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: Fantasy Destruction
Fantasy football is completely random, or at least I just tell myself that to make up for the fact that I’m a professional football writer who gets washed by my friends with actual jobs. Even smart, diligent fantasy managers who adhered to a well-respected draft guide and keep a close eye on the waiver wire show up and get completely wrecked by the cruel unpredictability of the game, and never was there a better example than Sunday.
In the first weeks of the season, exactly one player had a game in which they scored 40 fantasy points: Russell Wilson, who had 406 yards and four touchdowns (two passing touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns) Week 3 against the Saints. Sunday, three players had 40 fantasy points, and a fourth had 39.7. There was Christian McCaffrey, who had 176 rushing yards, 61 receiving yards, and three touchdowns. Here he is scooting for 84 yards, completely untouched:
There was Deshaun Watson, who threw for 426 yards and five touchdowns against the Falcons. Three were to Will Fuller V, who came into Sunday’s game with 183 yards and no touchdowns on the season—and finished the day with 217 yards and three touchdowns:
And there was Aaron Jones, who had 107 rushing yards, 75 receiving yards, and four touchdowns:
If we were to go by PPR scoring, we could include Michael Thomas, who had 182 yards, two touchdowns, and 11 receptions. In the history of fantasy football, there had never been a week with this many over-the-top performances. There had been one in 1965, but nobody was playing fantasy football back then. (Apologies if you were, in fact, playing fantasy football during the era before the Beatles found out about weed. Did you have to run an AFL league and an NFL league separately?)
With that TD, Aaron Jones became the fifth player this week to reach the 40 PPR fantasy point threshold. It’s only the second time since at least 1950 that five individuals have scored 40-plus points in a single week: The other was Week 13 of the 1965 season.
— Tristan H. Cockcroft (@SultanofStat) October 6, 2019
Why did all of these fantasy booms occur at this moment? It is inexplicable. It’s not as if fantasy football magma had built up for millions of years under a fantasy football volcano, leading to an eventual eruption. There is no reason why the Texans, Packers, Saints, and Panthers all made their attacks so centered on single players in this particular week, or why the Falcons, Cowboys, Buccaneers, and Jaguars were so unable to stop these particular players.
People woke up on Sunday morning, earnestly considered which players they should sit and which players they should start, and genuinely believed Yahoo when its fantasy projections said they had a 44 percent chance at victory, only to lose by 200 points. This isn’t an exaggeration! People lost by 200 points! It was a week unlike any in fantasy history. I assume it will take you a few years to live this down if you’re one of the people unfortunate enough to end up buried under a fantasy avalanche.
Loser: Patrick Mahomes’s Superhero Act
There’s always gotta be that one scene with like 20 minutes left in a superhero movie where the good guy gets sapped of his powers. Superman got close to some kryptonite and all of a sudden he’s just like a regular guy; Iron Man’s suit malfunctions; Ant-Man … I guess becomes regular sized? (Sorry, I don’t know superheroes that well.) They struggle and flail, unsure how to act when the gift that got them so far fails them at a critical moment.
That’s what Patrick Mahomes seemed to face on Sunday night, after an ankle injury ruined his night. In the first half, Mahomes made a play no other human in NFL history could’ve made. Trademark Mahomes: He ran backwards 20 yards, ran forward 20 yards, headed to the sideline, and then somehow whipped a perfect rope to a wide receiver nobody had ever heard of while sprinting:
In the second half, Mahomes tweaked his ankle and was forced to limp off the field. He never left the game but was clearly hampered.
He threw passes to nobody in particular; he threw passes that sagged instead of zipping. When he previously would’ve ducked and dipped and dodged incoming defenders, he seemed calmly resigned to sacks. He threw incompletions on seven of his next nine passing attempts.
At this point in the superhero movie, the superhero figures it out. They think about their mom or their girlfriend or their friends or they remember some source of power they’d forgotten about, then they overpower the guy who was kicking their ass and they save the world.
But Mahomes couldn’t. The Chiefs lost their first game of the year, 19-13. It’s the first time in Mahomes’s year-plus as a starter that Kansas City failed to score 25 points in a game, and they barely got half that. Mahomes threw for just one touchdown, only the fifth time in his career he’s failed to throw for multiple scores. His 56.4 percent completion percentage was the second worst in his career. He was sacked four times, the second most in his career. And of 22 career starts, Sunday’s 8.2 yards per attempt ranks 15th.
We knew that Kansas City could lose with Mahomes at quarterback—they lost four regular-season games last year, and lost to the Patriots in the AFC championship game. But those were games in which Mahomes played great and the Chiefs simply got outscored. Sunday, Kansas City lost because Mahomes became human, with no elixir to turn him back. It was strange to watch. Superheroes aren’t supposed to lose.
Sometimes, a defender needs to make a tackle. They need to do everything they can to get as much of their body mass on the opposing ball carrier, and use both of their arms to wrap up that ball carrier and ensure he can’t get away.
