Tipping Points: Week 4
by Scott Spratt
The Chiefs are at once the most exciting and least exciting team in football. They are most exciting because Patrick Mahomes routinely makes plays no other quarterback can make. But they are least exciting because it takes a Herculean defensive effort to hold him to fewer than 350 passing yards and three passing touchdowns, something the Jaguars, Raiders, and Ravens all failed to day in the first three weeks of this season. The Lions did both on Sunday, but they still couldn't hold Kansas City to fewer than 30 points. And that is the recipe for the Game of the Week.
Game of the Week
Chiefs at Lions
Despite its eventual 64 points scored, the Chiefs-Lions game was defined more by mistakes than by offense. In the first quarter, Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker missed a 36-yard field goal, just his second miss from fewer than 40 yards in his career. He hit his next attempt to cut the Chiefs' early deficit to a touchdown, but that made for consecutive drives where the Chiefs missed out on touchdowns they easily could have converted. On the play before the field goal miss, LeSean McCoy came open on a wheel route into the end zone, but defensive contact forced Mahomes to overthrow him. And the play before the field goal make, Mahomes connected with a wide-open Sammy Watkins for what would have been a 5-yard touchdown catch, but cornerback Justin Coleman -- promoted to shadow No. 1 receiver Watkins because of a hamstring injury to Darius Slay -- recovered and dislodged it.
The Chiefs scored a touchdown and a field goal on their last two possessions of the first half, but that just pulled them even with the Lions with a score of 13-13. And although receiving the second-half kickoff offered the Chiefs their first chance at a lead, they quickly lost that on another mistake. Mecole Hardman fielded the kickoff just in front of the end zone and advanced to the 35-yard line on what would have been an excellent return. However, that's where Jamal Agnew stripped him. The Lions recovered, setting up a possession on a short field from the Chiefs' 36-yard line.
It didn't take long for the Lions to reach a first-and-goal from the Chiefs' 7-yard line. And from the 5, Stafford floated a pass over cornerback Kendall Fuller to Kenny Golladay in the back of the end zone. Golladay elevated to make the grab and still kept his feet in the end zone while falling back to the far side. But upon review, the referees determine that the ball moved after Golladay's body had touched down out-of-bounds and ruled the catch an incompletion.
The Lions remained well-positioned to at a minimum kick a field goal and regain the lead, but on the next play, defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi strip-sacked a rolling Stafford. Chris Jones recovered, returning the ball to the Chiefs with the game still tied. Mahomes overthrew tight end Travis Kelce on a pass that would have quickly advanced the Chiefs into Lions territory. And on the next play, running back Darrel Williams fumbled the ball back to the Lions, setting them up again inside the Chiefs 30-yard line.
Stafford was denied on another near-touchdown when he threw a deep pass to Kerryon Johnson that linebacker Anthony Hitchens defended a bit too soon. The Chiefs avoided the defensive pass interference call, but karma returned the Lions to the doorstep with a J.D. McKissic carry up the middle for 26 yards that, when coupled with a facemask penalty, set the Lions up with a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line. The bigger back Johnson took that carry, and while falling to the ground reached the ball back over his head to try to break the plane. Instead, he reached the ball right into the chest of defensive lineman Xavier Williams. He was short of the end zone, but it seemed like no harm for the Lions, who would have another few cracks at a touchdown. At least, that seemed the case until about the 60th yard of Bashaud Breeland's return, when play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt pointed out that no one had blown a whistle.
It turns out, Johnson had fumbled just before his back touched down short of the end zone, and Breeland astutely ran over, retrieved the ball, and scurried for a 100-yard touchdown, the first of that distance on a fumble since 2000. The Lions obviously thought the play was dead. Their players in the scrum show no urgency getting off the turf, and if you look closely at the bottom of the video when Breeland crosses the 25-yard line, there are Lions walking off the field to their sideline. But the replay clearly showed that Johnson lost the ball, and referee Walt Anderson and his crew did the right thing by not blowing the play dead prematurely. And that is no coincidence. You might recognize Anderson's name from the Saints-Rams rematch from Week 2 this season. In that game, Anderson's crew whistled a play dead where Saints defender Cameron Jordan recovered a fumble and returned it for an 87-yard touchdown. The whistle erased that touchdown and precipitated a Saints loss.
