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Debrief: Tracking Week 1 storylines that actually matter

The quality of play was normal. The amount of injuries was normal. Even the trio of spicy upsets (hello, Jacksonville, Washington and Arizona) was normal. If the lack of an offseason program and preseason games made an appreciable difference in Week 1, it was difficult to see.

The lack of home crowds will take some getting used to -- Aaron Donald said Sunday Night Football felt like a scrimmage while he treated the Cowboys like his scout team -- but otherwise, the football looked like it would in a standard opening Sunday, which is to say it was eclectic. I'm always in favor of allowing teams and players to find themselves in September before judging too harshly, and that is doubly true during a pandemic.

With that in mind, this week's Debrief will focus on the stories from Week 1 that truly matter.

1) The injuries to tight end Blake Jarwin and linebacker Leighton Vander Esch will hurt the Cowboys more deeply than their disappointing season-opening loss. The Cowboys expected Jarwin to have a breakout season before he tore his ACL on Sunday night, and the drop-off at the position to Dalton Schultz is massive. (Dak Prescott threw to Schultz four times for a total of 11 yards in the loss to the Rams.) This is hardly an offense short on pass catchers, but a weak tight end group will make the Cowboys more predictable.

Vander Esch's broken collarbone is another heartbreak. He had a strong pro debut in 2018, but he was not the same player last season before being sidelined by a neck injury that cost him seven games and required surgery, and now he's suffered another significant injury. I came into this season believing the Cowboys' defense would go as Vander Esch and fellow linebacker Jaylon Smith did, and now Vander Esch is gone, failing to even make it out of the first quarter. NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reports Vander Esch will be back in six to eight weeks, but it's fair to wonder how long he will last -- and whether he'll be able to play at the high level he did as a rookie. 

2) Aldon Smith already looks like one of the best free-agent signings of the offseason. In a world where average starting defensive ends make nearly $10 million per season, Smith's $2 million contract in Dallas is an outrageous bargain. Smith hasn't played in four seasons, thanks to suspensions issued for multiple substance-abuse and personal-conduct violations, yet he looked much like the player who took the league by storm back in San Francisco, where he racked up 19.5 sacks in 2012. If anything, he looked stronger in the running game. The Rams' game plan helped mitigate the Cowboys' pass rush Sunday, but it's going to be a force once DeMarcus Lawrence and Everson Griffen get going. 

3) The Patriots' offense will be as funky as you wanted it to be. Some folks had to see evidence that Cam Newton's running could be the foundation of the Patriots' offense before believing it could happen in Foxborough. Believe it. New England has the running backs, offensive line, quarterback and coaching staff to play in a Baltimore North style that will be the opposite of the Tom Brady era in every respect -- except for the quarterback's attention to detail regarding postgame outfits and social media posts.

The Patriots threw the ball 19 times in 63 plays in Sunday's win over Miami, with Newton running 15 times himself. Pairing option football on offense with one of football's best defensive backfields is a recipe for a lot of close, low-scoring games reminiscent of Bill Belichick's early New England squads.

4) Teddy Bridgewater will be a lot more fun to watch in Carolina. Bridgewater's 6.2 average depth of target during his time in New Orleans was like a Scarlet Letter, misread by others as a sign that all he could do was dink and dunk. His first start with the Panthers on Sunday was far more fun to watch, with the aDOT figure jumping up to 8.2, while his deep-ball percentage also more than doubled, according to Jim Sannes. Sample-size caution applies like it does to everything else after Week 1, but Bridgewater also routinely made the first defender miss. He's never going to be a running quarterback, but the athleticism he shows while extending plays before finding a receiver has been undersold going back to his Louisville days. The Panthers may not win a ton of games, but they are going to be a lot more enjoyable -- like they were in Week 1's delightfully entertaining 34-30 loss to the Raiders.

5) Josh Jacobs' fantasy owners don't need to worry about his backups. Remember all that concern about Jacobs giving up passing-down work? On a hot day in Charlotte, Jacobs refused to come out of the game while racking up 139 yards from scrimmage on 29 touches. Jacobs played 49 of 63 possible snaps, with Devontae Booker next in line among running backs with eight snaps. The second-year star has clearly worked on his receiving skills and was the best player on the field in Carolina in Week 1.

6) The Seahawks going extremely pass-heavy against the Falcons is a terrible omen for the rest of the NFC. Russell Wilson has delivered the Seahawks to the playoffs with one hand tied behind his back the last few years because of Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's conservative play-calling. After a somewhat tiresome offseason during which "Let Russ Cook" went from Football Twitter to Carroll's ears, it appears the organization has wised up.

The Seahawks and Cowboys passed on the highest percentage of early down plays in the first 28 minutes in Week 1, according to Mike Sando of The Athletic. This is one way to measure how aggressive a passing game will be, and it's a measure where the Seahawks have consistently lagged well behind average despite the presence of their top-five NFL passer. If the Seahawks continue to play to Wilson's strengths rather than simply wait for him to create fourth-quarter magic, they will look like a title contender.

