The second week of the NFL season is essentially a narrative buster. I’ve written before about how poor we all are—and there’s science to back this up—at predicting the NFL’s second week; it’s in large part because Week 1 causes us to either overreact completely or not enough. We overreact to good teams losing and typically don’t give enough credit to the “bad teams” that win. That’s the beauty of the wonky first two weeks of the NFL season, where everything starts over. Sure, the Bucs gave the Saints a drubbing, but would you pick the Bucs if the two teams played again this weekend? The same goes for the Browns and Steelers—are they really on equal footing after their tie? We have no way of knowing, but Week 2 will go a long way in helping us understand what’s real and what’s not. Barring another tie, either the Houston Texans or Tennessee Titans will be 0-2 in a couple of days, and the same goes for the Bears or Seahawks. Patrick Mahomes II might have a statue in Kansas City by Monday, or he might look more like a guy who’s started only three games in his career. The NFL season comes at you fast, and Week 2 is when we start to figure it all out.
Here are the five most intriguing matchups of the weekend.
Aaron Rodgers vs. the Vikings Defense
I went into a bit of a wormhole trying to figure out what a limited Aaron Rodgers would look like after losing his mobility, and I found, well, nothing. This is because, over his career, Rodgers has pretty much always been good at everything.
I wondered, If they have to go to the quick-strike offense so Rodgers can to avoid getting hit, what will that look like?
Rodgers had the NFL’s best quarterback rating (142.4) last week when he took 2.5 seconds or more to throw, according to Pro Football Focus. But what if he can’t sit back or run around and buy time because of the knee injury he picked up against the Bears? In 2014, he led the league in rating on throws over 2.5 seconds, but was also fifth in throws under 2.5 seconds—and he has maintained this general consistency throughout his career. Rodgers’s passing skill set makes him the quarterback version of an EGOT winner.
Head coach Mike McCarthy said that it’s “no layup” that Rodgers will be ready to play against the Vikings on Sunday. But Rodgers spent 10 minutes in the injury tent last Sunday night, then was literally carted off the field, only to not just return, but to totally destroy the Chicago Bears. So he’s faced these uphill climbs before. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said that Rodgers will probably play on Sunday because he walks on water.
The problem for Green Bay is that Rodgers is facing the exact defense you don’t want to face when you’re hurt:
The Vikings have corners who can lock you down, and they have inside pressure that can make even the healthiest quarterback absolutely miserable. Minnesota will get to the quarterback fast. Defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson tied for the NFL led in hurries last week with five and was tied for third with two quarterback hits. Then there’s the fact that Rodgers’s season-ending injury last year was caused by Minnesota linebacker Anthony Barr. The hit then caused a minor war of words between the two players last season.
If I were Rodgers—or you were Rodgers—we’d sit, but we are not wired like the most talented quarterback in football. His backup, DeShone Kizer, was last seen getting the ball literally stolen from him by Khalil Mack. If Rodgers does play, we’ll get to see one of the most exciting chess matches of the season.
Tom Brady vs. the Jaguars’ Defensive Line
After the Jaguars’ win over the Giants in Week 1, New York tackle Ereck Flowers, the player who I’m most surprised is still in the league, revealed he did not know that Calais Campbell, a 6-foot-8 defensive lineman who is as powerful as anyone in the NFL and is in his 11th season as a pro, is powerful. Flowers thought he was more of a speed guy. This is mind-boggling.
First of all, if you saw Campbell, the biggest defensive player in football, and then thought, “Actually, this guy is a speed guy,” your first inclination should be to leave the stadium because that combination of speed and size would destroy anyone in its path. Campbell, of course, did so anyway, even without elite speed.
This week, however, Campbell will be going against the New England Patriots, the team with the most detailed scouting reports in the league. I haven’t sat in on Patriots meetings this week, but I can assure you that at some point, Patriots players were briefed on Campbell’s general skill set.
As we saw in the AFC title game last year, when the Patriots had to come from behind to secure their 10th conference championship, these teams match up pretty evenly. What I am most intrigued by is the interplay between Tom Brady and the Jaguars’ defensive line.
One of the most interesting nuggets of Week 1 came courtesy of NFL Films, which captured the Houston Texans—who, in theory, have a good pass rush—expressing shock at how quickly Tom Brady can get rid of the ball:
If there is one hallmark of the Brady–Bill Belichick era, it’s the constant game-planning toward taking away whatever the opponent does best. In the Texans’ case, they can get after the passer, so the solution was never to give the pass rushers enough time to get close.
However, it was easier for New England to do that last week when all of its players were healthy, so it gets more complicated this time around. To get the ball out quickly, Brady leaned on a number of nonreceivers. Running back James White led the team in targets, and Rob Gronkowski was second. Fullback James Develin had four targets, while running backs Rex Burkhead and Jeremy Hill had three and one, respectively. Hill is now out for the season and Burkhead was dubbed “limited at best” this week. The health of Sony Michel, New England’s rookie running back who missed the opener, is also unclear.
