In past years, my 10 Takeaways have been included within my larger MMQB column on Monday mornings. This year, they’ll be published as a separate post each week. Here are my weekly notes and observations from across the NFL.
No one would draw up a fourth quarter like the Commanders had, but believe it not, they’re grateful for it. And eventually, Ron Rivera conceded that to me, when we discussed how the final frame started with Washington up 14–12 and quickly devolved with two Carson Wentz picks that led to the Jaguars going up 22–14, which ultimately set the stage for hosts to rally for a stirring 28–22 win.
“You know how many people said that to me privately afterwards, that it was the best thing that happened to [the players]?” Rivera told me, a few hours later. “I said, How can you say that? They said, Look, he bounced back from two disastrous interceptions. For him to come back in that situation, do what he did, that was pretty damn good. I was like, You know what? They’re right. They’re right. He stuck with it; he hung in there and he kept fighting.”
It’s one day, of course, and it wasn’t a perfect one for Wentz. He finished 27-of-41 for 313 yards, four touchdowns and the two picks. His team won, which is the important thing. There are a lot of things he wants to clean up.
But the truth is, he did answer some questions, mostly because the meltdown was there to be had, and Wentz didn’t just sidestep it—he flipped it on its head.
“Obviously there’s a lot you can’t control in this game,” Wentz said over the phone, leaving the stadium. “For me, you dig yourself a hole and you want to go fix it. You want to go make it right. But at the same time, you can’t do it all in one play, so it’s just, Hey, how can I stay confident and just go make the next throw, go make the next play? And just keep checking them off, checking them off, and next thing you know, we were rolling.”
How they got rolling is relevant, too, because it plays right into the plan that Rivera and coordinator Scott Turner had to maximize Wentz coming out of his experience in Indianapolis—a plan that would work to create better rhythm for him in the passing game and leverage his big-play ability as a downfield thrower.
The first was accomplished via play selection. Turner called just four runs in the 17 snaps that encompassed the two scoring drives, which allowed for Wentz to gather momentum.
The second happened, in large part, because of what was around Wentz, which is a big reason the Commanders thought this would work from the start. Between Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel alone, Washington has a skill group that can really run, get downfield and make real the threat that Wentz’s big arm brings.
“For sure,” Wentz affirmed. “I mean, quite frankly, I think they’d make a lot of guys in my position’s lives easy. And I think anybody in my shoes would be extremely lucky and extremely excited to get to work with those guys, because they’re all just different and dynamic in their own way. And, in some cases, very interchangeable because they all have speed, they can threaten the defense, they all do so much with the ball in their hands.”
In this case, with two big shots, it won Washington the game.
• The first came after Wentz connected with Logan Thomas to convert a third-and-8, which put the ball at the Jags’ 49. At the snap, both McLaurin and Samuel got vertical, which put safety Andre Cisco in a tough spot, forcing him to choose, and leaving McLaurin to run past Shaquill Griffin down the sideline. When Wentz launched the ball to McLaurin, Cisco came over to him, but the throw landed in the hole between Cisco and Griffin.
“Coach was feeling it, wanted to take a shot to Terry,” Wentz said. “They played a different coverage, but one we talked about all week. In that Cover-2 shell, Terry was able to kinda get in that hole shot, so to speak, and with his speed, I mean that makes it hard to defend. And we had Curtis running down the inside, so you put that speed on any safety, that puts them in a bind. That was a huge play for us.”
• The second came after Wentz dinked and dunked the Commanders 66 yards in 12 plays to get them to a third-and-8 on the Jags’ 24. And this one was simpler. Wentz saw man coverage, and had his matchup with Jacksonville’s Tyson Campbell covering the rookie Dotson, who would essentially shield Campbell from the ball before bringing it in down the left sideline.
“It was a double-move, and it was man-to-man on the backside there with Jahan,” Wentz said. “So that’s what we had talked about, that exact play against that look in that situation, and it’s nice to hit it the way you talk about it like that. That’s huge.”
