In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 2 of the 2021 NFL season, including:
But first, a look at a team with the potential to use a Week 1 loss as fuel for a deep playoff run ...
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The most important lesson the Cleveland Browns can take away from their 33-29 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs is that this is all part of the process.
If you want to be a true player in the NFL and hear your name discussed when it's time to debate the real contenders, then you have to find ways to not blow opportunities likes the one Cleveland had in Week 1. Yes, the Chiefs produced another breathtaking victory keyed by an assortment of awe-inspiring plays. The Browns did their part as well, by showing they still have a few things to learn about winning.
Anybody who watched that contest on Sunday could see why the Browns are so highly regarded this season. The talent is undeniable, with the depth of the roster as good as you'll find in the NFL. The next step for this team is understanding how to snatch those precious opportunities that appear during close games and then bury their opponents with deft precision. As Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski said after the game, "It is a 60-minute game, and you have to play a 60-minute game. You don't get anything for playing a 30-minute game. Mentality wise, we got beat."
The Browns need only look at their opponent on Sunday to grasp how hard it can be to develop into a championship football team. The Chiefs were the hottest team in the league in 2018, when quarterback Patrick Mahomes became the starter and their offense blossomed into one of the most prolific in history. The problem was that they ranked second to last in the league in total defense. They lost four games in the regular season that year -- mainly because savvy quarterbacks picked them apart -- and then bungled a chance to secure a victory in the AFC Championship Game when Pro Bowl linebacker Dee Ford jumped offsides on the play that would've been a clinching interception late in that contest.
These things happen. The great teams accept them, grow from them and then establish a knack for avoiding such self-inflicted wounds the next time around. As much as the Browns can beat themselves up over their mistakes on Sunday -- a third-quarter fumble by running back Nick Chubb, a ball slipping through the hands of punter Jamie Gillan as he prepared to kick in the fourth quarter and an interception by quarterback Baker Mayfield in the final minutes -- they have to know they'll likely be in similar high-pressure situations in January. The probability that they'll have to go through Kansas City to achieve their own dreams also remains extremely high.
The benefit of Sunday is Cleveland saw how great it could be, as the team held a 22-10 lead at halftime.
"We had everything we wanted," said wide receiver Jarvis Landry. "We were getting everything we wanted. From play calls, to guys just making plays. It's a team game. We'll put this one behind us. A lot of the messages the coaches have brought forward to us throughout the training camp, throughout OTAs, throughout our meetings, win, lose, or draw, you get 30 minutes. We got 16 more of these. Those 30 minutes are up, and we're looking forward to moving on to the next one."
That's the only way to look at it. The Chiefs spent an entire offseason wondering what could've been, before returning for the 2019 season and beating the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. The Browns have a little less than a week to rebound from this defeat before their next game, along with four months to prove that the first half of the loss wasn't an aberration. They also still have the confidence that resulted from last season, when they brought respect to a long-struggling franchise by beating the rival Steelers on Super Wild Card Weekend.
Browns defensive end Myles Garrett actually summarized what happened on Sunday as best as possible. "Down the stretch they were the more composed, more capable team," Garrett said. "They didn't have a lot of penalties and didn't beat themselves."
Someday, the Browns will be happy to hear a great team say similar things about them after a huge win. It's just going to take them a little more time to learn how to get to that point.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) It's time to begin the Justin Fields Era: The Bears are now past the scariest proposition involved in starting their rookie quarterback -- the possibility that the Los Angeles Rams, and more likely star defensive tackle Aaron Donald -- would maim Fields before halftime in Week 1. Chicago put Fields in for a few packages on Sunday night, watched him score a touchdown on a three-yard run and took their thumping in stride. So let's move forward and let the guy play full-time. It has to happen at some point this season, simply because starter Andy Dalton is only a placeholder and Fields has the type of athleticism that can make the offense more dangerous, even with a limited offensive line. The Bears also will be seeing much weaker defenses in the near future, with the Bengals, Lions and Raiders on the schedule over the next four weeks. Three of the five quarterbacks drafted in the first round are already starting (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones). It's time for Fields to join the club.