It wasn't exactly bad luck for the Lions, but it was the sort of fluke play they couldn't afford against an explosive Chiefs team. But the Lions showed resolve, advancing their next possession to the periphery of field goal range. Matt Patricia send out his field goal unit to presumably kick a 58-yarder, but the Lions were able to induce the Chiefs to jump offsides on a hard count. That removed a critical 5 yards from Matt Prater's attempt, and he drilled the ensuing 53-yarder to cut the Lions deficit to four points at 20-16.
On their next possession, the Chiefs grabbed a quick 20 yards on a pair of short completions to Demarcus Robinson. But on the third play of the drive, Watkins tried to get up and advance a 4-yard completion the last yard the Chiefs needed for a new first down. However, that gave the cornerback Coleman a window to punch loose and recover another fumble. It was the fifth drive to end in a lost fumble in the first six drives of the second half.
Coleman was the Lions' best player on Sunday, anchoring a secondary that was missing its top cornerback Slay and top safety Quandre Diggs, who was forced out of the game in the first quarter with a hamstring injury. Mike Ford and C.J. Moore, undrafted rookies from 2018 and 2019, also played critical roles. Ford held the speedy Hardman to just two catches and 9 yards on 44 offensive snaps.
That third Chiefs fumble finally did the trick for the Lions. Again working from a short field, Stafford rocketed a 9-yard touchdown pass to Golladay between two defenders in the end zone. But already short a critical offensive weapon in Danny Amendola, the Lions also lost rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson on the drive. Hockenson suffered a concussion trying to leap over Tyrann Mathieu, falling and slamming his head into the artificial turf. The Lions were back up 23-20, but their offensive injuries put even more pressure on their No. 10 DVOA defense, which was similarly injury-depleted.
That was still the score at the start of the fourth quarter when Kelce made an incredible play, catching a 10-yard floater from Mahomes and then flipping it back on a lateral to McCoy, who scampered for another 23 yards to the Lions 13-yard line.
Mahomes later converted a critical third-and-6 with his legs, and Darrel Williams ran in a 1-yard touchdown two plays later. The Chiefs were back up 27-23, and the Lions had 12:09 to answer when they started their next drive with a touchback. Stafford advanced them to within 2 yards of midfield, but then a Chiefs blitz on third-and-7 allowed Mathieu into the backfield untouched. He sacked Stafford for a 14-yard loss, forcing a punt.
In danger of losing a game in which they peaked at a 68.8% Game-Winning Chance (GWC) in the third quarter, the Lions defense came up big on the next series, liming the Chiefs to just one first down. That put Stafford back to work with 6:42 remaining, and after a 3-yard loss from Kerryon Johnson to start the drive, the Lions gained 11, 6, 7, 9, and 6 yards on consecutive plays to get into Chiefs territory. There, Stafford floated a beautiful pass to Marvin Hall's outside shoulder. Forced into action by Danny Amendola's chest injury that made him inactive, Hall looked like a veteran starter on the play, jumping and spinning to make the catch with just enough space to get two feet in-bounds for a 34-yard gain. It was one of just two catches for Hall on three targets, but it was well-timed for the Lions.
Two plays later, Stafford threw a jump ball to Golladay to avoid a blitz, and Golladay came down with the catch and toe-tapped on the left edge of the end zone. That completion vs. non-completion call was as close as it gets, requiring a frame-by-frame look to see his left cleat scrape the blue turf before his toe landed on the white out-of-bounds. But this touchdown catch was upheld, and the Lions regained the lead, 30-27.
The Chiefs started their next drive from their own 21, but with 2:20 left and with two timeouts, they had ample time to mount a game-winning drive. In fact, they retained a 42.7% GWC. But that sunk to a nadir of 23.8% after the Lions forced a pair of incompletions with a 2-yard run in between. That put the Chiefs in a fourth-and-8 with 1:55 remaining, still on their own 34-yard line. There, the Lions bracketed Kelce with a pair of defenders and played man elsewhere, presumably forcing Watkins or one of the least-experienced receivers to beat a man. But what the Lions didn't account for was Mahomes' athleticism. He immediately saw an opening and scrambled for an easy 15 yards and a first down.
