Week 2 of the NFL preseason got under way on Thursday as arguably the two best quarterbacks in the league made their first appearance of the season.
Tom Brady led the New England Patriots in a 37-20 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in a rematch of February’s Super Bowl, while Aaron Rodgers looked like Aaron Rodgers in the Green Bay Packers’ 51-34 shootout victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Here are some takeaways from Thursday’s slate.
Tom still terrific
It doesn’t seem like turning 41 has made a bit of difference to Brady’s game as he looked in midseason form against the Eagles.
Somewhat surprisingly, he played the entire first half after sitting out the first week of preseason and led the Patriots on four scoring drives while on the field.
He completed 19-of-26 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns, with his only missteps coming on two incomplete deep throws which could have just as well been intercepted.
Otherwise, Brady was masterful as usual, taking what the defence gave him and showing good chemistry with familiar faces James White, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan.
Though newcomer Eric Decker went catch-less and Philip Dorsett only had one reception, speedster Cordarrelle Patterson had a promising performance as he looked dangerous in space off screens.
Brady’s protection took a hit, however, as rookie tackle Isaiah Wynn suffered a torn left Achilles, which will keep him out the entire year. The Patriots were preparing to use Wynn as a regular at right tackle in the preseason, though starter Marcus Cannon – currently injured – is expected to return by the start of the regular season.
Still, losing Wynn hurts New England’s depth and puts more responsibility on veteran LaAdrian Waddle, who will now become the first back-up at both right and left tackle.
Birth of a new connection
It didn’t take long for Rodgers and Jimmy Graham to get on the same page as the duo connected for a touchdown to cap Rodgers’ only drive of the night.
The score came on a red zone play where Rodgers threw it up for Graham and let his big tight end make a play on the ball. If Rodgers continues to put his trust in Graham in the red zone, the connection has a chance to yield a lot of points for Green Bay this season.
Last year, no tight end had more targets (24), receptions (15) or touchdowns (10) than Graham in the red zone, while for Rodgers, he hardly threw to the position in that area of the field.
Graham is no longer a go-to receiver, but when the ball gets near the end zone, he remains an elite option thanks to his size and hands. That’s not something Rodgers has had from a tight end – at least consistently – in some time, and especially with Jordy Nelson now in Oakland, there should be more targets available in the offence.
Cross that Bridge
Darnold followed up his impressive debut in the preseason opener with a mediocre outing in Week 2 as his case to be the Jets’ starter was dented.
The rookie had moments where he looked every bit worthy of being a starter, but also had his hiccups, including a red zone interception. He finished 8-of-11 for 62 yards with no touchdowns and the one pick.
Teddy Bridgewater, meanwhile, continued to look like the best quarterback on the team as he completed 10-of-15 passes for 127 yards, one touchdown and an interception. Through two weeks of preseason, Bridgewater has thrown for 54 more yards than Darnold on six fewer attempts.
Teddy Bridgewater has been arguably the most effective @nyjets QB so far this preseason.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 17, 2018
Bridgewater has thrown for 54 more yards than Sam Darnold on six fewer attempts. He's also led the team to 20 of its 30 points. pic.twitter.com/K5zp1phlZG
Incumbent starter Josh McCown didn’t play against Washington and was on the field for just one series in the opener, so it’s unclear what the status of the starting spot is.
But in Bridgewater, the Jets have a quarterback who is still young (25) and full of potential. Whether or not he’s traded, Bridgewater has made a strong bid to at least get an opportunity, wherever he is.
Week 2 of the NFL preseason has a bit to live up to after an entertaining opening weekend not only saw the return of football, but showcased exciting rookies and veterans coming back from injury.
The second week of exhibitions should only expand on that, while giving us a first look at stars who were held out of their team’s opener, including a quarterback who threw for over 500 yards in the Super Bowl the last time he was on the field.
Super Bowl rematch
It won’t offer anywhere close to the electricity of the Super Bowl or even a rematch in the regular season meeting, but as far as preseason games are concerned, this one has plenty going for it.
The Patriots faithful at Gillette Stadium will be charged up to give the Eagles a proper welcome and Philadelphia’s players should be equally up for ruining the atmosphere.
But all eyes will be on Tom Brady, who is expected to see his first competitive action in his 19th season.
Now 41, Brady’s age has so far just been a number, but quarterback declines are often sharp. As unlikely as a severe drop-off for Brady seems, it will be interesting to see if he still looks like himself – although the appropriate sample size for that won’t come in this game alone.
