The first Sunday of the 2021 NFL season served up some weird results that may not actually portend to what is going to play out in the coming weeks and months. There were some outliers, some strange box scores and upsets to go along with some very entertaining play across the league.
I'll have more on some of those games later but first, to something very familiar indeed. Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce proved unstoppable, eventually, in a massive opening day win at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Cleveland Browns gave the Chiefs all they could handle, jumping out to a 22-10 lead and holding that advantage until the final seven minutes of an enthralling contest that saw Kansas City run out as 33-29 winners.
Cleveland had a couple of costly turnovers in the second half and only managed to score seven points. Meanwhile, Mahomes, Hill and Kelce were just getting warmed up. The trio combined for three scoring passes in the second half, including a devastating 75-yard bomb to Hill and the eventual game-winner from eight yards to Kelce.
There is so little room for error when you play the Chiefs. You have to keep the gas pedal down and play nearly flawless football. The Browns showed Kansas City can be taken down, but you'd better be able to do that for all four quarters.
Mahomes was sensational as he threw for 337 yards and those three scores. He remains the only quarterback in NFL history to average more than 300 passing yards per game in every contest he has played in. That is truly remarkable, even in today's pass-happy NFL.
And what can you do to defend the filthy speed of Hill and the all-around tactical genius of Kelce? I asked that question to a pair of Super Bowl-winning defensive backs in the Sky Sports NFL studio on Sunday night and neither Will Blackmon or Shaun Gayle had a definitive answer. The guys shouldn't feel bad, though. No one in the NFL today has the answer, either!
Hill and Kelce combined for 192 catches, 2,692 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2020. Don't bet against similar numbers in 2021 as the pair racked up 17 receptions for 273 yards and three touchdowns on opening night.
As for the Browns, they still have not won an opening day game since quarterback Baker Mayfield was nine years old back in 2004. But there were so many positives. Their defense was actually pretty feisty even with Mahomes, Hill and Kelce exploding to life.
But the real stars are on offense. Mayfield looked razor sharp for a lot of this game, the backfield pairing of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt is going to get the job done week in and week out. And there is still Odell Beckham Jr. to come back to a passing attack with Jarvis Landry, David Njoku and rookie Anthony Schwartz catching the eye.
I have no doubt we'll see both of these teams in the playoffs come January. And the Browns – who have now come close to taking down Kansas City on the road in consecutive games – know the formula to win in Arrowhead. They just need to finish the job.
That, of course, is much easier said than done when Mahomes, Hill and Kelce are on the opposite sideline.
Arizona's star players… There has been much offseason chatter about the Arizona Cardinals lacking depth across the board and that may still prove to be the case. But if they get performances from their superstars like they did in Sunday's 38-13 road thrashing of the fancied Tennessee Titans, Kliff Kingsbury's men can be in the playoff mix this season. Kyler Murray was in the kind of MVP form he showed for 10 weeks in 2020 as he threw for 289 yards and four touchdowns while also rushing for another score. DeAndre Hopkins caught two touchdown passes and fit-again pass rusher Chandler Jones was a force of nature wit five sacks and two forced fumbles. I'm excited by the Cardinals, but let's see how they're playing come December and January because they hit a brick wall after a fast start last year.
Pittsburgh's defense… Buffalo's Josh Allen was a perfect 6-0 against top 10 defenses in 2020. The Bills' superstar is now 0-1 against such defenses in 2021 after Pittsburgh sprung a surprise in upstate New York, winning 23-16. Time and again, Allen tested that Pittsburgh secondary and the defensive unit was up to the task, knocking away ball after ball. T.J. Watt also lived up to his big new contract as he recorded two sacks and five quarterback hits. The Steelers showed the value of having a high-end defense. It allowed Pittsburgh to hang in a game where they struggled early on the offensive side of the ball. By halftime, the Steelers had 53 yards of offense and trailed 10-0. Ben Roethlisberger heated up just enough after the break and a big special teams touchdown came in handy. But this victory belonged to Pittsburgh's D.
Russell Wilson… One of the questions of the offseason was 'How happy will Russell Wilson be in Seattle in 2021 after not forcing a trade through?' It's only one game but it certainly looked like Wilson is able to put the business side of the sport to one side on Sundays. At least on this past Sunday. Seattle had too much for the under-manned Indianapolis secondary in a comfortable 28-16 win. Wilson completed 18 of 23 passes for 254 yards and four scores and the sight of him unleashing a rainbow downfield remains one of the best things in all of football. His 69-yard touchdown strike to Tyler Lockett was an absolute thing of beauty.
