Sports | September 14, 2021 9:15 am

Week 1’s Top NFL Storylines: The Return of Jameis Winston, Rise of Mac Jones and Regression of Aaron Rodgers

Plus, the one NFL division that's not like the others for a second straight season

Jameis Winston of the Saints reacts after defeating the Green Bay Packers
Quarterback Jameis Winston of the Saints reacts after defeating the Green Bay Packers.
James Gilbert/Getty

With the final whistle on the first ever edition of Monday Night Football in the desert of Las Vegas blown, the opening week of the 2021-22 National Football League season is a wrap. While we can’t get to everything — like a burst pipe making one of the NFL’s worst stadiums even worse — here are four of the top storylines to emerge from Week 1 of the season, and whether we’re buying or selling on ’em.

Buy: Less of Jameis Winston will be more for the Saints

Starting his first regular-season game for the Saints in Jacksonville — rather than New Orleans — thanks to Hurricane Ida, Jameis Winston passed for five touchdowns in a dominant 38-3 victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

Winston, who rarely got on the field last season as the secondary backup to Drew Brees, completed just 14-of-20 passes for 148 yards for those five touchdowns, also rushing six times for 37 yards. He also didn’t turn the ball over, which has historically been his Achilles heel. In his final four games as a starter for the Bucs, the former No. 1 overall pick had at least one pick in every contest and threw 10 interceptions overall.

While he certainly won’t be throwing a touchdown every four passes going forward, Winston certainly has the arm talent and mobility to be a good NFL quarterback. And if he can continue to throw the ball accurately and avoid the overly aggressive decisions that were the 27-year-old’s trademark during his time in Tampa Bay, Winston could end up being a viable replacement for Brees.

“Drew always preached, it’s about the decision, not the result,” Winston said following the win. “Sometimes the decision is throwing the ball away, sometimes the decision is running, tucking. Sometimes the decision may be taking a sack.”

For that to happen, Sean Payton would be wise to keep his game plans conservative and rely on star running back Alvin Kamara, not Winston, to be the focal point of moving the offense. Winston, who led the NFL in passing yards with 5,109 during the 2019 season, can certainly chuck it. But as his other individual 2019 numbers (33 TDs and 30 INTs) make clear, the less Winston is forced to throw the ball, the better it is for the team.

Sell: It’s time to panic about Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay

Historically one of the least-intercepted quarterbacks in football despite being a prolific passer, reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers was picked off twice by New Orleans in the Packers-Saints game on Sunday.

“This is a good kick in the you-know-where,” Rodgers, who finished 15-of-28 for 133 yards and no TDs in the upset loss, said. “We felt like we were going to go up and down the field on whoever they have and that obviously wasn’t the case.”

It wasn’t, but there’s no reason to believe that Rodgers and the rest of the Green Bay offense are in trouble — yet.

Despite the way he looked on the field yesterday, Rodgers did not forget how to throw a football overnight or lose the will to do so. He, along with the rest of the Green Bay offense, will bounce back and play closer to the unit that helped the Packers win 13 games last season than the one that failed to score a touchdown on Sunday. Rodgers, who threw only five interceptions all of last year and was picked off only twice during the entire 2018 campaign, did not opt to return to Green Bay after a tumultuous offseason to play poorly or miss the playoffs. He’ll be better, and playing six games against the NFC North, which went 0-4 yesterday and will be the only winless division entering Week 2, certainly won’t hurt.

The next time Rodgers and the Packers take the field, it’ll be in Green Bay against the Lions on Monday Night Football. If the Packers lose that one, then it’ll be time to hit the panic button.

Buy: As an NFL starter, Mac Jones will be … competent

Prone to penalties, loose with the football and unable to get stops on defense when they needed them most, the New England Patriots were uncharacteristically sloppy during a one-point loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday afternoon.

But despite the 17-16 home loss to a divisional rival, the game is a moral victory for New England, because it appears rookie quarterback Mac Jones, who was picked at No. 15 overall, can actually play.

Though Jones only threw one touchdown in the game, he looked in control at the line of scrimmage and was able to move around in the pocket when necessary in order to get passes away under pressure. The 23-year-old also picked the right places to go with the football, completing passes to eight different targets on the way to racking up nearly 300 passing yards.

The former Alabama quarterback finished his day with 281 yards on 29-of-39 passing attempts for a completion rate of 74%, the best mark ever for a rookie quarterback logging 30-plus passing attempts in a game. It was Tua Tagovailoa (16-of-27 for 202 yards with one touchdown and one interception), another former Crimson Tide quarterback, who got the win, but it was Jones — whose 133 passing yards in the first half would have been a season-high in the first half for the Patriots in 2020 — who looked like the better QB.

“I think we can get better,” Jones said. “That’s just how we have to look at it. Definitely wasn’t good enough, starting with me. So we’ve got to watch the film. We lost, so it’s not good enough.”

The team wasn’t, but, at least in Sunday’s loss, Jones actually was. That’s a long-term win for the Patriots.

Sell: There’s a better NFL division than the NFC West

While going 4-0 on Sunday to open the season, the members of the NFC West — the San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals — outscored their opponents by 65 points combined, with all four teams winning their respective game by more than a touchdown. And San Francisco, Arizona and Seattle, in addition to nearly doubling the scores of their opponents (107-62), all won on the road.

As was the case last season, when it sent the Rams and Seahawks to the playoffs the year after sending the 49ers all the way to the Super Bowl, the NFC West is once again the best division in football. And it doesn’t appear to be a close race at that.

Already strong at quarterback thanks to Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson, both of whom threw four touchdown passes on Sunday, the NFC West added Matthew Stafford (three TDs in a 34-14 victory against the Chicago Bears on Sunday Night Football) during the offseason, as well as Trey Lance, who was taken in the first round by the 49ers. Though Lance is still the backup to Jimmy Garoppolo in San Fran, he did play four snaps for the Niners on Sunday, and threw his first career touchdown pass on his second NFL pass attempt.

With the Niners comfortably ahead for much of the afternoon prior to a furious comeback attempt by the Lions that came up short, Lance only played sparingly following his TD pass. But given the amount of draft capital the team gave up to move up in the draft and pick him, expect coach Kyle Shanahan to get his rookie quarterback on the field and involved in the offense.

Some of Lance’s involvement could come against the other three teams that reside in the NFC North — the only division that went winless on the NFL’s opening weekend, which also happens to be the one the NFC West will play top-to-bottom this season thanks to the way the schedule works out. That’s bad for the rest of the NFC teams that will be vying for playoff spots, but good for the best division in pro football.