The challenge of stopping Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens has proven beyond plenty of defensive teams during his still relatively young NFL career, and one of the finest defensive minds in the league was not up to the task in Week 6.

Jackson's meeting with fellow quarterback Justin Herbert was pegged as a battle between MVP candidates as the Ravens hosted the Los Angeles Chargers, and it is the Ravens star who has the stronger case after their dominant 34-6 win in a clash of 4-1 teams.

Brandon Staley was appointed as Chargers head coach on the back of his excellent performance in his one year as defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams.

His Rams defense allowed the fewest yards per play in the NFL last season, however, the Chargers have struggled mightily against the run in 2021, making them an enticing matchup for the league's premier dual-threat quarterback in Jackson.

As it happened Jackson was able to lighten the burden on his shoulders in terms of running the ball, Latavius Murray and Le'Veon Bell each going in for rushing scores to put the Ravens 14-0 to the good in the second quarter.

Reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert responded late in the half with a one-yard touchdown throw to Jared Cook after a Jackson interception, though the Chargers still trailed 17-6 at the half.

But a 12-play, 52-yard drive ended with Jackson hitting Mark Andrews for a nine-yard touchdown in the third quarter, and there was never a hint of a Chargers comeback thereafter.

Jackson's stat line, 19 of 27 passing for 167 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions with 51 yards on eight rushes, was pedestrian by his standards, but it was enough to give the Ravens the best record in the AFC as he claimed his 35th win, breaking Dan Marino's record for the most by a quarterback before his 25th birthday.

Chiefs remain unconvincing

Plenty wondered whether it was time to panic for the Kansas City Chiefs following their Week 5 loss to the Buffalo Bills in primetime last Sunday, which dropped them to 2-3.

Concerns about the two-time defending AFC champions were furthered after a first-half performance against the Washington Football Team that saw them trail 13-10 at the half.

Patrick Mahomes threw two interceptions, one off the hands of Tyreek Hill and another with an inexplicable decision to toss the ball up for grabs after fumbling the snap.

However, a touchdown pass to Hill and Darrel Williams' second rushing score of the game put Kansas City in command before Mahomes found Demarcus Robinson in the endzone to secure a 31-13 win that moves them within striking distance of the Chargers in the AFC West.

Five in a row for Packers

The Packers are far from the finished product at this stage of the season, but it is now five wins in a row for Green Bay after their 24-14 victory over NFC North rivals the Chicago Bears.

Aaron Rodgers averaged 8.5 yards per pass play and threw for two touchdowns, with the Packers quarterback reminding the Bears' fans at Soldier Field of his hold over the division after running for a score that effectively put the game to bed.

The Los Angeles Rams are also 5-1 after Matthew Stafford threw four touchdown passes in a 38-11 rout of the New York Giants.

The New York Giants watched one offensive playmaker after another fall by the wayside in a 44-20 loss to rivals the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL on Sunday. 

Giants running back Saquon Barkley (ankle) and wide receiver Kenny Golladay (knee) were injured in the first quarter – though the latter continued to play through half-time – and quarterback Daniel Jones (concussion) went down late in the second period. 

Golladay, who has battled a series of lower-body injuries this year, said he hyperextended his knee in the opening quarter and tried to play through it but could not continue after the break. 

Initial reports indicated Barkley could end up missing the most time, with ESPN saying he is expected to be sidelined for at least a couple of weeks with a sprained left ankle. 

Any extended absence would be a cruel setback for the former NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in Week 2 last season. 

The injury to Jones may have been the most concerning to watch, however. 

The third-year quarterback was running the ball towards the goal line late in the first half when he lowered his head to meet oncoming Dallas defender Jabril Cox. 

The pair hit helmet-to-helmet as Jones was dragged down and the quarterback lay prone in the end zone for a few moments before getting up, but he was shaky on his feet and had to be helped off the field by medical personnel before being taken to the locker room on a cart. 

Giants head coach Joe Judge had little to share about Jones when he spoke to reporters after his team fell to 1-4 for the season.

"I'm not going to get into any medical diagnosis," Judge said. "I saw him in the locker room afterwards right there. Just checked on him

"In terms of where he'll go next week, I don't have an answer for you right now. We'll see where he goes. Obviously we're all hopeful that he'll be back and he'll be healthy."

Mike Glennon finished the game at quarterback, completing 16 of 25 passes (64 per cent) for 196 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. 

Jones has completed 66.7 per cent of his passes this year, with four touchdowns and just one interception. 

While he had no specific details to offer about the injured players, Judge said he was pleased that the Giants' backups stepped in and did what they could.

"We'll check on the status of the guys who left, see where they're at, I couldn't give you any answers in terms of next week at this point right now," he said. 

"But in terms of how our team responded, that's exactly what I expect. I expect whoever's in the game to play, I expect the entire team to come down here ready to go.

"I tell you guys all the time, whoever's at the game I expect to play and I expect to be productive."

Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers took another step in establishing themselves as NFL Super Bowl contenders as they pulled out a wild 47-42 victory over the Cleveland Browns.

The lead changed hands seven times as Herbert and Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield led their teams downfield almost at will, but the Chargers (4-1) scored last and the Browns (3-2) could not respond on Sunday.

Herbert continued building his MVP case as he went 26-of-43 passing for 398 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions and ran for another score. 

The Chargers trailed 27-13 after a spectacular 52-yard touchdown run by Nick Chubb on the opening drive of the second half, but Herbert led them back to take a 28-27 lead and the teams exchanged touchdowns from there. 

