Take 5: Week 1 snap judgmentsReuters | Updated: 10-09-2018 11:03 IST | Created: 10-09-2018 11:02 IST
If making preseason NFL predictions is a fool's errand, trying to draw meaningful conclusions from Week 1 is more like roulette.
But after a wild opening Sunday that included the largest favorite (Saints) losing and the longest game (Titans-Dolphins) since the AFL-NFL merger, we picked out five developments that should prove critical moving forward.
1. Browns show progress with, yes, a tie
Go ahead: Laugh at the same old Browns for having Zane Gonzalez's 43-yard, potential game-winning field-goal attempt blocked in overtime, leading to a draw.
But almost everything else that happened Sunday in blustery Cleveland suggests these aren't the same old Browns, but rather a legitimate NFL team to be reckoned with. Tyrod Taylor's stat line (15 of 40, 197 yards, one TD, one INT) wasn't pretty, but he made things happen with his legs (eight carries, 77 yards, TD) and helped engineer a 14-point, fourth-quarter rally in a game that once appeared headed for a blowout.
Even more promising, the defense hounded Ben Roethlisberger & Co. all day. Led by Myles Garrett (two sacks, two forced fumbles) and rookie Denzel Ward (two INTs, three passes defensed), the Browns pilfered five takeaways (three picks, two fumbles) from Big Ben, sacked him four times and also snatched a fumble from James Conner.
The tie was a letdown, but the Browns got (as they'd say in the other game of football) a result against a team that had beaten them in 32 of the previous 36 meetings, playoffs included. That elusive first win should arrive before long, and more will follow if progress continues.
2. Dalvin Cook raises the Vikings' ceiling
Minnesota's offense was sluggish against the 49ers, managing 17 points (seven came via a pick-6) and averaging 4.8 yards per play. The running game (3.6 yards per carry) and Cook's stat line (16 carries, 40 yards, lost fumble) were uninspiring. And yet, the second-year back showed plenty for the Vikings to be excited about moving forward.
In his first game back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Cook showed off his explosiveness, including on a 15-yard run in which he broke a whopping five tackles. His fumble ended that romp on a sour note, but he also excelled as a receiver, using his burst to pick up 55 yards on six catches, mostly checkdowns.
Cook should only improve as he gets further removed from his knee injury, and after center Pat Elflein returns from shoulder and ankle surgeries. Kirk Cousins was brought in to raise the floor of a team that reached the NFC Championship Game, but Cook could be the one who provides a Super Bowl-level ceiling.
3. Bills in a no-win situation -- and they put themselves there
Buffalo's rebuilding approach this offseason received applause even though the Bills were coming off a playoff appearance. However, Sunday's 47-3 drubbing at the hands of the Ravens was so exhaustive that it's already worth wondering how the Bills will get through the season.
Most concerning by far is quarterback, where the team has to balance the desire to be competitive with what's best for rookie Josh Allen's development. Nathan Peterman's outing (5 of 18, 24 yards, two interceptions, three sacks) was nearly as discouraging as his five-pick disaster last year, and continuing to start him feels like waving the white flag. But is it worth throwing Allen -- who went 6 of 15 for 74 yards with three sacks in mop-up duty -- right into the fire without the help to succeed?
"It's not just one guy," coach Sean McDermott said when asked about Peterman's poor play. "It's a full, a total team effort there."
He's right. The offensive line lost its three best players (Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito, Eric Wood) and invested little in replacements. The offense has few weapons outside of LeSean McCoy, and the Bills could have built a better quarterback bridge, too -- they didn't have to ship off Tyrod Taylor, and Teddy Bridgewater was there for the taking.
Even with a better support system, the talented but raw Allen might be better off with a redshirt year. The Bills, however, might not have that luxury.
4. Can the Chargers avoid snakebites to threaten in the division?
The Chargers always seem as if they're playing uphill. When they aren't undercut by injuries or special teams issues, they're shooting themselves in the foot with the untimeliest of Philip Rivers interceptions. It can't help that they play in a dinky stadium routinely filled with the other team's colors, as a sea of Chiefs red showed in the opener.
The woes stand out most against Kansas City, which has now won nine straight against the Bolts.
For Los Angeles., it was the same old story. The Chargers played without injured Joey Bosa (and Jason Verrett and Hunter Henry). They allowed a punt-return touchdown, fumbled a punt to set up a touchdown and missed a field-goal attempt. Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin each dropped inch-perfect bombs that were sure touchdowns, and Benjamin dropped another that would have gained 50 yards.
All told, the Chargers lost by 10 despite outgaining the Chiefs in total yards (541 to 362) and on a per-play basis (7.3 to 6.6).
Despite having the steady presence of Rivers, the Chargers haven't won the AFC West since 2009, and they're already behind the 8-ball in the race yet again. This might be their most talented roster of this decade, but the Bolts must find fewer ways to lose games to get back on top of the division.
5. Is there a quarterback controversy in Tampa Bay?
Given Jameis Winston's suspension and the team's noncommittal comments on his future as a starter, Ryan Fitzpatrick's spectacular day (career-high 417 yards plus four TDs) understandably fueled speculation that the 35-year-old journeyman could keep the job permanently.
No doubt, Fitzpatrick was marvelous on Sunday. He had previously topped 400 yards in a game just once in 133 career games, and he had never come so close to a perfect QB rating (156.2, with perfect being 158.3). But we've seen stretches of Fitzmagic before (remember his six-touchdown, no-interception game in 2014 for the Texans?), and the Harvard product remains a journeyman.
It's unlikely Fitzpatrick suddenly blossomed into an above-average starter, and he just as easily could flop against the Eagles and Steelers over the next two weeks.
For all his issues off the field, Winston remains the better starting option by a significant margin. He could be even better when he returns if offensive coordinator Todd Monken -- who called plays Sunday instead of head coach Dirk Koetter -- has unlocked the Bucs' secret to offensive success.
--David DeChant, Field Level Media