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Six big takeaways from a thrilling opening Sunday in the NFL

The Bengals, including running back Joe Mixon, were impressive in a Week 1 road win over the Colts. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
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Aaron Rodgers exited the field on a cart, and when he returned he could bear weight on only his right knee. But that was not a problem for him. Rodgers is not bound by the same physical restrictions as the rest of them. He can control an NFL game with glancing eyes and shuffling feet. He hisses passes half the length of a football field with the liquescent, laconic snap of his right wrist. Who needs a second leg when you can levitate?

Rodgers hovered over the start of the NFL season Sunday night, first with the disquieting sight of him grabbing his left knee and hitching a ride into the tunnel, and then with a debatable return, and finally with pure magic. Rodgers led the Green Bay Packers back from a 20-0 deficit in the third quarter while hobbling. He threw for 273 yards and three touchdowns on one leg in the second half, completing the comeback and a 24-23 victory over the Chicago Bears when Randall Cobb snared one of his darts and zoomed 75 yards for a touchdown.

“I just had a feeling,” Rodgers said after the game in his on-field interview with NBC. It was not universally shared. When Rodgers emerged for the second, his presence seemed like an unnecessary risk.

NFL Week 1: Aaron Rodgers carted off but returns to lead comeback against Bears

The Bears had dominated the first half, with Khalil Mack leading a ferocious pass rush mere days after he had dropped from the sky into their fortunate hands. Rodgers’s preservation felt far more important than whatever might happen Sunday night. Last year, the NFL was diminished when he missed half the season with a separated shoulder. Playing on a bum knee with Mack and the rest of the Bears onrushing, Rodgers invited the possibility it could happen again.

But by playing, Rodgers offered a reminder of why it would have been so terrible to see him get injured again. No player is more exhilarating. The touchdown throw he made to Geronimo Allison, the most important pass to Green Bay’s comeback, was a marvel. Rodgers stood on the left hash mark, calm in a chaotic pocket, tottering left and right just enough to keep Chicago’s rush off balance. With only his back leg to support, his arm launched a rocket. The pass traveled 50 yards down the field and about 30 across, landing softly in Allison’s arms in the middle of the end zone.

That one throw brought the Packers back. Rodgers completed the comeback with a short pass, but one that still revealed his brilliance. Even without being able to move fast, Rodgers could manipulate Chicago’s defense with subtle glances and shifts in his balance. He skipped to right, then back to his left, scanning the field until he flipped the ball to Cobb over the middle. One safety had vacated the middle of the field, and the other, Eddie Jackson, had been enticed to step up, in front of Cobb. When Jackson’s lunge missed the ball, Cobb turned and saw only green.

Let it be said: The Bears blew it. They led, 20-0, and then their offense grinded to a halt. On a more granular level, they had concrete chances to seal what would have been a statement. With just less than 3 minutes left, the Packers had exhausted all their timeouts and the Bears faced third and one inside Green Bay’s 20. A first down, and Chicago could just about melt the game away. One yard is all it needed.

The Bears couldn’t do it — Mitchell Trubisky dropped back to pass and found nobody open.

Rodgers also received a bail out. His first pass of the winning drive, two plays before his strike to Cobb, sailed directly at cornerback Kyle Fuller. The ball hit Fuller in the stomach, a victory in his grasp, and somehow he still dropped it.

Rodgers had an opening, and that was all he needed. Rodgers may or may not be the best quarterback of his era. But he is inarguably the most singular, in possession of the most athletic genius of any of them. Rodgers has completed multiple Hail Mary passes. His sheer talent for throwing the ball is unsurpassed. Sunday night, it was sickening to watch him leave the field and a little scary to watch him come back. And then he reminded everyone why we watch at all.

Ryan Fitzpatrick had a phenomenal game for the Bucs, and Jameis Winston may be done as the team’s QB: Since the St. Louis Rams drafted Ryan Fitzpatrick in the seventh round out of — wait a second, let us double check this fact — Harvard, he has enjoyed and endured the strangest quarterbacking odyssey of his generation. He has started 120 games. He has won 48 of those. He has thrown 136 interceptions and 173 touchdowns and averaged 6.7 yards per attempt, which are pitiful statistics. He has made more than $58 million, which is an enviable total. He has never appeared in the playoffs. He’s on his seventh team. A beard colonized his face a few years back and he can’t get rid of it. It’s a lot to fit into 13 years.

