[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.
Boxer Manny Pacquiao Joins Filipino Presidential Race
MANILA — Former boxing champion Manny Pacquiao has shuffled his way into the presidential race in the Philippines.
Mr. Pacquiao, the country’s best-known athlete, already holds a seat in the Senate but faces tough opposition as a presidential candidate. He was formerly the president of the PDP-Laban, the ruling party in the Philippines, before being ousted by a faction loyal to President Rodrigo Duterte, whose government Mr. Pacquiao has accused of corruption.
“To government officials who continue to rob government coffers, you will soon find others in jail,” Mr. Pacquiao warned on Sunday when he announced his candidacy. “Your time is up.”
The constitution bars Mr. Duterte from seeking a second six-year term in the May election. He has instead said he would run for vice president, in what some analysts have described as an attempt to avoid prosecution from the International Criminal Court. The I.C.C. last week announced an investigation into Mr. Duterte’s antidrug campaign, which critics have said was marred by extrajudicial killings.
Christopher Lawrence Go, a senator and Mr. Duterte’s longtime aide, was considered a party favorite for the presidential nomination, but he has yet to announce his candidacy. The president and the vice president are elected separately in the Philippines. If both men were to win, analysts said, Mr. Go could step aside for Mr. Duterte or let him rule the country by proxy, allowing him to escape prosecution.
Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter and the mayor of Davao City, said she would not seek the presidency if her father continued with his plans to run for vice president.
All candidate must submit their final filings in October.
Mr. Pacquiao, 42, signaled a break with Mr. Duterte earlier this year when he accused the government’s health department of corruption tied to the coronavirus pandemic and the purchasing of face masks and other protective equipment. The senator, who as a boxer won world titles in a record eight weight classes, was once an ally of Mr. Duterte, but recently became more critical of the president.
“We are ready to rise to the challenge of leadership,” Mr. Pacquiao said on Sunday when he accepted the nomination from his faction of the party.
“It is now time for the oppressed to win,” he said. “It is now time for the country to rise up from poverty.”
Aries Arugay, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, said that he was not surprised by Mr. Pacquiao’s announcement but that the boxer may be in over his head. While Mr. Pacquiao is internationally recognized, “he is not ready” to be president, Mr. Arugay said, adding that Mr. Pacquiao had not passed any major legislation.
“His performance at the Senate was underwhelming,” he said. “However, that has not prevented people and politicians in the past from winning public office.”
Mr. Pacquiao has also been a vocal supporter of Mr. Duterte’s bloody antidrug campaign.
The Commission on Elections will have to settle the matter of the separate factions of the PDP-Laban before the final candidacies are filed in October. If Mr. Duterte’s faction emerges with a clear mandate, Mr. Pacquiao will likely step aside or run as an independent, chipping away at Mr. Duterte’s chances of regaining public office, Mr. Arugay said.
Melvin Matibag, the general secretary of PDP-Laban and the leader of the pro-Duterte wing of the party, said that Mr. Pacquiao was acting against the party’s wishes by announcing his candidacy.
The meeting on Sunday during which Mr. Pacquiao announced his candidacy was “not sanctioned nor called by the party’s chairman, President Duterte,” Mr. Matibag said Monday on national radio.
In a Scheduling First, Pac-12 and SWAC Plan Home-and-Home Basketball Games
Pac-12 leaders similarly welcomed the home-and-home agreement, which Bernard Muir, Stanford’s athletic director, predicted would “open our eyes and our fan bases to an opportunity that we don’t traditionally get.”
“Certainly, there’s games that occur between Power 5s and H.B.C.U.s, but to do this across the board in both conferences, I think it’s really unique,” he said.
Dana Altman, Oregon’s coach since 2010, said he expected the trips to become important learning experiences for players in the two leagues. In an interview, he recalled a 1999 trip to Mississippi Valley State, in Itta Bena, Miss., with one of his Creighton teams as revelatory.
“It was good at the time, just that our guys went to a small campus in a very small town,” said Altman, who once had Florida A&M’s coach, Robert McCullum, on his staff at Oregon. “I think this trip will be good for our players, especially when they learn about the school and get some of the history of the school.”
Some SWAC schools, officials said, are considering playing their home games under the arrangement at bigger, off-campus arenas in their areas.
Although the SWAC commands large home crowds for football games — the most of any conference outside the Power 5 or Group of 5 leagues that dominate Division I football — it has struggled to draw audiences for men’s basketball. For the 2019-20 season, the league ranked 29th of the 32 Division I conferences in home basketball attendance, and its schools averaged fewer than 1,600 people per home game.
The Pac-12’s schools, by contrast, typically drew more than 7,000 fans per game.
Jason Cable, the athletic director at Alabama State, said U.S.C.’s appearance there in 2023 would be the university’s most significant nonconference game at home in memory. He said that the exposure and opportunity would be valuable to a university like Alabama State, the lone Division I school in Montgomery, and he predicted that those benefits would outweigh the value of a check that would be earned through another road trip.
The Mannings Give TV Sports Yet Another Alternate Viewing Option
“We really lean into a specific driver for a little bit longer, and it creates a stronger bond between the driver and audience,” Flood said.
If the future of sports watching is fans choosing exactly the kind of announcer or experience they want, why not take the idea further? Amazon, which shows N.F.L. games on Thursdays and owns the rights for a number of different sports in Europe, already provides several different commentary streams for those games.
But Amazon also owns Twitch, the streaming platform most heavily associated with video games — where at any given moment you can find thousands of people, some of them professionals with a huge audience and some of them amateurs with no audience, commenting while playing video games or doing other things. Amazon has shown some games on Twitch with handpicked and hired hosts, but it is not a free-for-all open to thousands of different commentators.
For one, there is a rights issue. The N.F.L. sells Amazon the right to do very specific things, which does not include allowing anybody who wants to comment on games on Twitch, and therefore allow anybody to watch on Twitch and bypass traditional ways of viewing.
But even if they could do so, Marie Donoghue, the head of global sports at Amazon, is not sure they would want to. “We don’t know if infinite choice is what fans want,” she said. “We do think fans want great optionality, but we have to learn, because if you give fans infinite choice it may become overwhelming, and they get lost in the experience.”
Infinite may not be on the horizon then, but more certainly is.
Next year, when Amazon actually produces the N.F.L. games they show, there will almost certainly be more options. Meier said Triller was getting ready to “rock the world with a completely new concept” in boxing, while Rolón said ESPN would expand its alternate telecasts as technology allowed it to do so.