The opening Sunday of the 2018 NFL season featured an epic comeback along with standout performances from three quarterbacks to whom nobody paid much attention this offseason.
But we’ll start this evaluation of Week 1’s biggest winners with a look at the pairing of a QB-coaching savant with one of the most talented young passers in the league — one that adds an intriguing wrinkle to the AFC playoff race.
The Kansas City Chiefs faced a big challenge in their season opener, playing on the road against a Los Angeles Chargers team that many are predicting will steal the AFC West title away from them. There’s good reason for the Chargers hype, given that they won nine of their last 12 games last year, quarterback Philip Rivers looked great in the preseason throwing to a receiving corps that one scout said rates among the best in the league, and the defense is loaded with playmakers (although standout pass rusher Joey Bosa missed Sunday’s game with a foot injury).
There was also reason to believe the Chiefs might take a step back this year. They traded starting quarterback Alex Smith, an MVP candidate a year ago, to the Redskins to clear the way for 2017 first-rounder Patrick Mahomes, and lost playmakers Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali and Marcus Peters from their defense.
Then came a 256-yard, four-touchdown performance from Mahomes in a 38-28 Chiefs win on the road. The young QB was considered raw coming out of Texas Tech’s Air Raid offense, which notoriously hasn’t translated college stars to NFL success. Not anymore.
“He made plays, and he did it with his legs,’’ Coach Andy Reid said after the game. “He did it with his throwing. He did it with his checks. … He’s just at the beginning of things.’’
This was a Chiefs team that won the division last season and features some of the top offensive playmakers in the league in tight end Travis Kelce, running back Kareem Hunt and do-it-all wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who scored three touchdowns Sunday in a breathtaking performance. It appears they have a dynamic quarterback as well, one who is thriving under Reid, one of the best offensive coaches in the league.
It’s only one week, but the Chiefs didn’t look like a team ready to be passed over in the AFC West. They looked like a legitimate playoff contender in what should be a captivating divisional race with the Chargers and Broncos, another of Week 1’s big winners.
Case Keenum lost his Vikings job to Kirk Cousins, but he earned a big win Sunday. In the Broncos’ 27-24 victory over the Seahawks, Keenum looked like a great fit for Denver’s offense. His ability to get rid of the ball quickly worked perfectly behind an offensive line that’s going through a rebuild and with a receiver duo of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders that is still dependable but not as likely to lift the offense on their own now that each is in his early 30s.
In one game, Keenum fixed enough of the Broncos’ problems from a year ago, when they suffered through some of the worst quarterback play in the league, to give the team early hope of catching up to the other teams in the AFC West. He completed 16 passes to Thomas and Sanders for a combined 198 yards and two touchdowns, all part of a 329-yard, three-touchdown performance.
But he also showed his limitations. He’s great on checkdowns, quick reads and throws inside the numbers. But he struggled throwing downfield against the Seahawks, tossing three interceptions.
After his third pick, Keenum was clearly angry at himself. While the Broncos’ defense was on the field, he grabbed a few players and started throwing passes behind the bench to re-energize himself.
“A couple of bad reads, just trying to make the big play when we don’t have to,’’ said Keenum, who only threw seven interceptions all of last year with the Vikings. “I think two of them were on first downs, and the other one we’re in a two-minute drive. Move the ball down the field, and we’ve got three points in our back pocket. That takes three points off the board, then the other two [interceptions] they scored on. That’s 17 points I’m responsible for.”
Keenum’s strong start only helps build excitement for the Broncos’ Monday night home game against the Chiefs on Oct. 1.
What more can we say about Aaron Rodgers? The first half of the Packers’ thrilling, comeback win over the Bears looked like a torch-passing in the NFC North, with Chicago’s offense resembling the Rams’ of a season ago behind new Coach Matt Nagy and second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Superstar edge rusher Khalil Mack was outstanding in his Bears debut, and the team looked very much like a playoff contender, while a knee injury that required Rodgers to leave in a cart made things seem dire in Green Bay.
Then Rodgers came back to put up 21 fourth-quarter points. “I’m playing next week,” he said after the game.
