FOXBORO, Mass. — Well, that didn’t go as expected.
Thursday night’s game was supposed to be the exclamation point on the Patriots’ celebration of the team’s fifth championship, and the first step in what plenty of people opined could be a final jewel in the Brady/Belichick legacy. But someone forgot to give Andy Reid and the Chiefs the memo.
Instead, Alex Smith connected on 80% of his throws, racking up 368 yards and four touchdowns. Tyreek Hill (seven receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown) was every bit the all-purpose weapon that his co-workers advertised him to be. Rookie RB Kareem Hunt had 246 (!) yards on 22 touches from scrimmage, and the defense eventually settled in with Bob Sutton calling a Rex Ryan-style gameplan against Tom Brady and Co.
Maybe, in the aftermath, it’s time to reevaluate what we think of the Chiefs, somewhat forgotten after a tumultuous offseason. And maybe it’s time to look at the Patriots’ talent in the defensive front seven and wonder—while Brady and the offense figure it out with Julian Edelman (that’s just a matter of time)—if the attrition of high-end talent over the last couple years is catching up to them there.
OK, that all might be a little deep for Week 1. But the point is that we’re less than a day into the 2017 regular season, and we already have a different result than we thought we would. And so I’m going to give you my five most compelling storylines for the opening Sunday of the NFL season, with the caveat that Chiefs/Patriots is subject to happen somewhere else, too.
1. How will Cam Newton look coming off shoulder surgery? The Panthers aren’t completely sure—and as I wrote in Thursday’s GamePlan, there are certainly some nervous people in the building over it. They haven’t seen Newton truly let it rip yet. He was on a pitch count for almost the entire summer, and while he has shown he can still make the difficult throws in practice, he hasn’t done in game conditions, off platform, under duress or consecutively. This surgery is about getting Newton right for the next decade, not the next month, so how he looks over the next few weeks isn’t really what all of us on the outside should be focused on. But that part sure will be interesting to those on the inside.
2. Is Aaron Rodgers the same Aaron Rodgers who we saw throw for 18 touchdowns and no picks during the last seven regular season games of 2016? The same guy that riddled the Giants and Cowboys to get the Packers to the NFC title game? Based on what you hear, which is that he showed a renewed dedication this offseason, it makes sense to answer yes. Either way, we should know more after the late-Sunday-afternoon tilt with the Seahawks, who added one of the NFL’s most talented defensive players, Sheldon Richardson, to their already fearsome front.
3. The league’s first primetime game of the season had the storyline of Roger Goodell’s return to Gillette Stadium hanging over it. The second one—Giants at Cowboys on Sunday Night Football—will carry another less-than-pretty news event with it. Later today, we’ll know if Ezekiel Elliott is getting a temporary restraining order, which will determine if he can play while the case connected to his six-game suspension is being deliberated by the district court. No matter what happens, his presence against the Giants, who accounted for two of the Cowboys’ three regular-season losses last year, will be not just important but also heavily scrutinized. As it should be.
4. I wanna see Le’Veon Bell. Last year, he rushed for 1268 yards and seven touchdowns, and caught 75 balls for 616 yards and another two scores—in 12 games. More important, he hit that 100-catch, 1700-rushing-yard pace after serving a three-game suspension to start the season, which would give you reason to believe he’ll be just fine after leaving his franchise tender (worth $12.1 million) unsigned, and not reporting, until September 1. And I think he will be against Cleveland, and all season, particularly with Martavis Bryant back and taken defensive backs down the field with him. Also in this one: The debut of Browns rookie QBDeShoneKizer, the only signal-caller in his draft class starting in Week 1.
5. What will the Falcons look like? I want to think they’re ready to sidestep a Super Bowl hangover, for three reasons. First, Dan Quinn’s personality to be a program-builder, and his ability to connect with and unite a wide variety of players, is a big reason why he was such a hot head-coaching candidate back in 2015. And those traits should serve him well now—something GM Thomas Dimitroff has pointed out to me a couple times this offseason. Second, they’ve sort of been here before. In 2015, a 6–1 start crumbled in midseason, as the Falcons dropped six straight and finished 8–8. Players were asked constantly about it in the 2016 offseason, and whether the problem might metastasize. All Atlanta did was responded with a trip to the Super Bowl. And third, there’s the youth of a defense that should be a lot closer to its offensive counterpart, production-wise, this year.
6. Bonus! Houston/Jacksonville, for obvious reasons. Texans officials were clear throughout the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey that they really wanted to keep this game at home, giving their fans something to look forward to. And, oh, by the way—J.J. Watt’s fundraising effort for Harvey relief was at $29,519,928 as of 2:30 p.m. ET on Friday.