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The Winners and Losers of NFL Week 1

Aaron Rodgers looked like his vintage self while dominating the Vikings on Sunday. Unfortunately, so did Philip Rivers in the fourth quarter of his Colts debut.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, investigate the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?

Winner: Bill Belichick

The Patriots’ dynasty was built on the marriage of the greatest coach in football history and the greatest quarterback in football history. Even those of us who aren’t Pats fans have to marvel at the combination. Was Brady truly a GOAT, or merely a pawn of Belichick’s brilliant scheming? Was Belichick merely lucky to have stumbled upon a legend? This year is our opportunity to find out. Brady and Belichick have divorced, with Brady making the stunning decision to leave in free agency. And through one week it looks like Tampa Tom might be the Garfunkel.

Brady’s Bucs lost 34-23 to the Saints, and it wasn’t really that close. Brady threw two interceptions for the first time since 2018, including the only pick-six thrown by any quarterback this week:

Meanwhile, the Patriots adjusted well to life without Brady. They now have Cam Newton, a quarterback with an almost entirely different skill set from Tom Brady. New England adapted seamlessly to that skill set. Newton ran for 75 yards—more than double Brady’s career high of 31 yards—with much of them coming on designed run plays that certainly weren’t in New England’s playbook last year. Here’s Cam’s first Patriots touchdown:

Of course, Brady is 43 years old, making him older than any successful quarterback in NFL history. If his performance this year lags behind his performance in New England, it might have to do more with his age than the coaching drop-off from Belichick to Bruce Arians. Meanwhile, coaches don’t necessarily decline with age the way athletes do. The 68-year-old Belichick could keep going until he’s 80 if he feels like it. We’ll never be able to drop a prime Brady onto a different coaching staff to see whether he’d succeed or not, so using the 2020 season to grade Belichick’s greatness against Brady’s greatness isn’t truly fair. (And the Bucs played a team that might make the Super Bowl this year while the Pats played … a team that probably won’t.)

But if Brady succeeds, it will be because of Tampa Bay’s ability to play to his strengths. If Belichick succeeds this year, it will be because he’s capable of coaching a quarterback who plays nothing like Brady. Through one game, he seems more than capable of it.

Loser: D’Andre Swift

You don’t blow a 17-point fourth-quarter lead without it being a team effort. It had happened only three times in the past 15 years before Sunday, when Detroit turned a 23-6 fourth-quarter lead into a 27-23 loss. Most embarrassing of all: It happened against Mitchell Trubisky, who threw three touchdown passes in the fourth:

But while you don’t blow a 17-point fourth-quarter lead without it being a team effort, only one player will be remembered when anybody talks about the Lions’ season-opening loss to the Bears: D’Andre Swift, taken in the second round of April’s draft. Swift was injured heading into Sunday’s game, and it was unclear whether he would play a significant role. He didn’t, and carried the ball only three times for 8 yards while newly signed 35-year-old Adrian Peterson had 14 carries. But he was on the field after Trubisky’s demolition of the Detroit defense, and had a chance to score a go-ahead touchdown with six seconds left. Instead, he let a sweetly floated pass from Matt Stafford slip softly through his fingers.

This is, quite frankly, stunning. Swift’s ability as a receiver was one of his assets as a prospect. The Ringer’s draft guide called Swift a “natural hands catcher.” Pro Football Focus’s draft guide called Swift the best receiving back in the class, saying that Swift had “natural hands out of the backfield” and that any team drafting him “better have a plan to take advantage of his receiving ability.” Bleacher Report’s profile of Swift also noted his “soft hands and advanced route running.” Swift had only three drops in three seasons at Georgia. If any running back was going to make a critical drop in their first NFL game, it wasn’t going to be Swift. It reminds me of an almost identical situation three years ago when second-round pick Zay Jones—the owner of the all-time NCAA receptions record and “the best hands in the draft”dropped a game-winning pass in his second career game.

Pros are supposed to get over drops, but I imagine it’s hard to get over waiting your entire life to make the NFL and failing at something you’ve done so easily for your entire life. It’s not like the speed of the NFL game or strength of NFL defenders caused him to drop the pass—it was him and the ball, like it had been so many times throughout his career, and yet the ball tumbled through his soft, natural hands and wound up on the floor. You don’t blow a 17-point lead without it being a team effort, but I imagine it’d be pretty hard to convince D’Andre Swift of that right now.

