The long wait is over. The NFL is finally, mercifully back in our lives, and the Week 1 slate did not disappoint.
In what felt like a possible preview of this year’s AFC playoffs, the high-flying Chiefs shrugged off a 12-point second-quarter deficit to come back to beat the Browns, the Steelers outlasted the Bills, and the Dolphins narrowly edged the Patriots in Foxborough. The NFC West, meanwhile, looks like the early favorite as the best division in football: The Seahawks dominated the Colts, the Rams battered the Bears, the Cardinals destroyed the Titans, and the 49ers held off the Lions on the road. Elsewhere, the Chargers got a nice win over the Washington Football Team, the Saints absolutely dismantled the Packers, and the Bengals and Texans got surprising wins over the Vikings and Jaguars, respectively. The Eagles opened up their season with a dominant win against the Falcons, the Broncos routed the Giants, and the Panthers beat the Jets. Finally, on Monday Night Football, the Raiders beat the Ravens in one of the wildest overtime games I’ve ever seen.
Before we start, an annual reminder: It’s best to avoid overreacting to what went down in Week 1. But we can’t completely ignore how teams played, either. Here’s my updated NFL power rankings following an eventual Week 1 in the NFL.
The Top Shelf
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-0)
2. Kansas City Chiefs (1-0)
3. Seattle Seahawks (1-0)
4. Los Angeles Rams (1-0)
The Chiefs maintained their mystique.
My first reaction to the Chiefs-Browns tilt was “Damn, this Cleveland team is good.” My second reaction was, well, that it didn’t really matter. With Patrick Mahomes behind center, Kansas City is still the clear-cut team to beat in the AFC.
The Browns jumped all over the slow-starting Chiefs and seemed to be in command for most of the game. They held a nine-point lead early in the fourth quarter thanks to a combination of balance on offense and a hounding pass rush on defense. But at no point in the game did it ever occur to me that Kansas City would lose. That’s the spell this Mahomes-led group has cast over the years, and it goes deeper than the side-arm throws, the out-of-structure genius, and the downfield bombs that have come to define Mahomes as a passer. Instead, it was one of Mahomes’s less tangible but exceedingly crucial traits that really stood out in Kansas City’s win on Sunday: his complete and total inability to panic.
Mahomes seems to get better as situations get worse, whether that’s when his team falls into an early hole (like when he led the Chiefs to a 51-31 win over the Texans after falling behind 24-0), when his offense is backed up into third-and-forever (where the Chiefs have posted a league-best conversion rate going back to 2018), or when he finds his squad down two scores in the fourth quarter (as he did on Sunday). All great quarterbacks exude confidence under pressure, but the best of the best have the ability to get their teammates to believe that no matter what has previously happened, this next play will work. Thanks to a unique combination of extraordinarily rare physical talent and battle-tested poise, Mahomes has quickly earned a reputation for, well, inevitability. He’s joined Tom Brady as one of the gold standards in the “everyone knows how this game will end” category of quarterbacking.
Down 29-20 with 10:24 left in the game, the Chiefs found themselves in a tough spot as they took possession at their own 25-yard line. But Mahomes is Mahomes, so it wasn’t even remotely surprising when the 25-year-old quarterback broke the pocket on first down, scrambled to his right, and heaved a pass across his body and deep down the field to connect with Tyreek Hill on a 75-yard score that pulled the Chiefs to within two points. The rest of the game felt like a mere formality: Cleveland crumbled and Kansas City pulled ahead for good.
The Chiefs’ aura of invincibility took a slight hit with the 31-9 Super Bowl loss to Brady’s Buccaneers last February, and this year’s group may be thinner and less balanced than the teams we’ve seen in the past few seasons. But as we saw on Sunday, sometimes the mental edge is enough to make a good team a great one. Mahomes still has his team, and perhaps just as importantly, his opponents, knowing how his games will end.
Uh-oh, Russell Wilson learned to putt.
There were plenty of variables that went into the Seahawks’ second-half slump last year. Following Wilson’s midseason turnover spate, head coach Pete Carroll pulled the plug on the Let Russ Cook movement and opted for a slightly more conservative tack and stronger focus on the run game. But Carroll wasn’t the only reason Seattle’s offense tailed off down the stretch. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer failed to adapt to the schemes that defenses drew up to counter the Seahawks’ deep-shot-heavy offense (frequently two high-safety looks). And for his part, Wilson played poorly, struggling to find receivers when teams started taking away the deep shot opportunities he had for much of the first half of the year.
