For a second straight weekend, the NFL slate did not fail to disappoint, as the morning and afternoon slates featured comebacks galore before the Packers picked up a must-win on Sunday Night Football ahead of their Week 3 matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The story of the weekend, however, was Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who elevated his game to new heights in a wild comeback win against the Ravens. When Tagovailoa threw his second pick of the first half and the Dolphins entered halftime down 28-7, there was every reason to be concerned that Tagovailoa’s many skeptics were right to have doubts, and a long week of questions ahead of a matchup with the Buffalo Bills appeared to be on the way.
Instead, Tagovailoa completely flipped the script, throwing five touchdowns to no interceptions and capping the game with a two-minute drive down 38-35 where Tagovailoa won the game outright, hitting Jaylen Waddle for the game-clinching touchdown.
There have been cases where red herring stats pop up on a quarterback – see Mitch Trubisky’s 354-yard, six-touchdown, zero-interception performance against Tampa in 2018 – but from watching the broadcast, Tagovailoa’s breakout performance didn’t have that feel. Trubisky put up those numbers in a 48-10 win, whereas Tagovailoa posted them while leading a desperate comeback in which Tua, not former league MVP Lamar Jackson, was the more poised quarterback. In fact, Jackson was fortunate Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard didn’t steal the game-winning headlines, as Howard dropped a potential pick-six on the drive that eventually put Baltimore up 38-35.
I’ve been a huge skeptic of Tagovailoa’s, and I appear set to lose a lot of bets against the Dolphins this season as a result, but I’d much rather be wrong in this direction than be wrong the way I appear to be about Russell Wilson and the Denver Broncos. I was exceptionally excited to watch Tagovailoa when he entered the NFL, but the Dolphins were a frustrating watch with him at the helm in his first two seasons. Now I can’t wait to get back into his film, because this Miami game will be a fun watch, and their Week 3 matchup with Buffalo suddenly sets up as the most interesting game on the NFL slate. The presence of superstar receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle has opened the field up for Miami, and whether it’s having a better offensive mind in Mike McDaniel calling the shots, or simply having a head coach who doesn’t pull him when the team is backed into a corner, it’s awesome to see Tagovailoa cut it loose and live up to the draft hype.
What is going to happen in Denver?
Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett appears to be in completely over his head. The offense can’t get plays in, can’t get lined up, can’t motion correctly, and has no rhythm. On top of that, Hackett compounded the concerns from his bone-headed game management in a Week 1 loss to the Seahawks in Denver’s narrow win over the Texans, with his indecision causing the Broncos to take a delay of game penalty on a field goal that turned into a punt, which I do not remember seeing in two decades of watching the NFL.
On top of that, quarterback Russell Wilson is playing horrible football, and his teammates are going to get sick of his “rah-rah” stuff if he doesn’t start throwing the ball significantly better. When Wilson injured his finger last season, he was on his way to leading the Seahawks to a victory over the Rams in a game that might have dramatically changed the trajectory of the NFL season, so it seemed reasonable to attribute his drop in accuracy after his return to the injury, but that appears to have been a misguided notion. Wilson’s ball placement was a significant concern in Week 1, and while box-score scouting can lead to poor assumptions, going 14 of 31 is never a good thing.
Denver now has to face a 49ers team that has Jimmy Garoppolo back at the helm after Trey Lance’s season-ending ankle injury. It’s a devastating development for Lance and the San Francisco organization, as Lance’s game needs significant refinement, and he will instead spend the foreseeable future rehabbing his injury instead of figuring out how to put some touch on the ball.
In the short term, it’s a bad thing for the Broncos, who now face a 49ers team with a much higher floor on offense. In the long term, it will be interesting to see what happens in San Francisco, and whether they can weather the storm after trading so much draft capital for a player whose only contribution in two seasons will have been picking up a needed win as the backup over the Texans last season. With the way Justin Fields continues to perform in Chicago, it’s tough to say general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shannahan didn’t misplay their cards. Lance might be taller, but Fields is as good an athlete, and his athleticism translates much more naturally to the football field than Lance’s, and the two are polar opposites as throwers. Fields can make throws from a variety of arm angles at a range of paces, whereas the only club Lance has in his bag is his driver.