Believe him. I was doing sideline reporting during a Seahawks-49ers game in 2016 when Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson suffered a more serious medial collateral ligament sprain than the one Rodgers likely had Sunday. I watched the doctor press down on the knee and Wilson let out a scream. After a few minutes, he tried to walk around to shake off the injury, but doctors kept him off the field. Wilson never missed a game the entire season, but his mobility was affected.
All of that is to say that while this is not an insignificant injury, it’s one that Rodgers probably can play through. That saves the Packers’ season, and his remarkable save against the Bears on Sunday night sets up a great game with the visiting Vikings and Cousins in Week 2.
Joe Flacco knows how to respond to a challenge. You may recall how, several years back, he turned down a long-term deal from the Ravens and came back the next season and won the Super Bowl. He responded this offseason to the challenge created by the Ravens’ first-round selection of Lamar Jackson by having his best camp in years, then opened the season with a 47-3 dismantling of the Buffalo Bills.
Beating the quarterback-challenged Bills won’t impress many, but the Ravens showed off an offense that should be enough to earn them a playoff spot. Last year, despite issues at wide receiver, Baltimore was plus-92 in point differential, which should have translated to a 10- or 11-win season as opposed to its actual 9-7 record.
General Manager Ozzie Newsome has given Flacco a nice three-receiver set this year in Willie Snead, John Brown and Michael Crabtree, and each had a touchdown reception Sunday. The Ravens’ defense is great at stopping the run, and this team should be good enough to challenge the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC North title.
Sunday’s best performance might have belonged to Tampa Bay’s Ryan Fitzpatrick. When Jameis Winston received his three-game suspension, everyone speculated that the Buccaneers would get off to an 0-3 start and Coach Dirk Koetter’s job would be in jeopardy.
But Fitzpatrick completed 21 of 28 for 417 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-40 victory on the road against the Saints. Next, the Bucs face the Eagles, who most likely will be without Carson Wentz, and then the Steelers, who might not have Le’Veon Bell back.
The Bucs said before the season that they hadn’t decided whether Fitzpatrick would automatically hand the starting job back to Winston in Week 4. It doesn’t take a Harvard graduate like Fitzpatrick to figure out that if he takes the Bucs to a 2-1 start or better, Winston might have to wait to get his job back.
A few other things to keep an eye on after Week 1:
— Any problems with the Earl Thomas holdout in Seattle ended when he grabbed a key interception early in the first quarter of the Seahawks’ loss to the Broncos. The free safety helped with communication in a revamped secondary that started rookie Tre Flowers and second-year pro Shaquil Griffin at cornerback, and Justin Coleman in the slot.
— By the way, who needs training camp? Thomas looked great despite missing camp, and Khalil Mack of the Bears looked even better.
— Who needs wide receivers? Tom Brady completed only nine passes for 83 yards to his top three wideouts in the New England Patriots’ 27-20 victory over the Houston Texans. It sure helps that Brady has tight end Rob Gronkowski along with pass-catching running backs who can fill in until Julian Edelman comes off suspension.
— Other than the Jacksonville Jaguars, who had a nice road win over the New York Giants, the AFC South didn’t step up in Week 1. The Titans lost the lightning storm-delayed game to Miami and suffered injuries to Marcus Mariota and Taylor Lewan, and probably lost Delanie Walker for the season. Deshaun Watson had an off day in the loss to New England, and the Texans have major problems along the line with the loss of right tackle Seantrel Henderson. And the Colts, in Andrew Luck’s return, lost to the Cincinnati Bengals.
— Falcons fans are understandably worried about their red-zone problems following Thursday’s loss to the Eagles. Given their inability to run the ball near the goal line, they simply haven’t been able to come away with touchdowns. Some have cited concerns over Matt Ryan’s arm strength, but fans shouldn’t fret: Ryan usually takes a few weeks to get into a throwing groove. He should be fine.
— The Cowboys’ offense played horribly Sunday in a 16-8 loss to the Carolina Panthers, but the defense has its own reason to worry if Randy Gregory, who suffered a concussion that ended his day early, is disciplined by the NFL for a reported substance-abuse relapse. He is a key component to the pass rush.
Read more on Week 1: