Micah Parsons might take over the NFL. For years, Aaron Donald has worn the title of the NFL’s most valuable non-quarterback. Parsons is in the process of taking it for himself. Having switched from part-time linebacker to full-time pass-rusher, Parsons has been the best player on a Dallas Cowboys team that has outscored the Giants and Jets by a combined 70-10.
Parsons held the Cowboys’ 30-10 victory in his hands. He sacked Zach Wilson twice, recorded another tackle for loss, pressured Wilson on a game-sealing interception, batted down a pass and ripped the ball out of Dalvin Cook’s hands for a fumble. He is a lightning bolt, whether rushing off the edge or from over a guard. Wilson didn’t offer the same challenge as Aaron Rodgers would have, but he was not a disaster; Parsons would have swallowed any quarterback.
Parsons has made the Cowboys one of the NFL’s most impressive teams through two weeks and helped shift the league’s balance of power from the AFC; the NFC is 6-0 against the AFC, and six of the NFL’s eight 2-0 teams reside in the NFC.
The kick return is fading away. The NFL’s offseason rule change to limit kick returns has had the desired effect through two weeks. In Week 1, 78 percent of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. In Week 2, Indianapolis Colts returner Dallas Flowers set a fitting tone for the week when he called for a fair catch inside his 10-yard line. Only 14 kickoffs have been returned in Week 2, with two Monday night games remaining.
In many games, every kickoff resulted in a touchback. But some teams still want to use the kick return as a potential big play; the Seattle Seahawks’ DeeJay Dallas returned three kickoffs, and Keisean Nixon of the Green Bay Packers, the reigning all-pro kick returner, returned two, taking one back 30 yards.
The NFL’s competition committee changed the kickoff rule to allow a returner to call for a fair catch anywhere inside the 25-yard line and have the ball advanced to the 25. The change has disincentivized returns, which the NFL wants because it has found concussions occur disproportionately on kickoffs. But special teams can still swing a game — Cincinnati Bengals rookie Charlie Jones scored on an 81-yard punt return touchdown.
Teams can work around the rules to their advantage. After the Giants took the lead with 19 seconds left in the fourth quarter Sunday, kicker Graham Gano booted a low, rolling kick to the goal line. Since he couldn’t fair-catch it, Greg Dortch had to scoop the ball and return it, burning four seconds the Arizona Cardinals would’ve rather used for a desperation drive.
The Chiefs’ defense is better than their offense. Usually a supporting character in the Patrick Mahomes Show, Kansas City’s defense has been the defending Super Bowl champions’ driving force. It smothered the Jacksonville Jaguars in a 17-9 victory in Jacksonville, bailing out an offense that committed three turnovers in the first half and has not played to its high standard.
The Chiefs surrendered 21 points to the Detroit Lions in Week 1, but seven of those came on a pick-six — so without its best player, the Chiefs’ defense yielded only 14 points to one of the best offenses in the NFL. Defensive tackle Chris Jones returned in Week 2 and turned a solid unit into a dominant one. Jones showed no rust, spending the entire game harassing Trevor Lawrence.
But the Chiefs’ defense is much more than Jones. The 2022 draft will go down as the moment Kansas City secured its defensive future. The Chiefs drafted pass rushers George Karlaftis and Leo Chenal and defensive backs Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams, Bryan Cook and Jaylen Watson. All are contributors. In his third season, meanwhile, Nick Bolton is becoming one of the league’s best middle linebackers. The Chiefs have quickly built a fast, aggressive defensive core that should be good for a long time.
Where did Puka Nacua come from? When training camp ended, Nacua was a known commodity among analytically inclined draftniks, late-night college football connoisseurs and Los Angeles Rams superfans. He now owns, without exaggeration, the greatest two-week start to a career of any wide receiver in NFL history.
Nacua, a fifth-round rookie, has caught 25 passes — a record for a player’s first two games — for 366 yards, including 15 catches for 147 yards Sunday in the Los Angeles Rams’ 30-23 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The Rams, expected to rank among the worst teams in the NFL, have thrived even with Cooper Kupp on injured reserve. Nacua is the primary reason.
Nacua came out of BYU, where injuries limited him last year as he caught 48 passes for 625 yards. He was always productive when healthy; Pro Football Focus rated him the second-best wide receiver in college football last year. As a draft prospect, his lack of top-end speed (4.57 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and eye-popping test scores hurt him.
But Nacua’s understanding of coverages has allowed him to click with Matthew Stafford, who has experienced a renaissance. After missing most of last season with back and elbow injuries that threatened to spoil his late career, Stafford is playing like he did at his peak, zipping passes and moving nimbly in the pocket. It helps to have a receiver like Nacua.
