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NFL Winners and Losers: Bust no more? Away from the Jets, Sam Darnold is playing well

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Sam Darnold looks like a new man with the Carolina Panthers. Zach Wilson is taking major lumps with the New York Jets.

These things might be related.

The Jets moved on from Darnold in the offseason to draft Wilson, and it wasn’t unreasonable. Darnold did nothing his first three seasons to justify being the third pick of the draft. But the Panthers believed. They traded for Darnold and never wavered on making him their starter. 

Or, perhaps, they believed the Jets did nothing to help Darnold, whose talent was being wasted.

The blind faith the Panthers showed in Darnold — and they had a lot of it — is paying off early on. Darnold played well against the Jets in Week 1 and even better in Week 2, as the Panthers cruised 26-7 by a New Orleans Saints team that was coming off a Week 1 blowout of the Green Bay Packers. The Panthers are 2-0 to start the season. 

Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold had a good Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold had a good Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

Darnold was 16-of-20 for 216 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 145 passer rating in the first half. That half was better than any full game he had with the Jets. Darnold didn't do much in the second half as the Panthers bled the clock, and a bad fumble was a reminder of his turnover-prone ways, but overall he was solid. He was much better than Jameis Winston, who followed up a good Week 1 with a very quiet day. 

The reason the Panthers, and many Darnold defenders, had faith was because the Jets had nothing around him and let him get ruined by Adam Gase’s poor coaching. The Panthers have a much better infrastructure. D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson and Terrace Marshall are all better than any receiver Darnold ever had in New York, and we don’t need to even debate Christian McCaffrey vs. any Jets running back. Life is a lot easier when you have playmakers around you, not to mention a defense that looks like it could be among the best in the NFL. The Panthers just need Darnold to be halfway decent to be a playoff contender, and it seems like he’ll be at least that.

So there's hope for Wilson (who threw four interceptions on Sunday against the New England Patriots) too. Perhaps he'll just need to escape New York. 

Here are the winners and losers for Week 2 of the NFL season: 

WINNERS

Mike Vrabel and the refs, off the hook: Vrabel, the Tennessee Titans coach, probably should have gone for the two-point conversion in the final minute of regulation instead of settling for the extra point in overtime. The officials probably should have called a safety when Russell Wilson was in the end zone, instead of giving the Seattle Seahawks a gift and marking him at the 1-yard line. 

Nobody will remember either. The Titans pulled off one of the upsets of Week 2, bouncing back from a miserable opening performance to win in overtime. The Titans scored late and Vrabel didn't go for two, perhaps because he made a similar decision a few years ago in London against the Chargers, the Titans didn't make it and he got criticized. It looked like the Titans won when they had Wilson in the end zone and he wildly threw it away, but the officials somehow marked him at the 1-yard line. But after a punt, the Titans got in position and kicked a game-winning field goal, making a couple of controversies go away. 

Greg Zuerlein: Last week, Zuerlein was the subject of some jokes when he missed a few kicks in Week 1. He got it done on Sunday. 

Zuerlein hit a 56-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Cowboys to a 20-17 win. Zuerlein has been a very good kicker for years, but that had to feel like some redemption. 

The Cowboys got a huge win on the road. The offense didn't do much, but the defense played well including a huge third-quarter interception with Justin Herbert throwing to the end zone. It looked like Dallas might go to overtime, but Zuerlein made sure Dallas was going home with a 1-1 record. 

Matt Ryan and the hapless Falcons: It's not that Matt Ryan played terribly on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He helped get the Falcons back in the game, throwing a touchdown and running for a two-point conversion to cut the Bucs' lead to 28-25. Ryan threw two pick-sixes after that, though one was tipped. 

It's just that the Bucs are way better. And Ryan doesn't have forever to wait on a rebuild. 

Ryan's old Super Bowl nemesis Tom Brady is still great at age 44, but he's different than everyone else. Ryan hasn't played great to start the season. He's 36. The Falcons aren't good. Ryan might not have years and years left as the Falcons try to improve. The Falcons are 0-2 and it looks like it'll be a long season for a quarterback who doesn't have many seasons left. 

Bill Belichick against a rookie QB: You may have heard this past week that entering Sunday, Belichick was 21-6 when facing a rookie quarterback. 

Win No. 22 wasn't hard. The New England Patriots flummoxed Zach Wilson all game, and got back to 1-1 with an easy win over the Jets. Wilson threw some bad passes including some easy interceptions, and inspired a few Sam Darnold-inspired jokes. He had four interceptions total in a 25-6 loss. 

When you give Belichick a week to confuse a rookie quarterback, he will. Especially one like Wilson who doesn't have a good offensive line. Belichick will get another crack at the rookie on Oct. 24 in Foxborough. 

Chicago Bears defense: The story of the Bears' win on Sunday was Andy Dalton's injury, which might open the door for Justin Fields. But the reason they beat the Cincinnati Bengals was defense. 

The Bears did well to shut down a talented Bengals offense. Roquan Smith's pick-six of Joe Burrow covered 53 yards and gave the Bears a 17-3 lead. Burrow looked like a young quarterback at times, and the Bears had a lot to do with it. 

