The NFL did not arrive quietly. It revved a Harley-Davidson as it parked outside, ripped the hinges off the front door and put on a Metallica record at full blast. At one point as Sunday’s 1 p.m. slate finished, five games had a combined point differential of four points. Eight of the day’s 14 games were decided by one score.
What just happened? Better question: What didn’t? The Carolina Panthers and Cleveland Browns traded late scores before a 58-yard field goal spoiled Baker Mayfield’s revenge. AFC South teams played the New York Giants, Washington Commanders and each other — and still emerged with zero wins. The Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers played in a bog. The Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts trailed by at least two touchdowns apiece before they forced overtime. Patrick Mahomes erupted, and Aaron Rodgers imploded.
One overtime arrived because of a blocked extra point, heavily influenced by a pregame injury to Bengals long snapper Clark Harris, which left poor backup tight end Mitchell Wilcox chucking the ball between his legs. The other was decided when Houston Texans Coach Lovie Smith chose to punt to secure a tie rather than try for a win on fourth and three near midfield.
After the NFL endured an offseason of scandal and controversy, it immediately provided another reminder of why fans stomach its worst. The product remains undefeated, and this is what to know.
Bill Belichick doesn’t have anything up his sleeve. With longtime offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels off to Las Vegas, Belichick handed his offense to the unholy hivemind of Joe Judge and Matt Patricia, prodigal assistants who worked in New England before becoming failed head coaches and returning. It led to atrocious preseason performances and consternation from a Patriots fan base that hasn’t seen a playoff victory since Tom Brady’s exit. But, as both the greatest coach of all time and a man for whom contrarianism usually pays off, Belichick retained the benefit of the doubt.
That’s gone now. One game revealed there is no master plan, no secret weapon, no Belichickian mischief that leaves you shaking your head, wondering how he does it. The Patriots mustered one touchdown in a 20-7 defeat at Miami, their offense just as impotent as feared. Mac Jones rushed short passes to receivers who managed minimal separation. A blown offensive line assignment led to a Dolphins sack-fumble touchdown. New England has neither a line that can bully defenses nor skill players who can scare them.
The Patriots can claim the vision they have for their offense will become clear later on, but this was a division game in a loaded conference in which every victory will be precious. They weren’t holding anything back. They showed who they are, and it was ugly. It could get worse: Jones was not available to speak with reporters because of a back injury, the Patriots said.
Start the Sean Payton watch in Dallas. The Cowboys’ season took an instant turn toward the dismal Sunday night. Their 19-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers validated summer concerns about how injuries and defections had diminished their offensive line and playmakers. Dak Prescott had little time to throw and few open targets all night — and then, in the fourth quarter, he jogged to the locker room after injuring his throwing hand. Now Prescott will need surgery.
If not for two timely sacks from otherworldly defender Micah Parsons, the Cowboys could have been blown out. Mike McCarthy is an offensive coach, and his offense was putrid against Tampa Bay’s fierce pass rush. The Cowboys emphasized decreasing penalties, and in their opener they committed 10. What would you say you do here, Mike? Jerry Jones’s interest in Payton is an open secret, and now that he isn’t coaching, it will only make McCarthy’s seat hotter if Dallas can’t turn things around quickly.
Jimmy Garoppolo should keep his arm loose. The 49ers invited controversy when they re-signed Garoppolo late in the preseason, no matter how fervently they insisted they had retained him strictly as the backup quarterback. One game in, the controversy is here.
In his first appearance as San Francisco’s full-time starter, Trey Lance called that status into question. In a 19-10 loss to the unheralded Bears, Lance completed 13 of 28 passes for 164 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. He ran 13 times for 54 yards, providing a different kind of threat but not a major difference.
The conditions made it difficult to evaluate Lance fully. Flash flooding in Chicago turned the field into a swamp, and tight end George Kittle didn’t play because of a groin injury. But the 49ers are expected to compete for the Super Bowl, and they just lost to one of the league’s expected bottom dwellers as Lance played poorly.
Coach Kyle Shanahan traded up to the third pick in 2021 to take Lance because he thought his skill set would take the 49ers’ offense to a new level. For that to work, Lance must execute. In the first half Sunday, Lance rolled right, sucking the Bears’ defense with him because of his running threat. Tight end Tyler Kroft got behind the secondary, but Lance’s pass sailed over his head.
It also remains to be seen how much schematic advantage the 49ers can derive from Lance. It’s true Shanahan once designed a pyrotechnic offense around Robert Griffin III with Washington. In 2012, though, NFL defenses were clueless about handling running quarterbacks and zone-read plays. Lance is dynamic, but he won’t be a total mystery to defenses.
Lance is clearly a great talent, and teammates laud his maturity, but he is not in an environment suited for development. The 49ers came within a dropped interception of reaching the Super Bowl last season, and their roster is studded with veterans who expect to win now. The problem isn’t public pressure on Lance. It’s how his teammates will look at the coaching staff if Lance continues to struggle and they stick with him while a quarterback who has taken them to a Super Bowl stands on the sideline.
