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Aaron Rodgers, Khalil Mack, and What the Game-Changing Plays From Week 1 Tell Us About the NFL

Big Ben is still struggling on the road, but Andrew Luck looks like he’s really back

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

The first Sunday of the 2018 NFL season was, in the best way, pure chaos: The Saints and Buccaneers got themselves into an astoundingly fun shootout, with Tampa Bay holding on to win 48-40; Patrick Mahomes II lit up the Chargers defense in a 38-28 road win; the Browns and Steelers battled to a sloppy, back-and-forth, 21-21 overtime tie; the Dolphins’ 27-20 victory over the Titans took a record seven hours after severe weather delays; and the Bears-Packers tilt was one for the ages. There was no shortage of big plays, fun matchups, turnovers, and touchdowns. A few moments, though, were more crucial and—in some cases—pivotal than others. Here are a few of the biggest game-changing plays from the first NFL Sunday of the season, along with what they can tell us about both the teams involved and the upcoming season at large.

Khalil Mack’s Pick-Six

The Bears were supposed to enter the 2018 season with a talented defensive unit that had one potential fatal flaw: a shallow at best, barren at worst edge rush group. That all changed, of course, when the team sent two first-rounders to Oakland for Mack, and the early returns on that deal were significant: During the first half of Chicago’s Week 1 tilt against the Packers, the former Raider was absurdly dominant, notching a proverbial bingo of defensive stats with one pass deflection, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, two tackles, one quarterback hit, one sack, one interception, and a return touchdown. Mack looked like the missing piece of a defense set to break out, and he put together a complete, take-over-the-game performance we could expect from only a Defensive Player of the Year–caliber player like, well, Mack. He punctuated the first half with this play:

Mack’s pick-six increased the Bears’ lead to 17-0, and, with Aaron Rodgers in the locker room undergoing tests on an injured left knee, it looked like the rout was on. Paired with the team’s new-look, college-style offense under head coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, the Bears seemed to be in the middle of their prime-time coming-out party as a legitimate contender in 2018.

But then Rodgers came back into the game.

Aaron Rodgers’s TD Throw to Geronimo Allison

Upon getting sacked early in the second quarter, Rodgers immediately grabbed his knee and had to be helped off the field. As he rode a cart to the locker room, the stern, worried look on his face implied the worst.

But the veteran quarterback walked back onto the field after halftime, and, after Chicago’s opening possession, rejoined the Green Bay offense. Wincing and limping all the way, he led the Packers on a 12-play, 46-yard drive that netted them a field goal to cut the lead to 20-3. And when Rodgers got the ball again on the team’s next offensive series, he did this:

Dropping back, Rodgers first looked left to draw the safety over, then looked to his right to huck a laser-guided missile 39 yards downfield into Allison’s hands, just past Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller. That play capped the 81-yard drive and cut Chicago’s lead to 10.

But Rodgers wasn’t done: On the team’s next possession, he led the offense on a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, connecting with Davante Adams for a 12-yard score, cutting the lead to three with just more than nine minutes remaining. When Chicago settled for a field goal on the ensuing drive, it left the window open for Rodgers to take advantage. On third-and-10, he drifted left and found Randall Cobb over the middle. Cobb made a couple of defenders miss en route to a 75-yard score.

The season’s opening Sunday Night Football tilt was an instant classic. Rodgers’s gutsy performance will go down as one of the best, most improbable, and most exciting comebacks in league history. It served as a great reminder of how incredibly dominant the 14th-year veteran can be, and once again drove home just how important he is to the Packers’ playoff hopes. Green Bay will go as far as Rodgers can carry it this year.

Damarious Randall’s Interception of Ben Roethlisberger

Most quarterbacks play better at home than on the road; that’s normal. But the gulf between Roethlisberger’s numbers at Heinz Field vs. everywhere else has been uncommonly massive over the past three seasons. Let’s recap: From 2015 to 2017, only Drew Brees (55) threw more touchdowns at home than Roethlisberger (52), and Big Ben’s 103.6 home passer rating in that stretch ranks third among all passers with 300 attempts (behind just Brees and Tom Brady). In his 22 road games across that three-year stretch, though, Roethlisberger’s been a, let’s say, Brian Hoyer–level player. He’s thrown 26 touchdowns and 23 interceptions, a pick total that ranks third-worst, better than only Eli Manning’s and Blake Bortles’s (both 24). Roethlisberger’s road passer rating of 85.1 ranks 25th of 34 qualifying passers, sandwiched between Hoyer (86.4 in 15 games) and Jay Cutler (84.8 in 16 games). For comparison, Brady posted 48 touchdowns and nine picks for a 104.5 rating on the road in that stretch.