Los Angeles thought they had tied the game when Herbert hit Austin Ekeler for a 19-yard touchdown with 3:15 to play but Tristan Vizcaino missed his second extra point of the game to leave the Chargers trailing by a point. 

The Browns went three and out on the next possession and Herbert led the Chargers to the three-yard line, where the Cleveland defence helped Ekeler cross the goal line on purpose with 1:31 to play so the Browns could get the ball back. 

But Mayfield could not finish the job, throwing three successive incompletions from the Cleveland 47-yard line to give the Chargers the ball and end the game. 

Murray, Cardinals remain unbeaten

The Arizona Cardinals improved to 5-0 and remain the only unbeaten team in the NFL after pulling out a 17-10 win against the San Francisco 49ers. 

Kyler Murray's explosive Arizona offence entered the game averaging 35 points per game but had to scrape out the win as they were out-gained 338 to 304 by Trey Lance and the 49ers (2-3). 

Murray completed 22 of 31 passes for 239 yards and a key nine-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins with 5:13 to play that effectively put the game out of reach. 

Rookie quarterback Lance made his first start for San Francisco and completed just 15 of 29 passes for 192 yards with an interception, though he led all rushers in the game with 89 yards on the ground. 

Cowboys run away from battered Giants

The Dallas Cowboys took advantage of injuries to the New York Giants' two most important players on offence, rolling to a 44-20 home victory. 

The Giants lost quarterback Daniel Jones to a concussion and running back Saquon Barkley to an ankle injury and were outscored 27-7 after Graham Gano hit a field goal on the first drive of the second half. 

Dak Prescott completed 22 of 32 passes for 302 yards and three touchdowns for Dallas, while Ezekiel Elliott ran for 110 yards and a score. 

So far, so good, Dak Prescott. At least from a personal perspective, though, it was a similar story through four weeks in 2020.

The Dallas Cowboys quarterback set a record-breaking pace last year, his 1,690 passing yards comfortably the most by any player over the first four weeks of a season since 1960. In fact, in at least the past 40 years, no QB can match that total across any four-game span.

Going back to 1960, only Jameis Winston had previously thrown for 450 yards in consecutive games. Prescott became the first to do so in three in a row against the Atlanta Falcons (450), the Seattle Seahawks (472, a career high) and the Cleveland Browns (502, another career high) in Weeks 2, 3 and 4.

Yet the Cowboys were only 1-3, and when Prescott went down for the year against the New York Giants in Week 5, any hopes of recovering their season were dashed. Dallas went from averaging a league-leading 509.5 total net yards and third-ranked 31.5 points per game through Week 4 to 325.9 yards and 22.5 points over the rest of the year — ranking joint-21st and 25th.

In 2021, however, they are 3-1 heading into another Week 5 matchup with the Giants, despite having played three other 3-1 teams. And although Prescott has again been outstanding, this year's Cowboys do not look quite so fragile.

'The best I've ever played'

Of course, Dallas' excellent start begins with the man under center. Prescott is back this season having finally signed a four-year, $160million extension, and he is quickly proving worth that investment.

Although his 1,066 yards pale next to last year's early efforts, the 28-year-old has thrown 10 touchdown passes, up on 2020's nine and the second-most ever at this stage of a season by a Cowboys QB, behind Tony Romo's 11 in 2007. Only Don Meredith (twice — in 1966 and 1968) has bettered Prescott's 116.9 passer rating to this point.

After three TDs and no interceptions in the Week 3 win against the Philadelphia Eagles, Prescott said he had gained "a different perspective" from his spell on the sidelines. "I feel like I'm playing the best I've ever played," he added. He then had four TDs and no interceptions versus the Carolina Panthers in Week 4.

Prescott is undoubtedly excelling — he has delivered a well-thrown, accurate ball with 84.7 per cent of his passes this year, third among QBs with 100 or more attempts — but he is also getting help. In the Panthers game, he did not take a single sack. His seven for the year are fewer than 21 other QBs through four weeks.

Indeed, the Dallas number four said coming into the season offensive linemen Zack Martin, Tyron Smith and La'el Collins, who all missed at least large chunks of 2020 through injury, were "the most important" members of the offense.

Of the 32 pressures Prescott has faced this season, 20 came in the opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when Martin was on the COVID list. He has won 57 of 58 pass protection attempts, allowing only a single hurry. Smith has won 90 of 93 attempts, giving up a sole adjusted sack. The Cowboys still have the suspended Collins to come back in.

Even when Prescott is pressured, he is performing well, getting the ball out quickly and accurately, his 2.84-second release time the fourth-fastest under duress (minimum 10 attempts) and his 81.3 well-thrown percentage the fourth-best.

Having top-level talents to give the ball to makes the job easier, though.

Sharing the ball around

Prescott completed at least 80 per cent of his passes in consecutive weeks against the Los Angeles Chargers (85.2) and the Eagles (80.8), while the Cowboys also put up more than 150 rushing yards in both matchups (198 and 160). The 1984 San Francisco 49ers, led by Joe Montana, had been the last team to achieve that feat in back-to-back games.

That statistic speaks to the threat Dallas pose on offense this year.

Through the air, Prescott has had three outstanding weapons to target at the start of this season. Wide receivers Amari Cooper (22) and CeeDee Lamb (20) and tight end Dalton Schultz (20) have each made at least 20 catches, making the Cowboys the only team to have three players reach this mark through four weeks in 2021.

In just Lamb's second season in the league, he and Cooper have already established themselves as one of football's premier wide receiver duos — they are one of seven pairs of team-mates to each have 250 receiving yards at the position through Week 4 (258 for Cooper, 264 for Lamb).