Sometimes, though, a defender needs the damn ball. They could try to just hit the ball carrier as hard as they can to jar the ball loose, but honestly, NFL players are strong enough this doesn’t work that often. The defender needs to get part of his body on that ball. Some guys try to rip. Some guys try to hurl their hard helmet at the ball. But the cleanest method of getting that ball loose is the Peanut Punch, named after Charles “Peanut” Tillman, the Bears cornerback who turned his right fist into a ball-seeking missile time after time after time.
Sunday, Tillman attended Chicago’s game against the Raiders, and told cornerback Sherrick McManis to consider the Peanut Punch. Sure enough, with Oakland on the goal line on first down, McManis threw a fist at the ball in hopes of robbing the Raiders of three more shots at the end zone. It worked, as Chicago forced a turnover and held onto the lead:
Later, the Ravens won with a punch. The Steelers had the ball in overtime, and could have won with a score. Instead, Marlon Humphrey jabbed at JuJu Smith-Schuster, popping the ball loose and recovering it on Pittsburgh’s 34-yard line and setting up a game-winning Justin Tucker field goal.
The punch requires ridiculous precision. It’s much more likely that a punch attempt leads to a missed tackle than a forced fumble. But when executed properly, it’s so satisfying. No matter how much a player is trying to protect the ball, it’s hard to hold on when an opponent gets the ball with a perfectly placed pop. Sunday was the greatest day for football punches since LeGarrette Blount got mad he lost to Boise State, and I’m thinking it’s time for the league’s cornerbacks to hit the speedbags to beef up their punching precision.
Loser: The Midafternoon Doldrums
Sunday featured 13 football games, one of which was Packers-Cowboys. If you pay attention to TV ratings, you know that the Cowboys are easily the most-watched team in America. They played in the most-watched regular-season game of the 2018 season, the most-watched game of the 2017 season, the three most-watched games of the 2016 season, the three most-watched games of the 2015 season (even though they went 4-12), and two of the three most-watched games of the 2014 season. The Packers are typically close behind, and when the two teams meet, it’s ratings gold. Their matchup in the 2017 playoffs was the most-watched divisional-round game of all time. A matchup between Green Bay and Dallas was the third-most watched game in both the 2015 and 2016 seasons, and the sixth-most watched in 2017. (The teams didn’t play last year.)
So when the schedule puts the Cowboys and Packers together, it’s a big deal from a TV perspective. Fox had the rights to broadcast the game and cleared out the schedule to enhance its importance. They put the game in the 4 p.m. window, when no other Fox games were airing. CBS essentially opted not to compete, with just one late game (Broncos-Chargers) in the 4 p.m. window. The result was a day with 10 games played at 1 p.m. and just two played at 4 p.m.
The 1 p.m. window was thrilling. The Steelers and Ravens went to overtime; the Cardinals beat the Bengals on a last-second field goal; the Raiders beat the Bears with a 97-yard touchdown drive with under two minutes to go; Gardner Minshew II got to attempt roughly 11 Hail Mary passes in a desperate attempt to force overtime against the Panthers.
The 4 p.m. window was … not as thrilling. The Broncos and Packers took 17-0 leads and coasted to wins. The scores were slightly closer (Denver won 20-13, Green Bay won 34-24) but neither game seriously felt like it was up for grabs.
In a world where NFL RedZone exists, it feels weird that the NFL intentionally plans heavy windows and light windows, leading to hours when it’s impossible to keep track of everything that’s happening and hours when there are fewer games to watch than available screens in your football cave. Scott Hanson had enough time to take a pee break for the first time since 2017. (I don’t know if he did, but he had the time.) But while it may have been a sleepy afternoon for football obsessives like … well, all of you reading this article, the TV ratings will probably explain why the NFL does it this way.
Loser: The Flag Fight
Sunday, Jason Garrett almost lost yardage for winning a challenge. After a pass to Amari Cooper was ruled incomplete, he emphatically challenged the referee’s ruling, hooting and hollering and spiking his red hankie at the feet of side judge Scott Edwards. Edwards, apparently upset by the way Garrett threw the challenge flag at him, or perhaps the language Garrett used, threw a flag of his own, penalizing Garrett for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Crew chief Ron Torbert said the flag was for “abusive language.” I kinda wish Garrett and Edwards had just continued hurling larger and larger flags in the air, like Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam, until somebody was flailing at one of those field-sized American flags they bring out during the national anthem.
I think most of the laughter here was at Garrett for drawing a flag, but I actually think he got the raw end of this exchange. His challenge was justified, as the call was overturned upon review. I’m more disappointed in the ref, who got so defensive that a coach was mad about the incorrect call that he changed the game’s course of play.
Winner: The Bills’ Incredible Field Goal Defense
In 2019, the average NFL team is scoring 22.8 points per game. So far, the Bills have scored or allowed more than that only once, when they put up a whopping 28 points in a win over the Giants. Buffalo’s defense might be the best in the league, and has yet to allow 20 points. Its offense is not great, and has yet to score 30 points. Because their bad offense is less bad than their excellent defense is good, they’re 4-1, and well on their way to a playoff spot.
