Barnwell: Seasons that changed over 23 minutes of Week 3 madness

9:15 AM ET

Sunday was one of the most exciting afternoons in the still-maturing history of the NFL RedZone channel. Five close games were decided over the course of 23 minutes of real time, and while that doesn’t sound like much, it was enough time to change our perceptions of teams.

The Giants looked like a team that had battled to save their season, only to miss out to a 61-yard field goal. Matthew Stafford looked to have launched yet another dramatic fourth-quarter comeback and pushed his Lions to 3-0, only to be stopped inches short of the end zone. The Patriots saved a week of think pieces with a magical drive to beat the Texans, who might actually have beaten themselves.

Everyone has a different definition of exciting, but one useful measure is what ESPN’s Brian Burke refers to as the Excitement Index, which is simply the sum of all the changes in a win expectancy chart throughout the game. This is the exact sort of model that rewards the crazy late-game changes that moved the needle by as much as 78 percent in Week 3. The average 1 p.m. ET game since 2005, when RedZone made its way into our hearts, had a typical Excitement Index of 3.7 points. The most exciting contest was the 37-34 overtime game played between the Bears and Lions in 2015, which featured several lead changes in the fourth quarter and an eventual game-winning field goal in overtime.

Where did Sunday’s slate compare to great RedZone afternoons of years past? With the help of both Burke and ESPN Stats Information, I found the average Excitement Index for the top five games from each 1 p.m. ET kickoff going back through 2005. I included only the top five because every weekend will have stinkers, and Sunday’s scoring bonanza wasn’t any less fun because Dolphins-Jets was a bummer.

By my count, the top five games in Week 3 produced the seventh-best average Excitement Index since 2005, with an average EI of just under 5.95. The record, which requires going back to Week 6 of that 2005 campaign, was an average EI of 6.55 points per game. Four games that week were either tied or saw a lead change in the final minute of regulation, including a Steelers-Jaguars game in which Pittsburgh blew two chances to win in overtime.

This week’s big five was nearly as great. Let’s run through those games in order of Excitement Index and break down some of the key takeaways from each:

Atlanta Falcons 30, Detroit Lions 26

Excitement Index: 6.91

Excitement Index doesn’t even account for the drama of Detroit’s final pass to Golden Tate being ruled a touchdown before being overturned and wiped off the board with a 10-second runoff to boot. ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert already wrote about the logic behind the rule and how it applied to the Lions’ last gasp. As painful and unfair as it might seem to Lions fans, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has to know that the 10-second runoff is a possibility on the exact sort of 1-yard pick play the Lions were running without any timeouts, even if the chances were relatively slim.

Lions coach Jim Caldwell suggested after the game that Detroit “certainly” could have gotten to the line to run a final play after Tate was stopped short with nine seconds to go, but I’m skeptical it would have mattered much. I wasn’t able to find a similar play from the Lions’ history books since 2016 given the unique circumstances. It’s true that the Lions already were all near the line of scrimmage, but they were dispersed all around the end zone, which would have required several seconds to line up. It’s entirely possible they would have lined up incorrectly, which also would have ended the game with a penalty. The officials also would have needed to get into place.

I suspect Detroit would have had enough time to spike the ball, but on fourth down, that wasn’t an option. The Lions would have needed to call and run a play on the fly, and unless Cooter sent in a playcall for fourth down before the snap on third down, there wouldn’t have been enough time for Stafford to communicate the playcall. The play would almost definitely have been a quarterback sneak, and while it might have worked, the Falcons could have sold out against a Lions interior that had left guard Graham Glasgow playing center and recent waiver acquisition Zac Kerin at guard. Stafford has gone 20-for-22 in converting sneaks with a yard to go, but a lot would have needed to go right for the Lions to get to that spot.

