This week does not have the best slate of NFL games, but don’t let the lackluster matchups belie its importance. There is a big difference between a 1-1 start and an 0-2 start. Since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, teams that begin a season 0-2 make the playoffs just 12 percent of the time, and the number of 0-2 teams that went on to win the Super Bowl (three) is almost the same as the number of 0-2 teams that went on to finish 0-16 (two). Of course, that historical precedent is not perfectly applicable now that the NFL has added two extra playoff spots this season (don’t worry if you forgot about that—we keep forgetting, too). But even with 14 franchises making the postseason, teams that start 0-2 are at a huge disadvantage. The football may look ugly, but the wins and losses count the same in September as December. So let’s look at the matchups, starting with our game of the week.
Sunday Night Football
New England Patriots (1-0) @ Seattle Seahawks (1-0)
Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Seahawks -3.5
Over/under references to the Malcolm Butler interception: 45,000
The Patriots played the Dolphins last week and now get the Seahawks, which is like when Alabama schedules a season opener against Montana State and then plays Georgia the week after. This is New England’s second game, but it’s the first real one without Tom Brady. Patriots quarterback Cam Newton looked good throwing the ball last week against Montana State—or, uh, Miami—but the biggest offensive change was Newton’s impact as a runner: He ran 15 times for 75 yards, eight first downs, and two touchdowns in New England’s 21-11 win. But it also looked painful. Newton has suffered numerous injuries in the past few years, and the impact from getting tackled as many times as he did on Sunday might not be sustainable for 16 games. Newton also seemed to have a hamstring issue at the end of the game, but he said on the radio Monday morning that, “We won, so that means I’m not hurt no more.”
Even so, this week presents a much more difficult test. The Patriots shredded Montana State’s—sorry, Miami’s—Swiss cheese defense on Sunday, but the Seahawks are more like a brick wall. Inside linebacker Bobby Wagner and strong safety Jamal Adams are perhaps the best (and hardest-hitting) players at their respective positions. Sending Newton into the teeth of this defense 15 times may not be the wisest idea, though it would make sense for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to show more play-action passing counterattacks.
While New England may look to pass more this week, the Seahawks will probably do the opposite. Russell Wilson wrecked the Falcons for 322 yards, four touchdowns, and 15 first downs last week in a 38-25 win, and Seahawks fans were overjoyed that Wilson finally threw the ball early. But the Seahawks did that to target Atlanta’s cornerbacks, which are some of the least experienced in the league. Remarkably, none of Russell Wilson’s 35 throws against Atlanta last week had a defender within 1 yard of the receiver, according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats. But it won’t be that easy against the Patriots, who have the league’s best secondary led by cornerback and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. Seattle might decide it’s easier to attack New England’s inexperienced front-seven group, which lost all three starting linebackers from last season to free agency or opt-outs.
New York Giants (0-1) @ Chicago Bears (1-0)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Chicago -5
The Giants have the worst record in the NFL through the past three full seasons, and that stretch includes the Browns’ 0-16 campaign in 2017. It’s time to call the Giants what they are: the worst team in football.
This offseason, New York brought the unknown Joe Judge in as head coach and the all-too-familiar Jason Garrett in as offensive coordinator in an attempt to stop the team from sucking, but the experiment didn’t go well in Week 1. Running back Saquon Barkley had negative rushing yards at halftime of the team’s Monday Night Football loss to the Steelers.
The Bears, meanwhile, are about to test how many consecutive wins they can rack up with a quarterback whose benching feels imminent. Mitchell Trubisky played three awful quarters of football against Detroit last week but saved himself with a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback. There’s a good chance he may waltz into a 2-0 start here and further solidify his job security, which is the football equivalent of winning the battle and losing the war. But right now the Bears’ most pressing concern is the fact that top receiver Allen Robinson wants a contract extension. Considering the amount of hospital balls that Trubisky throws, maybe Robinson just wants hazard pay.
Atlanta Falcons (0-1) @ Dallas Cowboys (0-1)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Cowboys -7.5
Mike McCarthy was hired to give the Cowboys an elite offense, and this would be a great time to see some early results. Atlanta’s defense can’t tackle, cover, or rush the passer. As mentioned earlier, the Falcons didn’t have a defender within 1 yard of a receiver on any of Russell Wilson’s 35 throws last week. Dallas should dominate every matchup on offense, and this is the game when Dak Prescott can look like an MVP candidate. If this offense doesn’t start humming this week, it will be cause for concern.
Detroit Lions (0-1) @ Green Bay Packers (1-0)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Packers -6.5
Aaron Rodgers wrecked the Vikings like a displeased Nordic God last week, and a victory against Detroit on Sunday would give the Packers a 2-0 start and two wins in the NFC North. Rodgers looked like a vintage version of himself against Minnesota, and now he is meeting a Lions team whose defense just blew a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter to Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears. Detroit will need to pressure Rodgers to prevent him from carving up its secondary the way he carved up Minnesota’s.