Sam the man?
Darnold actually received first-team reps in practice this past week, so it seems his initial showing was good enough to get head coach Todd Bowles’ attention.
Against Washington on Thursday, the Jets may decide to put Darnold in the game earlier than last week, when he came on in the second quarter and operated against Atlanta’s backups.
But with Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater sitting ahead of him on the depth chart, New York could roll out the same pecking order again.
If you love a good quarterback battle, the clash between the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills on Friday is a tasty one.
On one side, the Browns finally look to be in a favourable position with a more-than-capable veteran in Tyrod Taylor and hotshot rookie Baker Mayfield. On the other, the Bills job seems up for grabs with a three-way competition between A.J. McCarron, Nathan Peterman and Josh Allen in the works.
Allen, the seventh overall pick in this year’s draft, is the most intriguing option with his big arm and raw talent. He was up and down in his debut so a more consistent showing in Week 2 would bolster his case to start in the regular season opener.
For Cleveland, there’s also added intrigue thanks to the team being featured on ‘Hard Knocks’. Can Mayfield continue to be the star of the show, on and off the field?
The Chicago Bears will be a team to keep an eye on this week – and for the rest of preseason – for a variety of reasons.
For one, the Bears may finally have Roquan Smith on the field after the rookie linebacker ended his holdout this week. It would be a quick turnaround, but not out of the realm of possibility.
On the other side of the ball, Mitchell Trubisky should get more work with the offence after attempting just four throws last week. The second-year quarterback is adjusting to life in a new system under first-year head coach Matt Nagy, so game-time action will be vital in getting him ready for the regular season.
In less than a year, Jimmy Garoppolo has gone from the back-up quarterback on a Super Bowl favourite, to the leading man for an up-and-coming contender aiming to stamp its own mark.
Garoppolo’s rise is no longer theoretical. While the future is bright for the 26-year-old, it’s also already here. The San Francisco 49ers signed him to a five-year, $137.5 million deal in the offseason that, at the time, made him the highest-paid player in NFL history.
The annual value of the contract was surpassed not once, but twice, in the following months by fellow quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Matt Ryan, but the sky-high expectations attached to Garoppolo remain unchanged.
After shining in two starts in the beginning of 2016 with the Patriots before getting hurt and then giving way to Tom Brady, Garoppolo was set free when New England traded him to the 49ers in the middle of last season.
Garoppolo then led San Francisco – who were 1-10 before making him the starter – to five straight wins to close out the year, posting seven touchdowns, five interceptions, 8.76 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 96.2 with his new team.
It was an impressive showing for a young quarterback getting his first taste as a full-time starter, let alone for one that had little time to get accustomed to the offensive system and playbook.
Especially in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s system, Garoppolo could have passed for a player who had a full offseason to work with the offence. But now that he’s actually had an offseason under his belt, Garoppolo is poised to take another major step forward.
Garoppolo is not in too dissimilar of a position that Ryan was in heading into the 2016 season, which ended up being an MVP campaign for the Atlanta Falcons quarterback.
It was also Ryan’s second year with Shanahan as the offensive coordinator and the comfort level between the pairing was evident as it nearly translated into a Super Bowl title.
Ryan’s stats across the board skyrocketed and his baseline was much lower than what Garoppolo’s was last year – 7.48 yards per attempt, 21 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a passer rating of 89.0 in 2015.
Garoppolo appears ahead of the curve, perhaps due to the three years he spent in New England, where he received coaching from Bill Belichick and served as Brady’s understudy.
Of course, much of Garoppolo’s success this season will depend on the weapons around him.
San Francisco’s offensive skill players are nowhere near the talented group Ryan had in 2016 with Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and others, but their playmakers may also have untapped potential.
Marquise Goodwin emerged as the 49ers’ de facto number one receiver last season after being a part-time player in his four previous years in Buffalo, and had two of his 100-yard games with Garoppolo under centre.
Veteran Pierre Garcon missed the second half of the season with a neck injury, but is back to full health and figures to be a reliable possession receiver.
Tight end George Kittle broke out towards the end of the season and could have a more prominent role going forward, but a separated shoulder suffered in the first week of preseason may keep him sidelined to start the year.
In the backfield, the 49ers went out and signed Jerick McKinnon, who could be the team’s feature back as a versatile runner and receiver capable of making defenders miss. There’s hope Shanahan will unlock all of the speedster’s talents and put him in the best position to succeed.
For Garoppolo, the pieces are in place for him to succeed and continue to set the bar higher.