September 27, 2021

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Tipping Points: Week 1 | Football Outsiders

17 min read

by Scott Spratt

The NFL’s first week did what the NFL does best, flipping expectations on their head. Coming into the week, Packers-Bears, Browns-Titans, Falcons-Vikings, Chiefs-Jaguars, and Steelers-Patriots would have been my predicted choices for the most compelling fourth quarters. Instead, they provided a dull opening night and four blowouts. Fortunately, a number of second-tier matchups ratcheted up the excitement, highlighted by a Bills and Jets showdown that may well have playoff implications.

Game of the Week

Buffalo Bills 17 at New York Jets 16

Stuck in a division with the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots, who already led the AFC in projected wins before they dismantled the Steelers on Sunday night, the Bills and Jets didn’t figure to provide the game to watch in Week 1. But with 7.3 and 7.9 projected wins of their own, the Bills and Jets each started the season with a realistic chance to reach the postseason. The results of their two head-to-head matchups could go a long way in determining their fates, and the first of those contests may well have set the tones for their seasons.

The Jets had 16 points through three quarters, and the defense was responsible for as many of those points as the offense. C.J. Mosley returned an interception for a touchdown to take the lead early in the first quarter, and early in the third quarter, Brian Poole and Jordan Jenkins combined to stop Frank Gore for a 2-yard loss backed up in his own end zone for a safety. Sam Darnold led a nine-play, 60-yard touchdown drive following the free kick, but the Jets’ punt to start the fourth quarter was their sixth in eight drives. Their 16-3 advantage at the time felt bigger than it was in a battle of defenses, but two touchdowns away from a loss, it was still uncomfortably close.

To that point, the Bills offense had made a slew of mistakes, including two lost fumbles and another interception in addition to the one Mosley returned for a score. Yet somehow, Josh Allen looked better than he did much of last season. The Mosley pick was a catchable pass that deflected off of receiver Cole Beasley’s hands. And for the game, Allen threw catchable passes on 63.2% of his attempts according to Sportradar. That is the second-highest rate of his career behind only his 22-attempt performance in the Bills’ 27-6 drubbing of the Vikings in Week 3 last season. He reached that 60% accuracy plateau in just two other games last season.

Still, Bills coaches might have put too much faith in their sophomore quarterback, who had either thrown the ball, run the ball, or been sacked 32 times against just three handoffs in the first half. Rookie running back Devin Singletary and a more balanced offense keyed the team’s fourth-quarter comeback. After a 7-yard Frank Gore run to start the drive, Singletary exploded for 23 yards down the left sideline. Tight end Lee Smith held his block on interior linebacker Neville Hewitt for close to three seconds to help spring Singletary to the second level. Allen hit free-agent receiver addition John Brown with a hard strike for 14 yards, then seventh-round rookie tight end Tommy Sweeney for a 6-yard checkdown. Then Singletary showed off his agility with a sharp lateral cut on what was designed to be an inside run and ended up hitting the edge for 12 yards.

Singletary added a short catch and then a 15-yard run through a gaping hole on the right side to set up an Allen rushing touchdown. From 3 yards out, Allen rolled right to pass but instead reached the ball out over the pylon for the score.

Still with a six-point lead and with just over 10 minutes remaining in the game, the Jets were likely most interested in killing clock. Unfortunately for them, the Bills front had overwhelmed their offensive line for much of the game. The Jets averaged just 3.2 yards per carry on the day, and they managed just 3 total yards on two carries on their ensuing six-play drive.

Darnold looked like he might be capable of icing the game just with his arm. He generated one first down while throwing twice from an empty backfield, but his bid for a second conversion came up 2 yards short when Jamison Crowder took a quick strike 10 yards on a third-and-12. The Jets were forced to punt from their side of the 50-yard line.

Singletary started the Bills’ next drive the way he had ended the last one, completely fooling reserve linebacker Blake Cashman with a stutter step that turned what could have been a minimal gain into an 8-yard catch-and-run.

Mosley looked every bit the $85-million man in the first three quarters, adding five tackles, two pass deflections, and a fumble recovery to his pick-six. But a groin injury forced him to miss the fourth quarter, and as interior linebackers Hewitt and Cashman failed to make plays in big spots, it’s hard not to wonder whether Mosley would have been the difference-maker the Jets needed to hold on to their lead.

