There's nothing better than a Week 2 cross-country road trip to remind everyone just how the NFL's power structure works. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a Week 1 darling in this very space, were the victims of some regression to the mean. It serves as a powerful lesson on two fronts.
The first lesson? The Arizona Cardinals are still very good. A week after being embarrassed by the Patriots on national television, the Cardinals unleashed their full fury in the direction of the Bucs, piling up yards and points and handing Jameis Winston the worst start of his professional career.
Arizona dropped a 40-burger -- their fifth since the start of last year -- on the Bucs defense and intercepted Winston four times, just a week after the former Heisman Trophy winner joined the record books with a four-touchdown performance.
Winston was under pressure all day and looked lost and confused against an aggressive defense. He found Mike Evans for a late touchdown pass, but anything he accrued was in garbage time. And Winston is really the second lesson: As good as he looked in Week 1, and as good as he'll be going forward, and as good as he'll be this year, he's still a young quarterback. The Bucs aren't going to rampage through the league; they've got some growing up to do still.
The Cardinals' production is a real testament to the culture that pervades the entire facility there. General manager Steve Keim blasted his team for their performance against the Patriots. Can't blame him -- it was humiliating to get beat by a Pats team without Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski on the opening weekend of what this club believes can be a special season.
Clearly Bruce Arians got his team to focus (perhaps by sprinkling one or two F-bombs in his vocabulary this week?), got them to prepare, and they smashed an inferior opponent on a long road trip.
Carson Palmer, who couldn't get vertical against the Pats, lit up the Bucs defense. He threw three first-half passing touchdowns for the first time since 2009 when he played for the Bengals. His completion percentage was under 60 percent, but he still managed to averaged 9.9 yards per attempt. Every time he completed a pass, the Cardinals basically got a first down. He got David Johnson heavily involved in the passing game, found Jaron Brown for a long touchdown, hit Larry Fitzgerald in the end zone and generally maximized his receiving options.
Carson Palmer + @jaronbrown13 = SIX!— NFL (@NFL) September 18, 2016
51 yards! #BeRedSeeRed#TBvsAZhttps://t.co/Gn5cCyJ5D3
"We were aggressive on offense," Palmer said afterwards. "We were nasty and extremely physical up front. Pockets were just perfect all day. It was just one of those games."
The defense swarmed for Arizona and generated six points on its own thanks to a Marcus Cooper pick six of Winston.
Piiiiiiiiiick-6!@Jaboowins' pass is tipped...— NFL (@NFL) September 18, 2016
And @Mr_Cooper860 takes it to the HOUSE! #BeRedSeeRed#TBvsAZhttps://t.co/Yz1JFuXInV
As a whole, though, the game was a reminder about the class division in the NFL. There are several very good teams (who will likely win 10-plus games) in this league, and the Cardinals are one of them. There are several teams who won't win more than five games. And there's a big group of teams -- the middle class if you will -- that can win somewhere between six and 10 games depending on how the ball breaks. When an elite team comes to play and brings its A game, these teams do not stand a chance.
The Bucs are a good team trying to become a contender, but they are not on the Cardinals level yet. Sunday made that much very clear.
Here are more takeaways from Sunday's Week 2 action:
1. The NFL has a referee problem
The issue for NFL refs aren't so much that they aren't competent humans. It's that they have an already-impossible job made vastly more difficult by the instant availability of replay and high-definition angles of every single play.
Last week, there were major issues in the opener, with the NFL officials apparently unsure what qualifies as helmet-to-helmet contact in the Panthers-Broncos game. The NFL reportedly found 16 (!) calls that went against the Jaguars in their first week loss.
And this week, we had several situations pop up that will serve as an embarrassment for a league that prides itself on consistency.
The Browns had an upset of the Ravens ruined by a referee who decided to nail Terrelle Pryor with a taunting penalty for hitting Lardarius Webb with the football after making a huge catch with 21 seconds left. It nullified a catch Pryor made at the 10-yard line and moved the Browns back. Josh McCown immediately threw an interception.