There was some drama before the concluding moments of the game were played out by runoff. The final Lions drive crammed 15 plays into 153 seconds. Stafford appeared to hit Marvin Jones on the 2-yard line with 1:10 to go, only for his pass to be wiped out by a penalty on Kerin. Jones committed offensive pass interference on the next play to make it first-and-30, but a Stafford interception on second down was wiped off the board by a holding penalty on star Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant. Four plays later, Trufant was called for pass interference in the end zone on a play where he clearly contacted Jones, but on a pass that did not seem catchable on replay.

It’s fair to say that the Falcons were probably unlucky to find themselves needing to hold on for dear life inside of two minutes. Matt Ryan was intercepted three times Sunday, and while the first of those three picks was an excellent job by Glover Quin of reading Ryan’s eyes and sprinting nearly all the way from one hashmark well past the other to undercut a Julio Jones in-breaking route for a pick-six, the other two were gifts. Both of Ryan’s other interceptions bounced off an open receiver’s hands and into the waiting arms of Darius Slay. The first set up the Lions on the edge of the red zone for a field goal, while the second cost the Falcons what would have been second-and-1 at the Detroit 10-yard line and likely a minimum of three points.

His final numbers might not have been especially impressive, but Matthew Stafford has been playing lights-out so far this season. Some of the throws he made in this game were positively Aaron Rodgers-esque. The league’s highest-paid player sneaked the ball through the tiniest of windows to hit T.J. Jones for a 29-yard completion to start the final drive of the game. Earlier in the fourth quarter, Stafford lofted a deep out narrowly over Brian Poole to Tate to move the chains on third-and-4, setting up a 57-yard Matt Prater field goal that brought the Lions within four points of the lead.

The concern for the Lions, though, remains a defense that might be entirely dependent upon forcing takeaways. Teryl Austin’s defense was only able to force Atlanta to punt on its two final drives, and even those trips came within two yards of a first down. The nine preceding meaningful possessions ended in either a touchdown, field goal or pick. The Lions struggled against Atlanta’s running game, with Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman averaging in excess of 5.6 yards per carry while racking up 10 runs of 9 yards or more, with two 15-yard runs wiped out via penalty.

Detroit now has eight takeaways after racking up just seven through their first nine games last season. They finished 2016 with a mere 14 turnovers, a number that was likely to regress toward the mean on sheer luck alone. Unfortunately, after the bizarre final play of this game, it’s difficult to imagine a clearer example of luck in close games simultaneously regressing to the mean. Detroit won’t be going 8-5 in one-score games again. The only reason I’m saying difficult and not impossible is because of another game I’ll get to in a minute.

New England Patriots 36, Houston Texans 33

Excitement Index: 6.77

The Texans very nearly became the first team to win as underdogs of 13.5 points or more since 2012, when the Cardinals got off to a 2-0 start by upsetting these very same Patriots in Foxborough 20-18. Those Cardinals nearly fumbled the game away by giving up the ball with 1:10 to go, only to be bailed out when Stephen Gostkowski missed a would-be game-winning 42-yard field goal at the end.

You can make a case that the Texans lost through a self-inflicted mistake of another kind. Facing fourth-and-inches on the Patriots’ 18-yard line with 2:24 to go and a two-point lead, coach Bill O’Brien elected to send out kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn to attempt a 36-yard field goal to go up five, handing the ball back to Tom Brady while trusting his defense to come up with a stop. The alternative option, of course, would have been to trust Deshaun Watson to find a half-yard and move the chains, even if it meant the downside of turning the ball over to Brady with the Pats only in need of a field goal to win.

Should the Texans have gone for it? I think so. Their running game had been effective in the second half against a thin Patriots defense; while Lamar Miller had been stuffed for no gain on the third-and-1 before O’Brien’s call, it was the first time in 18 second-half tries that Houston’s rushing attack had been stopped for no gain or a loss. The Patriots had just used their two timeouts, but their defense also had faced 36 plays during the second half and looked worse for wear.

