SAN FRANCISCO -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we take stock of a rather ugly Week 1 in the NFL, otherwise known as Overreaction Sunday. ....
• The kids were all right, weren't they? They only went a combined 1-2 in their high-profile regular-season debuts, but the Jets' Geno Smith, the Bills' E.J. Manuel and the Raiders' Terrelle Pryor all exceeded first-week expectations for the struggling teams they hope to lead at quarterback.
Smith and the Jets were the only ones to get rewarded for their strong opening work. New York squeaked out a semi-miraculous 18-17 win in the final seconds over Tampa Bay, thanks to a mindless personal foul penalty on Bucs linebacker Levonte David, which cost Tampa Bay 15 precious yards and set up Nick Folk's game-winning 48-yard field goal with two seconds remaining.
Nothing about the Jets' day on offense was pretty, but Smith more than did his part to help keep Mark Sanchez as yesterday's news. Hurting the Bucs with both his arm and his legs, not to mention his poise, Smith was a cool 24-of-38 for 256 yards, with one touchdown, one interception and one fumble lost. He also rushed five times for 37 yards, including the key 10-yard scramble on which David unwisely pushed him, despite Smith already having one foot clearly out of bounds. Both of Smith's turnovers were in the first half, and he played with increasing confidence in the final two quarters, making good decisions and at least not adding to New York's deficit with negative plays and rookie mistakes.
It's early, it's early, it's early, but score this one for new Jets GM John Idzik, who wanted Smith to be the guy in Week 1 all along. The Bucs self-destructed in this one, committing 13 penalties, but Smith didn't look overmatched and found a way to cobble together a game-winning drive when the opportunity arose. He'll at least take a decent amount of momentum into the Week 2 game in New England Thursday night, and he bought his head coach, Rex Ryan, a bit of welcomed cover after Ryan's decision to play Sanchez in the fourth quarter of the third preseason game resulted in a reported separated shoulder.
Manuel, the other rookie starting quarterback in the AFC East, came within five seconds of getting his first career win, but New England broke Buffalo's heart one more time with a 23-21 win that was secured on Stephen Gostkowski's 35-yard field goal. Manuel didn't have a ton of passing yards (18-of-27 for 150 yards), but his two touchdown passes were nearly a death blow to the Patriots, who slopped their way to a 10th consecutive opening-day win.
The most impressive part of Manuel's game was how he took care of the football like a veteran. While the Patriots' Tom Brady threw one interception and committed a costly fumble near the Bills' goal line in the third quarter, Manuel had no picks and no fumbles. He did his part to help Buffalo get just its second win in its past 20 games against New England, but the Bills' defense couldn't protect a 21-20 lead in the closing minutes.
Maybe the most surprising development of Week 1 on the quarterbacking front was how well Pryor played in defeat. The former Ohio State star wasn't the read-option quarterback we all focused on this preseason, but he wound up rushing for a quarterback team-record of 112 yards on 13 carries for Oakland, and added another 217 yards and a touchdown on 19-of-29 passing in the Raiders' 21-17 loss at Indianapolis.
Pryor may not be able to read defenses like a book just yet, but he adds an element of playmaking to the Raiders' offense that has been lacking for years. It wasn't all upside for Pryor against the Colts, however. His two red-zone interceptions cost Oakland big time, and he took a killer sack late in the game after the Raiders had moved within the Indy 10 yard line, with a chance to make one more play and pull the upset.
Last year's embarrassment of riches on the young starting quarterback front -- see Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick -- will not be repeated this year. No one should believe otherwise. But for one week at least, the trio of Smith, Manuel and Pryor acquitted themselves quite well. It's a major stretch to see any of them making playoff runs in 2013, because of the lack of talent around them, but they gave their teams chances to win on Sunday, and nearly went 3-0.
Close doesn't count in the NFL, but for starters, the kids inspired some hope in New York, Buffalo and Oakland, three of the most quarterback-needy locales in the league.
