Week 1 of the NFL season was thrilling, as always.
The Detroit Lions' upset of the reigning Super Bowl champions on Thursday night set the tone for a Sunday afternoon littered with upsets. And plenty questions raised for teams thought to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Like a late-summer rite of passage, Monday morning is going to be rife with overreactions on the talk radio airwaves across the country from the banks of the Ohio River in both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, to the the shadow of the Space Needle, and maybe even in the City of Brotherly Love, as well.
While some of the concern felt by contenders across the country who came up short in Week 1 is justified, it is far too early to panic over the dreadful performance authored by the newly minted highest-paid quarterback in the NFL and the Cincinnati Bengals.
Sure, the optics of being behind 24-3 and benching the starters, including the aforementioned Joe Burrow, for the final 5:00 of the fourth quarter are terrible.
As is Burrow passing for only 82 yards, with Ja'Marr Chase accounting for just 39 of them, on a day the Bengals' offense never quite shifted out of park.
This isn't to say the Browns don't deserve credit for a major opening week upset, because Cleveland absolutely announced that it is to be taken seriously in the hyper-competitive AFC North.
Jim Schwartz, the Browns' experienced mad scientist of a defensive coordinator, held Burrow's Bengals to just 2.6 yards per play, only six first downs (one earned via penalty), and sacked Burrow three times during a game Cleveland thoroughly dominated from first whistle to final gun.
Meanwhile, safety Grant Delpit looked like an All-Pro by erasing Tee Higgins, who didn't pull down a single one of his eight targets.
But, with apologies to Aaron Rodgers, Burrow and the Bengals — and overzealous pundits prepared to bury Cincinnati in the AFC race should probably "r-e-l-a-x."
Much like how Rodgers and the Packers turned things around, from a 1-2 start to finish 12-4 with an NFC North championship following his famous press conference, it's far too early for the Bengals to panic.
Remember, just last season, the Steelers bullied the Bengals in a 23-20 win over Cincinnati.
It's also worth pointing out that Burrow was sidelined before the Bengals even put the pads on during training camp, back on July 27.
Against one of the NFL's most disruptive front-sevens, an inauspicious opener was always a possibility for the Bengals. But, Burrow is too gifted, his supporting cast too explosive, to expect a 142 yards of total offense performance to be anything more than an outlier.
Here's a rundown of the biggest storylines, moments, and takeaways from the first NFL Sunday of the 2023 season, with insight from sources around the league:
First Down: Eagles Survive and Advance
The Eagles did something on Sunday afternoon that the Chiefs, who vanquished them in Super Bowl 57, failed to do in Week 1; survive and advance.
Philadelphia, on an afternoon the Patriots honored Tom Brady at halftime, held serve 25-20, after jumping out to a 16-0 lead before clinging for dear life amid 98 percent humidity and a resilient performance by a Patriots defense that forced a late Jalen Hurts fumble, and held the Eagles to just 4-of-13 on third down.
There will be a lot of hand-wringing in Philadelphia over Hurts' performance, finishing 22-of-33 with 170 yards and a touchdown to go with nine rushing attempts for 37 yards with a fourth quarter fumble caused by a bone-jarring hit by Jabrill Peppers.
But, not every offense fires on all cylinders every time out of the gate. And, yes, the Eagles are a bit fortunate to be 1-0.
Philly is also fortunate to have Jalen Carter.
Carter was a disruptive wrecking ball all afternoon, especially late when it mattered most. Philadelphia's biggest defensive play of all came when the No. 9 overall pick in this year's draft wrangled Mac Jones for a pivotal sack on the Patriots' final possession. The Georgia alum was in Jones' face all afternoon, providing the kind of pressure that Brady dreaded his entire career.
Meanwhile, cornerback Darius Slay, instrumental in Philly's Super Bowl run last season, made Jones pay for an early mistake, intercepting a pass intended for Kendric Bourne and returning it 70 yards for a touchdown.
In the NFL, there are no bad victories.
The Chiefs and the Bengals would love to trade places with where the Eagles find themselves Monday morning, even if head coach Nick Sirianni and Co. have plenty of corrections to make ahead of the Minnesota Vikings rolling into Lincoln Financial Field looking for their first victory on Thursday night.
