What we learned from Week 1 of the NFL season
By Tyler Dunne
How dare any of us doubt a team coached by Mike Tomlin?
There are only a few guarantees in today’s NFL: Tom Brady will eat his avocado ice cream and win Super Bowls. Jerry Jones will do something absurd to extend Dallas’ championship drought. And Tomlin will keep his Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl contention.
These Steelers hardly generated a decibel of buzz heading into Week 1. Heck, it was a shock Pittsburgh even wanted to bring back Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback at age 39.
The Buffalo Bills were the team primed to take the next step. Quarterback Josh Allen was the future of the position itself. And all Tomlin’s Steelers did was travel 200 miles north, strut into Highmark Stadium and remind the entire NFL, with one punishing 23-16 punch to Buffalo’s jaw, that they’re not going anywhere.
Which is, of course, what Tomlin’s teams have done for 14 seasons.
Was it pretty? No. But “not pretty” is when Tomlin’s teams are historically most dangerous. Above all, Tomlin’s teams smell blood.
That’s what happened on one ridiculous play call by the Bills at the start of the fourth quarter.
Facing a fourth-and-1 from Pittsburgh’s 41-yard line, the Bills wisely went for it. After all, this is the same Buffalo team that stuck its own head in the guillotine a year ago by opting for field goals against the Patrick Mahomes-powered Kansas City Chiefs in January’s AFC championship game. A little guts from their head coach, Sean McDermott, is a welcome change.
But what came next was beyond bizarre.
Allen turned around to flick a pass backward to Matt Breida, and cornerback Cameron Sutton was right there to lasso the running back to the ground for a 7-yard loss.
Four plays later, Pittsburgh pounced.
Roethlisberger feathered a 5-yard score to Diontae Johnson in the back of the end zone. After leading the NFL in drops a year ago, this was the catch of the day, too. Johnson displayed remarkable concentration in corralling the tipped ball in while dragging his back foot.
Moments later, cornerback James Pierre — the latest homegrown, undrafted future star in Pittsburgh — punched out what would have been a long completion to Emmanuel Sanders. Such was the theme. Every time the Bills were about to rev into 2020 form, every time a stadium dying to cheer on their Super Bowl contender was about to go bonkers, someone from a new corner of Pittsburgh’s roster quickly ruined those plans.
Two plays later, the Steelers blocked a punt for a touchdown to go up 20-10.
And after a Bills field goal put the pressure on Old Man Ben to finish this off, Roethlisberger did exactly that. A pair of vintage, slow-motion throws to JuJu Smith-Schuster (24 yards) and Chase Claypool (14 yards) teed up a game-clinching field goal.
The highlight reel was not long.
This formula won’t be easy on the eyes but it could bring ring No. 7 to Pittsburgh.
We just saw it in Tampa Bay. Brady is Brady but that relentless Buccaneers pass rush — above all else — is what had Mahomes sprinting for his life in the Super Bowl. Lest we forget, Pittsburgh raced to an 11-0 start in 2020 on the back of its own defense.
The Saints’ shellacking of the Packers isn’t the shock you think it is.
The white flag started waving early. With 11 minutes left, the Green Bay Packers pulled the reigning league MVP off the field. And while the final score in Jacksonville may seem jarring — Saints 38, Packers 3 — this should not be a surprise, no.
One team, the Packers, were held hostage by their quarterback all offseason. Their quarterback spent six months vacationing and relaxing and, no, Aaron Rodgers was not shy about rubbing this in the face of his own employer. He was on a quest of personal fulfillment or … or … something like that.
One team, the Saints, were ready for life post-Drew Brees because their starter, Jameis Winston, manically prepared for this moment. Laugh at all of the quirky training videos all you want. Winston has been eager for this second chance. With coach Sean Payton, a strong defense and a competitive spirit that can rival anyone in the league, Winston, the former No. 1 overall pick, outplayed a disinterested Rodgers.
Russell Wilson can still cook
Long before Rodgers hijacked the headlines for four months, there was another unhappy quarterback in this league: Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks nearly divorced after nine seasons. It was close, too. The Chicago Bears thought it was a done deal.
Instead, both Wilson and the Seahawks realized they were at their best together and everyone’s hope was that new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron would pull things together.
Did they ever in Week 1.
