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9 winners from Week 8 of the 2019 NFL season

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Young wideouts balled out ... with a little help from trick plays.

Rams WR Cooper Kupp holds the football while running, superimposed on a yellow and black background with geometric shapes
Cooper Kupp has been Jared Goff’s favorite target this season for the Rams.

You know who the losers of Week 9 were? Sure, the Bengals, the Broncos’ coaches, and anyone who wasted a prime fantasy football waiver wire spot on Detroit backup running back Ty Johnson (38 total yards). But mostly it was all of us, because we were deprived of a Patrick Mahomes-Aaron Rodgers showdown.

Mahomes missed his Sunday Night Football date with Green Bay thanks to a dislocated kneecap that threatens to keep him from the field until Week 10. Rodgers, fortunately, made sure the fans at Arrowhead Stadium wouldn’t go home without seeing at least one “how on earth?” play:

Somehow Rodgers wasn’t throwing that ball away, and it gave Green Bay a late lead in a back-and-forth battle with backup quarterback Matt Moore, who was surprisingly game. The Packers’ QB threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-24 win, while Moore threw for 267 yards and two scores.

Neither was the king of Week 8, though. That title belonged to dominant wide receivers and defensive-shattering trick plays.

But that doesn’t include:

Not considered: Eddy Pineiro, who is a very Bears kicker after all

Chicago had a, uh, bold strategy late in its comeback effort against the Chargers Sunday afternoon. After a Mitchell Trubisky scramble put the ball at the LA’s 21-yard line, the Bears eschewed a shot at the end zone with 43 seconds left in a 17-16 game in order to ... take a knee and settle for a field goal instead.

That took the ball out of Trubisky’s hands and sent a rushing offense that had broken free for 162 yards to the sideline. That set up Pineiro, the hero of a Week 2 victory over the Broncos, for what could have been the second game-winning kick of his young career. He’d gone 2-of-2 with his 50+ yard kicks to start the season, and a 41-yard attempt was well within his range.

But as well as he’d kicked in Weeks 1-7, settling for a long-ish Pineiro field goal was still a big risk. He’d doinked a kick off the upright on a 33-yard attempt in the first quarter, and his three successful field goals Sunday all came from 25 yards or closer.

This all created a perfect and familiar storm for Bears fans:

Chicago lost despite gaining 157 more yards than the Chargers and possessing the ball for 16 more minutes than LA. It’s almost an accomplishment to lose that way.

Now on to ...

Week 8’s real winners:

9. The Browns, who lost pathetically but at least tried something new

The less said about Cleveland’s “three turnovers in three plays” offense the better, but there was a little cause for optimism outside of Nick Chubb’s 131-yard performance Sunday. Trailing by 14 late in the fourth quarter following a field goal, the Browns swapped out placekicker Austin Seibert for punter Jamie Gillan for the ensuing kickoff.

The Scot uncorked a well-placed dropkick that skidded toward the sideline and was inches away from being only the second onside kick recovered by the kicking team in 2019:

It didn’t work, but it came close. And that’s a big deal, because the onside kick in its current state is broken. Gillan’s dropkick was an improvement over Justin Tucker’s poorly executed attempt back in September, and it could help bring a low-key revolution in the onside game as the league scrambles to find a way to fix an otherwise hopeless situation.

8. The NFL’s pass interference review rule, which actually worked on Sunday

The league made pass interference calls and no-calls reviewable in 2019 following last season’s debacle at the end of the Rams-Saints NFC Championship Game. While it’s given coaches plenty of opportunities to test their fortunes against back judges across the NFL, it’s led to little actual change. From Weeks 3-7, only one pass interference challenge resulted in the call on the field being changed.

But Sunday, late in a close game between the Colts and Broncos, that process worked to perfection. T.Y. Hilton’s third-and-5 crossing route turned into an incomplete pass after defensive back Coty Sensabaugh held his hand (literally) through the last half of his route.

Colts head coach Frank Reich challenged the no-call and, in a relative rarity, the call was reversed. Indianapolis didn’t do anything with its new set of downs — it punted a few plays later before eventually rallying to a 15-13 win — but it’s good to see something useful came from this recent rash of rule changes.

7. Miles Sanders, who got his first career rushing touchdown against one of the league’s top defenses

Sanders had seen his role in the Eagles’ run offense diminish over the past few weeks. After starting off his rookie year with 10+ carries in his first four games, he’d gotten the ball only 18 times (for 42 yards) in his last three appearances.

That left the former Penn State star to plead his case for more responsibility against Buffalo’s top-10 rushing defense. He was pretty convincing:

Unfortunately for Sanders, he couldn’t keep up this furious pace. He left the game in the third quarter with a shoulder injury, limiting his output to 118 total yards and a touchdown on six touches — three catches, three carries. Even so, he joined some lofty peers after gaining 250 rushing yards and 250 receiving yards in his first eight games as a pro — other members in that club include Marshall Faulk, Terrell Davis, Saquon Barkley, and Alvin Kamara.

Sanders says he’s “fine,” so expect him to capitalize on that momentum next week against another smothering defense. The Eagles face the Bears in Week 9.

6. Devon Kennard, who got revenge over the team that didn’t want to pay him

Kennard broke into the league with the Giants, starting six games in 2014 as a fifth-round draftee. He’d stick in the team’s linebacker rotation over the next four years, making 35 starts as a versatile Swiss Army Knife-style player in the second level.

But when it came time for a new contract in 2018, New York declined to offer him an extension and let him test free agency. The Lions made him a priority, swiping him from the East Coast as their first signing under head coach Matt Patricia.

It took a year and a half, but Kennard got a chance to make the Giants finally pay up.

