It’s mailbag time! For those of you who may be unfamiliar, a mailbag is when we reach out to readers for questions, and then choose a few that we think make interesting topics to discuss. (But do we, really? There’s no oversight and for all you know we’re just making up the questions we want to respond to and claiming we got it from Bill in Sacramento or Betsy in Tuscaloosa). Anyway, I definitely reached out to readers for their input, and below is a completely legitimate accounting of what I believe to be the most interesting questions from my very real readers for our Week 2 NFL Mailbag.
Are the Raiders AFC West Contenders?
Let’s begin by acknowledging just how impressive the Raiders have looked.
Their defense, which last season was one of the worst in the league by many metrics, made big plays against Baltimore in Week 1 (most notably Carl Nassib forcing a Lamar Jackson fumble in overtime, which ultimately led to the game-winning touchdown). They followed that performance by limiting Pittsburgh to 17 points and just 39 rushing yards in their Week 2 victory.
The most impressive group, however, has been the offense – led by the oft-maligned Derek Carr. Through 2 weeks the Vegas offense has racked up 916 total yards on offense – 817 of which have come from Carr through the air. This has been against Baltimore and Pittsburgh defenses missing key players, but I don’t care. Those are gaudy numbers deserving of respect.
As for the original question – declaring them AFC West contenders still feels premature.
This is Patrick Mahomes‘ and the Chiefs’ division until proven otherwise, and nothing thus far has changed that. It took Las Vegas everything in their power and an overtime period to beat Baltimore in Week 1, and while the Ravens turned around and shocked many with their upset win over Kansas City in Week 2, I’m not buying the transitive property where the Raiders beating the Ravens who beat the Chiefs now means the Raiders are better than the Chiefs. Call it poor coaching or a lack of urgency, but in the proverbial daily routine of the NFL season, the Chiefs are still very clearly hitting the snooze button.
Las Vegas’ next 5 opponents are the Dolphins, Chargers, Bears, Broncos, and Eagles. If they can finish that stretch with just one loss entering their bye week, then we can start talking about them as serious contenders.
Despite Their Injuries, Does Baltimore Have a Chance?
Baltimore’s Sunday Night Football win over the Chiefs was the surprise of the weekend. Well, that and the creepy The Queen’s Gambit guy saying Anya Taylor-Joy brought “sexy back to chess”.
What stunned me most about this Ravens’ win wasn’t their phenomenal rushing attack or Kansas City’s complete inability to stop it; Baltimore had 251 rushing yards and 3 rushing touchdowns. It wasn’t the viral clip of John Harbaugh asking Lamar Jackson whether he wanted to go for it on 4th down in the final minutes to eventually clinch the game, either. What impressed me most was how after every punch Kansas City threw their way, and every back-breaking touchdown the Chiefs scored (none more potentially devastating than Travis Kelce’s 46-yard touchdown in the 3rd quarter), Baltimore never backed down.
There’s no denying the importance of starting 1-1 rather than 0-2 when it comes to playoff probabilities. Even with an extra week in this year’s regular season, it was crucial for Baltimore to win this game. Still, I don’t think this is a playoff team.
We can’t forget; the Ravens are banged up. Few teams will be as incapable as Kansas City in stopping the Baltimore rushing attack (something to follow for the Chiefs), and the Ravens haven’t shown much of an ability to pass the ball this season. They’re one Lamar Jackson or offensive line injury away from completely imploding.
It was an impressive win, and perhaps my overreaction last week that Baltimore would finish last in the division was, in fact, an overreaction. But this is a long season and I simply don’t see a path for the Raven’s to maintain this level of intensity while also avoiding any further injuries.
Is Anyone On Tampa Bay’s Level?
The short answer? No.
After two weeks of action, it really doesn’t seem like any other team is as in-sync or as deep as the Buccaneers. Tom Brady looks as good if not better than he ever has, and with 2 touchdowns in back-to-back games, Rob Gronkowski – having apparently earned himself an open invitation to Brady’s fountain of youth, rounds out a Tampa Bay offense that has only gotten better since last season’s Super Bowl run.
The defense hasn’t been as dominant as it was down the stretch last season – they’ve recorded only 2 sacks and have struggled to pressure the quarterback thus far, but a rocky start for this unit still includes 4 forced turnovers and 2 defensive touchdowns.
A note on Brady: I fear we’ve been numbed to the point where we no longer appreciate what he’s accomplishing. At 44 years old, he’s leading the league’s top-scoring offense, and with 9 passing touchdowns through two weeks he’s on pace to break Peyton Manning‘s single-season passing touchdown record of 55 from 2013. We’ve never seen anything like this.
A road conference matchup this weekend against the Rams will be a big test, and there are a handful of teams that certainly have the potential to round into form just as Tampa did last season, but what we’ve seen so far from the Buccaneers puts them unquestionably atop league power rankings.
Which Version Of the Saints is Real?
This is the toughest question of the bunch.
In Week 1, New Orleans dominated Green Bay 38-3 and held the Packers to fewer than 230 total yards. It appeared Jameis Winston had unlocked the Saints offense, throwing just 6 incompletions while completing 5 touchdowns to 4 different receivers. They looked like they would be a force this season.
Then came Week 2 and suddenly they turned back into pumpkins.
New Orleans’ loss to the Panthers on Sunday was somehow worse than the one they dealt Green Bay the week prior. With 8 coaches and coordinators forced to miss the game due to Covid protocols, the offense totaled just 128 total yards. They racked up 11 turnovers for 115 yards. Their defense made Sam Darnold look like Joe Montana. The offense had only 6 first downs on the entire day.
The reality is we probably won’t know this team’s identity for a few more weeks. They face a difficult road matchup in New England this weekend before two relatively light matchups with the Giants and Washington Football Team, before their Week 6 bye. My early impression, though, is that no amount of institutional stability or talent on the roster changes the fact that this is, in good times and bad, Jameis Winston’s team. The first quarterback to ever throw 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the same season is seemingly allergic to nuance, and the result of that reality is games of brilliance mixed in with outings of head-scratching ineptitude.
If I’m a Saints fan, I’m horrified by the notion that maybe this two-week sample is actually a perfect distillation of what the team will be.
They’ll be really good.
Until they’re very bad.