And it wound up putting the Commanders up for good.
Which adds up to, for now, a nice start for Wentz in Washington, and what seems like a pretty good fit, too. The 29-year-old, for his part, wouldn’t go too much into how different this might be than Indy or Philly. He knows it’s early, and he doesn’t want to start slinging rocks at this point. But other people will say it for him.
That starts with the coach who welcomed him in March by telling him how he was wanted in Washington, and confidently told him on Sunday, after the second pick, that it was his game to win.
“Everything he’s gone through the last couple of years, it kind of feels like us,” Rivera said. “We’ve been stepped on. We’ve been pushed around. Every time, people listen to what other people say about us. And I just felt he fit in and he deserved to know that we really appreciated him, we really wanted him and we were happy to have him on our team. So I just wanted him to know that that’s how we all felt.
“He’s the guy we wanted to be here. We wanted him to be our quarterback. And we just feel that a lot of things that he’s gone through, we can relate to.”
Including the test they mutually got, and passed, on Sunday.
Saquon Barkley’s a Sunday hero to be happy for. I can remember when he was coming out of Penn State, how clean his medicals were—the No. 2 pick-to-be, one team told me, had the sort of report a kicker would have. But Barkley isn’t a kicker, of course, and running backs can’t get lucky forever. Barkley’s luck ran out, too.
In 2019, it was a high ankle sprain. In ’20, he tore his ACL in September. Last year, coming back from the knee reconstruction, he sprained his MCL, then his ankle. Which has added to a big drop in production since he won Offensive Rookie of the Year in ’18.
It also had to make Sunday that much more satisfying.
When Sunday’s 21–20 thriller, a win over the Titans, was over, Barkley’s stat line looked like something out of, well, Penn State. He finished with 164 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries and another 30 yards on six catches. He was the engine for the Giants when they needed him most and scored the winning points on a two-point conversion. And when it was over, he tracked down new coach Brian Daboll right away.
“He just competitive a MF—I can’t say it, you know what I mean?” Barkley said, laughing through the phone. “And you respect that. I knew what the two-point conversion play was gonna be, and when he called it, I knew he was trusting me to make the play. So that’s why when I went over there; I was emotional. I just said, ‘Thank you for trusting me and trusting in us.’ We were able to get it done.
“You gotta respect that [Daboll] said he was gonna be aggressive all week. He said he was gonna put it in players’ hands to make the plays to win the game. And we were able to do that.”
No one more so than No. 26. Barkley was fine in the first half, but it was really his first carry of the second half that got his day going—“With [OL coach] Bobby [Johnson], we had a very good feeling about that play throughout the week in practice. O-line executed it perfectly, was able to get me one-on-one, and we were able to pop a long one,” he said.
The third-quarter play caught a bunch of Titans defenders too far upfield and put Barkley in position to run right by three more, then dart up the sideline for a 68-yard gain, with Kevin Byard getting an angle on him and (finally) tracking him down at the Tennessee 22. Three plays later, Barkley scored from four yards out, to get the Giants their first points and to within 13–6.
“It definitely lights a fire in you when you’re able to break a long one,” he said. “It kinda gets you in that zone. It’s like if a basketball player’s shooting a three. You see one go in, and then another, and then you just feel like you can do everything. That’s really what it is, but yeah, the O-line did a great job and gave us the momentum. Football’s all about momentum. It’s a momentum game, and for myself as an individual and as a player, as a team.”
That momentum came, for sure. The Giants tied it when Daniel Jones found Sterling Shepard, who beat Kristian Fulton bad, for a 65-yard score on the next possession, then battled back again after the Titans took the lead back. A converted fourth-and-1 right after the two-minute warning set up first-and-10 at the Titans’ 15. From there, Daboll’s OC, Mike Kafka, called Barkley’s number three straight times to move the ball to the 1, from where Jones found journeyman tight end Chris Myarick to make it 20–10.