Winner: Green Bay’s Extremely Bad Draft Pick

The biggest head-scratcher of the NFL draft was Green Bay’s decision to take quarterback Jordan Love out of Utah State at no. 26. Not only was Love a questionable first-round pick—he threw 17 interceptions last year in 13 games despite playing in the Mountain West conference—the Packers already have a quarterback named Aaron Rodgers.

And for the record, Aaron Rodgers is very good:

Rodgers had 364 yards and four touchdowns as Green Bay scored 43 points, more than any other team in Week 1. Only one quarterback, Matt Ryan, had more yards, and only one, Russell Wilson, had more fantasy points. (Stupid rushing yards.) Rodgers looked like the best quarterback in the NFL on Sunday—a big change from a quarterback who had showed signs of modest decline in recent years. Rodgers averaged just 250.1 yards last year, his second fewest in a full season as a starter. After Sunday, though, it sure doesn’t seem like the Packers will need a replacement for him anytime soon.

It might seem like the Packers wasted their pick—but then you remember that Rodgers is fueled by spite more than any quarterback in the NFL. The Packers’ decision to pick Love signaled that they were so eager to move on from rusty old Rodgers that they were willing to reach for a Day 2 quarterback prospect. That was all the disrespect needed to turn Aaron back to the old Rodgers.

Loser: Carson Wentz’s Protection

Sunday was the first game for the Washington Football Team, and it was a glorious one. The Football Team roared back from a 17-0 deficit against the heavily favored Philadelphia Eagles and emerged with a 27-17 win. But as strange as it was to see the phrase FOOTBALL TEAM painted in end zones and flashing across my TV screen, the real no-names weren’t in burgundy and gold—they were trying to keep Washington’s pass rush away from Carson Wentz.

It’s hard to suffer an injury rash at one position as severe as the one Philadelphia has suffered on the offensive line before any games are played. Starting right guard Brandon Brooks and starting left tackle Andre Dillard both suffered season-ending injuries in the offseason—Brooks back in June, Dillard just a few weeks ago. And then before Sunday’s game, starting right tackle Lane Johnson was listed as inactive due to a nagging ankle injury. Offensive line has been a strength for the Eagles for the past few years, but there aren’t many teams that can remain competent in the trenches after losing three starters. The Eagles signed Jason Peters to play right guard after Brooks’s injury, but had to move him to left tackle to fill in for Dillard.

Sunday, the Eagles started Jack Driscoll, a rookie picked in the fourth round, at right tackle, and Nate Herbig, who played a total of three offensive snaps last year as an undrafted rookie, at right guard. Neither of these guys was really supposed to see the field for Philadelphia at all this season; now they were starting Week 1.

It went poorly:

Driscoll eventually left the game with cramps and the Eagles had to bring in Jordan Mailata, a 6-foot-8, 350-pound Australian who grew too big for rugby. You can see Mailata at right tackle on this play—he’s the absolutely massive dude who looks very confused by the whole thing.

All in all, Philadelphia gave up eight sacks, the most it has allowed in a game since 2007. Chase Young, the defensive end Washington drafted second in April’s draft, had 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. (Things will get harder against teams not missing four offensive linemen.) Hopefully Johnson’s injury won’t keep him out long, because the Eagles really don’t have a chance playing like this. A team with two-fifths of an offensive line is a strange football cataclysm that makes competitive football more or less impossible.

Winner: The Philip Rivers Curse

Philip Rivers and the Chargers have always been snakebitten. During Philip Rivers’s tenure as the Bolts’ QB, the team had the 10th-fewest losses of any NFL team … but the third-most one-possession losses of any NFL team. It often felt like no matter what happened in a certain game, the Chargers would find themselves trailing by somewhere between three and eight points with the ball in Rivers’s hands, and more often than not, some never-before-seen hilarious catastrophe would befall the Chargers. Rivers’s departure from the Chargers allows us to find out: Who was truly responsible for the Chargers’ Final Destination–style fates, the team or Rivers?

Rivers, who signed with Indianapolis this offseason, made his Colts debut against the Jaguars on Sunday. Indianapolis came in favored to win the AFC South; Jacksonville was favored to have the worst record in the NFL. But with under five minutes to go and the Colts needing a touchdown, Rivers threw his second interception of the game, sealing a 27-20 loss:

In their game in the late afternoon, it seemed like the Chargers were on their way to an unfortunate end as well. Los Angeles had a three-point lead on the Bengals, and no. 1 pick Joe Burrow was showing the poise of a vet. On Cincinnati’s final drive, Burrow completed eight of 10 passes to move the Bengals to the goal line, and then threw what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown to A.J. Green. But officials flagged Green for offensive pass interference. With seven seconds left, the Bengals had time to run another play for a game-winning touchdown, but instead opted to kick a field goal to force overtime. They did not get to overtime:

The kicker, Randy Bullock, shanked the 31-yard field goal, possibly pulling a hamstring while kicking. This is exactly what would have happened to the Chargers almost every other year. Instead, the Chargers won because of a flukey, strange outcome you never would’ve expected.