The Jets can certainly blame their loss on some bad luck, but Allen and the Bills also made plays. After a throwaway, Allen converted a third-and-short with a designed sweep to the left side. Then, facing substantial pressure, he stepped up in the pocket and delivered a dime to Beasley over the top of excellent coverage from cornerback Brian Poole. Beasley couldn’t hold onto the ball as he tried to keep his feet in bounds, but that is the kind of touch throw that should make Bills fans excited about Allen’s bid to become a more complete passer.

With better protection on the next play, Allen threw a line drive pass to an open Zay Jones for 20 yards. A short pass to a covered Singletary and a false start set them back to a second-and-16, but Allen hit an uncovered Singletary for 12 yards to get to a third-and-manageable. The Jets had to expect a Singletary handoff, but instead the Bills went empty backfield, showing tremendous confidence in their young quarterback. The trust paid off when Allen converted on a pass 25 yards in the air to John Brown, who completely turned around cornerback Darryl Roberts with a double-move and a cut back on the intentional underthrow. Brown evaded Roberts’ last-ditch efforts to make a tackle and ran 13 more yards for a touchdown.

With the extra point, the Bills had erased a 13-point deficit in a little less than 11 minutes of game time and now led by one.

The Jets had peaked at just short of a 97% chance to win this game and now were trailing. But with an even three minutes of clock and the ball on their 25, they still had close to 50/50 chance to answer with their own scoring drive and pull out the win. A couple of quick strikes got the Jets to third-and-1 at their 34 at the cost of nearly a minute of clock. Darnold finally had enough pass protection to throw the ball downfield to speedster Robby Anderson. Anderson had gotten open on a double-move and would have advanced the Jets to the edge of field goal range with a catch near the Bills’ 32-yard line. However, Darnold underthrew the ball off of his back foot, which allowed cornerback Levi Wallace to recover and break up the pass.

Le’Veon Bell made an incredible effort to convert the subsequent fourth-and-1 when defensive tackle Jordan Phillips powered into the backfield and got a hand on him. That set up another opportunity for a Darnold-Anderson connection. Anderson ran by safety Jordan Poyer down the left sideline and had a clean step when Darnold’s pass landed 2 yards past his grasp. Darnold would have had the touchdown with a better throw.

Those two missed opportunities would prove to be the Jets’ last ones. A few plays later, Darnold was hit as he threw a fourth-down pass, and the Bills regained possession with 1:12 left on the clock. The Jets had two timeouts, but the Bills’ third run for minimal gain dropped the clock all the way to 12 seconds when the Jets took their touchback to their own 25. Darnold grabbed a quick 5 to Jamison Crowder who got out of bounds, but that still left 70 yards to cover on their last play. They got a few pitches off on a hook-and-lateral before they lost the ball. The Bills recovered to punctuate their comeback win.

The Bills were the No. 2 DVOA defense in 2018 and looked the part again in the opener despite star edge rushers Jerry Hughes and Lorenzo Alexander entering the season at 31 and 36 years old, respectively. If Allen can maintain his apparent improvements and Singletary can add a dynamic playmaker to an offense bereft of skill talent, the Bills will surprise a lot of teams. Meanwhile, likely lost in the comeback, the Jets defense looked markedly improved from their No. 21 ranking a year ago. Mosley may have been the keystone that made their collection of intriguing defensive parts into an effective unit. It may be premature to extinguish either teams’ hopes of a playoff berth, although the Jets will certainly have to make up ground after losing this one at home.

The Best of the Rest

Detroit Lions 27 at Arizona Cardinals 27

Based on projected records, the Lions and Cardinals game looked even less meaningful than the surprising Bills and Jets. But with No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray leading a college-style offense under new head coach Kliff Kingsbury, this one had the chance to be a fun watch. Those chances were looking a bit dicey after the Lions extended their lead to 24-6 at the start of the fourth quarter.

