The First Read: Five burning questions off Week 2; plus, risers/sliders & Week 3’s most intriguing game

The First Read: Five burning questions off Week 2; plus, risers/sliders & Week 3's most intriguing game

Cowboys show they’re ‘best defense in the world’ in blowout of Jets

In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 3 of the 2023 NFL season, including:

But first, a look at five burning questions after Sunday’s games …

A lot of people will tell you that the first week of the NFL season is the perfect time for overreactions. If you follow this league long enough, then you will learn that Week 2 offers ample opportunity for exactly the same thing. Some teams that impress in their openers come back to earth. A select few that disappointed show significant signs of improvement. And then there is the group we’re going to focus on today — the ones that flounder out of the gate for two straight weeks and leave us all wondering about their respective destinies.

We’ll start with the simple cliché that is often uttered at this time of year: There’s a lot of football left to be played. We’ll then pivot to the reality that comes with slow starts: They usually kill dreams fast. The real trick is assessing who deserves the benefit of the doubt when two weeks have passed without much success, and who needs to begin preparing for four months of misery. That will be the theme of The First Read coming out of this weekend — which teams should be panicking and which ones just need a little more patience.

By the way, this isn’t a breakdown of which 0-2 teams have the best shot at the playoffs. There will be plenty of those stories written this week. Instead, the focus here is on interesting questions that are fairly tough to answer at the moment. Here’s what has caught the eye of this particular writer.

1) Can Sean Payton really turn around the Denver Broncos? Payton showed up in Denver with all the requisite credentials to excite a fan base that witnessed a train wreck under former head coach Nathaniel Hackett in 2022. The problem is that the Broncos haven’t won a game yet and they’ve blown fourth-quarter leads in each loss. (They were actually up, 21-3, against Washington on Sunday). So how does one make sense of this? The Broncos look like they’re playing better, especially quarterback Russell Wilson. But they also are making the same types of critical mistakes that undermine any team’s chances of winning. The buzz word around Denver when Payton arrived this offseason was culture. He was going to show a talented team how to win, and it would respond by actually winning. Now the Broncos have two losses against two teams that didn’t even make the playoffs last year, with a road trip to undefeated Miami coming next. You’d like to think the Broncos would be favored in their next two games after that — against the Bears and Jets — but 0-3 is a major hurdle to clear in a crowded AFC. Verdict: PANIC

2) Can Zach Wilson play well enough to help the New York Jets reach the playoffs? Wilson looked as bad in Sunday’s 30-10 loss to Dallas as most people likely anticipated. He completed only 12 of 27 passes for 170 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. He was running for his life most of the afternoon and literally had no chance of keeping the Jets in the game. The question is whether this will be a weekly occurrence for New York. Wilson made enough plays in Week 1 emergency duty — when he helped the Jets beat the Bills after starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers sustained a torn Achilles — but that win also had plenty to do with New York forcing four Josh Allen turnovers. The only way the Jets win consistently with Wilson is if their running game and defense dominate. That didn’t happen in Dallas (where Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb lit up the Jets’ secondary), and it doesn’t seem realistic moving forward. Wilson is probably a better player than a year ago after watching Rodgers and turning the page on 2022. It just doesn’t seem that he’s improved enough to think he can deliver for this team. Verdict: PANIC

3) Can Joe Burrow overcome a slow start for the second straight year? We get it. The Bengals have an abundance of confidence and don’t scare easy. That doesn’t mean they have to open every season 0-2. They did it last year and managed to win 12 of their next 14 games on the way to the AFC North crown. Burrow struggled mightily in those first two defeats, yet turned around his play with a combination of patience and poise. He’ll have to do the same thing this year, although the challenge could be much harder if he really has aggravated the calf strain that sidelined him for nearly all of training camp. We won’t know the severity of that injury until Burrow is thoroughly evaluated, but it’s a scary situation. He threw for a career-low 82 yards in a season-opening loss to Cleveland and didn’t exactly light it up during Sunday’s 27-24 loss to Baltimore, in which he threw for 222 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. The good news for Cincinnati is that the schedule lightens up over the next month, when they’ll see the Rams, Titans, Cardinals and Seahawks. That’s enough of a stretch to give the Bengals a chance to create some momentum. Burrow might not be 100 percent healthy during that time, but it’s hard to bet against the guy. Verdict: PATIENCE

4) Will the Chicago Bears defense show any signs of improvement? The Bears defense should be grateful for quarterback Justin Fields. We spend so much time dissecting his potential for improvement that the discussion around the other side of the football rarely receives the necessary attention. The Bears were abysmal on defense last season. They’re not much better right now. No disrespect to Tampa Bay quarterback Baker Mayfield, but there aren’t many teams he should be lighting up at this stage of his journeyman career. The Bears apparently are one of those squads, as they allowed him to throw for 317 yards on 26-of-34 passing. That was one week after Green Bay’s Jordan Love tossed three touchdown passes against them. Here are two stats to remember about Chicago’s defense after two weeks: It has allowed opponents to convert 17 of 31 third-down opportunities and has yet to force a turnover. It’s hard to win games win you can’t get off the field or take away the football. Verdict: PANIC