• Nice opening effort by the AFC North. Baltimore gets demolished in Denver on Thursday night; Cincinnati blows an 11-point third-quarter lead at Chicago; Cleveland lays an egg at home against Miami; and Pittsburgh is embarrassed at home by a Tennessee club that produced a measly 229 yards of offense.
The Steelers had the worst of it, of course, losing three-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey to a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of a 16-9 loss to the Titans. That's not going to help a Steelers offense that was determined to run the ball better this year. Also, starting linebacker Larry Foote suffered a torn biceps and could be lost for the season as well.
Even worse in Pouncey's case, he was a victim of friendly fire, with guard David DeCastro whiffing on a cut block attempt and plowing into Pouncey, the team's best lineman and an important team leader. Pittsburgh wanted to run the ball with authority this season, but it lost rookie running back Le'Veon Bell in the preseason to a mid-foot injury, and now Pouncey is gone. Bell should be back at some point this month, but it was a devastating blow to lose Pouncey, and it seemed to suck all the life out of the Steelers against Tennessee.
Pittsburgh trailed 16-2 until scoring a touchdown with 1:23 left, making the final more respectable, but it was a very un-Steeler-like performance on offense. Pittsburgh had zero first downs in the third quarter, and finished with just 195 yards of total offense, including 32 rushing yards on 15 attempts. Ben Roethlisberger looked like last year's late-season slump never ended, and he had a paltry 191 yards passing on 21-of-33 attempts, with one touchdown and one interception.
The Steelers are in trouble. They look like an old team trending downward, and if they harbored real hopes of playoff relevancy, this was a game they absolutely had to win. The Steelers came in with nine consecutive home-opening victories, including the past six under current head coach Mike Tomlin.
• Miami showed some resilience in winning 23-10 at Cleveland, but the Dolphins might already have a diva issue on their hands in the person of Mike Wallace. The team's big-money free-agent receiver had just one catch for 15 yards against the Browns, while his fellow Dolphins receivers (Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson) ran wild, catching a combined 16 passes for 221 yards and a score. Wallace told the media he didn't "feel like talking'' after the game, and instructed them to "ask coach [Joe Philbin]'' as to why he wasn't more involved in the gameplan.
That's never the right message to send after a win, and Wallace should know that at this point in his NFL career. I thought it was going to take some time for Wallace and Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill to get on the same page this season, but maybe Wallace isn't willing to wait for that comfort zone to develop. At least we know he's not willing to play the decoy very happily, even if it does open up the field for the Dolphins' two other top receivers.
• Gritty win No. 1 for Seattle at Carolina, and who said the Seahawks can't win on the East Coast? Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson was under siege from an aggressive Carolina defensive front for most of the game, but he didn't miss when he had the chance to make the one play that decided the outcome: A 43-yard touchdown strike to receiver Jermaine Kearse less than five minutes into the fourth quarter. That was the difference in Seattle's 12-7 win.
Wilson took a few wicked shots, but stood in there and went 25-of-33, for 320 yards, with the touchdown and no interceptions. All of which was even more critical because the Seahawks' usual superb running game was largely absent. Seattle gained just 70 yards on the ground, led by Marshawn Lynch's 43-yard day.
• As for the Panthers, their offense strangely played it safe in the second half at times, as if it had a big lead, when it was only 7-3 Carolina at the half. Despite that, the Panthers were driving for a potential game-winning touchdown in the game's final minutes, but Seattle safety Earl Thomas made a great play and forced a DeAngelo Williams fumble, which was recovered at the Seahawks' 8.
Right away, the pressure is back on Carolina head coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton. With the Panthers' slow starts dooming their past two seasons, it's must-win time already next week when Carolina travels to Buffalo.
• Speaking of immediate pressure, it's on in Cleveland, too. The Browns' offense was pretty miserable once again, with Trent Richardson running for just 47 yards, quarterback Brandon Weeden tossing three interceptions (two were off the hands of his receivers) and Cleveland barely cracking double digits in the 23-10 loss to Miami.