The next play, Mahomes danced back and forth in the pocket to buy time. That freed up Kelce, who made one cut and gained another 18 yards. That put the Chiefs on the Lions' 33-yard line, inside of field goal range with 1:20 left and a 57.5% GWC. A defensive holding penalty gave them another 5 yards and another first down, and then Mahomes nearly put the Chiefs ahead with a jump ball to Watkins in the left side of the end zone. But Coleman made another amazing play, extending his right arm across Watkins' body to swat the pass to the turf.
The Lions defense was bending but not breaking, but that might have been a bad thing. Even with the incompletion, the Chiefs had taken the clock down to 43 seconds, and their first down on the next play cut that further to 30 seconds. Patricia started then to use his timeouts, but it was too late to allow his offense a realistic chance to go the length of the field. They needed to hold the Chiefs to a field goal or force a turnover. Amazingly, recent practice squad graduate Bryon Pringle didn't fumble after his catch and spin crashed him into reserve safety Will Harris. But he avoided what would have been the fourth Chiefs fumble of the half and set the Chiefs up with a first-and-goal from the 5-yard line.
With the Lions calling timeouts to try to preserve clock, the Chiefs' full playbook was open to them. They ran once to erase the Lions' second timeout, and then Williams punched in the touchdown from the 1-yard line.
That left the Lions just 20 seconds to score a touchdown down four points from their own 25. Stafford offered some hope for that miracle with a 25-yard strike to Marvin Jones in traffic. The Lions' final timeout and a 6-yard quick out set up two consecutive Hail Mary attempts from just past midfield. Stafford aired the first one to the back of the end zone, and safety Jordan Lucas knocked it off course, or otherwise it might have fallen down to Golladay on his back beneath a bunch of Lions defenders. Stafford's next attempt fluttered a few yards short of the end zone, which made it easy for safety Juan Thornhill to spike down into the turf, ending the game.
After nail-biting finishes against the Cardinals, Chargers, Eagles, and Chiefs, the Lions locked up their first-quarter Most Valuable Team award for recap writers. They've made the Tipping Points cut three out of four weeks. A 2-1-1 record feels right for the closeness of their games, but the Lions' true talent is likely even better. They were the biggest Football Outsiders preseason sleeper team with a 15th-ranked DVOA projection. They were the No. 11 DVOA team through three weeks. And they are a good bet to vault into the top 10 after a close game with the No. 4 DVOA Chiefs.
The Chiefs didn't need this one, but it checks another difficult opponent off of their schedule and moves them to a period of four home games in five weeks. All four of those upcoming visitors to Kansas City -- the Colts, Texans, Packers, and Vikings -- were in the DVOA top 20 through three weeks, but three of them lost and two were upset at home in Week 4. The Chiefs may not lose before the second half of the season. Or maybe they won't lose, period.
The Best of the Rest
Jaguars at Broncos
The Jaguars and Broncos entered this contest with one win between them but still with plenty of hope with just the Chiefs, Patriots, and Bills starting 3-0 in the AFC. That made this game critical for both teams, and playing in Denver, the Broncos seemed to have the early edge. Joe Flacco completed a pair of first-half touchdown drives with 25- and 9-yard scoring passes to Noah Fant and Courtland Sutton. With a 17-3 lead and driving in Jaguars territory with a little more than a minute left in the second quarter, the Broncos had a chance to further increase it. Instead, Flacco badly overthrew Emmanuel Sanders on a short crossing route.
It was an easy pick for safety Ronnie Harrison, and his 31-yard return allowed the Jaguars an unexpected opportunity on offense. And despite near-20 mph winds, rookie quarterback Gardner Minshew delivered a perfect strike to D.J. Chark over the out-stretched hands of cornerback Chris Harris for an 18-yard touchdown. However, offensive lineman Cam Robinson erased that score on his third penalty on the day, this one illegal use of hands to the face. That penalty forced the Jaguars to settle for a field goal, but after scoring a touchdown on a 16-play, 10-minute and 24-second drive to start the second half, the Jaguars cut their deficit to 17-13. And after forcing a three-and-out, they needed just three more plays to take the lead with another touchdown. Leonard Fournette provided the key play with an 81-yard carry up the middle, demonstrating his power by breaking through a William Parks arm tackle and stiff-arming Duke Dawson to close the run with an extra 10 yards.