The good news is that the Patriots can just run some schemes that worked from the Super Bowl because Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone didn’t watch the game.
Our back and forth with Doug Marrone about his refusal to watch the Super Bowl was really a lot of fun pic.twitter.com/LSrXWUiSwt— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) September 13, 2018
Josh Allen vs. the Low Bar Set by Nathan Peterman
Bills head coach Sean McDermott said this week that new starter Josh Allen “hasn’t made the same mistake twice.” This, of course, is in contrast to Nathan Peterman, who has made the same mistake seven times—the number of interceptions he’s thrown in his three career starts—and who would presumably continue making them over and over again in some sort of Edge of Tomorrow–style loop were he allowed to keep playing. On Sunday, Allen will start, mercifully, against the Chargers, the very team that caused the first Peterman apocalypse last season, when it forced him into five interceptions in the first half.
I’d like to focus the attention on a different situation in Buffalo briefly: the very strange tale of wide receiver Zay Jones’s mother, Maneesha, sending a tweet that indicated that Kelvin Benjamin needed help from her son in order to line up before the snap. This led Benjamin to clarify that he has an “awesome” knowledge of the Bills offense, a fate I wish upon no one.
Every once in a while, you hear of players who actually do need help lining up. I once heard a story from a current player that the young player he lined up next to, a talented lineman, wouldn’t listen to the play in the huddle but would instead ask his linemate what kind of block to throw. He’d say: “Hard, medium, or soft?” Football, sometimes, is not that complicated.
Presumably, Allen needs no help learning where to line up, but he’s going to need plenty of help from the Bills’ offensive line and skill-position players if he’s going to show any promise on Sunday. The bar is low, and that, perhaps, is one of Peterman’s greatest gifts to the franchise.
Matt Patricia vs. a Good Coaching Staff
That didn’t take long. According to a report from the NFL Network, Lions veterans are already unhappy with their head coach. This comes on the heels of a bizarre 48-17 loss to the New York Jets, marking the second straight game in which Patricia’s defense gave up over 40 points. The first one was slightly more acceptable because it was in the Super Bowl and against one of the deepest rosters in this era of football. The Jets, however, are not the Eagles. The big story line after the game is that the Lions’ hand signals on offense were predictable to the point that the Jets players could easily understand them and jump their receivers’ routes. The Lions are changing the hand signals, but quarterback Matthew Stafford strongly denies they had anything to do with the loss. To be clear, Stafford is just saying that the Lions are really bad.
If Detroit veterans are upset with Patricia, it is a nonissue in the long run. Players across the league are constantly pissed at coaches who run them hard in training camp. Patriots players admit to griping about Belichick making them run hills throughout the year, and that certainly pays off. The Lions have won so little over the past, say, forever, that maybe their gripes are a good sign. What is more worrying for Patricia is, well, whatever the hell keeps happening with his defenses.
In Week 2, Patricia will be matched up against a much better coaching staff than that of the Jets. San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is a scheme god who has embarrassed much better teams than the Lions. Shanahan and Patricia did go head to head in the Super Bowl two years ago, and Patricia’s defense bent but didn’t break—or at least it only broke enough for the Patriots to be able to overcome a 28-3 deficit. But by Patricia’s side for that game was Belichick, perhaps the best defensive mind in football history. Matt Patricia is not Bill Belichick, and on the off chance you thought he was, now you know.
The Browns vs. Not Losing
Trent Dilfer once infamously said that in order to win games in the NFL, you cannot lose them. This has been mocked for being too obvious. I found it funny at the time. In fact, I considered the notion a joke until last Sunday afternoon, when, in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cleveland Browns proved that “winning by not losing” is a real thing. The Browns had the opportunity to win, but they didn’t know how to not lose! It actually happened!
If last Sunday was the best the Browns can possibly play, that’s a bad sign for Cleveland. If it’s not, that’s a bad sign for Pittsburgh.
This week, Cleveland will play New Orleans, which has a talent level similar to the Steelers. The Saints themselves are coming off a weird week, when their defense made Ryan Fitzpatrick look like Drew Brees.
Now, there’s evidence that the Browns can improve on last week, particularly on offense. Just look at quarterback Tyrod Taylor here:
screenshots can be unfair. having said that, Tyrod can't miss plays like this on vs the Saints. this was 3rd & 13 on the Browns first possession. Tyrod scrambled for a 1st down. but look at Jarvis Landry at the top left of this picture. whew pic.twitter.com/Nl5taXw3rC— Jordan Zirm (@clevezirm) September 13, 2018
Aside from that, there were a lot of bright spots. Myles Garrett, the 2017 no. 1 overall pick, looked like the player we thought he was as he wrecked the game for Pittsburgh a handful of times. Meanwhile, Denzel Ward, the cornerback Cleveland took with the fourth overall pick in April, looks like a player. Truly, Cleveland’s only obstacle is not losing.
And in the National Football League—now please imagine me using a highlighter to point into the camera on a network pregame show—that is all that matters.