A successful conversion wouldn’t have won the game for the Texans, but it would have put them well on their way to victory. With 2:28 and one timeout left for the Patriots, a Texans first down would have allowed Houston to run the clock down to about 32 seconds before attempting a field goal that would have put them up five. Brady still would have had a shot, and the Texans could have missed the field goal, but after making hyper-conservative decisions as a huge underdog against New England in the playoffs last season, it’s disheartening to see O’Brien make the same mistakes in Foxborough yet again.

I think O’Brien should have gone for it, but in terms of how the game actually played out, I don’t think his decision cost the Texans the game by any stretch of the imagination. Fairbairn hit the field goal. The Texans’ defense eventually cracked, but it took some miraculous conversions and a bit of luck. The Patriots had to convert on one series from a second-and-20 and then, on the next series, from a third-and-18. The pass rush drew one holding penalty and stripsacked Brady later in the drive, only for the Patriots to recover. On the next play, Brady nearly threw a game-ending interception to Corey Moore, but the Texans safety dropped what would have been his first career pick. Brady then found a leaping Danny Amendola for 27 yards on third-and-18. On the next play, Moore would be a step slow to get over to the sideline from what looked to be a two-deep look and Brady found Brandin Cooks on the sideline for the game-winning touchdown.

As crushing as the loss has to be for the Texans, there are positives to take away from what was by far their best performance of the season. Their pass rush finally woke up; after going sack-less through the first two games of the season; their big three of Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and J.J. Watt combined for three sacks, seven tackles for loss and six quarterback knockdowns. It helped that the Patriots were down starting right tackle Marcus Cannon and didn’t appear to have a full-strength Nate Solder all game on the left side.

Watson also appears to have sprung the Houston offense to life, although the fact that O’Brien opted to start Tom Savage over Watson after the preseason has to make Texans fans wonder what exactly the former Patriots offensive coordinator was watching. Watson’s ability as a runner has forced opposing linebackers to hesitate and created running lanes for what has been a moribund Houston running game under Miller, with D’Onta Foreman helping shoulder some of the load as both a runner and checkdown receiver.

The rookie first-rounder isn’t consistent yet, and turnovers are a concern — Watson fumbled twice and threw an ugly interception off his back foot before adding another pick on a Hail Mary at the end of the game — but he offers infinitely more upside compared to Savage. The 35-yard pass Watson completed to Ryan Griffin across his body from the numbers on one side of the field to the other on second-and-22 was one of the most impressive passes of the day.

As for the Patriots, the concern has to be that several of their stars aren’t playing very well this season. Devin McCourty, the leader of what was supposed to be one of the best secondaries in football, has been a mess and was victimized for at least one touchdown pass on Sunday. Solder has been out of sorts all season. You have to assume they’ll figure things out, given that the Patriots always do over the course of the campaign, but this isn’t the Pats team people expected might flirt with a 16-0 record.

Philadelphia Eagles 27, New York Giants 24

Excitement Index: 6.21

Since 1994, kickers have gone 15-for-71 on attempts between 60 and 65 yards. With the game on the line in the fourth quarter and overtime, those same kickers were 4-of-21 before injury fill-in Jake Elliott atoned for an earlier miss from 52 by hitting a 61-yarder to beat the division rival Giants and cap a thrilling second half.

This is the 10th anniversary of the Super Bowl XLII-winning Giants, who started 0-2 and trailed 17-3 at halftime in Week 3 at their division rivals in Washington before frantically turning things around in the second half to pull out a late victory en route to a six-game winning streak. Eli Manning seemed to leave it even later this time around, but this time, luck wasn’t on the Giants’ side.

Although the Giants were down 14-0 when they took over on their 45-yard line after an ugly Donnie Jones punt with 14:49 left to go in the fourth quarter, it would be fair to say they had been knocking on the door for a while. Their running game had been functionally useless for most of the day, but coach Ben McAdoo had been both conservative and aggressive with little luck. The Giants punted twice from Philadelphia’s side of the field in the first quarter, lost the ball on a pair of Manning interceptions, and were stopped on downs twice in the red zone, including a pair of plays from the three-inch line at the end of the first half.