Against the Panthers, when Lamb was limited to just two catches, four other Cowboys caught TD passes — among them breakout star Schultz, who has three scores in four games after four in his first three years in the league.

Two of those prior four TDs came in the first four games of 2020, though, with Prescott targeting Schultz with 28 passes, leading to a career-high four-game span of 219 receiving yards. Of those, 105 yards came after the catch, showing his power as he ranked fifth at TE in the NFL. So far this year, his 131 yards after the catch trail only Travis Kelce and George Kittle — good company to be keeping.

Crucially, however, Dallas also have multiple options on the ground. Ezekiel Elliott looks back to his best and is boosted by having Tony Pollard emerge as an effective alternative.

"We've got some younger guys who can play and produce, so it's not necessary for Zeke to run the ball 25, 30 times a game," head coach Mike McCarthy said in July. "When you get to December, January football, you want him to be in top form to be able to run the ball 25, 30 times if needed."

Elliott is certainly being used more efficiently; his 342 rushing yards fall well short of the Week 4 marks set in 2016 (412) and 2018 (426), but only in the latter year (5.84) has he averaged more yards per carry than this year's 5.34. The 26-year-old's four rushing scores are his most at this stage of a season. He still played a key role against Carolina, with 143 rushing yards his most in a game since 2018.

The Cowboys are difficult to stop, with Pollard (4.29) and Elliott (4.00) ranking third and fourth among running backs for yards per carry on plays where run disruption occurs and defenders get the better of the O-line. It is easy to see why Dallas are now running the ball on 47.0 per cent of plays, fifth-most in the league, easing the burden on Prescott.

Young defense delivering

This outstanding offensive production would all count for little if the Cowboys were not also showing improvement on the defensive end. The reasons for their 1-3 start in 2020 were the 430.5 total net yards (third-most) and league-high 36.5 points allowed per game.

Happily, with Prescott returning and faith in the offensive options, the Cowboys were able to focus almost solely on defense in the draft. Their first six picks, including 12th overall selection Micah Parsons, were on that side of the ball.

Linebacker Parsons has quickly established himself, leading the team with 2.5 sacks and 32 sack yards while registering 13 pressures on 46 pass rush attempts — a strong 28.3 per cent. At defensive tackle, third-round pick Osa Odighizuwa has been similarly impressive, pressuring at a 21.4 per cent rate and registering an adjusted sack on 7.1 per cent of plays when lined up on the interior. With Jaylon Smith released, fourth-rounder Jabril Cox could also now get an opportunity.

The undoubted star of the season so far, however, is second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs. Dallas have registered 10 total takeaways, only behind the Buffalo Bills, and Diggs' five interceptions — at least one in each game, including a pick-six against the Eagles — account for half of them. Since 1960, only three players have had more interceptions heading into Week 5; since 1980, just two have had a longer streak of games with picks to start a season.

As a team, the Cowboys had 10 interceptions in the whole of 2020, with Diggs, then a rookie, contributing three.

The Cowboys have now given up 24.3 points per game, tied for 16th in the league, but they have allowed just six points — from two field goals — in the fourth quarter of one-score games, giving Prescott every opportunity to win the game.

Unlike the QB, the key men in the defensive unit are largely too young to have worked with former Cowboys coach and current Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, but on the evidence of this season so far they will relish making life hell for his man Daniel Jones on Sunday.

In their last game against weak NFC East rivals until a kind end to the schedule starting in Week 14, the Cowboys will look to lay down a marker, extending this strong start and encouraging hopes they can be a genuine contender this year. Getting Jones off the field and allowing Prescott, Elliott and Co to get to work should ensure they do that.

Taylor Heinicke is determined to establish himself with the Washington Football Team, and his display in the 30-29 win over the New York Giants was hailed as "gutty" by Ron Rivera.

Filling in for Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is out with a hip injury and likely not available until November, Heinicke threw two touchdown passes in a game for the first time in his short NFL career.

The quarterback has had prior spells in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, Houston Texans and Carolina Panthers, but before this season he had tallied just eight games in the league.

Now Heinicke has a chance to play a string of games for Washington, and even though he threw an interception with 2:22 remaining in Thursday night's game, he came good after that, commandeering the drive that resulted in Dustin Hopkins making a match-winning field goal.

Heinicke finished the game with 34-for-46 passing for 336 yards and the two touchdowns, as Washington won their first game of the season.

Speaking on Thursday Night Football, Heinicke said: "Defense came up big and we had a chance to close them out there and throwing a pick is not what you want to do.

"A lot of guys came up to me and said we've got one more chance to do it and fortunately we did. Defense came up and we went down and scored."

Asked whether he considered he had done enough to stay on the team, Heinicke said: "I do, and I have confidence that I can do it. If those guys in the locker room and the facility believe in me, that's all that matters and I think they do, so let's try to keep this ball rolling."

An impressed Rivera was captivated by Heinicke looking to make amends for his error, and by the 28-year-old's overall performance..

"It was very gutty," said the Washington coach. "The thing that was real impressive about him was the way he bounced back after the turnover. Prior to that, he went down and, in what, three plays, he scored a touchdown and turned around, and we were trying to kill the clock, and he made a bad read, made a bad decision.

"But getting that opportunity, he stepped up again."

Heinicke lost his cool and threw down his helmet after the interception, before gathering his thoughts and moving on.

"He was p*****. He was upset at himself, he really was," said Rivera. "He slammed his helmet into the ground. It was just one of those things that you just felt if we can get the ball into his hands...

"He does have the ability to throw the ball, and make all the throws And we've seen that. And he's got a lot of confidence. And when he gets into a really nice rhythm, he can deliver a good ball.