Second Down: Bears Coaching Staff is Failing Justin Fields
New season, same old headaches for Justin Fields and the Chicago Bears offense.
Despite an offseason that saw the Bears acquire field-stretching playmaker D.J. Moore, prized free agent guard Nate Davis, and optimism about the continuity for Fields entering his second season in coordinator Luke Getsy's offense, Chicago's scheme in a disastrous Week 1 loss to the Green Bay Packers seemed to be boiled down to asking Fields to scramble for his life ... and hope for the best.
Sunday represented the chance for Fields and the Bears to show the world that the offseason's additions would spark the dawn of a new era for the Monsters of the Midway.
Instead, Getsy's unimaginative play-calling and an awful decision By Fields on an interception that Quay Walker returned for a touchdown made it fair to wonder if the Bears are doing anything more than jamming a square peg into a round hole over and over, but hoping for different results each time.
In a 38-20 loss that never quite felt that close, Fields was held to 216 yards with one touchdown and one interception on 24-of-37 passing, while rushing for a game-high 59 yards.
Sure, there might be an element of Fields struggling to read defenses at play here. And, his decision-making is suspect at times, such as forcing the ball into double-coverage on Walker's pick, but Getsy's play-calling seems miscast for the elements of Fields' skill-set and those of Moore and Co. that could make them dangerous.
Where are the shots downfield?
Where's the quick-game over the middle to tight end Cole Kmet?
Getsy's reliance on screens, the offensive line's inability to maintain protection, and instead relying almost exclusively on Fields' electrifying mobility are doing little to facilitate the 24-year-old making any strides as a passer or putting the Bears' speedy playmakers in position to be difference-makers.
Between the Lions' relentless competitiveness, and the Packers' explosive playmakers, unless things philosophically change in Chicago, the Bears could struggle to keep pace in the NFC North.
Third Down: Jaguars' Big Bet on Calvin Ridley Paying Dividends
Jacksonville enters the 2023 campaign, one year after taking the Chiefs to the brink in the AFC Divisional round in Arrowhead, with unprecedented expectations in Duuuuval.
Much of the Jaguars' optimism is centered on Trevor Lawrence making a Year-3 leap, in his second season under head coach Doug Pederson, and the arrival of Calvin Ridley in Lawrence's arsenal.
Sunday, Ridley delivered.
In his first game back from a season-long suspension for violating the NFL's gambling policy, Ridley caught eight passes for 101 yards with a touchdown, as a driving force in the Jaguars' 31-21 road win over the Colts.
"Calvin is a premier player at the position," an NFC North Scouting Director told FanBuzz. "He's a Pro Bowl talent, and I'm not surprised to see him have that kind of performance, especially with that quarterback."
Ridley hasn't played since 2021, when he took time away from football to help improve his mental health, but didn't waste any time rewarding the Jaguars' belief that his best days remain in front of him. The 28-year-old pulled down eight catches on 11 targets for 101 yards and a touchdown.
On an afternoon that saw the Colts, Titans, and Houston Texans all go down, the duo of Lawrence and Ridley delivered for the Jaguars, and this connection has the potential to be one of the more prolific in the league.
Ridley lived up to the hype in his Jaguars debut, and if his strong play on the receiving end of passes from Lawrence continues, Jacksonville has the pieces on both sides of the ball to make a lengthy postseason run.
Fourth Down: Steelers Face Rough Dose of Reality
That was a very un-Steelers like performance Sunday afternoon, against the reigning NFC West champion San Francisco 49ers, that Pittsburgh has to hope isn't a harbinger of things to come.
A hallmark of the Mike Tomlin era in Pittsburgh, a relentlessly physical and stingy defense, was absent in Week 1.
Perhaps more indicting than the lopsided final score, 30-7, is how effortless the 49ers' offense quarterbacked by Brock Purdy made it look.
At one point in the first half, with 5:09 remaining in the second quarter, San Francisco had out-gained the Steelers 200 yards to 1.