Daniel Jones’ latest implosion behind a slipshod offensive line resulted in a backward pass, and Kennard was there to clean it up. His first NFL touchdown came against his former team, giving the Lions an early 7-0 lead in a 31-26 win. His seven tackles tied for the team lead as the Lions climbed back to .500 for the season.

5. New MVP candidate Kirk Cousins and his new best buddy Stefon Diggs

I guess it’s time to talk about Kirk Cousins. In a good way, too!

The former Washington QB failed to make a major splash in his first season with the Vikings. The man with the $84 million fully guaranteed contract couldn’t exceed the standard set by Case Keenum in 2017. That combination of overpaid and underwhelming bled into the start of 2019, when Cousins threw for just 735 yards in Minnesota’s 2-2 start.

Then the calendar flipped over to October, and Cousins’ renaissance has been undeniable. In his last four weeks, the veteran has thrown for an average of 315 yards per game, has a TD:INT ratio of 10:1, and has recorded an absurd quarterback rating of 137.1. The Vikings have gone 4-0 as a result, winning each of those games by double digits.

For the season, Cousins’ 115.3 passer rating and 9.3 yards per pass are both career highs that currently lead the NFL’s crop of QBs. The secret to his success? Remembering Diggs plays on his team:

Diggs averages, Vikings games 1-4 (2-2): 3.3 catches, 52.3 yards, 0.3 touchdowns per game
Diggs averages, Vikings games 5-8 (4-0): 6 catches, 124 yards, 0.8 touchdowns per game

That’s made Adam Thielen’s recent absence a lot more tolerable in Minnesota these past two weeks. Cousins had just three incompletions in 28 attempts Thursday.

4. Flea flickers (and other trick plays), which are pretty damn great

Week 8 was a banner day for unorthodox plays. It all started in New Orleans, where head coach Kliff Kingsbury and his undermanned Cardinals team got bold in their upset bid against the Saints.

Kingsbury, a man who spent five years trying to make his way in the Big 12 with recruiting non-powerhouse Texas Tech, is used to spinning hay into gold. His creativity in divining offensive strategies is what led him to Arizona after being fired by the Red Raiders. He put that on full display Sunday afternoon.

Kingsbury brought his fight directly to New Orleans, dialing up some first-quarter trickery with a WR sweep to Christian Kirk that developed into a flea flicker deep ball to tight end Charles Clay. The only problem with the play was that it wasn’t designed to go to someone quicker; the plodding veteran was brought down inside the New Orleans 15-yard line, turning a potential touchdown into an eventual field goal for Arizona.

That worked well enough to convince Lions head coach Matt Patricia to run pretty much the exact same play a little later (I’m kidding. Patricia only watches Patriots games).

That trickeration went to burner wideout Kenny Golladay, and it ended in a much-needed touchdown to shut down the Giants’ repeated comeback efforts.

But these weren’t limited to U.S. soil. The Rams, playing overseas in London, turned a handoff to Cooper Kupp into a touchdown catch for Cooper Kupp.

Quarterback Jared Goff took the snap and handed the ball off to his streaking wideout. He then pitched the ball back to Josh Reynolds, running in the opposite direction. Reynolds gave it back to Goff, who found Kupp tearing down the sideline as the Cincinnati secondary stumbled over its own feet trying to rectify the mistake. Then 65 yards later, the Rams were up 17-10 and the good people of London got a brief respite from a week when they were forced to deal with both Brexit and a Bengals game.

3. Deshaun Watson, who rallied the Texans to victory with one eye

With his Texans trailing Oakland late in the fourth quarter, Watson needed a touchdown. What he got was one of the most unbelievable plays of his budding career.

Watson spun out of a sack, got kicked right through the facemask, and slung the ball to tight end Darren Fells despite a bloody and rapidly swelling eye. That touchdown would prove to be the deciding points in a win that kept Houston in the thick of the AFC playoff race at 5-3.

So could Watson see his target after getting kicked in the eye? Nope! He was pretty much just running on autopilot.

“I kind of threw it blind,” he told reporters in his postgame press conference. “I kind of assumed where he was going, kinda adjusted, let my arm guide it. I didn’t even see the play till after the game.”

Deshaun Watson is so good that he can roast you with one eye or fewer. Legend.

2. Mike Evans, now officially the greatest wide receiver Tampa Bay has ever seen

No other player in Buccaneers history has more catches than Evans, who raised his career total to 433 with an 11-reception, 198-yard, two-touchdown game. That’s impressive — but not nearly as impressive as the fact it took him less than five and a half seasons to get there.

Evans was responsible for 100 percent of his team’s touchdowns in a loss to Titans. Without him, Jameis Winston’s stat line would have been a 10-of-31, 103-yard, two-interception crater.

His record-setting catch was a perfect fit for a wideout who has used his size and speed to consistently stand out as the Bucs’ biggest weapon. Evans drew single coverage at the goal line and ran a simple out route that looked easy but would have been nearly impossible for a smaller, slower receiver to haul in.

And somehow, this wasn’t the biggest receiving performance of Week 8.

1. Cooper Kupp, who boosted his jersey sales in the UK exponentially

Since 2010, 61 wide receivers drafted in the first round have failed to record at least 220 yards over the course of a season. On Sunday, Kupp hit that benchmark on his own.

The Rams-Bengals matchup wasn’t exactly a gift to the British Isles, but Kupp gave the fans at Wembley Stadium something to tell their grandchildren about. He finished his day with seven catches for a career-high 220 yards and a touchdown (the double-reverse flea flicker covered in No. 4 above). More absurdly, all those catches came in the first 33 minutes.

That was 2019’s biggest performance at wideout and a personal record for Kupp by 58 yards. He’s currently on pace for a 116-catch, 1,584-yard, 10-touchdown season — all of which would carve out his place in the uppermost tier of the league’s wide receiver pyramid.