What an amazing NFL game on Sunday night. Wait, let me re-phrase that… what an amazing Sunday night of NFL games.
Six contests had been decided by a single score before the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs even kicked off their Football Night in America classic on Sunday night. It was a wild evening from start to finish.
Dallas beat the Los Angeles Chargers on a 56-yard field goal from Greg Zeurlein as time ran out, the Los Angeles Rams edged past Indianapolis with a game-winning kick from Matt Gay and Arizona held on for a 34-33 win over Minnesota as Vikings kicker Greg Joseph missed a makeable field goal at the buzzer.
Add in the Tennessee Titans coming back from the dead to beat Seattle 33-30 in overtime and you get the sense of the drama being dished out left, right and centre on Sunday evening.
And then the Ravens and Chiefs took centre stage and served up another primetime classic. Lamar Jackson went into the game with an 0-3 record against Patrick Mahomes, dubbing Kansas City as his "kryptonite." He emerged as a 36-35 winner and the leader of a team that needs to remember its true identity.
Earlier on Sunday evening, I spoke with NBC's FNIA host Mike Tirico and we both agreed that the Ravens should not try to be something they're not. The whole offseason has been filled with talk that suggests Baltimore simply had to improve their 32nd-ranked passing game. I feel that is the case for them to go all the way, but Sunday night was a reminder that their physical and sometimes-freewheeling style can also get the job done.
Behind a makeshift offensive line and with a collection of running backs cobbled together off the street and the bowels of the depth chart, Baltimore rushed for 251 yards and three scores on 41 carries. Now, it helps your running game considerably when Jackson is picking up 107 yards and scoring twice on 16 attempts.
It was clunky at times from Jackson and I think it's time to stop hankering after the perfect passer. We should look at him like we used to look at Cam Newton in his prime – he is a weapon who happens to play quarterback, not a pure quarterback in the traditional sense of the word. Not that traditional quarterbacks are always needed to win in today's NFL – it can just be a bumpier ride with someone like Jackson.
Lamar, who lost two fumbles in a Week 1 loss to Las Vegas, was picked off twice and a third will not show on the stats sheet because it came on a two-point conversion attempt. He does not read defenses in the same way as Tom Brady, but few do. What Lamar does so well is play with the freedom of a kid in the backyard who just so happens to have been blessed with a lorry-load of Madden cheat codes.
That was evidenced on his leaping touchdown pass to Marquise 'Hollywood' Brown and during some amazing runs laced throughout the game. Beating Mahomes and the Chiefs was a big monkey off Lamar Jackson's back, but it was also a reminder of the DNA running through the veins of this Baltimore team. They just know how to win and they fight to get the job done.
The driving forces from the past do not even stay in the past in Baltimore. Legendary linebacker Ray Lewis came dancing out of the tunnel ahead of the kickoff to fire up the crowd and the players at M&T Bank Stadium. The problem is that Lewis is such a legend and universally admired among NFL players across the league, he likely fired up the Chiefs at the same time!
The Ravens responded with a very Baltimore-like performance. Former practice squad rusher Ty'son Williams slotted in nicely and the defense – a worry after Week 1 – came up with timely turnovers on an interception of Mahomes and a fumble recovery.
That style of play, while far from perfect, is going to be Baltimore's recipe for success in 2021; not throwing the football 50 times per game.
Derek Carr… Could it be that Jon Gruden is finally going to love the one he's with when it comes to his quarterback? There is no reason for the Las Vegas Raiders head coach to dislike Derek Carr when you consider the early-season form of the Silver and Black passer. Carr has been on fire through two games, leading an exciting Las Vegas team to a 2-0 start while throwing for 817 yards and four touchdowns. Henry Ruggs is coming along at receiver and things are looking rosy for the Raiders, especially when you consider that Carr's explosion has come against traditionally-stout defenses in Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
Buffalo's defense… The Bills fielded one of the league's best defenses in 2019 and while they slipped statistically in 2020, they did flash their true potential in a dominant playoff win over Baltimore. Despite a loss to Pittsburgh on opening weekend, I thought Buffalo's defense played well against Big Ben and company. In Miami on Sunday night, they took their game to another level in a 35-0 beatdown of the Dolphins as they recorded their first shut-out since Week 4 of the 2016 season. The Bills recorded six sacks, knocked Tua Tagovailoa from the contest and intercepted his replacement, Jacoby Brissett. That pass rush is a major area of improvement. Buffalo averaged 2.4 sacks per game in 2020 and they already have eight sacks in two contests in 2021. Add that to what will still be a potent offense with Josh Allen at the helm and Buffalo are definitely going to be in the mix this season. This was a good bounce-back.
Kyler Murray… Much like Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray is not always going to be perfect. But oh boy, he is fun to watch and hard to defend! He threw for 400 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday night as Arizona improved to 2-0 with a 34-33 win over Minnesota. The Cards could have lost and ended up looking back on Murray's pair of interceptions with regret. But they got a break at the end with Minnesota's missed field goal and that was deserved given the entertainment served up by Murray. His ridiculous escape act that led to a 77-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Rondale Moore is an instant candidate for his career highlight list. That is a growing and ever-expanding list and he's only in his third season.
Rookie quarterbacks... The three starting rookies Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones are making a case for sitting young passers (that's probably harsh to lump Jones in there but we could sub in Justin Fields, who had some struggles with Chicago). Rookie starters are 1-5 this season and Jones – the only winner so far – was helped by an outstanding defense on Sunday. And the fact that New York's Wilson imploded in a four-interception disaster. Lawrence seems to follow every good pass with a bad one and he and Wilson serve as reminders that good quarterbacks coming out of college tend to end up on bad teams. It's going to be a rough first go around for Lawrence and Wilson in particular. Their teams are not very good.
Joe Burrow… There were worries this summer over how effective Joe Burrow would be early in the season as he continued to fight back from the torn ACL he suffered late in 2020. Such concerns were brushed aside in Week 1 as Burrow looked sharp in an overtime win over Minnesota. The worries would have returned on Sunday night during a 20-17 loss in Chicago. But for a long touchdown connection with Ja'Marr Chase for the second week in a row, Burrow looked out of sorts and was intercepted three times.
Jameis Winston… The NFL gives with one hand and takes away with the other. One week after being one of the stars of the league, Jameis Winston found himself down in the dumps as New Orleans Saints – dominant winners on opening weekend – fell to a 26-7 defeat at the Carolina Panthers in a game that was never a contest. Winston took care of the football wonderfully in Week 1. On Sunday, he threw two interceptions and was fortunate to have a fumble ruling overturned. Jameis only threw for 111 yards and no scores on a bad day at the office. The key question that can only be answered with the passing of time is this… "Are the Saints going to be up and down like this all season long?"
The Fast Five…
- Rob Gronkowski looks fresher and fitter than he has in years and is joining teammate Tom Brady in giving Father Time a right good kicking. Gronk scored two touchdowns in Week 1 and added to his tally with another pair in Week 2. It's not that Gronk is taking over entire games (he had just four catches for 39 yards) but his connection with Brady is virtually unstoppable in the red zone. The pair seem to make much of it up as they go along which, of course, makes them very tough to defend.
- The Dallas Cowboys are playing faster and with more freedom in Dan Quinn's defense. And after creating four turnovers against Tom Brady in a Week 1 loss, they came up with more timely big plays against Justin Herbert in a Week 2 win over the Chargers. You can gain your yards against Dallas, but they've shown through two games that they are also going to have their own big moments.
- San Francisco's 17-11 win over Philadelphia was far from pretty but was based on two things that will remain constant for the 49ers… they are always going to stick with the run even if that area of their game makes a slow start. And they are always going to be fight on the defensive side of the ball. This was not a classic from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, by any means, but he can have quieter days given that San Francisco can lean on other parts of their team.
- Injuries are never a good thing for any player, but the last thing Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa needed was to suffer a rib injury during his team's 35-0 home loss to Buffalo. In and out of the lineup with Ryan Fitzpatrick serving as the relief pitcher in 2020, this was supposed to be the year he properly got going. After an up-and-down display in Week 1, we now wait to hear if Tua is out for a while. Inconsistent form and injuries are not going to quieten the Deshaun Watson trade whispers.
