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: Nick Bosa
Of the 13 NFL games played Sunday, two were between teams with winning records. One, the Sunday night game between the Chiefs and the Packers, lost its damper when reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes was ruled out with a knee injury. The other was 49ers-Panthers, the hypothetical game of the day. The Niners are undefeated, and the Panthers were 4-0 since swapping out an injured Cam Newton for a healthy Kyle Allen.
It was a blowout. The Niners scored 51 points, the first time since 2003 that they’ve outscored their team name. It was a consistent, nonstop throttling. San Francisco scored 27 points in the first half and 24 more in the second.
And despite the prodigious offensive effort, San Francisco’s best player was on defense: rookie Nick Bosa, the no. 2 pick in the 2019 NFL draft. Bosa terrorized Allen, sacking him three times and picking him off on another play before a spectacular juke-filled 46-yard return that nearly resulted in a touchdown.
This play, quite frankly, is incredible. Bosa was supposed to get taken out by a cut block, but was fast enough to beat it, and his downfield progress frightened Allen into throwing a pass earlier than expected. But Bosa realized a pass was coming, and flared out and made the decision to play the pass instead of the quarterback—and somehow caught a pass thrown mere yards away from him.
Bosa is the 22nd player ever to have three sacks and an interception in the same game. Four of the others—Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, Kevin Greene, and Richard Dent—were Hall of Famers; a fifth, James Harrison, was a Defensive Player of the Year. With seven sacks in seven games, Bosa is the obvious favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year—but he might actually be the Defensive Player of the Year, regardless of his rookie status. Only one rookie ever has been DPOY—Taylor in 1981—but Bosa is a prime candidate. While the teams of front-runners Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald are both struggling to live up to expectations, the Niners are undefeated thanks to their Bosa-led defense.
Loser: The Worm
Aaron Jones had a spectacular performance on Sunday Night Football, going for 226 scrimmage yards (159 receiving, 67 rushing) and two touchdowns. However, he couldn’t truly dominate until he figured out his celebration strategy. On Green Bay’s first drive of the game, he scored a touchdown and sprinted into the end zone to do the worm.
First of all: OK, dude, chill out. Scoring a touchdown is cool. Doing the worm is shockingly unsexy considering how much pelvis action is involved. Second of all: Jones didn’t realize that there was a flag on the ground for a holding penalty and that he was doing the worm for a touchdown that didn’t count.
Later in the first quarter, Jones scored again, taking a pass from Aaron Rodgers and running 60 yards to the end zone. Again, he got his pelvis on the ground and began gyrating. But alas, this touchdown also didn’t count: Jones, perhaps excited about his upcoming pelvic gyrations, had stepped out at the 10-yard line.
Two touchdowns, two worms, two overturns. But luckily, Jones went into the locker room and made a halftime adjustment: When he scored this 67-yard touchdown off a bubble screen, there were no vermicular celebrations.
Jones can be one of the most dynamic playmakers in the league, a running back with legitimate wide receiver skills … but he needs to pick cooler end zone dance moves. The worm is going to get overturned every time. Try the sprinkler next time!
Winner: Flea Flickers
Surely, by now you’ve heard that NFL teams should run play-action on basically every play. When defenders see a play-action fake, it is significantly easier to pass. Statistics have shown that it doesn’t really matter how often you actually run the ball, or how often you run play action—it still works.
Well, let me tell you about a play that’s like play-action, but even better: the flea flicker. What if instead of just pretending to hand the ball off, you actually handed the ball off, then had the ball carrier return the ball to the quarterback? Sunday, NFL teams ran two variations on the flea flicker to great success. The Rams ran an end-around that turned into a reverse that turned into a flip back to Jared Goff, who threw to Cooper Kupp for a touchdown:
And the Lions ran a flea flicker in which running back J.D. McKissic took a pitch and ran several yards, further selling the run, before turning and throwing an overhand pass back to Matt Stafford, who completed an easy touchdown pass to Kenny Golladay:
I firmly believe that teams should run flea flickers regularly as part of their normal offense—I don’t think the risk of taking a huge sack is as high as coaches think. Defenses will follow the guy with the ball, and LOOK AT HOW OPEN THE RECEIVERS ARE. Teams should run at least one flea flicker per game. Play-action seems to work no matter how often you run it—the same will be true here.