The Broncos entered this game as just the No. 23 DVOA defense, but their failures had been driven more by a surprising lack of a pass rush than by poor run defense. They seemed to correct the former in Week 4, registering their first five sacks of the season. But it came at the expense of the run defense, which allowed Fournette to gash them for 225 yards on 29 carries. Even excluding this 81-yard scamper, Fournette averaged 5.1 yards on his other 28 attempts.
Things were looking dire for the Broncos as the start of the fourth quarter with the Jaguars again driving, but an offensive holding penalty and third-and-16 sack of Minshew forced a punt on that drive, and a big De'Vante Bausby pass deflection in the end zone forced a 34-yard field goal on the next one. That had the Broncos down 23-17 with 2:54 remaining and little reason to believe in their offense. They had managed just 10 plays on three drives in the second half, all of which ended with a punt. But Flacco rediscovered some magic in the three-minute drill, connecting with Emmanuel Sanders in a hole in the zone for 16 yards and then Sutton for another 27 yards up the seam. That put the Broncos on the Jaguars' 32-yard line at the two-minute warning.
Fant knocked the Broncos back to the 35 with an offensive holding penalty two plays later, but Flacco survived it, hooking up with Sanders on a 27-yard slant that advanced them to the Jaguars' 8-yard line. Sanders enabled that big gain with excellent body control, spinning to catch a pass thrown behind him while still maintaining his momentum, which helped him dodge a Jarrod Wilson tackle and add 15 yards after the catch.
On the next play, Flacco found Sutton for the former's third and the latter's second touchdown of the day. Up 23-20, the Broncos had an easier decision than they did against the Bears two weeks ago. A made extra point extended their lead to four points, but as in that Bears game, the quick touchdown allowed their opponent a chance to answer. With 1:32 remaining this time, the Broncos GWC was even odds, and it fell to just 40.9% after a crazy second-and-10 play. Pass-rusher Bradley Chubb dislodged the ball from Minshew's hands, but the ball bounced back up and allowed Minshew a chance to still throw a pass. By that time, Vonn Miller was in the picture, and while he was not late when he crashed into Minshew, Miller struck him at the base of the facemask, drawing a roughing the passer penalty that advanced the Jaguars to their 41-yard line and granting them a new first down.
The call appears correct on replay, but that is unlikely to temper the anger Broncos fans felt after Chubb's roughing the passer penalty enabled the Bears game-winning drive in Week 2. And it didn't take long for Minshew to cash in on the Jaguars' good fortune. The next play, he dropped a perfect 16-yard pass into the hands of Dede Westbrook on the left sideline, and Westbrook ducked and spun away from a pair of defenders to add 16 more yards after the catch. With 1:03 remaining, Minshew hit Chris Conley for 8 yards, and Conley dragged Bausby for another 9 before linebacker Corey Nelson could arrive and knock Conley out of bounds.
That made it first-and-goal from the 10-yard line, which quickly became first-and-goal from the 20-yard line after a Brandon Linder offensive holding penalty. But down just one point, that was fine. The Jaguars were most concerned with killing the clock. They ran Fournette twice for a total of 5 yards, and the Broncos only had a timeout to stop the first carry. The Jaguars called their own timeout with four seconds left, and Josh Lambo split the uprights from 33 yards out to break the Broncos' hearts yet again.
Infamously, Sanders told The Athletic reporter Nicki Jhabvala that the Broncos were "in a world of suck" after their 0-3 start. After another blown fourth-quarter lead, the Broncos have entered a recurring nightmare of suck. Their playoff odds are down to a miniscule 2.0%, and one has to wonder whether team president John Elway can survive another disappointing season as Flacco's biggest champion. Flacco's -8.5% DVOA is 25th-best of the 35 quarterbacks with 50 or more attempts.
Emmanuel Sanders' full quote: pic.twitter.com/S6uoK0UR7b
In contrast, Minshew has been a sixth-round revelation. His 10.2% DVOA is ninth at the position and ahead of former MVPs Aaron Rodgers (8.8%) and Matt Ryan (6.6%). That may hilariously cause some consternation when Nick Foles and his $50 million guaranteed contract return from a broken clavicle, but I think Jaguars fans will likely trade some extra anxiety for back-to-back Minshew wins that have returned the team to a four-way tie for first place in the AFC South.
