The 2023 season is still young, but Week 3 feels like a tipping point for some around the NFL. Nine teams — three of which made the playoffs last year in the Cincinnati Bengals, Los Angeles Chargers and Minnesota Vikings — hope to avoid the dreaded 0-3 start this week. Just six teams since 1979, including one since 2002, have climbed back from 0-3 to see postseason football.
What else stands out about this week? The Athletic’s NFL writers Kalyn Kahler, Mike Sando and Jeff Howe reconvene to discuss their favorite storylines ahead of Sunday.
The Saints meet the Packers on Sunday. Which has been more impressive to you so far — Jordan Love or the Saints defense?
Sando: No one is talking about Love in a negative way, which is impressive given the shoes he was stepping into. He has been solid, he has looked promising, and I’d say that’s more impressive than the Saints’ defense, which has performed about how we might have thought.
Kahler: Jordan Love, for sure. What he did last Sunday without Aaron Jones, David Bakhtiari and Christian Watson was notable. He’s done a great job of incorporating rookie receivers Jayden Reed and Dontayvion Wicks into the offense and establishing a connection with them. Both scored touchdowns in Atlanta.
Howe: Love has had the unenviable task of replacing a legend while also dealing with the pressure of validating the front office’s bold decision of trading Aaron Rodgers. And, oh by the way, he’s got to play well enough to keep the Packers relevant for their demanding fan base. And he’s played well without Watson and while Jones and Bakhtiari have missed time. The Saints typically have a good defense, and the Titans and Panthers haven’t presented huge tests. So Love is off to the more impressive start.
A pair of unexpected 0-2 teams meet in the Chargers and Vikings. What issue has been ailing each team the most so far this season?
Sando: Defense. It’s pretty simple. The Vikings’ run game is another problem. This is a game the Chargers should win. They have the more talented players.
Kahler: The Vikings are turning the ball over at a truly nightmarish rate. Four in Week 2 at the Eagles and three in Week 1 versus the Buccaneers. Turnovers can be a freakish and unpredictable stat, so I don’t expect them to continue averaging 3.5 turnovers per game, but they’ve got to clean that up and take care of the football. For L.A., it’s the defense, which doesn’t bode well for defensive head coach Brandon Staley. In Week 1, the Chargers gave up 35 points for the seventh time with Staley as a head coach. The Chargers defense has allowed a greater number of explosive plays than any other team. In just two games, L.A. has given up 17 pass plays that went for more than 16 yards. That’s a big problem, particularly when defense should be this coach’s calling card.
Howe: The Vikings were due for a regression after going 11-0 in one-possession games in 2022. And they’re 0-2, and they’ve tried to erase second-half deficits in each game, which of course increases the degree of difficulty. The Chargers were horrific defensively against the Miami Dolphins and not good enough against the Titans, although the offense had a chance and failed in each game to bail them out at the end.
With season on the line, Chargers have no choice but to slow down Justin Jefferson
The Baker Mayfield Redemption Tour would go into overdrive with a Bucs win over the Eagles on Monday night. Can the former No. 1 pick really lead Tampa Bay to the playoffs or should we temper high expectations?
Sando: Tampa’s defense could slow down the Eagles’ ground game enough to make the game tougher for Philly and easier for Mayfield. Any expectations that Mayfield is going to lead the way should be tempered, but if the team around him is strong, there is a path to the playoffs for Tampa Bay with Mayfield in the lineup.
Kahler: He totally can. I don’t think it’s realistic to say the Buccaneers can beat the Eagles, but they might sweep the NFC North (they’re 2-0 against the division already) and have a very realistic chance to make the playoffs. Mayfield is off to the best start of his career, and though it’s an early sample size, I think he can continue to play well when pressured like he showed in the win over Chicago. I’m always here for a mid-career quarterback renaissance, and Mayfield could make that storyline really fun this season.
Howe: Mayfield, coordinator Dave Canales and the rest of the offense have been nicely building something since the offseason, and you’re seeing it in motion now. I don’t believe this is a fluke, but the question is whether Mayfield can stay healthy for the full season. The playoffs are absolutely attainable in the NFC South.
Sunday’s Titans-Browns matchup was supposed to feature two elite running backs in Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb. The latter is lost for the season with a significant knee injury, but Cleveland has reunited with Kareem Hunt. What must Cleveland do to keep its offense afloat?
Sando: The Browns need to figure out how best to configure the offense around Deshaun Watson. Cleveland has been so eager to get Watson in the lineup and feature him in the offense, but that should be secondary. This team could use a recommitment to basic fundamentals before worrying about reaching new heights.
Kahler: This offense was struggling even before Chubb got injured. Watson needs to play better, and last week he was clearly bothered by the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, both with its play between the whistles and with whatever it was saying to him in between two plays. He had two personal fouls against Pittsburgh, got away with shoving an official, and he had a costly fumble. He’s not helping the Browns win games.
Howe: Well before the first regular-season snap, the Browns knew Watson was going to need to play very well to get them in playoff contention. Now he’s going to have to play great. And he’s been well below that. The Browns can get by if their defense continues to play at a high level, but this ultimately falls on the shoulders of the $230 million quarterback.
The Commanders are 2-0, and a huge early season test against the Bills awaits. What do you like about what you see so far from the Sam Howell-Eric Bieniemy partnership?
Sando: They recovered from a rough outing against Arizona and a rough start against Denver to reach 2-0. Howell has been better than anticipated. The Commanders are averaging 27.5 points per game. That is exactly what they were averaging through two games last season, so I’m not crowning anyone this early. But vital signs are positive so far.
Kahler: Howell is weirdly popular with people who work in the NFL. Like Howe says below, his name was thrown around this offseason in a good way. Howell’s 21-3 comeback last week was impressive, and you’ve probably seen the clips of his passes circulating on X, formerly Twitter, paired with the phrase “beautiful thrower.” It’s true! I like this guy, and this whole team feels so different this season.
Howe: A few coaches and executives told me this summer that people were sleeping on Howell, and he’s played his part in their 2-0 start. Howell won’t be expected to do it all on his own, but timely plays can help the Commanders with their talented skill players and defense.
(Top photos of Baker Mayfield and Cameron Jordan: Mike Ehrmann and Cooper Neill / Getty Images)