In any case, the 49ers are set to contend in the 2022 NFL Playoffs with Garoppolo back in place, and that bodes poorly for a Broncos team that needed to get out of the gates hot. Denver’s schedule gets progressively more difficult as the season wears on, and there is no coming up for air after December, as the Broncos will wrap up with games against the Ravens, Chiefs (2x), Rams, Chargers, and Cardinals, who will have stud receiver DeAndre Hopkins back with magician Kyler Murray by then. If Hackett and Wilson don’t get things right, it may be a one-and-done coaching situation in Denver.
Kyler Murray is Marvelous
In Kyler Murray’s defense, who the hell would waste time studying defenses when you can hang on to the ball for twenty seconds and scramble in for a two-point conversion?
After a first half in which Arizona appeared on track to completely unravel, it was the Las Vegas Raiders who left this game pondering their future. There was a lot that went into Las Vegas blowing a 20-o halftime lead, but a big part of it was the Las Vegas defense running out of energy as they tried to chase Arizona’s dynamic signal-caller around the field.
It was a spectacular performance, albeit one that leaves questions about what will happen if Murray is banged up later in the NFL season and loses some of his dynamic ability, which has been a theme in recent years. However, the Cardinals were on the brink of irrelevance, and Murray brought them back, so for this week, it’s all positive.
As for the Raiders, the opposite is true. The highly-hyped 2021 NFC West produced three playoff teams and two Super Bowl contenders, but the more-hyped 2022 AFC West may produce two Super Bowl contenders and two also-rans. Miami’s emergence only makes the AFC that much more crowded, but fortunately for the Broncos and Raiders, the AFC North and South have completely flopped.
Can the AFC North, AFC South Buy a Win?
The Tennessee Titans may get the South a bit of prestige if they surprise the Buffalo Bills tonight, but so far, the only bright spot in either division is Trevor Lawrence and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals have to headline the disappointments, as both teams sit at 0-2, but Baltimore’s blown lead against Miami, Cleveland’s blown lead against the New York Jets, Pittsburgh’s dismal offensive performances, and Houston’s inability to secure the upset against Denver are hardly developments to cheer about.
In Indianapolis and Cincinnati, the issues appear to stem from the offensive line, where the Colts lack a legitimate left tackle and the Bengals have failed to improve on last season’s standard despite significant offseason efforts.
For the Colts, who got shut out by the division-rival Jaguars, it’s a situation that could lead to a surprise end of the Chris Ballard-Frank Reich GM and coaching tandem in Indianapolis. Their regime will always have the what-if of Andrew Luck hanging over it, because Ballard and Reich have done a heck of a job with this roster through unrivaled quarterback turnover, but if things don’t get back on track, it seems like this would have to be a re-boot.
As for the Bengals, Cincinnati’s offense has to be most disappointing unit in the NFL. Denver’s offense is an also-ran, but we had never seen this Broncos group coming into the season, whereas we watched Joe Burrow and his weapons play at an elite level for stretches of 2021. Unfortunately, their offseason efforts to improve the offensive line have been a flop, and even with the struggles of their division rivals, Cincinnati’s season is on the brink entering a Week 3 matchup with the Jets. At least they get a breather; the Colts get the good fortune of facing a Chiefs team coming off ten days of rest.
Quarterback Jameis Winston returned to his roots in New Orleans’ loss to Tampa Bay, piling up mistakes as the pressure built. It’s early to write off the Saints, but this type of performance makes it seem that Winston ultimately is who he is, and that general manager Mickey Loomis’s final all-in push in the NFL Draft will leave his successor with precious few resources to start the rebuild.
Of course, Justin Fields’ play in Chicago is a reminder that such a situation can be salvaged. The Bears are bereft of talent, and Green Bay controlled the game flow on Sunday Night, but Fields continues to show the talent to merit building around him this offseason. If the Bears commit a bit more to the run game and keep their overmatched offensive line out of pure pass-protection situations, they could be a tough out for teams throughout the season.
One last note is that the Lions appear to have some building blocks in place, and while quarterback Jared Goff’s four-touchdown, zero-interception performance may be more of an indicator that Washington’s defense is terrible again than a sign that Goff will be Detroit’s quarterback in 2023, the performances of running back D’Andre Swift and wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, as well as the talent on the offensive line, will make Detroit an attractive landing spot for quarterbacks ahead of 2023.
Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.