Ah, the NFL, where every Sunday is a brand-new adventure. It wasn’t going to be easy to outdo the chaos we saw in the opening weekend, but Week 2 upped the ante: Patrick Mahomes II and Ben Roethlisberger met in an offensive barnburner, combining for 778 passing yards and nine touchdowns in the Chiefs’ 42-37 win; Ryan Fitzpatrick showed no signs of slowing down and the Bucs improved to 2-0 with a win over the Eagles; the Jaguars knocked off the Patriots, the Saints just barely held off the Browns, and the Packers and Vikings battled to an overtime tie. Things got weird—kickers missed a whole lot of kicks; Tavon Austin scored on a deep bomb; and Vontae Davis literally retired at halftime. If you blinked, chances are you missed a big play, a touchdown, or a turnover. 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 Sunday’s action, along with what they can tell us about both the teams involved and the season at large.
Aaron Rodgers Hits Davante Adams on Third-and-11
At the time, this play felt like the final nail in the Vikings’ coffin. Trailing 17-7 with 8:04 left in the third quarter, Minnesota’s defense had forced the Packers into a tough third-and-11 at midfield, giving themselves a great opportunity to make a stop and give their offense the ball back. But Rodgers had other plans: He fired a dart down the middle to Adams for a pickup of 16 yards and a new set of downs—a brutal miscue for the Vikings that was compounded by a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on safety Andrew Sendejo.
That put the Packers at the Vikings’ 18-yard line and pushed Green Bay’s win probability to 87.2 percent, according to numberFire’s model—the high for the Packers to that point in the game. It extended the drive, and ultimately helped give the Packers a commanding 20-7 lead after a Mason Crosby field goal. Rodgers, hobbled all game by a bone bruise and/or ligament sprain in his left knee, conjured just enough mobility on the play to move to his left prior to the throw and just enough oomph to whip the ball downfield off of one foot for the completion.
The all-world passer had an up-and-down day, completing 30 of 42 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown, but showed that even a slower, less dynamic version of himself is still tough to defend. This play offered a glimpse of the new normal for the Green Bay offense in 2018 too: Until Rodgers’s knee heals, the Packers can’t rely on the schoolyard-scrambling style that the All-Pro passer typically brings to the table. Rodgers was confined, mostly, to the pocket, but proved he’s still healthy enough to strafe laterally or step up to avoid the rush. The timing-and-precision, pocket-based passing attack is the name of the game for the Packers from here on out—except sped up a bit from previous years. Play-caller Mike McCarthy dialed up a bunch of quick-release passing schemes against the Vikings on Sunday—screens, slants, and three-step out-routes—designed to get the ball out of Rodgers’s hands as quickly as possible to mitigate the pass rush and protect his quarterback. Expect a whole lot more of the same until Rodgers is back to full speed.
Of course, that big third-down conversion did not, in fact, end up being the death knell for Minnesota. Kirk Cousins, with the help of a few of his friends, came charging back.
Kirk Cousins Threads the Needle to Adam Thielen for a TD
It’s not quite the Minnesota Miracle, but tell me: How, exactly, did Thielen come down with this pass?
I have no idea how this was a completion. Wow! Cousins to Thielen. pic.twitter.com/AsYBCztV7x— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) September 16, 2018
With the Vikings trailing 29-21 with 36 seconds to go, Cousins unleashed a throw to a wheel-route-running Thielen, taking a hit as he released. The ball floated up in the air for an eternity before miraculously dropping between two Packers defenders, one of whom managed to deflect it slightly, to a falling Thielen who corralled the pass for the score. Thielen’s receiving partner, Stefon Diggs, reeled in the two-point conversion on a fade route on the next play, tying the game up.
Cousins showed out on Sunday, completing 35 of 48 passes for 425 yards, four touchdowns, and one pick for a 118.8 passer rating, but he likely couldn’t have done it without Thielen and Diggs, who solidified their status as the league’s top pass-catching duo with a series of astounding plays. There was this early-fourth-quarter touchdown grab by Diggs, who effortlessly reached down and grabbed a shoe-top-level pass by Cousins for the score:
What fun play design for red zone threat, Stefon Diggs pic.twitter.com/HHfqODxuOJ— Arif Hasan (@ArifHasanNFL) September 16, 2018
Or there was this other incredibly athletic, 75-yard touchdown grab from Diggs later in the quarter, when he showed off the ability to separate late and finish strong, diving into the end zone to cut the lead to three.
Every time you looked up, one of the two Vikings pass catchers was making a tough play look easy. Cousins targeted the pair 26 times on the day, and they combined for 21 catches for 259 yards and three scores. Minnesota’s offense runs through its $84 million quarterback, but Thielen and Diggs give Cousins the type of playmaking support every passer in the league covets.
