This is the Hot Read. In this column, you’ll find everything and anything that I found interesting from the NFL Week 3 Sunday action. There’s the stuff that everyone’s talking about, and the stuff that nobody’s talking about; the stuff that makes football incredible, and the stuff that makes football fun.
The Big Thing: Are We Watching the Greatest Offense Ever?
A lot happened in the NFL on Sunday. If there’s one thing you need to know, it’s this.
Here is how many points the Miami Dolphins scored against the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point point
That’s a lot of points!
Seventy, to be exact. It is only the fourth time in history that a team has scored 70 points in an NFL game. Most recently, the Washington football team did it in 1966, which is the year my dad was born. There are 20 minutes of highlights from that game available on YouTube, and they are in color, which—if we’re being honest—I did not think they had in 1966.
My favorite 70-plus-point game is the league-record game. The Bears played Washington in the 1940 NFL championship game, which the Bears won … 73-0. The Wikipedia entry for this game is incredible. Apparently, the Washington team owner called the Bears crybabies and quitters after beating them 7-3 in the regular season. The Bears ran the T-formation offense. Not the wing-T; just the T. Against Washington, the Chicago defense had eight interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns, one of them by a man named Bulldog Turner. This was the first game broadcast on nationwide radio and the last game in which an NFL player played without a helmet.
How will we remember the Dolphins’ 70-point game? Well, it set a record of its own: 726 total yards of offense, just barely scraping by the 722 yards the 1951 Rams put atop the record book over 70 years ago. According to ESPN, the Dolphins are also the first team in history to have five rushing and five passing touchdowns in a game, which, yeah, that tracks. Running back Raheem Mostert scored four touchdowns, and running back De’Von Achane scored four more. Shockingly, a running back duo has combined for eight scores before: Derrick Blaylock and Priest Holmes scored four touchdowns apiece for the Chiefs in a 56-10 win over the Falcons in 2004.
But as historic as this 70-point game was, I don’t think we’ll end up remembering it as much as we’ll remember the 2023 Dolphins season as a whole. That’s because I think Miami will establish itself as the greatest offense of all time.
You think I’m joking; I am certainly not. With 130 points so far, the Dolphins are second all time on the overall scoring list through three weeks (behind only the 1968 Cowboys, and ahead of the 2013 Broncos, who are currently on the podium for the greatest offense of all time). With 1,651 yards, they have more yards than any offense through three weeks, unseating the 2011 Patriots at 1,621 yards (not really a GOAT candidate, but still a very good unit). They are also atop the yards-per-play leaderboard through three weeks at 8.4, which unseats the 2000 Rams at 8.1 yards per play—and the 2000 Rams are definitely a candidate for greatest offense of all time. The Dolphins have 36 drives and 17 touchdowns, which means if you flip a coin every time the Dolphins start a drive, they are about as likely to score a touchdown as you are to call it in the air and get it right.
If the Dolphins keep up their current offensive pace, here’s where they will end the season in a few key stats:
The Dolphins’ Offensive Pace
|Stat||Dolphins’ Current Pace||Dolphins’ 17-Game Pace||Current Leading Number|
|Stat||Dolphins’ Current Pace||Dolphins’ 17-Game Pace||Current Leading Number|
Of course, it’s much more convenient to do the “on-pace” bit after a 70-point game, and just three games into a season. But the Dolphins will keep doing this. They won’t score 70 points every game, but they will continue to pour points on opponents, even if they aren’t trying to. They’re built with too much team speed to just sit on the football, as we discovered with the two 60-plus-yard touchdown plays achieved by the backups during the fourth quarter. There have been 13 total touchdown drives this season of two plays or fewer, and the Dolphins have five of them (38.5 percent).
Wait, shoot, I forgot: the Dolphins’ 75-catch, 1,356-yard, NFL-leading 18.1-yards-per-reception receiver from 2022, Jaylen Waddle? He was out of this game with a concussion. So go take everything I just said, and then remind yourself that one of the league’s most effective downfield playmakers was not playing this week, and then recalibrate your astonishment accordingly. Go ahead.
