1a. Because Aaron Rodgers wears the same shirt as the rest of the guys on the Green Bay Packers, there’s always a chance they can win a game 80-70 or so. But, realistically, to run the NFC gauntlet the defense has to be significantly better than it was a year ago.
And, one week into the season, huzzah for cheeseheads! They held the Seahawks without a touchdown in Lambeau, in large part because Mike Daniels showed up with a combination of Superman’s strength, The Flash’s speed and the Green Lantern’s . . . like, ring or whatever.
Of course, the Seahawks’ offensive line has once again pledged to stay neutral in these things—there are two sides to every argument, and who’s to say Russell Wilson shouldn’t be forced to run for his life every moment he’s on the field. So the Green Bay pass rush looked great against Seattle. As my personal mentor and—should it ever come to it—defense attorney Andy Benoit points out, the Packers’ secondary, their Achilles heal last year, did not look particularly good in that game. They just didn’t really have to do much since the opponent’s 5' 2" (give or take) quarterback was swarmed immediately after every snap.
That brings us to Sunday night, the Packers coming to the same city where, a little less than eight months ago, the Packers DBs were all but literally set ablaze in last year’s NFC title game. The Falcons’ front five didn’t look very good in Chicago last week, but as long as they show up and remember to wear pants they’ll be better than Seattle’s front five was. The Packers have a chance to get better on the back end as the season goes on—a lot of teams do just that. But if they’re going to get out of Atlanta with a win Sunday night, it’s probably going to take the offense putting up a ton of points. Or it’s going to take Mike Daniels wrecking a game for a second straight week.
1b. Also, this will mark the Falcons’ regular-season debut in their new home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It looks like the stadium will be very, very neat. Big screens, (relatively) cheap food, large bird statues. Now, will it be nearly-three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollars-for-eight-to-11-meaningful-home-games-over-the-next-20-25-years-of-a-sport-that-is-immensely-watchable-on-television neat? I suppose that’s not up for me to decide since I don’t live there. And, besides, no one seems to be able to find the receipt, and I’m not sure they take returns anyway.
2. A bit of East Coast bias here, both because I live and work in the greater New York area and therefore am in constant contact with Giants fans, and because anyone who doesn’t live their life on Eastern Time Zone time is a godforsaken nerd. (A quick look at my definitive U.S. Time Zone Power Rankings:
Back to the matter at hand: Since the wee hours of Monday morning, I’ve been inundated with questions from panicked Giants fans who are ready to descend on East Rutherford and demand Rodney Hampton be re-installed as the focal point of this offense. But, really, they’re going to be fine as soon as Odell Beckham Jr.’s ankle is healed.
I know, I know, the Falcons were fine without Julio Jones last year, and Jones, Beckham and Antonio Brown are the Big Three, so . . . But offenses are all built differently, and while the Kyle Shanahan (now Steve Sarkisian) offense in Atlanta can scheme receivers open with clever route combinations, the Giants use a more simplified scheme that asks their receivers to win isolation routes—in short, be better than the guy (or in Beckham’s case, guys) covering him. It’s why they struggled while having to play Victor Cruz and Will Tye last season. And it’s why, despite the additions of Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram, Beckham is irreplaceable in their offense, nearly as much as Eli Manning.
The offensive line continues to be an issue—Weston Richburg and Justin Pugh are kinda O.K., Bobby Hart and Ereck Flowers are decidedly not, and when you play out of the same three-receiver personnel that often in order to allow your offense to play faster, and don’t have a dynamic back, you don’t run the ball effectively. Could they have fixed the running game some time over the past two years? Sure. But could they have done so while also adding Snacks Harrison, Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple, turning a sieve defense into one of the NFL’s elite units? Probably not.
So, there you have it. When everyone’s healthy, you have a top-of-the-line defense and a middle-of-the-pack offense. That’s a pretty good team. When Beckham is out, it’s a team with a great defense and a bottom-five offense, and that team is going to get its butt handed to it in Dallas.
3. Were Jacoby Brissett and Doug Flutie separated at birth? So far DNA testing has proven inconclusive, in part because neither have responded to my requests for hair and saliva. So, in short, science can not definitively say whether or not they are blood relatives.
But, come 1:03 p.m. ET or so on Sunday, Brissett and Flutie will have something in common. They will be two of four* quarterbacks in the post-merger era to start a game as a rookie, then start a game one season later for a different team. Flutie, after a year in the USFL, started the regular-season finale for the 1986 Bears, then a year later engineered a trade to the Patriots toward the end of the player strike, starting the final “replacement player” game for New England before Tony Eason returned to take the job back.
Brissett, who of course made two starts for the Patriots while Tom Brady was serving a four-game suspension for burning down an orphanage (if memory serves) and Jimmy Garoppolo was injured, will step in as the Colts’ starter against the Cardinals. Indianapolis didn’t have much of a choice after the opener, when the 18 inaccurate, zipless pass attempts off Scott Tolzien’s right hand raised the question: “Maybe he’s actually left-handed and just forgot?”