To that point, Murray had looked like a rookie quarterback, completing just 36% of his 25 attempts for 2.8 yards per attempt, no touchdowns, and an interception. But he started to find his rhythm in the fourth quarter, beginning with a well-protected 41-yard strike to Larry Fitzgerald on a critical third-and-14. The next third down required just 2 yards, but it looked unlikely to be a conversion when Christian Kirk was met 5 yards in the backfield by safety Tracy Walker. Kirk somehow avoided that tackle and one more short of the line to gain before scampering past for a 12-yard gain.

Murray failed to complete his attempts on second and third downs, which forced the Cardinals to settle for a field goal. But that was enough to cut the lead to a two-score game at 24-9, and the Cardinals quickly earned another chance to score after a Lions three-and-out. They built that next drive slowly with a slew of short passes to Fitzgerald, Kirk, David Johnson, and KeeSean Johnson before Murray hit Johnson for an easy 27-yard touchdown strike up the seam with overmatched linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin falling down on the play. Now it was a one-score game.

The Lions fared a little better, taking eight plays on their next drive. However, they squandered their chance to convert a third-and-5 that would have put them in Cardinals territory when they called a timeout just before the snap on what would have been a massive gain on a wheel route to receiving back J.D. McKissic. Instead, they punted a play later and allowed the Cardinals another chance with 2:31 left in regulation.

Just before the two-minute warning, Murray converted another critical third-down pass to Damiere Byrd crossing the middle of the field for 19 yards. Murray nearly took the next play for a first down with his legs, and then David Johnson added 10 and 3 yards with his own pair of carries. Murray then finished off the drive with two more short strikes, the first to Byrd and the second to Fitzgerald. He completed the comeback with a two-point conversion to Kirk, leaving just 43 seconds that the Lions did little with before overtime.

After winning the coin toss, the Cardinals looked poised to walk off with a touchdown before the Lions even touched the ball. Murray completed a beautiful 45-yard pass to Fitzgerald down the left sideline.

That set the Cardinals up at the Lions’ 23, and they advanced inside the 10 before the drive stalled, forcing them to kick a field goal. Stafford showed great resiliency, leading the Lions quickly downfield with 21- and 23-yard strikes to Marvin Jones that netted them their own three points. Murray missed on a couple of deep passes to tight windows that could have led to a game-winner. Instead, the Cardinals punted on a fourth-and-7 still a good 10 yards outside of field goal range. With less than a minute left, this game was all but sealed as a tie — although Stafford nearly handed it to the Cardinals with an ill-advised third-and-19 pass to Danny Amendola. Tramaine Brock undercut the pass and nearly picked it off for what would have been a walk-off pick-six.

The Cardinals may have a mild disappointment that they couldn’t punctuate their comeback with a win, but for a team unlikely to be in the playoff mix, their late push for the tie should leave fans brimming with optimism. We all knew that Murray could make the impressive throws he scattered throughout the fourth quarter and overtime. But it’s rare for even a No. 1 pick to show the poise he did to methodically lead his team back from a multi-score deficit in his first start as a rookie. His deep attempts were never desperate, and he frequently made the smart decision to take the shorter gains the Lions’ defense gave him.

As a Football Outsiders-identified sleeper team, the Lions have to be despondent that they hemorrhaged a two-score lead to a rookie quarterback, even if they didn’t outright lose the game. New offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell made an honest effort to maintain a balanced offense and kill clock, but running backs Kerryon Johnson and C.J. Anderson could only manage 3.1 and 3.2 yards per carry over a combined 27 attempts. That doesn’t bode particularly well for the season ahead, although perhaps they will be able to return to form (or, at least, what we predicted as their form) back in Detroit against the Chargers in Week 2.

Indianapolis Colts 24 at Los Angeles Chargers 30 (OT)

Speaking of those Chargers, they faced a surprisingly stiff test from the Andrew Luck-less Colts in Los Angeles in their opener. The Chargers showcased their expected advantages at quarterback and the skill positions as Philip Rivers threw for 333 yards and three touchdowns, 123 and one of which went to Keenan Allen. Austin Ekeler put a dent in Melvin Gordon’s bargaining power with 58 yards on 12 carries and a highly efficient 96 yards on six receptions, two of which went for scores. It all added up to a 24-9 Chargers lead with 8:27 left in the third quarter. But with left tackle Russell Okung missing this week and maybe many more recovering from a pulmonary embolism, and facing a Colts defense that was top four in both adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate in 2018, the Chargers consistently lost at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

That disparity in the trenches manifested itself most prominently in the success of Colts running back Marlon Mack. After rushing eight times for just 21 yards in the first half, he put up 153 on 17 in the second half and overtime. He quickly cut his team’s two-score deficit in half with a 63-yard scamper two plays after L.A. went up 24-9. Every Colts blocker won their matchup on the play, including All-Pro sophomore guard Quenton Nelson, who erased linebacker Thomas Davis at the second level. Mack wasn’t touched on the first 25 yards of the touchdown carry.