As fun as this is, here’s a splash of cold water: We’re three weeks in. Nothing that happens through three weeks can really be relied upon to stick through the entire season. Take last season, when Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill was on pace for 1,797 yards through three games. He ended the year with only … 1,710.
The Dolphins can do this. In 99 percent of circumstances, I’d tell you that the sample size is too small; that Miami’s peak games won’t be 700-yard, 70-point performances. But the Dolphins are actually equipped to pull this off. To just score more points with more yardage than anyone has before.
You can be sure I’m rooting for it.
The Little Things
It’s the little things in football that matter the most—zany plays, small victories, and some laughs. Here’s where you can find them.
1. THE MIRROR MATCH between Myles Garrett and these two Titans tight ends
I, like every red-blooded football watcher, love to yell at my television when coaches do things that I think are stupid. So, when coaches do something that I think is objectively smart—like lining their tight ends up wherever Garrett is, to help the offensive tackles in pass protection—I want to commend them.
When it gives us clips like this one? Double commendation. This is my favorite football play I saw this week.
Holy shit, the Titans were sending TWO TEs in motion to follow Myles Garrett to whatever side of the line he was lining up on!pic.twitter.com/cG3o3NvR14— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) September 24, 2023
2. THE SILLINESS of this Texans kickoff return
How do you know when it’s just your day? When you’re the up man and you muff the fielding of a short kickoff, pick it up, make a couple of guys miss, hit the burners, tightrope the sideline, and score—all with fantastic hair.
Followers of the column will know we’ve been quietly accumulating Texans stock. DeMeco Ryans’s defense was in our Little Things of Week 1, and C.J. Stroud won our “This Young Man Can Play” award in Week 2. This Week 3 victory? Not a surprise to the Hot Readers.
3. THE TEETH that flew out of this Jets fan’s mouth
When I was a kid, my dad used to tell me stories about having to fetch his dad’s dentures. Those were gross stories then, and they’re gross still—but if he had a story about my grandpa’s dentures flying out of his mouth on national television as he cursed out Zach Wilson, it would all have been worth it.
4. THE FOURTH QUARTER Jordan Love put together to beat the Saints
Weird game in Lambeau. A Rashid Shaheed punt-return touchdown helped the Saints jump to a 17-0 lead on a Packers team that looked plain ol’ overwhelmed by the Saints’ size and physicality. That lead likely would have held if Derek Carr hadn’t left the game with an injury—a reported AC joint sprain, which is not a season-ender—but that doesn’t take away from the 18 fourth-quarter points that Love helped put on the board to escape with a win.
Love was far from perfect, but he was composed, willing to move his legs, and, critically, mistake-free. I continue to believe in the Packers’ approach, even as they deal with injuries and a ton of young players, especially on offense. Thursday Night Football between the Lions and Packers? I’m excited, folks.
5. THE ORLOVSKY
Congrats to our favorite gangly film nerd for getting to see his signature play executed to perfection, live, by Colts quarterback Gardner Minshew.
The Zag: NFL Officiating Isn’t That Hard
I tend to be a little contrarian. It’s not so much a personal choice as it is an occupational hazard. Here’s where I’ll plant my flag.
NFL officiating is hard, period. There are 22 bodies on the field moving at extremely high speeds. We call only a few plays “bang-bang plays” from the outside, but on the field, almost everything is a bang-bang play. There is a lot going on, and occasionally, calls are missed.
With that said, there are some easily avoidable mistakes that we’ve known about for, well, forever. Take, as a familiar example, premature whistleblowing. It is always better to swallow the whistle and let a questionable play run its course, as anything that happens after a whistle is not reviewable. By blowing the whistle, you kill the play.
Such was the case on this touchdown catch for Amari Cooper, which ended up not being a touchdown catch at all.
