It’s hard to know what to do with Week 1 of the NFL season beyond holding it tight and thanking it for coming. Week 1 always brings some surprises, and we are often caught between overreacting and underreacting to the outcomes we didn’t expect. Last year at this time, the Lamar Jackson–led Ravens atomized the Dolphins in a 59-10 blowout. It turns out Baltimore really was unleashing a new style of offense that would destroy the NFL, and the Dolphins at that point were essentially an expansion-level football team. But we also saw the New England Patriots wreck the Steelers 33-3 on Sunday Night Football last year, and it seemed like their offense—with Josh Gordon and the newly signed Antonio Brown—would dominate the NFL. That didn’t even last until Week 3.
Pick any Week 1 in history and you’ll find some obvious realities stacked side by side with meaningless fakeouts. The trick is identifying which trends are real and which are not. That’s what we’ll be doing here. Let’s give Sunday’s games a lie detector test.
Tom Brady and the Buccaneers Looked Ugly
Saints 34, Buccaneers 23
Age before beauty, so we’ll start with Brady. He looked great on the opening drive of Sunday’s game, rushing for a touchdown and Gronk-spiking the ball into the troposphere. But apparently Brady spiked it so hard it took the air out of Tampa Bay’s offense (metaphorically speaking—usually, deflating helps Brady). The Bucs were sloppy after that, and they deserved their 34-23 loss to the Saints. Tampa Bay racked up penalties as a swath of new players tried to get on the same page, and Brady threw two interceptions, including a pick-six in his third consecutive game. Bucs head coach Bruce Arians blamed Brady for both interceptions, and Brady called them “bad, terrible turnovers.” Brady finished the game having completed 23 of 36 throws for 239 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions, but his accuracy worsened throughout the game, and a few throws even seemed to slip out of his hand.
Worse, the Bucs looked disoriented. Top receiver Mike Evans nearly missed the game due to a hamstring injury and nearly missed the stat sheet entirely until he snagged a garbage-time touchdown. Evans and Brady also had a miscommunication on Brady’s early interception. But it wasn’t just Brady screwing up. The defense committed multiple mental errors: Defensive tackle Vita Vea jumped into the neutral zone on a fourth-and-2 to give the Saints a first down, and then two plays later Ndamukong Suh did the same thing on a third down. In one egregious fourth-quarter sequence, the Bucs got called for a face mask penalty against receiver Emmanuel Sanders, let him reach the end zone anyway, and saw the 15 yards enforced on the kickoff. The Saints decided to do a pop-fly kick to see whether the Bucs would drop the ball, which they did, and recovered to effectively end the game.
On offense, defense, and special teams, Tampa Bay looked out of sorts on Sunday. And yet there is reason for optimism. Take it from, of all people, Peyton Manning, who said on ESPN on Sunday morning that a successful Tampa Bay tenure for Brady will depend in part on managing expectations.
“‘Hey, we signed Tom Brady and therefore we’re going to go 16-0 and never throw an interception and it’s just all going to be perfect,’” Manning said of the conversation surrounding the team coming into Sunday. “That’s just not real life in the NFL.”
Considering the limitations of this COVID-19-altered offseason (no preseason, limited practice, not much time to figure out the offense), immediate results aren’t to be expected, and a lot of Tampa Bay’s issues looked like they could be fixed with time. Miscommunications, jumping offside multiple times, and limited playbook issues will all improve as the season goes on. The Buccaneers also ran more than they passed in the first half, a rarity after they were one of the most pass-heavy teams in the first half last season. Like other squads, the Bucs may have gone with a more conservative approach as they work to fully install the offense
Outside of the preseason-style problems, there were a lot of encouraging parts of this game. Scotty Miller looked like a great third receiver, and the Tampa Bay tight end group is as deep as we believed. The Bucs defense played far better than the score indicated, and the unit’s strong front seven—which features last year’s sack leader, Shaq Barrett, and likely the best inside linebacker duo in the NFL with Lavonte David and Devin White—showed they can disrupt even a solid offensive line. Brady and the Bucs will have a chance to iron out some issues this week against the Carolina Panthers, who have one of the youngest defenses in the past decade. Manage your expectations for Tampa Bay, but also expect them to school the Panthers. Again, age before beauty.