It’s clear: The Curse of the Chargers was not actually a Curse of the Chargers. It was a Rivers-specific hex, and it has transferred from the Bolts to the Colts. Prepare for Indianapolis to lose a game when an anvil falls on Rivers just as he’s about to throw a game-winning touchdown.

Loser: Jamie Collins’s Method Acting

All athletes act. The basketball defender acts as if he’s just been hit by a Mack Truck while trying to draw a charge; the soccer striker flails dramatically to the ground in hopes of drawing a penalty; the baseball catcher frames a pitch to make it appear to have been a strike. They all hope to fool officials into believing them. Football players act as if they’re too tough for this, but we all know they act as well. Offensive linemen act as if a defender across the line of scrimmage caused them to jump; receivers exaggerate contact on pass-interference calls; players on both sides pretend their team has recovered the ball regardless of whether they have any legitimate evidence in their favor. All the world’s a stage, and even football players are players.

Lions linebacker Jamie Collins took acting to the next level on Sunday, but sadly, he wasn’t rewarded for it. In an attempt to convince an official that opponents were lowering their helmets to keep him at bay, he decided to act out their alleged infractions while using the official as a stand-in. But like so many audience members at overzealous improv shows, the official did not enjoy the premise of participatory theater.

Collins was ejected, which represents a strict, literal interpretation of the rules. The ref, Alex Kemp, described Collins’s headbutt as “unnecessary contact with a game official” and said there was no way Collins could have remained in the game according to the rule. Without their signature defensive signing of the offseason, Detroit blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead.

But while Collins might have cost himself and his team, I think his performance deserves credit. He was so convincing in his role of “Football Player Illegally Using Helmet” that the official truly bought into Collins’s performance, interpreting Collins’s actions as an actual malicious act instead of just a demonstration.

Collins was ridiculed for the stupidity to get ejected so soon in the season opener, but I, for one, applaud his performance. Brava, Jamie! Brava!

Loser: Bill O’Brien

The Texans didn’t play Sunday, but they still lost. Houston played its season opener on Thursday night, and it was immediately clear that the Texans would be better off with star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins than with aged running back David Johnson, the player Bill O’Brien received in exchange for Hopkins in a March trade. Sunday, Hopkins played his first game for his new team, the Arizona Cardinals, and helped them take down the defending NFC champion 49ers on the road. Here’s Hopkins going 33 yards down to the 1-yard line late in the fourth quarter: Arizona scored the game-winning touchdown on the next play.

Hopkins finished with 151 yards on a career-high 14 receptions. No other player had more catches than Hopkins this week, and only two (Julio Jones and Davante Adams) had more yards. He did this against the best pass defense in the NFL last season, as San Francisco allowed league lows in total passing yardage and net yards per passing attempt. Only six receivers had 100 yards against the Niners last year, and nobody had more than 134 receiving yards against them in a game.

Hopkins seems like a perfect fit for the Cardinals, who are in their second year with head coach Kliff Kingsbury and 2019 no. 1 pick Kyler Murray and the Air Raid offense. But Hopkins would be a star on any team. O’Brien’s decision to deal him away for a worse player at a less important position is the type of terrible decision that will echo throughout the season, even when Houston isn’t playing.

Winner: The COVID-Free NFL

It probably seems like the NFL’s offseason was longer than normal. Time has a way of slowing down when you spend every single day inside to avoid infecting other people with a deadly virus. But while every other major American sports league featured some sort of interruption or delay, the NFL was adamant that it would start in early September as previously scheduled. I never thought they’d be able to pull it off.

But this weekend, every single person the NFL tested was cleared to go:

It feels like a miracle that in a country with tens of thousands of new infections every day, none of the NFL’s thousands of players, coaches, and attending staff tested positive. The result was that on Sunday, we watched RedZone, teased our friends about our fantasy teams, and yelled about coaches’ fourth-down decision-making. My most sincere wish is that there weren’t a pandemic happening, but I’m grateful that the NFL somehow managed to make it feel like there wasn’t for 12 blessed hours.