"He's got a little swagger to him and his team-mates feed off of it, they really do."

The New York Giants were left to rue missed opportunities and a costly late Dexter Lawrence offside as they went down 30-29 to the Washington in Thursday Night Football in Maryland.

Dustin Hopkins successfully converted a 43-yard attempt for the win on the buzzer, although he had missed his initial 48-yard try, only to get a second chance due to Lawrence jumping early.

Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke, in only his third NFL start, completed 34 of 46 passes for 336 yards, compared to Giants QB Daniel Jones who had 22 from 32 for 249 yards.

Heinicke, who was playing for the injured Ryan Fitzpatrick, claimed his first career win as a starting QB, highlighted by a key fourth-quarter pass for a Ricky Seals-Jones touchdown.

The result earns Washington their first win of the season, while the Giants are 0-2 after their opening defeat to the Denver Broncos.

Jones had put the Giants ahead when he rushed into the end zone in the first quarter, breaking a Kamren Curl tackle.

Washington leveled it up with a Terry McLaurin touchdown from Heinicke's pinpoint throw, after Giants offensive lineman Nick Gates was carted off with a gruesome lower leg fracture. McLaurin had 11 catches and 107 yards for the game.

New York were denied another running Jones touchdown in the second quarter for a tight hold call against CJ Board, eliminating a 58-yard play, before dependable Giants kicker Graham Gano made it 10-7.

Washington grabbed a 14-10 lead at half-time when running back JD McKissic drove down the left for a late touchdown.

Gano reduced the deficit, before Darius Slayton's touchdown from a Jones pass for a 33-yard completion. Hopkins made it 20-17 at the final change with a 49-yard attempt.

The lead changed three times in the final quarter, with Jones pushing the ball downfield, enabling Gano to get within range for a 52-yard attempt, with Hopkins responding with nine minutes to go to make it 23-20.

Slayton fluffed a golden chance to open up a big Giants lead when he got open in the end zone but dropped a Jones pass.

Gano extended New York's lead to six points before Heinicke found McKissic down the sideline for a 56-yard play, the longest of the game. From the next play, Heinicke delivered to tightend Seals-Jones for a catch into the corner to put Washington up 27-26 with 4:33 to play.

Washington gave up a turnover before the Giants earned territory, settling for Gano to convert his 35th consecutive attempt to put them up 29-27 with two minutes to play.

Heinicke and Washington edged forward, with Hopkins' initial attempt with five seconds on the clock missing, before converting his reprieve for the win.

The 2021 NFL season began on Thursday as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers started their quest for a second straight Super Bowlw title with a thrilling victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

Having won his seventh ring in his first season with the Bucs playing in front of at best sparsely populated crowds amid the coronavirus pandemic, Brady and Tampa Bay claimed a 31-29 victory in front of a packed house at Raymond James Stadium.

While the return of fans and full stadiums will give this season a different look, once more it is the Bucs and the Kansas City Chiefs who go into the year as the teams to beat.

However, there are a host of other high-profile teams who could be set to improve on their 2020 win-loss records, as well as those who could be poised to decline from postseason contention.

With the help of Stats Perform data, here are some of the more intriguing teams to keep eye on as the NFL makes its much anticipated return.

With Dak back, Cowboys hope to contend

A gruesome ankle injury suffered by Dak Prescott in Week 5 ended Dallas' hopes of challenging last season.

As it turned out, further injuries on the offensive line and a miserable defense would have made it tough for the Cowboys to contend even if Prescott had been on the field to lead the offense, as their wait for a first Super Bowl since 1995 goes on.

But Prescott is back with the security of a lucrative new contract as Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup remain part of an explosive supporting cast and he delivered a compelling reminder of his upside in defeat to Tampa Bay, throwing for 403 yards, three touchdowns and an interception off the hands of Lamb.

Prescott has averaged 8.26 yards per attempt over the last two seasons, third best among NFL QBs, and there are huge hopes for the offense, particularly if the highly rated Lamb (74 catches for 935 yards in 2020) can kick on from a fine rookie season. Despite Lamb's drop leading to a turnover, the early signs were good as he caught seven passes for 104 yards and a touchdown, helping Prescott average 6.95 yards per attempt and post a 101.4 passer rating.

If new Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn can get the defense – which allowed 158.8 rushing yards per game last season (31st in the NFL) but just 52 against the Bucs - somewhere towards the middle of the pack, the Cowboys should soar well clear of their 6-10 mark from 2020 and will be justified favourites to win the NFC East.

Pats look to pressure Bills in AFC East

The Bills and Josh Allen were so good last season that they may decline from their 13-3 mark even without doing too much wrong.

Allen made an astonishing leap from year two to three – posting career highs in passing yards (3,089 to 4,544), passing touchdowns (20 to 37) and completion percentage (58.8 to 69.2), plus eight rushing scores - and was rewarded with a huge offseason contract extension.

Allen's numbers and rate of improvement are hard to sustain, and even a marginal decline could lead to a worse record in a competitive division.

Stefon Diggs was incredible with league-leading figures of 127 catches and 1,535 receiving yards, while Cole Beasley (82 catches for 967 yards) was a crucial complementary piece.

Allen and Diggs played all 16 games last season while Beasley only missed one, so there was good fortune on the health front, while the Bills were able to win close games last season – boasting a 5-1 record in one-score contests – a metric that often reverts to the mean.

Their divisional rivals, meanwhile, look threatening. The New England Patriots have spent big in free agency to revamp the supporting cast for rookie QB Mac Jones.

