Players over plays.
That is a phrase I heard time and again in the Sky Sports studio last winter when Jeff Reinebold – a college and professional coach of 40 years – and Bucky Brooks, a former NFL player and scout who is now a high school head coach in California as well as an excellent NFL Network analyst, would discuss the value of personnel over creative scheming.
Of course, schemes and X's and O's are a major part of this sport we all love. But there is also a time to keep things ridiculously simple – you get the ball into the hands of your very best players and you let them do their thing.
That thought was on my mind as the Arizona Cardinals took possession of the football one last time in Week 10, trailing the Buffalo Bills 30-26 with just 34 seconds remaining following Josh Allen's excellent touchdown pass to a diving Stefon Diggs.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and you may, of course, think I am just making this up. But I turned to Vince Young and Shaun Gayle in our Sky Sports NFL studio and said: "I don't even care what plays get called on this drive – I just want to see at least one get thrown up to DeAndre Hopkins. Let him go and win a jump ball."
The rest, as they say is history. But not just any old history. History of the most dramatic kind.
With two seconds left on the clock, Kyler Murray rolled to his left – not an easy thing to do for a right-handed quarterback – evaded being sacked at his own 46-yard line and then threw up a prayer from the Buffalo 49-yard line as he was falling toward the sideline with a defender bearing down on him.
That alone was impressive stuff. What followed was logic-defying, brilliant and vindication for an offseason trade that shocked and rocked the NFL world back in March.
Sandwiched between a trio of Bills defensive backs, DeAndre Hopkins leapt and extended just enough to reel in the game-winning 43-yard touchdown pass with two seconds left on the clock. It had me leaping off the bright red Sky Sports sofa and I'm sure fans across the UK were reacting in exactly the same way. There is nothing like a Hail Mary touchdown pass to end a game.
It was a truly sensational effort from Hopkins, whose surprise move away from the Houston Texans still makes no sense to anyone apart from the since-fired Bill O'Brien. We often see receivers 'Moss' defensive backs in one on one situations, but rarely do we see such catches in triple coverage.
The last one of note like that was a Calvin Johnson touchdown reception for Detroit against the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013. It was voted the NFL Play of the Year but even that didn't have the drama of Hopkins' effort. Megatron's catch tied that particular game with 12 minutes remaining. Hopkins ended Sunday's thoroughly entertaining Week 10 clash with the Bills in emphatic fashion, sparking wild celebrations along the sideline that included the Cardinals' public relations director!
It was a galvanising win for the Cardinals, who were staring down the barrel of a second successive heart-breaking loss at home. Arizona are now 6-3 and well placed to make a run for the playoffs and that is down to this very simple premise… players over plays.
Kyler Murray… Patrick Mahomes won the NFL's Most Valuable Player award in 2018 – his second season in the league. Lamar Jackson won the prize in the NFL – his second season in the league. You know where I'm going with this, right? Murray is in his second NFL season and why not him for the league MVP crown in 2020? On Sunday evening, Murray became the first QB to rush for a touchdown in five straight games since Tobin Rote in 1956 and he became just the fourth in NFL history. Murray is on pace to become the first player in NFL history to record 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in the same season. When you're talking historically-great displays week in and week out, surely that has to put him in the conversation?
Miami's defense and special teams… There is much excitement around Tua Tagovailoa's development at quarterback for the Dolphins, but Miami's five-game winning streak probably owes more to its defense and special teams. Those two units step up and make plays every single week. Andrew Van Ginkel's blocked punt led to Miami's first touchdown in a 29-21 win over the Los Angeles Chargers and a second half interception from Xavien Howard – his fifth of the season – set up Tua's touchdown pass to Durham Smythe that gave Miami an unassailable 26-14 lead. The Dolphins forced rookie sensation Justin Herbert into career lows for passing yards (187), yards per attempt (5.8) and quarterback rating (86.3). Miami have now forced at least one turnover in 15 straight games – the longest streak in the NFL.