Patrick Mahomes II Finds Tyreek Hill for His Sixth TD Pass
Speaking of playmaking support, the Chiefs might have the NFL’s most perfectly-built offense. Mahomes, making just his third start as a pro, smashed any remaining doubts around the validity of his sterling Week 1 performance, connecting on six touchdown throws to set a new league record for most touchdowns in the first two weeks of a season. He made it look absurdly easy:
Patrick Mahomes for six...— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) September 16, 2018
for the SIXTH time today. pic.twitter.com/h6InG2GQx8
Mahomes mixes cool, veteran-like unflappability in the pocket with an elite arm and pinpoint accuracy. He looks like he’s been playing for 10 years, but the most astounding thing about his Week 2 performance is that we’re still likely seeing only the tip of the iceberg for what Kansas City’s offense can do once all the team’s playmakers get more comfortable playing together. We already knew that Hill, Travis Kelce, and Kareem Hunt were dynamic mismatch threats, but now they’re adding Sammy Watkins to the mix?
On another note, Sammy Watkins had 100 yards receiving and 31 yards rushing today. If you're a defensive coordinator, what do you do with that? How do you prepare for the Chiefs offense?— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 16, 2018
Mahomes is the perfect fit for Andy Reid’s game plan, which mixes pro and college schemes, and asks him to aggressively push the ball downfield. In the first two weeks, he’s connected with seven different teammates for touchdowns, and the Chiefs have absolutely dismantled a pair of the top defenses from last season. What is going to happen when they face a bad defense?
DeSean Jackson Scores a 75-yard Touchdown
Mahomes’s ridiculous day was the only thing that could overshadow another shockingly efficient outing from Conor McGreg—er, Ryan Fitzpatrick. A week after tossing four touchdowns in the Buccaneers’ shocking upset over the Saints, Fitzmagic did not turn back into a pumpkin; in fact, he threw a touchdown on the first damn offensive play of the game.
Fitzpatrick finished a cool 27-of-33 for 402 yards, four touchdowns, and a pick with a 144.4 passer rating in the 27-21 win. He became the first Buccaneers quarterback to throw four touchdowns in back-to-back games, and he’s building a pretty strong case to remain the team’s starter when Jameis Winston returns from his suspension after next week. He’s helped make offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who took over play-calling duties from head coach Dirk Koetter this year, an early applicant on next year’s head-coaching carousel watch list, too.
T.J. Carrie Sacks Drew Brees
Leading 12-10 with 6:33 to go in the game and the Saints facing third-and-6, the Browns brought T.J. Carrie on a corner blitz. Carrie knifed through New Orleans’s line untouched, sacking Brees to end the drive.
That play represented a 15.7-point win-probability swing, pushing Cleveland’s odds for a victory to 77.3 percent. Of course, the Browns, being the Browns, managed to lose the advantage—Tyrod Taylor threw a pick on the next possession, and the Saints capitalized to take the lead. But even in defeat, Cleveland’s defense showed its mettle against one of the most prolific passers in the league, holding New Orleans to 3-of-12 on third downs while keeping Alvin Kamara and the Saints’ lethal ground game in check (23 carries for 62 yards). Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi led the way this week, racking up two sacks and four tackles for a loss from the inside, showing he’s yet another talented piece to the Browns’ burgeoning defensive unit led by pass rusher Myles Garrett and corner Denzel Ward.
Matt Ryan Hits Calvin Ridley for a TD
Atlanta finally showed some signs of life in the red zone. That area of the field has been a thorn in the side of play-caller Steve Sarkisian, who’s proved to be competent everywhere on the field except inside the 20-yard line. On Sunday, Sark and the Falcons offense seemed to exorcise a few red zone demons, converting all four of their red zone trips into touchdowns. They got the ball rolling with this dart from Ryan to the rookie Ridley, coming on a third-and-8 from the 11-yard line with 4:08 left in the second quarter ...
Calvin Ridley scores his 1st NFL TD pic.twitter.com/yzAW4y2Jt1— Carlton (@SlopingGiraffe) September 16, 2018
… Then added three more red zone conversions later in the game. Ryan hit tight end Austin Hooper for a score from 8 yards out just before the half, then ran it in himself twice in the second half (the first on a sneak, the second on a scramble). Going back to the start of last season, Atlanta’s been one of the most efficient offenses in the NFL outside the red zone. If the Falcons can finally start to execute consistently in that area of the field, they’ll be tough to stop.