“I mean, as a competitor, it’s having that mindset—you want to be the one to finish the game,” he said. “You want to be the one to make the play. I gotta say thank you to Kaf and Dabs for trusting in me, and the O-line. We were able to get downhill, get vertical and get to the 1. And then [Daniel Jones] called a great audible and got the easy touchdown.”
Which is where the Daboll premonition came true. As Barkley said, the new Giants coach had told his players he’d stay aggressive, and it happened with Daboll’s decision to go for two. And the accompanying decision to get the ball back to Barkley on a shovel pass was effectively doubling down on a guy who’d been through a lot to get there.
In the aftermath, Barkley said he couldn’t remember the exact details of the play, on which he put his shoulder down and split a couple of Titans defenders, as the Giants caught a bunch of others too far upfield—“I saw two defenders and I knew the one guy was gonna go low, so I just put my body down, put my shoulder down and fell for the two yards.” But as he sees it, it’ll stay just one play, and one game, even if it seemed like a little more than that.
“It’s just one game. I have so much more planned,” he said. “I just gotta continue to keep trusting my process, keep believing in my teammates, keep trusting my teammates and at the end of this, we’re gonna be pretty happy where we’re at. Like I said, it’s one game, but obviously any time you can get a win in the NFL—it’s hard to win in the NFL—you gotta take advantage of it.”
Of late, those opportunities have been a little harder to come by for Barkley, and for the Giants. And this time, at least, they did take advantage of one.
This one did mean a little extra to the Chargers. And Brandon Staley admitted as much to me on Sunday night after his team avenged its last loss of 2021 with its first win of ’22.
“This is our first chance to compete as a team,” he said. “And this is our first chance for this group to show what it’s made of. And there were a lot of people on our team who weren’t at that game, but there were a lot of people who were. And I will tell you that the people that we joined up with, they know what that meant to the people who were at the game last year. And when you bring in the right types of guys, then what happens is they join together and they know what it means.
“And all those new guys that came and competed for us today, they were playing for their teammates who were at that game last year. We needed to play as a team in order to win this game. It’s a really good team that we played today. And I felt like we played as a team, and that’s why we won it.”
For those who forgot—the Raiders beat the Chargers in a wild overtime regular-season finale in January. It’s a loss that kept L.A. out of the playoffs, and followed Staley through the offseason, thanks to a decision to call a timeout that led to the Raiders getting into field-goal range (a tie would’ve sent both teams to the playoffs).
He can officially put that loss behind him now. And while the way the Chargers got revenge wasn’t all that pretty, it did test the team’s resolve after a concerted effort was made by the brass to make the roster bigger and tougher than it’s been before.
After the Chargers picked the Raiders off twice early in the fourth quarter, the Raiders responded with a seven-play, 61-yard drive, a three-yard connection from Derek Carr to Davante Adams to cut the lead to 24–19. Then, the Chargers went three-and-out, the Raiders got the ball back at their own 21 with 3:30 left and the heat was on.
From there, the Chargers got two things they may not have in January.
First, they got consecutive sacks on third and fourth down from star rushers Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack.
“You need to be able to have the rush and the coverage working together,” Staley said. “I think what you saw in those last two plays was there was nobody open. When nobody’s open, then you have to hold the football. And that’s how we try to play is we have the rush and coverage working together. So that’s why we went and traded for Khalil. That’s why we tried to pair him and Joey together, because we felt like those are two of the guys that can bring you home.”
Second, they got the ball back, with 1:52 left, and the Raiders holding two timeouts. Austin Ekeler got the call on the first two snaps after that (one for six yards, the next for two), and Sony Michel capped it by gaining three yards through the middle of the Raiders defense to set up three Justin Herbert kneel downs for the win.
