Welcome to SI’s new weekly Sunday night read of the NFL season. Tonight I’ll try to make sense of what we witnessed on the opening weekend of NFL football, although I don’t think anyone can explain how the Chargers continue to find ways to grab a loss from the jaws of victory, as they did again in Kansas City. I’ll tell you what storylines I’m buying (Jameis, for one) and which ones I’m going to wait on (Carson Wentz and the Eagles). We’ll discuss the best and worst coaching decisions on the day (hello, Jack Del Rio), and take shots at some of the questionable officiating decisions (PI against the Saints on fourth down? Really?) We’ll take a look at some of the plays of the day, and introduce some of the “unknowns” who made themselves known early on. But before we get started, a nod to the former holder of this space, Don Banks. This was his home for 10 years and we’ll all miss him. I’m not going to try to replace him because that’s impossible. I’m just going to try to give my take on each crazy Sunday. Hopefully you’re entertained and keep coming back. I can use all the help I can get. If you witness a good/bad coaching or officiating decision or have a nomination for the play of the day, tweet me @GregABedard or hit me up on Facebook @gregbedardNFL.
Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing storylines out of the first Sunday of the 2016 NFL season:
About Sunday Night
You might as well start engraving Bill Belichick’s name on the Coach of the Year Trophy, and QB-needy teams should start packaging first-round picks because with only one true starter on the offensive line and without Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots went into Arizona and beat the Cardinals 23–21. If the Patriots’ offense didn’t cough up the ball twice, this game might not have been that close, as the Patriots at one point led 17–7 in the middle of the third quarter. LeGarrette Blount’s fumble gave the Cardinals a short field and the game was on. Jimmy Garoppolo, Brady’s sub for his four-game suspension, managed the game perfectly, and shined on the Patriots’ final drive when he converted two third-down passes, including a third-and-15 from the New England 20 to Danny Amendola for 32 yards. No Tommy, no problem for the Patriots, who now will be favorites to start 4–0 without Brady with three-straight home games coming up.
For the Cardinals, this game should serve as a wakeup call for team that has operated in the preseason and much of this game like they were just going to show up and win games. The Patriots, without their best players, operated with a high level of comfort against the usually vaunted Cardinals defense. And Bruce Arians’s high-powered attack was clearly frustrated as the Patriots would not allow them any quick deep strikes. The good news for the Cardinals, who got an all-world game from Larry Fitzgerald (two touchdowns), is that it’s just one game, and it reminds me of something a very wise front office executive once told me: he wished his team played the Patriots early in the season instead of late because they expose all your warts. Will the Cardinals learn from this game and be better for it? We shall see.
Go nuts, folks
So far, so good for new arrivals: It was a pretty good day overall for old faces in new places. After starting the game with an interception, Texans QB Brock Osweiler (formerly of the Broncos) completed 22 of 35 passes and threw for two touchdowns to lead Houston to a win over the Bears. Ex-Seahawks and current Raiders linebacker Bruce Irvin had a sack and three total quarterback hits on the Saints’ Drew Brees. Titans RB DeMarco Murray (Eagles) had two touchdown catches, while Ravens WR Mike Wallace (Vikings) showed us all exactly why he might find new life with mad bomber Joe Flacco by hauling in a 66-yard touchdown. Meanwhile, Falcons WR Mohamed Sanu (Bengals) had five catches for 80 yards, Jets RB Matt Forte (Bears) had 96 yards rushing and another 59 yards receiving, and Texans RB Lamar Miller (Dolphins) had 106 yards on 28 carries. Oh yeah, and Chargers DT Brandon Mebane (Seahawks) had a sack and another quarterback hit, while Bears LB Jerrell Freeman (Colts) tied Bucs LB Kwon Alexander with a league-high 17 total tackles on Sunday, and also had a sack. We’re only one week in, but these teams are likely feeling pretty satisfied with their new acquisitions at the moment.
The Jets’ defensive front is outstanding: The Jets defense had seven (seven!) sacks and still lost by a point to the Bengals. That says a lot about the Jets’ front and Bengals QB Andy Dalton … and not so much about the Jets’ secondary.
Jameis Winston is the real deal: The Bucs second-year QB was every bit as good as his stat line: 23 of 33 (69.7%) for 281 yards and one interception (122.6 rating). To sum it up: He was awesome.
