Who recalls how the 2022 NFL season began?
Here’s a refresher. In Week One, Buffalo travelled to Los Angeles where they trounced the defending Super Bowl champion Rams 31-to-10. The following week, the Bills pounded the AFC South champion Tennessee Titans 41-to-7… Two wins over two quality opponents by a combined score of 72-to-17.
“Cancel the rest of the season and proclaim Buffalo Super Bowl Champions???” Declare Josh Allen MVP and Sean McDermott NFL Coach of the Year?
Opening Day results tend to generate out-of-proportion responses. Yes, last Thursday, the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs lost a nationally-televised home game to Detroit 21-to-20. And, yes, KC wide receiver Kadarius Toney should probably return his game check! But as I pointed out in my Pre-Season Blog prior to all last week's games, NFL campaigns are marathons, not sprints.
These things observed, Week One 2023 did contain a handful of Statement Games, several significant outcomes both good and bad. Make what you want of these, but several were downright ominous—and one proved to be very costly!
In the category “These Teams May Not Suck After All,” I was shocked by the Rams’ performance on the road in Seattle. It appears Matt Stafford can connect with his cell-phone addicted teammates—and Aaron Donald can still inspire fear in enemy passers. Quoting Seattle QB Geno Smith after Donald slipped a block and took a dead run at Geno… “Oh my God!” A Super Bowl return for John McVay’s 2023 Rams? Doubtful, but perhaps not a complete collapse either.
As for the Packers’ imminent demise following Aaron Rodgers’ departure, can you say Jordan Love? In his first NFL start, the fourth-year quarterback from Utah State threw 3 touchdown passes with no picks. Green Bay prevailed 38-to-20 in Chicago. Rodgers threw two incompletions for the Jets before suffering a season-ending Achilles tendon injury against the Bills in New Jersey’s Met Life Stadium. Ouch! Playoffs for the Packers? We’ll see. For the Jets?... I repeat, “very costly!”
Many pro football pundits predicted the Cleveland Browns would finish fourth in the AFC North. Most others picked the Cincinnati Bengals to finish first. Surprise!!! In a Lake Erie downpour, the Browns smothered the Bengals 24-to-3. Just hours after becoming the NFL’s richest player ($275 million for five years), Bengals QB Joe Burrow stunk out the place. He failed to lead his team to a touchdown before being unceremoniously benched. Worse, the nagging calf injury that cost the young QB most of the preseason is clearly still a factor. Keep an eye on all this.
Cleveland took full advantage. Browns’ new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz dialed up a Smorgasbord of fronts and pass rush packages to cause some major disconnect between Burrow and his pass catchers. Cincinnati managed just six first downs all afternoon. Wonder how much each one cost the Bengals? Looks like the “Elves” as Cincy receiver Ja’Marr Chase called the Browns, may, in fact, win a few games this season. Much depends on how quarterback Deshaun Watson throws the football. Stay tuned.
Moving on to “Teams With Ascending Fortunes,” let’s add Cleveland to a list that, for me at least, includes Atlanta, Jacksonville, and—of course—Detroit!
Atlanta rookie running back Bijan Robinson flashed some brilliance in the Falcons 24-to-10 win over the Carolina Panthers. The Falcons like to run the ball, and not only are they pretty good at it, but they’ve got the horses to do it! With both Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson (once he returns from injury) all healthy and toting the rock, Atlanta may beat the competitiveness out of and run the clock out on a lot of unsuspecting opponents this season. Definitely a dark horse team to watch.
Jacksonville’s third year QB Trevor Lawrence just wants to keep getting better. Last week on the road in Indianapolis, Jags head coach Doug Pederson saw his reclamation project take another big step, scoring a hard-fought 31-to-21 win against the Colts. Lawrence completed 75% of his passes in a solid effort that underscored Pederson’s faith in 2021’s first overall draft pick.
