Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 2 to Week 3.
There was a moment in the fourth quarter of Chiefs-Steelers on Sunday when I yelled at the image of Mike Tomlin inside my television screen for coaching a game that no longer existed.
Down 42-30 with under 10 minutes left, Tomlin called for a punt on fourth-and-7 from his own 44-yard line. This is the type of call football coaches have been making since Art Rooney Sr. first paid the $2,500 franchise fee to buy the Steelers in 1933. That call once made sense, but that was before converting fourth-and-7 felt as routine for Ben Roethlisberger as midweek injury drama, before Patrick Mahomes needed just 30 plays to complete six touchdown drives, way back when the Steelers fielded a defense they were proud of.
The Chiefs wound up taking four minutes off the clock on the ensuing possession before fumbling the ball away, but the damage was already done. Playing to your defense just doesn’t compute any longer, especially not against Mahomes on a scorching Pittsburgh afternoon. Mahomes and coach Andy Reid’s latest fireworks show was the most dazzling display in a week overstuffed with boffo passing performances. Twelve quarterbacks threw for more than 300 yards. Nine quarterbacks threw at least three touchdown passes this week. Asking the Steelers’ defense to make two quick stops against Mahomes was like asking Le’Veon Bell as nicely as possible to show up for work. It’s worth a shot, but it’s also completely unrealistic.
The September scoring crisis of 2017 is a distant memory as quarterbacks as diverse as Mahomes, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Blake Bortles and Jared Goff lit up the sky on Sunday. It all led to a fascinating week where it was good to be an underdog and even better to be a football fan during a frenetic 20-minute stretch around 4 p.m. ET while Vikings-Packers, Panthers-Falcons, Chiefs-Steelers, Texans-Titans, Eagles-Bucs and Browns-Saints all reached their dramatic conclusions.
There is nothing else in sports quite like the end of the early NFL games, when the dominant storylines of an entire week are set and when the seven-day forecast of a city’s mood turns. To set the table for the week ahead, let’s examine those Week 1 narratives that have already been upended, the sneaky-good early-season performers and the early trends emerging across the league, including Tomlin’s troubled Steelers.
1. The Jaguars aren’t necessarily better without Leonard Fournette, but the team is undeniably more unpredictable offensively when he’s out of the lineup. Jaguars coach Doug Marrone certainly drew lessons from the team’s AFC Championship Game loss, staying aggressive with the team’s play-calling throughout Sunday’s 31-20 win. The Jaguars finished the first half by throwing. They finished the game by throwing. Blake Bortles played one of the best games of his life Sunday by fitting the ball into tight windows, rewarding the confidence shown by the Jags while they allowed him to throw deep even when the team led by two scores with under four minutes left.
2. Cam Newton has led the Panthers in rushing in back-to-back weeks for a total of 100 yards. That’s good news for his fantasy owners and bad news for all those offseason articles about Christian McCaffrey’s ability to run between the tackles. Newton has played well overall and is completing 69 percent of his passes despite missing a trio of offensive line starters, but he needs more support.
3. The Saints have yet to play a complete game. They narrowly avoided starting 0-2 at home against Cleveland while failing to top 300 yards on offense against a Gregg Williams-led Browns defense. More than any title contender from a year ago, the Saints seem a little too surprised that they can’t just pick up where they left off.
4. Dolphins coach Adam Gase won’t mind winning ugly games well below the radar if the Dolphins can keep stacking W’s. Miami is a home win over the Raiders away from a 3-0 start to the season.
5. Philadelphia’s poor injury luck just won’t let up. While the team’s defense surprisingly struggled to get pressure on Ryan Fitzpatrick on Sunday, the team’s offense lost left tackle Jason Peters (quad), receiver Mike Wallace (fibula fracture) and running back Jay Ajayi (back) to injury in the first half in Tampa. Ajayi came back into the game in the second half and Carson Wentz will return from injury to start in Week 3, but the Eagles have struggled to get their best players on the field. They are very fortunate to have stolen the season opener against Atlanta or panic would be setting in.
6. In both Steelers games, Tomlin’s conservative coaching has led to a letdown. He wasn’t aggressive enough offensively late against the Browns. That wasn’t a problem during Pittsburgh’s pass-happy approach Sunday, but Tomlin trusted his defense too much against the Chiefs, leading to multiple questionable decisions to punt. The Steelers also mismanaged the clock while going in for their final touchdown, wasting valuable time in their comeback attempt.
7. It’s remarkable how easy Mahomes has made 10 touchdown passes in two weeks look. Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy have done an incredible job scheming players open, and Mahomes has shown great timing with his receivers. I gasped when Mahomes overshot Sammy Watkins on one play because it hadn’t happened all day. (The Chiefs still scored plays later.) It appeared Sunday that Mahomes had multiple open options on each play and could simply pick the most advantageous one. Both Travis Kelce and Watkins hit 100 yards after quiet openers, with Steelers safeties Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds both getting routinely smoked.