Wilson, who’s always had Happy Gilmore–esque range with his driver, needed someone to teach him how to putt. Or, at the very least, refocus on that part of his game. Enter: offensive coordinator Shane Waldron. Waldron, who comes to Seattle after helping design and implement the highly successful Rams passing game, has plenty of experience scheming up ways to give his quarterback simple, defined, gimme throws underneath. Last year, that was a massive and surprisingly integral part of L.A.’s offense ([cough] Jared Goff [cough]). And we saw a bunch of those concepts in Seattle’s offense on Sunday, ranging from screens to quick slants and everything in between.
The Seahawks, a team whose struggles in the screen game have long been a source of my own personal anguish, actually produced several well-designed screen plays, including one that went for 11 yards to new tight end Gerald Everett. They got rookie Dee Eskridge involved on sweeps and crossers. Wilson confidently peppered the underneath area when the defense left those throws open. His deep-ball prowess was still a big focal point of the game plan, as it should be, and he hit on downfield bombs to Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf several times in the game (including a 69-yard touchdown to Lockett). But Wilson didn’t try to force things into coverage or throw up ill-advised prayers down the field, as we saw him do with alarming frequency in his turnover-riddled midseason slump last year.
In other words, Waldron’s game plan was pretty much exactly what I’d hoped it would be. His play designs and situational play calls produced more easy-win, rhythm-boosting throws underneath, which helped Wilson excel while staying true to Carroll’s ideal identity as a balanced, physical team. Waldron also increased the team’s rate of play-action while getting Wilson outside the pocket frequently on bootlegs and rollouts. In the Carroll era, the Seahawks have seemed to rely on players over scheme (the famous Legion of Boom defenses were relatively basic, for instance, and I haven’t seen many people lauding the schemes from Darrell Bevell or Brian Schottenheimer’s offenses as especially complex or envelope-pushing). This week, Seattle still executed well, but it felt like it was Waldron’s scheme, and his savvy play-sequencing, that gave the team’s players a boost.
5. Cleveland Browns (0-1)
6. New Orleans Saints (1-0)
7. San Francisco 49ers (1-0)
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0)
9. Buffalo Bills (0-1)
10. Miami Dolphins (1-0)
11. Arizona Cardinals (1-0)
12. Las Vegas Raiders (1-0)
13. Los Angeles Chargers (1-0)
14. Dallas Cowboys (0-1)
15. New England Patriots (0-1)
16. Baltimore Ravens (0-1)
17. Green Bay Packers (0-1)
18. Denver Broncos (1-0)
The Saints really may have resuscitated Jameis Winston’s career.
I spent most of the summer highly skeptical of Winston’s comeback attempt with the Saints. For starters, it felt like Sean Payton had had a good reason for starting Taysom Hill over Winston during Drew Brees’s four-game absence last year―and that reason, I assumed, was that Winston just wasn’t someone Payton could rely on to not turn the ball over in bunches.
Winston’s performance in New Orleans’ 38-3 win over the Packers sure felt like a statement for the seventh-year pro, who wanted to prove to everyone that he’s evolved from a hero-ball-playing loose cannon to a refined, disciplined veteran passer. He posted one of the most ridiculously efficient stat lines of his career in the win, completing 14 of 20 passes for 148 yards and five touchdowns, zero turnovers, and a 130.8 passer rating. For some context on just how rare that game was, Winston became just the third quarterback since 1988 to post five-plus touchdowns on 14 or fewer completions.
It wasn’t just an anomaly of a stat line either, because Winston passed the eye test too (pun intended). He moved and slid about the pocket with aplomb and made plays in the face of pressure, crucially avoiding the types of back-breaking turnovers that came to represent his time in Tampa Bay.
It’s just one game (as Aaron Rodgers stressed afterward), but New Orleans has to feel fantastic about the potential a new-look Winston could bring to this offense. With Winston under center, Payton has the chance to field a best of both worlds–type of offense in 2021: one that exhibits some of that Brees–like efficiency, as we saw on Sunday, but also one that’s capable of stressing defenses more effectively on the vertical plane. As Brees quipped when reviewing Winston’s 55-yard touchdown toss to Deonte Harris for Sunday Night Football’s highlights mashup, “I guess apparently this is what the Saints have been missing over those last couple of years. … Let’s launch them, baby! Let’s go!”
The Cardinals could complicate things in the NFC West.
The Cardinals came into the season looking like the also-ran in an ultracompetitive NFC West. They had the appearance of a talent-studded group, but one whose lack of identity and direction under Kliff Kingsbury made this season a make-or-break campaign. Through one week, though, Arizona looks a whole lot more like a legit contender in the NFC than the odd team out in the division.
