Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we recap another ridiculously competitive slate of games, with 11 of Week 2's first 15 games being decided by one score ...
» Let's be realistic, there are no must-win games in Week 2 of the NFL, even if that stat about 88 percent of teams missing the playoffs after an 0-2 start has become an early-season, oft-repeated bit of gospel. But make no mistake, there are some games of the you'd-be-wise-to-win variety in mid-September, if only because they can have such a dramatic impact on how the other three months play out on the regular-season schedule.
Like Pittsburgh's gritty 24-16 home win Sunday against Cincinnati at a rainy Heinz Field, where the latest edition of the NFL's most bitter and riveting rivalry played out in bruising, buckle-up style.
The Steelers and Bengals both entered Week 2 at 1-0, but Pittsburgh was determined not to allow Cincinnati to build an early divisional lead for the third year in a row, forcing Mike Tomlin's club to play a game of catch-up ball the rest of the season. Not this time, said the Steelers. These two AFC North favorites don't clash again until Week 15 on "Sunday Night Football" in the Queen City, and who knows what the landscape of the division will look by then? This time, September really mattered, as the Steelers sped off to their first 2-0 start since 2010.
"The last two years we've had to chase them down at the end of the year, and win out basically, and we didn't want that again," said Steelers safety Mike Mitchell by phone, minutes after Pittsburgh put the finishing touches on its home-opening win. "We had an opportunity to play them early in the year, and we knew how important this game was for us. We wanted to start 2-0 and 1-0 in the division, and make them climb out of a hole this time."
After last January's vicious 18-16 Steelers comeback win at Cincinnati in the first round of the playoffs became the modern-day standard for NFL blood feuds, the Steelers and Bengals had all eyes on them Sunday, especially from the vantage point of the league office in New York and a wary set of game officials.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the rumble. Both teams played a tough, physical brand of ball. "I'm sore just talking about it," Mitchell told me, but the chippiness and vitriol of recent meetings was largely held in check. There was only one personal foul called the whole game. (Which might or might not have had something to do with tone-setting Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict missing this game due to the three-game league suspension he's serving for the head shot he leveled against Steelers receiver Antonio Brown in the playoff game.)
"It's AFC North football and we knew we were getting ready for a dog fight this week," Mitchell said. "Everyone got their massage, everyone got their body work. Sometimes when you get into these hostile games, it kind of gets weird. Are we playing football, or are we in a fight? We were prepared for a straight fight. But we ended up getting a football game, and we won, and we're happy with that."
This summer, when I spoke with Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak about the contentious state of the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh rivalry, which he found himself in the middle of, in that hair-pulling sideline incident with Reggie Nelson last January, the longtime playing and coaching veteran chuckled and shook his head.
"Boy, it got hot fast," Munchak said. "All of a sudden last year, the hostility really reached a different level. That playoff game was so chippy, and the whole game was at a level I haven't experienced in a long while, as far as intensity on both sides of the ball. It was pretty wild."
"The hype will be a little bit more about this game (in Week 2), just because of the recent past. I know this: We need to win at our place in Week 2 and get the momentum, because we know we have to go back to their stadium in December."
The Steelers, my preseason pick to win the AFC, should be satisfied with the outcome of Sunday's festivities, and the road that looms ahead. They now own this rivalry, having beaten the Bengals in six of their previous seven matchups, including the playoffs. And they deftly avoided the prospect of a losing a second consecutive home game to Cincinnati, with last year's Week 8 defeat helping dig that aforementioned hole.
On a day when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was picked off twice and threw three touchdown passes, Pittsburgh had to grind this one out to a large degree. But it's the Bengals now who have themselves a legitimate Steelers problem, with the path to where they aspire to go blocked by the team in black and gold. Until Cincinnati can start handling Pittsburgh, it's difficult to see the Bengals ending that 25-season playoff victory they're working on.