Sunday, he experienced his very best day of those 13 years. Fitzpatrick found himself starting for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the same reason he found himself starting at any other juncture: Something happened to the regular starting quarterback. Jameis Winston was beginning his three-game suspension under the NFL’s personal conduct policy, for allegedly groping an Uber driver. Fitzpatrick’s presence was one reason Tampa Bay was the biggest underdog of the week in Vegas, getting 9 ½ points from the Saints playing in New Orleans.

And then Fitzpatrick did … that. He started with a bomb to DeSean Jackson and didn’t stop heaving. He passed for 417 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for 36 yards and another score. He out-dueled Drew Brees in New Orleans, and Tampa Bay won, 48-40, spoiling the opening week — and a million Survivor Pool entries — for a popular Super Bowl pick.

The one thing Fitzpatrick has always been able to do is wing the ball downfield without fear and with adequate accuracy. That’s a perfect attribute for a quarterback who can throw to Jackson and Mike Evans. As the Saints’ porous secondary enabled him to show, Fitzpatrick is a great fit with Tampa’s receivers.

And that means Winston, the No. 1 pick of the 2015 draft, may be done as a starter in Tampa Bay. Given Winston’s unsteady performance and erratic off-field behavior, the Bucs have little incentive to anoint him the starter once his suspension ends if Fitzpatrick plays anywhere near like he did Sunday over the next two weeks. Fitzpatrick may be the best quarterback in Tampa, and that may be the strangest twist yet in his career.

Buffalo looked like it has no playoff shot in blowout loss to Ravens: What are the Bills doing? They traded Tyrod Taylor in the offseason, dealt A.J. McCarron late in training camp and benched first-round pick Josh Allen for the purposes of handing their quarterback job to Nathan Peterman. That seemed bizarre before Sunday. Peterman chucked five interceptions in one half in his debut last year before Coach Sean McDermott benched Taylor for him in the middle of an improbable playoff run. The entire world realized Peterman was not cut out for starting in the NFL, but the Bills remained unconvinced.

After Sunday, the choice just seems dumb. In a 47-3 drubbing in Baltimore, Peterman completed 5 of 18 attempts for 24 yards and two picks. In baseball terms, Peterman is the career minor league reliever who gets a cup of coffee in some desperate moment, gives up three earned runs without getting an out and retires with an ERA of infinity. Except the Bills made him their Week 1 starter.

Remarkably, McDermott said he’d have to watch the film to get a full evaluation of Peterman’s performance. By the end of the season, it will seem impossible that the Bills made the playoffs last season.

It’s possible the Bengals have the best team in the AFC North: As Week 1 overreactions go, this one feels reasonable. The Ravens were impressive, but that was against the Bills, at home. The Steelers tied the Browns. The Browns are the Browns. The Bengals beat the Colts in Indianapolis with a healthy Andrew Luck.

The way they played is what makes the Bengals worthy of consideration. With second-year speedster John Ross healthy and the development of Tyler Boyd, the Bengals have one of the deepest stables of skill-position weapons in the league. A.J. Green, Joe Mixon, Tyler Eifert, Ross, Boyd — that’s a crew that can carry Andy Dalton. And Cincinnati’s defensive line, starring Geno Atkins, is scary. The Bengals are a playoff threat.

It might be a big year for rookie defensive backs: San Diego safety Derwin James, a ridiculously versatile player at Florida State who slipped in the draft after an injury spoiled his final college season, broke up a touchdown pass and recorded a sack on consecutive plays. Mike Hughes, a first-round corner, scored on a pick-six for Minnesota. Denzel Ward, the fourth overall pick, intercepted Ben Roethlisberger and kept up with Antonio Brown as well as possible. That doesn’t account for Green Bay’s Josh Jackson, who had a tremendous preseason, the best among any rookie defender, according to Pro Football Focus.

The NFC South might not be as good as we thought: The Saints’ defense headlined a rough week for the NFC South, which looked like the toughest division in the NFL heading into the season. The Falcons laid an egg Thursday night, offering a repeat of their debilitating red zone issues from last season. The Panthers beat the Cowboys, 16-8, but their offense was slow in coalescing under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Tight end Greg Olsen, besieged by foot injuries for the better part of the past two seasons, suffered another Sunday and watched the end of the game on the sideline wearing a walking boot.

Read more on the NFL:

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