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Philip Rivers Is Not Scared, and Other Lessons From Two Weeks of Football

I need a break from thinking about all the nightmare news surrounding football, so let’s just talk about what’s happening on the field.

Trying to predict where things are going in the NFL after two weeks is even harder than it was to start the year. Half the teams in the league have been bipolar through two games. The Patriots, the Redskins, the Niners, everybody. The Colts and Saints are 0-2 and sputtering to start, and then teams like the Bills and Texans are 2-0 and look better than ever, only we don’t know if we can trust either of those trends. It’s like this all over the league.

So here’s an attempt to add a little of clarity.

I need a break from thinking about all the nightmare news surrounding football, so let’s just talk about what’s happening on the field. Here are 10 things we definitely (probably) know after the first two weeks.

1. Philip Rivers is as great as everybody said he was. For a long time, I’ve refused to take Rivers seriously. This probably goes back to the days of his Norv Turner teams and their perpetual disappointments down the stretch, and it continued through his awful season two years ago, and even last year’s rebound. The Chargers were a playoff team last season, but only because every other playoff contender in the AFC fell apart. So when the hype started all over again this August and everyone told me to get excited for Rivers and the Chargers, I was out. I looked at Philip Rivers like a folksier, churchier Jay Cutler — which is to say, Jay Cutler without everything that makes Jay Cutler fun.

But I was wrong. It’s been only two weeks, but somehow I’ve watched two full Chargers games — Monday Night Football against the Cardinals and Sunday’s late-afternoon game against Seattle — and Rivers has been just as good as everyone said he was. He’s one of the least mobile quarterbacks in the league, but that actually makes him more entertaining. Instead of watching him scramble around to extend plays, he just stands in the pocket, ignores the rush, and delivers backbreaking strikes down the field, sometimes with linemen actually hanging off him.

It can feel like a fluke when this works and a near-sack turns into a 20-yard third-down conversion between two defenders. But then it happens again. And again. And again, and eventually you start to realize none of this is just luck. Against the Cardinals it wasn’t quite enough, but there were three or four throws that he had no business completing but landed perfectly over receivers’ shoulders 20 yards down the field. Then, against Seattle, San Diego dominated time of possession, and it didn’t matter what Seattle did, because Rivers just kept ignoring the rush and nailing receivers down the field for first downs.

Every time he does this, it’s a little more deflating for a defense, and he does it better than any quarterback in the league. San Diego can still go all kinds of directions this year, but even if the team doesn’t repeat last year’s playoff run, it won’t be Rivers’s fault. He’s still a big ol’ country bumpkin dork. But he’s a ruthless country bumpkin dork.

Rivers

2. Darren Sproles is a tiny little superhero. It’s just not fair that he ended up with the Eagles. How did this happen? New Orleans was really that strapped for cash? I’m not even sure that’s an acceptable answer. The Saints signed Champ Bailey this summer, and then cut him a week before the season. That’s money that should have gone to Sproles.

Then again, having him on Philly is definitely better. It’s too early to say how good the Eagles will be. They can go either 14-2 and look dominant, or something like 11-5 as the best team in a bad division. We’ll see. The only certainty after two weeks is that Sproles and LeSean McCoy will be terrorizing defenses all year. They do it so differently, too. Shady almost floats back and forth through the defense on his big plays. He makes everyone else look like they’re playing on ice. He never looks that fast when he starts, but then you watch him run sweep after sweep out of the shotgun, and he almost always get around the defense.

Then there’s Sproles, who doesn’t make anything look elegant. He’s just throwing himself through creases that don’t exist, bouncing off players who are twice his size. Sproles is actually the Eagles’ preferred option for short yardage at this point, to say nothing of the havoc he wreaks in the passing game. He was the guy who sparked the comeback against the Jaguars — his fourth-and-1 play went for a 49-yard touchdown — and then he was the MVP during the second-half comeback in Indianapolis last night, going for 152 yards in the passing game. He’s also 31 years old, so none of this should be possible.

He’s NFL Earl Boykins, and every time I watch him play I end up watching this old Nike commercial. Look at that little fella. He’s got enough poison in him to kill an elephant.

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And again, McCoy is still the running back who rips off eight yards every two or three runs and then catches passes, too. Putting these guys with Chip Kelly was the best idea ever, and also pure evil. The new, drunk Nick Foles is only fair. The universe had to balance things out here.

3. Trent Richardson will never prosper. There are so many questions with the Colts. After the 0-2 start, are they still the favorites in the AFC South? Or is this the beginning of the regression season that everyone expected last year? How bad does Pep Hamilton have to be before Andrew Luck turns heel and starts calling plays himself? The defense has given up 37 points per game in Indy’s last four contests, and 31.8 in their last 10 against winning teams. Shouldn’t they get better? They can’t be that bad all year … can they? This is where we are after two weeks and two losses. This Colts season can go in all kinds of different directions.

But none of those directions involve Trent Richardson redemption. The case is closed after Monday. Even when he plays well, he’s terrible. He’s the exact opposite of everything we said about Sproles. This man is cursed forever.