"They can't jump out to a quick start on us this time," Mitchell said. "I think my team didn't really get caught up in everything that happened last year between us. We wanted to play a physical football game and win the game, and that's what we did. They're a very good team and they're at the top of the league, but I felt like we were in control of that game all day."
The Steelers are also fairly well in control of the AFC North at the moment, sitting 2-0 as one of the division's two unbeatens. Come December, Week 2, and the slim one-game cushion it provided Pittsburgh, could wind up making all the difference.
» The Steelers' superb defensive effort Sunday underlined a basic tenet that I believe to be true: if you can take away receiver A.J. Green as a threat in Cincinnati's lineup, the rest of the Bengals' offense isn't very scary. Green destroyed cornerback Darrelle Revis and the rest of the Jets' secondary to the tune of 12 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown last week, but he logged just two receptions for 38 yards this time against Steelers defender Ross Cockrell. That's coming up small when his team needed him to be large and in charge.
Pittsburgh found a way to score 24 points despite Antonio Brown being limited to four catches for 39 yards, with Roethlisberger being resourceful enough to hit three other different receivers with touchdowns (including the wonderfully named tight end Xavier Grimble).
» Two weeks. That's all the New England Patriots have to piece it together in light of their latest quarterback plot twist. Two more weeks. Then Tom Terrific returns from his four-game suspension and all will be right again in the land of Brady and Belichick.
Not to make light of Jimmy Garoppolo's right shoulder injury, which looks plenty serious (sprained AC joint). The Patriots and Garoppolo were shredding the Dolphins 24-3 when he went down five minutes before the half, and New England wound up hanging on for dear life to beat the visiting Dolphins 31-24 at Gillette.
But adversity doesn't seem to have the same effect in Foxboro as it does around the rest of the NFL, so don't weep for the quarterback-needy Patriots just yet. With a short week home game against Houston (2-0) looming, it's almost certainly time to craft a game plan to help rookie Jacoby Brissett through this unexpected early challenge. LeGarrette Blount probably gave us a preview of that in the second half against Miami, when he hurdled Dolphins cornerback Byron Maxwell en route to a 123-yard rushing day, with a touchdown on 23 carries.
Then comes a Week 4 visit from the Bills, and that's not something any team would cower from about now, especially the Patriots, who have owned Buffalo for a decade and a half. Can't you see it now? This thing is all set up for Brady to play the ultimate returning hero in Week 5 and restore order to the team's depleted quarterback depth chart, in even grander fashion than he was already expected to. Maybe the Pats are 3-1 when No. 12 suits up, but does anybody who has paid attention since 2001 or so think a 4-0 getaway is out of the question? Not me.
Then again, given New England's winning touch, it'll probably get two very solid wins out of Brissett and find itself with enough of a quarterback surplus to flip one of them for a high draft pick from some desperate opponent. The Patriots might yet still find the silver lining in the whole Deflategate saga.
Miami held Seattle without a touchdown last week for the game's first 59 1/2 minutes, then surrendered three on New England's opening three drives on Sunday. The Dolphins' offense and quarterback Ryan Tannehill were almost complete no-shows in the first half against the Patriots, then Tannehill completed 20 of his first 21 passes in the second half, cutting a 31-3 deficit to 31-24 with just more than six minutes remaining.
You never know what you're going to get from Miami, and that's pretty much been the problem since Dan Marino was still slinging them.
» Wes Welker wearing that Brady mask amidst the tailgaters at Gillette was kind of a weird, jarring visual, huh? The mask kind of had a spooky, evil "Chuckie" grin, and it's not even Halloween season yet. Welker's sense of humor is a little twisted though. As his subtle Rex Ryan "foot fetish" press conference of a few years back reminded us.
» One thing you can almost guarantee in the NFL is that no team can look as anemic for consecutive weeks as the Rams did last Monday night in San Francisco, in losing 28-0. So naturally Los Angeles won its celebrated home opener at the Coliseum, beating Seattle, its personal sparring partner, by an old-school-sounding 9-3 score.
