Game balls – NFL Week 9

Another week of the NFL slate is in the books, and it’s hard to believe we’re already halfway through this first 18-week regular season. Just to make sure none of us get complacent about what to expect in the back nine, the league decided to go rogue this week, leaving betting and fantasy chaos in its wake.

The Jags beat the Bills 9-6 (what sort of a score is that?), the Von-Miller-less Broncos nearly shut out the Cowboys, the Giants beat the Raiders and the Falcons blew an 18-point lead, then came back to win rather taking the L as usual. It was all very confusing, so let’s pick through the bones of it all…

Offensive player of the week

James Conner, RB, Arizona Cardinals

Cary Edmondson – USA TODAY Sports

Oh boy – this really was a tough one. Nick Chubb was back to his best with 137 yards rushing and 2 TDs (including a scorching 70-yarder, one of his team’s three scores of 60+ yards) in Cleveland’s 41-16 shellacking of Cincinnati. But it’s a case of close but no cigar for the Browns’ running machine (sorry Shaun and Josh)…

Don’t shoot me, Baltimore fans, but I’m not giving the game ball to Lamar Jackson either (spoiler alert: do read the whole article though…). That said, he was instrumental in helping the Ravens rally from 17-3 down to secure a 34-31 OT win against the Vikings, their third victory after trailing by double-digits this year. He threw for 266 yards and three touchdowns, and also ran for another 120 yards, but also gave away two INTs and was sacked three times so it wasn’t quite the perfect outing.

The other contender was Colts running back Jonathan Taylor, who dominated proceedings in a 45-30 win over the New York Jets on TNF. Taylor racked up a career-high 172 yards from 19 carries and took runs of 21 and 78 yards to the house, the latter effectively icing the game. It was the second-longest rushing play this season, the longest rushing TD so far and also the fastest run by any player (clocked at 22.05 mph) – although all of those records were previously held by Taylor himself anyway! The second-year back’s 200 scrimmage yards contributed to a balanced offence that recorded 250+ yards and 3 TDs in both rushing and passing for only the second time in franchise history. JT now has eight touchdowns in the last six games, leads the league with 1,114 total yards and is second in rushing yards (821), behind only the now-crocked Derrick Henry. Definitely worthy of a runners-up prize (if we had one).

But for the game ball, I’m going with Arizona RB JAMES CONNER, whose renaissance continued in the Cards’ 34-17 win at the 49ers. Without QB1 Kyler Murray, top wideouts DeAndre Hopkins and AJ Green, and fellow running back Chase Edmonds, who injured his ankle in the opening offensive play, it was left to Conner to fill the void. And that he did, with 173 scrimmage yards (more than double his best in a Cardinals jersey) and a career-best 3 TDs.

The former Steeler carried the ball 21 times for 96 yards and two rushing touchdowns, and caught all five of his targets for 77 yards. One of those, a screen pass from a backpedalling Colt McCoy, he took on a mesmerising 45-yard diagonal run to the end zone. The play, his longest career TD, pretty much set the result in stone and helped the Cardinals progress to a league-best 8-1 record. He now takes over from Cooper Kupp to lead the NFL with 11 TDs: just another milestone in an incredible journey that has included overcoming Hodgkins’ lymphoma.

Defensive player of the week

Josh Allen, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars

Bob Self – Florida Times-Union

Defensively, there was much to admire across the league in Week 9. We do love a multiple interception game here at Game Balls HQ and we had a couple of those. Giants safety Xavier McKinney intercepted Derek Carr twice as Big Blue saw off the Raiders, and Patriots corner JC Jackson also had 2 INTs in their 24-6 win over Carolina. Both players took one back to the house for pick-sixes.

We also have to mention Cleveland again, with Troy Hill and Myles Garrett getting 3.5 of their team’s five sacks of Joe Burrow. Two guys – Arizona’s Markus Golden and Tennessee’s Jeffrey Simmons – got to their opposing QB three times each in their respective Sunday games, while the Vikes’ Eric Kendricks led the league with 17 tackles against Baltimore. Then last night, against the Bears, Pittsburgh linebacker extraordinaire TJ Watt dominated MNF with the third three-sack game of his career. With at least one sack in six of the seven games he’s played, Watt now has 11.5 for the season (just 0.5 behind the league leader, Myles Garrett) and a phenomenal 61 career sacks from 69 games. The guy’s a beast.