This play ended in Browns WR Amari Cooper getting to the end zone for a touchdown… except the referee said Cooper stepped out of bounds.— Arye Pulli (@AryePulli) September 24, 2023
You can see, just at the end of this clip, the referee reaching for his whistle. The one with the absolute picture-perfect look at Cooper’s feet. This is not a bang-bang play, or a “so close it’s tough to call” play. It is a totally blown call.
Now, this call ended up having little impact on the result of the game—the Browns won 27-3. The no-call in the Ravens-Colts game, however, had a much bigger impact.
This is pass interference, right? I don’t need to spill any more ink on that. We all know what pass interference looks like, and it’s that. (The entire Colts defense does, too—look at everyone turn and look for the flag.)
The down and distance, as well as the stage of the game, make this no-call especially ludicrous. This is exactly where refs historically love to throw flags!
(Note: There was also a very bad missed face mask on Zay Flowers that meaningfully affected the result of the game. I am not mentioning that, because there was also a very bad missed face mask on Michael Pittman Jr. for the Colts that meaningfully affected the result of the game, and if I mention one, I must mention the other. Colts fans, however, have been yelling at me since last month, when I called Pittman a “fine, not great receiver,” so I won’t get into it with them anymore. That’s called self-care, folks.)
For my money, the worst call on Sunday in the intersection of meaningful and perplexing came in the Chargers-Vikings game. If you missed it, here’s the play.
When you’re watching that, you might not understand what happened. Especially if you have the volume on. What happened was this: Alexander Mattison got the handoff and then got tied up at the line of scrimmage, safety Alohi Gilman ripped the ball from his grasp, and safety JT Woods recovered it. Then, the referees conferred and ruled that Mattison’s forward progress was stopped.
Now watch the video again. If that were a regular play on the 43-yard line, nobody would stop and think for a second that forward progress was stopped. At the time that Gilman strips the ball, the Vikings are still actively blocking Chargers players, who are actively trying to get off their blocks. The play is still active!
So Brandon Staley challenged the play, but the refs ruled that the play was upheld! Why? This is not the forward progress rule at all. The Chargers aren’t holding Mattison up so they can paw at the ball; they’re still trying to tackle him. How many times do we see offensive linemen get behind a scrum just like this one and start pushing the pile forward?
I can understand why some calls are hard. But the Cooper one wasn’t, and the Flowers one wasn’t, and that’s frustrating. Doubly frustrating is when plays go to review, and what is pretty obviously happening on the screen is not acknowledged. This doesn’t have to be this hard! But it always is, and it invariably will end up mattering in a game more important than a Week 3 slop fest between the Ravens and Colts or a battle between the winless Vikings and winless Chargers.
(Mostly Real) Awards
I’ll hand out some awards. Most of them will be real. Some of them won’t be.
Most Valuable Player (of the Week): Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert
Last week, we played a fun game in which we listed stats that detailed just how hilarious the Chargers’ losses were. Stats. Plural.
I was getting prepped for another round when the Chargers failed to convert on a fourth-and-1 on their own 24 while nursing a lead in the fourth quarter. Of course they would lose again, despite a historic Herbert performance.
Somehow, the Vikings out-Chargered the Chargers, throwing an end zone interception while their home crowd got so loud that it disrupted their ability to run their own two-minute drill. So the Chargers survived, and we can rightfully make Herbert our weekly MVP. Forty completions on 47 attempts for 405 yards and three touchdowns is just a ludicrously effective day in the office. No quarterback had ever completed 85-plus percent of his passes on 45-plus attempts before Herbert did it on Sunday.
Through three games: Herbert is completing 74 percent of his passes, has thrown no interceptions, and has taken only seven sacks on 133 dropbacks. Those are plain ol’ MVP numbers—if the Chargers could win enough games to get him in the conversation.
The Fiery Gut Award: The Arizona Cardinals
When the Cardinals were up 13-7 against the Commanders in the second quarter of Week 1, I knew they weren’t for real. When they were up 28-7 in the third quarter against the Giants, I thought that they were perhaps a little legit but that the Giants weren’t at all legit—then they blew that lead, and I knew they weren’t legit.
