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 Atlanta Failcons
We watch superhero movies knowing the good guys will win every time, but it’s still entertaining. We still feel tension when their backs are against the wall; we still go nuts when they pummel their villainous enemies to smithereens; we ooh and aah at their cool moves and the cool lines they say after defeating their opponents. If we cared that the plots were repetitive, they wouldn’t be the most popular movies on earth.
The Atlanta Falcons are the polar opposite. Sunday, they took a 26-10 lead into the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bears, their second straight week with a two-touchdown fourth-quarter lead—and yet they remain winless on the season. A single touchdown or stop probably would’ve won them the game. Instead, they allowed back-to-back-to-back touchdown drives to Nick Foles, while finishing the game with three punts and a Matt Ryan interception. No team had ever blown two 15-point fourth-quarter leads in the past 20 years; Atlanta did it by Week 3, pulling off the feat in back-to-back weeks.
In last week’s loss—a game the Falcons led 39-24 with just under eight minutes to go before allowing two touchdowns, a miraculous onside kick, and a field goal—the Falcons supposedly had a 99.9 percent chance of winning. This week, they supposedly had a 99.3 percent chance of winning. The odds of a team hitting on a 0.1 percent chance of losing and a 0.7 percent chance of losing are .0007 percent. That’s 1-in-140,000. I know what you’re thinking: That’s crazy. There have been only 16,000-ish games in NFL history. To say the Falcons have done something which should happen 1-in-140,000 times is just making up large numbers like a schoolchild who just learned the words “one million,” or the president. But let’s remember: The thing the Falcons just did twice in two weeks had never been done twice in one season. Maybe 1-in-140,000 isn’t that nuts. Maybe you could replay the entire history of football 10 times over and not have another fortnight of catastrophic failure like the Falcons just had.
It’s Groundhog Day in Atlanta, and it has been ever since they blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl. I don’t mean that in the sense that they’re living the same day over and over again. I mean that every Falcons fan I know has discovered nihilism, and that neither wins nor losses can hurt them. Right now, the Falcons are in the portion of any repeating-every-day movie where they just try to incur the maximum amount of pain in an attempt to feel something. You know—jumping off clocktowers, stepping in front of trucks, driving cars into ravines, anything.
From any rational perspective, the Falcons are 0-3 with two absolutely devastating losses, having blown double-digit fourth-quarter leads in back-to-back weeks. They have allowed 108 points in three weeks, the second-most in the NFL, making Matt Ryan a football Sisyphus. There are worse teams, of course. In fact, the Falcons aren’t always even bad. They dominate for three quarters, and then, when it matters most, they crumble.
Which is why I’m starting to feel like the Atlanta Falcons are not actually a football team. I refuse to believe that a football team could be so good and then so bad, every single week. I choose to believe that the Falcons are performance art. We watch superhero movies knowing the good guys win every time, and we watch Falcons games knowing they’re going to lose every time. I still ooh and aah at their fantastic failures, going nuts as the scrubs they face become unstoppable. Watching them turn wins into losses has been the most entertaining part of the NFL season thus far.
Loser: Josh Allen Takes
In some fields, it’s considered good to intake new information and adjust one’s opinions. In sports media, this is a mark of deep shame. Every time one of my tweets ends up on Old Takes Exposed, I have to pay The Ringer back $5,000 of my salary and draft a handwritten apology note to Bill Simmons and each of my editors. Last year I predicted Freddie Kitchens would win the NFL’s Coach of the Year award; when he was instead fired after one season, my girlfriend of six years dumped me for a guy who correctly projected that the 49ers would win the NFC West.
This is a big problem, because every single sports media member universally agreed that the Bills made a huge mistake drafting Josh Allen seventh overall in 2018. “He does not seem especially good at playing football,” I wrote ahead of the draft. Bills fans remember this. I was not alone.
