We’re back! Finally the NFL has returned to make the Sunday evening dread just that little bit more bearable! Unless you support a team which sucks, in which case welcome to the first of 17 weeks of pure hell!
The Bears and Packers did a brilliant job of marking the league’s 100th year on Thursday by fielding offenses which looked like they’d been plucked from that maiden season. Aaron Rodgers’ Packers edged it 10-3 at Soldier Field, but even those 13 points were enough to whet the appetite for the return of Sunday’s extravaganza.
Well this is ominous. Normally we get a few weeks of the Patriots looking a little groggy before they wake up and steal the rest of the NFL’s lunch money, but this year they have come flying out of the traps. This defense may well be the best New England have ever had. They conceded just three points – the same number they allowed against the Rams in the Super Bowl – to what should have been a potent Steelers offense, and looked alarmingly casual in the act.
Perhaps even more alarming for fans of change was how smoothly the offense ran. Tom Brady (24 of 36 for 341 yards and three touchdowns) somehow looks physically younger at 42 – it might be the new haircut – and connected seamlessly with every one of his receivers. Phillip Dorsett, Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon and James White all went over 50 yards, and now Antonio Brown is on the way too. A receiver corps which looked to be a clear weakness a few weeks ago, when Gordon was suspended and Brown was a Raider, is now among the very best in the league. Meanwhile left tackle Isaiah Wynn, who spent his entire rookie season out injured, was near faultless in his first start.
There’s much to think about for the Steelers, who were limp on offense and had no answers on defense. James Conner was completely ineffective and JuJu Smith-Schuster struggled under the double coverage he’ll now be forced to get used to with the departure of Brown. I know it’s only week one, but this was a worrying start for the black and gold. The Pats looked a totally different class.
Browns hype balloon bursts into flames
Cleveland and Antonio… this was an NFL off-season all about Browns. The excitement around sport’s most derided franchise has been building ever since they went on a hot streak to close the 2018, and reached fever pitch with the blockbuster trade for Odell Beckham Jr., but that bubble emphatically burst on Sunday as Cleveland were crushed 43-13 by the Tennessee Titans.
The Browns’ day was summed up by a second-half period in which Baker Mayfield threw three interceptions in four drives, as Cleveland continued their miserable streak of 15 years without a win in the season opener. The much-vaunted offense showed sparks early on before totally capitulating, and the defense couldn’t create the turnovers which made it one of the league’s more impressive units in 2018.
The Titans – one of the least sexy teams in the league – gave us plenty to get excited about. Marcus Mariota (14 of 24 for 248 yards and three touchdowns) was clean and effective, rookie receiver AJ Brown made his mark on the league by hitting triple digits right out of the gate, Derrick Henry (19 carries for 84 yards and a touchdown) ground the Cleveland defense down and tight end Delanie Walker made the perfect comeback from injury, catching two touchdown passes to give Tennessee total control of the game. It was a performance that’ll make Titans fans fancy themselves in a wide open AFC South.
Patrick Mahomes picks up where he left off
Can Patrick Mahomes really improve upon his mutant showing in 2018? Well, he started his 2019 campaign by putting up 313 yards in the first half alone in a 40-26 victory over the Jaguars. Does that answer your question? With Tyreek Hill going down with a shoulder injury early on, Mahomes turned to Sammy Watkins to make hay downfield. Watkins had a career day, finishing with nine receptions for 198 yards and a hat-trick of touchdowns. His performance was nicely complemented by LeSean McCoy, who carried 10 times for 81 yards on his Chiefs debut. Washed up? Not a chance.
For the Jaguars, the defeat was far from the biggest worry of the day, as they lost quarterback Nick Foles to what turned out to be a broken clavicle. Foles, signed to a mega contract after leaving the Eagles this off-season, is now out indefinitely, with rookie Gardner Minshew forced into action in his stead. Minshew actually did well on Sunday, completing 22 of his 25 passes for 275 yards, two TDs and a pick, but he can’t be expected to take Jacksonville where they were hoping on going with Foles under centre.
Kyler Murray, welcome to the NFL
No quarterback taken first overall in the draft has won their first games in the pros since Derek Carr’s older brother David did it with the Houston Texans back in 2002. Kyler Murray came about as close as it gets for the Cardinals against Detroit.
Murray dragged Arizona back from an 18-point deficit to tie the game at 24-24 and take it to overtime, but neither side could produce the game-winning touchdown, meaning we got an opening weekend tie for the second successive season.
Murray had been terrible through the opening three quarters, and had a passer rating of 28 heading into the fourth when he suddenly turned it on, showing the world why the Cards bet their house on him and sent poor Josh Rosen packing. Murray ended up attempting a whopping 54 passes – a stat-line which normally signals defeat – completing 29 for 308 yards, two touchdowns and one very ugly, very rookie-looking pick. It felt poignant that the prodigious QB linked up with the Cardinals’ greatest ever, Larry Fitzgerald, for the touchdown which tied the game. The past, the present and the future rolled into one exuberant snapshot.
The Lions will wonder how they didn’t win this game. Matthew Stafford (27 of 45, 385 yards, three touchdowns) largely played very well and the immediate impact of rookie tight end TJ Hockenson (six receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown) are clear positives, but this was a missed opportunity Detroit probably cannot afford in a very strong NFC North.
Lamar Jackson silences doubters with arm talent
“Not bad for a running back,” was how Lamar Jackson jokingly described his performance in the Ravens’ post-match press conference. Jackson is very aware of the criticism that has been levelled at him since before he even entered the league – that he’ll never be a proper NFL passer and is only dangerous with his legs. He could not have been any more emphatic in his on-field denial of those claims in Sunday’s 59-10 romp over the Miami Dolphins.
Jackson carried the ball just six times, leaving the ground work to Mark Ingram, but completed 17 of his 20 passes for 324 yards, five touchdowns and a perfect passer rating of 158.3. Not bad for a running back at all.
Two of those touchdown passes were to first-round rookie receiver Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown – cousin of Antonio. The two deep bombs over the middle and into the end zone were Brown’s first two receptions as a pro, and he finished with four receptions for 147 yards and those two scores.
The less said about the Dolphins the better. It’s going to be a very long season in Miami. I hope the high draft pick next April ends up being worth it.
Dak Prescott shines in Dallas
Dak Prescott made his case for being the next big star to sign a monster contract in Dallas with an outstanding display in a commanding win over the New York Giants. Prescott looked the definition of a top franchise quarterback as he picked the New York defense apart, finishing 25 of 32 for 405 yards and four touchdowns – spread over four different receivers (Amari Cooper, Randall Cobb, Blake Jarwin and the returning Jason Witten, since you asked so nicely).
If Prescott can stay somewhere close to this level the Cowboys can shoot for the stars. They have one of the strongest rosters in the league, and looked a level above a Giants team which did manage to move the ball on Sunday, but never threatened even coming close to winning the game.
Daniel Jones saw a bit of late action in relief of Eli Manning, who actually had one of his better games in recent years (30 of 44 for 306 yards and a touchdown). The rookie looked competent in completing three of his four passes, but did lose a fumble to ice the game. Saquon Barley was everything you expect him to do, averaging a whopping 10.1 yards per carry in the way to a 120-yard game, while tight end Evan Engram (11 receptions for 116 yards and a score) is going to be an increasingly important part of his offense.
Eagles discover fruitful new connection
A familiar face but a new connection. Carson Wentz to DeShaun Jackson is the hook-up which is getting Eagles fans excited after the speed merchant hauled in eight balls for 154 yards and two scores on his return, six years after leaving the Eagles for Washington back in 2013. Wentz and Jackson always felt like a combination which might click, and their chemistry helped Philadelphia come back from 17-0 down to overcome the Redskins 32-27 in a game far more competitive than many predicted.
Washington were hot out of the gate, and Case Keenum was the fun version of himself, tossing for 380 yards and three scores. His relationship with rookie wideout Terry McLaurin (five receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown) was reminiscent of Wentz and Jackson’s. Less impressive was running back Derrius Guice, who averaged just 1.8 yards per carry in his first game for the Redskins, having missed his entire rookie year with a torn ACL.
Still, on Sunday’s evidence the Redskins won’t be the NFC East doormat many feared – though Keenum likely can’t be relied on to regularly replicate, you know, actually being a good quarterback week on week. Eagles fans will be a little concerned about the defense, but it’s very early days.
Run-heavy Vikings signal intent
Watching the Vikings try to run the ball last season was like watching a goldfish try and put up a shelf. This year, with John DeFilippo out and Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak in, that thankfully could not be further from the case. Dalvin Cook carried the ball 21 times, averaging 5.3 yards per carry for his 111 and two scores. Kirk Cousins, meanwhile, passed just eight times. I for one would rather see the ball in Cook’s hands than being checked down by Cousins, so support this evolution of the Minnesota offense. They’re playing to the strengths, and No 2 back Alexander Mattison (nine carries for 49 yards) shows they have the depth behind Cook to carry out their strategy.
The real strength of this Vikings team, though, is its defense, which decapitated an ostensibly ferocious Falcons attack on the way to a 28-12 win. Anthony Harris picked off Matt Ryan twice, and Julio Jones was limited to just 31 yards as Atlanta failed to even register a point until the fourth quarter, when the game was already gone. Falcons fans shouldn’t panic about the offense yet – all the talent is there for it to dramatically improve, but this was a depressing start to the season for a team with ambitions of bouncing back to the playoffs.
Rams blow away Super Bowl hangover
The Rams’ running game appears to be in good health even if it’s clear Todd Gurley is going to be used in a much more limited fashion this season. He carried 14 times for 97 yards in a 30-27 win over the Panthers in Charlotte, while Malcolm Brown was preferred at the goal line. He scored both of the Rams’ rushing touchdowns from close range as the passing game largely stalled.
The Rams always had at least one hand on the game despite lacking the firepower of 2018, but again, it is week one, and the top teams often take a bit of time to warm up. That was not true of Christian McCaffrey, who rushed for 128 yards and two scores from 19 carries and added 81 more yards from 10 receptions to become the first player in NFL to register 120+ rushing yards and 10+ receptions twice in their career. He’s only in his third season. At his best McCaffrey seems to carry this Panthers offense, which is either brilliant or deeply worrying depending on how you look at it.
Seahawks grind one out over firing Bengals
This one was fun. The Bengals came to Seattle to play, and led until the fourth quarter thanks to Andy Dalton firing rockets up and down CenturyLink Field. The Red Rifle completed 35 of 51 for 418 yards and two scores, but what was notable was his sudden connection with receiver John Ross, who seems to be completely rejuvenated by a change of shirt number? Who knew. The assumed first-round bust went off for 158 and both of those touchdowns, more than making up for the absence of AJ Green. Ross’ emergence could be a very fun, unexpected storyline in Cincinnati this year.
But in the end the Seahawks got the job done, 21-20 thanks to a fourth quarter mini comeback. Russell Wilson was again used sparingly, throwing 20 times and connecting on 14 for 196 yards and two scores – to Tyler Lockett and Chris Carson. The philosophy in Seattle, who led the league in rushing in 2018, does not seem to have changed, despite them paying Wilson league-leading money to be under centre. Jadeveon Clowney had a nice start to life in the north west, registering his first sack in navy and green.
Melvin who? Austin Ekeler commands Chargers’ backfield
Melvin Gordon probably didn’t enjoy the Chargers’ 30-24 overtime win over the Colts, but the rest of us did. That’s because Gordon, whose hold-out over a new contract appears extremely fruitless, had to watch second string back Austin Ekeler register 154 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns, two through the air and one on the ground, as he stole the headlines with an explosive performance. Gordon is an excellent running back, but the Chargers won’t miss him if Ekeler can produce like this on a regular basis. It was Ekeler’s touchdown which secured LA’s win in overtime, after Jacoby Brissett had managed to bring the Colts back from the brink of defeat with eight unanswered points in the fourth quarter. Brissett is no Andrew Luck, but looks serviceable at least behind this offensive line, and is good enough to keep Indianapolis competitive in the AFC South.
TY Hilton (eight receptions, 87 yards, two TDs) and Keenan Allen (eight receptions, 123 yards, one TD) remain two of the most underrated receivers in the league.
Bills show they have courage to compete
Josh Allen and the Bills came from 16-zip down to complete a 17-16 turnaround over the division rival Jets in New Jersey, with rookie running back Devin Singletary (four carries for 70 yards) showing why the Buffalo brass felt comfortable ending their relationship with Shady McCoy after four seasons. John Brown (seven receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown) also showed signs of an early rapport with Allen on a team which absolutely has the potential to scrap for a wildcard berth in the AFC.
It was a disappointing day for a Jets side which seemed to be in total control until the final quarter. Le’Veon Bell finished just shy of 100 all-purpose yards and found the end zone in his first NFL performance in over a year, and CJ Mosley also made his mark on his new team with an early pick six, but Sam Darnold (28 of 41 for 175 yards and a touchdown failed to get much out of his receivers save for slot man Jamieson Crowder, who was the most targeted player in the NFL this weekend and caught the ball 14 times for 99 yards.
Niners take back control
The San Francisco 49ers managed just two interceptions all season in 2018 – they had three against Tampa Bay on Sunday. The joys of playing against Jameis Winston. Two of those picks – one from Richard Sherman and another from Akhello Witherspoon – went to the house as the Bucs literally threw away any chance they might have had of starting the year as hot as they did last term. Ronald Jones (13 carries for 75) was a surprise highlight on an otherwise difficult day.
The 31-17 scoreline looks good for the Niners, but they will need to improve significant on offense to stand any chance of being competitive in the NFC West. Jimmy Garoppolo (18 of 27 for 166 yards, one touchdown and one interception) was largely disappointing, and tight end George Kittle once again looked to be the only standout option in the receiving game. Their one offensive touchdown was a nice 39-yard shot over the left to Richie James as Garoppolo faced pressure. Winston (20 of 36 for 194 yards, one TD, one pick) linked up with Chris Godwin for his score.