Alvin Kamara… The New Orleans Saints lost Drew Brees to a rib injury that looked worrying but his replacement, Jameis Winston, quickly learned that getting the ball to Alvin Kamara is the priority in the Big Easy. Kamara only rushed for 15 yards as the Saints recorded a sixth straight win with their 27-13 victory over San Francisco. But he scored twice on the ground and has become the primary receiving threat in Sean Payton's attack, catching seven passes for 83 yards and another touchdown. With the Monday Night Football game – featuring Dalvin Cook – still to be played, Kamara leads the NFL with 1,134 yards from scrimmage and has scored 11 touchdowns in nine games.
The Philadelphia Eagles… I was tempted to write Carson Wentz's name here, but it is not just him. He is the most hit quarterback in the league this year so his shoddy and banged-up offensive line has to share much of the blame. Wentz has been sacked at least three times in seven straight games and he was under constant pressure on Sunday during a disappointing 27-17 loss to the New York Giants. Wentz is going to feel the heat in Philly, though. He has not posted a quarterback rating of 100 or above since Week 16 of the 2019 season – that's 10 straight games. With second-round draft pick Jalen Hurts waiting in the wings, it may not be too much longer before Eagles fans start that all-too-familiar rallying cry for the backup quarterback to get some playing time.
Russell Wilson… Turnovers are creeping into Wilson's game and knocking him off an MVP course as the leader of the Seattle Seahawks. Wilson threw two more picks and lost a fumble in Sunday's 23-16 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Over the past two games – defeats to Buffalo and the Rams – Wilson has thrown four interceptions and lost three fumbles. There are a couple of reasons for that. One, is the physical pressure that has been heaped on Seattle's passer – Wilson has been sacked 11 times over the past two games. But it is also the mental pressure. Wilson knows that settling for field goals is not going to get the job done with the NFL's worst defense standing on his sideline. So, he forces the issue, as he did in throwing an endzone interception to Darious Williams that was, at best, ill-advised and actually pretty poor.
Drew Lock… Coming into 2020, the Denver Broncos felt they had their long-term answer at quarterback in second-year passer Drew Lock. But do they? In five starts at the back end of 2019, Lock offered hope for the future and was very careful with the football, throwing just three picks. He threw four interceptions in Sunday's 37-12 loss in Las Vegas and has now thrown multiple picks in three of his last five games. Denver lead the NFL with 21 giveaways this season and the sloppy play of a guy who was supposed to fill a significant long-term need raises many worrying questions in another lost season.
The Fast Five…
- On a filthy weather night in Foxboro, the New England Patriots served up some things they will need on a regular basis to get back in the playoff race this season. There were physical runs from the backs and Cam Newton and it added up to 173 yards on the ground. There were some big plays from the defense, notably J.C. Jackson's interception of Lamar Jackson and there was a trick play with wide receiver Jakobi Meyers throwing a touchdown pass to Rex Burkhead. It all added up to a 23-17 win over a strongly-favoured Baltimore Ravens team.
- This may be a bit reactionary, but one week after looking terrible against the New Orleans Saints, didn't the Tampa Bay Buccaneers look good in Sunday's 46-23 win over the Carolina Panthers? Tom Brady threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for another score as Tampa racked up 544 total yards. Antonio Brown, Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, Cameron Brate and Rob Gronkowski all made big plays for the Bucs in the passing game while Ronald Jones exploded on the ground, reminding us all how dangerous they can be when everything is clicking.
- This will have to fall into the 'they can never take that away from you' category. The game was already slipping from Carolina's grasp when Efe Obada sacked Tom Brady, but what a moment for our British defensive end. Sure, he won't be happy it came in a loss, but it will be something to look back on with pride after his playing days are over. The kid from the UK, who played just five games of amateur football with the London Warriors before chasing his NFL dream, sacked The Goat! And it came on a day when he racked up the 1,000th defensive snap of a career that is far from done.
