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Who won Hall of Fame Game week in the NFL preseason?

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Michael Thomas got a massive contract. Vic Fangio got a kidney stone. Tough call, tough call.

Winning in the NFL doesn’t just happen on the field. Victories large and small come in many different forms, ranging from nine-figure contract extensions to a few kind words said by an important figure.

While we’ve got a whole table to determine division-by-division standings and playoff odds, we often lose track of the more subtle victors each week. Rather than just running down a list of the Dolphins’ weekly opponents this fall, I decided to take a deeper look at the winners who transcend the box scores and spill glorious into the greater world as a whole.

Which is good, because this week’s, uh, limited slate of games didn’t tell the world much about the 2019 season other than which team, the Broncos or the Falcons, had the weaker fourth-string lineup. So who “won” the first, single-game week of this summer’s preseason?

First let’s start with who didn’t.

Not considered: the actual football at the Hall of Fame Game

Due to an internet outage, I missed the first two minutes of gameplay in Canton. Somehow this equated to TWO ENTIRE POSSESSIONS.

Through their first three drives, the Falcons had twice as many penalties (two) as net yards (one). Ten of the game’s first 12 drives ended in punts. Three of those punts were muffed. It took rookie quarterback Drew Lock four passes to get within three yards of his intended target downfield. Denver challenged a pass interference call seemingly just to be the answer to an obscure trivia question for years to come.

But hey, if you liked six-yard passes on third-and-9, THIS was the game for you.

Kurt Benkert was the shining star of this wind-up car demolition derby, and he still threw for 5.4 yards per pass and left the game in the fourth quarter with a foot injury. He and Matt Schaub are currently dueling for the chance to start Atlanta’s meaningless Week 17 game after half the roster has been shunted to the injured list by conquest, pestilence, war, and death. Falcons fans will shake their heads and mournfully tell the world they “knew it would end this way.”

While we’re on the topic of premonitions Falcons fans can feel in their bones, Atlanta lost thanks to a tipped-ball touchdown on fourth down with under two minutes to play. This was the only vaguely exciting moment in football’s 2019 preseason debut.

Now, on to the winners ...

5. Resplendent old guys at the Hall of Fame Game

Tony Gonzalez is gonna look like this until he’s 80:

Tell me he wouldn’t still put up 60 catches if the Patriots or Cowboys called tomorrow.

Ed Reed would probably do all right too. He looks like he’s spent the past five seasons gearing up to fly a fighter jet against an alien invasion that will ultimately be foiled because their spaceships run on binary code.

Former WCW superstar Kevin Greene (and part-time pass rusher, I guess) also made the most of his camera time.

The guy’s 57 years old and still rocking an absolute Hercules mane. Bonus points for wearing a watch apparently made from the tie-down straps of a military cargo plane.

4. Nathan Peterman, whom everyone* likes

Everyone loves an underdog. As far as NFL quarterbacks go, there’s no bigger underdog than Peterman, the man who once threw five interceptions in a 14-pass stretch to kick off his first NFL start. Getting chased out of Buffalo for ineffectiveness is typically the kind of offense that precludes a player’s journey to a budding and ultimately fruitless spring football league.

Not the Peter Man.

No, the quarterback whose bedraggled play in western New York made us all fall in love and spawned the least-hype hype video ever made is getting a second chance in Oakland. And, like the guy he beat out for a roster spot last year, Jon Gruden has a preseason crush on him for some reason.

“I like these guys. This Nate Peterman is growing on me,” Gruden told reporters at training camp. “He’s athletic. I know he’s had some nightmare performances in the NFL, but when you watch the film you can see why. It’s not all his fault, but he’s got some talent, he’s got some athleticism, he’s got some experience. Here’s an opening day starter for the Buffalo Bills last year. I take that very serious. And he’s smart. He’s done a good job, he’s been consistent and I think he’s starting to get his confidence back and we all need that.”

