Every NFL season enters September with a ton of hype, as it should. We are all beyond excited for the start of the new season, and we’ve spent months discussing the biggest storylines. But as usual in the NFL, Week 1 was still filled with surprises.
Here are the four teams that stood out in unexpected ways Sunday, and all for different reasons.
The team that surprised everyone but me: Cleveland Browns
Score a victory for me in Cleveland this week. While I was not surprised in the least that the Browns lost, it sure seemed most of y’all were.
One game doesn’t make a season, but it can sure let you know how players and teams prepared for that season. I told anyone who would listen that we needed to pump the brakes on the Browns hype train. While I believe, and still do, that the Browns are talented and have the team to win nine games and even make the playoffs, I also warned that the NFL has a way to humble you.
And the Browns were humbled in Week 1. The Titans’ defense dominated the Cleveland offense, and the entire team imploded.
Baker Mayfield, who bashed other players and argued publicly with a national radio host this offseason, came out with a dud. He threw three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown while another was returned deep into Browns territory. Mayfield struggled last season against the best defenses he faced, and that continued in the season opener.
The expectations are high for Mayfield because he played well as a rookie and has plenty of physical gifts, but more than anything it’s because he’s put a target on his back with his mouth. He didn’t back up that talk Sunday. The NFL humbled him, too. Now, we shall see how he handles it. He’s still the same talented player and we know that adversity will either make or break someone. In the end, I still have faith in Mayfield.
However, I continue to not have faith in Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens. I wrote before the season about his lack of experience and the pressure that is placed upon him to win now would make his job tough. What we saw in his debut was a team with a complete lack of discipline. The Browns were flagged 18 times for 182 yards, the most penalties for a Cleveland team since 1951. They had holdings on offense and defense, plus their left tackle was ejected for kicking a Titans defender in the helmet.
They looked like an emotional powder keg, a team that couldn’t handle the pressure of expectations. While I think Mayfield while be better, I think the trend of undisciplined play will continue all season.
The team that was a pleasant surprise: Dallas Cowboys
There are many ways we think about football that I’d love to change. One pet peeve is when people view a performance by an individual or a team like, “Well, X is playing against a crappy team, so their outstanding game doesn’t matter.”
Bullshit, folks. You can only play who’s on the schedule and when you’re facing an inferior opponent, you should smash them, like the Ravens did to the Dolphins. How many times do teams play down to bad opponents? All the time. So when we see Dak Prescott tear apart the Giants’ defense, it’s real. And Prescott’s performance was real because of Kellen Moore.
Moore, of Boise State QB fame, is the new Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator and wow, what a difference he’s made in just one game. The offense looked modern and catered to Prescott’s strengths. They hammered play-action pass and the middle of the field. They ran the ball when the box count was ideal instead of forcing the run. They finally used Prescott’s legs in high-leverage situations, like on third-and-short, to create first downs.
This is what I was hoping to see from the new offense. If the Cowboys continue to have this balance and this style of offense, they will play well against better competition.
Every throw that Prescott made, his value went up. Sunday was a friendly, or maybe not so friendly for the Cowboys, reminder that paying a running back top dollar might not be worth it. The Dallas offense was legit because of Prescott and the wide receivers. Well, right now the Cowboys haven’t paid their quarterback or top WR Amari Cooper, but instead paid a running back.
It’s a foolish mistake by the Cowboys to not get a deal done with at least Prescott, who’s their quarterback of the future, before the season started. Now, they either have to pay more than they were comfortable paying or franchise tag him in the offseason and expect another holdout.
The team that was an unpleasant surprise: Pittsburgh Steelers
Coming into the season, I had high hope for the Steelers. And after watching the Patriots totally smack them down on Sunday Night Football, I’m wondering if I’m in for a big letdown on my prediction that Pittsburgh will win the AFC North.
The Steelers looked totally lost on defense as the Patriots found mismatches and got them to make mistakes. New England replaced the middle of the field production of Gronk with a cornucopia of wide receiver options who found open areas of the field all night. And that’s even before Antonio Brown officially joins the team.
The Patriots’ defense has improved with additions in the draft and free agency, and they totally shut down the Pittsburgh offense. It’s hard to tell without seeing the All-22 if the Steelers truly missed Brown, but it sure looked like it. What a rough opening night for them.
The team that was a good surprise even in a loss: Indianapolis Colts
Let’s end on a positive surprise with the Colts. I wrote a few weeks back that I was still bullish on the Colts without Luck, but I didn’t expect them to go on the “road” and come back from a large deficit to send the game to overtime against the Chargers.
The Colts were down 24-9 early in the third quarter and eventually tied the game at 24 before losing in overtime. Everything I said about their team held true. They ran the ball extremely well, with Marlon Mack going for 174 yards on 25 carries. Jacoby Brissett played efficient ball, going 21-of-27 for 190 yards and two touchdowns. More importantly, they didn’t turn the ball over.
Their defense played just OK, but forced a pair of turnovers and did enough to keep them in the game. Even in a loss, the Colts surprised me.