Aaron Rodgers' heroics and other takeaways from the first Sunday of the season

Jay Asser 10/09/2018
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Whenever Aaron Rodgers is on the field, the Green Bay Packers have a chance to win, regardless of the odds stacked against them.

Just in case that had been been forgotten, Rodgers served a reminder on Sunday with a magical performance in the 24-23 victory over the Chicago Bears that will go down in Lambeau Field lore.

Forget winning the opener – at one point in the contest it seemed like Green Bay’s season might be over just as quickly as it had started.

Rodgers exited in the second quarter and was carted to the locker room with what appeared to be a serious knee injury, leaving Packers fans to grapple with the potential worst-case scenario.

But just when it seemed like things couldn’t get any more grim, Rodgers return to the field in the second half and led a heroic comeback on one leg to erase Chicago’s 20-0 lead.

Despite being robbed of his signature mobility, the hobbled quarterback made play after play to awaken both the Packers and the Lambeau faithful in attendance as he wielded his arm talent to carve up Chicago’s defence.

It’s unclear how injured Rodgers is and how his knee will affect him for the rest of the season, but if there’s one thing for certain after Sunday night, it’s that Green Bay’s leader can still single-handedly change outcomes, even at significantly less than 100 per cent.

Here are other takeaways from the first Sunday of the season.

EXPLOSIVE CHIEFS

The Kansas City Chiefs are going to be a whole lot of fun to watch this season thanks to the high-octane offence they’ve assembled.

In his first game as the full-time starting quarterback, Patrick Mahomes looked every bit the part as he threw for 256 yards and four touchdowns in the win over the San Diego Chargers.

Two of those scores were more of a technicality as he flipped the ball to receivers going in motion at the snap, but Kansas City’s schemes and play-calling will be essential in unlocking Mahomes vast potential.

And there may be no one more fitting to be on the end of Mahomes’ cannon throws than Tyreek Hill, who had 173 total yards from scrimmage, two receiving touchdowns and one punt return to the house in his monster day.

This is just the perfect marriage of talent, skills and system, and it’s going to result in a ton of points for the Chiefs this season.

SAINTS’ DISAPPEARING ACT

It’s never wise to read too much into the first week of the season, but with that said, the New Orleans Saints defence looks nowhere near good enough to be part of a Super Bowl contender at the moment.

The unit took a major step forward last season, but fears of regression were realised in the 48-40 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, when back-up quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick picked them apart with ease.

Tampa Bay punted once all game as the Saints secondary was burned to a crisp with four scoring plays of at least 36 yards.through the air.

They received little help from the pass rush, which generated zero sacks as rookie Marcus Davenport – who New Orleans surrendered a future first-round pick for to move up and select in this year’s draft – was a ghost.

The good news for New Orleans is that their offence was nearly as unstoppable as the Buccaneers’, but for a team that was touted as being well-rounded coming into the season, the Saints disappointed in their first showing.

NEW BROWNS, OLD TRICKS

The Cleveland Browns didn’t lose a regular season game for the first time since Week 16 of 2016, but they also didn’t win as squandered opportunities left them resigned to a tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In a vacuum, a tie with the reigning AFC North champions, who are also Super Bowl hopefuls, would be reason for encouragement for a Browns side that went 1-31 the past two seasons.

However, considering they won the turnover battle by a whopping 6-1 margin, Cleveland should have absolutely been celebrating a win.

Yet, somehow, they managed to mess it up with a comedy of errors to look like the same old Browns, even though this team has almost a completely new roster.

Maybe it’s a sign of progress though, as unexciting as it is.

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Sam Darnold era begins as New York Jets meet Detroit Lions

Jay Asser 10/09/2018
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For the first time in what feels like a long time, the New York Jets have a feeling of excitement thanks to Sam Darnold.

The rookie quarterback will make his debut on Monday against the Detroit Lions as the franchise begins a new era.

After being drafted third overall in this year’s draft, Darnold beat out Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater in preseason, completing 29-of-45 passes for 244 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

The Jets aren’t expected to be competitive in Darnold’s first season, but the franchise is hoping to see enough from the 21-year-old that he can be the foundational piece for the future.