Loser: Depth Perception
Last week, Deshaun Watson threw a critical fourth-quarter touchdown with one of his feet in the hands of an opposing defender. The refs said it actually didn’t count, because they were so convinced he’d been sacked, but, well, it counts in my heart. This week, however, he one-upped himself. Trailing Oakland by three with under seven minutes remaining, Watson escaped a sack from Arden Key, who fell to the ground in such a manner that his foot flew upward and slipped through Watson’s facemask and kicked the quarterback in the left eye. Watson snagged at his face in pain, kept running, and threw what was ultimately the game-winning touchdown while being dragged down by another Oakland defender.
Just to reiterate: With one eye closed, while he was being tackled, he threw a game-winning touchdown. It genuinely might be the most incredible play I’ve ever seen in an NFL game. I’ve seen more spectacular plays, but “incredible” literally means “it is something that is not credible, because I do not believe it happened.” And I cannot believe that Watson threw a touchdown with one of his eyes closed, regardless of whether or not he was being tackled. And he was being tackled! Holy crap.
Watson kept playing—and completed a critical pass for a first down while trying to ice the game—with one of his eyes swollen shut like he’d just left his gloves down on a right hook in the 11th round:
After the game, Watson said of the Fells touchdown that he “kind of threw it blind.”
Deshaun Watson describing the game winning touchdown is just as wild as the play itself: “I kind of threw it blind…but I kind of assumed where he was going, adjusted and let my arm guide it…I didn’t even see the play until after the game” #Texans pic.twitter.com/kfwT2WyM5r
— Daniel Gotera (@DTGoteraKHOU) October 28, 2019
It’s unclear whether this will be a lasting injury, but judging from the fact that Watson continued playing through it, he’s likely fine. Having multiple eyes is overrated. When you’re as talented as Deshaun Watson, you don’t need to know how far your teammates are from you—you can just guess and chuck it. Next week he needs to come out with an eye patch, or Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes’s condom glasses. He has surpassed the need for depth perception.
Winner: The Patriots’ Increasing Degree of Difficulty
The Patriots had one of their worst defensive games of the season against Cleveland Sunday. They forced only three turnovers, their fourth fewest of the season. They allowed 13 points, their third-most of the season. And for the fourth time this year, the opposing offense scored more points than New England’s defense. A true embarrassment.
New England’s defensive numbers are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The closest comparison I can think of is the 2001 Miami Hurricanes, who scored 10 defensive and special teams touchdowns while allowing 13 offensive touchdowns, but thus far, the Pats have actually scored more on defense (Sunday they had their sixth touchdown) than they have allowed on offense (Sunday they allowed their fourth touchdown).
Every week, they do something that previously didn’t seem possible. Sometimes, it’s luck—for example, when a Browns player kicked the ball out of Nick Chubb’s hands and Dont’a Hightower returned it for a touchdown:
Sometimes, it’s a defensive play so incredible that I can’t actually believe it happened. In the first quarter, defensive tackle Lawrence Guy recognized that the Browns were running a jet sweep tap pass to Jarvis Landry, crashed through the offensive lineman attempting to block him, and snagged the ball while Landry crashed into his side:
Baker Mayfield leads the league with 12 INTs, this toss to the 300-pound DT Lawrence Guy was the funniest.
The #Browns just came off their bye week by the way. 3 plays in a row, turnover. What is going on Freddie Kitchens?
Led to a Brady 8-yard TD.pic.twitter.com/EV4X9Lf8SF
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) October 27, 2019
The tap pass has become a staple of NFL offenses over the past few years, and I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the pass defended like this.
What’s next for the Patriots? After intercepting a tap pass, I’m really not sure what other boundaries there are to be pushed. Is someone going to tackle both the quarterback and the running back on a read-option play? Are they gonna steal the long snap before it gets to the punter? Are the Patriots going to pick up an opposing quarterback and carry him into the end zone, ball included? I can’t wait for them to do one or perhaps all of these things, possibly during the Super Bowl.
