PITTSBURGH -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest a typically unpredictable Week 1 in the NFL ...
• It was a surprisingly tough opening week of work for several members of the league’s elite quarterback set. So much for the axiom that great QBs overcome a host of ills in the NFL. Tell that to Tom Brady, who now resides at the bottom of the AFC East with his last-place Patriots. Or Drew Brees, who lost an instant-classic shootout with Matt Ryan and his suddenly plucky Falcons. Or Aaron Rodgers, who was rendered quite mortal Thursday night in Seattle, an NFL venue he probably hopes to never visit again.
Toss in the likes of Jay Cutler being outplayed and defeated at home by the supposedly in disarray Bills, Tony Romo coming up very small against the depleted 49ers defense, and Joe Flacco playing like anything but a $100 million quarterback against the visiting Bengals, and we’re looking at the NFL version of a near total eclipse when it comes to some usually reliable star power at quarterback.
No result on Sunday was more surprising, of course, than Miami climbing out of a 10-point hole in the second half to score 23 unanswered points and stun New England 33-20. The loss can hardly be placed all on Brady’s shoulders, given the issues that sunk the Pats revolved largely around the porous offensive line and a defense that almost completely disappeared in the second half. Wasn’t New England’s defense supposed to be one of the most improved in the league? Not so much, just yet.
The Patriots had just 30 yards of offense in the second half before a final meaningless drive netted them 37 more, and Brady absorbed four sacks overall, losing a pair of fumbles. He finished a pedestrian 29-of-52, for 249 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions. And it’s not like he didn’t have his full complement of playmaking weapons on which to rely. Tight end Rob Gronkowski (four catches for 40 yards) caught a touchdown pass in his return to the field after last year’s knee injury, receiver Julian Edelman had a big day with six grabs for 95 yards and two rushes for 21 yards, and running back Shane Vereen gave New England its first lead of the new season with a first-quarter, two-yard touchdown run.
But the Patriots simply couldn’t keep up with Miami’s offense in the second half, and that was not very Brady-esque at all. New England had won 10 straight openers coming into Sunday, even managing to get the W in 2008, when Brady left a game at home early against Kansas City with a season-ending knee injury. And it’s been since November 2008 since the Patriots were outscored by as many as 23 points in the second half of a game, so we’re just not accustomed to seeing No. 12 go as quietly into defeat as he did against the Dolphins.
The AFC East suddenly seems quite upside down, with Miami, Buffalo and the Jets tied for first place at 1-0, and the Patriots trailing the pack at 0-1. Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, New York’s Geno Smith and Buffalo’s EJ Manuel don’t even have a winning season to their credit in the NFL, much less a playoff trip. But those three AFC East quarterbacks now own something Brady and his Patriots are still searching for: A win in 2014.
• Either the Cowboys are poised to be everybody’s favorite opponent, or the 49ers are going to be just fine after all. Some folks thought Dallas had a real shot at the upset of San Francisco, because the 49ers defense is missing three cogs in linebackers NaVorro Bowman (knee) and Aldon Smith (suspension) and defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey (biceps).
But those hopes died early, with San Francisco forcing the Cowboys into four first-half turnovers, including three interceptions by Romo. The 49ers led 28-3 at the half, and even two touchdowns by Dallas in the second half never really changed the story in any substantial way.
The Cowboys defense was pretty much as bad as advertised, giving up three touchdowns and 200 yards of offense to San Francisco in the first half. Colin Kaepernick never even broke much of a sweat during his stay in Texas, completing an efficient 16-of-23 for 201 yards, with two scores and nary a pick.
Everybody in greater San Francisco can exhale now.
• Can you imagine how high J.J. Watt’s price tag might have climbed after this one, if Houston hadn’t already executed that huge contract extension with him? The Texans’ all-world defensive lineman had a nice season against visiting Washington: one sack of Robert Griffin III, two tackles for loss, a blocked extra point, a pass deflection, five quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery. He was almost single-handedly the reason the Texans broke their 14-game losing streak, beating Washington 17-6.