Seattle's offense so far is just a rumor of the club that ended last year averaging more than 31 points per game in the second half. But give credit to the Rams' defense, which bounced back from its meltdown against the 49ers and held the Seahawks scoreless over their last eight possessions. The Rams have scored a measly three field goals in two weeks, but they're 1-1, and that leaves them in a four-way tie for first place (and last place) in the jumbled NFC West.
» Two cool moments from the Rams' return to L.A. relayed to me by a first-hand observer: When defensive team captain Alec Ogletree recovered the Christine Michael fumble that sealed the deal with 57 seconds remaining, he ran with the ball all the way across the field and into a tunnel to celebrate the moment with the fans, handing one lucky spectator the ball. That's when L.A. officially welcomed back its long-lost NFL franchise.
And then, in the pre-game, there was the sight of the shirtless Red Hot Chili Peppers introducing the team as it took the Coliseum field. That might have been an NFL first.
Also, this from the first-day scene in L.A.: For part of the first quarter, Magic Johnson folded his 6-9 frame into a very cramped Coliseum seat near the 50-yard line. It was so small, observers say, Magic had to position his legs sideways out in the aisle. Finally, ex-Rams great Eric Dickerson came down and helped relocate Magic to a more spacious club-level seat that suited his size.
The morale of the story is clear: If you think it's uncomfortable at 6-9 in the Coliseum, try 7-9 in St. Louis.
» I guess we can stop worrying about Carson Palmer and the Cardinals for the time being. And while we're at it, let's back off a bit on that talk about the Bucs being ready for playoff contention, and Jameis Winston being an early-season MVP candidate. Arizona dismantled the previously high-flying Bucs 40-7 in Glendale on Sunday, and in Tampa Bay's case it was probably a matter of buying into their own Week 1 hype. Young team, lesson learned, hopefully.
As for Arizona, there's too much talent in that locker room to not respond to last week's galling home loss to the Patriots without Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. Palmer's three touchdown passes and 300-yard-plus passing day was sorely needed, given that we haven't seen him at his best since last December. As for the Cardinals' defense, picking off Winston four times had to be a boon to its confidence. Winston's day went downhill rapidly after his exquisite pre-game dance in the team huddle.
» Gotta love the way Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak took the training wheels off Trevor Siemian's game in Denver's 34-20 dismantling of the visiting Colts. Yes, it was two fourth-quarter defensive touchdowns that provided the cushion for the defending champions, but the second-year quarterback out-played Indy's Andrew Luck, just as he came away a winner against Cam Newton last week. Not a bad way to start a career, with wins over a pair of No. 1 overall picks.
» So far that big bet Kirk Cousins made on himself this season is not paying off. Instead it looks like the Washington quarterback is struggling to live up to his $19.95 million franchise-tag salary, or mount anything resembling a contract-drive season.
Cousins wasn't the only problem in Washington's 27-23 loss to visiting Dallas, dropping Jay Gruden's team to both 0-2 on the season and 0-2 at home. But he was by far the most glaring issue, and, as a result, Washington is the league's only winless defending division champion through two weeks.
Cousins threw that horrendous and game-changing end zone interception to Cowboys safety Barry Church, and he already has two red zone picks this season after throwing 22 red zone touchdowns without an interception in 2015. He's completing just 29 percent of his passes in the red zone, and his other misfires included overthrowing a wide open Jamison Crowder near the 10, throwing into double and triple coverage trying to force the ball to Jordan Reed, and heaving the ball out of the back of the end zone on the final Hail Mary throw of the game.
Cousins is telegraphing some of his passes with his eyes, and making mistakes of judgment that he didn't make in his breakthrough season of last year. He threw for 364 yards against Dallas, but nothing about his performance was a winning one.
» Cousins' bad day was cast in harsh juxtaposition by the mistake-free afternoon turned in by Dallas rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, who continued the trend of young quarterbacks out-performing more experienced quarterbacks early in 2016. Prescott simply doesn't rattle, and has now thrown 75 passes in two weeks without tossing an interception — the most in league history by a rookie in his first two games.