The Buffalo Bills don’t seem to miss Brian Daboll. As the Bills demolished the reigning Super Bowl champions Thursday night, they only stopped themselves. They never punted, and they scored 31 points despite committing four turnovers, which is nearly impossible in the NFL.
Josh Allen dispatched any worry that he would have difficulty adjusting without Daboll, the offensive coordinator who became the Giants’ coach (and won his debut with a comeback at Tennessee). The Bills rolled with new coordinator Ken Dorsey, who moved up from quarterbacks coach. Not many coaches come better suited to take advantage of Allen’s distinct skill set. The closest — if not only — comparison for Allen is Cam Newton. No other quarterback has combined that kind of physical force and arm strength — and Dorsey was Newton’s quarterbacks coach for Carolina from 2013 to 2017.
The Steelers’ defense could be scary. The rollicking end of Pittsburgh’s 23-20 overtime victory over the Bengals overshadowed what came before it. Joe Burrow erased a 14-point deficit when he darted a touchdown pass to Ja’Marr Chase on the final play from scrimmage in regulation, only for Minkah Fitzpatrick to block the PAT. In overtime, Chris Boswell doinked a 55-yard field goal before he drilled a 53-yarder as the clock ran out.
Attention should be paid, though, to how the Steelers built their lead. Their defense throttled the reigning AFC champions. Fitzpatrick returned an interception for a touchdown on the Bengals’ opening possession, the first of five turnovers the Steelers forced. Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward created turnovers.
The Steelers have the coaching infrastructure to optimize their elite defensive talent. (The defense did suffer a blow, though, when Watt went out with an injury. TV cameras captured him seeming to tell a trainer he had torn his left pectoral muscle, and reports indicate the team fears he has.) This offseason, Coach Mike Tomlin promoted longtime assistant Teryl Austin to defensive coordinator and hired Brian Flores as a linebackers coach and senior defensive assistant. The trio provides the Steelers more defensive game-planning brainpower than any team in the league.
Lamar Jackson is taking advantage of being an elite quarterback. Jackson will play this season on the final year of his rookie contract without an extension, choosing not to accept the massive offer the Baltimore Ravens made before his self-imposed deadline because it did not include enough guaranteed money for his liking. Acting as his own agent, Jackson saw the full, $230 million guarantee Deshaun Watson received from the Cleveland Browns — despite a lesser résumé and horrendous off-field issues — and planted his flag.
Many will say Jackson failed to ensure financial security, but that is a misread of how NFL franchises view quarterbacks. Prescott suffered one of the worst lower-leg injuries possible in 2020, and before he played another snap the Cowboys signed him to a four-year, $160 million deal. Given his talent and the scarcity of great quarterbacks, Jackson has financial security.
Jackson has always been judged differently than other quarterbacks are, some of which is foolish and some of which is fair; part of his genius is that he doesn’t play like most quarterbacks. Still, he stands to benefit from the principle and backbone he has brought to negotiations.
With today's @Ravens victory, QB @Lj_era8 now has a 38-12 regular-season record as starter.— NFL345 (@NFL345) September 11, 2022
He ties Tom Brady and Danny White for the 3rd-most wins by a QB in his first 50 career starts since 1970. Only Patrick Mahomes (40 wins) and @ProFootballHOF Ken Stabler (40) have more.
Patrick Mahomes doesn’t miss his best wide receiver, but Aaron Rodgers might. The offseason was defined by the volume of top-tier wide receivers who changed teams, and Week 1 offered a peek at how those moves will affect the season — and, in one case, the teams they left behind.
Tyreek Hill caught eight passes for 94 yards with Miami, but Mahomes showed that the Kansas City Chiefs’ greatness revolves around him, not whomever he might be throwing to. In his first game sans Hill, Mahomes competed 30 of 39 passes for 360 yards and five touchdowns as the Chiefs scored a league-high 44 points and pasted the host Arizona Cardinals. Including the playoffs, Mahomes has eight games with five-plus touchdowns since he became the starter in 2018. All other quarterbacks have 22 in that span.
Rodgers had less success in moving on from Davante Adams, who in his Raiders debut caught 10 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown in a loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. (Derek Carr may have forced it to his college teammate; Carr also threw seven incompletions Adams’s way, plus a deep interception into double coverage.) The Green Bay Packers lost, 23-7, to the Minnesota Vikings, their second consecutive stinker in a season opener. Allen Lazard replaced Adams as the Packers’ titular No. 1 receiver, but he missed Sunday’s game with an injury. Rookie Christian Watson, the second-round pick the Packers chose in April, sprinted behind the defense in the first quarter, only for Rodgers’s perfect pass — and a sure touchdown — to fall through his hands. As the Vikings’ pass rush overwhelmed an injury-depleted offensive line, Rodgers averaged 5.7 yards per attempt and threw an interception with no touchdowns.
The most impactful wideout who switched teams may have been A.J. Brown, who seems like an ideal fit for the Philadelphia Eagles’ physical offense. He caught 10 passes for 155 yards in a 38-35 win over Detroit, giving Jalen Hurts the kind of weapon he had lacked.