- Don't get me wrong, they still make too many mistakes and they are far from the finished product; but the New York Giants are feisty and they are now just half a game out of first place in the NFC East following Sunday's win over Philadelphia. It makes a huge difference when the turnover-prone Daniel Jones can play a clean game and the defense is starting to show signs of life. Why not the Giants in this most underwhelming of divisions this season?
- Other playoff-chasing teams get more attention than the Las Vegas Raiders, but Jon Gruden couldn't care less on that front. It is not always pretty, but the Silver and Black are winning the Gruden way. It was beautifully old school against Denver in Week 10. The Raiders forced five turnovers, sacked Drew Lock twice and ran the football 41 times for 203 yards and four touchdowns. That kind of approach can travel if necessary in the January playoffs.
Fact of the Week
With one game remaining in Week 10, kickers have gone a perfect 11 of 11 on field goal attempts of 50+ yards. Buffalo's Tyler Bass nailed three in Arizona, while Detroit's Matt Prater kicked the game-winner from 59 yards to see the Lions past Washington. It is the first week since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger that kickers have been perfect on at least 11 field goal attempts of 50+ yards.
Finish That Sentence
Each week in this spot I ask readers - via Twitter - to randomly send me the start of a sentence and, as we do on our NFL UK Live stage show tours, I will finish the sentence with the first thought that comes into my head. Here we go…
From Chris Sutton (@chrissutton91) The Texans traded DeAndre Hopkins because… he was a disgruntled player and the value was good… Nope, I'm stopping myself right now. I can't do it and cannot come up with an answer for you. We're eight months on from that trade and it looks sillier by the week from a Texans point of view. I didn't understand it then and I definitely don't get it now. Sunday summed up the stupidity of the move. Hopkins was reeling in a ridiculous touchdown catch to keep his team in the playoff hunt while Deshaun Watson could only muster seven points for Houston in a loss at Cleveland. And the man who engineered the move – Bill O'Brien - was sitting at home on his sofa watching the action having been fired from his job. That about sums it up.
From Josh Clarke (@JBClarke95) The NFC East champions will be… derided by the entire football world for hosting a playoff game with a losing record. That particular rule does indeed stink, but it is not the fault of the teams. This truly has become the division that nobody seems to want to win. I would say the Giants have a decent shot at taking this crown, providing they can avoid the turnovers that so often plague their games. Whoever wins the East I can confidently say this… they will be one and done in the playoffs.
From Tom Marshall (@redzonauk)… Brian Flores is succeeding because… he has instilled a culture of toughness and 'doing your job' into the Miami Dolphins. That has allowed multiple lesser-known players to shine in South Florida. Just take Sunday night's win over the Chargers which featured big plays from the likes of Salvon Ahmed, Durham Smythe and Jakeem Grant on offense, Nik Needham and Emmanuel Ogbah on defense and Andrew Van Ginkel on special teams. The Dolphins are living proof that winning in the NFL is about so much more than collecting big-name players.
From Freddy Harper-Davis (@Freddyarperdav) The Pittsburgh Steelers' undefeated record will end against… either Baltimore, Buffalo or Indianapolis. Those are the three danger games left on Pittsburgh's schedule. There is a chance they can go all the way through the regular season undefeated, but I do think they drop a game somewhere along the way. Baltimore on Thanksgiving night could be a problem because the Ravens would have won the first meeting but for some costly turnovers. December 13 at Buffalo is a bit of a wild card with Josh Allen and the Bills at home. The Colts on December 27 could be another challenge, although I think Pittsburgh's defense will feast against the immobile Philip Rivers in this one.
Sunday night reminded us that we should never take a single game for granted in the NFL. One week after Dallas scared the living daylights out of the massively-favoured Steelers, the Jacksonville Jaguars did exactly the same thing against the Green Bay Packers. No one – and I literally mean no one – was giving the Jags a chance yet they led at Lambeau Field in both halves before being undone by a late touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Davante Adams that gave a relieved Green Bay side a 24-20 win. Even the biggest of underdogs have a shot at winning in the NFL. Any given Sunday and all that!