Panthers at Texans
Even given the Jaguars' comeback win in Denver on Sunday, it would have seemed a long shot for the team to make it back into that first-place tie. Both the Colts and the Texans entered the weekend at 2-1 and were hosting 1-2 Raiders and Panthers teams that had those AFC South teams as 6.5- and 4.0-point home favorites. I guess that's why Rivers writes a column called Any Given Sunday.
Of the two, the Panthers-Texans game was much closer, in great part thanks to three Kyle Allen lost fumbles. In his second start of the season and third of his career, Allen continued to throw the ball accurately and make good decisions. He has completed 7.4% more passes than expected on his throws according to Next Gen Stats -- fourth best at the position behind only Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, and Drew Brees -- and is sporting a very solid 4.3% DVOA for the season. But Allen never seemed to sense the pass rush around him on Sunday. Two of his fumbles came on strip sacks: one from Whitney Mercilus, who chased him down from behind, and one from J.J. Watt, who Allen never seemed to see even from his front-side approach. And two plays before the Mercilus strip, Allen completed a pass to Christian McCaffrey, seemingly unaware how close Watt was to pulling that pass out of his hand.
But the Panthers defense kept the team afloat, victimizing the poor Texans' offensive line to the tune of six sacks and eight tackles for losses. They limited the Texans to just seven points on their three drives following Panthers lost fumbles and ended one of the three with their own forced turnover, a Ross Cockrell interception on a mystifying DeAndre Hopkins pass across the field in the red zone. That turned what looked like an imminent Texans touchdown into the only touchdown the Panthers scored all game and a 10-3 advantage at the half. The Texans tied the score at 10-10 after the third-quarter Watt fumble recovery, and that's where the game stood entering the fourth quarter.
With 13:34 left, Deshaun Watson hit Carlos Hyde, who broke a pair of tackles to convert on a third-and-14. But that catch-and-run was erased by an illegal shift penalty, which forced a Texans punt two plays later. Allen converted a pair of third downs on the Panthers' subsequent possession, the first an absurd self-tipped McCaffrey catch where he crashed to the ground on the overthrow but slid past the first-down markers and the second a short play-action completion to tight end Greg Olsen.
For no clear reason, Texans coach Bill O'Brien challenged that McCaffrey completion, which was obviously both a catch and an untouched slide for a first down. That left the Texans with just one timeout left in a close game, something that would come back to really hurt their chances.
That Panthers drive stalled after linebacker Zach Cunningham diagnosed a screen pass to McCaffrey and dropped him for a 6-yard loss. The Michael Palardy punt pinned the Texans inside their 10-yard line, but a defensive pass interference penalty converted their subsequent third-and-4 and advanced them to the 21. Watson hit receiving back Duke Johnson for a 10-yard catch-and-run down the left sideline for another first down, but after a 4-yard carry, the Texans couldn't get organized in time for a second-and-6 play. O'Brien called timeout to avoid a delay-of-game penalty, the Texans' last of the half. In a vacuum, that may have been the right thing to do, but the Texans failed to benefit from the 5 yards they saved. Instead, on the very next play, defensive lineman Vernon Butler dropped Watson for his sixth and final sack, dislodging the ball. Safety Eric Reid had hustled all the way around from the right side and recovered the fumble on the left side of the formation. The Panthers regained possession on the Texans' 33-yard-line, up 13-10 with 4:05 remaining and with no way for the Texans to stop the clock.
The Panthers didn't help themselves with a Taylor Moton false start and a short completion to McCaffrey that led him out of bounds. But on third-and-6, Allen made his play of the game, somehow dodging Watt, who had broken through the middle of the line, and recovering to complete a 17-yard pass to Jairus Wright. The completion dropped the Texans' GWC from 19.5% to just 2.0%.
Three straight carries gained just 4 yards, but drained the clock all the way to 31 seconds. That's when kicker Joey Slye made a 26-yard field goal to extend the Panthers' lead to six points.
Watson had 28 seconds to try to answer with a touchdown, starting from his own 25 after a touchback. But linebacker Shaq Thompson dragged tight end Jordan Akins down in-bounds after a 10-yard catch, and after a spike, that left the Texans with a second-and-10 from their 35-yard line with just 12 seconds to go. Hopkins gained 14 and 4 yards with consecutive catches that took him out of bounds down the left sideline, but that left the Texans with a Hail Mary attempt from the Panthers' 47. Watson lofted the pass into the end zone despite being crushed again by the Panthers pass rush as he threw. But the safety Reid elevated and batted the pass to the turf to end the game.
