Game balls – NFL Week 13

It’s taken them 13 weeks but the Detroit Lions have finally triumphed to end a 15-game winless streak. Yay! We also saw the beleaguered Seahawks return to winning ways, the Chargers stuff the Bengals, the Colts shut out the Texans and the Steelers beat their divisional foes from Baltimore by a single point. With all that, the post-season picture is as murky as ever so for now, all we can say for certain is that we have another five F10Y game ball winners for you.       

Offensive player of the week

George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers

Jasen Vinlove – USA TODAY Sports

Not for the first time this season, the week’s star quarterback was the ageless Tom Brady. In the Buccaneers’ 30-17 victory over Atlanta, the league’s top passer in terms of yards (3,771) and touchdowns (34) went for 38 of 51 for 368 yards and four more TDs, with just the one INT.

As for the rushers, Indy’s Jonathan Taylor got his MVP charge back on track with a 32-carry, 143-yard, 2 TD game in a 31-0 shut-out of the Houston Texans. He leads the league in rushing yards (1,348), carries (241) and rushing TDs (16), having rushed for a score in 10 straight games. Returning to the field after three games out, Cardinals QB Kyler Murray was the only other player this weekend with two rushing scores while Sony Michel (121 yards) and Miles Sanders (120) also caught the eye on the ground. Chicago’s David Montgomery ended the day with 141 total yards (90 rushing, 51 receiving) and we mustn’t forget Denver’s Javonte Williams, who had his second 100-yard rushing outing of the season and caught the Broncos’ only touchdown as part of his 76 yards receiving in their loss to the Chiefs.

There was plenty to admire on the receiving side of things too, with Justin Jefferson leading the league with 11 catches for 182 yards and a TD in the Vikings’ surprise loss to Detroit. JJ, who was definitely a game ball contender, sits second in the league with 1,209 yards on the season, behind only Cooper Kupp, who in turn racked up 129 yards and a TD against Jacksonville. Chris Godwin (143 yards), Tee Higgins (138) and Russell Gage (130) also had big days, while Pittsburgh’s Dionte Johnson and Eagles TE Dallas Goedert both ended the day with 105 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns.

But our game ball winner is another tight end with over 100 yards receiving and two TDs: the Niners’ GEORGE KITTLE. Despite a seven-point loss to the Seahawks, the flamboyant Kittle dominated proceedings with a fine selection of highlight reel moments, including sharp catches, marauding runs and broken tackles. With 11 receptions for 181 yards (that’s an average of 20.1 yards), his opening TD came on a 24-yard throw to the back of the end zone, getting the Niners on the scoreboard, while his 48-yard score featured some impressive tightrope walking along the sideline.

When he’s in the mood, there are few to rival Kittle and on Sunday, he was in the mood.

Defensive player of the week

TJ Watt, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Philip G. Pavely – USA TODAY Sports

Another week, another Micah Parsons reference. I won’t apologise for mentioning him in every article as the Dallas linebacker continues to stake his claim on the Defensive Rookie of the Year title. In the Cowboys’ 27-17 victory over the Saints on TNF, Parsons notched yet another sack, getting to Taysom Hill a good 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, as well as racking up six tackles, 5 QB pressures and two QB hits. He now has a sack in five straight games and 10 for the season – both are new highs for a first-year Cowboy since sack stats were first compiled in 1982. And while we’re talking Amercia’s Team, Trevon Diggs maintained his lead at the top of the interception chart with another, taking his season’s total to nine. 

Across the weekend, 22 different players nabbed an interception, 19 forced a fumble and more than 30 players registered sacks. One of those, the Bengals’ Trey Hendrickson, now has a sack in eight consecutive games, extending the NFL’s longest active streak. But how do we decide this week’s game ball winner? Well, there were two clear leaders in the sack race and they’re both on the same team so that made a handy shortlist.

In the 20-19 win against the AFC North leaders Baltimore, Steelers DT Chris Wormley logged 2.5 sacks, two tackles for loss and three QB hits against his old team but our Week 13 winner is linebacker TJ WATT, who got to Lamar Jackson 3.5 times. Watt also forced a fumble, registered six tackles, a tackle for loss and six quarterback hits, and pressured Jackson 12 times (a league-wide high this season), the last of which was instrumental in Baltimore’s failed 2-point conversion with just seconds left.