Cincinnati got back in the game, but that was due in large part to a late interception by Fields. The Bears still hung on to a 20-17 win. Fields will have time to get better. It will help if the Bears defense plays like it did Sunday. 

Buffalo Bills: The Bills caught a break when Tua Tagovailoa went out in the first quarter with a rib injury. But the Bills still handled business.

The Bills avoided an 0-2 start with a 35-0 win at the Miami Dolphins. They looked very good on defense, albeit against backup Jacoby Brissett. The offense wasn't as explosive as we might have expected coming into the season, but it was still better than last week. 

The Bills came into this season with realistic Super Bowl hopes. It's hard to come back in the NFL from an 0-2 hole, and Tagovailoa injury or not, the Bills avoided that. 

Derek Carr: How many times the past few years has everyone tried to replace Carr as the Las Vegas Raiders' starting quarterback? 

Carr has been an easy target, but he played well last season and is off to a fast start this season, too. The Raiders are 2-0 after an upset 26-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Carr did great against a defense that shut down Josh Allen and the Bills a week ago. He had 382 yards and two touchdowns. Carr has the most passing yards ever for a Raiders quarterback in a two-game span, according to the CBS broadcast. 

The Raiders have started fast under Jon Gruden before, so we'll see how they finish. But to this point, some respect needs to be given to Carr. 

LOSERS

Mike Zimmer: The Minnesota Vikings had a bad start last season and they were patient with Zimmer. Will that patient approach happen again? 

The Vikings are 0-2, losing two painfully close games. Sunday was a bad one, with Greg Joseph missing a field goal attempt as time expired. The Cardinals won a fun game 34-33. Zimmer could have helped. 

With more than 30 seconds left, the Vikings got a first down to the Cardinals' 19-yard line. Zimmer chose to let time run all the way down and then called his last timeout, setting up Joseph. Joseph should make a 37-yard field goal. But the Vikings had plenty of time to get closer. The conservative approach wasn't the right one. 

Zimmer also made an odd call to squib kick with less than 30 seconds remaining in the first half. The Cardinals started at their own 34, got a couple quick receptions and then long-distance specialist Matt Prater hit a 62-yard field goal. The Vikings handed the Cardinals three points there by squib kicking. That was big. 

Minnesota has time to turn it around this season. But Zimmer might not want to wait too long. 

Carson Wentz: It was a rough day for Wentz, and the Indianapolis Colts still had a shot to win.

The Colts couldn't punch it in early from the 1-yard line, and fourth down was a Wentz sack. There was an interception later inside the 5-yard line on a weird shovel pass from Wentz right to Los Angeles Rams linebacker Troy Reeder. 

The Colts hung in and took a second-half lead. Then late in the fourth quarter Wentz, who got hit a lot Sunday, exited with a foot or ankle injury. On the next possession, his replacement Jacob Eason threw a critical pick to Jalen Ramsey. The Colts lost 27-24.

Among the growing knocks on Wentz is his health. He was often injured with the Philadelphia Eagles. On Sunday, another injury kept him on the sideline when the 0-2 Colts really needed him.

Tyrod Taylor: There aren't many quarterbacks who have caught worse breaks than Taylor. 

Taylor, who lost his job last season when the Los Angeles Chargers medical staff reportedly screwed up a shot and punctured his lung, was off to a good start through a game and a half with the Houston Texans. Then on a touchdown run against Cleveland, Taylor pulled up with a hamstring injury. He sat the second half and rookie Davis Mills went in. 

Taylor was 10-of-11 for 125 yards and that rushing touchdown before halftime. The Texans had a 14-7 lead in the second quarter. The Browns pulled away in the second half and won 31-21. It would have been a lot tougher had Taylor not gone out. 

Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars: Lawrence is going to be asked to do too much for a terribly coached Jacksonville Jaguars team, and that's not a good formula for a rookie quarterback.

Lawrence started well, throwing a nice touchdown to Marvin Jones early against Denver. But as the Jaguars fell behind the Broncos, Lawrence had to press and started throwing risky passes. By the time Patrick Surtain II intercepted one, that practically ended the Jaguars' chances. The Broncos went to 2-0 with a 23-13 win

Lawrence will be a good player, but it won't be easy for him early on. The Jaguars are going to be awful this season. The only hope is that Lawrence doesn't develop some bad habits in what is going to be a long season. 

Eagles, take two: The Philadelphia Eagles looked incredible in Week 1 when they blew out the Atlanta Falcons. Then came Week 2. 

The San Francisco 49ers are going to be a very good team, but the Eagles still need to score more at home. The Eagles' crucial sequence came when Quez Watkins hauled in a 91-yard catch and got down to the 49ers' 6-yard line, but Philadelphia didn't score. The Eagles went for it on fourth down and tried a version of "Philly Special," but the 49ers saw it coming and it was well covered and thrown away. That was the key moment of a 17-11 49ers win

A lot will fall on Jalen Hurts. He looked great in the opener, but other than the 91-yard pass to Watkins the offense was stagnant. Hurts has shown he is very good at his best, but consistency is the next step for him. That eluded Hurts on Sunday. 

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