Two drives later, Indianapolis caught a massive break in the form of a Desmond King muffed punt that returned the ball to the Colts just 27 yards from the Chargers’ end zone. Unfortunately for the Colts, that drive ended in an Adam Vinatieri missed field goal from 29 yards. It was Vinatieri’s third missed kick of the afternoon, two of which — this missed field goal and an earlier missed extra point — were inside of 30 yards. After the game, Vinatieri shouldered the blame for the loss, telling the media that “that loss was 100% on me.” Vinatieri has had many more good days than bad days in his Hall of Fame career, but it was hard to not think of what could have been for the Colts as T.Y. Hilton evaded a pair of tacklers and streaked up the sidelines for a 19-yard touchdown, knocking down the pylon as he dove to break the plane. Mack punched in the two-point conversion to tie the game with 38 seconds left. Had Vinatieri made either of those chip shots, the Colts presumably would have left Los Angeles with the victory.

With the Colts now in a groove and the Chargers ever dangerous with their many weapons, the overtime coin toss carried added weight. The Chargers ended up winning it, and they quickly marched downfield to score a touchdown, preventing the Colts offense from even seeing the field in extra time. The Chargers gained chunk yardage with 18- and 17-yard completions to Allen and Hunter Henry, and Ekeler cut sharply up the field to gain 19 yards and put the team in the red zone. A few plays later, Ekeler finished the drive off with a 7-yard carry, his third touchdown on the day and first on the ground.

The result of this contest is a critical one for a pair of hopeful playoff teams, but I expect the way it came about will be instructive for both teams the rest of the season. The Chargers are full of playmakers who are household names, but they are likely going to struggle against some competition with lesser fanfare but better health on both sides of the ball. The Colts meanwhile enjoy the second-best roster of young talent in football. They are absolutely in the mix to win an AFC South that was just dealt another season-altering blow with Jaguars’ quarterback Nick Foles breaking his collarbone against the Chiefs.

Cincinnati Bengals 20 at Seattle Seahawks 21

The Dolphins made a pretty unassailable case for themselves as the worst team in football, losing 59-10 to Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III, and the Ravens. But entering the week, many analysts would have thrown the Bengals in the mix for the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL draft, especially if you had told them that Joe Mixon would suffer an ankle injury in Week 1 to possibly join their other best skill player, A.J. Green, on the shelf. Instead, the Bengals gave the heavily favored Seahawks all they could handle in Seattle, spearheaded by a 418-yard passing day for Andy Dalton and an overdue 158-yard, two-touchdown breakout performance from former top-10 draft pick (and Playmaker Score favorite) John Ross.

Like the Colts, the Bengals have to be wondering what could have been had kicker Randy Bullock not hooked his 45-yard field goal attempt halfway through the third period. He had converted 35 of his previous 38 attempts inside 50 yards. Still, the Bengals were in good shape when Bullock made his next attempt from 27 to pull within one point of the Seahawks at 21-20 with seven minutes left in the game.

The Seahawks had scored on their previous drive courtesy of an incredible escape and touch completion to rookie D.K. Metcalf and a 44-yard lob to a wide-open Tyler Lockett. But they otherwise struggled to move the ball against the Bengals defense in the second half, passing for just 98 yards and rushing for just 32 after the intermission.

Very experienced first-time defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo made major strides in Week 1 with what was a bottom-six DVOA defense a year ago despite the team’s quiet free agency and lack of a first- or second-round defensive draft pick. His defense held the Seahawks to a three-and-out on their subsequent possession and six-and-out on the one after, leaving the Bengals with a pair of chances to win the game with a field goal. But the Bengals couldn’t handle the Seahawks pass pressure. On the first drive, the Seahawks deflected two of Dalton’s passes and forced him to check the ball down, leading to a punt after just 15 yards on six plays. On the second, Rasheem Green dislodged the ball just before Dalton threw his second pass. Officials confirmed that the loose ball was a fumble, which the Seahawks recovered with just nine seconds left to kneel and end the game.

