giant killer shark. Somehow, they battled their way into overtime with the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. On the first possession of overtime, they gained 9 yards on three plays, bringing up fourth-and-1. They had two options: try to pick up a first down or punt. If they had tried to pick up a first down, they might have failed, giving Kansas City the ball in field goal range. However, if they punted? That meant they gave the ball to Patrick Mahomes. In a sudden-death situation.
The Chargers punted, and Kansas City drove and kicked a 58-yard field goal for the win. (Due to a penalty and a well-timed timeout, Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker actually hit three field goals for the win, but of course, only the third counted.)
I’ll write the same thing I wrote last week: Field position doesn’t matter to Patrick Mahomes. He’ll score from 1 yard or 99 yards. Sunday, he threw a ball 54 yards into double-coverage while sprinting with a defender in his face, and it was right on the money. You can’t act normally when playing this dude.
Piloting a boat through an iceberg field when you’ve never piloted a boat before may seem like a bad idea—but if you’re being chased by a giant killer shark, you’re gonna need to take some risks. Patrick Mahomes is the giant killer shark. Even if going for it on fourth-and-1 in your own territory is risky, it’s not as risky as voluntarily giving the ball to the best player in the sport.