Unfortunately for me, and untold dozens of other media members, Allen seems good at football. Early in his career, the Bills won despite brutal performances from Allen due to their top-notch defense; Sunday, Allen threw for 311 yards and accounted for all five touchdowns, including the last-minute game-winner in a 35-32 win over the Rams:
Worst of all for those like me: Allen seems to be singling out his former doubters. In 2018, Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey called Allen “trash” in a freewheeling GQ interview where he set out to diss half the quarterbacks in the league. Sunday, Allen targeted Ramsey on his most impressive touchdown pass:
REMEMBER WHEN JALEN RAMSEY CALLED JOSH ALLEN TRASH???— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) September 27, 2020
LISTEN TO THE ANNOUNCER AS JOSH ALLEN PICKS ON RAMSEY FOR 7 pic.twitter.com/emKnecgTmx
After seeing what Allen did to Ramsey, I know my time is due. I also defamed Allen. I will spend the rest of my days in fear, knowing that I, too, am on Allen’s list.
Winner: DK Metcalf
2020 blooper reels will have an undisputed king. DK Metcalf lost the Seahawks seven points by slowing down before getting into the end zone after catching a deep bomb from Russell Wilson. Metcalf simultaneously loafed and held the football like a loaf, allowing burned rookie defensive back Trevon Diggs to catch him from behind, boop the ball away, and turn a touchdown into a touchback:
DK Metcalf fumbles the score away after TOASTING Trevon Diggs— PFF (@PFF) September 27, 2020
Metcalf was the goat of the week. What a fool! Look at Leon Lett with a gym membership.
But the game didn’t immediately end when Diggs popped the ball out of Metcalf’s hand. In fact, the Seahawks played a bonkers game for what seems like the 438th straight week. Seattle took a 30-15 lead, gave up 16 straight points, and then won—on Wilson’s fifth touchdown of the game, a 29-yard bomb to Metcalf:
There’s a reason Metcalf wasn’t instantly benched after his massive mental error, as the tryhards of Twitter demanded. He’s 6-foot-4, has 32-pack abs, and can run a 4.33-second 40-yard dash. At the NFL draft combine, he ran the fastest 40-yard dash ever by someone heavier than 225 pounds while tying the record for most bench-press reps by a wide receiver. After the combine, there was worry that Metcalf would just be a workout warrior who was practically incapable of running routes, but he’s proved to be a perfect partner for deep-ball master Russell Wilson.
Sure, the substitute gym teachers of the world might have tried harder after catching a ball in space, but Metcalf is the guy actually capable of getting open in space. I’m guessing he’ll never make the same mistake he made Sunday again, after the shame of such a public failure. But I have a funny feeling this won’t be his last game-winning touchdown.
Tie-Er: The Cowardly Eagles
It’s often said that risk-averse coaches are “playing not to lose” instead of “playing to win.” But there’s something more cowardly than playing not to lose: playing for a tie. It happens pretty rarely—only 10 NFL games have tied in the last 18 seasons—but every once in a while, a coach decides they’ll settle for something more than a loss, but distinctly less than a win.
Sunday, the Eagles found themselves in a surprisingly tight battle with the Cincinnati Bengals. Philly has had back-to-back-to-back playoff berths, including a Super Bowl victory; Cincinnati has had four straight losing seasons and went 2-14 last year. But Carson Wentz threw two interceptions and the Eagles allowed no. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow to throw for 312 yards. The Eagles were actually lucky to get to OT: Wentz led the team on an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that tied the game with 21 seconds to go.
In overtime, nobody did anything. The two teams combined for 45 yards and four first downs, punting a combined six times in the 10-minute period. The Bengals wanted to win, but couldn’t, going backward on two of their three drives thanks to a bevy of sacks and penalties. The Bengals’ backtracking in a punt battle set Philadelphia up in field goal range. The Eagles, however, were simply terrified of falling to 0-3. With 19 seconds left, they had the ball on Cincinnati’s 41-yard line, setting kicker Jake Elliott up for a game-winning 58-yard attempt. But Eagles lineman Matt Pryor—forced into the lineup due to a truly preposterous number of O-line injuries—false started. This pushed Elliott’s kick back to a 63-yarder for the win. So, did Elliott hit the field goal?
No—he never attempted it. Instead of sending Elliott out to attempt the kick, Eagles coach Doug Pederson had his team accept a delay-of-game penalty and punt the ball away, securing the tie.