Watt’s 16 sacks so far this season leave him two clear of Myles Garrett and the rest of the league, and make him only the second player (after the legendary Reggie White) to record at least 13 sacks in four consecutive seasons. He’s also tied-first for tackles for loss (16) while his four forced fumbles are good enough for equal third in the league. Not a bad haul for someone who’s missed the equivalent of three games due to injury and COVID-19 this season.

Coach of the week

Dan Campbell, HC, Detroit Lions

Paul Sancya – AP Photo

We could talk about Brandon Staley’s Chargers sticking 41 points on the Bengals here. Maybe Pete Carroll getting an overdue win out of his beleaguered Seattle Seahawks deserves the plaudits, or even Ron Rivera, who is turning the Washington Football Team around with a fourth straight win.

But I’d rather skip the appetisers and get straight to the main course: Detroit Lions HC DAN CAMPBELL. After several games in which his team have battled hard and run their opponents close – even tying with the Steelers a couple of weeks ago – the last team to record a W have finally done so (without denting their first draft pick hopes), and in spectacular fashion.   

It was a wild game that saw the Lions dominate the first half 20-6, then throw their advantage away in the second and nearly blow it again. Linebacker Charles Harris delivered a pair of first-half sacks to lead Detroit’s defensive effort but it was the final possession of the game, with the Lions down 27-23, that will long be remembered. Quarterback Jared Goff directed a 14-play, 75-yard drive with just 1:50 on the clock and no timeouts to put the Lions’ first W on the board. The now 5-7 Vikings allowed Goff (296 yards, three TDs) to find his targets time and again, including the 11-yard laser to Amon-Ra St. Brown that sealed victory as time expired. They were supposed to kick a PAT afterwards, but I guess everybody was too busy celebrating to notice.

It wasn’t a perfect game by any means but you have to give credit to a coach who has a 0-10-1 team playing that hard week in, week out. And on an emotional day the Lions won’t forget in a hurry, Campbell then won the battle for hearts and minds by dedicating the win to the victims of last week’s high school shooting in nearby Oxford, Michigan.

“This game ball goes to the whole Oxford community… all those who were affected,” the tearful HC said, before reading out the names of the four students who were killed and the eight others, including a teacher, who were injured. “They’ll never be forgotten and they’re in our hearts, in our prayers … all the families and all those that were affected by all of this.”

“I just wanted them to know exactly what we were going to represent today,” the visibly emotional Campbell added. “Some of our players know someone who was affected. To me, my thought was, ‘Hey, man, if we can, for three hours, just ease their suffering a little bit, that’s worth it.’ So, that’s kinda how I thought of this and we did a great job. The players responded and played well.”

Coach of the week, for sure.

Play of the week

Chicago Bears

Ashlee Rezin – Chicago Sun-Times

If you’re a similar vintage to me, you’ll remember the final round of the TV show The Generation Game, where the contestants watched various items pass in front of them, then won whatever they could remember afterwards. I felt a bit like that trying to keep track of my favourite plays of the week so, in homage to the game show, “On the conveyor belt tonight, we saw…”

  • Spectacular catches: Way too many to mention, in fact. But how about Michael Gallup’s high-point snag in the back corner of the end zone to open the scoring against New Orleans on Thursday night? Or Washington’s Logan Thomas leaping like a salmon to secure a one-hander for the opening score against the Raiders? Maybe Jonnu Smith’s juggling grab floats your boat from Monday night? Or it could be the effort by the Cardinals’ James Conner that he reeled in and took to the house
  • An athletic quarterback: There were few better moves this week than Taysom Hill’s 23-yard run for the Saints against Dallas, in which he bounced off several would-be tacklers like a pinball and high-hurdled Damontae Kazee en route to securing a first down. It was the highlight of a 375-yard, 2 TD, 4 INT game for the special teams gadget guy who’s inexplicably being played (and paid) like a QB.
  • Mazy, crazy runs: Few rivalled Deonte Harris’ 70-yard score for the Saints this week, in which he turned on the afterburners and left the Dallas secondary looking like statues, although another Harris, the Patriots’ Damien, torched the Bills on an impressive 64-yard TD run.
  • Eye-catching interceptions: For these, I think we can pick out Dallas safety Jayron Kearse going full-length to grab a ball deflected off Kenny Stills on TNF, and Gerald Everett’s almost-TD-catch, which popped up off his leg for the Niners’ K’Waun Williams to gratefully grab.
  • The perfect punt: Towards the end of a scoreless first quarter, Pittsburgh’s Presley Harvin III dropped a 65-yard kick that bounced and bobbled before finally rolling out of bounds a few inches shy of the end zone, leaving the Ravens to start their next possession from their own goal line.
  • The fake punt TD: Less than two minutes in and with their game with the 49ers still scoreless, Seattle faced a 4th-and-6. Running back Travis Homer grabbed the long snap and immediately set off on a 73-yard run for glory, only easing off the gas long enough to get a timely block and a clear lane to paydirt. He even somersaulted over the goal line for good measure – nice!
  • The LA Special: Another clever trick play saw the Chargers’ version of the Philly Special, with Keenan Allen finding Justin Herbert in the end zone – albeit on a 2-point conversion – in their 41-22 rout of Cincinnati.

