Welcome to the Read Option column, Week 2 edition! Prepare for plenty of Cowboys talk.
Option 1, Week 2’s Burning Question: Which presumed contender will start 0-2?
The 0-2 hole is dreaded in NFL circles, and for good reason — teams that have dropped their first two games have made it to the Big Game only four times, according to ESPN. So it bore watching — which supposed contender would find themselves winless at the end of the weekend? Some contenders, like the Cowboys, avoided the designation by the slimmest of margins, while others had bounce back weeks and took care of business, like the Buccaneers and Colts. I’ll omit the Texans from consideration given their brutal schedule thus far (I think anybody would go 0-2 versus the Chiefs and Ravens), so let’s go with these two NFC clankers, Minnesota and Philadelphia. Not to toot my own horn, but I boldly predicted each would miss the playoffs with nine wins apiece. Given the margin of defeat each has suffered, it might be a surprise if either team gets to that mark.
The Eagles were on the losing end of one of the most surprising upsets of Week 1, surrendering a 17-0 lead to the Washington Football Team, before failing to contend against the solid Los Angeles Rams at home. Currently, quarterback Carson Wentz ranks 32nd out of 33 NFL quarterbacks in ESPN’s QBR metric and has just two touchdowns to go with four picks.
Number 31? Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins. The Vikings have played two contenders in Green Bay and Indianapolis in their first two contests and have been handled in both. A unit that was once considered one of the NFL’s best has now surrendered 43 and 28 points and has led to a point margin that is only behind, you guessed it, the Eagles in the NFC. The Vikings count the Titans and Seahawks among their next three opponents while Philly will get a trio of AFC North opponents on the docket. As the contenders start to emerge in the deep NFC, these pretenders are fading fast.
Option 2, Week 2’s Huge Performance: Dak Prescott
One persistent narrative has hounded Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott’s career as a Cowboy — that he simply has too much help to be considered an elite quarterback in his own right. Let the Cowboys’ miraculous comeback against the Atlanta Falcons attest to the contrary.
The Falcons, who surrendered the most passing yards of any team in Week 1, may not have appeared a tough test on paper, but with major personnel losses on the offensive line (including All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith), Dak’s day was going to be an uphill battle. And very quickly, it did look like the game was spiraling out of control after the Cowboys fumbled four times, losing three, and turned over on downs on a fake punt pass attempt. By the end of the first quarter, the Cowboys were down 20-0, and by halftime, the deficit was 29-10.
Prescott’s performance during that half was far from MVP-worthy, as he lost a fumble on an ill-advised pitch attempt, but he completed 15 of 19 passes and got the offense moving when it wasn’t actively turning the ball over. Still, with a 19-point deficit, a depleted offensive line and momentum heavily in visiting Atlanta’s favor, Dak did what elite quarterbacks do. On a third and 6 on Dallas’ first drive of the second half, he found rookie CeeDee Lamb on a seam on a four verts play. The next drive, he connected on the long ball again, sending a deep heave Amari Cooper’s way on a pass the Pro Bowl receiver was able to corral with one hand. Prescott scared Cowboy fans by exiting after a brutal red zone hit and left for evaluation, but came back and pulled the Boys’ within double-digits.
The Falcons had to be seeing ghosts of their Super Bowl LI loss to the Patriots, but Matt Ryan still got the unit going, putting up 10 second-half points to push the Falcons’ lead to 39-24 with just five minutes left. Dak answered. With the Cowboys in a seemingly insurmountable hole, 39-30 with three minutes and no timeouts left, he put the ball where only his receivers could get it and exhibited full confidence in them, and they answered big-time. A missile to Donald Brown and a deep jump ball to Michael Gallup set up consecutive touchdown drives. Then, kicker Greg Zuerlein gave Prescott one last shot to seal his performance thanks to a brilliantly executed onside kick. Prescott found Lamb again on a marvelously run out route to put Dallas in field goal range and up Prescott’s total yardage on the day to 450, and then Zuerlein put the game-winner through the uprights to give Dallas a 40-39 lead.
As with any mind blowing comeback, a lot of things had to go right for Dallas, but Prescott’s vintage performance had to be number one. Prescott did not let the game get out of hand even after an unbelievably bad start and led lightning-quick drives late that put Dallas in position to steal the late win. Don’t forget the three rushing touchdowns either, an underrated storyline in his years in Dallas.
