$.01--The Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns reprised their great AFC Divisional Round matchup from a year ago, and the rematch did not disappoint either. As was the case in January, the Chiefs snuck away with a hard-fought win, prevailing 33-29 over a game Browns team.
The game effectively ended on a bad Baker Mayfield interception, but it should not obscure the overall game he engineered. Both Mayfield and Mahomes were exactly what their teams needed throughout the game. They’re asked to run different styles and do different things, and each was very good. Mayfield kept the trains running on time and made several key throws, completing 21 of his 28 passes for 321 yards. The Browns scored 4 touchdowns on the ground, two by Nick Chubb.
Mahomes was better in the end, and he had to do much more of it with his arm. The Chiefs run game wasn’t effective, so Mahomes did what he needed to do and threw for 337 yards and 3 TDs to rally the Chiefs for the win. The Browns had no answer for Tyreek Hill, who topped 200 total yards and was on the receiving end of 15 of Mahomes’ 36 pass attempts (he caught 11, for 197 yards).
Despite what avowed Baker-hater Colin Cowherd is going to yell at you, this game turned on a Browns special teams mistake. Punter Jamie Gillan bobbled a fine snap and couldn’t run for the conversion in his panic. The gaffe gave Mahomes and the Chiefs the ball at the Browns 15, and they quickly scored the go-ahead TD. The punt came after a drive where the Chiefs defensive front dominated the Browns O-line, which was playing without left tackle Jedrick Wills. Context matters.
These teams sure looked capable of meeting again in late January. Based on the action in Week 1 and what these rosters look like, don’t be surprised if we see it again. The Chiefs winning on Sunday makes it much more likely any postseason rematch will be in Kansas City, too.
$.02--The weekend kicked off on Thursday night with a thoroughly entertaining matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa Bay won 31-29 on a late TD pass from Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski, their second hookup of the night. But this is a game that Dallas lost more than Tampa Bay won.
The Buccaneers tried to lose. They did everything within their power to give the game away. Dallas just didn’t know what to do with the bountiful football gifts. From a perfectly placed Brady pass bouncing off Leonard Fournette’s hands for an easy INT to several dumb penalties, the Bucs were not sharp. Alas, Dallas’ response outside of a majestic performance from Dak Prescott was even duller...
Buccaneers are the first team in NFL history to lose the turnover margin by at least 3, incur 100 penalty yards, allow 450 yards, and still win the game.— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) September 10, 2021
Tampa Bay might have benefitted from a controversial no-call on some pretty clear offensive pass interference by Chris Godwin late. It’s a play that goes uncalled more often than it gets flagged. It’s the first week for the officials, too. Regardless, Dallas had ample chances to overcome the bumbling Bucs and fell flat. Don’t blame Prescott, who was brilliant. The Cowboys continue to lack difference-makers on defense or the ability to punish other teams for mistakes. Against a team like Tampa Bay, that simply cannot happen. The good news in Dallas is that Prescott looked impressive, the offense clicked even minus All-Pro RG Zack Martin, and they don’t see another team that made the playoffs in 2020 until Week 11.
$.03--There were a few eyebrow-raising results in Week 1, but none was more surprising than how easy and thoroughly the New Orleans Saints completely dominated the Green Bay Packers in their makeshift home in Jacksonville.
How dominant was New Orleans, and how witless were the Packers?
At 38-3, which wound up being the final score, the Packers pulled reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers and inserted Jordan Love. Based on how uncharacteristically poor Rodgers was playing, even most Cheesehead faithful would have been okay with making the change.
Rodgers was flat, off and flustered easily. With no David Bakhtiari at left tackle, Rodgers looked uncomfortable and distrustful of his pass protection, and they validated his lack of trust. The Saints only sacked him once but forced Rodgers into speeding up his process frequently. New Orleans’ coverage was also better than expected. The Saints defense deserves credit for playing great, and that shouldn’t get lost in the tidal wave of negativity rolling over Rodgers and the Packers offense.
The Saints' own offense was fantastically efficient, too. Jameis Winston completed 25% of his 20 attempts for touchdowns despite throwing for just 148 yards. The only 3-and-out came on their final drive when the game was long decided.