Facing one of the NFL’s best defenses, on the road, Wilson was sublime in leading Seattle to a 28-16 win over Indianapolis. The eight-time Pro Bowler finished 18 of 23 for 254 yards with four touchdowns, no picks and a 152.3 passer rating. Wilson’s 69-yard moon ball touchdown pass to Tyler Lockett was a thing of beauty, too, traveling 60 yards in the air.
Granted, we were teased like this in 2020. Wilson was lights out for a good two months. Then, the entire offense went kaput and Seattle nearly pulled the plug on an era. Here’s thinking this Wilson and this offense are both here to stay. Once business was taken care of, Wilson proceeded to have the best offseason of his life.
This may be his final season in Seattle, but what a season it could be.
— Rams 34, Bears 14: Rams coach Sean McVay put his job on the line when he traded Jared Goff — and a boatload of draft capital — for Matthew Stafford, who amassed a 74-90-1 record over 12 seasons in Detroit. Yet for one week, at least, McVay looks like an offensive guru again. Stafford was flawless in a 321-yard, three-touchdown performance Sunday night while Chicago kept rookie quarterback Justin Fields on ice behind Andy Dalton.
— Houston Texans 37, Jacksonville Jaguars 21: All Hail Jack Easterby! Or … something like that. The Houston Texans are a train wreck but they’ll take this one.
— Arizona Cardinals 38, Tennessee Titans 13: Nobody count out Kliff Kingsbury. He’s one of the smartest offensive minds in football. Arizona’s clinic of a win over Tennessee is a sign of things to come, not an aberration.
— Philadelphia Eagles 32, Atlanta Falcons 6: Right when you want to stick another fork into Eagles general manager Howie Roseman, his new-look offense shreds the Falcons. Jalen Hurts (264 passing yards, 62 rushing yards, three touchdowns) was unstoppable and Matt Ryan was, well, Matt Ryan. What a missed opportunity for Atlanta to hit reset at quarterback last April. In passing on Ohio State’s Justin Fields, all this franchise did was delay the inevitable.
— San Francisco 49ers 41, Detroit Lions 33: Again, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan proved he can plug anyone in at running back. Put that waiver claim in for Elijah Mitchell, fantasy players. This 49ers offensive machine could churn out 100-plus rushing yards with the two of us lining up in the “I” formation.
— Cincinnati Bengals 27, Minnesota Vikings 24 (OT): Turns out Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase can see a ball with no stripes just fine: He caught five passes for 101 yards and a touchdown in the win over Minnesota. This Bengals offense is going to be a lot of fun. As for the Vikings, overtime heartbreak is nothing new, is it?
— Los Angeles Chargers 20, Washington 16: Justin Herbert is the only quarterback in NFL history with 400 completions over his first 16 starts. Los Angeles should not apologize one bit for its grimy win.
— Carolina Panthers 19, New York Jets 14: Hopefully Zach Wilson was able to chat with Sam Darnold privately after the Jets’ loss to Carolina. The rookie quarterback was dealt all the same issues Darnold was in New York — shoddy pass protection, bad luck, defeat. And now Wilson, sacked six times Sunday, may be without his best lineman. Left tackle Mekhi Becton was carted off.
— Denver Broncos 27, New York Giants 13: It’s good to see Teddy Bridgewater dropping dimes. Bridgewater was discarded by Carolina and is starting for his fourth NFL team, looking like nobody’s castaway as he picked apart what we all thought would be a stingy Giants defense for 264 yards and two scores.
— Miami Dolphins 17, New England Patriots 16: Every team should practice strip drills every day it possibly can, Example No. 1,987. With the Patriots driving to win, ex-New England cornerback Eric Rowe ripped the ball out of Damien Harris’ grasp at the Miami 9-yard line. Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones looked sharp. The defense was as advertised. But just like that, one play decided the game.
— Kansas City Chiefs 33, Cleveland Browns 29: Did anyone really doubt that the Chiefs would detonate for 23 points in the second half to beat Cleveland? That’s Patrick Mahomes. One moment, you’re feeling good. Your game plan’s working. The next, the best player in football is pressured right and chucks a bomb to Tyreek Hill across his body for a touchdown. Hill gives you the peace sign. Mahomes, with one shoulder pad sticking out, jacks up the crowd. And your soul exits your body.