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The Starting 11: The Most Convincing—and Surprising—NFC Performances Through Week 2

The Rams once again look like they have control over the conference, Russell Wilson is back to his West-terrorizing ways, and the Panthers … well, not everything can be positive

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in.


1. After a convincing 27-9 win over the Saints, the Rams once again look like the class of the NFC. The Rams earned a victory in Sunday’s NFC championship rematch, beating a Saints team that was led by Teddy Bridgewater for three quarters after Drew Brees went down with a thumb injury. Now with a 2-0 record, Brees likely to be on the shelf for at least the next six weeks, and the Eagles falling to the Falcons on Sunday night, Los Angeles may have the inside track to the top seed in the NFC.

Following a shaky start to the season in a 30-27 road win over Carolina, Jared Goff looked significantly better in his first home game. A 57-yard deep shot to Brandin Cooks on a third-and-16 early in the first quarter and a short strike to Cooks for a 2-yard touchdown in the third were his best throws of the day, and on the whole, the Rams quarterback was significantly sharper than he was against the Panthers in Week 1.

The Rams’ win against the Saints—even without Brees on the field for most of the game—was a reminder of just how talented and well coached this roster really is. McVay has added some new wrinkles to his scheme after the late-season struggles the Rams experienced last year, including more wide receiver screens near the red zone and noticeably more three-receiver sets. But the hallmarks of what makes this system so difficult to defend have remained. In the second quarter, the Rams called a toss play to Todd Gurley on first-and-10 that went for 20 yards around the right end. Two plays later, Goff faked an identical-looking pitch before hitting Robert Woods for an easy 14-yard completion to the New Orleans 11-yard line. When this offense is clicking, every facet works in concert; two games into the season, the Rams’ scheme once again looks like a headache for even the league’s best defenses.

2. Losing Brees is a massive blow for the Saints, but the state of the NFC South should give them hope. The news that Brees will miss the next six weeks after undergoing thumb surgery puts the Saints behind the eight ball in a crowded NFC race. But Carolina’s rocky start should help New Orleans stay alive in the division.

Cam Newton was downright awful in the Panthers’ 20-14 loss to Tampa Bay on Thursday. He completed just 24 of his 50 attempts and consistently missed throws to all levels of the field. And what’s even more concerning is the Panthers’ refusal to use Newton as a runner, even in short-yardage situations and around the goal line. Through two games, he’s carried the ball just five times for minus-2 yards, and Carolina’s patented power runs have been noticeably absent from the game plan. Newton’s ability to create mismatches in high-leverage spots has been an advantage for the Panthers since he was drafted in 2011. He’s topped 100 rushing attempts in eight of his nine seasons, with at least four rushing touchdowns each year. Through two games, he’s on track for just 40 attempts for the year, and it seems like Carolina is trying to limit the amount of hits the QB takes after he underwent offseason shoulder surgery. His early-season struggles might be attributed to the lingering effects of that surgery, but if the Panthers can’t right the ship soon, they could be out of the NFC playoff picture before Halloween.

3. With their second blowout win in as many weeks, the Cowboys look like a potential juggernaut. Dallas had the benefit of playing the Giants and Redskins to open the season, but the way that Dak Prescott and Co. have played during their 2-0 start has been staggering no matter the competition. Prescott completed 26 of his 30 passes for 269 yards and three touchdowns in the Cowboys’ 31-21 win over Washington on Sunday, and for the second straight week, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore was able to tap into a version of this offense that’s been absent for the past two seasons. Dallas continues to mix play-action throws—like the 51-yard touchdown to Devin Smith in the second quarter—with a solid running game and smartly timed rushes from Prescott in short-yardage and red zone situations.

The Cowboys will be without wide receiver Michael Gallup for two to four weeks as he recovers from arthroscopic knee surgery, but if Smith can provide Prescott with a field-stretching presence, this offense should continue to roll in Gallup’s absence. The quality of their opponents has definitely been lacking compared to a team like the Rams, but so far the Cowboys have been one of the most impressive teams in the conference.

4. Russell Wilson’s monster game in Seattle’s 28-26 win over Pittsburgh is yet another reminder that the Seahawks offense is at its best when Wilson is the focal point. The star quarterback completed 29 of his 35 passes for 300 yards and three touchdowns against the Steelers and was generally brilliant all afternoon. Wilson successfully played point guard, distributing the ball from shotgun sets, and his 28-yard touchdown pass to DK Metcalf midway through the fourth quarter was just more proof that he might throw the most beautiful deep ball in the NFL.

But the most encouraging part of Seattle’s win on Sunday wasn’t where Wilson’s throws were going—it was how quickly he was making them. Wilson’s average time to throw was just 1.89 seconds, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That’s the quickest release time for a quarterback since 2016 and more than a full second quicker than Wilson’s 2018 average (3.02 seconds). Seahawks coach Pete Carroll noted on Monday that Wilson’s performance against Pittsburgh was reminiscent of how Seattle’s offense looked late in the 2015 season, which was the best stretch of Wilson’s career. Both Carroll and Seattle offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer would do well to remember that moving forward, because when the Seahawks put the ball in the hands of their best player, this is a completely different team.