Prescott scored on a 6-yard scramble, and threw for 292 yards on 22-of-30 passing, making sure Dez Bryant got the ball this week (seven catches for 102 yards). The Cowboys hadn't had a rookie start and finish a win since Chad Hutchinson managed it on Thanksgiving Day 2002. And don't look now, but with a home game against the Bears in Week 3 and a trip to San Francisco in Week 4, Dallas could be one of the surprises of the young season at 3-1 by the time October starts to unfold.
» He didn't do much else in the Dallas win, but that low, pleasant sound you heard from the Cowboys locker room on Sunday was running back Alfred Morris enjoying the last laugh at Washington's expense. Morris, Washington's former No. 1 rusher, wasn't retained by his old team and joined Dallas in free agency in a low-level deal. All he did upon his return to Landover, Md., in Week 2 was punch in the game-winning 4-yard touchdown on the ground, making sure the Cowboys sentenced Washington to last place in the NFC East at 0-2.
» You never know what $200 million is going to buy you in today's NFL, but so far the Giants have to be pretty pleased with their expenditure on defense in free agency. The big revamping in Gotham is getting results, with New York having given up just two touchdowns in two weeks. That'll work just fine as a season-long average on defense.
The Giants beat the visiting Saints 16-13 on Sunday in a win that was the polar opposite of last year's 52-49 shootout of a Saints win in the Superdome. The Giants made New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees look like just another guy, and I don't ever remember using that description to describe the Hall of Fame-bound Brees.
New York's offense was supposed to be its clear-cut strength, but someone give me re-write, because the script has been flipped. The Giants were sluggish on offense, committing three turnovers and never once reaching the end zone. Those two statistics don't usually produce victory. But hey, 2-0 is 2-0, and it's a beautiful sight for Big Blue fans who haven't sniffed the playoffs since 2011.
» I guess Hue Jackson knows he's really in Cleveland now. In two games leading the Browns, Jackson has potentially lost two starting quarterbacks, following last week's Robert Griffin III's left shoulder injury with this week's Josh McCown left shoulder injury. And you wanted to coach in Cleveland, huh, Hue?
All the powers of persuasion and optimism that Jackson can muster will be tested by his club, which is the NFL's long-established Bermuda Triangle for quarterbacks. No passer escapes the Browns with their good name and reputation intact. Or their health for that matter. This is the league-record 15th season the Browns will start multiple quarterbacks, and we could be looking at three different passers in three weeks if rookie Cody Kessler has to open in Miami next week.
It's almost an afterthought, but Cleveland blew a 20-0 lead in its 25-20 loss to the visiting Ravens, the third biggest collapse in franchise history (and that's saying something). Not even the big plays and early highlights of rookie receiver Corey Coleman and running back Isaiah Crowell could lighten the mood of the Browns, who have quickly assumed their accustomed position in last place in the AFC North.
» The logic-defying catch rule claimed another victim in terms of common sense in Houston on Sunday, when Chiefs tight end Demetrius Harris was saved a fumble when it was ruled upon review that he was going to the ground as he was making a catch. Never mind that he took at least three steps before having the ball knocked loose. He was going to the ground.
Disregard that you could have spelled Mississippi between the time he caught the ball and lost possession. He was going to the ground. Live, everyone watching saw it as a fumble. But no matter. He was going to the ground.
I know how the rule is written, and by rule, that was not a fumble. A non-catch. But to repeat myself, it's a dumb rule that doesn't pass the eyeball test, at least once a week. Whether anyone's going to the ground or not.
» Gutty little comeback road win for Marcus Mariota and the Titans of Tennessee. The Lions are one of those teams that can always find a way to lose late, but Mariota's 4th-and-5 game-winning 9-yard touchdown pass to Andre Johnson (remember him?) with 1:13 remaining was a nice building moment for the second-year Titans quarterback. Especially since he gave away points in Tennessee's disappointing home-opening loss to Minnesota last week. The Titans trailed by 12 points to open the fourth quarter and they hadn't overcome a deficit that large that late since Week 12 of 2006.