5) Is there any reason to be hopeful in New England? The Patriots have the same problem that faced them when this season began. They have a defense that is talented enough to keep them in games and an offense that is limited enough to prevent them from winning those contests. The Eagles and Dolphins both built big leads against the Patriots — Philadelphia led, 16-0, while Miami went up 17-3 — and New England rallied to make the games interesting at the end. That’s not a recipe for long-term success. It’s merely a representative sampling of mediocrity. Sunday night’s 24-17 Dolphins defeat reinforced the major problem facing the Patriots, which is they compete in a brutal division, and Miami and Buffalo are significantly better. This is now the first time Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has started a season 0-2 since 2001. Unfortunately for him, there isn’t a young quarterback like Tom Brady waiting to blossom and help turn things around in a hurry. Verdict: PANIC

The Seahawks weren’t supposed to be leaving Detroit with a 37-31 overtime win. They did so because their starting quarterback wasn’t going to allow a loss happen. Smith produced strong numbers (32-of-41 passing for 328 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner to Tyler Lockett) while guiding an offense that was without both starting offensive tackles. The Rams decimated Seattle in Week 1. Week 2 showed us why the Seahawks believe so much in Smith.

Evans made it clear that he was unhappy about not getting an extension from the Bucs this offseason. He made a strong case in Sunday’s win over Chicago as to why he may have plenty to offer another team when free agency rolls around. Evans had six receptions for 171 yards and a touchdown, with a 70-yard catch-and-run thrown in for good measure. He may be getting up there in age (he’s now 30), but right now he’s a big part of Tampa Bay’s 2-0 start.

The Chiefs All-Pro defensive tackle missed the entire offseason, training camp and the first game of the season in a contract holdout. He then signed a new one-year deal, walked onto the field in Week 2 and dominated during a 17-9 win over Jacksonville. Jones had five pressures and 1.5 sacks to help energize a Kansas City pass rush that was instrumental in stifling the Jaguars offense. And this was in a game when the Chiefs were cognizant of not overusing him. Imagine what can happen when he’s able to play more snaps. 

Los Angeles didn’t have any answers for Miami’s dynamic offense in Week 1. Week two felt even worse, largely because the Chargers’ 27-24 loss to Tennessee featured many of the same problems in their secondary. Ryan Tannehill, the same quarterback whom the Titans keep drafting replacements for, completed 20 of 24 passes for 246 yards and burned the Chargers twice on deep balls. This is nothing new, by the way. The Chargers have been waiting three years for the kind of stifling defense that was supposed to be the calling card of head coach Brandon Staley. It’s starting to look like that’s never going to happen. 

Pierce has gone from being one of the league’s best rookies in 2022 to being a non-factor this season. He’s gained all of 69 yards on 26 carries through two games. To be fair, the Texans are dealing with all sorts of offensive line problems and they had four starters missing with injuries in their loss to Indianapolis. But the hope was that Pierce could be a critical component for an offense breaking in rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud. He’s a long way from that at this stage.

All you have to know about the Vikings is they have seven turnovers in two games. They gave the ball away three times in a season-opening loss to Tampa Bay and then four more times in a Thursday night defeat at Philadelphia. They can’t run it effectively (Minnesota has 69 rushing yards on the season), and it’s frightening to think of how things would look if something happened to All-Pro wide receiver Justin Jefferson. It feels like there’s plenty more frustration awaiting this unit in the coming weeks.

Sam Howell shows flashes of being The Guy. The Commanders have been searching for a quarterback for a few years now. Howell is starting to look like the guy who finally can ease all that pain. He found himself down, 21-3, in Denver and played well enough — throwing for 299 yards and two touchdowns — to help Washington pull out a 35-33 win. There weren’t a ton of people who would’ve picked Howell to be an early surprise. Right now, he’s blossoming under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and leading a team that is 2-0.

Detroit let all the good vibes of a season-opening win over Kansas City evaporate in its home loss to Seattle. Now the Lions must face an Atlanta team that is writing its own exciting narrative. The Falcons have displayed resilience and a strong run game while starting 2-0. A win in Detroit after a comeback victory over Green Bay would only strengthen their credentials as real threats in the NFC South. 

One question answered by an unnamed front office source.

ANONYMOUS NFC SCOUT: “It’s too early to say who’s the best because injuries will factor into this at some point. That’s going to impact quality of play and depth and then you’ll really see how teams adapt schemes and personnel. They obviously have really good talent, but there are other teams that have individual units that are better. They’ve got the home-run hitter in Micah Parsons, but there are other defenses that will consistently hit doubles week in and week out. You still don’t know how they’ll weather playing a loaded offense. I even think the addition of (cornerback) Stephon Gilmore is a little overrated. He brings experience and he’s seen almost everything at this point. But he’s also older and can’t run like he used to. They’ve got to be careful with his matchups in man coverage because teams will smell blood in the water if they have speed to his side. Teams haven’t been afraid to challenge him in recent years because even number two (receivers) with afterburners can separate.”

A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 3 (with FanDuel odds as of 8 a.m. ET on Sept. 18):

FanDuel odds: +500

Weeks in top five: 2

Next game: vs. Broncos | Sunday, Sept. 24

FanDuel odds: +5000

Weeks in top five: 2

Next game: vs. Broncos | Sunday, Sept. 24

FanDuel odds: +600

Weeks in top five: 2

Next game: vs. Bears | Sunday, Sept. 24

FanDuel odds: +15000

Weeks in top five: 1

Next game: at Cardinals | Sunday, Sept. 24

FanDuel odds: +1000

Weeks in top five: 1

Next game: at Commanders | Sunday, Sept. 24

My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: 49ers over Bills.

Previous picks …

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Previous picks …

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