Of course, as our Jonathan Jones pointed out, the Colts did have options not too long ago and chose to not exercise them. So with Andrew Luck out at least until October, they’re taking a pass on the eminently winnable AFC South. So it seems they screwed it up pretty bad. Unless, as one reader claimed, they’re tanking. And they’re in the market for another QB next spring. And Luck’s injury is much worse than they’re letting on. And if I used that as evidence to write a piece about Luck’s career-threatening injury, so many people would click on that. And then they’d be extremely disappointed in my flimsy evidence and tenuous grasp of the English language, but still, the clicks. Give me a minute, I’ve got to think about something . . .
*—In the meantime, can you name the other two quarterbacks in the post-merger era to start a game as a rookie, then start a game one season later for a different team? It’s Steve Walsh (five starts for Dallas in 1989, then 11 starts after an in-season trade to New Orleans in 1990) and Spergon Wynn (one start for the Browns as a rookie in 2000, then two more for the Vikings in 2001). So, now can you name the other two quarterbacks in the post-merger era to start a game as a rookie, then start a game one season later for a different team?
4a. The NFL has loosened celebration rules, which is good. As mentioned in last week’s column, the league’s war on personality is problematic as far as growing the audience. It seems turning the most popular sports league in the country into a large-scale version of BattleBots was perhaps not the way to go (though I still wonder if the lack of humanity in its competitors is why no one showed up to my BattleBots watch parties, or if it was more a function of the fact that I have no friends).
So you no longer have to shield your children’s eyes from, say, the sexy gyrations of Antonio Brown, or the sexy free-throw shooting of Vernon Davis. However, while we can all be happy that game officials are no longer being asked to litigate joy, I just want to make clear that the best celebration in football continues to be one that was already legal.
Scientifically, the “thumbs up” is the greatest gesture we have as humans. You can use it for genuine approval and appreciation, and it’s easy to recognize near or far. It’s just as powerful whether accompanied by a smile, or with a somber expression. You can also use it sarcastically—inspired by Mr. Show’s legendary “Pallies” skit, I give the thumbs up every time some BMW-driving, Wolf of Wall Street extra nearly causes an accident on the Third Avenue Bridge because he doesn’t understand what a merge sign means (just drive really fast into your back right taillight, yeah?). You know that “Twin Peaks” scene at the beginning of Season 2 that everyone hates, where Cooper’s bleeding out and the confused old-man waiter isn’t helping him at all and it goes on forever? I love that scene, purely for the gratuitous thumbs-ups.
It’s not always caught by the cameras, but Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson gently touching thumbs remains as good as it gets. As far as I’m concerned, that should be their lasting legacy.
4b. I hope the thumbs up bump doesn’t become widespread because it is unique to those guys. However, we have co-opted it in my house for all occasions. Though when I offer, my 3-year-old son always either touches my thumb with his index finger or kisses my thumb instead, and it’s always just so, so disappointing.
4c. I do feel strongly about the thumbs up, but there was too much pop culture in that one. And somehow none of it Simpsons. So let’s get back to football (and, also, Simpsons) . . .
5. As mentioned in the past (including last week), I have some very mixed emotions when it comes to Sam Bradford. But I do believe he’s a stud quarterback in the right situation, and I think the Vikings are a Super Bowl contender after fixing their O-line. That makes Minnesota’s visit to Heinz Field one of the best matchups of the 2017 season.
Of course, Bradford’s knee injury—which, judging from reports, falls anywhere between a minor injury and the complete shattering of his knee cap and shredding of every muscle and ligament in the immediate area, I guess we’ll find out more once he takes the field—potentially throws a wrench into the Vikings’ plans this week. If Bradford is ready to go, it would be a rising, underrated offense featuring a potentially game-breaking rookie in Dalvin Cook, against a rising, underrated defense that features a potentially game-wrecking rookie in T.J. Watt. Those are interesting things!
However, especially with the health question marks surrounding Bradford, I’m more interested to see what this Steelers offense does against an elite defense. For reasons unknown, Ben Roethlisberger continues to be much better at home than he is on the road. They have to be thanking Pan, the goat god, after pulling out a game they really should have lost in Cleveland last week (14 points, 290 yards and six of the team’s 13 penalties from the offense). Going back to 2015, the Steelers have averaged 29.5 points per game at home, and 21.0 on the road. Last year alone, they dropped 30-plus points on pretty good defenses from Kansas City (32), Dallas (30), Baltimore (31) and Miami (30) at Heinz Field. Mike Zimmer’s 2017 group is better than those four units.
Martavis Bryant is back this year, adding that explosive, downfield element. And while most weeks the Vikings can just sic Xavier Rhodes on the opposing team’s best receiver (in this case Antonio Brown) and forget it, the Steelers’ wide variety of weapons and those troublesome 3x1 alignments could mitigate Rhodes’ impact. So, despite a much tougher opponent, Roethlisberger and Co. have a chance to put together a much better showing than they did in Cleveland.
6. For the past 10 days, everyone has been saying some version of remember that time the Patriots lost 70-4 to the Chiefs and they had a funeral for Tom Brady and in the middle of the eulogy Brady came swinging in through the windows on a fire hose like Die Hard—oh, did I mention the funeral was being held in a skyscraper?—and he was just like knocking people out, then he drove straight to the Sunday night game against Cincinnati that week and threw 12 touchdown passes and the Patriots haven’t lost a game since?