Mariota played better as the game wore on, and wound up leading the 13-play, 83-yard drive that gave the Titans their only lead in the game. He finished 25 of 33 for 238 yards, with two touchdowns and one pick in Tennessee's 16-15 win, and once again, it was a matter of a younger quarterback outplaying a veteran QB.
Detroit's Matthew Stafford made the biggest mistake of the game when he had the Lions driving for what looked to be a second consecutive game-winning field goal, to match last week's heroics at Indy. But instead, Stafford got baited by Titans cornerback Perrish Cox and threw a crushing interception with 22 seconds remaining, sealing the largest fourth-quarter blown lead in a loss for the Lions since 2007. It was Stafford's first pick in 212 attempts, and first interception of the season.
Stafford was hardly alone in drawing blame. The always inconsistent Lions drew a whopping 17 penalties for 138 yards, with three Stafford passing touchdowns wiped out on a single drive. Has that ever happened before in NFL history?
» How exactly is anyone supposed to cover Carolina receiver Kelvin Benjamin, all 6-5, 245 pounds of him? He's a beast that cannot be contained. People forget about Benjamin a little due to last year's lost season with a training camp ACL injury, but he has re-announced his importance to the Carolina lineup in the first two weeks. He caught seven passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns in the Panthers' 46-27 dispatching of San Francisco, a week after grabbing six balls for 91 yards and a touchdown in that one-point loss at Denver.
Put my Comeback Player of the Year on Benjamin and leave it there. I spoke with him during his rehabilitation last December and wrote a story on his road to recovery while the Panthers were seemingly on the way to the Super Bowl. He said he would come back with a vengeance in 2016, and he wasn't kidding. He's already Cam Newton's big-play guy, and that's with no disrespect to ultra-productive tight end Greg Olsen.
The Texans at 2-0 are quickly back out ahead in the less than scintillating AFC South, and the team that most think they have to beat out to claim the division, the Colts, are 0-2 and looking shaky. Mix in that Jacksonville's early efforts have produced two losses as well, and the Texans might be able to run away and hide in the South well before Thanksgiving arrives.
» Summer hasn't even officially ended and it already looks like a lost cause in Buffalo in 2016. No team had a worse string of developments to contend with than the Bills (0-2) during their offseason and preseason, and you can't like the early signs in the regular season. It's hard to read the firing of offensive coordinator Greg Roman on Friday as anything other than a panicky move brought on by the pressure of the franchise's league-worst 16-year playoff drought, and the signs are even worse for head coach Rex Ryan if team owners Terry and Kim Pegula are convening private meetings with players to in essence decide who Ryan's OC is going to be, as reported by NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. (Anthony Lynn, c'mon down!).
Ryan is now just 8-10 as the Bills coach, and with Buffalo facing games against Super Bowl contenders Arizona and New England in Weeks 3 and 4, rock bottom perhaps was not even reached in the team's dispiriting 37-31 home loss to the Jets on Thursday night. Ryan said he regretted not doing things his way in his final season with the Jets in 2014, and vowed to never substitute someone's judgment for his own if he's ever back in that type of situation. Even if firing Roman was his idea as he contends, there's enough smoke surrounding this move to make Ryan look like he was merely reacting to forces and events that he is clearly not in control of. And I suppose that makes him a Bills head coach through and through.
Saying the end of the Bills' brief Ryan era may be in sight suddenly doesn't feel like an overstatement.
» One of the misnomers of the early season is the supposed Raiders upgrade on defense. Uh, not so much. The side of the ball that was expected to be a Raiders strength has instead been something of an embarrassment, getting strafed by two NFC South clubs in a row. Oakland survived last week at New Orleans 35-34 on the strength of coach Jack Del Rio's bravado.