New England's tight end situation has been among the league's worst since the departure of Rob Gronkowski, but they doubled down at the position to land Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith.

Henry ranks sixth among tight ends with 1,265 yards since the start of the 2019 season, while only five TEs have more than the 11 TDs grabbed by the athletic Smith over that period.

Wide receiver Nelson Agholor arrived after a career year (896 yards) for the Las Vegas Raiders as the pass-catching options were significantly boosted.

A down year for the Patriots – in which their offensive weapons looked woeful and several defensive players opted out - still produced a not disastrous 7-9 record, with four of those losses coming by eight points or fewer.

The Miami Dolphins (3-4 in one score games) are another ascending team in the division after going 10-6 and allowing only 21.1 points per game (ried-fifth in the NFL).

Even the New York Jets, buoyed after selecting BYU QB Zach Wilson at number two overall, look poised to be more competitive than their 2-14 misery a season ago.

From worst to (somewhere nearer) first?

Trevor Lawrence has been billed as a generational talent at QB and there were few questions he would be selected at number one overall in the draft.

With Lawrence being paired with college coaching great Urban Meyer and an intriguing array of pass-catchers including Laviska Shenault (691 scrimmage yards, five TDs last year) and D. J. Chark (1,714 receiving yards since 2019), the Jags could be set for rapid improvement.

Even in their awful season that led to the chance to select Lawrence at the top of the draft, the Jags were 1-6 in one score games and slightly better than their 1-15 record suggested.

By the same metric, divisional rivals the Indianapolis Colts (5-2) and the Tennessee Titans (7-2) claimed many of their victories in close games.

With the Colts negotiating some uncertainty at QB as they look to revive the career of Carson Wentz – who is dealing with a foot injury – and the Houston Texans in disarray and full rebuild mode, the Jags could emerge as surprise challengers to the Titans.

Other teams who could rise and fall

Other teams who look likely to ascend include the San Francisco 49ers (6-10), who were ravaged with injuries last season and now have two viable options at QB with Jimmy Garoppolo and exciting draft pick Trey Lance. Five of their losses last season came by one score or less despite a depleted roster. 

The Denver Broncos (5-11)  have a stacked roster with their only concerns coming at the QB position, where they hope Teddy Bridgewater can provide more stability than the volatile Drew Lock (16 TDs and 15 INTs in 2020), despite coming off a poor season with the Carolina Panthers, who opted to replace him with Sam Darnold.

The New Orleans Saints (12-4) could be trending in the opposite direction, though. While Drew Brees was not at his peak in his final NFL season, a combination of Jameis Wilson and Taysom Hill must now try to replace the future Hall of Famer while keeping pace with the formidable Bucs and an Atlanta Falcons team that has added dynamic tight end Kyle Pitts.

New Orleans' offseason was defined by a roster overhaul enforced by the Saints' salary cap woe, leaving them with a wide receiver depth chart that looks alarming with Michael Thomas (missed nine games in 2020) starting the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list.

There will be plenty of nerves around NFL locker rooms this week, with career-altering seasons lying ahead.

Many players will get second chances if the coming year does not go as planned, but some will not.

In a league where there are only 32 starting berths for quarterbacks and a further 32 openings for head coaches, the competition is brutal.

Coming off testing campaigns, Stats Perform picks out the QBs and coaches who cannot afford another slip-up in a make-or-break 2021.

Sam Darnold

New Carolina Panthers QB Darnold is still just 24, but so poor were the former third overall pick's performances across three years in New York that the Jets moved him on to take Zach Wilson with the second selection in 2021.

In Darnold's third and final miserable season with the Jets, he threw just nine touchdowns to 11 interceptions – numbers that could have been even worse as he threw 22 pickable passes, his pickable pass percentage of 6.51 the fifth-worst among QBs with 100 or more attempts.

Only the run-heavy Baltimore Ravens averaged fewer net passing yards than the Jets last year (174.8 per game), a metric in which the Panthers ranked a mediocre 18th led by Teddy Bridgewater.

If Darnold cannot even reach those standards, his career as a leading man could be over already. Of course, Carolina start against Wilson and the Jets.

Daniel Jones

Playing in the same city as Darnold, Jones might have got off a little lightly. He is after all eight days older than Darnold, albeit he came into the league a year later.

There were signs of promise for the New York Giants in 2019, but Jones has not progressed as hoped. The clock is ticking, with opportunities elsewhere likely to be scarce given he was a surprise pick at number six two years ago.

Sacked 45 times in 2020, Jones might argue he has lacked protection from a poor Giants offensive line.

Sadly, the QB has looked best running for his life, averaging a league-leading 9.70 yards when the designated ball-carrier – and a slightly above average 4.62 when scrambling – but still scoring only a single rushing TD last year.

Kliff Kingsbury

Appointed in 2019 and handed first overall pick Kyler Murray, Kingsbury's first task in Arizona was to make the Cardinals more effective and exciting on offense – something he achieved by delivering the second-highest season-to-season improvement in total net yards in franchise history (+1,602).

But the Cards still finished last in the NFC West with only five wins, missing the playoffs for the fourth successive season. A further year down the line, that drought is ongoing thanks to a desperate 2020 collapse from 6-3 to finish 8-8.

With the talent on this team, 2021 needs to bring tangible results. Failure to deliver again could spell trouble for Kingsbury or general manager Steve Keim – an unenviable position to be in at the helm of still the worst team in football's best division.

Carson Wentz

Wentz is slightly different to the other names on this list in that he has enjoyed success in the NFL already. A Week 14 ACL tear in 2017 meant he watched the Philadelphia Eagles' Super Bowl win from the sidelines, but his 33 passing TDs had already set a franchise record.