“On offense, when you’re trying to make them use their timeouts and they’re engineered to stop the run game, can you get these runs off and then can you finish the game with the football?” Staley asked. “Because what we weren’t gonna do was throw the football there. … We’d make sure that clock was winding. And for Austin and Sony to close that out for us, for our O-line and tight ends, receivers, to block like that, it was a very complete win.”
Ekeler, of course, was one of the guys there in January, as was Bosa. Again, this did have a little extra value because of it. And for the Macks and Michels of the roster, getting this one for those guys, as Staley said, was just as meaningful.
I think respect for Justin Jefferson might finally be catching up with where it is inside the league. And if you want to know where it is in the league, you’d be well-served to listen to what Aaron Rodgers said to the star receiver after his Packers fell 23–7 to Jefferson’s Vikings on Sunday in Minneapolis.
Rodgers told Jefferson, more or less, “You were the best player in the game today.”
“It means a lot coming from him, just being the type of player that he is,” Jefferson said over the phone, from the locker room postgame. “He’s one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game, so to hear that from him definitely is a little confidence-booster.”
Jefferson then raised his voice a little, and added, “I think he was just saying that because next time we play them, he’s gonna try to be the best player.”
If Jefferson plays on New Year’s Day—when the teams meet again—like he did on Sunday, that bar will be set awfully high. And what’s more impressive about Jefferson’s nine-catch, 184-yard, two-touchdown effort is that Green Bay had to know it was coming, and somehow, some way, was powerless to stop it.
Adam Thielen’s a good player. So is Dalvin Cook. But there was no question coming into this one who Kirk Cousins’s go-to guy was going to be—and new Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell had an interesting way, over the last few months, of preparing Jefferson for that.
O’Connell had Jefferson watch a lot of Cooper Kupp’s tape. He was Kupp’s coordinator in Los Angeles, and Kupp, last year, kept producing and producing and producing, even as first Robert Woods went down and then later Odell Beckham Jr. went down in the Super Bowl. The key, as Jefferson saw it, was how the Rams could move Kupp around liberally, because he knew every position, and how well Kupp knew the scheme.
So Jefferson went to work on learning it.
“It definitely looked difficult at first,” he said. “Coming into the spring with a new offense, having to learn a whole new offense, it was definitely tough.”
But in time, it became apparent to Jefferson what knowing the offense that way would do for him. And that was illustrated everywhere on Sunday—and maybe most so in how open he looked on his 35-yard touchdown catch from Cousins. Jefferson reeled that one in over the middle, and two Packers DBs got turned around and seemed to be moving in separate directions, allowing for Jefferson to get the corner on the defense and race to the pylon.
“I think it was a little miscommunication with the defense,” he said. “But that’s all of the concepts that were setting up for Cooper Kupp being wide open in the offense. This offense is just so dynamic with different concepts, and then we have players on the field to get the ball to. Somebody’s always gonna be open to make some type of play.”
Really, it was that way for a lot of Vikings on Sunday. Cousins finished 23-of-32 for 277 yards, two touchdowns and a 118.9 passer rating. Five different guys caught at least three balls. Dalvin Cook churned out 90 yards on 20 carries, and Alexander Mattison’s per-carry average was identical to Cooks, with his producing 36 yards on eight carries.
But the best player was very clearly the guy Rodgers identified as such. And in that player’s opinion, this is just the start.
“I mean, I’m always expecting to be the best player on the field at all times,” he said. “This is my statement year, just proving that I’m the best receiver in the league. So I just gotta stack these type of games every single week.”
It’d be a tough pace to keep, of course. But in the offense he’s in, playing a role not dissimilar to the one Kupp did last year, it’s pretty easy to see why he’d set his goals high.
Bill Belichick’s reaction to the Patriots’ loss was staggering to me. New England lost 20–7 in Miami—the Dolphins have now taken five of the last six from their AFC East rivals—and what really got me about this wasn’t the blah performance from the Patriots. It was Belichick’s recap afterward.
“It really was a pretty even game,” Belichick insisted. “Two big plays, 14 points, that really skewed the game. Moved the ball, couldn’t get enough points. We got into their territory six, seven times, whatever it was, only had seven points, gotta do a better job of finishing. Defensively, gave up a big play there at the end of the half and a couple field goals. But still, we gotta play on third down and get the ball back at the end of the game. Not enough good things to win. A couple bad plays really hurt us.”
Alright, so that is true. Brandon Jones’s strip sack, and Melvin Ingram’s scoop and score did amount to seven points in the second quarter. And Jaylen Waddle’s 42-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-7 minutes later, at the end of the half, was worth another seven.
So, sure, you could eliminate those two things and make this a 7–6 game. Only that’s never how Belichick—the king of situational football, the turnover battle, the $2 million special teamer and winning on the margins—would position this sort of thing in the past. Instead, the old Belichick would tell you, in a circumstance like Sunday, that that’s the NFL. You win and lose most games on a handful of plays, and none of it should be seen as circumstantial.
In fact, New England losing seemingly all of them on Sunday, in addition to doing a bunch of other non-Patriot-like things (jumping offsides on a fourth-and-1, for example) is why they were one of just four teams to lose by double-digits on 2022’s first full day of NFL football.
Why would Belichick go out of the way not just to minimize it postgame, but do the same to CBS’s sideline reporter at the half? My best guess is, at this point, is he needs to instill confidence in his group that they are close, and that it is just one thing here, and another there, that kept them on the wrong side of the scoreboard Sunday.
Even if there’s a lot more to it than that.
I think Lamar Jackson is going to be fine. I’ve said for a while now that I don’t think getting to a certain raw number for his contract was ever going to be a problem for the Ravens—they showed a willingness last year to get Jackson to Josh Allen’s numbers after he did his deal—and presumably that premise held as the figures have ascended (with Russell Wilson being the latest to push the market north) close to the $50 million mark per year.
I think the issue from the start has been the structure and guarantees, which we’ve covered in a couple different places. Jackson is just a different guy, and may not have a number that would make it hard for him to say no to as part of a conventional quarterback deal. And if he doesn’t? It seems Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and his crew simply aren’t willing to escrow the money necessary to do a fully guaranteed deal, so we have an old-fashioned stalemate.
For now, though, Jackson’s still the Ravens quarterback. And according to those around him, this contract dispute hasn’t shown much effect on how he performs.
On Sunday, he showed it with 213 yards and three touchdowns (plus a pick) on 17-of-30 passing, another 17 yards on six carries in a breezy 24–9 win over the Jets. He showed it with a no-look touchdown throw to Devin Duvernay—“I didn’t even realize it was a no-look,” Duvernay told me afterward—that essentially put the hosts in the rear view. He also showed it with how he carried himself throughout the day.
“He’s just super focused; he always has been,” Duvernay added. “He’s the ultimate pro and athlete.”
Of course, this’ll get interesting again in March, when, absent a deal, the Ravens will have to decide which franchise tag to put on Jackson—the non-exclusive tag, which projects now to $29.7 million, and would allow for other teams to negotiate an offer sheet with him (and bring back two first-round picks if Baltimore didn’t match); or the exclusive tag, which projects to $45.5 million and would take him off the market completely.
But for now? The Ravens are getting healthy again (JK Dobbins and Ronnie Stanley are still working their way back), and have a score to settle for how last year ended. And Jackson, at least to those around him, seems like a guy way more tied up in that than whatever might be next for him.
Regardless of what you think of the Browns, or Deshaun Watson, it’s easy to be happy for Jacoby Brissett. And that’s even taking into consideration very valid criticism of the roughing-the-pass call assessed to Brian Burns for a phantom high hit on Brissett toward the end of the Browns-Panthers game. And that Kevin Stefanski looked like he wanted to talk quarterbacks like he wanted his next root canal in the postgame after fielding yet another set of Baker Mayfield questions.