"There's big problems there," an AFC Scouting Director told FanBuzz, on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about another team. "They don't have anyone on offense that is a threat. Their offensive line is still an issue, and Minkah Fitzpatrick is the only quality defensive back on that roster. What you saw Sunday is what happens when you have average at best inside linebackers."
Sunday's game was over long before Christian McCaffrey demoralized the Steelers on one of the more impressive 65-yard touchdown runs you'll ever see.
How ugly did it get for Pittsburgh's defense?
McCaffrey finished with 152 rushing yards with a touchdown, Aiyuk set the tone with 129 receiving yards and two scores, while Purdy picked up exactly where he left off prior to January's NFC Championship Game by completing 19-of-29 passes for 220 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Adding injury to insult, the Steelers' offense, that managed only 239 yards from scrimmage, lost wide receiver Diontae Johnson with a hamstring injury.
There had been some optimism that if quarterback Kenny Pickett made strides in his second season, and the young pieces on defense quickly gelled, that the Steelers could be a resurgent contender in the AFC North.
However, if Sunday is any indication, Tomlin and the Steelers will have their work cut out for them to simply put a competitive product on the field each week.
Week 1 MVP: Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins
The Tua Tagovailoa to Tyreek Hill connection was fully operational by the game's biggest moments, including scoring the game-winning touchdown with 1:48 remaining in Miami's thrilling 36-34 comeback victory over Justin Herbert and the Chargers, in Los Angeles.
Tua to Tyreek. That's the reason for boundless optimism in South Beach, the reason the Dolphins are now legitimate Super Bowl contenders, presuming Tagovailoa can stay healthy. The Dolphins' battery connected 11 times for 215 yards and a pair of touchdowns, as Tagovailoa completed 62 percent of his passes for 466 yards with three touchdowns to two interceptions, en-route to a 110 passer rating.
Sunday afternoon was the kind of victory that gives the Dolphins legitimacy, that plants the flag that Tagovailoa belongs in the conversation among the game's premier quarterbacks, and also the kind of conference victory Miami will need tucked away safely in their back-pocket to determine seeding the AFC's gauntlet.
Week 1 Team of The Week: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Entering the 2023 season, the Buccaneers were a bit of an afterthought in the NFC South, but after going on the road and knocking off the Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay is flying under the radar no more.
What, with Baker Mayfield at quarterback, an aging receiving corps — with Mike Evans' contract uncertainty hovering like a dark cloud, and question marks at tight end, expectations were tempered for Todd Bowles' team.
But, Mayfield looked like a quarterback capable of a late-career renaissance against the reigning NFC North champions. Evans caught six passes for 66 yards and a touchdown, Chris Godwin added five receptions for 51 yards, and the Buccaneers' defense forced a timely turnover with Christian Izien's interception along the goal-line preventing a touchdown at the end of the first half, and Tampa looked fully capable of playing a brand of complementary football that will serve them well in a wide open division.
Week 1 Breakout Star: Bijan Robinson, RB, Falcons
Bijan Robinson gave the Atlanta Falcons a glimpse into the future, and what a thrilling future he gives it the chance to be.
Robinson proved every bit the instant impact performer the Falcons hoped the were selecting with the No. 8 overall pick in this spring's draft, when he took a swing pass in the flat from quarterback Desmond Ridder and juked a defender before bulldozing through two more Panthers en route to scoring the first touchdown of his career.
"He's a generational talent," an AFC South scout told FanBuzz on Sunday afternoon. "Just watch that play, and you'll see why."
Bijan Robinson's FIRST NFL TOUCHDOWN!
— NFL (@NFL) September 10, 2023
Robinson didn't finish as the Falcons' leading rusher, that was Tyler Allgeier, with his 75 yards and two scores. But, the promising rookie from Texas did finish as Atlanta's yards from scrimmage leader with 56 on the ground and 27 more through the air by catching all six of his targets in a 24-10 Falcons win.
The Falcons have built an offense that has the potential to be prolific around Ridder with tight end Kyle Pitts and Drake London playing key roles, but Robinson is the starring attraction. After Sunday, it's easy to see why.
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