The Seahawks have a rich history of playing to the level of their competition, so even with their many veteran losses on both offense and defense in recent seasons, I won’t be too quick in lowering my expectations for them as a playoff team. That said, the Bengals were a revelation with underwhelming offensive talent under new head coach Zac Taylor. Dalton’s 418 passing yards were 35 more than his previous career high in now his ninth season. The Seahawks allowed more than 332 passing yards just one time in 2018, which was in a blowout victory over the 49ers in Week 13 in which Nick Mullens threw 48 pass attempts, most of them while down multiple scores. Dalton threw the ball 51 times himself in this contest, but his quick decisions and passes led to much better results than those with his middling 2.34-second average time in the pocket in 2018.

They still don’t have much of a prayer in a loaded AFC North, but the Bengals can take solace in the fact that Taylor looks like a good hire after his first week. That was far from a given considering that the 36-year-old head coach’s previous resume highlights were one-year receiver and quarterback assistant coaching stints under Sean McVay.

Washington Redskins 27 at Philadelphia Eagles 32

Five Football Outsiders staffers picked the Eagles to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, including yours truly. The Redskins passing offense prominently featured journeyman quarterback Case Keenum, 35-year-old tight end Vernon Davis, and virtual unknowns Terry McLaurin and Trey Quinn at wide receiver. The game was in Philadelphia. I guess that all adds up to a trap game because the Redskins rolled through the Eagles for a seven-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to start the game and followed it up with a field goal and another touchdown on their next two drives to build a 17-0 lead. And they still held a 13-point advantage entering halftime. But the Eagles received the second-half kickoff and quickly erased the deficit with three consecutive touchdown drives.

The first of those was a methodical, 12-play drive, showcasing the discipline and roster depth the Eagles have had throughout their recent run of success. But their next two touchdown drives were short and featured their shiny new/old toy, DeSean Jackson. Carson Wentz connected with Jackson 48 yards through the air for the first touchdown, and then Jackson added 19- and 9-yard catches before Alshon Jeffery scored from 2 yards away. Jackson had already provided the Eagles’ first-half touchdown on a 51-yarder, all in the air.

Wentz has always loved to be aggressive. He has thrown 35.7% of his passes at least 10 yards in the air the last two seasons, which trails only Jameis Winston among the 29 quarterbacks with 500 or more total attempts. But he has never had as capable as deep threat as Jackson, who is poised to provide the Eagles offense its only previously missing piece.

The Eagles’ 22-point blitz took the sails out of a Redskins offense that managed just 5 total yards across 10 plays on their first three drives of the second half. Sitting on a two-score lead with 12:05 left in the fourth quarter, Wentz led the Eagles on a dispiriting 19-play, 74-yard drive that led to a field goal but more importantly erased nearly nine minutes of clock. That left the Redskins with 3:10 to score a pair of touchdowns. It took them all but six seconds to score one of them. Even if the Redskins had recovered their subsequent onside kick attempt — and that is basically impossible now that the kicking team can’t take a running start — they would have needed to follow it up with a successful Hail Mary. Instead, Eagles special teams player Nathan Gerry secured the kick with little drama, and Wentz secured a five-point win with a kneeldown.

The Eagles may have sleep-walked through the first 20 minutes of the game, but when they needed to, they showed all the firepower one could hope to see from the league’s deepest roster. The Redskins passing offense was surprisingly efficient despite its lack of star power. Keenum averaged 8.6 yards per attempt across 44 passes, and third-round rookie McLaurin made good on his preseason sleeper buzz with 125 yards and a score on five catches. The Redskins’ major problems were on defense, the side of the ball that one would assume would have to carry the team to a respectable win-loss record this season. Football Outsiders wasn’t bullish, tabbing them with a bottom-10 defensive DVOA projection. It won’t always be as difficult as it was in Week 1 against the high-flying Eagles, but the Redskins could be staring at a top-five NFL draft pick nonetheless.

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