2) Sean Payton doesn't need Drew Brees to be a great coach: The Saints blasted Green Bay in their season opener. Jameis Winston enjoyed a splendid debut as New Orleans' QB1, throwing five touchdown passes on just 20 attempts. Their defense ravaged Aaron Rodgers. They also didn't let all the aftermath of Hurricane Ida deter their preparation for a game that wound up being played at a neutral site in Jacksonville instead of at home. None of this stuff happens unless Payton understands how to motivate, prepare and lead his team through adverse circumstances. Count this writer among the skeptics who wondered how the Saints would start with Brees retired, star wide receiver Michael Thomas sidelined after undergoing ankle surgery and a host of other potential distractions. Payton made all the doubters look like fools in Week 1.
3) The Steelers should be optimistic: Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin always deserves more love than he ultimately gets when people talk about great coaches. He's leading a team that has its share of flaws, but the Steelers just left Buffalo with an impressive season-opening win. We all suspected the Steelers weren't going to lean on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and that short passing game as much as they did last season. The smarter play was what they unleashed on the Bills on Sunday: a disruptive defense that pressured quarterback Josh Allen all game (despite blitzing just twice, per Next Gen Stats), opportunistic special teams and an offense that didn't do anything to lose the game. This Steelers team might be less explosive than what we've seen in the past, especially with an offensive line that remains a work in progress. That doesn't mean they can't compete with a more conservative approach to playing the game this season.
All the questions about whether Dak deserved that huge contract -- or how he'd play in his return from a broken ankle -- now can end. He threw for 403 yards and three touchdowns in Dallas' Week 1 loss to Tampa Bay, and he did it behind an offensive line that didn't have Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin available (reserve/COVID-19 list). The Cowboys' offensive line just took another hit with the suspension of right tackle La'el Collins but it feels like Prescott is in a place where nothing can slow him down. He's the early leader for Comeback Player of the Year.
Five sacks in Arizona's 38-13 win over Tennessee? Three in the first quarter? Dang, bruh. Jones lit up the Titans so viciously that he had offensive tackle Taylor Lewan publicly apologizing for his performance on social media. Jones was hoping to break the NFL single-season sack record (22.5) in 2020, before an injury cut his season short. He might just do it this year.
The combination of quarterback Matthew Stafford and head coach Sean McVay couldn't have started any better. Stafford threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns in Week 1, carving up a talented Bears defense with pinpoint passing on deep balls. There's still plenty of questions about how consistently the Rams can run the ball, but throwing it clearly won't be a problem.
After all that offseason drama, this is what Aaron Rodgers and his teammates put on film in Week 1? They scored three points, generated 229 total yards and looked completely incapable of consistently blocking the Saints' pass rush. That offensive line -- the one that includes two rookie starters and will be without Pro Bowl left tackle David Bakhtiari for at least another five weeks -- is officially a problem.
It's only one game, but Meyer just learned how hard it's going to be in the NFL. His Jacksonville Jaguars made a Houston Texans team mired in dysfunction look like a burgeoning playoff contender in a 37-21 loss. Next up: A Week 2 matchup against a team with a far superior defense (Broncos) and a Week 3 meeting with a squad who had a player rack up five sacks in the season opener (Cardinals). That's a daunting task for a first-year head coach who just watched rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence open the season with a three-interception game.
Head coach Ron Rivera spent the offseason preaching that his team wasn't good enough to simply show up and claim another NFC East title. He was proven right in a 20-16 loss to the Chargers. Los Angeles went 14 of 19 on third-down opportunities and controlled the football for 36 minutes. The WFT is supposed to be built on stifling defense. It better find some in a hurry, especially with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick going on injured reserve.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
What do you expect from the Ravens' offense after so many injuries have decimated the running back position?
GENERAL MANAGER FOR AFC TEAM: "I think Lamar Jackson can still potentially take a step forward this year. He's the guy who makes that whole thing go and he's the best runner on that team. All those new receivers should help once they're healthy. Rashod Bateman was a big loss early because he's such a crafty route runner and I know they were high on him. (Bateman is sidelined as he recovers from groin surgery.) The big concern they have is that the run game has to open up the pass for them because you want to keep Lamar out of long-yardage situations. That's always where he's struggled and the best way to succeed on third down is stay out of it. They have to do a lot of damage out of their base offense. So we'll have to see what happens with those new (backs) they brought in. Latavius Murray is the best of the bunch but I don't see Le'Veon Bell giving them much. The scheme might help some but he's really slowed down in terms of his play speed. And if he wasn't productive in Kansas City, I don't see why he would be productive in Baltimore."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 2 (arrows reflect movement from last week's edition):
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Tampa Bay over Cleveland.