- It can't be easy being Mike Zimmer. His Minnesota Vikings lost a questionable Dalvin Cook fumble in Week 1 and came up short 27-24 in overtime in Cincinnati. And on Sunday night, the Vikings suffered a one-point loss to Arizona (34-33), just when the game was there for the taking. Greg Joseph had already twice made kicks of 52 yards but pushed his potential game-winner wide right from 37 yards as time ran out. The Vikings are an example of the fine margins in the NFL – could easily be 2-0 but now languishing at 0-2.
Fact of the Week
With one game remaining in Week 2, quarterbacks have rushed for a combined 1,215 yards - most through the first two weeks of a single season since the 1970 NFL merger. The 2021 quarterback rushing leaders through two games are Baltimore's Lamar Jackson (193 yards), Philadelphia's Jalen Hurts (144) and New York's Daniel Jones (122).
Finish That Sentence
Each week in this spot I ask readers - via Twitter - to randomly send me the start of a sentence and, as we so often did on our NFL UK Live stage show tours, I will finish the sentence with the first thought that comes into my head. Here we go…
From Liam (@YJBli) The best AFC team right now is… probably still the Kansas City Chiefs or the Buffalo Bills. If you asked me to put my house on the line, I'm banking on one of those two to be in the Super Bowl in February. But the Las Vegas Raiders cannot be ignored – they have put together wins over quality opponents in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. It's amazing that the AFC has just two remaining unbeaten teams – the Raiders and Denver Broncos – after just two weeks of action. Over in the NFC, there are only five teams with a perfect record, making seven across the whole league after just two rounds of games. Parity reigns in the NFL.
From Tom Marshall (@aredzonauk)… The coach I'm most impressed with after two weeks is… a double act of Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. Gruden has overcome a leaky offensive line and an injury to running back Josh Jacobs to march to 2-0. And so much of that early-season success is based on the relationship between the head coach and Derek Carr, his talented but often-under-fire quarterback Derek Carr. Bradley took over a defense that was a real worry heading into 2021 but through two games, his group has pressured opposing quarterbacks on 38 percent of drops. The Raiders are not a defensive powerhouse yet, but this has been much better in 2021.
From Richard Sims (@simsini)… The total number of touchdown passes Tom Brady will throw this season is… definitely going to be north of 60, which would smash Peyton Manning's single season record of 55 set with the Denver Broncos in 2013. I don't think Brady will need the extra game to break the mark and will be sat down in Week 18 as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rest key men ahead of the playoffs. Peyton played wire to wire to set that mark in 2013. Brady could likely take a week or two off and still break it. With a career-best nine touchdown passes to start the season, Brady is on pace for 76.5 touchdown passes in 2021. I've run out of words to describe how incredible that is given that Brady is 44 and four years older than the next-oldest player in the NFL. We are witnessing something truly special.
From Ioan Smith (@movedaverage)… The Jets will need to add a paranormal investigation and elimination coordinator to their front office…_ because the kid is seeing all the ghosts that Sam Darnold insisted were in that building and on that field at MetLife Stadium. Zach Wilson is going to be good, I think, but he needs to quit pressing so much this early in his career when he doesn't have the horses to run with. The rookie tried to go toe to toe with Bill Belichick and there is only ever going to be one winner in that scenario. Give him time, Jets fans. But it will certainly take time, that's for sure.
Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel was left pondering his team's culture after an embarrassing home loss to Arizona in Week 1. He can be proud of the fight his squad showed up in Seattle, playing in a game without star offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, who was injured in pre-game warmups. Tennessee dug deep. They trailed 30-16 early in the fourth quarter and then remembered that their culture and identity was all wrapped up neatly in Derrick Henry, who ended the day with 182 rushing yards and three touchdowns; powering a 33-30 overtime win. In today's pass-happy NFL, the Titans are happy to buck that trend with Henry, who scored on runs covering nine, 60 and one yards.