To be fair, a 63-yard field goal is very difficult. The all-time NFL record is 64 yards, and had been 63 from 1970 until 2013. But if anybody could kick one, it would probably be Elliott. Elliott was drafted by the Bengals in 2017, but was cut, allowing him to sign with Philadelphia when their kicker was injured. Two weeks later, Elliott secured his place in the NFL by drilling a 61-yarder. It’s the only kick Elliott has ever attempted from over 60 yards—and it would’ve been good from 63. He’s been their kicker ever since, as the Eagles have made him one of the highest-paid kickers in the league.
Only 18 kickers in the history of the NFL have hit a kick from 60 or more yards. The Eagles have one, and they passed up the opportunity to have him win a game. What was the risk? If Elliott missed (and the kick wasn’t returned), the Bengals would’ve had the ball with under 15 seconds left and would have needed to move the ball into field goal range with no timeouts. Sure, it’s unlikely Elliott would’ve hit the field goal—but it’s pretty unlikely the Eagles would’ve lost.
Philly now sits at 0-2-1. Just three seasons ago, this team won the Super Bowl thanks to Doug Pederson’s fearlessness; now he’s scared enough that he’ll happily split the result with a team that should finish close to the bottom of the league. He played to tie the game; Herman Edwards would be sick.
The Bears baffled bystanders this offseason by trading away a fourth-round draft pick to acquire Nick Foles and his massive salary. Chicago was paying big and giving up an asset to bring aboard a guy who lost a quarterback battle to Gardner Minshew. Why pay big for a backup? The answer revealed itself Sunday: The Bears didn’t trade for a backup quarterback; they traded for the backup quarterback.
Foles didn’t win the starting job out of training camp, but Sunday, the Bears benched Mitch Trubisky after he threw an interception as they trailed 26-10 in the second half. Mini Mitch was gone; Big [Redacted] Nick came in. The Falcons imploded, sure, but Foles was the dude who pushed the button. He threw three fourth-quarter touchdowns, including a beautiful game-winning toss to Anthony Miller while getting decked:
You all know the story of Foles, the man who won Super Bowl MVP as a backup QB. But it goes deeper than that: Foles has been a team’s Week 1 starter four times. In those four seasons, Foles has been injured three times and benched twice, never finishing any of those seasons as a team’s starter. (He was injured and benched last year with the Jaguars.) In those seasons, he’s thrown 30 touchdowns and 26 interceptions. But in seasons where Foles did not begin the season as a starter, Foles has thrown 41 touchdowns and nine interceptions, making the Pro Bowl in 2013 and, of course, winning the Super Bowl.
Coming off the bench fuels Foles’s fire. As a starter, he’s average. As a backup, he’s godly. If the Bears had started the season with Foles on top of the depth chart, they might be 0-3. But they eked out two tight wins with Trubisky and then slapped the palm of Tag-Team World Champion Nick Foles to pull off a miracle comeback. They’re going 16-0.
Loser: The New York ____s
America’s biggest city has been saddled with two impossibly awful NFL franchises, with turnover-plagued quarterbacks running plays called by rot-brained coaches trying to lead anonymous offenses back from massive deficits racked up on disorganized defenses. Through all the failure, Sunday may have been the worst day in the combined history of New York’s two football teams. (Technically New Jersey’s two football teams, as fans of the 3-0 Buffalo Bills will happily tell you.)
The Giants had the benefit of playing half of the 49ers. San Francisco was without quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, running backs Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman, All-Pro tight end George Kittle, future Hall of Fame cornerback Richard Sherman, reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year edge rusher Nick Bosa, Pro Bowl defensive end Dee Ford, starting defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, and linebacker Dre Greenlaw. On top of that, the Niners hadn’t been home in a long time, having spent the past week training at the Greenbrier hotel in West Virginia rather than returning to the Bay Area in between games against the Jets and Giants. (And it’s not like West Virginia is close to New York!)