However, things easily could be different. Week 1 against the Jets, the Bills scored 17 unanswered points after falling into a 16-0 hole to squeak out with a 17-16 win. But that was possible only because Kaare Vedvik decided to miss every single kick he attempted during his brief NFL career, bricking an extra point and a field goal before being cut by the Jets days later.
Sunday, Buffalo’s luck repeated itself in a 14-7 win over Tennessee. It’s rare to argue field goals were the difference in a game decided by a touchdown, but Tennessee’s Cairo Santos missed four. Santos, a Brazilian kicker signed just before the season to replace Ryan Succop, missed every single field goal he attempted, a rare occurrence with that many kicks. Santos is just the 21st player in NFL history to miss four or more field goals without hitting any, and 15 of those happened in 1980 or earlier. In the 21st century, it’s happened only three times: Dan Carpenter missed four kicks in a 2010 game, punter Michael Koenen missed four kicks in a 2006 game where he was forced into placekicking duty, and then there’s Santos.
Some of the blame for Santos’s day should be placed on Titans coach Mike Vrabel, who inexplicably sent Santos out to kick a 53-yarder with his team trailing by a touchdown with six minutes left after the Brazilian had already missed three shorter kicks. They needed more than three points, and Santos wasn’t even going to get them three. (In fact, he missed the net.)
And the Bills should get some credit. After all, Santos’s 33-yard attempt when the game was tied wasn’t a plain miss, but a block by Bills defensive end Darryl Johnson. But I like to believe the Bills have just figured out how to convince opposing kickers to miss. So far, opposing kickers are an astounding 2-for-8 on field goals, with four misses from under 50 yards. They’re also just 6-for-8 on extra points against Buffalo.
Maybe the Bills are all heavily exhaling in unison as opposing kickers wind up, sending kicks spraying wide right. Maybe the Bills are just extremely handsome, rattling opposing kickers who can’t focus on their job. Maybe they’ve discovered which foods opposing kickers are allergic to, and have instructed local hotel kitchen staff to sprinkle trace amounts of those foods when the kickers order room service. Wherever the Bills play, opposing kickers crumble.
Loser: The Steelers’ Injury Cart
Sunday brought one of those moments that made me think about how the checks that show up in my bank account every two weeks for writing about football could be considered blood money. Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph got sandwiched between a pair of Ravens defenders and was unconscious before he hit the ground. For a good amount of time, the only sign Rudolph was alive was the way his arms shot up in the fencing response after the hit. The moment had all the trademarks of an on-field tragedy: a completely motionless player; his teammates crying and trying in vain to get any sort of reaction from him; opponents taking a respectful knee; the hush of 70,000 people wondering whether they had paid to watch a man die. When I found out that Rudolph only had a brain injury and not a potentially paralyzing neck/spine injury, I let out a sigh of relief.
After several minutes, Rudolph stood, and wobbled off the field with the help of teammates. It seemed odd—why was Rudolph, clearly struggling to move, being asked to move at all? Shouldn’t he be strapped to some sort of backboard and carried off?
Soon, the reason was revealed. Pittsburgh’s injury cart was broken and had to be pushed off the field:
The Steelers claimed the cart failed due to “operator error,” that Rudolph had not needed the cart, and that there was a backup cart available if it had been needed. I’m skeptical: Rudolph looked like a boxer in the 15th round. I was worried he was going to fall! If we’re going to have a sport that sometimes turns players’ brains off and leaves them wobbling off the field on Jell-O legs, we better have a damn machine to take them off the field.
Loser: The Dolphins’ Tank
Today was the most successful Sunday of Miami’s football season, in that the Dolphins were on a bye, and therefore didn’t lose a game. However, it was the first Sunday that made me wonder whether the Dolphins’ tank job may be all for naught.
The 0-4 Bengals had a home game against the 0-3-1 Cardinals, an opportunity to finally get a W after losing 27-3 to the previously winless Steelers on Monday night. And they fell behind 23-9 before rallying to a 26-23 loss. The Bengals feel like a team that could go 0-16.
Washington, which was also 0-4 entering Sunday, took a surprising 7-0 lead on the undefeated Patriots … and then gave up the next 33 points. New quarterback Colt McCoy looked like he did all the other times Washington decided Colt McCoy was their new quarterback, going 18-for-27 for just 119 yards with no touchdowns and a pick. Washington feels like a team that could go 0-16.
And the Jets looked worst of all. Third-string quarterback Luke Falk was sacked nine times. Fourth-string quarterback David Fales came in and was sacked on his only dropback. Falk threw two interceptions—one of which was a screen pass that got intercepted and returned for a touchdown—and also had the ball literally ripped out of his hands for another defensive touchdown. Yes, Falk is the third-stringer, and New York has to hope that Sam Darnold will be better when he returns. But it is worrisome that alleged quarterback whisperer Adam Gase has now had three weeks to work with Falk, and he got sacked nine times and gave up two defensive touchdowns. The Jets feel like a team that could go 0-16.
I believe in Miami’s ability to lose every game this season. But what if they’re not alone? The Patriots’ quest for yet another title is boring; the race to the bottom is the real story of the season.