In the meantime, Darnold will struggle to life a Jets roster that isn’t bursting with talent, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

The running game will feature Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell, while Darnold’s primary targets will be Jermaine Kearse, Quincy Enunwa, Terrelle Pryor and Robby Anderson, who was the team’s leading receiver last year with 941 yards and seven touchdowns.

In Detroit, Darnold will face a defence that gave up the sixth-most passing yards last season (243.3), but ranked 15th in passer rating against (84.1).

Matt Patricia’s arrival on the sidelines, however, could freshen up the unit and the team as a whole after the former defensive coordinator came over from New England.

Under former head coach Jim Caldwell, Detroit plateaued with consecutive 9-7 seasons the past two years.

Patricia had plenty of success with the Patriots against the Jets, so that familiarity should help the Lions in the opener. Darnold’s presence under centre and the unpredictability the rookie brings saps some of that though.

For the Lions offence, many of the same faces in the passing game return to flank quarterback Matthew Stafford, but after racking up the fewest rush yards in the league last year, Detroit are hoping the additions of veteran LeGarrette Bloutn and rookie Kerryone Johnson liven up the ground attack.

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New-look Los Angeles Rams set to make first impression against Oakland Raiders

Jay Asser 9/09/2018
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One year after making an unexpected leap, the Los Angeles Rams won’t be taking anyone by surprise this season.

From hunters to the hunted, the Rams are now dealing with great expectations after significantly improving their team with the addition of multiple big-name players.

The reigning NFC West champions, who went 11-5 last year, aren’t just considered favourites in their division – they’re seen as one of the best teams in the league and serious Super Bowl contenders.

Their Week 1 meeting with the Oakland Raiders won’t make or break their credentials, but it will serve as an initial test for a defence that has massively turned over.

Aaron Donald, the 2017 Defensive Player of the Year, will take his usual place on the defensive line, but he’ll now be joined by fellow pass rush dynamo Ndamukong Suh.

Oakland have one of the best interior lines in football – if not the very best – so the match-up will be a battle of strengths and showcase just how dominant the pairing of Donald and Suh can be.

In the secondary, new cornerback duo Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib will line up against Amari Cooper and Jordy Nelson as they try to limit Derek Carr and the Raiders’ passing attack.

Oakland’s offence as a whole took a step back last season after an impressive 2016, but they still possess the kind of talent that should challenge the revamped Rams defence’s chemistry in their first full game together.

Coping without Mack

On the other side of the ball, the Raiders were always going to have their hands full against last season’s top-scoring team, but after trading Khalil Mack to Chicago last week, they’re also now without one of the best defensive players in the league.

Los Angeles allowed just 28 sacks last year, fifth-fewest in the NFL, but as much as Mack’s pass rushing will be missed – he’s had at least 10.5 sacks in each of the past three seasons – so will his work in the running game and ability to drop into coverage.

Todd Gurley had 2,093 total yards from scrimmage last season and once again figures to be the focal point of the Rams’ offence as both a runner and receiver.

Oakland’s linebackers will have their work cut out trying to slow down Gurley, while the secondary has to contend with the trio of Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Brandin Cooks.

The Rams paid a premium for Cooks, trading a first and sixth-round pick to the New England Patriots for the wide receiver and a fourth-round selection. And that was before they extended him with a five-year deal worth $81 million.

The speedster should bring many of the same elements Sammy Watkins did during his lone season in Los Angeles, but it will be interesting to see if he and Jared Goff can develop more of a chemistry and utilise the connection in other ways instead of just deep routes.

Return of Gruden

Gruden

Along with the action on the field, there will be plenty of intrigue on the sidelines as Jon Gruden coaches his first regular season game since 2008.

Ten years in the NFL is a long time, so it’s unclear how Gruden’s coaching will be affected by his hiatus.

During his previous head coaching gigs, especially with the Raiders from 1998-2001, he leaned on the running game during an era that preceded the passing boom. The league is so much different now, which means Gruden may not have the same success in his return if he continues clutching to past principles.

There’s also some mystery in how Gruden’s players will respond to his coaching. The trade of Mack was a shock for many of them and could have created some mistrust in the locker room.

Whether or not Gruden can unite his team and have them playing hard will be somewhat telling for the rest of the season.

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