8. The Arizona Cardinals have yet to play a remotely competitive game. New coach Steve Wilks has been outscored 40-0 combined in the first half of his first two games. The Cardinals didn’t pass midfield until the final possession of Sunday’s game against the Rams and only finished with five first downs, the lowest total since Ryan Lindley and Beanie Wells were leading the 2012 squad.
9. Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp are off to a flying start in their bid to be the first trio of receivers since the 2008 Arizona Cardinals to top 1,000 yards each in a season.
10. Broncos scat back Phillip Lindsay became the first undrafted player to top 100 yards from scrimmage in his first two NFL games. When Lindsay gets in the open field, it appears as if someone pressed the 2X button on the remote control.
Week 1 narratives upended
1. Steve Sarkisian can step off the hot seat for a week. After the Falcons hemorrhaged their season opener in Philadelphia, Atlanta went four-for-four in the red zone against Carolina. The emergence of the Falcons’ supporting cast, like backup running back Ito Smith, rookie wideout Calvin Ridley and tight end Austin Hooper, bodes well for the Falcons moving forward.
2. Jon Gruden has aged more in a few months coaching the Raiders again than he did during nearly a decade in the ESPN booth. Sunday’s blown fourth quarter lead in Denver won’t help matters, but at least Gruden’s prized pupil Derek Carr made enormous strides in his second game under Chucky. Carr completed 29 of 32 passes, the highest completion percentage by any quarterback since 1950. They weren’t all dump-off throws either.
3. Adrian Peterson rushed for just 20 yards on 11 carries in his second game as a Redskin in front of a lot of jeering fans and empty seats. I believe Washington coach Jay Gruden’s ball-control offense will pay off in the long run, but the team’s lack of big plays was prohibitive against the Colts.
4. One week after everyone in the media overreacted to Sam Darnold’s debut, a correction felt almost inevitable. This is what can happen when a rookie quarterback isn’t gifted incredible field position and free points. Darnold still made some fancy throws against Miami, so hopefully the tabloids don’t overreact in the opposite direction.
5. Before the season started, the Bucs faced the toughest three-game opening stretch in NFL history, according to strength of schedule based on last season’s records. They are now 2-0 in large part because of Ryan Fitzpatrick, who somehow has eight touchdowns and 13 incompletions. His completion percentage (78.7) is even more remarkable when noting that he’s fourth in the NFL in average depth of target. I still don’t expect Fitzpatrick to keep the starting job into November, but there is no logic when it comes to FitzMagic.
1. The Jaguars haven’t missed Marqise Lee much yet because they have their No. 1 receiver. Keelan Cole has put up the production and wow plays of a receiver taken in the top 10 on the way to multiple Pro Bowls. Because Cole went undrafted out of Kentucky Wesleyan and catches passes from Blake Bortles, no one quite seems to trust it yet. Perhaps Cole’s sensational one-handed grab against the Patriots will wake everyone up to his potential.
2. The Colts already appear to be a dramatically different team under coach Frank Reich, including on defense. Second-round rookie linebacker Darius Leonard racked up 18 tackles with a sack, a forced fumble and a pass defensed in his second career game. Defensive end Margus Hunt is emblematic of a Colts defense that was too physical for Washington on Sunday. A Colts defense that is too physical!
Reich’s fingerprints are all over an offense that is emphasizing getting the ball out of Andrew Luck’s hands quickly. Luck is making safer throws and must be thrilled to suddenly find receivers who have early separation from defenders because of Reich’s creative play design. It’s remarkable how different this team looks this quickly into Reich’s reign.
3. The Browns don’t have a win yet, but the team’s defensive playmakers have made a lot of noise in both of their games. Forcing six turnovers against the Steelers and holding the Saints under 300 yards in the Superdome proves that there will be better days ahead for a group with difference makers at every level of the defense.
4. After the Rams added a number of big names to their defense in the offseason, it’s been second-year free safety John Johnson making the most impact through two weeks of the season. (Unless you count Aaron Donald, who is not human.)
5. It’s hard for anything related to the Cowboys to be sneaky anything, but the potential of this year’s defense continues to surprise. Byron Jones’ move to cornerback has helped transform the secondary, with his coverage against Odell Beckham during Sunday night’s win over Dallas an eye opener. Jones and Chidobe Awuzie form an excellent cornerback tandem. The Cowboys’ defensive front created consistent pressure again Sunday, with DeMarcus Lawrence looking ready to build on his breakout season from a year ago. Linebacker Jaylon Smith had his best day as a pro and even rookie Leighton Vander Esch flashed while replacing Sean Lee when Lee left the game with cramps. I’m not sure the Cowboys’ defense is quite good enough to carry the team to the playoffs with a formula of running and defense, but they have the personnel to give it a shot.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.