Those performances felt a long way away in an awful 2020 campaign, though. Statistically, he could hardly have been worse.

Wentz threw a joint-high 15 picks and led the way with 28 pickable passes, making up 6.78 per cent of his attempts while just 68.8 per cent were accurate, well-thrown balls – a league low among QBs with 100 or more passes. Given he also lost 326 yards to his NFL-leading 50 sacks, there was very little that went well when Wentz had the ball in his hands.

The 28-year-old is now on the Indianapolis Colts, reunited with the man who helped inspire his superb 2017 campaign in Frank Reich, but has already suffered with a foot injury and a COVID bout. With Reich as his head coach, Wentz has to return a better player or his days as a starter in this league are done.

Matt Nagy

The mood music around Chicago is not great heading into the new season. The arrival of Justin Fields in the 2021 draft should provide cause for optimism, but it appears unlikely the rookie will play right away to the frustration of fans.

Mitchell Trubisky is at least gone after a dismal run as the Bears' QB – last year comparable to Wentz by a number of advanced metrics but also averaging a below-par 7.94 air yards – but coach Nagy is starting with Andy Dalton, rather than Fields.

Nagy is also calling plays again, having given up that duty as the offense failed last year.

There has been plenty wrong on that side of the ball for the Bears in recent years, but Nagy is running out of excuses. Either his approach has to work or he must adapt fast.

Jameis Winston

Nobody on this list can be as motivated as Winston, who must have feared he had already used up his NFL lives as he watched the versatile Taysom Hill fill in for Drew Brees last season. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Winston's former team, won the Super Bowl.

But the erratic deep passer has won the New Orleans Saints' starting job ahead of Hill this year. His haphazard style might have to change if he is to keep the role, however.

Winston threw 33 TD passes in 2019, but he also had 30 interceptions – that combination a league first. His 10.70 air yards ranked second, yet 46 pickable passes led the NFL by some distance.

His play is at complete odds to the safer approach from the retired Brees, who last year threw to an open target with 81.8 per cent of his attempts and dispatched an accurate, well-thrown ball 81.0 per cent of the time but only averaged 6.41 air yards.

As in Tampa, Winston should be fun to watch. As in Tampa, he will do well to stick around... and a third chance feels unlikely.

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley stepped up his recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) after taking his first full-team reps since the injury.

Barkley has been sidelined since sustaining the ACL injury in the Week 2 defeat to the Chicago Bears in the NFL last year.

The 2018 Pro Bowler has been progressing slowly as the Giants prepare for their Week 1 opener against the Denver Broncos on September 12.

Following Thursday's live drills in joint practice with the New England Patriots, Barkley said: "I feel really good right now.

"It feels good being with the team, feels good to get a couple of team reps. It's just fun to be able to play football again, feel like a little kid and just taking it day by day."

The second overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft had established himself as one of the league's elite dual-threat running backs prior to that setback.

In his rookie season, Barkley ranked second for carries (261) and rushing yards (1,307) and was also second for catches among players at his position (91).

That amounted to 15 total touchdowns, trailing only Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara for running backs.

Year two was slightly slower but Barkley still became the first Giant to pass 1,000 rushing yards in each of his first two seasons and was looking forward to a big 2020 when he went down against the Bears.

"I definitely want to get hit again," Barkley said. "To me, it's not just the hitting, it's just playing football. Even though I only took two reps and a couple of reps in seven-on-seven, those reps are so valuable right now and going to help me in the long run.

"That's the next thing, to be completely honest. It's just taking it one day at a time. But we're at the point where I'm allowed to start taking team reps and those steps are going to happen naturally, especially throughout a couple more weeks coming up.

"You know me, as a player I want to go out there and make plays and especially in those situations when it's two minute and it's our team versus their team. Those things are going to come naturally, and I've just got continue to be patient and when I have the opportunities, take advantage of them."

Saquon Barkley has returned to practice for the first time since his anterior cruciate ligament tear but still does not know if he will make the New York Giants' 2021 opener.

Barkley has been out of action since sustaining the knee injury in the Week 2 defeat to the Chicago Bears last year.

The second overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft had established himself as one of the league's elite dual-threat running backs prior to that setback.

In his rookie season, Barkley ranked second for carries (261) and rushing yards (1,307) and was also second for catches among players at his position (91).

That amounted to 15 total touchdowns, trailing only Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara for running backs.

Year two was slightly slower but Barkley still became the first Giant to pass 1,000 rushing yards in each of his first two seasons and was looking forward to a big 2020 when he went down against the Bears.

It has been a long road back for the Bronx-born star, but he was finally fit to come off the physically unable to perform list and take part in practice on Monday before fielding questions.

"I don't know," Barkley said with a smile when asked if he could face the Denver Broncos in Week 1.

"I'm not even thinking about that. I just wanted to be able to get out there and practice and just play football with my team-mates again and I was fortunate enough for that day to be today.

"My mindset is definitely hopeful. It's definitely better being able to practice now than later on in camp."

Head coach Joe Judge said of his returning star: "We're going to be patient with him.

"We're going to watch how he responds to each situation. When the doctor says he's green-lighted to go out there and do something, he will."

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley does not know if he will be ready for Week 1 of the NFL season, though he is "feeling good".

The progress of the 24-year-old's injury recovery remains uncertain ahead of the start of training camp next week.

Barkley suffered a torn ACL in Week 2 of the 2020 season, a blow that contributed to a miserable 1-7 start for the Giants.