Regardless, they kicked the crap out of the Giants, holding them out of the end zone entirely in a 36-9 win. 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens, starting for the first time since a forgettable 3-5 stint in 2018, torched the Giants for 343 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. Mullens went undrafted in 2017, while the Giants used the no. 6 pick in the 2019 draft on Daniel Jones, who threw for 179 yards with no touchdowns and an interception while losing a fumble. The Giants gave up 420 yards and only gained 231, the latter of which is the third fewest by any team in any game this season.
The Giants got blown off the turf; the Jets merely threw the game away. Gang Green was outgained only by 93 yards, but still lost 36-7 thanks to the incredible interception-throwing skills of Sam Darnold. The Jets used the no. 3 pick in the 2018 draft on Darnold and then paired him with Adam Gase, supposedly an expert in coaching young quarterbacks, and yet Darnold is still the type of quarterback capable of throwing two pick-sixes in one game.
The Jets and Giants are now both 0-3. Sunday’s Jets loss was the second-biggest of the 2020 NFL season; the Giants’ loss was the third-biggest of the season. The Jets have the worst point differential in the NFL (-57), the Giants have the second-worst (-41). The battle to be the worst of the two New York teams will go on all season long. I’d say the Jets are easily the worst team in the NFL, but I think the Saquon Barkley–less Giants may give them a run for their money. I hope Trevor Lawrence likes big cities!
Loser: Hook and Ladder
There’s nothing more satisfying than a trick play that works; there’s nothing more frustrating than a trick play that should’ve worked. The Chargers could’ve beaten the Panthers Sunday afternoon to get rookie quarterback Justin Herbert his first career win, but they botched the “lateral” part of the hook-and-lateral play.
Here’s the hook and ladder by the Chargers. A better pitch and he scores pic.twitter.com/NLuidzjh1D— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) September 27, 2020
Herbert completed a pass to Keenan Allen, and the Panthers defense swarmed toward him in hopes of making a game-ending tackle, completely unaware that Austin Ekeler was sweeping across the field in the opposite direction. But Allen couldn’t execute the toss to Ekeler, leaving the ball a step behind the running back.
I’ve seen this play succeed a handful of times, and I’ve seen it fail a million times. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen the play fail in this specific way. It’s obviously hard for a wide receiver sprinting to his right to seamlessly toss the ball to another player sprinting to his left—otherwise, teams would do it all the time—but I’m still crushed by the failure. It’s like the Chargers robbed the Bellagio and tripped while walking out the casino door.
Winner: Stephen Gostkowski
Last season, the Titans’ weak point was kicking. Derrick Henry proved to be the beastliest back in the NFL; Ryan Tannehill had a renaissance; their defense wasn’t awful. But they were the first team since 1987 to miss more than 50 percent of their field goals in a full season. They cycled through four kickers: Ryan Succop, who went 1-for-6 on field goals; Cairo Santos, who went 4-for-9; Cody Parkey, who quickly missed an extra point; and Greg Joseph, who never made a field goal during the regular season. They didn’t make a field goal in the seven games between Week 12 and the AFC championship game.
So this year, they signed Stephen Gostkowski, miraculously a free agent after a 14-season career with the Patriots that saw him ranked fifth all time in field goal accuracy. And in his first game with Tennessee, he almost blew it. Gostkowski missed his first three field goals (and an extra point) before drilling a chip shot 25-yarder to win the game. The performance alone dropped Gostkowski four spots on the all-time kicking accuracy leaderboard. After the Year of Four Kickers last season, I assumed that Tennessee’s kicking was cursed, and that the Titans would quickly move on from Gostkowski.
But luckily, they didn’t. Sunday, the Titans repeatedly stalled on the Vikings’ side of the field, but Gostkowski carried them. He went 6-for-6 on field goals, including three 50-yarders of increasing length in the second half. He finished off with a game-winning 55-yarder.
The Titans needed every last kick. They won 31-30, with 19 points coming on Gostkowski’s leg. It’s a story of personal redemption for him. Two weeks ago, they squeaked by in spite of his imperfect night; Sunday, they were able to win only because he was perfect. Gostkowski joins nine other kickers who have hit three 50-yarders in the same game; nobody has ever hit four.
But it’s also a story of improvement for the Titans, who now sit at 3-0 with two game-winning Gostkowski kicks. Happy learned how to putt.