Remarkably, the expansion Browns are now 1-13 when they play at home in Week 1, which is a record that consistently deadens any chance of building momentum in September. And don't look now, but in the next three games, Cleveland plays three teams that made the 2012 playoffs: at Baltimore, at Minnesota and home versus Cincinnati.
• For a week at least, Reggie Bush was just what the doctor ordered in Detroit. The ex-Dolphin, ex-Saint was at his explosive best in the Lions' 34-24 win over visiting Minnesota, taking a short pass 77 yards for a touchdown in the second half, and adding 90 yards rushing on 21 carries. His total of 191 yards offense (he had four catches for 101) was about equal to the production of the entire Lions backfield some seasons in the Jim Schwartz coaching era.
If Bush can continue making this kind of impact, defenses aren't going to be able to focus almost exclusively on taking away the Lions' Calvin Johnson-led receiving game.
• Supremely weird day for Vikings super-back Adrian Peterson. He took the first ball he touched 78 yards for a touchdown on Minnesota's first play from scrimmage, but then managed just 15 more yards on his final 17 carries of the game. His 18-rush, 93-yard game doesn't represent failure, as he also added a second touchdown on a four-yard reception in the third quarter, but with the one big play and then little else, Peterson just didn't feel like much of a factor.
• That needless cut block that Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh put on Vikings center John Sullivan, a mistake that wiped out an interception return for a touchdown by Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy, is just another chapter in Suh's perplexing book. Sullivan was well behind Levy and was not going to chase him down to make the tackle.
It makes you wonder if Suh will ever learn to play under control and stop hurting his own team at critical times. And it also brings back around the rap on the Lions as an undisciplined, self-defeating team, even though Detroit won by 10 in Week 1. Suh had a strong day otherwise, but in a closer game, his penalty could have wound up being much more costly.
• What got into Andrew Luck? A 19-yard scramble to post the game-winning touchdown in the Colts' close call against Oakland? Luck didn't win any games with his feet last season (at least that I recall), but he's 1-0 in that department so far this year. He's not doing to dazzle you with his moves, but maybe he got tired of hearing about all those mobile, read-option quarterbacks and decided to make a statement of sorts.
Luck actually finished as the Colts' second-leading rusher with six carries for 38 yards, trailing Vick Ballard (13 for 63), but outgaining newcomer Ahmad Bradshaw (7 for 26). Oh, and Luck was pretty good with his right arm, too, completing 18-of-23 passes for 178 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
• Sean Payton's return to the sideline was the big story in the Superdome, but everybody knows it's the New Orleans' defense that will either make or break this Saints team. That's why New Orleans' 23-17 win over the division rival Falcons was so sweet, because new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's guys had a very big say in deciding the outcome.
The Saints turned Atlanta away on a fourth-and-goal in the final seconds, with safety Roman Harper intercepting a pass that rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro tipped away from Tony Gonzalez's waiting hands. The Saints put a steady amount of pressure on Matt Ryan throughout the game, without resorting to an array of blitzes, and consistently came up with plays that helped limit the damage done by the Falcons' high-powered offense.
Atlanta was just 3-of-12 on third and fourth down (25 percent), had the ball for only 24:49 and ran just 55 plays, good for 367 yards of offense. And holding the Falcons to just 17 points with all those weapons is the accomplishment that matters most, obviously.
Despite all their injuries, the Saints played the aggressive, attacking style that Ryan preaches, and it worked to near perfection on this day. This is how the Saints have to win this year, because Drew Brees and Co. will put their 24 to 34 points on the scoreboard each week. If the Saints defense can limit teams to 20 points or fewer, it's going to be a return-to-the-playoffs season for the returning Payton.
