ATLANTA – So, here was the NFL Brand on full display again on another typical Sunday when either team could win, the game would go down to the wire … and something crazy was bound to happen.
Let’s hope you didn’t lose your shirt with some dare-to-be-lucky wager.
On paper, in the standings and surely on the team’s chartered flight back to the West Coast, the Los Angeles Chargers scored a 20-17 knockout punch against the (ahem) first-place Atlanta Falcons. A guy named Cameron Dicker, who was just activated on Thursday, clinched it with a 37-yard field goal as the clock struck 0:00 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Good for Dicker. Had he missed, he might have been barred from the team flight.
But that’s not half the story.
Follow every game: Live NFL Scores
NFL NEWSLETTER:Sign up now for exclusive content sent to your inbox
MORE THAN A LOSS:Josh Allen’s elbow is bigger concern for Bills than 0-2 AFC East record
‘YOU LIKE THAT!’:Vikings win vs. Commanders has added meaning for Kirk Cousins
“The NFL is, ‘Here, we go again.’ That’s what it is,” said Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, who contributed 71 yards from scrimmage, two TDs and a last-minute fumble to the drama.
“You see some of these teams beat their opponents by two scores and it’s rare. These games are so competitive, they’re going to go down to the finish. ‘Here we go again’ is what I say every game.”
Of the eight games that kicked off at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday, the Chargers-Falcons tilt was among six that were too close to call in the final two minutes. Here we go again.
That’s consistent with the way the first half of the NFL’s 103rd season has gone down. Heading into Week 9, 55 games were decided by a TD or less – most in NFL history at this point – and 55 had at least one lead change in the second half. Seven games on Sunday were decided by seven points or fewer.
It’s one thing to watch these nail-biters from your family room lounger. Or the sports bar. Or the press box. Maybe you’re invested in your fantasy team, survivor pool or office bragging rights. It’s hella-entertainment, which is why this live content allows NFL owners to pocket billions – with a B – from the TV networks and other media partners.
Now think how gut-wrenching it must be to be a real participant in such ebb and flow.
“And that’s one of the reasons we love it,” Ekeler insisted. “It is so emotional. And it’s so hard to win a game, it makes it so worth it when you win because you have that tremendous accomplishment as a team. Imagine how you feel when you go into the building, being around your brothers. It’s damn near impossible to replicate that in anything else I do.”
Ekeler, though, could hardly predict what would happen in crunch time: Game tied. Just 46 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Chargers ball on the Falcons 22. No timeouts left for Atlanta. The usually sure-handed Ekeler barreled off left tackle to set up a chip-shot field goal.
Fumble! Rashaan Evans poked the football loose as Grady Jarrett wrestled Ekeler to the turf. Ta’Quon Graham, a 307-pound defensive lineman, recovered the football and rumbled along the sideline.
For Ekeler, devastating. Or, as he put it, “The whole team is relying on you to hold onto the ball, so we can kick the field goal and go home.”
For an instant, the Falcons were poised to snag a last-minute miracle for the second consecutive week. A week earlier, their overtime win was aided by major Carolina gaffes – a penalty for removing the helmet in the TD party, a missed PAT and a missed chip-shot field goal in OT.
This time, Atlanta gave the lightning-can-strike-twice break right back to the Bolts. Graham fumbled! And it was an unforced error as the football bounced off his thigh. Matt Feiler, a 330-poundr guard, trailed on the play and recovered the fumble after Graham’s 19-yard return with 34 seconds left.
“I was running after the ball in case something like that happened,” Feiler told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s of the points of emphasis for an offensive lineman in a situation like that. In case something happens.”
I’m guessing that maybe Feiler has chased a few dozen fumble returns during his football life. And how often has he been on the defining end of a “fumble-fumble?”
“Not very often,” he said. “But in that one instance, it can happen. So, that’s why we practice it.”
It’s Murphy’s Law. Whatever can happen, will happen.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert chased Graham on the fumble return, too.
“I was going make the tackle,” Herbert said. “I dove at his legs and saw that he didn’t have the ball. So, it was a weird couple of moments.”
For sure. On the next snap. Herbert – with his top two wideouts, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams inactive as they nurse injuries – connected with fill-in receiver Joshua Palmer for 22 yards to set up Dicker’s kick.
It clinched the third victory this season by the Chargers (5-3) that came after trailing by double-digits in the first quarter (yes, slow starts have been an issue), which, halfway through the season, is already an NFL record.
Speaking of records, Chargers coach Brandon Staley knows the thin ice that has come with winning three games on last-minute field goals – and with a twist.
“This is our third kicker,” he said. “We’re going to set the NFL record for game balls for a kicker in a year, with three separate kicker game balls.”
Hey, it happens. This is the NFL, the league still living up to the parity that late NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle envisioned decades ago.
I mean, look at the Falcons (4-5), who entered the game as one of the eight teams holding playoff slots (if the playoffs were on Sunday) that didn’t make the playoffs last season. With Tampa Bay pulling out a last-minute win against the Rams (of course it went down to the wire), the Falcons slipped back into second place in the NFC South.
And they can kick themselves for assorted reasons. They squandered a 201-yard rushing game that included the return of Cordarrelle Patterson, who literally ran over linebacker Drue Tranquill at the goal line on one of his two TDs. They saw a rookie lesson for receiver Drake London, who was ripped of the football from Khalil Mack (like so many QBs over the years on strip-fumbles) near the goal line. And Marcus Mariota overthrew a wide open Kyle Pitts on what might have been a long TD that made the difference in another ho-hum, one-play-away type of contest.
That’s the NFL Brand for you. And you know what comes next week: Here we go again.
Story Credit: usatoday.com