The Dolphins have an outrageously unrelenting offense. Watching them, you get the sense that an earthquake could split the stadium in half, and Tua Tagovailoa would walk into the huddle, Mike McDaniel would send Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle deep, and Tagovailoa would loft one of those lefty moonballs into space. Miami throws deep with more consistency, danger and abandon than any other team in the NFL.
The Dolphins’ delirious brand of football spoiled Kellen Moore’s pyrotechnic debut as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator and made for by far the most entertaining game of Week 1. Tagovailoa fumbled the opening snap, then fumbled and lost another snap inside the Los Angeles 2-yard line. The Dolphins fell behind four times. Tagovailoa threw an interception into the end zone. They just … kept … coming.
The Dolphins won, 36-34, as Tagovailoa passed for a preposterous 466 yards and three touchdowns — 215 of the yards and two of the touchdowns going to Hill. (Isn’t Chargers Coach Brandon Staley’s thing supposed to be, uh, defense?) Tagovailoa missed chunks of last season, including Miami’s playoff loss at Buffalo, after a scary bout with concussions. He said he briefly considered retirement. It had zero effect on his nerve. Tagovailoa led the Dolphins on a 75-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes, hitting Hill for 47 yards on a pivotal third and 10.
The Dolphins went 8-4 in games Tagovailoa started and finished last year. Beginning his second season throwing to Waddle and Hill in McDaniel’s system, Tagovailoa looked even better. The Dolphins deserve to be in the conversation in the loaded AFC.
Jordan Love was better than he had to be. The Packers’ defense, stocked with eight first-round picks, controlled Green Bay’s 38-20 victory over the Chicago Bears. The Packers need Love, in his debut as Aaron Rodgers’s full-fledged replacement, only to be efficient and limit his mistakes. Instead, Love mixed flawless decision-making with a handful of explosive plays, completing 15 of 27 passes for 245 yards and three touchdowns.
In their first game without Rodgers, the Packers scored the second-most points on Sunday of Week 1. Most of that was Love’s operation of the offense. The defense chipped in, too. The Packers were excited about second-year linebacker Quay Walker, a first-round pick out of Georgia, stepping into a larger role. In the fourth quarter, he sealed the game by intercepting Justin Fields and returning it for a touchdown, bouncing off a tackle as he weaved to the end zone.
Rodgers may be gone, but the Packers still own the Bears — and they will be in it all season in the NFC North.
The 49ers really are that good. The offseason placed San Francisco under a stress test. The 49ers admitted massive failure as they traded Trey Lance not even three years after trading up to pick him third in the draft. They needed to sign Nick Bosa to a contract extension and ultimately signed him to the richest deal ever given to a defensive player. They gritted their teeth as quarterback Brock Purdy returned from elbow surgery necessitated by a calamitous NFC championship game injury.
On the field? San Francisco is as dominant as ever, clearly one of the NFL’s best teams. In a 30-7 demolition of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 49ers were the most impressive team of Week 1. Purdy showed no ill effects from his offseason rehab, slowing down after an explosive first half but still passing for 220 yards and two touchdowns on the road, in soggy conditions against a defense that’s annually one of the best in the NFL.
Brandon Aiyuk usually is listed after Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle among the 49ers’ skill players, but he could be a legitimate No. 1 wideout on a different team. Aiyuk caught all eight passes thrown to him for 129 yards and two scores. McCaffrey ran for 152 yards, including a game-breaking 65-yard touchdown.
The 49ers sacked Kenny Pickett five times, three of them by ascendant, second-year pass rusher Drake Jackson. “We got kicked in the teeth today in a lot of ways,” Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said. In Pittsburgh’s defense, the 49ers are the teeth-kickingest team in the NFL.
Jim Schwartz might have been one of the offseason’s most important acquisitions. The Browns had one of the worst defenses in the NFL last season, particularly against the run. They fired defensive coordinator Joe Woods and replaced him with Schwartz, a veteran known for his aggressive style. They also overhauled their front around Myles Garrett, signing defensive linemen Dalvin Tomlinson, Ogbo Okoronkwo and Za’Darius Smith, along with safety Juan Thornhill.
In Week 1, the Browns’ defense appeared capable of carrying the team into contention in the stacked AFC North. Cleveland throttled the Bengals, 24-3, and held Cincinnati to 142 total yards and 2.8 yards per play. Joe Burrow, fresh off signing the richest contract in NFL history, passed for 82 yards. Coach Kevin Stefanski gave Schwartz the game ball.
The Bengals have started slowly even during their run atop the AFC, and Burrow missed the preseason because of a calf injury. Still, the Browns unveiled a completely different defense, playing more man-to-man coverage and unleashing pass rushers. Deshaun Watson (154 yards, one touchdown and one interception) still looks far removed from his peak. But Cleveland’s defense could be a force.
The Chiefs will be fine. The easy response is panic. The Kansas City wide receivers’ atrocious performance cost the defending Super Bowl champion a victory in its opening night, 21-20 loss to the Detroit Lions. But it is a much better bet that the Chiefs experienced a one-game outlier than a season-threatening problem.
Kadarius Toney, who let a perfect pass slip through his hands for a pick-six and dropped another ball that would’ve put the Chiefs in range for a game-tying field goal, will not submit the worst fathomable wideout performance every week. Rookie Rashee Rice contributed and will grow only more comfortable. Justin Watson is a field-stretching threat on the outside, if a one-dimensional one. They all will benefit from more space once Travis Kelce returns and commands attention.
One of Patrick Mahomes’s sneaky important strengths is his ability to connect with, and get the best out of, new receivers. It would be wise to bet on him, especially with Kelce’s return in the offing. Meanwhile, the Chiefs’ defense was stout against one of the NFL’s best offenses, even without Chris Jones. But the final drive showed Kansas City needs him back: The Lions ran straight at the Chiefs and ran out the clock.