This week, the Falcons brought their own sense of confidence to the proceedings, blowing past the home-opening Raiders 35-28. Anybody seen any sign of Khalil Mack so far this year? Or Bruce Irvin? Oakland is making history so far on defense this season, but none of the right kind, having given up 528 yards to the Falcons and 507 to the Saints, for a ghastly 1,035 yard total in two weeks.
The Raiders have a talented young offense, but they won't win enough to end their playoff drought if they have to engage in shootouts every week. The pressure is officially on defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. in Oakland, and if it's not, it should be. He has got some better weapons to use, but his unit is not remotely dangerous so far this season.
» Gus Bradley just worked his 50th game as Jacksonville's head coach. And he just lost his 38th game, this one a debacle: 38-14 at San Diego, against a Chargers team that was reeling from a huge blown lead last week at Kansas City.
Jacksonville plays at home against Baltimore in Week 3, and then travels to London for a home game against the Colts in Week 4. The Jags' bye week follows the overseas trip, and we know from history that underachieving coaches can get shown the door during the off week.
» I was not of the mindset that the season-ending knee injury suffered by Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater last month equated to the end of Minnesota's playoffs hopes, or even their Super Bowl dreams. And I'm even more convinced of that after watching the resilient and 2-0 Vikings scratch out a three-point win over Green Bay in the opener of Minnesota's new stadium Sunday night.
No Bridgewater, and for the time being, no Adrian Peterson, who left the game with a right knee injury in the third quarter (an MRI is scheduled for Monday morning), still doesn't sink this Vikings team, because it can play some mean defense. Yes, new quarterback Sam Bradford becomes even more vital to Minnesota's NFC North hopes. And he performed admirably against Green Bay in difficult circumstances, even after leaving the game briefly with a hand injury. Bradford was a calm and cool 22 of 30, for 286 yards, two touchdowns and most importantly, no turnovers. That'll play.
But still, this is a Vikings team that takes its cues from tough-minded head coach Mike Zimmer, and Zimmer's background is on defense. He won't let this team wilt away, and the Vikings will go as far as their defense takes them. And as we saw Sunday night against Aaron Rodgers, Minnesota's defense is an aggressive ball-hawking unit, and they can gut out enough low-scoring, tightly contested games to be in the NFC Super Bowl conversation. All season long.
The Vikings were hopeful this offseason that their offense was ready to take a step up in weight class and compete with the NFC's best. But events may have dictated otherwise, prompting Minnesota's dependable defense to step to the fore. I think it's a strength of the roster that'll be up to the challenge.
But with two road games already off the schedule, the Packers are 1-1 and have all eight of their home dates at Lambeau Field remaining. That's a positive to not lose track of. However, Aaron Rodgers and ball security was a bit of an oxymoron against the Vikings, and No. 12 doesn't look completely in control or comfortable in an offense we're used to seeing him orchestrate like a maestro. Green Bay had just 65 yards of total offense in the first half, and made the game's key mistakes down the stretch in the second half.
Are the Packers in trouble? Not yet. It's a bit early for that. But they so far remind us of last year's grasping offensive issues more than they do the finely tuned machine of 2009-2015, and that's plenty reason enough to worry in Green Bay as September reaches its mid-point.
» Let the Eagles win Monday night in Chicago and watch Carson Wentz-mania engulf the NFL. Or at least the eastern third of Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. But seeing the Eagles red-haired rookie quarterback dissect the Browns at home is one thing, and going into Soldier Field to face a pretty decent Vic Fangio-coordinated Bears defense is quite another. Add in Wentz's debut under the "Monday Night Football" spotlight and the degree of difficulty climbs another notch or three.
This is where we need to cue up Bill Parcells reminding everyone not to "put the kid in Canton just yet," but Wentz looks like the real deal and I don't expect he'll crumble as the stage grows a bit larger in Week 2. If Philadelphia can give him time to work, he'll make some things happen and have Jon Gruden worked into a semi-lather by the mid-third quarter. Then observe how many people climb aboard the Wentz-wagon.
Follow Don Banks on Twitter @DonBanks