The first week of the NFL season is Christmas time for any die-hard sports fan, with the return of football feeling long overdue. Amongst the excitement for the new season, questions are asked and often quickly answered around how teams will perform once the first 16 games have passed by.
Here are five key games that gave us fans something to think about as the season winds up.
Philadelphia Eagles 18-12 Atlanta Falcons – Eagles’ impressive defence proves Falcons are still a step behind
The opening game of the season pipped two top NFC teams against each other. Eagles quarterback Nick Foles may have been the Super Bowl MVP, but on Thursday night he looked out of place in the Eagles lineup and failed to fire.
The Eagles returned to what they know best, with their two strengths from last season powering them to victory on Thursday night. Their defence was exceptional in the redzone, while the run game through Jay Ajayi and Darren Sproles looked strong as well, making for two handy weapons to rely on until starting quarterback Carson Wentz returns from injury.
In the end, the Eagles proved they can win gritty games, even if their quarterback is underwhelming.
For the Falcons, their offensive potential looked promising early as they were getting first downs at ease. But as the Eagles’ defence began to find their groove, quarterback Matt Ryan struggled which had flow on effects for the rest of the unit. In the redzone they failed to convert on golden opportunities, with Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman failing to fire in the receiving and run games respectively. This showed the Falcons offence may still be in limbo over whether they can rediscover their touch from 2016, where their offence seemed unstoppable en route to the Super Bowl.
Positivity around the game being close is quickly suppressed, as Philly were nowhere near full strength. In a division with the Panthers and Saints, who both have top defences, Atlanta could fall out of contention soon if they don’t improve.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48-40 New Orleans – ‘Fitzmagic’ brings back haunting memories for the Saints
The win for the Buccaneers in New Orleans, against the reigning division champions, creates plenty of positivity around Tampa for 2018, while doing the opposite for the Saints and bringing back a few haunting memories.
Those memories are what the Saints have been for the past five to eight years – a team with a terrific quarterback and offence, but an awful defence. There’s nowhere to hide, given how good the Saints defence was at the backend of last season with massive investments that looked to have paid off. However, giving up 529 yards is simply not good enough for a Super Bowl contender.
On the other side of the score, the Bucs experienced ‘Fitzmagic’ for the first time. Ryan Fitzpatrick had by far his best game as a Buccaneer, where he threw for 417 yards, four touchdown passes off a 75 per cent completion percentage which led to an overall passer rating of 156.3. That’s the best single game rating he has ever had, and it came against one of the youngest and best defences in 2017. On top of that, receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson had 140+ receiving yards, the first time in history for two Tampa wide outs.
Whether it will last the season (assuming Winston becomes the backup), remains to be seen, but off to a hot start already, the Bucs can create a top five offence if Fitzpatrick can continue to rediscover his touch.
Minnesota Vikings 24-16 San Francisco 49ers – Vikings look the part, in a tale of two quarterbacks
Both quarterbacks in this game were paid full attention to, and it so happened that the one with more promise was the one who struggled. Jimmy Garoppolo had moments of brilliance where his arm strength and decision making were evident, but most moments saw the Vikings out-smart and pick apart Garoppolo and the Niners’ offence, highlighted by three interceptions for Mike Zimmer’s men.
Kirk Cousins looked comfortable throwing 244 yards and two touchdown passes, and connected on some sweet throws with receivers Adam Thielen and Steffon Diggs showing shades of their terrific 2017 seasons. Delvin Cook, who comes back from an ACL injury, also looked lethal as a running back moving out of the backfield with 95 total scrimmage yards. Putting on a strong performance like that behind a shaky offensive line is also a massive plus for Cousins, suggesting the offence can really pop if defensively they can remain dominant.
For the 49ers, the result proves for now they are a step behind the elite class of the NFC, which is filled up by the likes of the Eagles, Vikings and Rams. However the most worrying sign is quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the possibility of him being intercept-prone passer. In the five straight wins to finish the 2017 season, Garoppolo accounted for plenty of yardage and a respectable completion rate, but he averaged an intercept a game with a mere 1.2 touchdown passes per game average.
To be fair, Garoppolo is young and finding his feet in an organisation that’s doing the same. For now, Niners’ fans should remain calm.
Cleveland Browns 21-21 Pittsburgh Steelers – Defence a silver lining in a sour result for the Browns
What’s important here is that the Browns didn’t lose, and there was genuine promise in parts of their team.
The Browns had gone 17 straight regular season games without a win, and a 1-31 record across the last two seasons. Any coach that garners that kind of record is all but certain to lose their job. Luckily for Hue Jackson, the front office knew he wasn’t the problem, and did what they could to bring in a new GM as well as some high-quality players.
The Browns may have been relatively stagnant on the offensive side of the ball, but defensively they were huge. Two big plays in the fourth quarter by defensive end Myles Garrett helped set up scoring opportunities that were converted, tying the game at 21-all.
The efforts of Cleveland’s young, promising trio of defensive players in Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, and Jabrill Peppers, who all played big roles in avoiding a loss on Sunday makes the result a tad sweeter.
For the Steelers a rusty opening week performance is nothing to worry about, at this stage. Ben Roethlisberger threw four picks, which is to an extent uncharacteristic, as his interception numbers have increased over the past two to three years. But no Le’Veon Bell means there was more reliance on the passing game than usual. A bounce back win next week is nonetheless mandatory.
New York Jets 48-17 Detroit Lions – Darnold’s nerves of steel resemble a promising future
He doesn’t have the biggest arm, the best legs or a gifted athletic body, but rookie quarterback Sam Darnold showed his mental strength and intelligence at the quarterback position in the Jets big win over the Lions. Darnold’s first possession saw him run right and pass across field to what seemed an open Bilal Powell, but was picked off by Quandre Diggs, leading to a defensive score.
A pick six on your first throw couldn’t be a worse start.
Afterwards Darnold looked cofortable, going 16 for 20 and two touchdown passes to finish the game. For once it seems, they have a quarterback they can build around. As well as that tailback Isaiah Prowell impressed in the run game to show how good the Jets offence can be from all angles this season.
For the Lions, a new era under Matt Patricia may not be expected to deliver any forms of glory in the first season, but it’s expected the team will trend upwards. That seemed far from achievable after Monday night, with quarterback Matt Stafford struggling to get any rhythm going and had no passing yards in the opening quarter, while the run game was inexistent. Defensively they looked strong at points, but as the game wore on they were being outplayed on every level.
The third quarter particularly saw the Jets score relatively easy, with faces constantly stunned by the mounting scoreboard. The Lions can count themselves lucky that the jets didn’t continue to pound them in the fourth quarter, which could have seen 60 point put on them.