And yet, because I’m a sucker for symmetry, coincidence and quality script-writing, I feel the game ball has to go to another player who had a history-making trifecta of his own: JOSH ALLEN. (No, I haven’t gone mad: the other Josh Allen… but hold that thought.) In his team’s unexpected shutdown of the Bills, the Jacksonville cornerback starred as the first NFL player to sack someone who shared his own name: Buffalo QB Josh Allen. Not content with that, the Jaguars’ version then recovered a fumble from his namesake and for good measure, completed his hat-trick with an interception.

He also logged a team-high eight tackles and two tackles for loss for a defence that held the NFL’s top scorers (31.7 points per game before kick-off) to two field goals and just one trip inside the red zone. So, like a Hollywood movie, the seventh overall draft picks from consecutive years did battle and, for now at least, Josh Allen (JAX) > Josh Allen (BUF).

Coach of the week

Vic Fangio, HC, Denver Broncos

Isaiah J Downing – USA TODAY Sports

Urban Meyer should take some credit for overseeing that Jaguars’ win over Buffalo, especially as they were missing left tackle Cam Robinson and running back James Robinson; even Trevor Lawrence sat out for a bit with a sprained ankle. And while Jacksonville were far from perfect, with four drops (one in the end zone) and three missed field goals, they did enough to get their first win on US soil since last September (their only previous W this season came in London).

But as much as that win was impressive, another massive underdog to emerge victorious were Denver, who beat the Dallas Cowboys 30-16. It was arguably one of their best wins in years, so kudos – and an F10Y game ball, natch – to Head Coach VIC FANGIO for orchestrating it.

With injuries on both sides of the ball, and taking some blows in the O-line and TE departments mid-game, the now 5-4 Broncos ran the ball effectively. Rookie Javonte Williams’ first career 100-yard game (111 yards on 17 carries) was complemented by 80 more and a TD from Melvin Gordon, and when they stick with the run game, Denver do seem to find some success. This kept the Cowboys D honest and allowed Teddy Bridgewater to unleash some big plays through the air, including Tim Patrick’s 44-yard touchdown.

The Denver defence – despite a Von-Miller-shaped hole – kept one of the league’s best attacks off the scoreboard for 55 minutes. Dak Prescott wasn’t allowed to settle on his return from injury, with rookie Jonathan Cooper (2 sacks) in particular excelling, while the receiving corps of CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper were held to just 60 yards and no points. The Cowboys tried to convert fourth downs on their first two possessions but the Denver D held firm both times. That set the tone for the rest of the game, in which Dallas spiralled to a 30-0 deficit before adding a bit of polish to the tur… well, you get the gist.   

In short, Fangio’s team finally put a complete team performance together against strong opposition. The question is, can they keep it up?

Play of the week

Devin Duvernay, WR, Baltimore Ravens

Longhorns Wire

Oooh, where do we go with this one? Kenny Stills’ Inspector Gadget impression for the go-ahead score for the Saints was something to behold, as was Cordarelle Patterson’s tightrope run up the sideline soon afterwards that set up the winning kick for the Falcons.

And who didn’t love the sleight of hand by the Cardinals against the Niners, with a fake pass by stand-in QB Colt McCoy, then a hand-off to Christian Kirk who launched a 34-yarder to fellow WR to Antoine Wesley, just a yard shy of a spectacular TD. But even so, I think I’m edging towards the AFC North…

The Browns have two worthy submissions, with a 60-yard TD from Donovan Peoples-Jones (who needs OBJ when you have DPJ?) and Denzel Ward’s eye-catching 99-yard pick-six. But it’s hard not to pick one of the many highlights from the Vikings v Ravens game. There was Kene Ngwanu’s second-half kick-off return, which he took 98 yards to the house, Justin Jefferson’s 50-yard reception, Dalvin Cook’s 66-yard run and a fantastic back-arching grab by CJ Ham to keep the Vikes’ game-tying drive alive.

