Neil Reynolds reflects on six storylines from the opening weekend in the NFL, including Aaron Rodgers’ stunning comeback.
We came out keen to make a very strong impression on our first Sunday show of the new NFL season on Sky Sports.
I would like to think we achieved that goal over the course of eight hours of live television that featured Rob Ryan, Solomon Wilcots, the Around the NFL podcast quartet, Peter King, NBC Sports commentator Cris Collinsworth and our stats experts from Pro Football Focus, as well as regular updates from Richard Graves at the Jaguars-Giants game in New York.
It was a busy studio on Sunday evening, for sure, and the NFL once again delivered more drama than we could possibly have hoped for. Here are just a few of the headlines that have everyone chatting about the NFL once again now that the new season is up and running…
The comeback king
Perhaps the most amazing game of Week One took place after we had left our studio as the Green Bay Packers overcame a 20-point deficit to record an improbable 24-23 win over the Chicago Bears. It was a game that very well could have featured the news that Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay’s superstar quarterback, was done for the year with a serious-looking knee injury.
Instead, Rodgers hobbled off the bench to deliver three touchdown strikes to break Chicago’s hearts. Rodgers was sublime in what, arguably, could have been his greatest hour. Now let’s nervously scour the injury updates coming out of Green Bay for the next six days. Next up for Rodgers and the Packers is the scary Minnesota Vikings’ defence. A tougher task could not be presented to the highest-paid player in NFL history.
As for the Bears, they have a lot to be positive about in defeat and they will be a much more competitive team in 2018. Khalil Mack will be a stud for them – he was a first-half factor but ran out of steam after the break with his lack of football practice showing up in a big way.
A quarterback shines in New Orleans
You were probably thinking Drew Brees after reading that headline. Not on this Sunday. Instead, the biggest quarterback star in the Big Easy in Week One was Tampa Bay back-up Ryan Fitzpatrick, who led his Buccaneers to an unlikely 48-40 win over the hometown Saints.
Fitzpatrick was in sublime form while subbing for the suspended Jameis Winston as he threw for 417 yards and four touchdowns while also rushing for another score. If he can maintain anything close to that form while hooking up with receivers DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans, I would not be surprised to see the Bucs stick with the reserve and leave Winston on the bench.
That would put Tampa’s former starter on notice and place his long-term future in doubt. If the Bucs do indeed stick with Fitzpatrick, expect them to move on from Winston after the season and draft a new quarterback next spring.
Watch and learn, kid
Joe Flacco was placed on borrowed time the moment the Baltimore Ravens chose his replacement at quarterback in the 2018 NFL Draft, selecting Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in the first round. Based on Sunday’s showing, the young hotshot might be kicking his heels for a while.
Granted, Flacco’s stellar display came against a dismal-looking Bills squad. But there is that old saying about only being able to beat what is in front of you and Flacco did just that and more on the way to a 47-3 landslide.
The veteran passer hit on 25 of 34 passes for 236 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. What was most encouraging was how Flacco instantly connected with new wide receivers Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead, who each caught touchdown passes.
Flacco also hit nine different receivers on a flawless day, pushing the long-term future that is Jackson a little further down the road for now.
The pain of being a Browns fan!
I witnessed first-hand on Sunday night the utter pain and frustration of being a Cleveland Browns fan as they somehow turned a strong winning position against the Pittsburgh Steelers into a tie… much to the dismay of Around the NFL podcast hero Marc Sessler.
The game was locked at 21-21 with just a handful of seconds left on the clock in sudden-death overtime when Zane Gonzalez’s 43-yard field-goal was blocked. The Browns should have been in position for an easier kick but Myles Garrett was flagged for a block in the back penalty after Joe Schobert had stolen the ball away from Pittsburgh for the sixth time on the day.
The Browns, who have not won a game since Christmas Eve of 2016, were pushed back and, of course, conspired to find a way to mess it up. But at least they didn’t lose! That is progress for a team that went 0-16 in 2017.
It should also be noted that Cleveland gave a talented Pittsburgh team all they could handle and got into overtime thanks to a furious comeback attempt having previously trailed by two touchdowns in the final period. I don’t want to go overboard too much here, but I think brighter times are ahead in the Factory of Sadness.
Chess piece Chiefs
Make a note of this name… Eric Bieniemy is a former NFL running back who is the new offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs. He took his play-calling bow on Sunday night and called one heck of a game in a 38-28 win over the Los Angeles Chargers.
Time and again, Bieniemy dialled up plays that freed up speedy wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who caught seven passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns while also scoring on a 91-yard punt return. And he showed great imagination in terms of play design down near the end zone.
The Chiefs also put new quarterback Patrick Mahomes in position to succeed snap after snap and he didn’t let them down as he completed 15 of 27 passes for 256 yards and four touchdowns. I get the feeling there is a lot more to come from this second-year passer as the 2018 season unfolds.
Kansas City score points for fun and will need to because they cannot defend. For Bieniemy, that heaps some pressure on his shoulders. But the position also comes with significant rewards as KC’s last two offensive coordinators (Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy) are now NFL head coaches.
Cowboys slow out of the gates
I don’t want to be too rash with the opening-weekend statements because an NFL season will contain many twists and turns and even the poorest of fortunes can change – but the Dallas Cowboys looked largely terrible in losing 16-8 to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday evening.
If Dez Bryant cannot get a game for this mob (they released their Pro Bowl wide receiver in the offseason) then he must be a right royal pain in the you-know-what in the locker room because their passing game targets are pretty poor as of right now and I don’t know how they get better.
That is placing too much emphasis on third-year running back Ezekiel Elliott, who is facing a crowded line of scrimmage and at least eight defenders in the box on every play. That is not a recipe for sustained success in the running game which is so vital for setting up Dallas’ passing attack.
It’s early doors, for sure, but if Sunday night is any indicator, America’s Team could be in for a very long season indeed. And that could place head coach Jason Garrett firmly in the hotseat.
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