Jacksonville Jaguars (1-0) @ Tennessee Titans (1-0)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Titans -11
Over/under people who don’t root for these teams but will watch this entire game: 42.5
The winner of this game will have the sole lead in the AFC South. It won’t be super shocking if that team is the Titans, as they made last season’s AFC championship, but the Jaguars were the preseason favorites to have the league’s worst record. Jumping into playoff position in Week 2 would be the biggest surprise of the season so far, and if Jacksonville wins, expect every dad in America to say, “You know that Gardner Minshew kid is pretty good,” come Monday.
Minnesota Vikings (0-1) @ Indianapolis Colts (0-1)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Colts -3.5
These teams both see themselves as Super Bowl contenders, but they both looked more than a little rusty in Week 1. The Vikings suffered their most embarrassing loss since [checks Wikipedia] the Battle of Tettenhall in August 910. But putting failed Norse raids aside, Minnesota was blown off the field by the Packers, who were up 29-10 a minute into the fourth quarter. The Vikings couldn’t get any pressure on Rodgers, and he and Davante Adams carved up Minnesota’s young cornerbacks. New Vikings defensive end Yannick Ngakoue will have to play far better while star defensive end Danielle Hunter is out with a neck injury, and Minnesota may have to blitz the Colts into submission to avoid starting 0-2.
The Colts suffered an even worse loss than the Vikings last week by falling to the lowly Jaguars. Considering the investments these teams have made to win this year (Indianapolis giving $20 million-plus to Philip Rivers, the Vikings trading for Ngakoue), whichever group loses this contest will have a “look in the mirror” game in Week 3.
Buffalo Bills (1-0) @ Miami Dolphins (0-1)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Bills -3
America’s record media polarization has now extended to Bills quarterback Josh Allen. People can watch the same Allen performance and come away with two wildly different interpretations of what they saw. In Buffalo’s 27-17 win against the Jets last week, Allen threw for a career-high 312 yards with two passing touchdowns and a 72 percent completion percentage. It was easily the best passing performance of his career. But Allen also killed two scoring drives with fumble losses that were borderline performance art, and he missed a wide-open receiver on what might go down as the worst pass of the year.
And then the second one pic.twitter.com/PtQUutc8bx— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) September 14, 2020
He is a living Rorschach test, Jekyll and Hyde, a breathtaking quarterback who invokes both gasps and sighs. If he could cut out the cringe plays, he’d be phenomenal, and this week will show how much he can grow from those mistakes. Buffalo has Super Bowl aspirations and is capable of outclassing the Dolphins to get an easy 2-0 start in the AFC East.
San Francisco 49ers (0-1) @ New York Jets (0-1)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: San Francisco -4 (now -7)
The 49ers are trying to make it back to the Super Bowl, and one of the hallmarks of true contenders is that they crush bad teams. The Jets are a bad team. Yet the 49ers opened as just four-point favorites, a surprisingly small figure given that the Niners are the defending NFC champions and the Jets are the worst team in the AFC.
San Francisco is flying to the East Coast for an early game, and this group is already banged up at wide receiver and at cornerback, including a calf injury to Richard Sherman that will keep him out at least a few weeks and a knee sprain that tight end George Kittle will try to play through. But the biggest concern is Jimmy Garoppolo. The Niners made it to the Super Bowl almost in spite of their QB last season, and he played poorly in the team’s Week 1 loss to Arizona. Garoppolo has failed to elevate his team in the past, and now that there are injuries to the surrounding cast, his struggles are visible again. The 49ers need to be able to dominate this Jets team that missed a league-high 21 tackles last week. If San Francisco can’t cover this spread, it might be because the team is spread too thin—or because Garoppolo leans too much on his teammates to win.
Los Angeles Rams (1-0) @ Philadelphia Eagles (0-1)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Rams -1.5
Four years ago, the Rams traded up to the no. 1 pick to draft Jared Goff, and the Eagles traded up to the no. 2 pick to take Carson Wentz. Those teams sent away a combined 10 draft picks in the first three rounds to make those deals. In that first season, it looked like Philadelphia had struck gold while L.A. had struck a fault line. The Jeff Fisher–led Rams were the worst offense in the league by DVOA efficiency in Goff’s rookie season and the fourth worst since 1989 (which is as far back as the data goes). Wentz, on the flip side, had a solid if uninspired rookie campaign before becoming an MVP favorite in 2017.
But since then, both guys have had strange careers. At the end of the 2017 season, Wentz watched from the sideline as Nick Foles won the highest-scoring Super Bowl ever. The next year, Goff lost the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever. Both had disappointing campaigns last season, but now Goff is the third-highest-paid player by salary cap while Eagles fans are whispering among themselves about whether Wentz is The Guy. It’s quite the reversal from where we were three years ago.
This game will be an interesting showcase for the talent levels of these squads. Washington sacked Wentz eight times last week, largely because the Eagles were without their three best offensive linemen. The good news is right tackle Lane Johnson will be back this week. The bad news is the Eagles are facing the Rams and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. But Wentz is in a sticky situation because his worst instinct—the need to be a hero—is exacerbated when the team’s mounting injuries mean he does have to be a hero. If Wentz tries to prolong plays, Donald might have a big day.
Denver Broncos (0-1) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Steelers -5
Have you ever seen a video of a python eating a deer? That is this game. The Steelers will squeeze the life out of the Broncos, but it will take a long time and it will not be fun to watch.
Carolina Panthers (0-1) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-1)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Bucs -9
Let’s try this again. The Bucs were easily beaten by the Saints in a 34-23 thrashing last week, and head coach Bruce Arians publicly ripped into Tom Brady after the game, blaming him for both of his interceptions. That gave the impression that Tompa Bay was unraveling (even though Arians walked back his comment a bit later in the week), but when Brady was in New England, Bill Belichick would rip into him all the time. He just never did it in public. “If you weren’t so worried about you and Gisele’s next GQ magazine, maybe, just maybe, you wouldn’t have thrown that interception,” Belichick once told Brady in a meeting, according to former fullback Heath Evans. This was after a game the Patriots won by multiple touchdowns in 2007. You know, when they went undefeated in the regular season. It was a ludicrous time for Belichick to be so harsh, but that’s the point: Holding the greatest quarterback of all time to a high standard forces everyone on the team to accept that standard. The difference between Belichick’s and Arians’s approaches is that Arians is doing this in public.
The Bucs need to play better this week, and luckily they’re up against a far worse opponent. Carolina lost just about every important defensive contributor this offseason, including all-time great linebacker Luke Kuechly, and this team now has one of the youngest units in the league. (This spring, the Panthers became the first team in history to spend all of their draft picks on defensive players.) Bucs receiver Chris Godwin may miss the game with a concussion, but Mike Evans has recovered from his hamstring injury and will play better without being covered by Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Tampa Bay going from the Saints in Week 1 to the Panthers in Week 2 is like taking a doughnut off a baseball bat. Don’t be surprised if the Bucs look impressive.
Washington Football Team (1-0) @ Arizona Cardinals (1-0)
Time: 4:05 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Cardinals -7
Arizona beat the 49ers 24-20 last week and now essentially gets a rematch. Like the 49ers, Washington recently used the no. 2 pick in the draft on an Ohio State defensive end (Chase Young for Washington, Nick Bosa for the 49ers) who has rejuvenated a defensive line that includes five (!) first-round picks. Washington’s front four is ridiculous, and Arizona’s offensive line is subpar, which can tilt a game. But to win, Washington will need to contain Kyler Murray’s rushing. He gashed the 49ers on the ground last week, running 13 times for 91 yards, one touchdown, and four first downs. If Washington can somehow keep Murray in check and cover DeAndre Hopkins, it’ll be 2-0 and remain in first place in the NFC East. Wait, what?
Kansas City Chiefs (1-0) @ Los Angeles Chargers (1-0)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Chiefs -5.5
Patrick Mahomes’s career record in September: eight wins, zero losses, 26 touchdowns, zero interceptions. The Chiefs looked dominant in their win over Houston in the season opener, and now Kansas City has had 10 days to prepare for a Chargers team that needed a couple of big breaks to beat the Bengals. This will be a sad way for the Chargers to make their “home” debut in SoFi Stadium, but at least they’re accustomed to not playing in front of fans.
Baltimore Ravens (1-0) @ Houston Texans (0-1)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Ravens -6
Don’t let the cool quarterback matchup of Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson distract you from the fact that the Ravens beat the Texans 41-7 last year (maybe the recent point spread of Ravens -7 was just a copy-and-paste error of “41-7”). Jackson and Watson are two of the most exciting quarterbacks in the NFL, but Baltimore built an empire around Lamar Jackson. The Texans traded away DeAndre Hopkins.
Monday Night Football
New Orleans Saints (1-0) @ Las Vegas Raiders (1-0)
Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Saints -5
“Welcome to the Death Star, where our opponents’ dreams come to die.” That is how Raiders owner Mark Davis introduced the team’s new $1.9 billion Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas last month. A reporter later reminded Davis that the Death Star was defeated in spectacular fashion—twice. “That was their Death Star,” Davis said. “Not ours. Ours was built to sustain.”
Las Vegas is known for many things, but sustainability is not one of them. Not to mention the most important detail of all: Allegiant Stadium does not look like the Death Star. It looks like a Roomba.
It’s perfect because the Raiders are the NFL’s Roomba: They move around all the time and always suck.
The Saints, meanwhile, do not suck, though they are less exciting without receiver Michael Thomas, who could miss up to a month with a high ankle sprain. But that doesn’t mean the Saints offense will have a bad day. The Raiders recorded just five pressures against Carolina’s bad offensive line last week, so while Drew Brees won’t have Thomas, he will have plenty of time in the pocket to find someone else. Yet the Raiders can’t overcommit to defending the pass because of how good Alvin Kamara is at running back. Much like Luke Skywalker, Kamara needs only a tiny hole to beat the Death Star.
An earlier version of this piece misstated Heath Evans’s position.