But more important to Pederson was Jacksonville’s defense, that according to the coach: “...really kept us in this football game the whole day.” Jaguars LB Josh Allen recorded three sacks and Tyson Campbell’s fourth quarter interception set up the Jags clinching score. Even 2022’s first overall draft pick Travon Walker registered a sack. If this promising edge rusher ever gets going, watch out for these guys! But that remains a big "If."
Earlier I wrote that Kansas City lost to Detroit. An even better way to describe this result is this: the Detroit Lions WON the game outright! Moreover, they deserved to win. As Lions’ head coach Dan Campbell said afterwards: “We expected to win… We’re a resilient team and we added pieces to this resilient team.”
Indeed they did, most noticeably Alabama Crimson Tide rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs, who led NFL in forcing missed tackles in Week One. Big deal, right? But Gibbs coupled with former Bears RB David Montgomery behind one of the league’s most accomplished offensive lines adds up to trouble for Lions’ opponents. They make Jared Goff’s play action passes to Amon-Ra St. John that much more effective. And a bunch of young defenders also made their collective presence felt. This team most certainly could win the NFC North division title! In fact, I think they will! There's a statement!!!
Finally, my "Super Bowl Contenders.”
Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s 2022 concussion problems might well have terminated the young passer’s NFL career. But instead of giving up, Tua turned to jiu-jitsu to teach himself how to fall and not bang his head. Said the QB: “For guys at my position… We don’t even get touched until the season starts.” And then, all hell breaks loose.
So Tua spent his off-season literally getting thrown around to learn how NOT to get hurt. He strengthened his neck and core muscles with one clear goal in mind. Quoting Tua again… “... staying out on the field … to help the team win games.”
Like last week for example. On the road in LA, playing the Chargers and their promising young superstar QB Justin Herbert, Tagovailoa threw for 466 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 36-to-34 Dolphins victory. The lead changed hands seven times. But at game’s end, Tua was standing tall. And so were the Dolphins. Not sure if Miami can play defense well enough to win the AFC title. But with Tua tumbling about safely, and Tyreek Hill and others toasting pass defenses, clearly they’ve got a shot.
In Pittsburgh, the Steelers offense appeared to have gelled around second year QB Kenny Pickett. And Steelers’ cornerback Patrick Peterson spoke of “tells” that he said might result in him intercepting San Francisco 49ers QB Brock Purdy.
Well let me “tell” you this: The 49ers might be the best team in the NFL. Brock Purdy is back, his throwing arm is repaired, and he’s as accurate this year as he was last. Christian McCaffrey looks even better running the ball. And Purdy’s pass catchers, particularly Brandon Aiyuk, aren’t too shabby either. Defensively, the 49ers limited the Steelers to 41 rushing yards and sacked Kenny Pickett five times. The final result: San Francisco 30, Pittsburgh 7. The good news for Mike Tomlin’s Steelers: they only play the 49ers once.
Finally, on Sunday night at Met Life Stadium, the Dallas Cowboys destroyed the New York Giants 40-to-0. That’s right, nothing! The first shutout of the season. On the road against a 2022 playoff team. And all this after the Giants, like the Bengals, made their quarterback, Daniel Jones, one of the richest players in the NFL! Bad optics indeed!
How did this happen? Seven Cowboys sacks. Three takeaways. A pick-six. And a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown. Apparently, all these things added up to a handful of new
NFL defensive records too complicated to describe here.
But more to the point, if Micah Parsons isn’t the most dominant defensive player in the sport, who is? His relentless pursuit of destructive perfection makes everybody around him better. A scary defensive performance by Dallas! Anybody in Philly watching?
Offensively, Dak Prescott only threw for 143 yards. But he did not turn the ball over. And ultimately, that’s a habit Prescott must develop and carry into big games later this season. Until he demonstrates he can, it’s also the only reason I can’t anoint Dallas the eventual Super Bowl LVIII (58) champions.
Besides, look how well that worked out for Buffalo and Josh Evans last year! Or for that matter, on Monday night in a Statement Game won by the Jets—albeit, a very costly one!