The Cardinals trounced the Titans on Sunday by thoroughly outplaying them on both sides of the ball. Arizona’s pass rush dominated the line of scrimmage, with the always underrated Chandler Jones netting five of the team’s six sacks on Ryan Tannehill. Second-year linebacker Isaiah Simmons shined, too, tallying a team-best seven tackles (including a goal-line stuff on Derrick Henry) while adding a pick and two pass deflections.
Offensively, things were even more promising. Kyler Murray played like a man possessed, tallying a league-best six big-time throws (per PFF) and five total touchdowns (four through the air and one on the ground) while distributing the ball to all the team’s playmakers. He was especially efficient against Tennessee’s blitzes, completing eight of 10 throws for 142 yards and two touchdowns against those looks, per Next Gen Stats. That line included this incredible touchdown throw from his back foot to Christian Kirk.
Kyler Murray hit a fade-away 55 yard throw, throwing across his body & I ain’t seen no one even taking about it pic.twitter.com/3UL6sgzgAA— kam (@kammooney_) September 13, 2021
In this game, Kingsbury’s scheme looked closer to the aggressive Air Raid offense I’ve long hoped for and but haven’t seen for most of the past two years, and Arizona’s upgraded skill group―which now includes dynamic rookie receiver Rondale Moore and an apparently rejuvenated Kirk―could help take some pressure off of Murray. It’s early, but few teams were more dominant in Week 1 than the Cardinals.
The Muddled Middle
19. Washington Football Team (0-1)
20. Philadelphia Eagles (1-0)
21. Carolina Panthers (1-0)
22. Chicago Bears (0-1)
23. Indianapolis Colts (0-1)
24. Tennessee Titans (0-1)
25. Minnesota Vikings (0-1)
26. Cincinnati Bengals (1-0)
The Nick Sirianni and Jalen Hurts marriage is off to a good start.
There weren’t an abundance of good vibes coming out of Eagles training camp in the past couple of months, and most indications were that the offense under new head coach and play-caller Sirianni and Hurts had struggled mightily to get its footing. The Deshaun Watson trade rumors that circulated, along with the fact that Sirianni refused to name Hurts the team’s starter until a week before the season, created plenty of doubt that the team considers Hurts as a long-term, foundational piece.
Well, one game won’t cement Hurts’s spot in the team’s Hall of Fame, but the way he played in the team’s 32-6 win against the Falcons on Sunday could portend a better-than-expected performance in 2021 from both Hurts and the offense at large. (Also, the fact that Hurts and Sirianni have their own secret handshake can’t hurt.)
The handshake between Jalen Hurts and Nick Sirianni:— Eliot Shorr-Parks (@EliotShorrParks) September 12, 2021
The second-year pro completed 27 of 35 passes for 264 yards, three touchdowns, no picks, and a 126.4 passer rating. He benefited from a QB-friendly game plan by Sirianni, who leaned heavily on quick hitters and screens in the short area that helped Hurts find a rhythm in the pocket early on (his average depth of target was just 3.6 yards, lowest among all starters this week). But it wasn’t like Sirianni was completely hiding Hurts in the offense: Hurts made big throws all game, completing nine of 11 passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns against the blitz, per Next Gen Stats. He finished fifth in completion rate over expectation (9.1 percent), displaying the ability to fit throws into tight windows. And, of course, Hurts also brought his game-changing rushing talent to the Eagles offense by running for 62 yards on seven totes.
Hurts has a long way to go to prove that his Week 1 passing efficiency was no fluke. But it’s tough to imagine a better start to the Sirianni-Hurts relationship in Philly.
There’s Always Next Year
27. Houston Texans (1-0)
28. Detroit Lions (0-1)
29. New York Jets (0-1)
30. New York Giants (0-1)
31. Atlanta Falcons (0-1)
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-1)
The Lions aren’t good, but Dan Campbell has them playing hard.
If I had to guess, I’d say that Campbell probably isn’t too big on moral victories. But for a guy who spent the offseason regaling the media with his philosophies on knee-cap biting and toughness, the fact that the Lions didn’t give up after falling behind the 49ers 38-10 midway through the third quarter has to count for something.
Detroit clawed and scraped its way back into the matchup, and thanks to a successful onside kick and a late forced fumble takeaway, put itself in a position to tie the game up deep in San Francisco territory with 17 seconds left. Their last-ditch efforts came up short, but I couldn’t help but appreciate the resilience of Campbell’s crew. The Lions aren’t anyone’s idea of a good team, but it sure seems like the players have bought in. After a disastrous Matt Patricia era in which the opposite seemed true, this should be taken as a big plus.