7) Aaron Donald may have another level to reach. I know it's not smart to mine football takeaways from Hard Knocks, but I couldn't help thinking Donald somehow looked better than ever while ruining the Rams' offense in training camp throughout August. That preposterous level of play continued Sunday night, where he almost single-handedly destroyed the Cowboys with 10 pressures, despite facing constant double teams. That's the most pressures Donald had in a game since Week 16 of the 2018 season, according to Pro Football Focus -- and it serves as a reminder that at age 29, it's possible for this all-time great to get even better.

8) The NFC West could be the NFL's best division in a few years. Week 1's results confirmed my priors here, so I'm not worried about an overreaction. There is no other divisional coaching four-pack as strong as Seattle's Pete Carroll, Arizona's Kliff Kingsbury, San Francisco's Kyle Shanahan and Los Angeles' Sean McVay. The Cardinals' upset in Santa Clara shows there are no easy games in the division. There is continuity and talent at key positions for all four teams. They also enjoy a favorable out-of-division schedule, drawing the AFC East and NFC East this year.

With seven teams making the playoffs in each conference in the new expanded playoff format, it will now be possible for all four teams in a division to reach the postseason -- and the notion isn't that crazy with this division. Three teams making it to January from the NFC West feels like a safe prediction.

9) The Colts will look a lot different without Marlon Mack. Colts coach Frank Reich does not want Philip Rivers to throw the ball 46 times each week, like he did in a frustrating loss in Jacksonville. Mack's torn Achilles tendon, however, makes the team more one-dimensional. There were a lot of positive developments from the Colts' offense in a game where they racked up 445 yards with youngsters like receiver Parris Campbell and running backs Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines all playing well, but Rivers leading a one-dimensional attack inspires flashbacks to his San Diego days with Reich. Taylor can be a three-down playmaker, but the rookie's apprenticeship lasted all of one week.

10) Michael Thomas' high ankle sprain will further limit a condensed Saints offense. It's tempting to overreact to how poor the Saints passing game looked for most of Sunday's game against the Bucs. Tampa coordinator Todd Bowles' group was handled twice by the Saints a year ago, but this time, Bowles crowded the line of scrimmage, sent defensive-back blitzes and dared Drew Brees to beat them deep. Saints coach Sean Payton mostly responded by retreating into a shell, often using Taysom Hill at quarterback on key third downs.

It's strange to see a Saints offense that is so passive. Payton and Brees have become experts at working around Brees' arm-strength issues, but the degree of difficulty increases each season without a big-play element. To Brees' credit, he connected with tight end Jared Cook for 46 yards when the team needed it. Still, it's disarming to watch a Saints offense fail to have a wide receiver top Thomas' three catches for 17 yards.

Rapoport and NFL Network's Tom Pelissero report that Thomas will try to play through the injury, which sounds like a dubious idea. The Saints need Thomas at 100 percent late in the season, and this is an injury that can linger. As the Saints showed Sunday, they are capable of winning with a strong defense, special teams and situational football, just like they did with Teddy Bridgewater filling in for Brees last season.

11) The Ravens don't need to run well to embarrass a defense. Baltimore's ground game gained 107 yards against the Browns, which sounds respectable -- until you realize it was the team's lowest total in Lamar Jackson's 23 career regular-season starts. It's scary that the Ravens can still put up 38 points without much of a running game, but that's life with Lamar. The 23-year-old's 47-yard downfield strike to Marquise Brown, his touch pass for a score to Willie Snead and the 21-yard toss to tight end Mark Andrews were as precise and pretty as any passes Sunday not made by Aaron Rodgers. Jackson still led the Ravens in rushing (45 yards on seven carries), but it was noticeable how he used his speed to buy time to throw rather than always taking a rushing gain.

After an offseason of talk about the Ravens expanding their passing game, Jackson was 11 of 13 for 194 yards and three touchdowns on throws traveling more than 10 yards, according to Next Gen Stats. The threat of the Ravens' running attack opens up the field, but Jackson also hit a number of tight-window throws. It almost feels unfair to live in this time of Young Lamar and Young Patrick Mahomes. As with the fact that this entire season exists at all, I will not take it for granted.

12) Ben Roethlisberger is still Ben Roethlisberger. It took all of two drives for Big Ben to make it clear that elbow surgery didn't change what makes him special. On a third-and-7, Roethlisberger cycled through his first two reads before hitting old buddy JuJu Smith-Schuster in stride, just as Ben was crunched by two Giants defenders. Three plays later, Roethlisberger dropped a rainbow into the waiting arms of rookie Chase Claypool, 28 yards away on the opposite sideline. If you squinted, Claypool looked just like Plaxico Burress catching passes from a rookie Ben, yet another great Steelers receiver draft pick off the assembly line.

Roethlisberger warmed up further in a hurry-up drill to close out the first half and wound up throwing for 229 yards and three touchdowns, but the stats are beside the point. Ben played like Ben and the Steelers should be an AFC contender as long as he stays on the field.

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