[What We Learned is returning for the 2021 N.F.L. season with a new writer and a new look.]
How dare any of us doubt a team coached by Mike Tomlin?
There are only a few guarantees in today’s N.F.L.: Tom Brady will eat his avocado ice cream and win Super Bowls. Jerry Jones will do something absurd to extend Dallas’s championship drought. And Mike Tomlin will keep his Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl contention.
These Steelers hardly generated a decibel of buzz heading into Week 1. Heck, it was a shock they even wanted to bring back Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback at age 39.
The Buffalo Bills were the team primed to take the next step. Josh Allen was the future of the position itself. And all Tomlin’s Steelers did was travel 200 miles north, strut into Highmark Stadium and remind the entire N.F.L., with one punishing 23-16 punch to Buffalo’s jaw, that they’re not going anywhere.
Which is, of course, what Tomlin’s teams have done for 14 seasons.
Was it pretty? Heck no. But “not pretty” is when Tomlin’s teams are historically most dangerous. Above all, Tomlin’s teams smell blood.
That’s what happened on one ridiculous play call by the Bills at the start of the fourth quarter.
Facing a fourth-and-1 from Pittsburgh’s 41-yard line — with a 10-6 lead — the Bills wisely went for it. After all, this is the same Buffalo team that stuck its own head in the guillotine a year ago by opting for field goals against the Patrick Mahomes-powered Kansas City Chiefs in January’s A.F.C. championship game. A little guts from their head coach, Sean McDermott, was a welcome change.
But what came next was beyond bizarre.
Allen turned around to flick a pass backward to Matt Breida and cornerback Cameron Sutton was right there to lasso the running back to the ground for a 7-yard loss.
Four plays later, Pittsburgh pounced.
Roethlisberger feathered a 5-yard score to Diontae Johnson in the back of the end zone. After leading the N.F.L. in drops a year ago, this was the catch of the day, too. Johnson displayed remarkable concentration in corralling the tipped ball while dragging his back foot.
Moments later, cornerback James Pierre — the latest homegrown, undrafted future star in Pittsburgh — punched out what would have been a long completion to Emmanuel Sanders. Such was the theme. Every time the Bills were about to rev into 2020 form, every time a stadium dying to cheer on their Super Bowl contender was about to go bonkers, someone from a new corner of Pittsburgh’s roster quickly ruined those plans.
Two plays later, the Steelers blocked a punt for a touchdown to go up, 20-10.
And after a Bills field goal put the pressure on Old Man Ben to finish this off, Roethlisberger did exactly that. A pair of vintage, slow-motion throws to JuJu Smith-Schuster (24 yards) and Chase Claypool (14 yards) teed up a game-clinching field goal.
The highlight reel was not long.
This formula won’t be easy on the eyes but it could bring ring No. 7 to Pittsburgh.
We just saw it in Tampa Bay. Brady is Brady but that relentless Buccaneers pass rush — above all else — is what had Mahomes sprinting for his life in the Super Bowl. Lest we forget, Pittsburgh raced to an 11-0 start in 2020 on the back of its own defense.
The Pittsburgh defense is Pittsburgh again. Kevin Greene would be proud. Up front, everyone took turns smacking around the 6-foot-5, 237-pound Allen, effectively turning him back into that 2018 project out of Wyoming. Everything that everybody devoted two years into cleaning from Allen’s game resurfaced — airmailing balls over wide-open receivers, skidding other passes into the dirt, fumbling. A player many considered this year’s N.F.L. M.V.P. favorite looked downright skittish for three hours straight.
T.J. Watt earned every penny. There are game-wreckers everywhere on this defense, starting with the edge rusher who signed a four-year, $112 million extension this past week. Watt accounted for five of the team’s eight quarterback hits.
It’s clear the Steelers want to get rookie running back Najee Harris rolling in 2021. That way, they can keep games close and let Roethlisberger win it in the fourth. He’s old. He’s immobile. He’s easily memeable. But he has also thrived in every possible situation. There’s nothing Roethlisberger hasn’t seen and there’s still enough juice in that right arm to piece together one more run at a Super Bowl.
And yet, we won’t see Roethlisberger chucking it 60 times in another playoff loss this season — these Steelers can dictate the tempo. They’ll remove you from your comfort zone, your shootout and win like they used to win. With violence.
And for all of the “Last Dance” talk in Green Bay, the Steelers are also capable of sending their quarterback out on top this season.
The Saints’ shellacking of the Packers isn’t the shock you think it is.
The white flag started waving early. With 11 minutes left, the Green Bay Packers pulled the reigning league M.V.P. off the field. And while the final score in Jacksonville may seem jarring — Saints 38, Packers 3 — this should not be a surprise, no.
