Every time an NFL season kicks off, everything seems bigger in Week 1. The opening Sunday of 2021 was no different, chalk full of the usual share of immediate surprises.
Disappointing losing performances looks the worst thing ever for a team or a player. Likewise, positive developments in impressive victories appear to be the best things going.
There will be plenty of overreaction either way on Monday morning. Here’s a look at what everyone’s talking about and whether there’s merit to the hyperbolic storylines:
“Aaron Rodgers’ drama is a big distraction for the Packers’ season”
What was that? The Packers got the Drew Brees-less Saints in a neutral field in Jacksonville and the highest-scoring offense in 2020 couldn’t muster a TD against a retooled defense. The 38-3 loss was the most head-scratching defeat of any team in Week 1.
Rodgers had a rough post-MVP outing (15-of-28, 133 passing yards, 2 INTs, 4.8 yards per attempt, 36.8 passer rating) and high-priced running back Aaron Jones (7 touches for 22 yards) also was a non-factor. The Packers’ defense gave up 171 rushing yards on a modest afternoon for Alvin Kamara. It was terrible in the red zone vs. Jameis Winston and also gave up a few big plays. The Saints were organized in their domination as Sean Payton and Dennis Allen were thorough in their out-coaching of Matt LaFleur.
Given how focused the Saints were playing as a team and how lost the Packers looked, there is bound to be sports talk show chatter of whether the very public rift between Rodgers and the organization — and its aftermath of a uncomfortable resolution — is a dark cloud that will continue to hang over the season in Green Bay.
Then again, the Packers have had duds like the past two seasons, too. In 2020, it was 38-10 to the Buccaneers in Week 6. In 2019, it was 26-11 to the Chargers in Week 9 and 37-8 to the 49ers in Week 12.
In both seasons under LaFleur with Rodgers, those were the anomalies, given the identical 13-3 records. This season, the clunker just came early in Week 1. Now if the Packers come out flat in their Lambeau Field opener vs. the Lions, it’s a concern. When they get the 49ers and Steelers back-to-back in Weeks 3 and 4, they will need to be at their sharpest.
Rodgers was in full R-E-L-A-X mode after the game, given he could have been further riled up after being pulled late so that second-year first-round backup Jordan Love could get shaky mop-up work.
“It’s just one game, 16 to go” was Rodgers’ line about being patient this time. The Packers’ ominous beginning, for now, is irrelevant to the big picture. The bigger concern will be if the play is a season-long trend and it becomes less evident they are still an NFC championship-caliber team. The real pressure still rides on Rodgers delivering more when it counts most in the playoffs.
“The Bills are overrated and Josh Allen is overpaid”
The Bills have been hyped as Super Bowl contenders after Allen’s breakout season at QB and his subsequent mega contract. The AFC’s highest-scoring offense could muster only three field goals and a touchdown in Sunday’s 23-16 home loss to the Steelers. Allen struggled to get anything done with his massive arm, averaging only 5.3 yards per attempt, getting sacked three times and losing a fumble.
But T.J. Watt, now the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player, had something to do with that, leading the Steelers’ nasty pressure package with two sacks. Minkah Fitzpatrick and the secondary were also outstanding in coverage in containing Stefon Diggs and the rest of Allen’s most dependable targets. A good development was seeing the potential of a traditional complementary running game with Devin Singletary.
The Bills’ defense also played well, allowing only 263 yards of offense to Pittsburgh, pressuring Ben Roehtlsiberger well and not allowing any big pass plays while also shutting down strong rookie running back Najee Harris. So as much as Buffalo struggled with Allen and the marquee passing game, other key elements were positive takeaways.
The Dolphins, Washington and Texans round out the first month of the schedule after an 0-1 start. The Bills need to treat all of those as tuneup and get-well games before the showdown with the Chiefs in Kansas City in Week 5.
“The Browns won’t be challenging the Chiefs to win the AFC”
Speaking of the Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes lifted them to erase a 22-10 halftime deficit as they rallied to turn back the Browns 33-29, piling on their close 22-17 victory at home in the AFC divisional playoffs. The Browns rushed for 153 yards. Baker Mayfield threw for 321 yards and dueled Mahomes well until he throw an interception on a throwaway during the last-gasp fourth-quarter drive.