That’s all well and good, and also historically accurate. But the issue during New England’s slow start in 2014 was the offensive line, and Brady’s inability to make throws while getting hit in the face four-tenths of a second after every snap. That year, the O-line eventually jelled, Brady had time again, and that’s why they turned things around.
And if the issue in the opener was Brady, you could feel pretty good that New England would have no issues turning things around (even with a 40-year-old Brady). They could win, say 13 of their next 15 games and hold homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs (and finishing two games better than the Chiefs from here on in is still a strong possibility, especially with the Chiefs now having to go without defensive MVP Eric Berry in a stacked AFC West).
But the issue in the opener wasn’t really Brady and the offense. Brady was off, but not alarmingly so, especially for a season opener after losing Julian Edelman. They’ll almost surely be fine on offense this season. No, the problem is the defense. The Patriots have invested in the secondary and up the middle on D. And that used to be all well and good, because they had Rob Ninkovich on one edge and Jabaal Sheard on the other, and both are excellent edge-setters against the run. But neither was a dynamic pass-rusher, so they came relatively cheap. Now, for the first time since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the Patriots haven’t had Ninkovich (now-retired) on the edge. Sheard signed with the Colts. Dont’a Hightower was supposed to fill that edge-setting role, but now he’s out this week and the Patriots will have to lean on newbie Cassius Marsh, and we saw how life without Hightower worked out in the second half of the opener. This week, they’ll face a diverse Saints running game that can go at them in a variety of ways with a variety of backs.
With Hightower likely back in a week or two, and with three months to straighten things out, the Patriots should be AFC favorites again come January. The question is whether they can get things straightened out fast enough so that the AFC playoffs will come through Foxboro, rather than Pittsburgh/Kansas City/Oakland/Denver.
7. I’m not going to call out any sports media people specifically, mostly because I’m incredibly thin-skinned and weep uncontrollably at even the mildest criticisms. So I won’t specify who, but I have heard multiple people on television refer to Sean McVay vs. Washington and/or Mike Glennon at Tampa, as “revenge games.”
Just to be clear, Washington hired McVay as a 24-year-old assistant in 2010, made him a 28-year-old coordinator and put him on the fast track to becoming the youngest head coach in NFL history. The Bucs, despite having a franchise quarterback who had started every game in each of his two NFL seasons, offered to make Glennon the richest backup quarterback in football. In fact, you could argue that the Bucs treated Glennon better than his current team, who signed him presumably as a potential franchise QB and then immediately drafted his replacement before he had ever taken a snap.
So, revenge is probably not on the minds of either of those gentlemen. Unless it’s kinda like the final line in this scene.
8a. So, as teased a week ago (and already viewed by a select group of weirdos who gave mixed-to-positive reviews), below is the debut episode/season premiere of “Gameday Evening News Morning Edition.”
I don’t know what to think about it. I wrote a bunch of stuff that made me laugh to varying degrees. I performed it 16 times. I spent two hours editing it because I’m not so good at editing—really, I’ve been hearing my whiny voice and looking at my stupid face for so long I kinda just want to punch myself. (Also, yes, I do do my own Photoshop work.)
That said: Honestly, what do you think of it? I like to think that if you’ve made it to Item 8 you either really like what I do, or really hate what I do, but either way you have the capacity to tolerate my nonsense and you’ll have an opinion about it. So, let me know. The column will almost certainly have to include some kind of video element from here on out (because pre-roll, but I’m trying to give you a really good content-to-pre-roll ratio). Did you like this, or would you rather have, say, seven minutes of a test pattern?
8b. Also, for anyone interested: I’ll once again be live-blogging Sunday, especially the football games. Then I’ll have my new column, “Sunday FreakOut: Reactions and Overreactions to the day’s games” out a little after the early games end, then updated after the second set. I named the column on the fly last week while trying to live-blog the late-games while also writing a column. But, please, stick around. I’ll be here all day. (That's not like a self-deprecating line at the end of a bad joke. I will literally be here all day. Then, out first thing Monday morning, podcast!)
9a. So that whole “Other Steve Smith nominated for the Hall of Fame” story ended up having a fairly reasonable explanation. As well as a cautionary tale about allowing fans to nominate players for football’s highest honor, though it’s probably not the greatest issue facing America today.
But, to be fair, this kind of thing happens to honors in other fields all the time. For instance, when I was in Pre-K me and my friends Glen, Ross and other Glen (it was a popular name back then) earned a Tony nomination for our production of “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” (if you’re unfamiliar with TBP, the performance is, in essence, an examination of and commentary on freedom, what sustains us, and what it truly means to feel). But, due to what I assume was a mix-up similar to the Steve Smiths, the nomination went to David Mamet’s cast and crew.
9b. I wrote the previous joke at 3 a.m. on Thursday morning, when my insomnia was at its worst (I get the jimmy legs, bad). But I like to think that my mom might like that joke. If only she read my work.
10. Ladies and gentlemen, Led Zeppelin! . . .
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