One team, the Packers, were held hostage by their quarterback all off-season. Their quarterback spent six months vacationing and relaxing and, no, Aaron Rodgers was not shy about rubbing this in the face of his own employer. He was on a quest of personal fulfillment or… or… something like that.
One team, the Saints, were ready for life post-Drew Brees because their starter, Jameis Winston, manically prepared for this moment. Laugh at all of the quirky training videos all you want. Winston has been eager for this second chance. With Coach Sean Payton, a strong defense and a competitive spirit that can rival anyone in the league, Winston, the former No. 1 overall pick, outplayed a disinterested Rodgers.
Winston didn’t need to throw much, but he was unbelievably efficient with 148 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions on 14-of-20 passing. The Saints also blasted Green Bay for 173 yards on the ground.
We spend far too much time overanalyzing the mentalities of one singular player in this sport: The quarterback. What about the mentality of an entire team? These Saints have been banging on the Super Bowl’s door for four years. They’re calloused. They’re hungrier than any team in the N.F.L.
Coming close — repeatedly — means something deep in the psyche of every New Orleans player.
And so does having a quarterback with everything to prove.
The Packers should’ve taken their king’s ransom for Rodgers when they had the chance.
Russell Wilson can still cook.
Long before Rodgers hijacked the headlines for four months, there was another unhappy quarterback in this league: Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks nearly divorced after nine seasons. It was close, too. The Chicago Bears thought it was a done deal.
Instead, both Wilson and the Seahawks realized they were at their best together and everyone’s hope was that a new offensive coordinator, Shane Waldron, would pull things together.
Did they ever in Week 1.
Facing one of the N.F.L.’s best defenses, on the road, Wilson was sublime in leading Seattle to a 28-16 win over Indianapolis. The eight-time Pro Bowler finished 18 of 23 for 254 yards with four touchdowns, no interceptions and a 152.3 passer rating. Wilson’s 69-yard moon ball touchdown pass to Tyler Lockett was a thing of beauty, too, traveling 60 yards in the air.
Granted, we were teased like this in 2020. Wilson was lights out for a good two months. Then, the entire offense went kaput and Seattle nearly pulled the plug on an era. Here’s thinking this Wilson and this offense are both here to stay. Once business was taken care of, Wilson proceeded to have the best off-season of his life.
This may be his final season in Seattle, but what a season it could be.
Rams 34, Bears 14 Rams Coach Sean McVay put his job on the line when he traded Jared Goff — and a boatload of draft capital — for Matthew Stafford, who amassed a 74-90-1 record over 12 seasons in Detroit. Yet for one week, at least, McVay looks like an offensive guru again. Stafford was flawless in a 321-yard, three-touchdown performance Sunday night while Chicago kept rookie quarterback Justin Fields on ice behind Andy Dalton.
Texans 37, Jaguars 21 All Hail Jack Easterby! Or … something like that. The Houston Texans are a train wreck but they’ll take this one.
Cardinals 38, Titans 13 Nobody count out Kliff Kingsbury. He’s one of the smartest offensive minds in football. Arizona’s clinic of a win over Tennessee is a sign of things to come, not an aberration.
Eagles 32, Falcons 6 Right when you want to stick another fork into Eagles general manager Howie Roseman, his new-look offense shreds the Falcons. Jalen Hurts (264 passing yards, 62 rushing yards, three touchdowns) was unstoppable and Matt Ryan was, well, Matt Ryan. What a missed opportunity for Atlanta to hit reset at quarterback last April. In passing on Ohio State’s Justin Fields, all this franchise did was delay the inevitable.
49ers 41, Lions 33 Again, 49ers Coach Kyle Shanahan proved he can plug anyone in at running back. Put that waiver claim in for Elijah Mitchell, fantasy players. This 49ers offensive machine could churn out 100-plus rushing yards with the two of us lining up in the “I” formation.
Bengals 27, Vikings 24 (OT) Turns out Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase can see a ball with no stripes just fine: He caught five passes for 101 yards and a touchdown in the win over Minnesota. This Bengals offense is going to be a lot of fun. As for the Vikings, overtime heartbreak is nothing new, is it?
Chargers 20, Washington 16 Justin Herbert is the only quarterback in N.F.L. history with 400 completions over his first 16 starts. Los Angeles should not apologize one bit for its grimy win.
Panthers 19, Jets 14 Hopefully Zach Wilson was able to chat with Sam Darnold privately after the Jets’ loss to Carolina. The rookie quarterback was dealt all the same issues Darnold was in New York — shoddy pass protection, bad luck, defeat. And now Wilson, sacked six times on Sunday, may be without his best lineman. Left tackle Mekhi Becton was carted off.