Cleveland proved it could hang with the back-to-back AFC champions for a second consecutive contest. But it made some critical mistakes to blow a lead, including a botched punt and a lost fumble from Chubb that helped facilitate Mahomes’ comeback. The run defense was great and there was some pressure put on Mahomes. Like many teams, however, the Browns didn’t have answers for either Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce in key moments and Mahomes often made something out of nothing.
The Browns had a good, aggressive game plan to try to beat the Chiefs on their turf in a hostile environment. Without a few self-inflicted wounds, they would be celebrating a breakthrough victory. Now they need to focus on the rest of the season and work toward getting a playoff “three-match” with Mahomes vs. Mayfield.
“The Steelers are back to being a big threat to win the AFC”
The Steelers showed more concerning offense with Big Ben against the Bills. so they were lucky their pass defense went into full dominance mode to bail them out. They still can’t protect Roethlisberger well with a reconstructed line, which also affected the run blocking for Harris.
Watt and Fitzpatrick rallied their men to make life uncomfortable for Allen, but there were a few more leaks in the run defense, which doesn’t bode well when facing run-heavy AFC North rival powers Baltimore and Cleveland.
Don’t go overrating the Steelers, which some will do after they take care of the Raiders to get to 2-0 next week. The Bengals’ and Packers’ offenses in the following weeks will be additional litmus tests, when there will be more heat on Pittsburgh to move the ball better and score enough. The defense still can only take the Steelers so far.
“The 49ers’ offense is unstoppable and it doesn’t matter who’s playing in it”
Kyle Shanahan got cute with his offense in Detroit knowing San Francisco could do anything it wanted passing and running on a lame Lions defense. For starters, Jimmy Garoppolo played well wire to wire, but rookie first-rounder Trey Lance got an early red zone crack and turned it into his first NFL TD pass.
Shanahan also decided to make promising rookie third-round running back Trey Sermon inactive, only to see starter Raheem Mostert go down with another knee injury and then rookie sixth-rounder Elijah Mitchell rush for 104 yards in his debut. At wide receiver, Deebo Samuel (9 catches, 189 yards, TD, 12 targets) dominated looks with Trent Sherfield (who also scored) starting over Brandon Aiyuk, who wasn’t targeted once.
Turns out, the 49ers needed everything they got to not blow a 24-point fourth-quarter lead, holding on to win 41-33. One can assume Sermon and Aiyuk will be factors in Week 2 against the Eagles with more situational usage of Lance, right? Nope. Shanahan is like Batman with all his wonderful toys, and the joke is on us trying to figure out how he will play with them, with the exception of reliable tight end George Kittle.
Shanahan used the Lions as a testing ground and it almost cost him and his team with sloppy play on defense and special teams. He needs to streamline his offense with a trusted core of playmakers to get consistent results.
“Russell Wilson really looks like the MVP this time”
Wilson started the season white-hot for the Seahawks. What else is new? He shredded the Colts’ pass defense (18-of-23, 254 passing yards, 4 TDs, 11 yards per attempt, near-perfect 152.3 passer rating) in a 28-16 rout.
He picked up where he left off last season making big plays with elite wide receivers Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf (combined 8 catches on 10 targets for 160 yards, 3 TDs). But Wilson also was a different type of confident QB in new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron’s system. The tight ends got more involved as complementary elements in the passing game and rookie wideout Dee Eskridge looks like a dynamic, versatile cog. The reality is, Wilson is always MVP-worthy with his durability and stellar play in most games, whether or not this is the year he gets his elusive first ultimate individual award. You can bet he’s still only concerned with being Super Bowl 56 MVP.
“The Eagles have found their starting QB in Jalen Hurts”
Hurts destroyed a bad Falcons defense, flashing as the dual threat he was when making starts late in his rookie season. The second-year second-rounder was in full command of new coach Nick Sirianni’s offense in a 32-6 road blowout. Hurts dropped a dazzling line (27-of-35, 264 passing yards, 3 TDs, 126.4 rating, 7 rushes 62 yards) while spreading the ball well to seven diverse targets, including his former Alabama teammate, rookie first-rounder DeVonta Smith.