Darius Leonard Forces Fumble on Jordan Reed
The Colts defense, a Frankenstein’s monster of relatively no-name free-agent cast-offs and still-developing first-contract question marks, looks, uh, much better than that sounds. Indianapolis stymied the Redskins’ talent-packed offense, holding Washington’s run game to 65 yards on 22 carries (3.0 YPC) while limiting Alex Smith through the air (6.3 yards per attempt, no touchdowns).
The game-sealing play came from the unquestioned player of the game, rookie linebacker Darius Leonard (18 tackles, one sack, one pass breakup, one forced fumble), who punched the ball out of Reed’s hands at the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter.
The Colts offense improved the moment Andrew Luck stepped back onto the field, but the defense might be better than we thought too. There aren’t many big names on that unit, but they played hard and fast on Sunday, and could give the Colts a shot to make some noise in the AFC South.
Blake Bortles Connects With Keelan Cole for a TD
The Colts still have a long way to go to catch up with the Jaguars, however. Jacksonville dispatched the Patriots, 31-20, in a rematch of last year’s AFC championship game, with the defense stifling Tom Brady and the New England offense for much of the day and the offense riding Blake Bortles’s hot hand. The much-maligned Jacksonville signal-caller attacked the Patriots defense confidently, finishing the day 29-of-45 for 377 yards and four touchdowns, one pick, and a 111.1 passer rating. He beat the New England blitz late in the first quarter with this dime to Cole, a perfect back-corner end zone throw that put the Jags up 14-0.
Jacksonville picked the Patriots defense apart with a bevy of mesh concepts and crossing routes, utilizing its superior team speed to tire out and run away from the New England defenders in 100-plus-degree heat. And when the passing lanes didn’t open up, the Jaguars’ dual-threat signal-caller hurt the Patriots with his legs. A lot of people scoffed when New England head coach Bill Belichick compared Bortles to Cam Newton and Deshaun Watson as a running threat, but the 6-foot-5, 236-pound quarterback helped Belichick make his point this week, carrying the ball six times for 35 yards, including two key third-down conversions, both crucial plays for the Jaguars. The first came early in the third quarter, when Bortles eluded the rush to gain 10 yards on a third-and-7 from the New England 18, setting up a Jacksonville field goal. The second looked like this, and helped the Jaguars salt the game away.
With Leonard Fournette on the bench nursing a hamstring injury, the Patriots loaded up against the run and dared the Jaguars to put the game into Bortles’s hands. That’s what Jacksonville did, and Bortles rewarded the Jaguars with a big-time performance.
Sam Bradford Finds Ricky Seals-Jones for 8 Yards
The Bills have been widely panned this season for their complete offensive ineptitude, but the Cardinals are sure giving Buffalo a run for their money in that category. Through two games, Arizona’s totaled just six points, averaging a paltry 175 yards per outing. Sam Bradford’s been a disaster—he threw for 153 yards on 34 throws (4.5 yards per attempt) last week against the Redskins and notched just 90 yards on 27 attempts against the Rams on Sunday (3.3 yards per attempt).
The Cardinals were so bad this week, in fact, that they didn’t cross midfield until the second-to-last play of the game. That’s when Bradford hit Seals-Jones for an 8-yard gain in the garbagiest of garbage-time receptions, pushing Arizona to the L.A. 46 yard line. They’d gain another yard on the last play of the game.
Arizona ran just one play on the Rams’s side of the field on Sunday (the final snap of the game).— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) September 16, 2018
First time that’s happened since the Giants went the entire game without seeing the Saints’ side of the field on Christmas Eve 2006.
The offensive line can’t block. The new regime under Steve Wilks and Mike McCoy isn’t using David Johnson much as a receiver. Larry Fitzgerald left Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury. And, worst of all, the Cardinals have shown little indication that they’re willing to turn to rookie Josh Rosen to provide some semblance of a spark to that unit. Arizona’s a mess, and until the Cardinals make a change at the QB spot, there’s no indication they’re going to get any better.
Melvin Gordon’s 2-Yard TD Reception
After working out with LaDainian Tomlinson over the summer, Gordon came into the season looking to become a more complete back, capable of factoring into the passing attack much in the same way Todd Gurley does for the Rams. Well, that offseason focus seems to be paying off: After reeling in nine passes for 102 yards in the opener, Gordon caught six more balls against the Bills this week, including two that went for touchdowns.
On the first, Gordon worked rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds with a quick out route, winning easily in a footrace to the edge.
And on the second, Gordon beat Matt Milano on a nice back-shoulder throw by Philip Rivers. That put the Chargers up 28-3, and they’d coast from there.
Gordon’s new dual-threat style not only gives him a better chance for a big long-term extension after next year, but makes the Chargers offense exponentially more difficult to defend.