It's particularly bad because Pryor was clearly just tossing the football to the official after the play.
This cost the Browns an opportunity to win the game. It's just a case where someone in the league office could buzz the ref, explain how dumb the penalty looks from an optics standpoint and tell them to pick up the flag.
Another issue popped up with the Bengals-Steelers game, where rookie Tyler Boyd fumbled the ball and wasn't ruled down, despite his knee being on the ground.
The play was reviewed and, even though it was obvious the Bengals should keep the ball, the refs gave Pittsburgh possession.
What are we doing here? There's too much technology and too many solutions not to get this right.
It's not going to be possible to get everything right. But the goal should be to get as much as possible right. And the best way to do that is give the NFL command center -- a huge room with tons of televisions and lots of people employed by the league -- the ability to call into any game and fix issues that pop up.
The announcers, the fans, and everyone on Twitter are able to see these things unfold in real time and are able to make a statement about what was wrong with how events played out. The league should be able to see it too and fix the issues before continuing on.
2. Same old issues for the Colts
The Colts were supposed to be a "new" team, excited to have Andrew Luck under contract and Ryan Grigson/Chuck Pagano playing friendly with a renewed attitude on working together. Maybe those things are currently true, but how is this Colts team any different from years past?
Credit where credit is due to the Broncos defense, a unit that didn't get the credit it deserved this offseason despite the Super Bowl win. They are a terrifying group of players and they thumped the Colts around.
But that's why the Broncos were an easy pick to win and win big -- they are physical on defense and run the ball well. The Colts are soft as pork belly pudding and can't protect Luck or stop anyone from running through them.
The Broncos rushing attack averaged over 4.3 yards per carry against the Colts defense, while Von Miller, who's carried his play from the postseason over into the regular season, tallied three sacks of Andrew Luck all by himself. The last one led to a Denver defense touchdown that put this game away.
.@Millerlite40 does it AGAIN!— NFL (@NFL) September 18, 2016
His strip-sack on Andrew Luck turns into a @Broncos TD! 💪 #INDvsDEN#Broncoshttps://t.co/O4bnuidFoH
And Luck's lone interception ... well, it put points on the board too.
🚨 PICK-6 ALERT! 🚨— NFL (@NFL) September 18, 2016
Aqib Talib takes Andrew Luck's pass to the HOUSE. #Broncos#INDvsDENhttps://t.co/VyAPAHTmbA
All told, Denver sacked Luck five times, but they got plenty more contact on him. According to early data from Pro Football Focus (nothing is official until Tuesday), Luck was under pressure on a whopping 55.3 percent of his dropbacks. Luck completed just 40 percent of his passes while pressured, which pretty much explains how he ended the day going 21-of-40 for 197 yards, one touchdown and a pick.
A wholly underwhelming effort from Luck, and a potential precursor of what could come more often this season.
3. Good news, bad news for Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings unveiled a new stadium on Sunday night to mixed results. The Vikings beat the Packers, and that's huge. They're 2-0 and could very well still be the best team in the NFC North.
The really good news is Sam Bradford's debut for Minnesota couldn't have gone better. Bradford looked completely comfortable in purple and developed an incredible rapport with second-year wideout Stephon Diggs.
Sam Bradford: 9-of-9 for 182 yards and a TD targeting Stefon Diggs tonight.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 19, 2016
.@stefon_diggs (182 yards) = most receiving yards by any Bradford receiver in a game.— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) September 19, 2016
Previous high: 160 yards by Danny Amendola in 2012
What made it truly unbelievable was the stage and circumstances. Bradford was there on a huge day for the Vikings, and he had been working with the offense for less than two weeks.
"That's one of the most impressive things I've seen a football player do," NBC's Cris Collinsworth remarked after the game.