This could be a turning point. The Cowboys’ playing catchup ball late was a common script last season, when the Boys finished 1-7 in one-possession games, but Prescott matched up his big statistical day with a great team win. The performance should give Dallas, now in a tie for first place in the lackluster NFC East, a huge confidence boost and change the narrative around Prescott for the better.
Option 3, Week 2’s Crucial Decision: Trusting Justin Herbert.
HBO’s Hard Knocks show gave a glimpse into the training camps of the two Los Angeles teams, the Rams and Chargers, and one of my favorite parts was the footage of rookie quarterback Justin Herbert’s action as a starter. He made some boneheaded plays, but for each rough patch, there was another fantastic look that seemed to validate his sixth overall selection in the draft.
Well, fast forward a couple weeks and Justin Herbert was in the Chargers’ white and powder blues under center, the unfortunate result of a pregame chest injury to Los Angeles starter Tyrod Taylor. Going up against the league’s reigning Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes in a matchup few gave the Chargers a chance to win, Herbert impressed and somehow kept the Chargers in the lead for most of regulation and in the game until Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker’s game-winning 58-yard boot in overtime. Like Hard Knocks Justin Herbert, Week 2 Justin Herbert was a mixed bag, alternating moments of brilliance and misfires, but coach Anthony Lynn’s decision to let Herb cook proved vital in the Chargers’ surprising contention.
The Chargers found success on the ground game, with both Joshua Kelley and Austin Ekeler eclipsing the 16-carry and 60-yard marks, but Herbert had his opportunities to shine as well. Herbie passed for 311 yards and lofted his first career touchdown in the second quarter, giving the Chargers an eyebrow-raising 14-6 halftime lead. While it helped that the LA defense gave Mahomes plenty of problems, Herbert’s long drives (of 12, 7, and 17 plays in the second half) gave Mahomes less time to do Mahomes-type things. He had some phenomenal plays, like a late laser to Keenan Allen over Chief defender Tyrann Mathieu, but also forced an interception downfield when he had a scrambling lane wide open. Though the Chargers didn’t come out with a win, Herbert’s emergence and LA’s contention in its home debut had to feel good.
Checkdown: NFC West an all-time divisional battle
Here’s a question: Who’s the worst team in the NFC West? Put aside the AFC West and North divisions, and that “worst team” likely would be at the tops of any other division in football. For right now, I’d go with the San Francisco 49ers, who lost to the upstart Cardinals in Week 1 at full strength and then lost their quarterback, running back, and top defensive player in a bittersweet Week 2 win over the hapless Jets.
Arizona was my pick to finish second in the division and make the playoffs, and they have to be thrilled with their start thus far. The defense has held the Niners and the Football Team below three touchdowns, enabling an offense that is taking off with second-year quarterback Kyler Murray to power the team to victories. Don’t look now, but the Cardinals could compete with any one.
Seattle’s case revolves around Russell Wilson, who looks like the MVP favorite at this point in the season, though it remains to be seen how far a team can go based off its quarterback alone. The defense nearly gave up 400 passing yards on back to back weeks against two quarterbacks who probably peaked five years ago — there should be some concerns there. Still, at this point consensus is probably that the Seahawks are the best in the West.
I did not forget about the post-hype Rams, who have topped NFC East supposed contenders in their first two weeks. Los Angeles deserved to win both games but let each come too close at the end. I really like Jared Goff as a quarterback and think this less glitzy offense can do the job, though the loss of Cam Akers could hurt if he misses serious time. In short, almost every NFC West divisional game will be a coin flip (especially without home field advantage), and that’s something we say about no division, ever.
