Week 1’s Top NFL Storylines: A.J. Brown, Minkah Fitzpatrick and a Possible Super Bowl Hangover
There's already a lot to digest in this young season
With Monday Night Football between the Broncos and Seahawks in Russell Wilson’s return to Seattle wrapped up, Week 1 of the NFL’s second 17-game season is in the books. While we can’t get to everything — like kickers shanking extra points and field goals like it going out of style — here are four of the top storylines to emerge over the course of the season’s first 16 games and whether we’re buying or selling on ’em.
Buy: A.J. Brown is taking Philly to the top of the NFC East
Traded to the Eagles during the 2022 NFL Draft and immediately signed to a four-year, $100 million extension by Philadelphia, wide receiver A.J. Brown drew rave reviews in training camp for what he was able to get done on the field with third-year quarterback Jalen Hurts. On Sunday against the Lions, Brown showed the world what the hype was about with a historic opening-day performance.
A gifted playmaker who never really seemed to get his due with the Titans, Brown erupted for 155 yards and 10 catches as the Eagles were able to overcome an early deficit and a gritty Lions team for a 38-35 win at Ford Field in Detroit. Philadelphia needed every inch of Brown’s yardage as he accounted for more than half of Philly’s passing yards (155 of 243) and Eagles’ catches (10 of 18). Only Anquan Boldin (208 yards, 49ers) and Randy Moss (183 yards, Patriots) had better debuts after being traded in the past 30 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
In Brown, the Eagles finally have a big-play receiver for opposing defenses to account for who can help add some balance to a run-heavy offense that is even more dangerous on the ground thanks to Hurts and his ability to run. It’s only been one week, but the Hurts-to-Brown connection appears to be the best one in Philadelphia’s division and gives the Eagles an excellent shot at winning NFC East, where the Cowboys will now be without starting quarterback Dak Prescott for as long as two months and the Giants and Commanders, who both did win yesterday, seemed destined to scuffle.
“Honestly, he just made a lot of catches and a lot of good plays,” said Lions safety Tracey Walker. “Jalen Hurts, shoutout to him for putting the ball in good spots and A.J. Brown making good catches. Sometimes you can have great coverage and at the end of the day, the quarterback and receiver make a better throw and catch.”
Expect Hurts and Brown to keep making ’em and the Eagles to fly to the top of the NFC East.
Sell: The Bengals have a shot to return to the Super Bowl
Playing in their first game since losing the Super Bowl to the Rams, the Bengals showed the same weaknesses that ultimately contributed them to falling to Los Angeles in February as Cincinnati allowed franchise quarterback Joe Burrow to take a beating and surrendered seven sacks to Pittsburgh in a loss. Burrow, who was also sacked seven times in the Super Bowl and 19 times in the playoffs (both most in NFL history), also turned the ball over five times overall with four interceptions and a fumble.
Unquestionably one of the NFL’s biggest surprises last season, the Bengals seem destined to be one of the league’s biggest disappointments this season as it seems incredibly unlikely that Cincinnati will be able to return to the Super Bowl and could even end up missing the playoffs altogether. Currently the only winless team in the AFC North heading into Week 2, the Bengals appear to have failed to solve the protection issues that hurt their offensive line last season as the Bengals won on a below-league-average 56.3% of their pass block attempts on Sunday. If the line can’t block, Burrow won’t have time to get the ball to star wideout Ja’Marr Chase and the sacks and picks will continue to pile up.
While that may not stop the Bengals from winning games in the short term over the next few weeks against opponents like the Jets, Cowboys and Dolphins, Cincinnati has a tough slate of late-season games that includes matchups against the Chiefs, Bills, Buccaneers, Ravens and a rematch with Pittsburgh. It’s only been one game and Cincinnati’s year is far from over, but the Bengals’ inability to fix their fatal flaw from last season does not bode well for their odds of making a repeat trip to the Super Bowl to represent the new and improved AFC.
“Obviously you don’t want to throw four picks, but I never panicked,” Burrow said. “We stayed even-keeled and we came back and put ourselves in position to win.” Just like the Bengals did in the Super Bowl — which they also lost.
Buy: Minkah Fitzpatrick is a bad, bad man
Somewhat related to the item above, one of the players who gave Burrow fits on Sunday was Pittsburgh safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who scored the first touchdown of the NFL season when he jumped a corner route that was thrown too far inside for a pick-6 early in the first quarter. Traded to the Steelers during the 2019 season, the former Alabama star also had a humungous play in the fourth quarter when he was able to block an extra point at the end of regulation to keep the Bengals and Steelers knotted at 20 points apiece and send the game to overtime.
On the field for all 100 of the defensive snaps for the Steelers, Fitzpatrick also had a game-high 14 tackles and made the four-year, $73.6 million extension he signed with Pittsburgh during the offseason look like a bargain. That was a deal that Fitzpatrick, who earned All-Pro honors in 2019 and 2020 but wasn’t as dominant last season, was not guaranteed to get. But after Fitzpatrick’s play on Sunday, the Steelers look like geniuses for locking up the 25-year-old.
For Pittsburgh to continue to have success this season with quarterback Mitch Trubisky running an offense that was only able to score a single touchdown against the Bengals, Fitzpatrick and the Steeler defense will have to bring it each and every week. That is going to be a bit more difficult for them to do moving forward as reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt is likely out for the remainder of the season with what is believed to be a torn pectoral muscle.
With Watt on the shelf for the foreseeable future, Fitzpatrick will need to take over as the leader of what could be a very formidable defense. “Minkah is a complete player,” said Pittsburgh defensive end Cam Heyward said. “A lot of people sleep on Minkah and what he’s capable of doing, whether that’s being a box safety or being a ball hawk or even blocking kicks. Minkah is a leader in that secondary.”
He certainly looked like it on Sunday.
Sell: Jimmy Garoppolo will remain a backup quarterback
Away from the team he helped lead to the NFC Championship game last season for nearly the entire offseason based on the assumption he would be cut or traded, Jimmy Garoppolo surprisingly returned to the 49ers prior to Week 1 to serve as the backup in San Francisco to second-year player Trey Lance.
Lance started his first game for the 49ers on Sunday following a torrential downpour in Chicago in what projected to be a run-heavy affair against the Bears. For Lance, who finished just 13-for-28 with 164 yards and an interception through the air, the ground game was the only one he looked equipped to play as he led the Niners in rushing with 54 yards on 13 carries. Combined with the weather, Lance’s play limited the San Francisco offense to 10 points in an upset loss.
One of the players who helped contain Lance and the San Francisco passing game, Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson, had some choice words about the young quarterback after the game. “What you think he did?” Johnson asked reporters. “He ain’t do sh*t. We made him play quarterback. We know he hurt us in the run game with his feet, and everybody knows at some point he’s going to run and make a play. But I feel like we had to really make him play quarterback.”
What’s unclear is how capable playing quarterback at the NFL level Lance actually is, but San Francisco is committed to finding out after trading a substantial amount of draft capital to move up to select him last April. For now, that commitment is unwavering, but that may change if the 49ers, who entered the season with Super Bowl expectations and are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, continue to lose ball games with Lance underwhelming at QB.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan won’t admit it, but that’s why Garoppolo is back with the team as he provides somewhat of an insurance policy if 22-year-old Lance can’t get it together. If Lance does start to have success, Garoppolo becomes expendable and could become an attractive piece to trade to a team with an injured (Cowboys) or ineffective (Seahawks) quarterback. Either way, Jimmy G should end up starting games somewhere this season.
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