So when they took a first-quarter lead and held it into halftime against the Dallas Cowboys—a team I had atop my power rankings last week—I did not think they had the stuff to finish the job. But, man, were they tough as nails down the stretch. All four of the Cowboys’ second-half drives made it into the red zone, and the Cardinals surrendered only six points; when the Cowboys got within one score, offensive coordinator Drew Petzing dialed up a shot play on the first snap of the ensuing drive. Josh Dobbs to Michael Wilson? While the team was averaging 7.4 yards a carry? That takes stones.
It’s been easy to pick on the Cardinals—head coach Jonathan Gannon in particular—all offseason. I’ve done it myself. We weren’t just positive that this would be a bad team; we thought it would be uniquely bad. Their preseason win total dropped as low as 3.5, a historically low figure. Well, they’ve been in every game they’ve played, and they just knocked off a true Super Bowl contender by running the ball and playing tough defense in the red zone. That’s old-school football. It ain’t pretty, but it got the job done.
Kudos to the Cardinals, who have fire in the gut. Or took the bus. Whatever Gannon said in that video.
Defensive Player of the Year (of the Week): Buffalo Bills linebacker Terrel Bernard
When the Bills let Tremaine Edmunds walk in free agency, their plan at middle linebacker was just to throw a couple of young, cheap options at it and see who stuck. The winner was Bernard, a second-year man out of Baylor who is probably one of the most important players in the NFL that nobody outside of upstate New York has heard of. Metropolitan D.C. knows him now: Bernard ended the day with two sacks, a fumble recovery, and an interception. Stathead has only eight such games in its database.
Bernard is still young and makes mistakes, but he seems to have a nose for the football and big plays. If he rounds out into an impactful defender for Buffalo, he can plug one of the few remaining gaps on a playoff-contending roster.
The Cowardly Kick Award: Las Vegas Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels
Fourth-and-4, down eight, 2:22 left, ball on the 8-yard line. At this moment, McDaniels elected to kick a field goal.
This decision was not aimed at winning the game, no matter what McDaniels says. ESPN’s model had this as a loss of more than 5 percentage points of win probability—about as detrimental of a decision as a head coach can make. Next Gen Stats also had it as a loss of more than 5 percentage points. These are public models, and teams should be expected to have similar (and even better) models internally.
McDaniels hurt his team when it mattered.
Offensive Rookie of the Year (of the Week): Miami Dolphins running back De’Von Achane
Four touchdowns, 233 scrimmage yards, see above, go Fins.
Defensive Rookie of the Year (of the Week): Detroit Lions safety Brian Branch
When you draft an instinctive, hard-hitting, and versatile defensive back in the second round at a big discount because he’s undersized—which is precisely what the Lions did when they selected Branch—you worry about games like these. The Falcons offense is a supersized unit, and Branch would need to play physical football in the trenches and contest catches downfield.
Branch did exactly that with shocking ease for a rookie in his third game—all the while having a neon-green mouthpiece sticking out of the top of his helmet, never once actually seen in his mouth. All the better for jawing at opponents after you embarrass them. Good on the young man.
Lions rookie Brian Branch is having a terrific game today.— Seven Rounds in Heaven (@7RoundsInHeaven) September 24, 2023
He has been reading and reacting to everything the Falcons are doing, beats Bijan Robinson’s block attempt, a hauls down Kyle Pitts for another TFL.
Everything the Lions hoped he would be when they drafted him. pic.twitter.com/KeEWHk4Lkq
Branch also had a great quote on his mindset about flying in for a hit that led to a personal foul. If there are any kids reading: Don’t tell your mom I showed you this.
The “Sky Isn’t Falling” Award: Buffalo Bills/Kansas City Chiefs
Since the Week 1 losses for the AFC’s perennial pacesetters, each team is 2-0. Three of their four collective wins have been by at least four touchdowns. Both quarterbacks look super-duper sick.
I have no notes on the Bengals at this time.
The Handoff: Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift
For when I need help.