Game Notes: Injury watch was brutal. Giants running back Saquon Barkley is likely done for the year after a torn ACL, severely limiting the Giants’ ceiling and perhaps young quarterback Daniel Jones’ development. Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey also went down, and while the implications of that injury are unclear, he’s everything to that offense. But the team that had it worst had to be the 49ers, losing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, running back Raheem Mostert and defensive end Nick Bosa. The Niners are the reigning Super Bowl champions, but the losses could drop them to the cellar of the NFC West in the interim…Drew Lock will miss time under center for the Broncos, but backup Jeff Driskel had quite a game filling in against the Steelers. Driskel has experience going for him, and there are some nice weapons in the Denver offense. But with Tom Brady, Cam Newton and Patty Mahomes coming up on the schedule, battling out of the 0-2 hole will be difficult…Speaking of Newton, the former Panther looked impressive in Sunday Night’s Super Bowl XLIX rematch. At the same time, it was against the Seahawks defense. Newton is a fantastic chess piece for Bill Belichick in the red zone and finished with two rushing touchdowns, but he also threw for almost 400 yards and almost led the Patriots to a double-digit fourth quarter comeback. On the other side, Russell Wilson made the impossible possible with his arm. With a 140 passer rating, 87.4 QBR, and 9 passing touchdowns, Mr. Unlimited has to be the MVP favorite. That’s saying something in a year in which Mahomes and Lamar are on their A games…Credit to the Chargers’ defense for keeping Mahomes in check for three quarters, but if you don’t get him the last quarter, you won’t win, period. Mahomes’ scrambles were just as devastating as his arm and he pretty much broke the Chargers’ defense’s will all on his own. This guy is appointment viewing, if you haven’t already heard…Congrats to Baker Mayfield on getting a win, but taking one against Cincinnati will not inoculate you against the calls for your job if you don’t take a couple big-time steps in your development the next couple months.
Lamar Jackson Watch
Stat Line: 18-24, 204 yards, 1 touchdown, 113.9 passer rating, 16 rush, 54 yards, 33-16 win
The Skinny: Texans-Ravens was as close to an RG3 game as you can get without actually having an RG3 game. The Ravens were in full control against the Texans, though Houston’s defense limited the red zone damage. Jackson looked his usual dominant self through the air and on the ground but missed a couple of throws (one was even caught for a touchdown by fullback Patrick Ricard). The most important thing in this harrowing week is that Jackson is still upright and ready to go for the Week 3 megaduel against Patrick Mahomes. Coach John Harbaugh kept his foot on the gas pedal, which is great from an aggressiveness standpoint and a little concerning looking at Jackson’s 16 rushing attempts, most of any Raven by a good margin.
Gardner Minshew II Watch
Stat Line: 30-45, 339 yards, 3 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 92.8 passer rating, 30-33 loss
The Skinny: Gardner Minshew pulled out a magical win Week 1 against division rival Indianapolis, so eyes were on him to deliver against another divisional foe, Tennessee. Minshew did not finish the day with 19-20 passing splits and fell short of the win, but he had his moments in a tightly contested game. The Washington State product upped his passing yardage production with a gaudy 339 yards and 3 touchdowns, including one marvelous completion to D.J. Chark. You got to love the guy’s confidence — down 24-10 at halftime, Minshew led three straight touchdown drives to put the Jags squarely in the game with seven minutes to go. The emergence of undrafted rookie James Robinson at running back (102 yards, 1 TD) is huge for a Jacksonville offense that is actually looking pretty competent after two weeks. Look, Minshew is not among the top quarterback prospects in the game and can have his raw moments (such as the game-ending interception down three), but if you’re not watching this kid, you’re missing out on something special.
Tom Brady Watch
Stat Line: 23-35, 217 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, 80.3 passer rating, 31-17 win
The Skinny: Let’s set this straight — Tom Brady was going against a defense that needed a renovation so badly that it used all of its draft picks on that side of the ball. So in that context, let’s look at a bounce back win that earned Brady his first win as a Buc. There were definite moments of discombobulation, such as a really iffy interception and more than a couple errant throws, but Brady’s back shoulder fade to Mike Evans was beyond impressive and his synergy with Evans throughout the day (7 catches for 104 yards) is a huge plus. Leonard Fournette’s emergence in the backfield also has to be a positive for an offense that needs a secondary threat to take the burden off their 43-year-old quarterback. As I said after Week 1, this is a Bucs team where you’ll need to stay the course, because though the early results may not be huge, their potential in January is tantalizing. That means giving time for Tom Brady to do TB12 things.
Dak Prescott Watch
Stat Line: 34-47, 450 yards, 1 touchdown, 109.4 passer rating, 5 carries, 3 rushing touchdowns, 1 fumble, 40-39 win
The Skinny: See above.
Kyler Murray Watch
Stat Line: 26-38, 286 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, 88.3 passer rating, 67 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns, 30-15 win
The Skinny: Murray predictably wrecked the Washington Football Team defense, and in doing so may have catapulted the Cardinals into first place in the NFC West. Murray has electrified with juke-filled touchdown scampers in both of his first two weeks and tallied two rushing touchdowns in this one. Murray had his typical high dosage of short-to-intermediate throws, but he also hit two home run throws over 45 yards to flash his potential in that area. This game was by all measures over by halftime as Arizona took a 20-0 lead into the break.