Nothing is easy for the Patriots. New England has started 0-2 for the first time in 22 years after its 24-17 loss at home to the Miami Dolphins. There is no shame in losing close, grinding games to the Philadelphia Eagles and Dolphins, both of whom are 2-0. But the Patriots’ playing style does not offer much hope they can ascend to the league’s elite. The defining characteristic of their season is how difficult they make everything look.
The Patriots’ receivers create little separation. Their offensive line opens small holes. Mac Jones rarely has comfort in the pocket. Miami’s defense under Vic Fangio is designed to take away downfield passes, but the Patriots’ longest play Sunday night went for 18 yards. They resorted to moving the ball in small chunks, but eventually most of their drives hit a snag and died, which is what happens when an offense cannot generate big plays.
The Patriots’ defense will make them competitive, especially as their young players mature. But they are already 0-2 with two home games expired. They have their work cut out for them not to miss the playoffs for the second straight season.
Brandon Staley’s seat should be getting warm. Early Sunday, the Los Angeles Chargers took an 11-0 lead against an opponent that, dating back to last season, had lost eight consecutive games. It should have been an opportunity to cleanse their wrenching season-opening loss, which followed last year’s playoff meltdown. It instead became another example of the Chargers’ bad habit under Staley: losing games they should have won.
The Chargers possessed the ball twice in the fourth quarter with a four-point lead over the Tennessee Titans. They received the ball first in overtime. They still lost, 27-24, and fell into an 0-2 hole from which it will be difficult to recover. The Chargers mustered three incomplete passes on their overtime possession, then yielded 37 yards that set up Nick Folk’s game-winning field goal.
Staley is an alleged defensive guru, but the Chargers’ defense wilted the way it has so consistently over the past two seasons. The Chargers are a soft team that tackles poorly and offers quarterbacks little schematic complexity. One week after Tua Tagovailoa passed for 466 yards against them, Ryan Tannehill averaged 10.3 yards per attempt. One week after throwing three interceptions, Tannehill tossed only four incompletions in 24 attempts.
Justin Herbert, who signed a five-year, $262 million contract this summer, is now 25-26 as a starting quarterback in the regular season, with a loss in his only playoff game. Herbert deserves more scrutiny than he typically receives; he is not consistent enough to be considered an elite quarterback, despite the breathtaking moments he creates with his best plays. Still, his record is less of a reflection of his ability than of the Chargers’ failure to build a winning team around him. That falls on Staley, who has 15 games — at most — to prove he should be the coach to shepherd Herbert’s career.
Justin Fields is running out of time. Rather than using the first pick in April’s draft to select a quarterback, the Chicago Bears traded it to acquire No. 1 wideout D.J. Moore. They could hardly have made a clearer declaration of commitment to Fields as their future quarterback. Given a chance to replace Fields, they built around him.
The opening two weeks have tested the Bears’ judgment. Fields has regressed in two ugly losses, including Sunday’s 27-17 defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Fields took six sacks and threw two interceptions Sunday, including a bizarre pick-six on a screen pass that traveled about two yards into the hands of a defensive end.
Fields seems to be confused about what kind of quarterback he wants or needs to be. His incandescent running gives the Bears their best chance to win, but he ran four times for three yards against Tampa Bay. He has not replaced that production with an improvement in his processing and passing. He does not make quick decisions and plays behind the game. If he cannot make progress, the Bears will face another massive decision. This is the offseason when they have to exercise his fifth-year option or not. Unless Fields progresses, it would be hard for Chicago to commit to him again.
If the Cardinals haven’t won yet, they might not win at all. The Cardinals’ first two weeks could be interpreted in two ways. One: They have been far more competitive than expected starting a career backup quarterback who joined them on the eve of the season. Two: They are a raging tire fire that missed two clear chances to win and should start scouting Caleb Williams and Drake Maye now.
One week after the Cardinals blew a 16-10 lead in the fourth quarter in Washington, they demonstrated how to really blow a lead. They lost to the Giants, 31-28, after taking a 28-7 lead midway through the third quarter. From that point on, the Cardinals allowed three consecutive touchdown drives before yielding a game-winning field goal.
It’s easy to notice Joshua Dobbs playing the quarterback position reserved for Kyler Murray, who is recovering from the knee injury he suffered late last season. But Dobbs has been competent and has serviceable pass catchers to throw to. Arizona’s real downfall will be its defense. Aside from defensive end Dennis Gardeck, who has overwhelmed the Commanders and Giants, the Cardinals lack any kind of talent on defense, especially with cornerback Budda Baker sidelined.
The Giants’ comeback saved them from embarrassment. At halftime, they had been outscored 60-0 on the season. Their victory included a sour note: Barkley limped off late in the fourth quarter and slammed his helmet on the sideline, seemingly knowing he had suffered a potentially significant injury.