Believe in Dak Prescott: I saw all I needed to from Cowboys rookie QB Dak Prescott on the second play of the game. The Giants came with a corner blitz, Prescott calmly evaded it and threw a 8-yard comebacker to Dez Bryant. It’s not as easy as he made it look. Prescott’s final stat line was not great (55.6%, 69.4 rating), but no one expected him to have to carry the Dallas offense by throwing 45 times. The Cowboys have to run the ball better to be successful.
Terrible day for the Chargers: Not sure which was worse, the Chargers blowing a 24–3 lead at Kansas City, or San Diego likely losing star receiver Keenan Allen for the year with a torn ACL.
Optimism for the Giants: It’s only one game (you can apply that to all these comments), but the Giants’ defense looks much improved with their own set of new arrivals under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. They held heralded Cowboys rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott (and that line) in check most of the day and did enough to keep the Giants in the game. That bodes well for the future, as does the return of Victor Cruz. After missing most of the 2014 season and all of ’15 with various leg injuries, the slot receiver gave the Giants a 20–19 lead over the Cowboys late in the fourth quarter with his first touchdown since Week 3 of the 2014 season. The NFL is better with Cruz doing the salsa in the end zone.
Slow your roll
Don't crown Carson Wentz just yet: Carson Wentz, the second overall pick in the draft, had a very good debut for the Eagles in their 29–10 victory over the Browns. Wentz was 22 of 37 for 278 yards, and he had two impressive touchdown passes for a 101.0 pass rating. But he and the Eagles beat a Browns team that is basically an expansion team—Cleveland will be lucky to win a couple of games this season. So let's all hold off on Wentz’s coronation for a week or two.
It's not all good news in Kansas City: The Chiefs escaped the Chargers with a how-did-they-do-that?! 33–27 overtime victory after trailing 24–3 early in the third quarter, but Kansas City should be very concerned about how its defense showed very little resistance to the Chargers overall, and how its pass rush was very bad without Justin Houston through three quarters.
Marcus Gilchrist deserves some blame: Everybody’s going to roast Jets CB Darrelle Revis because Bengals receiver A.J. Green caught 12 of 13 passes for 180 yards and a touchdown (and was 10 of 10 for 152 yards when covered by Revis). It’s fair to throw some of the blame on him, but to suggest that Revis was at fault on Green’s 54-yard touchdown would be incorrect. The Jets appeared to be in Cover 3 and safety Marcus Gilchrist was responsible for the deep third of the field. Instead of staying deep on the pattern, Gilchrist went forward for the underneath route and left the post wide open for Green.
The Vikings got some gifts: Two defensive touchdowns is the formula the Vikings are going to need after Teddy Bridgewater’s injury, but they can’t play the Titans every week. I'm not sure what Marcus Mariota was doing on his interception to Eric Kendricks, but suffice to say it wasn’t very good at all.
A look at the best and worst coaching decisions from Sunday
— Raiders coach Jack Del Rio hasn’t exactly been known as a gutsy or aggressive coach during his time with the Jaguars and the Raiders, so his decision to go for two points and the win against the Saints after Oakland scored with 47 seconds left was a bit shocking. Even if it wasn’t successful, I love the decision to go for broke on the road—in the buttoned-up NFL, it’s always refreshing to see coaches take that kind of risk with the game on the line. And in this case, it happened to work out. Good for Del Rio.
— Eagles rookie coach Doug Pederson’s decision to go for it on 4th-and-4 at the Cleveland 40-yard line with 7:04 remaining in the third quarter was a big one (of course, it helps when you’re not exactly worried about the Browns’ offense making you pay). The Eagles led 15–10 when Carson Wentz hit TE Zach Ertz for five yards. Wentz threw his second touchdown on the next play to give Philadelphia a comfortable 22–10 lead.
— The Bears had no timeouts remaining when they decided to throw with 13 seconds remaining in the first half from the Houston 19-yard line. Jay Cutler made his coach John Fox look smart when he connected with Eddie Royal for a touchdown.
— The Jaguars were driving for the game-winning score against the Packers with less than two minutes left, and they started off the drive by putting Blake Bortles under center and handing off to T.J. Yeldon a couple of plays in (Yeldon also got alligator arms on a flare pass on the same drive). Who does Jacksonville think it’s fooling? Its best offense is Bortles just slinging it out of the shotgun. Make it so.