Optimism is high for New York in 2021, though, with reinforcements arriving in free agency after the team rallied to win five of their last eight games and finish 6-10.

The expected return of Barkley – who took the league by storm as the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2018 – is part of that feel-good factor, but he is still unsure as to when he will make his comeback.

"I don't know," Barkley said, per SNY and the New York Post, when asked if he would be ready for Week 1 when the Giants play the Denver Broncos on September 12.

Asked if he was trying to keep his status a mystery, he replied: "I've been asked a lot - I guess that's the theme of the summer, going to be when I'll be back.

"But no, I don't have that answer, to be honest. I'm not trying to lead it up to it or something like that or put something up. 

"It's a fun process, but it's a tough process at the same time. Just have to continue to listen to my body, listen to my trainers, listen to the coaches and take it day by day."

Barkley ended on a positive note, adding: "I'm feeling good. I'm doing good, taking it day by day, trying to get one percent better every single day.

"I'm enjoying my time. Obviously, camp is approaching soon, so I'm enjoying time with my family and still trying to get the work in that I can before things ramp up."

In his first two seasons in the league, there were only five running backs who rushed for more yards than Barkley (2,310), while his yards per carry average of 4.83 was ninth during that span.

A huge part of former number two overall pick Barkley's value comes from his receiving ability out of the backfield.

His 143 receptions and 1,159 yards through the air in his first two seasons put him in the top six among running backs for both categories.

Barkley was third behind only Christian McCaffrey and Ezekiel Elliott with 3,469 scrimmage yards over the two-year period, with quarterback Daniel Jones eager to have him back in the offense for a pivotal year.

The pressure is on for the Giants, who have not won a playoff game since their 2011 Super Bowl success.

The Chicago Bears saw a chance to solve their long-running quarterback problem and pounced, trading up to select Justin Fields with the 11th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

The Bears moved up from the 20th spot, trading with the New York Giants for the opportunity to take the former Ohio State QB. 

Last month, Chicago signed veteran  Andy Dalton to a one-year deal, and Nick Foles also is under contract for 2021, but now the Bears have their quarterback of the future. 

After failing to unseat Jake Fromm as the starter under center at the University of Georgia in his freshman year in 2018, Fields transferred to Ohio State.

An outstanding sophomore season saw Fields finish as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy having thrown for 3,273 yards, 41 touchdowns and just three interceptions.

He added 22 scores over eight games last year to finish his college career with 5,701 yards and 67 TDs through the air.

Fields, a dual-threat QB, also had 1,539 rushing yards and 19 further TDs on 260 carries, including 10 scores in 2019.

The 22-year-old was initially pegged as the second quarterback in this draft behind Trevor Lawrence, for whom the first pick had long been reserved.

But debate around Fields' ability – of perceived lack of – to process quickly, reading the field and moving on from his first progression, saw his reputation take a hit.

Fields actually had an average snap-to-release time of 2.81 seconds in 2020, though, marginally faster than second overall pick Zach Wilson (2.82), who was praised for being able to get the ball out quickly and accurately.

Indeed, Fields threw just 16 pickable passes in 556 attempts for a competitive percentage of 2.88 over the course of the past two seasons.

And the number 11 pick should give Chicago a new dimension with his outstanding downfield passing.

Of Power 5 passers with at least 200 throws who averaged 10 or more air yards per attempt last season, Fields' well-thrown percentage – which measures how often throws are an accurate, well-thrown ball – of 80.18 was second only to Sam Howell of North Carolina (81.31).

The New York Giants have picked up the fifth-year contract option on star running back Saquon Barkley.

NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2018, Barkley's rookie contract is extended by one year and guaranteed through to 2022 following Wednesday's announcement.

Barkley – the second pick in the 2018 Draft – is reportedly on track to be ready for the start of the season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee.

The 24-year-old underwent surgery in October following the season-ending injury sustained against the Chicago Bears in September.

Barkley was limited to 13 games in 2019 because of an ankle issue but still topped 1,000 yards rushing.

His sensational rookie season saw him rack up 2,028 yards from scrimmage and 15 total touchdowns in 2018.

In 2020, the Giants (6-10) missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year in the NFC East.

It was another disappointing season for the New York Giants in 2020, despite the arrival of new head coach Joe Judge.

The Giants endured a fourth consecutive losing campaign and have not tasted victory in a playoff game since winning the Super Bowl to conclude the 2011 season.

However, after going 1-7 in the first half of the year, the Giants went 5-3 down the stretch to finish 6-10.

That decent finish, which was helped by a competitive defense, coupled with some high-profile moves in free agency, has at least given Giants fans some reasons for optimism going into 2021.

We have looked at the best Stats Perform data to get a good look at what they need to do to become competitive again.
 

Offense

The offense was a key weakness for Big Blue in 2020, with Judge and new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett struggling to find a solution.

But while it is fair to suggest Daniel Jones does not look like an elite quarterback, it is hard to place much of the blame on his shoulders.

The Giants' offensive line was among the worst in the NFL once more, with number four overall pick Andrew Thomas enduring a rough rookie season as veteran Nate Solder opted out amid the coronavirus pandemic.

While they had a varied group of skillsets at wider receiver, the unit lacked a true number one option.

A succession of injuries also meant the Giants rarely had all their key pass-catchers on the field at the same time. To make matters worse, star running back Saquon Barkley was lost for the season with a torn ACL in Week 2.

Jones played better than his headline statistics - 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions from 14 games, an 80.4 passer rating and 29th-ranked passing offense (189.1 net passing yards per game) - would suggest. 