From one perspective, the Texans could afford the loss because the Colts were also upset, and so they did not fall out of a tie for first place in the division. But it's difficult to remain positive about this Texans team that allowed an NFL-worst 44.6% pressure rate through the first three weeks and then continued to let Watson take abuse at home against a Panthers defense that previously had a middling pressure rate according to Sports Info Solutions.
The Panthers did not get the Sunday night Saints loss they needed to get back into an NFC South tie, but back-to-back wins with their backup quarterback have saved a season that looked lost after an 0-2 start and Cam Newton foot injury. Newton recently confirmed that his ailment was a Lisfranc injury and offered anywhere from a one- to six-week time table for his return. Allen's good performance should hopefully allow the team to play things more conservatively than they did at the beginning of the season. The Panthers host another emergency starter in Minshew and the Jaguars in Carolina in Week 5 and then play the Buccaneers in London in Week 6. That may set up Newton for a Week 8 return after the team's bye.
Patriots at Bills
The much-anticipated matchup between the 3-0 Patriots and Bills in Buffalo looked like it might be a blowout early after safety Devin McCourty came down with a Josh Allen jump-ball pass to John Brown. His return started the subsequent Patriots drive from midfield, and Tom Brady and company needed just seven plays to gain 50 yards, capped by a 4-yard Brandon Bolden touchdown carry. When the Bills went three-and-out on their next drive, Corey Bojorquez had his punt blocked by free rusher J.C. Jackson, and seven-time special teams Pro Bowler Matthew Slater recovered and ran it in for an 11-yard touchdown. Even with another Stephen Gostkowski missed extra point, the Bills were in a quick 13-0 hole.
But that deficit was on the Bills' offensive and special teams mistakes -- their No. 6 DVOA defense came to play. They limited the Patriots to just three more points on the day, which they managed despite two more Allen interceptions -- the first on a third-and-4 rainbow to Jackson that might as well have been a punt and the second on an ill-advised deep throw on the run down the right sideline that Jackson jumped and secured with both feet in bounds. And despite those lowlights, Allen led a nine-play, 75-yard drive at the start of the second half that became the first touchdown the Patriots defense had allowed all season when Allen jumped on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line and broke the plane with a reach just before a Patriots defender knocked the ball out of his hands.
The Patriots led 16-10 at the start of the fourth quarter, and the Bills were facing a third-and-8 5 yards into Patriots territory. Allen took the snap out of shotgun and dropped back three more steps, but he had clearly already decided to try to run for the first down. He got within a yard of the line to gain when cornerback Jonathan Jones smashed Allen with a helmet-to-helmet hit.
Allen was down for some time on the field after the hit but was fortunately able to jog to the sideline. Still, the likely concussion ended his day prematurely, and Jones' unnecessary roughness penalty did not even provide a silver lining since it was offset by an offensive hold. It also threw backup quarterback Matt Barkley into a tough spot, coming in cold in the fourth quarter of a game against the league's No. 1 DVOA defense and needing a touchdown. Apparently, he didn't need much time to get warm. On the same third-and-8, he dropped a beautiful teardrop for 28 yards to John Brown. Two plays later, the Bills got creative with a lateral to Brown, who then passed but underthrew an open T.J. Yeldon in the end zone. A better throw would have given the Bills a lead, but an unnecessary roughness penalty this time moved the Bills forward to within 8 yards of the end zone.
The Bills reached second-and-goal from the 5-yard line, but that became the 10-yard line after a critical delay-of-game penalty -- the Bills had already used their three timeouts, one on a failed challenge of a not-called possible offensive pass interference on the Patriots and twice because they were not ready on schedule with the play clock. But Barkley connected with Brown, who spun to the outside and came down just 2 yards shy of the end zone. After Frank Gore got stopped on a third-and-goal from the 2-yard line for a 1-yard loss, the Bills had to decide whether to go for a touchdown that would put them up by one or kick a field goal that would leave them down by three. The opted to pass, which the GWC model supported as a 4.0% improvement over a field goal attempt and a 1.5% improvement over a run. But Barkley was spooked by the Patriots pass pressure and threw high, and Zay Jones could only tip the ball at the pinnacle of his jump. The play was originally ruled an interception to Pat Chung and then overturned to an incompletion, but either way, it was a turnover on a fourth down.
With 10:44 remaining and the Patriots still pinned at their own 3-yard line, the Bills were far from sunk. In fact, they retained a 13.2% chance to win, which improved by 18.8% after the Patriots gained just 3 yards and punted to the Bills' 47-yard line. Barkley started that next drive with an 11-yard strike to Yeldon but then underthrew three straight passes to Brown, Jones, and Cole Beasley in turn. Bojorquez punted and nearly pinned the Patriots inside their 5-yard line again, but special teamer Siran Neal stepped onto the goal line before diving and deflecting the punt back into the field of play. It was a touchback that gave the Patriots some room to operate, but they went three-and-out again, aided by a false start penalty on Marcus Cannon and the Bills' pass pressure. The third-and-5 incompletion looked like a clear intentional grounding penalty, but it went uncalled, and that plus a 49-yard punt and subsequent false start penalty flipped the field position, putting the Bills in a first-and-15 from their own 22.
Barkley erased that hole with a 15-yard dump-off to Yeldon, but then he put the Bills in another one when he missed on an intermediate pass to Beasley and then took a sack from Kyle Van Noy that jarred the ball loose. The Bills recovered the fumble, but that set them back to a third-and-19 that became a third-and-24 after another false start penalty. The Patriots let tight end Dawson Knox have 18 yards after Barkley avoided some pass pressure, and the Bills again punted the ball back to the Patriots, now with 5:19 left in the fourth quarter.
For all of their chances, the Patriots offense struggled to move the ball against the Bills defense all game. This drive, Sony Michel took a pair of carries for 17 total yards and a rare Patriots first down, but Brady couldn't connect with Josh Gordon or James White on the subsequent second and third downs. They punted the ball back to the Bills with 3:09 left in the game. It was plenty of time for a game-winning drive, but it would have to be the full length of the field after an illegal blocking penalty pushed the Bills back to their own 14.
Barkley looked like he might find the magic, completing 20-, 7-, and 19-yard passes, the first two to Beasley and the third to Knox. That advanced the Bills to the Patriots' 40-yard line at the two-minute warning. But the Patriots defense read a screen pass to the wide receiver Brown and dropped him for a 1-yard gain, and then they batted a Barkley pass into heavy traffic. That left the Bills with a third-and-9, but Barkley wanted it all. He dropped back to air it out to Brown streaking down the right sideline, but he was hit as he threw by an unblocked Van Noy. The ball deflected skyward and dropped into the hands of linebacker Jamie Collins for an easy game-sealing interception. There was a little over a minute and a half left, but without any timeouts, the Bills couldn't stop the Patriots from running the clock out with three quarterback kneels.
It wasn't vintage Patriots, but their 16-10 win illustrated what their No. 1 DVOA defense could do to help an offense depleted by the losses of Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, and the injured-but-playing Julian Edelman. But you probably don't need to be reminded that the Patriots can win in a variety of ways. For me, the lasting legacy of this game will be the Bills' resiliency. Despite their interceptions, blocked punt, and injured quarterback, they had multiple shots to put together a game-winning fourth-quarter drive. It won't be in Buffalo, but one has to wonder whether things will go differently with a healthy Josh Allen in a Week 16 rematch. And even with the loss, the 3-1 Bills have a game advantage on the fourth-place AFC team in the standings.
Cowboys at Saints
The Sunday night Cowboys-Saints game seemed like a long shot to be a defensive struggle, but Drew Brees' injury has taken most of the Saints' downfield passes out of their playbook, an ideal development for a Cowboys defense that with Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith is stronger at linebacker than in the secondary. And the big winner of the Saints upset was their No. 28 DVOA defense, which held the Cowboys' No. 1 DVOA offense to just 257 total yards.
Of course, the Cowboys were partially responsible for their lack of production and opportunities on offense. On their last two drives of the first half, they turned the ball over on fumbles, the first after a 16-yard catch-and-run from Jason Witten and the second on a fourth-and-1 would-be rushing conversion by Ezekiel Elliott. That second play was interesting both because Jason Garrett ran the ball on a fourth down from his own 43-yard line -- a decision GWC loves as a 5.9% improvement over a punt -- and because Elliott's left elbow looked like it might have been down before the ball was jarred loose.
