Thursday night was a good appetizer, but Sunday is the main course. We’ve got tons of great plates heading to the table (a few forgettable matchups too, like Jacksonville at Houston (👎🏽), and personally, I couldn’t be more excited.
The best matchup on tap though is Cleveland at Kansas City (👍🏽) — a divisional round rematch from last season. Kansas City won the game, but Cleveland was clearly their toughest out of their run through the AFC playoffs. After Patrick Mahomes went down in the third quarter, the Browns made a great comeback effort that ultimately fell just short.
Both teams have improved this offseason. Cleveland has a healthy OBJ once again as well as some new weapons on the defensive side (Jadeveon Clowney and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah), while Kansas City improved their offensive line drastically via signings (Joe Thuney among others), trades (Orlando Brown), and drafted players (Creed Humphrey). While Cleveland may have a better roster all-around, the Chiefs are so explosive at so many positions that it’s tough to envision the Browns pulling this one out. The Browns have not won a Week 1 matchup since 2004, and have yet to win a Week 1 matchup on the road since the franchise returned to the NFL in 1999.
This will be a great early test for two of this year’s legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and what’s even crazier is that this Week 1 matchup could have an effect on the end-of-season standings as both Cleveland and Kansas City will be competing for that top seed and playoff bye.
There are also more than a few old faces in new places. In Week 1, none are more intriguing than Sam Darnold as in his first game with Carolina, he gets to take on the team that drafted him, as the Panthers host the New York Jets (👍🏽). Darnold never reached his full potential as a member of the Jets. He’s been given a fresh slate, great weapons, and the best head coach he’s ever had. This Week 1 matchup is not only an opportunity for Darnold to make the Jets think twice about their decision to ditch him, but it will also set the tone for what to expect from the Panthers with Darnold under center.
Darnold currently has two years left on his contract. That’s two years to impress Scott Fitterer, and he can’t get started soon enough. Sure, if Darnold doesn’t do very well, there’s always the Panthers’ offensive line to blame, but given what Darnold has had in the past, there’s little to no reason we shouldn’t see a major jump from Darnold. The pressure is on him to succeed, and prove himself worthy of a starting job in the NFL. A Week 1 victory over his young, promising replacement would be a great confidence boost and table-setter for the remainder of the season.
There’s also some new faces in new places. Particularly the five rookie quarterbacks drafted in the first round. Three of them have already secured the starting spots for their teams, and we can expect to see the third overall pick, San Francisco’s Trey Lance, see the field in some capacity as Kyle Shanahan most likely has some wacky plays up his sleeve intended for his young, athletic quarterback. The only one we won’t see is Justin Fields, and that’s a crying shame. While I have nothing against the Bears, I’m really hoping that Chicago loses this game by a hefty margin and Matt Nagy realizes just how immediate the switch to Justin Fields needs to be.
Trevor Lawrence never lost a regular season game in college, so unless the Jaguars go 17-0 this season, Lawrence’s streak will come to an end. Fortunately for the Clemson product, he gets the Houston Texans in Week 1 — arguably the weakest team in the NFL heading into the season. Sure, they still have Laremy Tunsil and… Brandin Cooks? I guess, but this is a perfect feeling out game for Lawrence. He won’t get a serious test right off the bat, but it should give him a better feel for the speed of the game at the NFL level without throwing him into the fire immediately.
Furthermore, it will be interesting to see what kind of system Urban Meyer plans on using. In recent years, coaches who jump straight from college to the NFL tend to struggle mightily. The only ones I can think of off the top of my head who have done very well are Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll. Bill O’Brien saw some success as well, but let’s face it, he was not on the same level as the other two. Matt Rhule has shown a lot of promise through one season as Carolina’s head coach, but it’s still too early to tell with him. Urban Meyer is now the latest former college coach to take a shot at the NFL, and is undoubtedly the most accomplished at the collegiate level of anyone I just mentioned.
When Meyer drafted Travis Etienne in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, it appeared Meyer was planning on leaning on Trevor Lawrence to carry the offense. With Etienne out for the season, perhaps Meyer has had to adjust his plan slightly. Like I said, this first game against Houston should not be much of a challenge. However, I hope it’s close, because if that game comes down to the wire, we will get a hint as to whether or not Meyer will rely on Lawrence or his halfback Robinson when the going gets tough.
And finally, here’s a storyline I don’t believe enough people are looking at. In Week 1, the Arizona Cardinals will head to Nashville (👍🏽) to take on the Tennessee Titans. Both teams boast incredible skill-position players on offense. You’ve got Kyler Murray, Derrick Henry, Ryan Tannehill, DeAndre Hopkins, AJ Browns, Julio Jones, and AJ Green all suiting up. We know the dynamic play-calling that Kliff Kingsbury will bring to the table. However, despite the addition of Julio Jones, Tennessee’s offense could seem a little lackluster in their first game of the season.
Former Titans offensive coordinator, Arthur Smith, packed his bags and headed to Atlanta to become the Falcons’ new head coach. In his stead waits Todd Downing. While Downing has made it clear that he plans on continuing to use Derrick Henry as much as possible, any small change to the blocking schemes or usage of play action could make a noticeable difference in Tennessee’s offensive efficiency. With this game against Arizona sure to be one of the closer games of Week 1, a slight dip in offense could end up costing the Titans this game.