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I want him to succeed, too. Everyone has told all their jokes now, so the only way this story could get funnier is if he turns around and becomes a star. Or at least a player who doesn’t disappoint everyone constantly. But that’s not going to happen. Those two-yard runs aren’t going to turn into six-yard runs. In case there were any holdouts after the last two years, we should all accept this now. The Trent Richardson story doesn’t have a fairy-tale ending. This is Russian literature. There is no hope, there is no joy, and the only reward for suffering is more suffering.

4. The Cardinals are good. The Cardinals were the easy pick to take a step back this year — especially after Darnell Dockett went down with a torn ACL — but now I don’t know. Go back and read Robert Mays’s piece on the No Fly Zone secondary. That’s what started to convince me. They fought back to shock Rivers and the Chargers in the fourth quarter of Week 1, and then Carson Palmer was injured, and they rode Drew Stanton to a road win against the Giants.

This team could be good, right? Wait, actually … We still have no idea. It’s too early to buy into Palmer and Stanton.

The only true certainty is this …

4.5. The Giants are not good. The receivers are mediocre and depressing, the offensive line is single-handedly making Eli Manning look 30 percent worse, and the defense is a mess. This is Trent Richardson as a team. You can keep believing, but it will only lead to more pain.

Arizona Cardinals v New York Giants

5. The Bengals and Panthers aren’t regressing. I’ve written lots of dumb things at Grantland — believing in the Pistons last year will never be topped, because that turned into the most depressing team in the entire league — but the regression sections on the Bengals and Panthers are creeping closer and closer to the top of the list.

With Carolina, the defense is every bit as great as it was last year, and the receivers — especially Kelvin Benjamin — look better than anyone expected. With Cincinnati, the defense has been great, and Gio Bernard, Andy Dalton, and the offense kept clicking even without A.J. Green for most of Week 2. We still don’t know how high the ceiling is for either of these teams, but after two weeks, it’s hard to see either one wheezing through the year at 6-10. Marvin Lewis will never die.

6. The Saints aren’t terrifying. I’m not giving up on the Saints. Their two losses came in the final 10 seconds, and things easily could have gone differently if not for a couple of horrific turnovers. Those aren’t excuses, but just reminders. If one or two things go differently, this team is 2-0 after two road games and exactly what everyone expected.

On the other hand … anyone who was terrified of this team two weeks ago can pretty much rest easy now. The Saints can definitely make the playoffs, but their offense can be contained, and the defense can definitely be beaten. And after two losses, it’s hard to imagine them getting home-field advantage in the playoffs, which probably just compounds all the problems. Drew Brees turns extra mortal on the road, which means New Orleans leans more on the defense, which … again, that hasn’t gone well.

(Note: I look forward to rereading this in 18 weeks when the Saints win the NFC Championship Game. Go Pistons.)

7. Mike Pettine knows what he’s doing. Speaking of the Saints-Browns game …

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I’m not crazy enough to predict great things happening for the Cleveland Browns, but Pettine is clearly an upgrade over what they had for … [checks Wikipedia] … roughly the last 20 years. Good god. Everyone talks about the quarterbacks, but nobody remembers the coaches, who were just as miserable.

Pettine is breaking the tradition here. The Browns defense looks better, the offense is making plays with limited parts, and you get the feeling this isn’t going to a be a good team, but they’re one of the bad teams that’ll be a pain in the ass to play against all year long. The Browns’ coaching search was one of the single biggest shitshows we’ve seen from any front office the past few years. It included multiple interviews with Greg Schiano, leaks to the media every other day, and eventually ended with everyone getting fired. But it also ended with Pettine, the first decent coach Cleveland’s had since the turn of the century. So maybe it was all worth it?

8. The Bucs are not this year’s sleeper team. Like the Saints, the Bucs are one or two plays away from being 2-0. Unlike the Saints, Josh McCown is not Drew Brees, and Sean Payton’s not running the offense. It’s time to move on from McCown Town.

9. The NFC North will be chaos. The conventional wisdom had the Packers dominating this division. Aaron Rodgers was back to harass people with Jordy Nelson, Eddie Lacy would steamroll people, and the defense couldn’t possibly be that bad again. But … the defense is still that bad! And the offensive line is just as overwhelmed.

That leaves the Packers right there with every other team in this division, good enough to beat everyone, but shaky enough to lose to anyone. The Bears, the Vikings, the Lions … all of them have alternated between great and horrible through two games, and I bet that continues until December. This division is your ultimate proof that we’ve learned absolutely nothing after two weeks. The only difference is that the NFC North will probably feel like that all season long.

10. The Cowboys are going 7-9. As a Cowboys fan, that Week 1 Niners loss was bad, but dominating the Titans last week might have been even worse. Any dreams of going 3-13 and shaming Jerry Jones into real changes were immediately dashed. Dez Bryant looked great on Sunday, DeMarco Murray looks better than ever, and even the defense showed up. I know you think this team is bad, but they could be decent, which is even worse. They’ll probably beat the Rams this week, and that’ll just help string things out a little longer until they come close to sneaking into the playoffs come December, only to fall short, convincing Jerry this team is one or two pieces away from making a real run.

That’s what this team does. There’s always just enough hope to suck people in, hype about a new offense, whatever. And then it ends in more heartbreak while the rest of the world laughs. Forget the Giants. This is the real Trent Richardson of football teams. There’s no reward for suffering, just an endless loop of the exact same season with Tony Romo and Jason Garrett.

OK then. Let’s go Cowboys!

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys