Cover 7 | Sunday A daily NFL destination that provides in-depth analysis of football’s biggest stories. Each Sunday, three of The Athletic’s NFL writers react to the biggest news, plays and performances from the day’s games.
Week 2 is extremely important in the NFL, as teams can quickly begin to hinder their playoff chances by starting out 0-2. A few teams that entered this season as Super Bowl contenders are facing that reality, while some others — like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons — that began the year as underdogs are surprisingly undefeated after two weeks. Will Baker Mayfield and the Bucs build off their early momentum? And how concerned should we be about Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals?
The Athletic NFL writers Dan Pompei, Mike Jones and Ted Nguyen share their takeaways on the day’s top storylines.
Many wrote the Bucs off after Tom Brady retired following the 2022 season. But they’re off to a surprising 2-0 start, and Mayfield and Mike Evans appear to have formed a connection. Could they wind up winning the NFC South for the third straight year?
Pompei: Yes, but that may be more of a statement about the NFC South than the Bucs. The division is up for grabs and there does not appear to be an elite team. The Bucs showed they can play defense (even though the opponent Sunday complied), and Mayfield may be reviving his career. It’s too early to draw too many conclusions about this team, but there’s no question it’s better than almost everybody thought it was. Much credit to head coach Todd Bowles. We will find out a lot more about the Bucs a week from Monday when they host the Philadelphia Eagles.
Jones: I’m predicting a neck-and-neck race with the New Orleans Saints, but the Bucs definitely have a chance to win their division. I spent some time down there during training camp and they firmly believe they still have a roster that is built to contend. They cycled out some older players but still held onto difference-makers on both sides of the ball. They saw Mayfield as the perfect fit for their new offense, and here they are with back-to-back wins. The tests will intensify from here. But the Bucs are much better than many people expected.
Bucs’ Baker Mayfield, Todd Bowles come together for another shot at NFL success
Nguyen: I think Mayfield is better than most give him credit for. That doesn’t mean he’s good, but he has stretches where he makes some big-time throws. The problem is he also sprinkles in mind-numbing negative plays, but we won’t talk about that today. In two games, Mayfield hasn’t thrown a pick and has only been sacked once. People also seemed to have forgotten that the Bucs have a legitimately good defense with an aggressive blitzing mindset — something offenses don’t see often in today’s NFL. The NFC South is wide open, and it won’t take an 11-win season to win it, so the Bucs certainly have a chance.
Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers again drop a close one, this time to the Tennessee Titans in OT. With high expectations again entering this season, why does this team seem to struggle to get over the hump? What’s holding it back from being a serious contender?
Pompei: Through two games, the Chargers are probably the most puzzling team in the league. They have everything it takes to win — although they were missing one of their best players Sunday with Austin Ekeler out. Offensively, they played a pretty clean game against the Titans but just didn’t make enough plays, especially in critical situations (third downs, overtime). Giving up 27 points to the Titans is a poor reflection of the defense. The Chargers are the type of team that can turn things around quickly — but that can’t happen without some defensive improvement.
Jones: The Chargers will endure some growing pains as they gain comfort in Kellen Moore’s offense, and they also missed Ekeler on Sunday. But this game was decided on third downs. The Chargers were 2-for-14 on those money downs, while the Titans were 6-for-13. Herbert missed three crucial overtime passes. A late roughing the passer penalty by the Chargers also hurt. This team needs to improve on the little things. Details and discipline matter. The great teams understand this and thrive in those areas.
Nguyen: Right now, they can’t stop giving up explosive plays (runs of 10-plus yards and passes of 20-plus yards). Herbert and the offense have looked pretty good. They scored 34 points last week and 24 against a very good Titans defense. Up 11-0, they gave up a 70-yard pass to Tennessee receiver Treylon Burks. They bottled up Derrick Henry for most of the game but gave up several gashes to his backups, including a 14-yarder on the Titans’ first offensive snap of overtime. It’s puzzling considering Brandon Staley’s defensive philosophy is built on stopping explosive plays. They are very thin in the middle of their defense (D-line and inside linebacker) — it’s going to be an issue all season.
— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) September 17, 2023
The Bengals start the season 0-2 for the second consecutive year. Burrow and the offense just don’t appear to be clicking thus far. Should we be concerned about Cincinnati? Or will it bounce back like in 2022 and make a playoff push?
Pompei: The Bengals are one of the best teams in the league, no matter what their record says. But they need to start playing like it. Their performance so far is a statement about the importance of training camp and preseason. A quarterback — even one as gifted as Burrow — can’t just show up and start playing at the start of the regular season. He needs practice time not only for his own sharpness but also to get in sync with his teammates. The expectation is Burrow is going to get right soon, and he’ll be playing much better in October and beyond than he has in September.
Jones: They’ve been here before. Last season. So, there will be no panic within the Bengals’ locker room. As noted, Burrow still didn’t look great. But this is still essentially the preseason for him because he missed all of it with that calf injury and couldn’t practice or play. Losing two divisional games to open the season hurts, but the Bengals still have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball and can’t be counted out this early.
Nguyen: The Bengals played two really rough defenses in the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens to start the season, and considering Burrow has missed a lot of practice time with the calf injury, which still looks to be bothering him, it’s understandable why the Bengals have started off slow. I think they found a spark on Sunday and will continue to get better in the following weeks. Last season after starting 0-2, Burrow said, “We’re gonna be fine. We’re not worried about it.”
Bijan Robinson is off to a stellar start to his rookie season. He finished Sunday’s game against the Green Bay Packers with 172 total yards (124 rushing, 48 receiving) as the Falcons improved to 2-0 for the first time since 2017. What do you make of this Atlanta team after two weeks?
Pompei: So far, they are kind of a junior version of the San Francisco 49ers. They aren’t counting on their quarterback outplaying their opponents’ quarterbacks. It’s about the run game, offensive skill players with big-play possibilities, and a defense that plays hard and hits hard. You have to like the resiliency the Falcons played with against the Packers. Arthur Smith had a clear vision for this team, and so far the Falcons are playing the way he thought they could. They are impressive. It will be interesting to see how they deal with more significant adversities as the season goes on.
Jones: Any time you asked rival talent evaluators about the Falcons last season, they noted that they were well-coached and played hard. The same applies this season. They fell behind against Green Bay but didn’t fold. The Falcons are balanced (235 passing yards, 211 rushing yards and converted 6 of 15 third downs.) They trailed for much of the game, but they won the time of possession 36:15 to 23:45. They have the ingredients necessary to compete in this league, even if they don’t have a high-profile quarterback.
Nguyen: The defense is much, much improved. New defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen has this unit flying around and playing hard. They don’t have a ton of talent, but if they can finish 20 or better in defense-adjusted value over average, the Falcons will be competitive in the NFC South. The offense has too many playmakers and runs the ball with efficiency and physicality. Robinson has looked like everything he was hyped to be, and he looks like he’s going to lead the league in forced missed tackle rate. He’s been ridiculously hard to bring down. They have to avoid third-and-long and passing situations, but it was encouraging to see Desmond Ridder hit a few passes on their game-winning drive.
(Top photo: Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)