But I think the game ball is going to DEVIN DUVERNAY for his one-handed TD catch. On a 2nd-and-goal from the Vikings’ 5-yard line with 9:25 remaining, Lamar Jackson took the snap in the shotgun and, from a crowded pocket, zipped one at speed to the back of the end zone right under the posts. With three defenders in close proximity, Duvernay reached out his right hand to stop its trajectory, then pulled it in to his body (still just with his right hand) while getting his knees down in bounds. The dextrous catch allowed the Ravens to pull level with Minnesota in the fourth quarter and eventually go on to win in OT.

Gaffe of the week

Watching Miami Dolphins v Houston Texans

Wilfredo Lee – AP Photo

Much like Carson Wentz last week, Matthew Stafford was determined not to get sacked in his own end zone in the LA Rams’ loss to the Titans, only to launch the ball straight into the waiting arms of Kevin Long Jr. Alas, the change in possession proved even costlier as the very next play ended in a 2-yard TD for Tennessee TE Geoff Swaim. From the very next play after the kick-off, Stafford threw another pick-six for Kevin Byard. Clonk!

They say “when it rains, it pours”, even in the Nevada desert, apparently, so it’s no surprise that another bad news story has come out of the Las Vegas camp this week. After Jon Gruden’s departure under a cloud and then Henry Ruggs’ arrest following a fatal car crash while DUI, the Raiders have released another former first-round pick in CB Damon Arnette. The move comes after a video went viral over the weekend, in which the #19 pick from 2020 is seen brandishing a gun and threatening to kill someone. Arnette also faces other lawsuits for a hit-and-run incident and an alteraction with a valet at a local casino. They also say that “bad things come in threes” so now that they’ve had three, can the Raiders just get back to football now, please?

It’s also hard not to at least mention the officiating in the Bear/Steelers game last night, with the Twittersphere literally bubbling with the ire of Chicago fans. And while you don’t want to single out officials for doing a difficult job, it seems there’s no smoke without fire in this case. The widely held belief is that this was the worst officiating performance of the season by far, for a blatant no-call roughing the passer penalty on Justin Fields, another that was called (for much less) for Ben Roethlisberger and a low block penalty on James Daniels who didn’t make contact with anyone. The ludicrous call against Cassius Marsh, who was hip-bumped by an official walking back into him (seemingly deliberately), took the biscuit. It’s all very suspect.

The headline gives away our game ball winner for gaffe of the week. Congratulations, dear reader, it’s you – well, it is if you made the mistake of sitting through a turgid, error-filled game between the MIAMI DOLPHINS and HOUSTON TEXANS. With the two teams sitting on a combined 14-game losing streak, it was widely billed as a ‘mustn’t watch’ game and it lived down to its billing. There was certainly enough evidence (nine turnovers, the most in a game since 2016, for example) to suggest you should do something more meaningful with your evening… or your life.

In the complete antithesis of the Ravens/Vikings humdinger, the lacklustre Dolphins did just enough to beat the hapless Texans – even without starting QB Tua Tagovailoa, who’d fractured a finger. Stand-in Jacoby Brissett offered little more than game management, and they failed to reach 100 rushing yards for the seventh time this season. Five turnovers, including three fumbles, killed half of Miami’s 10 possessions stone dead and other than Mike Gesicki’s one-handed catch, there wasn’t anything to write home about for the hosts.

Yet the Texans contrived to be even worse. Houston went 0-for-4 in the red zone and haven’t scored a touchdown on the road since Week 2. The Texans entered the game last in the NFL for points scored (14.9 a game) and next-to-worst for points allowed (30.1 per game), so they’re pretty much the league’s runt of the litter. Tyrod Taylor returned after missing six games with a hamstring injury, but completed only 22 of 43 passes (55%) for 240 yards, 0 TDs and 3 INTs – oh, and he took five sacks.

Still, however gaffe-filled it may have been, a win is a win and the 2-7 Dolphins can celebrate ending their seven-game skid until Thursday… when they face the 6-2 Ravens. Then again, if Week 10 is anything like this week, it might be worth putting a couple of quid on Miami: it seems anything is possible in this crazy, unpredictable 2021 NFL season!

Get involved by voting in our Twitter polls and listening to the guys on our NFL review pod discuss the week’s action.

Feature image: Archie Carpenter – UPI

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