— Bears coach John Fox challenged a 35-yard catch by Texans receiver Will Fuller with 7:05 remaining. It was obviously a catch and a foolish waste of a timeout late in the game.
—The Colts took a timeout with the clock running and 1:15 left with the ball as they were driving to take the lead late against the Lions. That prevented the Colts from using more time before their final touchdown, and gave the Lions a few extra seconds on their game-winning drive.
Everybody loves to hate the refs, but let’s take a closer look at how the zebras performed today.
— The pass interference penalty called against Saints linebacker Craig Robertson on fourth down with 1:37 remaining was borderline at best and cost New Orleans a victory. It’s very difficult to make the case that Derek Carr’s pass to Jalen Richard was catchable.
— Officials in the Jaguars-Packers game missed an interference penalty against Packers CB Sam Shields near the goal line in the second quarter. Instead of first-and-goal, the Jaguars had to settle for a field goal.
Coolest thing I saw on Sunday
This one goes to Aaron Rodgers’s ridiculous 29-yard touchdown pass to Davante Adams before halftime. Rodgers got the ball away while being pulled down and threw it where only Adams could make a great catch. It’s possible we saw the play of the year during the first half of the Packers’ first game.
Second place goes to Derek Carr’s head-over-feet 11-yard run and leap on third-and-9 for a first down. Too bad the drive didn’t result in points because that play was insane.
Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself…
A look at a previously unheralded player who popped this week:
Will Fuller, WR, Texans: The 21st overall pick out of Notre Dame caught five passes for 107 yards, including a 15-yard snaking touchdown run after he corralled a low slip screen pass from Osweiler. Fuller, whose hands were questioned when he was coming out of college, also dropped a possible long touchdown, but the rookie was solid considering it was his first time out.
Jalen Richard, RB, Raiders: The undrafted free agent out of Southern Mississippi looked like he was shot out of a cannon on his 75-yard touchdown run against the porous Saints defense.
C.J. Uzomah, TE, Bengals: While everyone was panicking over Tyler Eifert’s injury, the second-year player out of Auburn hauled in a 54-yard pass and would have added a touchdown if Andy Dalton didn’t underthrow him later in the game.
Numbers sometimes lie
— The Cowboys gained 101 yards rushing, which is normally a good benchmark. But it took them 30 carries to do that (3.4 average) and needed 47 yards combined from Alfred Morris (seven rushes, 35 yards) and Dak Prescott (two for 12) to get them there. Heralded rookie Ezekiel Elliott averaged just 2.6 yards on 20 carries.
Numbers sometimes don’t lie
— The Falcons’ offensive line was terrible against the Buccaneers. Atlanta rushed 22 times for 52 yards (2.4 average). The Falcons allowed three sacks and eight tackles for a loss.
— The AFC East continues to be the AFC East. The Patriots don’t have Tom Brady or Rob Gronkowski, but no matter what they do on Sunday night against the Cardinals, they’ll still be at the very least tied for first place because the Bills, Jets and Dolphins each lost their openers to go 0–3. The Dolphins gave it a good effort, taking a late lead against the Seahawks, but with a porous Seahawks offensive line and a hobbled Russell Wilson (thanks to Ndamukong Suh’s foot), this was a chance for the Dolphins to steal a win in a very tough place to play and make a statement. In the end, the defense couldn’t make a play.
After the whistle
Hurrying to get out of bounds before the clock expires, unlike Cowboys WR Terrance Williams…
It was the start of a new season, but some things stayed very much the same. Andrew Luck, after being injured most of last season, is still a very good quarterback. He was ridiculous in a close 39–35 loss to the Lions behind a still-poor offensive line while throwing to someone named Jack Doyle. The Giants might be for real with a swarming defense back under the direction of coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The Seahawks’ defense is still good, and Russell Wilson is still clutch, and Seattle figured out how to run pass plays near the goal line. Bengals QB Andy Dalton will be O.K. without former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and all of his old receivers, just as long as his offensive line doesn’t have to block the Jets again. The Raiders still have a bad defense and that might prevent them from making the playoffs, but Derek Carr will certainly make things interesting. The Chargers and Dolphins continue to find ways to break the hearts of their fans. The Vikings will win a lot of games, provided they are gifted two touchdowns by their opponents. The Chiefs, Packers and Bengals all found a way to win games like good teams do. The Titans, Browns and Bears are in for long seasons again. Welcome back, NFL.