Verdict: Not real
The Patriots Have Completely Redesigned Their Offense Around Cam Newton
Patriots 21, Dolphins 11
This was obvious and immediate to see, unless you remember Tom Brady running the read option and doing designed runs on third-and-5. Newton ran for more yards in this game than Brady did in the previous two years combined. Like Tampa Bay, the Patriots clearly limited their downfield passing on Sunday. But unlike the Bucs, the Patriots don’t have many downfield options anyway, so they decided to ground and pound an inexperienced Dolphins defense to the point that Miami resorted to snatching Cam Newton’s two chains. (Hopefully Cam telling reporters that it bothered him when defenders grabbed his chains will make future defenders stop doing it. People stop snatching chains when you ask nicely, right?)
The Patriots’ game plan worked well, even if the final score did not reflect New England’s ability to move the ball. But while this offense is more mobile and dynamic than it has been in the past few years, it also left Newton a bit hobbled at the end of the game. Sound familiar?
Aaron Rodgers Is a Football God Again
Packers 43, Vikings 34 (first time this score has happened in NFL history)
Aaron Rodgers threw for 364 yards and four touchdowns with no turnovers or sacks against the division-rival Vikings on Sunday, but numbers don’t do justice to his performance. Watching this throw does.
This is a perfect pass, and Rodgers had a nearly perfect day in his first game since the Packers drafted his (presumed) replacement, Jordan Love, in the first round in April. Did the Packers think he was declining? Rodgers has said all the nice things since the draft, but it was heavily suspected he was carrying more motivation into this season than he has in years. Was this Fuck you game a sign of a monster Rodgers season coming up? Probably not.
To be abundantly clear, this is not saying Rodgers’s performance was a fluke or that he is not still one of the most talented passers in the NFL. Rather, this game was well-suited for him to succeed. For starters: The Vikings lost their top three cornerbacks from last season (Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, and Xavier Rhodes) and replaced them with three players (Holton Hill, Mike Hughes, and Cameron Dantzler) who are all 23 or younger and had nine combined career starts entering Sunday. Making their job harder was the fact that top defensive end Danielle Hunter missed the game and new trade acquisition Yannick Ngakoue was still getting a feel for this defense. Rodgers had all day to attack three of the most inexperienced cornerbacks he’ll get to face all year, and unsurprisingly, Hill, Hughes, and Dantzler each allowed one of Rodgers’s touchdowns.
Rodgers loves feasting on inexperienced cornerbacks. He had a similar performance last year in Week 7, when he shredded the Raiders and their awful secondary for 429 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions. It was vintage Rodgers, but he couldn’t match that output again. He cracked 250 passing yards just twice in the second half of the season.
There is no doubt that Rodgers is still amazing, but expecting the Packers to shred opponents every week is not realistic. Having said that, there is another opportunity on the schedule for a repeat Rodgers performance: Week 4 against the Falcons. This is another team with young cornerbacks and no pass rush, one that was shredded by Russell Wilson in Week 1. But don’t expect Rodgers to keep up this 2011 form.
Verdict: Not real
Josh Allen Is Buffalo’s Best Friend and Worst Enemy
Bills 27, Jets 17
Gottfried Leibniz. Satoshi Nakamoto. Josh Allen. These are the innovators who shape the future we will soon inhabit. Allen has completely changed the art of fumbling. It used to be predictable: a strip sack here, a ball slips out there. Not with Allen. His fumbles are things you’ve never seen before. This happened on Buffalo’s first drive.
And here is how Buffalo’s final drive before halftime ended.
This is a modern art masterpiece. The wackiest part is that between these plays, the Bills jumped out to a 21-0 lead mainly because Allen was slicing up the Jets secondary. Allen finished with 33 completions on 46 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions (though he certainly had some near picks). Overall, Allen was excellent as a passer and ran a career-high 14 times for 57 yards and a touchdown. But the two lost fumbles kept the Jets in the game, as did settling for two field goals inside the Jets’ 5-yard line and rookie kicker Tyler Bass missing two other field goal attempts in the red zone. Allen was the biggest reason the Bills won by 10, but he was also the biggest reason they didn’t win by 24. That is Buffalo in a nutshell.
Verdict: Extremely real
Mitchell Trubisky Looked … Good?
Bears 27, Lions 23
Like the sun, or Medusa, do not stare directly at Mitchell Trubisky’s highlights. Watch them this week and you’ll see Trubisky floating a perfect pass into Anthony Miller’s arms to take an improbable late lead and a win over the Detroit Lions. It was just the second time the Bears came back from a 17-plus-point deficit in the fourth quarter since 1940. The highlights make Trubisky look like the hero. But in this game, he was the hero in the same way that someone who spills your drink and then buys you another one is a hero. Trubisky completed 20 of 36 passes for 242 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions, and was sacked just once, but like Rodgers, his numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Mitch Trubisky pic.twitter.com/bxHMtU6Ukn— Isaac (@WorldofIsaac) September 13, 2020
There should be a rule that if a defender drops a ball that hits them in the chest, the quarterback is still credited with an interception on the stat sheet.
Not great accuracy from Trubisky on 4th and 7 pic.twitter.com/M7JuD6ORQK— Jordan Dajani (@JordanDajani) September 13, 2020
Trubisky has not shown much evidence that he is an NFL-level quarterback. Yes, the throw he made to Miller at the end of the game was sweet. But if Bears fans expect this to be a smooth ride going forward, they haven’t been paying attention.
Verdict: Not real
It’s Panic Time in Philadelphia
Washington 27, Eagles 17
The worst part is that this loss made sense as it unfolded. Philadelphia’s offensive line was already banged up after losing left tackle Andre Dillard and All-Pro right guard Brandon Brooks for the season earlier this year. Then All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson was announced as inactive for this game with a lower body injury. Philadelphia’s depleted offensive line was manhandled by Washington’s extremely talented defensive front, which has five first-round picks, including Chase Young, and Carson Wentz got sacked a disgusting eight times for a combined loss of 62 yards. Young repeatedly took 38-year-old left tackle Jason Peters out to pasture on some real Circle of Life ish. But even when Wentz had protection, he did not play well. He ended the day with an ESPN Total QBR of 14.2 (out of 100). To put that in perspective, the worst full-season QBR rating on record is Jimmy Clausen’s 13.8 mark for the Panthers in 2010. Washington turned Carson Wentz into Jimmy Clausen.
Wentz is not that bad—nobody except Jimmy Clausen is—but the Eagles might not be much better than they looked on Sunday. Their offensive line is already in shambles, their starting running back, Miles Sanders, missed this game with a hamstring injury, and they have the fragile receiver duo of Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson. Philadelphia is so injury-riddled that Wentz, who has not finished a season healthy since 2016, is one of the team’s more durable players. Even if Wentz stays under center, it is unclear how the team can protect him enough to run a serious offense. Perhaps this is merely the karmic shift from all the Philadelphia sports fans who prayed for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to stay healthy for a 76ers playoff run, and now the Eagles are paying the price.
The Cardinals Could Win the NFC West
Cardinals 24, 49ers 20
The Cardinals outplayed their opponent on Sunday, announced Kyler Murray as one of the league’s most exciting players, and gave DeAndre Hopkins a career high in catches. Oh, and they also defeated San Francisco, a team that nearly won the Super Bowl just seven months ago. Not bad.
Arizona gave the 49ers two tough games last year, when the team was struggling along in Kliff Kingsbury’s first season as head coach, but this time was different. The 49ers defensive line dominated Arizona’s offensive line, but between Murray’s mobility and the Cardinals’ pace (they ran 78 plays, 17 more than the 49ers) they wore that unit down. Arizona’s Air Raid passing offense is built around spreading out the field and mastering simple concepts, especially where receivers cross, and that is how the Cardinals sprung Hopkins on one of his best plays of the day.
The Cardinals offense looks legit, and Murray was dazzling running around in the open field. If he leveled up over the offseason, he could enter the NFL’s top quarterback tier faster than anticipated.
The Jacksonville Jaguars Are Good
Jaguars 27, Colts 20
The Jaguars were the favorites to land the no. 1 pick this season, not the no. 1 spot in their division. But after Houston’s loss to the Chiefs on Thursday and this game, the Jaguars will have at least a share of the division lead going into next week.
This result was all the more shocking considering the Jaguars’ fire sale over the past year. They traded away almost all of the players that gave them the “Sacksonville” nickname, including Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Jalen Ramsey, and A.J. Bouye. Not to mention the team cut Leonard Fournette this offseason. Still, Jacksonville rallied and beat Indianapolis, in part because Philip Rivers threw two interceptions, but also because the Jaguars looked like the better team. New offensive coordinator Jay Gruden seemed to get Gardner Minshew into a rhythm, and the defense played a decent game, considering the amount of players it lost.
Jacksonville takes on the Titans next week. If this team is legit enough to win that game, its next two contests are against the Dolphins and Bengals. The Jaguars are almost definitely not going to start 4-0, except, well, they could.
Verdict: A 4-0 start will confirm our entire society is a simulation.
A previous version of this piece misstated Tom Brady’s passing line. He completed 23 of 36 passes, not 23 of 26.