“One game, we’ve got 16 to go,” Rodgers offered up after the ugly loss. It’s his 2021 version of “R-E-L-A-X”, but after the tumultuous offseason where Rodgers admittedly thought about retiring and morphed into a Man Bun, it’s harder to believe the magic will return just by willing it to existence. Rodgers was rusty but not in a way that seems like a can of WD-40 will solve the problems. The Packers have to play better around their leader, something they’ve struggled to do in the rare “off” games in his career. This was definitely one of them. But again, don’t forget to credit the Saints for an outstanding game.
$.04--Another borderline “Any Given Sunday” game took place in Nashville, where the Arizona Cardinals annihilated the favored Tennessee Titans, 38-17.
It was over almost before it started. The Titans had four possessions in the first quarter and netted minus-16 yards, including penalties. Arizona netted three TDs and a field goal in thier first five possessions to counter. DeAndre Hopkins had 5 catches for 73 yards and 2 TDs at the half, radically outshining the dynamic Titans duo of A.J. Brown (1 catch, 3 targets, 12 yards) and Julio Jones (1 catch, 3 targets, 9 yards).
Arizona’s defense also deserves considerable credit. Derrick Henry managed just 8 yards on 9 carries in the first half. He finished with 57 yards on 18 carries, well off the 126.7-yard pace Henry posted a year ago. Chandler Jones was a hot knife through the buttery Titans OL, racking up five sacks and relegating left tackle Taylor Lewan to the bench for a spell. Isaiah Simmons kicked off his second season looking like the versatile defensive weapon the Cardinals envisioned in the first round of the 2020 draft, picking off a pass and ranging for a game-high nine tackles.
Tennessee’s offseason emphasis on strengthening the offense and relatively ignoring the defense failed miserably in Week 1. It was too easy for Kyler Murray, Hopkins and Co. to rack up 416 yards and 22 first downs. It could have been much more if not for the end zone getting in the way. When the (allegedly) upgraded Titans offense can’t get it rolling, they don’t have any real path to victory. They certainly don’t when playing that poorly on defense.
It’s important to not overreact to Week 1, but it’s also hard to look at this game and not wonder if the Cardinals have finally figured it out under Kliff Kingsbury. It’s a great start for Arizona and a Week 1 to forget for Titans fans.
$.05--The Houston Texans are generally expected to be the worst team in the NFL in 2021. Between their conundrum with star QB Deshaun Watson and his pending legal woes and their bizarre front office decision-making process, the Texans have the lowest projected win total.
Don’t tell that to Urban Meyer, whose Jaguars handed Houston an easy 37-21 victory in Week 1. Meyer’s NFL debut was a rough one. Houston’s offense, keyed by Tyrod Taylor, what’s left of Mark Ingram and 35-year-old slot receiver Danny Amendola--signed Thursday--was unstoppable, at least for the Jaguars defense. Five scoring drives before halftime is four more scores than many folks predicted all game for Houston.
The Texans were helped by two Trevor Lawrence interceptions in the second quarter. They came in consecutive possessions after a great, 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive where Lawrence showed why he was the No. 1 overall pick. That’s rookie life in the NFL. Lawrence will have better days. Meyer will too, though it’s going to be important to watch how he handles the NFL equivalent of his Ohio State or Florida juggernauts losing to Western Michigan or Georgia Southern.
Houston sits in first place in the AFC South, the lone divisional winner. The motley mix of capable but unspectacular veterans worked in Week 1. The win is nice, but the hope is the front office doesn’t learn the wrong message. Patching together the oldest roster in the NFL by importing castoffs with varying levels of gas left in the tank is not a sustainable success model. Houston dealt top CB Bradley Roby to New Orleans late in the week, effectively selling him for a draft pick.
The mixed messaging is wild. The Roby move, a smart sell on the surface, is the type of “for the future” move that the Texans sorely need to do to prepare for post-Deshaun life. But it directly contradicts the move to sign Amendola and other beyond-their prime vets like Ingram, Christian Kirksey and Taylor to play significant roles. It worked in Week 1 and it might work a few more times if they play the smart, efficient way they did against a foe that isn’t so sharp. But it’s hard to find an upside for the Texans until the Watson situation resolves and the team chooses a path beyond Flex Taping the sinking ship week after week.