The Jaguars have a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver. Calvin Ridley answered a question unprecedented in modern NFL history: What does it look like when a player returns from a year-long gambling suspension? Ridley came back in peak form, catching eight passes for 101 yards and a touchdown in his first game since October 2021. “Not a surprise to me,” quarterback Trevor Lawrence said.
Christian Kirk had an excellent season last year after signing a big free agent contract, but he was underqualified as a No. 1 wideout. Now that Ridley has arrived, Kirk can be an overqualified No. 2 option. Factoring in tight end Evan Engram, steady Zay Jones and Travis Etienne out of the backfield, Lawrence will have an elite cadre of pass catchers.
The Jaguars could be the surest bet to win a division in the NFL. The Titans are the Jaguars’ primary competition in the AFC South, and Tennessee suffered a scrappy, 16-15 loss in New Orleans. Jacksonville already has a one-game lead on every team in what could be an otherwise woeful division.
The Cowboys’ pass rush is overwhelming. Dallas crushed the New York Giants, 40-0, in a way that isn’t exactly sustainable. The Cowboys scored early on touchdown returns of a blocked field goal attempt and an interception. They cannot count on non-offensive touchdowns. But they can count on the ferocious pass rush that prevented the Giants from cobbling together anything that resembled a coherent offensive plan.
The Cowboys bullied the Giants’ offensive line and battered quarterback Daniel Jones. They are built to create big plays, such as the pick-six Trevon Diggs forced by blasting a pass out clean out of Saquon Barkley’s hands and into the arms of teammate DaRon Bland. They also are built to make life hell for opposing quarterbacks.
Micah Parsons immediately showed the effects of moving full-time to rushing the passer rather than playing part-time as a middle linebacker. DeMarcus Lawrence, Osa Odighizuwa, Sam Williams, Dante Fowler Jr. and Dorrance Armstrong are big, strong rushers who can win the one-on-one matchups that playing next to Parsons creates for them. The Cowboys sacked Jones seven times, and he won’t be the last quarterback whose day they ruin.
The Ravens’ offense has work to do. But Baltimore also has potential. The Ravens’ 25-9 victory over the Texans was never in doubt, but their reworked offense had an uneven beginning under new coordinator Todd Monken. There was good (electric rookie wide receiver Zay Flowers), bad (Lamar Jackson’s production) and crushing (running back J.K. Dobbins, playing in the final year of his contract, tore his Achilles’ tendon and is out for the year).
Patrick Queen nearly in tears talking about J.K. Dobbins injury. “It’s just tough.”
— Jeff Zrebiec (@jeffzrebiec) September 10, 2023
Odell Beckham Jr., the Ravens’ flashiest offseason signing, was largely absent. His first of two catches didn’t come until late in the third quarter, although he did draw a pass interference penalty inside the 5-yard line that set up a touchdown. Playing more from the pocket than in past seasons, Jackson completed 17 of 22 passes for 169 yards. But he also fumbled twice, took four sacks and rarely pushed the ball downfield.
There were bright spots, too, starting with Flowers, whom the Ravens drafted in the first round. He caught nine of 10 targets for 78 yards in his debut, leading a wide receiving corps that caught 15 passes — more than Baltimore wideouts caught in any game last year. Tight end Mark Andrews sat out because of a quadriceps injury suffered during training camp, and once he returns, Jackson will have his top target. “We had our ups and downs,” Jackson told reporters afterward. “The sky is the limit, though.”
The NFC West is upside down. The Seattle Seahawks spent their offseason bolstering a playoff roster with two top-20 draft picks and several key defensive additions. The Los Angeles Rams watched as Coach Sean McVay again openly contemplated early retirement, heard assumptions they were tanking to draft a top quarterback and then placed wide receiver Cooper Kupp on injured reserve.
They conspired Sunday to create the most stunning result of the week. The Rams thumped the Seahawks, 30-13, as Matthew Stafford proved he still has something left in his 35-year-old right arm and a defense made of Aaron Donald and spare parts smothered Seattle. Stafford passed for 334 yards, and the Rams outscored the Seahawks 23-0 in the second half.
McVay designed an offense around unheralded wide receivers. Tutu Atwell, a third-year wideout who had mostly disappointed since the Rams took him in the second round, caught six passes for 119 yards. Puka Nacua, a fifth-round pick out of BYU, may have been the rookie of the week, catching 10 passes for 119 yards. On defense, coordinator Raheem Morris’s unit held Geno Smith to 112 yards and allowed one play longer than 15 yards. The Seahawks have some searching to do, and the Rams may be a factor this season.
Baker Mayfield lives. Mayfield achieved an uncommon feat just by stepping on the field Sunday. Having beaten out Kyle Trask to be Tampa Bay’s starting quarterback, Mayfield started a season opener for the third straight year with a different team — and that doesn’t even count his brief stint with the Rams last season.
The Buccaneers are not expected to do much in their first season post-Tom Brady, but Mayfield led them to an opening road victory against a team that won 13 games last season. In a 20-17 surprise, Mayfield passed for just 173 yards, but he avoided mistakes and made two crucial plays when the Bucs needed them. On third and three as the Bucs tried to kill the clock late, Mayfield scrambled, lowered his shoulder and ran over a cornerback for a first down along the sideline. Three plays later, he found Chris Godwin for a first down on third and 10 to seal the victory.
The Bucs have been discounted as a contender as they regroup following Brady’s retirement. But they still have ample talent; Mike Evans, Godwin, Vita Vea and Devin White, among others, are still here. If Mayfield can manage games, Tampa Bay could hang in an underwhelming NFC South.