Loser: The Broncos’ Last-Second Drive Defense
The Denver Broncos have two wins this season, and three losses on last-second field goals on drives where they appear to have recorded a game-sealing defensive play.
First was a game against the Bears in Week 2 in which Bradley Chubb was inexplicably called for roughing the passer on this tackle of Trubisky. A few plays later, Eddy Pineiro kicked a 53-yard game-winner. (Ah, those were the days.) Next came a game against the Jaguars where Gardner Minshew II was tackled by Chubb, fumbled, picked up the ball, and threw a pass for a completion. A few plays later, Josh Lambo kicked a 33-yard game-winner.
Sunday, the Broncos led the Colts by one when Von Miller had a free run at Jacoby Brissett—and if Miller didn’t get Brissett, Derek Wolfe bullied his way through a pair of Colts offensive linemen and also had Brissett in his sights. Miller got his hands on Brissett at the 1-yard line and swung the quarterback backward violently. But Brissett didn’t fall, and Miller’s tackle attempt took out Wolfe’s feet. Somehow, Brissett escaped—and made an incredible 35-yard pass on the run to T.Y. Hilton.
Because this was the Broncos, you already know what happened: Adam Vinatieri nailed a 51-yard game-winning field goal and the Colts won. (He’s alive!)
Here’s my advice for the Broncos: If you’re winning by one or two points, and the other team has the ball in the two-minute drill, don’t rush the quarterback. Just hang out and let him do whatever he wants back there. I know this sounds like a bad idea, but actually pursuing and nearly sacking the quarterback in these situations is clearly leading to Denver’s downfall.
Winner: Matt Nagy Finding a Scapegoat
In the playoffs last year, the Chicago Bears lost because of a kicker. Of course, they also lost for a variety of other reasons—because in the biggest game of the year, their perpetually subpar offense failed to score a touchdown for the first 50 minutes of the game. However, the 43-yard miss—which was a few inches from squeezing through the uprights … twice—carried the burden for all of Chicago’s failures. The Bears got rid of their kicker, Cody Parkey, and head coach Matt Nagy commissioned a comically elaborate search to find the team’s next kicker. When they decided on Eddy Pineiro—and Pineiro came through by drilling a 53-yard game-winner against the Broncos in Week 2—all their problems were supposedly fixed.
Of course, they weren’t. In 2019, Mitch Trubisky has been 31st out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks in yards per attempt, and Chicago’s offense is 30th of 32 teams in yards per play. Sunday’s game against the Chargers was perhaps their ugliest game yet. They outgained the Chargers by 157 yards, but scored a touchdown on only one of their five red zone trips.
On one drive before the end of the first half, the Bears got to the 8-yard line and were stopped on third down, but were bailed out by a Chargers penalty. From the 3-yard line, they were again stopped on third down, but were bailed out by a second Chargers penalty. From the 1-yard line, they ran two plays for no gain before being forced to spike to get off a last-second field goal. They ran 10 plays in the red zone and seven inside the 5-yard line, and got three points.
The Bears missed all sorts of opportunities to put extra points on the board, but they needed a field goal at the end of the game. Trailing 17-16 with 43 seconds to go and a timeout, Chicago got the ball to the 21-yard line. From there, the Bears decided to chill, kneeling and taking a timeout to set up a game-winning 41-yard field goal—in spite of the fact that Pineiro had missed a 33-yarder earlier.
After the game, Nagy was asked why he hadn’t tried to move the ball closer. He somewhat heatedly explained that he didn’t regret failing to move the ball closer. In fact, he never even thought about it.
Nagy explained that if he ran the ball, he set up the possibility of a fumble or loss of yardage. Thus far this season, Bears running back David Montgomery has just one fumble on 98 carries, and Sunday, he had 27 carries for 135 yards with no fumbles. He had roughly a 1 percent chance of fumbling and moving the ball closer to the end zone definitely would have increased Pineiro’s chances of hitting it by more than 1 percent. And besides, kneeling actually did move the ball back a few yards—the thing Nagy apparently feared would happen if the Bears ran. Nagy argued that the Bears had actually been in field goal range when they were at the 32-yard line—a 48-yarder for Pineiro. He does not seem to understand that field goals from closer are more likely to go in.