$.06--One of the “breaking” stories that emerged Sunday morning came courtesy of Adam Schefter at ESPN. The best info man in the business dropped the bomb that the San Francisco 49ers traded up in the draft to No. 3 overall because they were worried and convinced the New England Patriots would beat them to the punch on the trade and move way up to land QB Mac Jones.
The weird kicker: the 49ers didn’t really want Jones. But they wanted their pick of the QB litter and didn’t want the Patriots gumming up the works. So the Niners leapt up from No. 12 overall, giving up two additional first-round picks, just to make sure the Patriots didn’t move from 15 to 3 to take a different QB than the one the Niners wanted. San Francisco took Trey Lance at 3, while the Patriots stood pat and landed their guy, Jones, at 15.
If that’s true, and there is no reason to doubt Schefter’s reputation here, then the 49ers absolutely fleeced themselves in paranoia. There is a very strong chance they could have landed Lance at No. 12 overall without trading away their next two first-round picks. The only other team to take a QB between No. 3 and No. 15 was the Chicago Bears, who wanted Justin Fields specifically more than they wanted a QB. Chicago traded up to get Fields, not just any QB. There was considerable speculation the Lions at 7 would take Lance, but that seems specious after how overjoyed the new Lions regime was at landing OT Penei Sewell in the draft and how weirdly bullish they are on Jared Goff at QB.
The other takeaway here is how much the rest of the NFL still fears Bill Belichick, even coming off an objectively bad season in New England. Ironically enough, the 49ers did more damage to the Patriots by engineering the deal with Belichick’s AFC East rival, Miami.
Oh by the way, Lance completed his first (and only) NFL pass for a TD in San Francisco’s weird win, a game they led 38-10 at one point before holding on for dear life 41-33. Jones played conservatively well but couldn’t post many points for New England in a 17-16 division loss to Miami.
$.07--Lots of rookies took some lumps in the preseason. Two very prominent ones, Ja’Marr Chase and Penei Sewell, had very publicly poor preseasons that had fans of the Bengals and Lions, respectively, freaking out about their top-10 overall investments.
If you needed any more validation that preseason means as much as the extended warranty on a toothbrush, what Chase and Sewell did in Week 1 should end it. Both were very good when the game outcome actually mattered despite having regrettable summers.
Chase dropped more preseason passes than he caught in Cincinnati. On Sunday, nobody in a Bengals uniform caught more than Chase, who posted 5 receptions on 7 targets for 101 yards and a TD in the Bengals overtime win over Minnesota. This looks like the handiwork worthy of a No. 5 overall pick:
Sewell had some very rough moments at right tackle in the preseason. It was understandable for a 20-year-old who had only played left tackle and hadn’t even practiced in over 18 months when the Lions tabbed him with the No. 7 pick. An injury to Taylor Decker forced Sewell back to left tackle. Facing off primarily against Nick Bosa, Sewell played very well. He got beaten twice by my count, both times on the inside moves that gave him issues on the right side. Given the context of the game, Sewell’s performance was very good.
All the consternation, all the frantic panic from fans all summer, and the rookies nailed it when it mattered. That’s not to say Chase and Sewell will play great all season. They’re going to have some down games, no doubt about it. Hopefully, the perspective sinks in that fans shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater before they even turn the faucet on to fill the tub.
--The Denver Broncos scored their first win in September since the 2018 season by overpowering the New York Giants, 27-7. That the Broncos hadn’t won a game in the first few weeks of a season in over three full seasons is a crazy anomaly that I did not know until the postgame graphic.
--The much-hyped debut of Matthew Stafford with the Los Angeles Rams largely delivered upon its promise. Stafford was impressive in the Rams’ 34-14 thumping of the Chicago Bears. It would have been nice of the Sunday Night Football crew to acknowledge that 10 other guys were on the field with him, but that’s probably asking too much for Week 1.
--The entire NFC North is winless. The entire AFC West enters Monday night unbeaten (the Raiders host the Ravens on MNF), while the NFC West is 4-0. Houston is the only team with a win in the AFC South. The Eagles are the only team with a win in the NFC East. Unpredictability is fun!