The eye test says Philadelphia needs to trust Hurts as the franchise passer going forward. But that tune can change in a hurry should rumored trade target Deshaun Watson become a viable option at some point soon. Hurts still has much to prove against better defenses and NFC contenders, which he will get in the 49ers in Week 2.
“Kyler Murray is no longer a running quarterback”
Murray went into his much-anticipated third season as the Cardinals’ No. 1 overall pick with a mentality of using his “legs as luxury” instead of as the central part of his highlight-reel game. Although Murray did not need to run much for yardage (5 attempts, 20 yards) in the 38-13 romp over the Titans because of what he did passing (21-of-32, 289 yards, 4 TDs, INT, 120.9 rating), his athleticism was still well on display.
Through everything he did to light up Tennessee, Murray’s most impressive play came in the second quarter, when he scrambled all over the field before completing a third-down converting pass to rookie wide receiver Rondale Moore.
Murray can be more calculated when he takes off out of the pocket with weapons such as Moore and A.J. Green supporting established wideouts DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk and running back Chase Edmonds. Edmonds also has good traditional rushing support with former Steelers feature back James Conner. Murray will still have days when he runs often shooting past slower defenders, but he is using his mobility in a smarter way knowing it’s always an asset and it will help preserve his body better for a longer season.
“Washington’s offense has no chance to match its hype”
The Football Team has a special group of offensive skill players, including running back Antonio Gibson, wide receiver Terry McLaurin and tight end Logan Thomas. The tie to bind them all together was supposed to be veteran bridge QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. Even though all three delivered big plays against the Chargers, the result wasn’t there on the scoreboard in a frustrating 20-16 loss.
Fitzpatrick went down with a hip injury and didn’t return for the second half. But the offense might have found a spark again with Taylor Heinicke should Fitzpatrick, who didn’t do much to keep Washington moving early, need to miss more time. Heinicke was the one who got McLaurin involved and dropped in a TD to Thomas. Gibson also will have bigger games than one with 112 yards from scrimmage and a lost fumble. Fitzpatrick trends to be streaky, sometimes more tragic than magic. Washington can still tap into its immense potential. It just might come from a different passer than we think.
“Tua Tagovailoa will be a better NFL QB than Mac Jones”
Tagovailoa was the winning quarterback against the rookie first-rounder who replaced him at Alabama when his Dolphins held off Jones’ Patriots 17-16. It was the type of ugly defensive-minded game everyone expected with Bill Belichick matching wits with protege Brian Flores.
Tua had the sloppier stats as he was thrust into a new-look offense with an emphasis on throwing downfield, taking better advantage of his strong arm and the remixed speedy wideouts. That group is now led by another Alabama teammate, rookie first-round wide receiver Jaylen Waddle. Tagovailoa was less efficient but had more big plays than Jones.
Jones, meanwhile, was the model of efficiency playing off an exceptional running game with yet another former Alabama player, Damien Harris. He made the throws that were needed to diverse targets, including wide receiver Nelson Agholor, receiving back James White and new veteran tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. The fate would have been better for sure had Harris and rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson not lost fumbles.
The NFL version of the Tagovailoa-Jones rivalry is just getting started. Both QBs have great potential. but it’s clear Jones has the better support system with Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Miami and New England as teams are as even as they come.
“The Jaguars with Urban Meyer are a total disaster”
Jacksonville stumbled and looked awful early against the Texans, the supposed worst team in the NFL with limited talent and no Deshaun Watson. It was 27-7 Houston at halftime and the Jaguars needed to do a lot of cosmetic work in garbage time to make it a 37-21 final.
For some reason, the Jaguars came out with a stodgy, predictable game plan without any sense of a running game and had rookie No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence throw to two targets, wide receivers Marvin Jones Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr. The rebuilding defense also was as bad as advertised.
But once the Jaguars decided to run more with James Robinson and Carlos Hyde, get true No. 1 receiver D.J. Chark involved and deployed tight ends well, Lawrence settled in and was productive. He was sacked only once and the three interceptions were a result of trying to do too much down big.
Let’s hope Meyer, with his vast experience, can be humbled from the experience and learn to grow as an NFL rookie along with his uber-talented QB. The early reports haven’t been glowing, but the keyword will be patience as Jacksonville undergoes major change.