Well, in the Steelers’ Week 1 matchup against the Browns, Big Ben did little to ease concerns that we’ll see anything different from him on the road in 2018. This, a wildly inaccurate heave from Pittsburgh’s 5-yard line, never had a chance:

That was Roethlisberger’s second interception of the game, and he threw a third before the first half was up. For a Steelers team that’s supposed to be one of the top contenders in the AFC, first-half duds like this could derail Pittsburgh from its track to the playoffs. Big Ben tacked on a pair of lost fumbles too, including one early in the fourth quarter that helped turn the tide of the game. Speaking of which ...

Myles Garrett’s Forced Fumble

Despite Roethlisberger’s three first-half interceptions, the Steelers looked to have the game in the bag midway through the fourth quarter. They’d just stopped Cleveland on a fourth-down attempt from the Pittsburgh 19-yard line—and, leading 21-7 with 7:44 to go, they had the opportunity to run the ball, bleed the clock, and escape Week 1 with an ugly win. But that’s not how it went down.

On the next play, running back James Conner took the handoff from Roethlisberger and was hit almost immediately by Garrett, who quickly ducked under a block attempt by left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, wrapped up Conner with his left hand, and dislodged the ball with his right. The ball squirted free and into the hands of Jabrill Peppers, who returned it to the Pittsburgh 1-yard line.

That play set up a touchdown run by Carlos Hyde, pulling the Browns within striking distance. Cleveland’s defense held strong from that point on, and Tyrod Taylor’s 17-yard touchdown strike to Josh Gordon tied the game with 2:03 left. That score held through regulation and overtime, and, while Cleveland failed to steal an actual win for the first time in 624 days, it was, at least, not a loser.

It was a sloppy, wet, and windy game, and the Browns didn’t get enough out of their five takeaways, but this team has real talent on both sides of the ball. And, crucially, Cleveland’s past two top draft picks both look capable of developing into superstar-caliber players, anything but a given with this franchise’s history of early-round busts. Garrett finished with two sacks (and should’ve had a third, but was called for a questionable roughing-the-passer penalty), a tackle for a loss, two quarterback hits, a pass defensed, and two forced fumbles. And rookie corner Denzel Ward picked off Roethlisberger twice and added three passes defensed. There’s still a long way to go, but Cleveland has what looks to be a pair of defensive pillars to build upon.

George Kittle Drops a Deep Throw From Jimmy Garoppolo

Despite coming into Minnesota as heavy underdogs, the Niners held the talent-packed Vikings offense in check in the first half and trailed just 10-3 at the 10:48 mark of the third quarter. On a second-and-8 from their own 20-yard line, head coach Kyle Shanahan dialed up a deep shot off play-action to try to get his offense a jump-start: It worked like a charm, and after faking the handoff to running back Alfred Morris, Garoppolo launched a ball about 40 yards down the field to a wide open Kittle, who’d managed to sneak in behind the Vikings defense. That’s when this happened:

The pass might’ve been slightly overthrown, but had Kittle come down with that ball, the Niners would’ve been in good position to tie the game up. Instead, on the very next play, Garoppolo threw a devastating pick-six to rookie corner Mike Hughes.

That play pushed the Vikings’ lead to 17-3. They never looked back. Garoppolo threw another two picks before the game was over, and a dismal day passing—he completed just 15 of 33 passes for 261 yards, with one touchdown and a 45.1 rating—might sound the alarm bells and raise more than a few eyebrows at the 49ers’ decision to sign the relatively inexperienced signal-caller to a five-year, $137 million contract this offseason. It doesn’t help that Garoppolo posted a distressingly high adjusted interception rate last year too, per Football Outsiders.

But I wouldn’t start to panic about Garoppolo being a bust just yet. The Vikings boast an elite pass defense, capable of forcing the best quarterbacks to make mistakes. Garoppolo’s top target, Marquise Goodwin, missed most of the game with a knee injury. And second-year pro Kendrick Bourne, an undrafted free agent last year, admitted after the game that he had run the wrong route on that crucial pick-six. Garoppolo may have lost his first game as the 49ers starter, but he’ll get his chance for redemption next week at home against the Lions.

Mike Evans Beats Marshon Lattimore for a Touchdown

I didn’t really envision the Ryan Fitzpatrick–led Buccaneers offense coming into New Orleans and passing the ball all over the yard against what was one of the most dominant defenses in the NFL last year. When Fitzpatrick tied the game up at 7 with a 58-yard toss to DeSean Jackson in the first quarter, I chalked that up to a fluke busted coverage. When Fitzpatrick bowled into the end zone on a read-option keeper on the Bucs’ next possession, I figured it was just the result of a play the Saints were clearly not prepared to defend. When Fitzpatrick connected with Chris Godwin for a back-shoulder score, I just stared at the screen. And when Fitzpatrick uncorked this 50-yard bomb downfield to Mike Evans, on a key third-and-6, against reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore, it got me believing that Fitzmagic might be real.

That pitch-and-catch put the Buccaneers up 41-24, giving Tampa Bay the type of lead it’d need to hold Brees and Alvin Kamara off down the stretch, eventually winning 48-40. Fitzpatrick finished the game 21 of 28 passing for 417 yards, four touchdowns, and a damn-near-perfect 156.2 passer rating. The 35-year-old vet, now with his seventh team and signed to a one-year, $3.5 million deal, filled in for a suspended Jameis Winston to lead the Buccaneers to over 500 yards of total offense, including nine plays of 20-plus yards. Tampa Bay gets the Eagles and Steelers the next two weeks, respectively, so things aren’t going to get easier for Fitzpatrick, but his performance Sunday not only begs the question as to whether the Bucs are better than everyone thought, but whether he’s going to supplant Winston as the team’s starter all year (a scenario that GM Jason Licht wouldn’t rule out last week).

Plenty of questions arise for the Saints, too. Over the past five seasons, this defense has made it a yearly tradition to come out of the gates extremely slowly:

The listless performance we saw Sunday is a cause for worry. New Orleans’s talented secondary couldn’t defend deep. They couldn’t get pressure up front. And they couldn’t get off the field on third downs (Tampa Bay finished 8-of-13 on that crucial down). The Saints’ biggest strength coming into this year was supposed to be the team’s balance on both offense and defense. But if the defense falters, it could doom this New Orleans team in a deep NFC playoff field.

Andrew Luck’s TD Throw to Eric Ebron

The Colts lost, yes, but there was a massive silver lining in defeat: Andrew Luck’s arm looked great.

After a preseason spent mostly checking down and throwing a bunch of screens (along with reports that his “fastball” wasn’t what it used to be), Luck proved he could push the ball down the field with accuracy and zip. Even on a talent-starved roster like the one in Indianapolis, Luck returning to pre-injury form could make an enormous impact on not only the Colts, but the AFC South.

Tyreek Hill’s Touchdown Scamper

If one thing became clear during Sunday’s action, it’s that the Chiefs, already one of the league’s most innovative teams, are going to have an even more exciting offense this year than they did in 2017. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes cooly picked apart an injury-stricken Chargers defense in L.A., completing 15 of 27 passes for 256 yards and four touchdowns in the team’s 38-28 win.

What Kansas City showed off was the potential for a uniquely difficult offense to defend. That was apparent on Hill’s 58-yard score.

Mahomes’s elite arm strength makes it possible for the Chiefs to do things most teams can’t. On Hill’s touchdown catch-and-run, pressure forced the second-year signal-caller to alter his throwing platform and let go of a side-armed toss, but he had the arm strength to find his receiver nonetheless. And there may not be a player in the league faster than Hill, who took the slant and ran away from all defenders with relative ease. Importantly, the Chiefs use that speed advantage well: Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers sure noticed, saying after the game that “I don’t know if I’ve seen anybody better, the things [Hill] can do speed-wise.” Hill stretched the defense vertically, catching five passes for 20-plus yards in Sunday’s game, and kept L.A. honest by stretching the defense horizontally at times, too.

Add in the fact the Chiefs are still running one of the most innovative hybrid college offenses in the NFL under head coach Andy Reid, utilizing RPOs, bubble screens, jet sweeps, and even a little bit of the triple option stuff, and defending Kansas City this year is going to be tough.

Michael Dickson’s 69-Yard Punt

The Seahawks lost. But rookie punter Michael Dickson is already well on his way to the Hall of Fame. In his first game as a pro, the 22-year-old Aussie native punted six times for 354 yards, an average of 59 yards per punt, and landed four inside the 20-yard line. Here’s how rare that type of performance is:

His best punt was this 69-yard boot from around the Seahawks’ 15-yard line, which cut through the thin Rocky Mountain air and landed out of bounds at the Denver 6.

That’s what you call flipping the field.