• The Patriots naturally won't be satisfied with their showing at Buffalo, but they do know how to win ugly, when they don't have their A game, don't they? For a while there on Sunday I thought Julian Edelman was going to wind up being the receiver who really replaced Wes Welker in the Patriots' lineup, and not the newly acquired Danny Amendola, as we all presumed.
But when all was said and done, Amendola did a pretty fair Welker impersonation, finishing with 10 catches for 104 yards, despite leaving the game for a time with a groin injury. Some of those catches were of the much-needed, third-down variety, which was always a Welker specialty. Edelman came up big, too, catching seven passes for 79 yards and two first-half touchdowns.
Add in Shane Vereen's clutch game -- he ran 14 times for 101 yards -- and the Patriots' offense got just enough from its playmakers to scrape out the win. Vereen's contributions were crucial because starting running back Stevan Ridley got sentenced to the bench by Bill Belichick after fumbling in the first half, a mistake that turned into a 74-yard Bills touchdown return by safety Da'Norris Searcy. Don't expect to see Ridley on the field in key situations for a while.
• So much for any budding sense of optimism in Jacksonville. No one in the NFL came up smaller than Gus Bradley's Jaguars, who lost at home to Kansas City 28-2 (the first time in NFL history that final score happened). And stop me if you've heard this one before, but Jags quarterback Blaine Gabbert did not quiet his many critics with his latest showing.
Believe it or not, Jacksonville didn't reach Kansas City territory until late in the game, and Gabbert was mostly dreadful. He finished 16-of-35 for 121 yards and two interceptions, and left the game in the second half after suffering a cut on his throwing hand. Chad Henne replaced him, and you can bet you're going to hear calls to start Henne in Week 2.
• I picked the Chiefs to earn an AFC wild-card berth, and they no doubt gained some much-needed confidence with their 26-point road rout of Jacksonville. Kansas City did almost everything well against the feeble Jags. Alex Smith threw for 173 yards and two touchdowns, with no picks and an efficient 94.4 passer rating. The Chiefs rushed for 120 yards and got a touchdown out of Jamaal Charles, and even added a game-capping 10-yard interception return touchdown on defense, courtesy of linebacker Tamba Hali.
Like the Jaguars, the Chiefs were a 2-14 team last season. But it's pretty obvious who the early leader in the clubhouse is for the honor of being the NFL's most improved team.
• Of course, I also picked the Cincinnati Bengals to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, and that one is not looking too prescient at the moment. The Bengals were up 11 points in the third quarter, and still led early in the fourth. But it shouldn't have even been that close. Three Bengals turnovers were huge, and then Cincinnati got sloppy with its timeouts -- calling all three second-half timeouts with eight minutes remaining to play -- and lost its composure at critical moments.
The Bengals drew eight penalties in the game, worth 84 yards. Half of them came after the play was over, with the Bengals mixing it up with various Bears players in either trash talking or some late pushing and shoving. The worst was the unsportsmanlike call on linebacker Rey Maualuga, after the Bengals had stopped Chicago and were set to get the ball back with 1:06 left in a three-point game.
The Bengals didn't look ready to take a step up in NFL weight class on Sunday in Chicago. They looked like a team capable of beating itself.
• The Bears, however, have every reason to feel like they stole one. Chicago has some work to do, but when the Bengals tried to give the game away, Marc Trestman's team gladly accepted it. Quarterback Jay Cutler started slowly, but he led the Bears to a couple of second-half touchdown drives, and played an above average game, throwing for 242 yards, with two scores and just one pick (93.2 rating).
The win was something to build on for Trestman. With cornerback Charles Tillman supplying his couple of takeways (two interceptions of Andy Dalton), and the offense showing some versatility, Chicago's 1-0 probably feels quite rewarding as the season gets fully underway.
• Where have you gone, Chris Kluwe? The Vikings' new punter, Jeff Locke, isn't making anyone in Minnesota forget his outspoken predecessor. Locke's first three efforts against Detroit went for 36, 42 and 39 yards, and last I checked, there's no wind or weather issues in Ford Field.