Watt seemed like he was in the Washington backfield almost as much as Alfred Morris. And I guess extra points in the NFL are too easy only in games Watt doesn’t play.
• The news, of course, wasn’t all good coming out of Houston. No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney is hurt yet again, suffering a torn meniscus in the first half that is expected to require surgery and a reported 4-to-6 week recovery period.
No Iron Horse is Clowney. The outside linebacker had sports hernia surgery after the draft, dealt with a concussion for about a week during training camp and now has a knee injury that will cost him a good chunk of his rookie season. Clowney didn’t do much to show up against Washington before his injury, and this latest setback assures him of a slow start to the 2014 season.
• The early returns on Griffin proved he didn’t completely forget how to play quarterback in the NFL, but he also didn’t turn in a difference-making day against Houston by any stretch of the imagination. He was accurate with his passing, completing 29-of-37 passes, but most everything was underneath, which is how he finished with just 267 yards, throwing neither a touchdown nor an interception.
That’s not going to cut it in the long run. One touchdown a game isn’t a winning formula and won’t keep Washington in the NFC East conversation with the likes of high-scoring Philadelphia.
• Get those worst-to-first T-shirts ready in Minnesota, Atlanta, Houston and Buffalo. All four of those clubs finished in at least a tie for last place last season but wiped away some of that stench with impressive victories on Sunday, with the Vikings and Bills taking to the road to get to 1-0.
The Falcons have the most reason to feel good about themselves, being the only one of those four clubs that knocked off a 2013 playoff team on Sunday. Atlanta’s 37-34 overtime upset of the Saints was almost as entertaining as the Falcons’ Hard Knocks reality TV show this summer.
If anyone forgot about Matt Ryan during Atlanta’s dismal 2013, the Falcons quarterback made sure they didn’t make that mistake again. Ryan was other-worldly good against the Saints, completing 31-of-43 passes (72.1 percent) for a franchise-record 448 yards, with three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 128.8 passer rating. Atlanta churned out a team-record 568 total yards, making the Saints defense look like the 2012 Steve Spagnuolo-coordinated version.
The Jake Matthews left ankle injury has to be concerning to the Falcons, given the state and health of their offensive line last year and in training camp. But Ryan did his part to make sure the Falcons offense was a well-oiled machine in Week 1.
• There could be a dreadful year of football coming up in the state of Missouri. Both the Chiefs and Rams were out-classed at home in Week 1, with the Titans and Vikings lambasting Kansas City and St. Louis by a combined score of 60-16. And that was Jake Locker and Matt Cassel carving up the Chiefs and Rams defenses, respectively.
And the injuries just keep coming for Jeff Fisher's and Andy Reid’s teams. Rams starting quarterback Shaun Hill got knocked out after the first half with a quad problem, giving way to the lightly experienced Austin Davis. And the Chiefs actually had it worse, with a pair of starters on defense -- linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive end Mike DeVito -- suffering likely season-ending Achilles tears. Johnson is one of K.C.’s defensive stars, and his subtraction makes it seem like it’s already a lost season for the Chiefs. After that 9-0 start to last year, Kansas City has now lost seven of its past nine games, including playoffs.
• No one in the NFL had more right or reason to revel in his Week 1 success than Buffalo quarterback EJ Manuel, who has withstood almost non-stop criticism and second-guessing in light of his shaky showings during the preseason. With veteran quarterback Kyle Orton recently signed in Buffalo and all but breathing down his neck, Manuel went out and turned in a smart and well-orchestrated performance in the Bills’ 23-20 overtime win at Chicago.
Manuel wasn’t spectacular. But he doesn’t have to be. He has to stay away from the big mistake and get the ball to his playmakers, and he did that fairly well. He was 16-of-22 for 173 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. For a change, the Bills didn’t blow their season-opener, withstanding a second-half Bears comeback and making the plays when needed in the fourth quarter and overtime.
