Of the NFL’s seven 2-0 teams, the defending champion Buccaneers and the Rams are the least surprising. Even the Cardinals (with quarterback/magician Kyler Murray), the 49ers (with play-caller extraordinaire Kyle Shanahan) and the Panthers (with the return of do-it-all back Christian McCaffrey) are not a shock to have managed two wins in two weeks. And the Broncos beating the Giants and Jaguars to begin the season isn’t that outrageous, not with the defense featuring a healthy Von Miller.
What wasn’t expected was the Las Vegas Raiders starting 2-0 and sitting atop the AFC West.
Coming off a short week after beating Lamar Jackson and the Ravens last Monday night, the banged-up Raiders traveled to Pittsburgh to face a Steelers team that arguably had the most impressive season opener, a 23-16 road triumph over the Bills. The Silver and Black left Heinz Field with its first away victory of 2021 — a convincing 26-17 win fueled by Derek Carr’s 382-yard, two-TD passing performance and a gutsy effort by Gus Bradley’s defense.
“The effort is outstanding,” head coach Jon Gruden told reporters after the game. “If you’re a Raider fan, you really like these guys.”
Raider Nation has to love what it’s seen so far from an effective defense under Bradley, the new defensive coordinator. For the first time since the controversial Khalil Mack trade in 2018, the Raiders boast a pass rush that’s actually doing damage with Maxx Crosby and free-agent signee Yannick Ngakoue.
However, Carr is the main reason why Las Vegas is unbeaten. The eight-year veteran leads the NFL with 817 passing yards, as he has been looking to push the ball downfield this season. On Sunday, leaning on the passing game was necessary with Josh Jacobs and three offensive line starters out, and rather than play it safe on a key third-and-10 in the fourth quarter, Carr threw deep to Henry Ruggs III for a 61-yard touchdown that gave the Raiders some much-needed breathing room with a 23-14 lead.
“We’ve started 2-0 before,” Carr said, “but we’ve got to keep going. We can’t let this thing go downhill.”
The Raiders began the 2020 season with victories over Carolina and New Orleans and seemed headed for the playoffs at 6-3 with a seemingly easier schedule ahead, but five losses in the next six games ruined a hopeful start. Year 3 of Gruden's rebuild resulted in a very disappointing 8-8 record.
Injuries played a part in the second-half slide. And that is why Sunday's win was such a significant step forward. Perhaps the Raiders finally have the depth to maintain momentum throughout the season.
Still, the key is a healthy Carr, whose growth under Gruden is showing early signs of a breakout campaign for a franchise that's desperate to return to the league's elite.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Gruden said. “We’re nowhere near perfect.”
Well, the Raiders’ record is. And that alone is pretty amazing.
Best offensive performance
Derrick Henry, Titans. Tom Brady threw five touchdown passes to give him nine for the season, and Kyler Murray created more viral plays the way he only can. But Henry rescuing Tennessee in a 33-30 overtime win in Seattle was the most incredible performance on Sunday. Down 24-9 at halftime, the Titans rode Henry all the way back, as he rushed for 182 yards and three touchdowns and had a career-high six catches for 55 yards.
This 60-yard rumble was the first of his two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
Best defensive performance
Bears. Chicago forced four turnovers in its 20-17 win over Cincinnati at Soldier Field, intercepting Bengals QB Joe Burrow three times on three straight passes In the fourth quarter. After forcing a Tee Higgins fumble, the Bears scored a touchdown on their first INT as Roquan Smith added insult with a stiff arm of Burrow before scoring on a 53-yard TD return.
Burrow entered Sunday with the NFL’s longest streak without throwing a pick — 199 consecutive passing attempts.
Best special teams performance
Colts. Javon Kinlaw’s field-goal block was key in San Francisco’s 17-11 win in Philadelphia. But the best single play on special teams was the product of a very unusual blunder by the Rams, whose long snapper hit the personal protector with the ball to cause a fumble. The Colts recovered it in the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown.
In this case, “best” means “most interesting.” Because there was nothing good about Zach Wilson’s day, which began with interceptions on his first two passing attempts and concluded with four INTs in the Jets’ 25-6 loss to the Patriots.
Najee Harris is the front-runner for Stiff Arm of the Year.
Jalen Hurts calmly completed a 91-yard pass from his own end zone.
Quincy Williams delivered the hit of the day on poor James White.
No, this is not CGI. It's Myles Gaskin actually slipping a tackle.
Damien Harris came up with this ode to Beastmode.
Demetric Felton put the Texans defense in the spin cycle.
Jamal Agnew returned a kickoff 102 yards for a TD.
Your weekly moment of magic from Kyler Murray.
Russell Wilson throws to the most wide-open receiver you will ever see.
Lamar Jackson makes the TD jump-pass look so easy.
Travis Kelce breaks four tackles (and carries a fifth tackler) on a 46-yard TD.