The Eagles were limited by injuries, with the secondary down three would-be contributors in Ronald Darby, Jaylen Watkins and Corey Graham. By the end of the first half, star defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and every-down linebacker Jordan Hicks were done for the day. The Giants eventually took advantage. Their drive from midfield to start the fourth quarter set up Odell Beckham Jr. for a devastating double-move past Jalen Mills for one score.

After Landon Collins forced Zach Ertz to fumble and the Giants recovered, it didn’t take long for New York to tie it up. The Eagles’ secondary couldn’t bring down Orleans Darkwa on a 20-yard run, which set up Beckham on a fake slant-and-fade past Mills to tie the score.

On the next possession the Eagles punted, and two plays later, the Giants led. Manning hit a tight window on a play-action pass and found Sterling Shepard for what should have simply been a first down, only for third-string safety Chris Maragos to crash in with a terrible angle and miss his tackle. Maragos’ miss knocked Patrick Robinson off Shepard’s trail, which was all the space the second-year receiver needed to put the Giants ahead.

A stop and a running game might have been enough for the Giants to seal the win, but they made mental mistakes down the stretch. Eli Apple, who has struggled mightily during his second season, was drawn into a long pass interference penalty against the King of Pass Interference, Torrey Smith, setting up a tying Eagles touchdown. On the ensuing drive, the Giants thought they had a free play and a third-down conversion in the red zone with an Eagles player struggling to get off the field, but John Jerry was whistled for holding the defender down and preventing him from getting off the field, marking the most successful block made by a Giants offensive lineman in 2017.

With Olivier Vernon out thanks to an ankle injury, the Eagles were able to run the ball and get back in field goal range, eventually tying the score at 24-24 with 51 seconds left. The Giants took over with three timeouts and had plenty of time to get in field goal range, only to again play sloppy football. Manning completed a short pass and let the clock run without calling timeout, but as the Giants rushed to the line, the offense never got set and Ereck Flowers was called for an illegal shift.

The Giants then used a timeout to prevent a 10-second runoff, which cost them dearly. Flowers subsequently held to make it second-and-18, where Shane Vereen caught a 2-yard checkdown and foolishly went out of bounds, saving the Eagles a timeout. Manning then threw a pass short of the sticks on third down, and a 28-yard shank from Brad Wing gave the Eagles the ball back with 13 seconds and a timeout on their 38-yard line. After a 19-yard completion, Elliott hit a 61-yarder to get the keys to every Wawa in Philadelphia.

It’s bad luck to be beaten by a field goal from another area code, but the Giants should have been able to seal up this lead or at least make it to overtime. This is a team that was supposed to be full of veterans who know how to win after going 8-3 in one-score games last season, but a series of mental mistakes might have cost them their season. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Giants now have a 4.3 percent chance of making the postseason after starting 0-3, down from their 39.4 percent preseason odds. They’re also 0-2 in the division and have lost to three NFC teams likely to figure in the wild-card picture. Just six teams have made the playoffs after starting 0-3, and none of them have come since the league went to its current divisional and playoff format in 2002. The Giants don’t seem likely to become the fourth.

Chicago Bears 23, Pittsburgh Steelers 17 (OT)

Excitement Index: 5.46

This game would rank even higher in terms of excitement if a win expectancy model could know that Chicago’s Marcus Cooper would inexplicably lock up inside the 5-yard line at the end of a blocked field goal return and fumble the ball away to produce what felt like an hour of chaos and referee discussions. It might even top the list if the model knew what Tarik Cohen did in overtime, running through seemingly the entire Steelers defense before scoring what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown, only for it to be called back because the rookie stepped out of bounds.

It didn’t matter for the Bears, who overcame their mistakes and prevailed in overtime without ever giving the Steelers a chance to score. It’s remarkable to consider that the Bears could very easily be 2-1 right now with wins over a pair of 11-win playoff teams from a year ago, given that they just beat the Steelers and came within a dropped pass in the end zone of beating the Falcons in Week 1. It’s even more remarkable, I suppose, that they lost by 22 points to the Buccaneers in between those two performances.

With Mike Glennon officially earning the title of embattled after that ugly loss to the Bucs, the Bears simply decided to look past their quarterback problem and run the ball down Pittsburgh’s throat. Despite missing starting guard Josh Sitton and losing center Hroniss Grasu to an injury during the game, the Bears gashed a Pittsburgh run defense that was without two front-seven pieces in Stephon Tuitt and T.J. Watt. The combination of Cohen and Jordan Howard carried the ball 35 times for 216 yards in addition to serving as the team’s top two receivers on the day. By the Joe Thomas rushing efficiency metric, more than 50 percent of Chicago’s running plays on the day were successful.

The Pittsburgh running game, on the other hand, is still waiting to kick things off. It’s too simplistic to say that Le’Veon Bell‘s holdout has kept him from showing off his best work to start the season, but the superstar back hasn’t been as productive as anyone would like so far. Through three games, Bell has just 180 yards on 52 carries, which is under 3.5 yards per attempt.

It didn’t help that the Steelers were without right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who was sidelined by a hamstring injury. Even if Gilbert is slow to get back, the Bell breakout should be coming. The last time he didn’t make it over 200 yards in a three-game stretch was during the middle of last season. Bell followed it with four consecutive 100-yard games, including a 236-yard shellacking of the Bills. He’s too good to keep down for long.

While the Bears left seven points on the field with the bizarre Cooper fumble and a missed field goal, they rode their luck to win this one. Chicago should have been down 7-0 after the first play from scrimmage, as Martavis Bryant ran right past Cooper for what should have been a 75-yard touchdown pass to start the day, only for Ben Roethlisberger to overthrow his speedy wide receiver.

There also were seven fumbles in this game, and the Bears recovered six of them, which is a bit ironic given the Steelers recovered a league-high 62.2 percent of fumbles in their games last season. (Pittsburgh is 3-for-10 so far this season.) A muffed punt by Eli Rogers, who has taken over for Antonio Brown on punt returns, set up Chicago with a short field for its first score. Chicago’s fumble into the end zone stuck around long enough to require Vance McDonald batting it out of the end zone, which gave the Bears three points. John Fox’s offense also fumbled twice during the final drive of regulation, recovering both fumbles in a spot where a Steelers recovery would have resulted in a game-winning field goal try.

We’re still waiting to see a great game from the Steelers. They were fortunate in Week 1 to have a first-quarter blocked punt against the Browns somehow bounce violently backward and stay inbounds for a Pittsburgh touchdown, given that the Browns outscored their divisional rivals 18-14 the rest of the way. Mike Tomlin’s team beat the Vikings 26-9 last week, but that was with Sam Bradford as a surprise inactive on Sunday. The higher gear we were supposed to see from this offense with Roethlisberger, Bell, Brown and Bryant all on the field together hasn’t yet been realized.

And yet, I’m not sure it really matters. Pittsburgh’s loss didn’t hurt at all given what happened around the AFC North. The Browns blew their best chance at a road win by losing to the Colts, dropping Cleveland to 0-3. The Bengals couldn’t hold onto a 21-7 lead in Green Bay and lost to the Packers in overtime, leaving them in the cellar alongside the Browns at 0-3. Baltimore, without arguably its best player on offense (guard Marshal Yanda, who’s on IR) or defense (defensive lineman Brandon Williams), were stomped by the Jaguars in London by 37 points.

Pittsburgh came into the week with a 56.9 percent chance of winning its division and, despite the loss, left with a 73.3 percent chance of claiming its division. The Steelers have time to figure things out.

Buffalo Bills 26, Denver Broncos 16

Excitement Index: 4.40

Burns are exciting too, right? Von Miller‘s now-infamous “too slow” move seemed like a bizarre act to flag given that he never actually touched Tyrod Taylor after the play, but the call was enough to push a back-and-forth game Buffalo’s way. The Bills were set to punt the ball from the Denver 46-yard line with 7:43 to go in the fourth quarter up seven, but the fresh set of downs revitalized Taylor’s offense. Buffalo picked up two more first downs and forced Denver to burn all of its timeouts before kicking a field goal with 3:18 left to make it a 10-point game and basically end the contest.

Before the officiating crew decided to take center stage, though, this was an interesting game and a bit of a reality check for the Broncos’ offense under Trevor Siemian. Siemian had stretches during the first two weeks where he looked like a franchise quarterback, but he also threw two picks and had a would-be pick-six dropped by the Chargers early in the opener. While linebacker Ramon Humber dropped one would-be interception, the Bills generally weren’t as forgiving. A scrambling Siemian tried to force a second-and-long pass over the middle of the field in the shadow of his end zone, and it didn’t work.

The Broncos survived the E.J. Gaines pick, thanks to a holding penalty and a sack of Taylor, but they weren’t as lucky the second time around. Siemian was again under pressure, this time on the edge of the red zone, and tried to throw a pass away off his back foot and instead only found impressive rookie Tre’Davious White. The Broncos were in a favorable spot on the Buffalo 24-yard line with 11 minutes to go. Instead, with the ensuing drive including the Miller penalty, the Bills ran more than seven minutes off the clock before kicking a field goal to stretch their lead to 10.

While a seven-minute drive might sound like it features one team running the ball down the other’s throat, LeSean McCoy Co. were basically held in check by the Broncos’ run defense, which is one of the quiet success stories of 2017. Keep in mind that the league-best Denver defense was first against the pass and 21st against the run per DVOA last season. So far this season, the Broncos have held Melvin Gordon to 64 yards on 22 carries, Ezekiel Elliott to 8 yards on nine rushes, and now McCoy to 21 yards on 14 attempts. Those are three franchise running backs who have combined to run for 93 yards on 45 carries, or just under 2.1 yards per attempt. That’s sensational.

On the other hand, much as they did with Dak Prescott last week, the Broncos stacked the box with run defenders and dared Taylor to beat them. The difference is that Taylor delivered. He went 20-of-26 for 213 yards with two touchdowns, and two of those incompletions were drops. Taylor’s first touchdown pass came on a throw that was fortuitously deflected by Zay Jones to Andre Holmes, but he was brilliant regardless. Taylor posted a passer rating of 126.0, which is comfortably the best mark any quarterback has posted against the Broncos and their dominant pass defense since the beginning of the 2015 season. Drew Brees was previously the only other passer to make it to triple digits over that time frame (111.7).

This was an important victory for the Bills, especially because they head to Atlanta to take on the 3-0 Falcons next week. It was especially promising to see them win without the services of their two most expensive players, as both left tackle Cordy Glenn and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus were inactive with injuries. Sean McDermott’s team also has to travel to Cincinnati before its Week 6 bye, and while the Bengals aren’t good, a home game against the Broncos was likely Buffalo’s best shot at heading into the bye with two wins underneath its belt.

As for the Broncos, they may just chalk this one up to a bad day at the office. A fake punt on fourth-and-2 was stuffed. Opposing kicker Steven Hauschka hit four field goals, including kicks from 53 and 55 yards out, which are far less likely to be gimmes in Buffalo than they are in the thin air of Denver. They were victimized by the bizarre Miller penalty. With a key home game against the Raiders coming up in Week 4 before their bye, the Broncos might have fallen victim to something that may not even exist: a trap game.


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