If you’re like me, you woke up Sunday thinking that Swift was maybe dating Kelce and that, were she actually dating Kelce, it would be an enormous deal to a lot of people. Beyond that, you didn’t really get what was going on.
After seeing Swift sitting in a suite next to Donna Kelce on the broadcast of the Chiefs-Bears game, I am now in roughly the same spot I was before: I am positive that something is going on, and whatever that thing is, it is of tectonic importance, and I am in no way equipped to talk about it.
Accordingly, I’d like to hand off this segment to Ringer NFL writer, Taylor Swift expert, and my friend Nora Princiotti to get a quick summary of what, exactly, is going on.
Ben: Nora, first things first: Are you OK?
Nora: Ben, thank you for asking. I’m delighted to be here. Not to make this about me, but I heard from every person from every corner of my life on Sunday, so that was nice. I began the afternoon feeling Dril-tweet levels of owned by the realization that, at least on the level that Travis Kelce has Taylor Swift’s number, this is a thing. I ended it feeling a combination of amusement and delight about the fact that my favorite person in popular culture had a vodka cran and chicken tendies with Donna Kelce. Elite experience.
Ben: How surprised were you to see Swift in the box next to football’s most famous mom? Did you see this coming at all?
Nora: Hand up, I did not see a public appearance coming at all. A close read of the various overtures Travis has supposedly made to Taylor since seeing her at the Eras Tour in July reveals mostly one-sided communication. Travis tried to give Taylor a friendship bracelet with his number on it after the show; he couldn’t get it to her. Travis said on Pat McAfee’s show on Thursday that he “threw the ball in her court” and asked her to attend a game, which didn’t sound like he’d heard back. Taylor has been photographed a lot lately, and unless Travis is looking a lot like Sophie Turner these days, they haven’t been seen together. Travis and his brother, Jason, have several projects they’re promoting. Taylor also has an upcoming album and tour movie, so there’s at least a faint scent of publicity in the air. (Editor’s note: Turner is a British actor known for Game of Thrones, and she is going through a divorce with Swift ex—a.k.a. Mr. Perfectly Fine—Joe Jonas.)
Also, this is a woman who hasn’t dated an American in over a decade; her vibe is generally gaunt Brits, which Travis Kelce is not. So imagine my surprise when presented with photographic evidence that Taylor Alison Swift—a woman so notoriously private she sometimes enters and exits spaces inside of a suitcase—just strolled into Arrowhead with her stadium-regulation-sized cross-body bag and cheered next to Donna while the Chiefs put up 41(!) on the Bears. Travis apparently studies at the Tom Holland School of Manifestation, and I was unaware. (Editor’s note, Part 2: Holland is an actor who is dating Zendaya despite being mortal.)
Ben: Now, I hesitate to ask this, but here goes: Why is this such a big deal?
Nora: How to put this? Taylor Swift is among the most famous people in the world. It is a big deal when she eats pasta or wears Keds. Her romantic life, in part because of her history of documenting relationships in song—though I beg everyone reading this not to suggest to the Swifties in your life that this is all she does, for we are organized and we are taking notes—is heavily scrutinized. And like I said, Kelce doesn’t seem like Swift’s type, making this moment basically the biggest win for the U.S. of A. since 1776.
Ben: What do you think this means for Kelce and the Chiefs offense moving forward?
Nora: Every stat from here on out will come in multiples of 13, Swift’s lucky number.
But seriously, I don’t know. This is a flex from Kelce, no doubt about it, even if this turns out to be more of an extended bit than an actual relationship. What I do know is this: Swifties are thinking about football in this moment, probably more so now than ever before, and the NFL isn’t ready for the code-breaking that’s about to take place. We solved 33 million internet puzzles last week. Someone with a fan account and 15 custom friendship bracelets, right now, is probably coming up with a better version of expected points added and developing the first and only nuanced take on running back value.
Also, you asked about the Chiefs, but the Bears offense was so atrocious that it forced Fox to break away from a game that Taylor Swift was watching in person. It’s time to fold the franchise.
Ben: Thank you, Nora!