Nagy and Trubisky are the primary reasons the Bears lost Sunday. But Pineiro missed, so Nagy can start another search for the Bears’ kicker of the future while ignoring the team’s actual problems.
Loser: The Quick Whistle
Leading by four in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s matchup with the Buccaneers, the Titans made the questionable choice to attempt a fake field goal instead of trying to take a seven-point lead. Fun story about fake field goals: They almost never work! The field goal formation is compact and designed to do basically nothing besides provide maximum protection to the field goal spot, and the players asked to make plays on fake field goals are punters and kickers, and they are not good at making plays. If you need confirmation punters are bad at making plays, check out Titans punter Brett Kern. Kern hadn’t carried the ball since 2013 and hadn’t picked up a first down since 2011. Kern needed to make one move to get past Buccaneers first-round pick Devin White. He, uh, didn’t.
However, the initial excitement about the Bucs getting a stop was quickly overshadowed by anger at the officiating on the play. Kern, who carried the ball like a middle manager sprinting for a bus would hold a briefcase, clearly fumbled the ball well before hitting the ground. But the refs whistled the play dead. The Buccaneers would have returned it for a touchdown; instead they got the ball at the spot where Kern was tackled.
That meant instead of easily scoring a virtually uncontested touchdown to take the lead, the Buccaneers had to drive for a game-winning score—and their quarterback is Jameis Winston, so instead of driving for a game-winning score, their two attempts at winning the game resulted in a turnover on downs and an interception. (Winston had four turnovers Sunday, two interceptions and two lost fumbles.)
It’s the second too-quick whistle of the season—earlier this year, referees had whistled a play that should have been a Saints touchdown dead in a Week 2 matchup with the Rams. It’s an especially frustrating mistake by the referees, because refs should know to hold their whistles on plays that may be fumbles. If referees don’t whistle a play dead, and it turns out they should have, video review can fix the error and bring the ball back to the spot where the play should have ended. But if referees do whistle a play dead and it turns out they should not have, the problem cannot be fixed, because officials can’t assume anything else would have happened after the play. The Rams-Saints mistake was an obvious and disappointing error but it came in a game that ended up being decided by 18 points. Sunday’s error pretty obviously changed the outcome of a game.
While many refereeing mistakes are the result of overcomplicated and flawed rules, and many others are simply because referees are human, the too-quick whistle is one with an easy fix. As of now, though, referees aren’t choosing to fix it.
Loser: Freddie Kitchens
How is Cleveland’s season going? Let’s sum it up like this. Sunday, trailing by two scores against the Patriots, the Browns faced a fourth-and-11. Freddie Kitchens sent the punt team out on the field. However, he realized that trailing by two scores in the fourth quarter, he couldn’t punt—hey, smart! So he had someone on the punt team intentionally commit a false start to stop the play clock to bring the offense on the field so they could face a fourth-and-16.
ICYMI, CBS said Browns wanted to go on 4th & 11 but Kitchens couldn’t think of what play he wanted so he told the punt team to false start to stop the clock. I mean, what? Didn’t know what play to call? My mind is blown.
— Christopher Parker (@Bulldogwgr) October 27, 2019
Kitchens admitted this was actually his strategy post-game. The idea—taking a penalty to avoid using a timeout—isn’t that crazy. Although normally we see coaches do the opposite—taking a timeout to avoid a penalty. And when you’re facing fourth-and-11, and this brings up fourth-and-16 … maybe use the timeout, game situation regardless. Either way, it’s embarrassing that Kitchens changed his mind after sending the punt unit onto the field, putting his team in position to screw this up. And it’s especially embarrassing because Kitchens only felt obligated to save his timeouts because he had previously blown one challenging a pass-interference penalty, which, well, never works.
Of course, this is just a drop in the bucket in Bad Cleveland Browns Things. After all the preseason hype—WHOOPS!—Cleveland is 2-5 and pretty clearly didn’t belong on the same field as New England. They weren’t going to win whether they had a fourth-and-11, a fourth-and-16, or a fourth-and-1. They’re a mess right now, and it all seems to stem back to the decision to promote the running backs coach from a 7-8-1 team to head coach. Good head coaches make smart decisions the first time, instead of ordering their offense to commit an intentional penalty first.