Here's a sampling of what Brissett said in his presser: “Emotions were hot. You know just, you …. this moment … I’m sorry. Like the build-up for this moment, it goes further for me from being here. It’s been a long time coming to get to this point and I’ve got to do a better job of calming those emotions down, especially in a lot of these critical situations. Like I said, we made the right plays at the right time.”
Of starting, Brissett added, “These aren’t promised. Whenever you get an opportunity, you cherish those opportunities.” And then he was asked if Sunday was a career highlight for him, to which he said, “Playing in the NFL is a highlight every time and I think that’s why I’m so emotional. It’s because they just don’t come that often. It’s definitely special in the huddle.”
Brissett wasn’t perfect Sunday, and the Browns are going to have to coach around him to a degree, I believe. He finished 18-of-34 for 147 yards and a touchdown in the team’s 26–24 win. He missed some throws. But he also made the plays the Browns needed him to—throws of 13 yards to Donovan Peoples-Jones and nine yards to Amari Cooper to set Cade York up for his 58-yard game-winning field goal.
And he’s clearly the right kind of guy, too. I think Cleveland’s lucky to have him as the stand-in for Watson, and Sunday was just another example of why.
Patrick Mahomes without Tyreek Hill equals still very good. If there was one criticism of the Chiefs offense the past few years, outside of the line getting old all at once (hence the 2021 overall), it’s that maybe, just maybe, Kansas City had become too reliant on Hill and Travis Kelce.
Guess what wasn’t a problem in the first game post-Hill? Mahomes spreading the ball around. Six different receivers had at least three catches on Sunday in Arizona. And while Kelce still led the way (eight catches, 121 yards, TD), JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling got off to strong starts, too, with Mahomes.
“He’s pretty good all the time,” Andy Reid told reporters. “We’re lucky to have him.”
Remember, Reid trusts Mahomes to the point where, in the spring, he handed over two weeks of his offseason program to the quarterback, so Mahomes could get on-field work in with his new receivers rather than be confined to a classroom in Kansas City. So I can’t imagine he was surprised in the least that it looked this way from the jump.
Seeing as we have a four-year body of work to go off, maybe the rest of us shouldn’t be either.
While we’re there, Aaron Rodgers is going to be OK, too. But this one might take some time. Receivers Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs, both non-first-round rookies, played a lot on Sunday in Minnesota. And it showed in the Packers’ clunky start on offense.
“Look, we've got to have patience with those guys,” said Rodgers, who finished 22-of-34 for 195 yards. “They’re young. They haven’t been in the fire. The patience will be thinner as the season goes on, but the expectation will be high. We’ll keep them accountable, but it’s going to happen. There’s going to be drops. Hate to see it on the first play, but it’s part of it—there’s going to be drops throughout the season.”
The first play Rodgers is referencing might’ve been a 75-yard touchdown throw to Watson, who flat-out dropped it. And it wasn’t the only drop of the afternoon.
And Rodgers, like he said, will live with those, so long as the team’s better off in January.
We have quick-hitter takeaways for you for Week 1. And we have them, right now …
• Credit to Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel for finding every which way to get Hill the ball (eight catches, 94 yards) on offense. And, as always, for a very creative run game.
• I don’t know how they played football in that mess at Soldier Field.
• Davis Mills, from a tools standpoint, looks every bit the part of a first-round pick. He was 23-of-37 for 240 yards and two touchdowns against the Colts. That’s not to say he’s the Texans’ long-term answer. But it’s worth Houston giving him some rope and seeing where he takes it.
• Reminder: The Bills had four turnovers and won by three touchdowns on the road against the defending Super Bowl champions.
• Steelers edge rusher Alex Highsmith becomes a pretty pivotal player now with T.J. Watt sidelined.