The Cowboys defense responded to the first lost fumble with a forced three-and-out, but the second fumble set the Saints up in Cowboys territory. Teddy Bridgewater hit on a couple of short passes for 9 and 8 yards, and then a third-and-10 roughing the passer penalty on Dexter Lawrence advanced the Saints into the red zone with 35 seconds left in the half. A couple of short completions later, the Saints were at first-and-goal from the 4-yard line with just four seconds to work with. Sean Payton opted to try a quick pass, which Bridgewater sailed out of bounds to the right. The clock shouldn't stop until the pass hits something -- probably the ground in this case -- out of bounds, but somehow the play only took two of the remaining four seconds from the game clock. My timing has the play lasting somewhere between three and four seconds, a possible three-point difference as the Saints closed the half with a 19-yard Wil Lutz field goal. That's kind of a big deal in a game that the Saints ended up winning by two points.
Still, the Cowboys looked unfazed by some possibly bad breaks at the end of the first half. They started the second half by forcing a three-and-out, and then they rattled off their only extended drive of the day, gaining 84 yards on 11 plays that ended with a 1-yard Elliott touchdown run. That put the Cowboys in the lead at 10-9, but the Saints answered with a ridiculous 15-play drive that included third-and-1 conversions by both Latavius Murray and Bridgewater, the second on a quarterback sneak. Lutz capped it with a 26-yard field goal on a fourth-and-2 from the Cowboys' 8-yard line, a GWC error of 5.2% versus a run. But perhaps Payton had more faith in his Saints defense than their recent history suggested he should. They overcame a defensive holding penalty to force a punt on the Cowboys' ensuing drive and then forced a three-and-out on the Cowboys' next one.
That left the Saints with 5:22 of clock to try to kill, and Alvin Kamara helped make that happen with a 9-yard pitch and a 2-yard power run on a pair of third-and-1s. That created a new first down at the two-minute warning, which forced the Cowboys to use their three timeouts on the next three Saints plays, two unsuccessful runs and a 16-yard Bridgewater sack. That latter play highlighted what the Saints were missing without Brees. Bridgewater's unwillingness to throw the ball down the field makes him much easier to defend in third-and-long situations, and Jaylon Smith was able to knock the Saints out of field goal range when a make would have forced the Cowboys to score a touchdown to win.
The Saints were able to pin the Cowboys back to their own 14-yard line, which quickly became their 3-yard line after Prescott took a sack from defensive tackle David Onyemata. The play really couldn't have gone much worse for the Cowboys, who in addition to losing the yards saw All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith injured and lost 10 seconds of game clock by rule because of the injury and without a timeout to prevent it. A minute and 12 seconds is not a lot of time to go the length of the field, but Prescott accomplished a major part of it, completing 9- and 14-yard passes to Elliott and Amari Cooper that created an unlikely first down. That left the Cowboys with a first-and-10 from their 26-yard line with 34 seconds to work with. He overthrew Cooper down the left sideline on a throw that could have taken them to midfield. Cooper signaled for a flag for defensive pass interference, but the referees called one instead on Cooper that backed the Cowboys up to their 16. Cris Collinsworth agreed with the call during the replay, but I lean the other way -- Marshon Lattimore was definitely the first play to make contract, but perhaps his flailing swayed the referees.
With 17 seconds left on a third-and-20, Prescott connected with Randall Cobb for 32 yards up the seam. The Cowboys hustled up to midfield, and Prescott was able to spike it to stop the clock with three seconds left. But unfortunately for the Cowboys, they were still 10-plus yards away from even a desperation field goal attempt. In lieu of that, he aired a pass out that made it to within 10 yards of the end zone, but that's where Marcus Williams was waiting to leap for a game-ending interception.
The NFC is much more crowded at the top of the conference than the AFC, so this result may make a major difference for both the Cowboys and Saints at the end of the season. But now 3-1 and with the second-best DVOA in football, it's hard to imagine this Cowboys loss will majorly dent their chances at a top seed in the playoffs. With their 21st-ranked DVOA and likely still without Brees for another month or more, the Saints likely benefit more by the win than the Cowboys suffer from the loss, especially with the Saints set to travel to Jacksonville and Chicago in Weeks 6 and 7 to face a pair of fearsome defenses.