But my play of the week actually came courtesy of the always-impressive (*cough*) CHICAGO BEARS. Down 24-7 to the Arizona Cardinals, they had everyone confused with a multi-player trick play that started with a wildcat snap to David Montgomery on a 1st-and-10 on their own 40. He handed the ball off to Jakeem Grant in motion, who then pitched it backwards to Andy Dalton. Having eluded the grasp of the onrushing Devon Kennard, the Red Rifle lobbed the rock up the sideline to a still-running Grant for a 34-yard gain. The fresh set of downs led to a Jimmy Graham TD.

How much of it was scripted and how much of it was seat-of-the-pants improvisation, we’ll never know, but maybe it doesn’t matter… it was just fun.

Gaffe of the week

Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Sam Greene – Cincinnati Enquirer

The snow and wind were overwhelming at times in the Bills/Patriots game on Monday night and a headwind blew a punt by Buffalo’s Jake Bailey into touch for a 15-yard gain. It wasn’t his fault though so no blame (or game ball) is due but nonetheless, it was funny to see. Indeed, the wind was so strong that members of ESPN’s pre-game broadcast crew were blown off their chairs and a flag was ripped off the top of one of the goalposts.

Mother Nature 1, NFL 0.

I also think we can safely say that N’Keal Harry’s punt return career in New England ended as soon as it started. Why on earth Bill Belichick selected him to receive his first-ever punt on what one Twitter fan called “the windiest night in history” is anyone’s guess (it was certainly windy enough for Mac Jones to attempt just three passes all game). In trying to get out of the way, the bouncing ball took the glanciest of glances off Harry’s facemask, allowing the Bills to recover at the Pats’ 14-yard line. Josh Allen threw a TD pass to Gabriel Davis on the very next play, closing the deficit to 8-7 at the end of the first quarter.

Mother Nature 2, NFL 0.

Talking of short careers… I don’t want to pile in on the misery of Jets fans but their kicker situation is farcical. Last week, they dumped rookie Matt Ammendola, who was 31st in the NFL in field goal percentage and just 2-for-8 on kicks over 40 yards. Replacing him for Sunday’s game with the Philadelphia Eagles was another rookie, Alex Kessman. A dubious choice on paper – having hit just 72.6% of his field goals in college – Kessman immediately became the first player ever to go 0-for-2 on extra points in his NFL debut. Those blunders prompted the Jets to forgo kicking altogether from then on, trying for a two-point conversion on their next score, and became the only team in the last 40 years to score three touchdowns and post exactly 18 points.

Only one other kicker has attempted two kicks of any sort in his first game and missed both: Kaare Vedvik, who missed a FG and a PAT in his only game before getting cut. His team? The Jets, of course! (You can’t make this stuff up.) Eddy Pinero, who’s own career record (23 of 28 FGs) is far from stellar, is the next man to lift the poisoned chalice to his lips, having been signed this week.

Now to the game ball and, though it pains me as a Bengals fan, I think I have to hand it (carefully) to JA’MARR CHASE, for turning a would-be 71-yard tuddy into a juggling display and a takeaway for the LA Chargers. He’d got oodles of separation, the ball from Joe Burrow was lobbed perfectly for him to take in stride and the route to the end zone was clear but somehow, #1 bobbled it backwards and into the arms of corner Michael Davis, a couple of steps behind him. In pre-season, Chase’s apparent inability to catch footballs (in particular NFL ones with stripes) was a concern but that was soon forgotten once he started to reel in the touchdowns. Yet Chase has been quietly dropping more balls than most. This should’ve been his ninth touchdown of the campaign but instead, it was his eighth drop. He couldn’t even blame the wind. But at least we now know the derivation of the phrase “the chase is better than the catch…”

Feature image: Paul Sancya – AP Photo

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