The lack of a top supporting cast is highlighted by a total of 751 yards proving enough for Darius Slayton to be Jones' leading target, while with 423 yards on the ground, the QB was the team's second-highest rusher.

The Giants had just 36 passing plays of 20-plus yards, the second-lowest in the NFL.

But Jones thrived when they did open the offense up, providing hope for when he has better receivers to throw to and some more aggressive play-calling.

In passing attempts with 21-plus air yards, Jones had a passer rating of 135.4 – best in the NFL – completing 19 of 38 for five touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Despite his success in that category, there were 21 other QBs who threw more deep passes, with Tom Brady topping the list with 86 attempts, statistics that should give Garrett food for thought.

Without Barkley as the O-line often struggled, the Giants had 46 runs of 10-plus yards and averaged 110.5 YPG, both figures which were below the league average.

Defense

The Giants' defense, though, was a surprising positive for the season.

Despite going into the year with concerns over a lack of star power and talent, defensive coordinator Patrick Graham put together a competitive unit.

Cornerback James Bradberry was a Pro Bowl selection after signing in free agency, while Leonard Williams enjoyed a strong season on the defensive line.

The Giants were ninth in points allowed (357) over the whole season. Even more impressively, they allowed just 138 points over the final eight games, the best total in the NFL over that span.

They were 12th in yards allowed per game (349.3) while 5.34 yards allowed per play was ninth in the NFL.

New York allowed only 52 big plays of 20-plus yards (ranked 6th) and just six of those went for touchdowns (equal 3rd).

They were better than league average with 22 takeaways and 40 sacks too – 11.5 of which went to Williams, who was playing on the franchise tag and also had 30 QB hits and 14 TFL.

Offseason

All of that meant the Giants went into the offseason with improving on offense as a priority and plenty to build from on the defense.

That defense got even stronger with the addition of former first-round pick Adoree' Jackson after his release from the Tennessee Titans, giving the team what looks like a strong cornerback pairing with Bradberry.

With Jabrill Peppers and last year's highly rated second-round selection Xavier McKinney at safety, the secondary looks strong.

Linebacker is a weakness, though the Giants are still looking good up front after Williams was retained on a three-year, $63million deal.

While that looks like a huge overpay, it does at least ensure the defensive line is well placed despite the departure of Dalvin Tomlinson, with Dexter Lawrence, their first-round pick in 2019 still in place. 

An elite edge rusher would complement those big bodies well and may well be an area of focus in the draft.

Offensively, the big splash was Kenny Golladay, seen as the top wide receiver to hit the open market, on a four-year, $72m deal. 

A low-cost flier was taken on speedster John Ross after the release of Golden Tate, while veteran Kyle Rudolph joined Evan Engram in the tight end room.

The offensive line remains a concern, particularly with guard Kevin Zeitler released, though Solder is back for 2021 on a restructured deal and there will be hopes of an improved sophomore year from Thomas.

With the number 11 pick in the draft, and many of the other teams near the top of the order eyeing a QB, the Giants are in a good position to land a key contributor at a position of need. 

If the Giants go receiver and bring in either Ja'Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith or Jaylen Waddle to pair with Golladay and possession receiver Sterling Shephard, Jones will surely greet the move with delight.

Gregory Rousseau is among the options if the Giants look to fill their need at edge in the first round, while tackle Rashawn Slater could prove tempting if the Giants try to swing again for an offensive lineman.

Regardless of the route they go down, Jones' supporting cast has already been significantly improved. 

It is fair to say he has not had a great situation either during his college career at Duke or in his first two years as an NFL quarterback.

But going into his third season, Jones now has a platform to succeed and must show enough this year to prove he can be the man who is capable of bringing the Giants back to the top. 

If he cannot, both he and general manager Dave Gettleman will be facing an uncertain future.

The New York Giants have bolstered their roster with the signing of Pro Bowler Kenny Golladay, the NFL franchise announced.

Golladay – arguably the best wide receiver in this year's free agency – has reportedly signed a four-year contract worth $72million.

The 27-year-old spent his first four seasons with the Detroit Lions, where he earned Pro-Bowl selection in 2019.

Golladay led the NFL with 11 touchdown catches in 2019, while twice exceeding 1,000 receiving yards.

A third-round pick in 2017, Golladay was limited to just five games for the Lions in 2020 due to a hip flexor strain.

The Giants have struggled, missing the playoffs for four straight seasons, while they have only managed one postseason appearance – a Wild Card loss to the Green Bay Packers in 2016 – since 2012.

But Golladay is excited about the future, telling reporters on Saturday: "Just hearing the vision that coach Joe Judge had and [co-ordinator] Jason Garrett had as far as the offense, that had me right there.

"And just walking around the building, everybody greeting me and with them pretty much telling me that they wanted me here and I'm expressing the same thing. It was kind of like a no-brainer and I'm glad it worked out."

Giants quarterback Daniel Jones will benefit most from Golladay's arrival in New York.

Jones ranked 19th for completions (280) last season, while he was 31st for completion percentage (62.5), 19th for passing yards (2,943), equal 29th for touchdowns (11) and 13th for interceptions (10).

His passer rating (80.4) was only good enough for 30th position among quarterbacks – Packers star and MVP Aaron Rodgers (121.5) topped the list.

On playing with Jones, Golladay added: "He just said how good of a player that he thought I was, and I pretty much said the same thing about him.

"He also just said, 'We're trying to do something great here,' and that's what I'm all about.

"He's still kind of fresh in the league a little bit and I kind of want to grow with him. I'm still growing as a player and I feel like me and him can do some good things.

"We haven't gotten on the practice field yet, but me and him both are very excited."

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