And Sunday apparently wasn’t even Manuel’s best work. That came Saturday night, when he reportedly asked to speak in a team meeting and gave an impassioned five-minute talk to his teammates, imploring them to stick together and screen out the doubters. Can’t blame him for trying to circle the wagons after all the heat the Bills have been taking. For one week at least, Manuel’s mojo was just what Buffalo needed.
• As for those Bears, that’s a loss they simply can’t excuse. But they will. And Jay Cutler set the tone, reportedly getting testy in the postgame when asked about an ill-advised fourth-quarter interception he threw to Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams. That’s right, defensive tackle Kyle Williams. Those don’t happen every day.
Chicago couldn’t stop the run all day, still has glaring issues at safety and also lost star receiver Alshon Jeffery to a hamstring injury. The Bears got the gift of playing a last-place cupcake for their home opener, and they refused the generosity. That’s so Chicago-like, and it’s the reason I never seem to buy the hype surrounding the Bears' talent level. They don’t win the games you think they’re going to win.
And don’t look now, but Chicago faces six road trips in its next eight games, with opponents like New England, San Francisco and Green Bay among them.
• For a while there, the Jacksonville Jaguars looked like your 2014 Super Bowl champion. But NFL games last 60 minutes of regulation, not 30, so that 17-0 Jags upset in Philadelphia turned into a 34-17 loss. There really are no moral victories in the NFL, but this one shouldn’t hurt for too long if you’re Jacksonville. The Jaguars are growing and getting better, and they have to be thrilled about the regular season debut of rookie receiver Allen Hurns.
Score another for the science that is the NFL draft. Hurns wasn’t selected out of the University of Miami in May, but he still managed to become just the second player in league history to score touchdowns on his first two career receptions, collecting a pair of first-quarter touchdowns. That made him the first NFL player to ever have two receiving touchdowns in the opening quarter of his first game.
Hurns finished with four receptions for 110 yards and those two scores, and this after he turned in an eye-opening preseason. His two early scores helped Jacksonville grab a bigger lead at 14-0 than it owned at any point during the 2013 season. If I’m Cecil “Don’t call me Wally Pipp’’ Shorts, I get that hamstring injury healed real quick.
• I’m sure it wasn’t fun to sit through for an Eagles fan, at least in the first half. But Philadelphia showed me something by not panicking after that dreadful opening 30 minutes of football against the Jaguars, when it trailed 17-0. Staying calm and poised helped the Eagles exert their dominance in a 34-point second-half outburst, and that should serve Chip Kelly’s team very well the next time it digs itself into an early hole, or has to mount a late-game comeback.
Same goes for quarterback Nick Foles. At least he got last year’s ridiculous 27-to-2 touchdown to interception ratio off the conversational front burner with his three first-half turnovers (two fumbles and one INT). Foles was shaky but then bounced back in a big way, completing 15-of-21 passes for 183 yards and pair of touchdowns in the second half. That’s the kind of resiliency the Eagles need at the game’s most pivotal position, and Foles has the kind of mindset that believes the game will always last long enough for him to win it.
• I take back everything I said this preseason about the Ravens' new and improved offense. Boy, was that ugly, especially in the first half, when Baltimore generated 97 yards and no points. Baltimore rallied to take the lead in the fourth quarter, but the 23-16 home-opening loss to defending AFC North champion Cincinnati was still an exercise in frustration.
And no play summed up the Ravens’ day more than the final snap of the first half, when Baltimore’s Joe Flacco ran out the clock while scrambling, with his team in easy field goal range. If that was Dan Orlovsky, I’d get it. But that was Flacco, the guy who owns a well-deserved Super Bowl ring that’s not even two years old. For a good bit of the game, it looked like somebody forgot to tell Baltimore that the regular season had begun.