--49ers cornerback Jason Verrett suffered what appeared to be another serious knee injury Sunday. Verrett has consistently been one of the NFL’s best when he’s played, but injuries have ruined his career. If it’s as bad as it looked when he was sobbing on the Ford Field turf, this will be the third time in the last five years his season ends after just one game, and he missed another full year in there too. It’s heartbreaking.
--The Browns still haven’t won in Week 1 since 2004. That’s an unreal string. Patrick Mahomes has still never lost in September.
--Good on Steelers EDGE T.J. watt to take the bull by the horns and get a contract extension done. Watt is one of the most impactful players in the league and both sides wanted to get a deal done. When his agent wasn’t making it happen, Watt did this:
.@AdamSchefter reports on SportsCenter that TJ Watt walked into Art Rooney II's office today and told him they had a deal, despite his agent saying he could get more money.— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) September 9, 2021
Watt then celebrated by leaving ARII's office and hitting the weight room.
Expected nothing less.
--Kudos to Oregon for making the rare trip to the Eastern time zone and beating Ohio State in the Horseshoe despite not having their best player, top-5 overall prospect Kayvon Thibodeaux. The Ducks took advantage of some questionable coaching decisions from the Bucks and made the home team pay. Nice status-making win for the PAC-12 too.
--Jacksonville State stunned Florida State in Tallahassee on a wildly improbable final play. I suspect No. 10 for the Seminoles is going to get an earful from the coaches:
WOW 😱😱— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 12, 2021
Jacksonville State with a 59-yard HAIL MARY winner against Florida State 😳 pic.twitter.com/H3Bkd4TIVC
--Spent a little time breaking down the first two weeks of play from Liberty QB Malik Willis, who is one of the hot names on the scouting circuit. I get why. He’s got an odd delivery that could be quicker and more efficient, but Willis can really sling it. He sees the field well and can escape trouble. There’s some Syracuse-era Donovan McNabb to his game from what I’ve seen, though the level of competition isn’t challenging enough (no offense to Troy) to earn that sort of praise yet. Anxious for more from Willis.
--I am a proud Ohio Bobcat, but the football team is perilously close to regressing back to my undergrad years, when we won 10 games in six seasons. The Bobcats are not handling Frank Solich’s retirement well. Ohio got beat at home by FCS-level Duquense after getting blistered by Syracuse a week earlier. Here’s hoping it’s just a bad start for the Bobcats, who did lose a lot of senior talent from last year’s team.
$.10--On September 12th, 2001, I was back at work a day after the horrible terrorist attacks from the day before. It was not easy to head into Peabody Middle School in Petersburg, Virginia, where I was in my first week as a seventh-grade Civics and social studies teacher.
I wanted to stay home. I wanted to spend time calling loved ones, trying to make sense of what had happened. I wanted to quickly make sure that friends and former coworkers from the job I had just left, which required tremendous amounts of travel, were all okay. I wanted to watch the footage, to try and process everything.
But I went in and tried my best to help answer questions from the impressionable young men and women in my classes. Some joked around, or made fun of their peers who actually cared about their country. Most were somber, curious and the right combination of scared and angry. I don’t remember specifics, just that it was a very draining day for everyone. Being a stranger to everyone around me and trying to make sense of things for the inquiring young minds was a challenge. I look back now and feel blessed at the opportunity, but back then it was a very rough day.
The night of the 12th, my wife and I were transfixed to the TV coverage. Our neighbors at the time were Germans, and they joined us. Their perspective as non-Americans was a nice jolt to our bubbled ideas. I remember being grateful that we were not alone. They were too.
The feeling of community, of taking care of one another, of national empathy, is something that quickly emerged around the country. It was quite tangible. We came together in small communities. We came together collectively as a nation. It was America at its greatest, and that began on September 12th.
It’s been 20 years and that great America seems so distant now. Our new national obsession is to relentlessly attack one another over pointless arguments. Our leaders demand it from us, and we as puppets shamefully comply. I greatly miss the spirit of September 12, 2001. I suspect most Americans do, at least privately, and it’s troubling that we don’t take back that America from those who profit from our artificial divisions.
Nobody ever forgets 9-11. I wish more of America would remember 9-12, especially right about now.