That victory gives the Vikings hope for this year, that they can win the division again without Teddy Bridgewater, and for moving forward. Bradford still has questions, and he'll need to be protected or else he won't stay upright.
But it was a heck of a debut, spoiled only by a knee injury suffered by superstar running back Adrian Peterson.
Not something football fans want to see. #SNFpic.twitter.com/Ouut9FAggc— SNF on NBC (@SNFonNBC) September 19, 2016
Peterson went down with what originally looked like an ankle injury, and was seen being helped to the locker room on one leg.
He was quickly ruled out by the Vikings with a knee injury, which is far more concerning. Peterson's suffered an ACL injury before, so there's a history of knee issues.
The speed with which the Vikings announced the injury plus the obvious pain for Peterson are both big concerns.
4. Slowing the hype train in Oakland
The Oakland Raiders, just like the Bucs, were getting a lot of praise after a bold Week 1 victory that featured Jack Del Rio gambling on a two-point conversion late in New Orleans. Winning on the road against a high-powered offense with a young team was clearly commendable.
Coming back home and getting popped in the mouth by the Falcons? Not so much.
Oakland lost to Atlanta 35-28, getting routinely shredded by the combo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and showing no ability to slow down Julio Jones, who finished with five catches on five targets for 106 yards and a score.
.@M_Ryan02 & @JulioJones_11 make this look WAY too easy...— NFL (@NFL) September 18, 2016
The Oakland defense has a lot of big-name additions this offseason, with Bruce Irvin, Sean Smith, Karl Joseph and Reggie Nelson all joining the roster. But two weeks in, this doesn't look like a dominant unit. It looks like a unit with plenty of talent, but one capable of giving up huge plays. If the offense stalls, it's going to be difficult for the Raiders to keep pace.
And even if the offense is doing its job -- Derek Carr threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday -- it's going to be tough. Amari Cooper is out here reeling in all kinds of catches.
The AFC West is way too good for the Raiders to make serious noise without having some semblance of a defense.
It's official: @Raiders WR @AmariCooper9 can catch ANYTHING.— NFL (@NFL) September 18, 2016
His hang time... 👀 #ATLvsOAKhttps://t.co/1cmwwTlHCU
5. Texans look legit
For the second straight week, the Texans handily dispatched of an opponent, this time a more impressive one in the Kansas City Chiefs. K.C. is a little limited, with Justin Houston and Jamaal Charles still out, but they never really posed a threat to Houston in this game.
The formula was the same for Bill O'Brien's squad, too. Lamar Miller was a workhorse, carrying the ball 25 times and catching a pair of passes (O'Brien seems set on giving his running back between 25 and 35 touches). Brock Osweiler threw a pair of picks, but there was some juice in the passing game this time around. DeAndre Hopkins caught seven passes for 113 yards and a score.
Will Fuller made history, becoming just the third receiver in NFL history with 100-plus receiving yards in his first two career games, and the first wideout drafted in the first round to ever pull off the feat. It sounds weird, but it's true.
J.J. Watt started to get going, to say the least.
U-N-S-T-O-P-P-A-B-L-E. #WeAreTexans#KCvsHOUhttps://t.co/0muLejAMQx— NFL (@NFL) September 18, 2016
Bad snap?— NFL (@NFL) September 18, 2016
This 🏈 belongs to @JJWatt! #KCvsHOUhttps://t.co/OjWYv7mTSh
Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus make this defensive front seven incredibly dangerous. The offense hasn't established itself as some juggernaut, but it's fair to say they're going to be good this year.
They play in a bad division, and the Jaguars (0-2), Colts (0-2) and Titans (1-1) all got off to poor starts. The Colts (see: above) look like a trainwreck. The Jags have two tough losses, but the pressure is starting to pick up after an ugly beatdown by the Chargers. The Titans might actually be the second-best team in this division, which might say more about the AFC South than anything.