Naturally, this news was well received by Raiders fans. From SB Nation’s Silver and Black Pride:

No, coach, no. This is the sort of thing that Mark Davis should roll up a newspaper and smack Jon Gruden on the nose for saying. I get that Peterman played for literally the Bills and that he looks the part, like how a successful quarterback should look, in shorts. But Peterman also has a record of 1-3 as a starter and a QB/INT ratio of 3/12. He was aggressively ‘meh’ in college at Pitt, where he was essentially a more boring version of Tyler Palko, and when he got to the pro ranks based entirely on his genetics and through no achievements of his own, he proved how overmatched he was and how his decision-making ability rivals that of the kid who climbed in the gorilla pen with Harambe. Nate Peterman is the sort of musclebound stiff Vince McMahon would try and fail to make a big star in the 1980s.

Huh. Mean.

But the joke’s on you, Peterman haters. Gruden’s not the only guy who likes this scrappy young upstart.

Peterman’s just out here trying to do his best, man. Listen to Derek Carr and give him his shoe deal. Preferably something from Member’s Mark.

*citation needed

3. Derek Carr, who is not threatened in the least

He gets to be friends with Peterman! He’s gonna be neighbors with Gruden!

I hope he likes cookouts where the only food option is Hooters takeout.

2. Jordan Lasley, who proved himself worthy of the Raiders (while a Raven)

If you get released for punching teammates and celebrating too hard, you get to be on Hard Knocks. Sorry, that’s how the league works now.

The Raiders claimed Lasley — a 2018 fifth-round pick with zero career NFL receptions — days after Baltimore released him for fighting cornerback Cyrus Jones and turning his fists on safety Bennett Jackson for having the audacity to prevent him from breaking his hands on Jones’ helmet.

Now Gruden has two quarterbacks who are best friends and an entire roster that wants nothing more than to fight anything and everything in its path.

Oakland’s final day of camp should just be a 30-man over the top rope battle royale. Last five men standing get roster spots. Winner takes on Vontaze Burfict at Halloween Havoc.

1. Michael Thomas, who now has an opinion on the capital gains tax

Is Thomas the best wide receiver in the league? It’s debatable, but you can make a strong argument for it. The fourth-year wideout has excelled in New Orleans, catching 229 passes the past two years for 2,650 yards. More impressively, he did so despite drawing constant double-teams from opposing secondaries who saw fellow wideouts like Tommylee Lewis, Willie Snead, Tre’Quan Smith, and a hobbled 33-year-old Ted Ginn and giggled to themselves, “heh, no.”

Is Thomas the highest-paid wide receiver in the league? He is now. Rather than run even the slightest risk of losing Drew Brees’ favorite target to either a preseason holdout or 2020 free agency, the Saints made him the first pass catcher to garner a $100 million contract, inking him for five years with $61 million in guarantees. He’ll now be counted on to present a field-stretching menace who not only gives Brees the latitude to make video game throws downfield, but also creates a little extra space for Alvin Kamara to create havoc.

Most importantly for New Orleans, Thomas was the balm that soothed Brees’ late-season blisters. The veteran quarterback appeared worn out while falling off an early MVP run; after recording a 126.9 passer rating in his first 10 games, that number dropped to 91.5 in his final five. Thomas’ numbers fell off in that home stretch too, but he still averaged eight catches and 65 yards per game. If the combination of extra defensive pressure and a reduced Brees aren’t enough to drop him to sub-Pro Bowl levels, what will?

Thomas got a record-setting contract and more ammunition in his battle to be crowned the league’s best receiver. And he didn’t have to play in the Hall of Fame Game. He wins this week.

Special mention: NOT Vic Fangio’s urethra

Fangio’s first game (kinda) as an NFL head coach after breaking into the pro coaching ranks 35 years ago almost didn’t happen.

That every Broncos sideline shot Thursday night wasn’t just a window into the depths of human suffering was the Hall of Fame Game’s biggest upset. Every second he stood upright was a victory over the mutiny taking place inside his own body. With pirate ships circling his kidneys, Fangio stood atop his deck, surveyed the landscape, and asked his first mate to bring him his red pants.

Not that the pain wasn’t evident at times, despite a stoic front.

Fangio, for the record, wore this expression for four straight hours. Did he do all this just to become the first NFL coach to challenge a pass interference call? Probably!