5. For the second straight week, the new-look Packers showed that they don’t need star performances from Aaron Rodgers to win. Rodgers made a handful of clutch throws in key moments in Green Bay’s 21-16 win over Minnesota, but he finished with just 209 yards passing. With the emergence of the Packers defense and a solid running game, though, that was more than enough. Aaron Jones had several chunk gains en route to 116 yards rushing as Green Bay gashed an excellent Vikings run defense on the ground. The defense also had another big game. After free-agent signee Za’Darius Smith tormented the Bears offensive line in the season opener, Kenny Clark wreaked havoc on Minnesota. The fourth-year defensive tackle finished with a sack, a quarterback hit, and five hurries on just 33 pass-rush snaps and overwhelmed Vikings rookie center Garrett Bradbury. The Packers are sitting atop the NFC North at 2-0, and they’ve been able to get there without putting an undue burden on their superstar quarterback.

6. Sloppy performances from both Mitchell Trubisky and Kirk Cousins on Sunday raise doubts about where both the Bears and Vikings sit in the NFC pecking order. Trubisky’s Bears managed to pull out an ugly 16-14 win over the Broncos on the road, but Chicago’s third-year QB had another rough outing after his nightmarish season opener against Green Bay. Trubisky finished 16-for-27 for just 120 yards, was inaccurate to all levels of the field, and threw a handful of passes that easily could have been intercepted. After abandoning the running game too early against the Packers, Bears head coach Matt Nagy called 29 running plays compared to just 27 passes against Denver. A good chunk of the Bears’ 153 rushing yards came on gadget plays to Cordarrelle Patterson and Taylor Gabriel on a single drive in the third quarter, which is worrisome. Nagy’s approach and the Bears’ offensive output both indicate that Chicago is doing all it can to limit Trubisky’s impact. And after 16 starts in this system over the past two seasons, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe that things are going to significantly improve.

The Vikings face a similar problem with Kirk Cousins. The Cousins experience has always been a roller coaster, with its mix of brilliant throws and head-scratching ball security issues, and Sunday’s game was no different. After attempting just 10 passes in Minnesota’s Week 1 victory over the Falcons, Cousins dropped back 32 times against Green Bay on Sunday—and the results were disastrous. He completed just 14 of his 32 throws for 230 yards, with an interception and one lost fumble. The Vikings want to run their offense through Dalvin Cook and the rushing attack, but there will be plenty of moments when they have to lean on Cousins in key situations—and Sunday showed just how quickly things can go awry.

7. The Eagles’ 24-20 loss to Atlanta is likely a small speed bump in what will be a successful season, but some of the issues that affected the team on Sunday night could become problems down the road. Carson Wentz managed to bounce back from a brutal first half against the Falcons, but the Eagles’ other problems didn’t look so easily fixable. Philly’s secondary was probably the biggest question mark on the entire roster coming into the season, and Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones both had monster games (with 105 and 106 yards receiving, respectively), which included a handful of long receptions. The Eagles’ running game was also lacking against a Falcons defense that was steamrolled by the Vikings in Week 1. Miles Sanders finished with just 28 yards on 10 carries, and Jordan Howard was somehow even worse, totaling just 18 yards on eight rushes. Philly’s offensive line will likely be better in the run game as the season goes along, but the Eagles did a lot of work to reshape their running back group this offseason, and there just wasn’t much to show for it in Week 2.

8. The NFL’s new emphasis on holding calls is a problem. As former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz pointed out on Twitter, there were 70 accepted holding penalties between Thursday and Sunday’s games, and there will likely be more to come on Monday night. Last season, there was only one week with more than 53. The league has made an effort to crack down on holds this year, likely in an effort to allow defenses to regain some ground. But so far, all that’s been accomplished is creating choppier game play. In recent years, the NFL has done a decent job of correcting officiating policies that just haven’t worked out—most notably, the emphasis on roughing-the-passer calls last season that was abandoned by the end of September. This should be another instance where the league office realizes its mistake and goes back to the status quo.

9. This week in tales of the tape: Kyle Shanahan is still the master of scheming up wide-open chunk plays. Shanahan has used this type of play-action throwback design in the past to great success, and against the Bengals on Sunday, he added a different wrinkle by bringing Marquise Goodwin across the formation. That resulted in an easy 38-yard touchdown. Jimmy Garoppolo finished 10-of-10 for 213 yards and two touchdowns when using play-action on Sunday, which is downright ridiculous. These types of throws are going to be a staple of the Niners offense under Shanahan, and so far, they’re the reason San Francisco is sitting at 2-0.

10. This week’s line play moment that made me hit rewind: Kenny Clark is a bad, bad man. Clark’s initial power with his punch combined with how quickly he hits his secondary move and gets into the backfield is a perfect example of what makes the former first-round pick one of the league’s most underrated defensive players. Still only 23 years old, Clark is set to play the 2020 season on his $9.5 million fifth-year option—but I’m not sure it will get that far. He’s in line for a huge payday from Green Bay and should get it sooner rather than later.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Don’t say the word “regression” around Patrick Mahomes.