Aaron Rodgers… If you thought it was a rough offseason for Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, wait 'til you get a load of their Week 1! The Packers were never at the races in a 38-3 defeat to New Orleans in Jacksonville. Even though the Saints could not enjoy homefield advantage due to the ongoing clean-up in New Orleans following Hurricane Ida, Green Bay were overpowered and outclassed. Rodgers was pressured throughout and threw for just 133 yards while tossing up two terrible interceptions. He was benched for Jordan Love and his face looked like he had sucked on a lemon as he brooded on the bench. This was the worst possible start for Green Bay after an offseason of complete and utter turmoil.
Jacksonville's defense… The Jags ranked 31st in total defense in 2020 and while there is much excitement about the arrival of Trevor Lawrence at quarterback, that key addition will count for little if Jacksonville cannot stop opponents from piling on the points. That proved to be the case on Sunday night as the Jags fell to a 37-21 defeat in Houston. Over 300 passing yards and three touchdowns from Lawrence is only going to prove useful if he was in your fantasy team. Jacksonville gave up 160 yards on the ground and some big passing plays to Brandin Cooks. There is much work to be done for first-time NFL head coach Urban Meyer.
Julio Jones… Let's check back in on another big question from the offseason. How exciting will Julio Jones be in the Tennessee Titans' attack? Again, it's only one week but the early answer is 'not very.' There was very little passing game excitement in Nashville on Sunday (blame Chandler Jones) but Julio was disappointing in a tough situation. He was targeted six times and came up with just three grabs for 29 yards. Let's hope this can be marked down as nothing more than a bad day at the office.
The Fast Five…
- Good for head coach David Culley, good for quarterback Tyrod Taylor and good for the Houston Texans. Very few gave them a shot of doing much of anything this season – and they still could struggle – but an opening day win and touchdowns from each of their veteran running backs in Phillip Lindsay, Mark Ingram and David Johnson has to feel good.
- I was impressed with Justin Herbert in the Los Angeles Chargers' 20-16 win over the Washington Football Team. The numbers alone were pretty good as the sophomore threw for 337 yards and one score. But it was the nature of some of his throws that caught my eye. He came up big on several big third downs and other big moments, most notably the game-winning strike to Mike Williams in the fourth quarter.
- I'm crossing my fingers that Ryan Fitzpatrick gets a good MRI today in Washington. But his hip injury sounds worrying and that will be a season-altering blow for the Football Team, who many felt could kick on this year and become a playoff force in the NFC.
- The 'Deshaun Watson to Miami' trade rumours are not going away and I do tend to think team owner Stephen Ross is interested in a superstar at the game's most vital position. The only way those rumours are silenced are if Tua Tagovaioloa lights it up. Miami won 17-16 in New England on Sunday so that's a good start, but Tua was still a tough watch at times as he completed just 16 passes for 202 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a rating of 79.6.
- The early signs suggest the marriage between Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay and his new quarterback Matthew Stafford is going to be a great one. Stafford could not have made a more perfect start with the Rams, leading his team to a 34-14 thrashing of the Chicago Bears. The former Lion hit on 20 of 26 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns. His rating of 156.1 was almost perfect. More please!
Fact of the Week
Fans were back across the United States, but that didn't bother the road teams. Eight away teams won on Sunday – the third-most on a Week 1 Sunday since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. The road winners were Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Arizona, LA Chargers, Miami and Denver.
Finish That Sentence
Each week in this spot I ask readers - via Twitter - to randomly send me the start of a sentence and, as we so often did on our NFL UK Live stage show tours, I will finish the sentence with the first thought that comes into my head. Here we go…
- From Clare Cooper (@clazzyclare)… The most surprising thing from all the games last night was… the clean game played by Jameis Winston. I know that the New Orleans Saints have traditionally taken very good care of the football, but Jameis was a turnover machine in Tampa in 2019 and went into last night's contest with 111 giveaways since entering the NFL in 2015 – the most in that span. A solid all-around team effort helped Jameis out as he only had to throw for 148 yards. But he threw five touchdown strikes and no interceptions. That was a really promising start and how about this stat? Jameis Winston leads the NFL in touchdown passes, while Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers lead the league in interceptions thrown!
- From Kirsty Reid (@KirstyAReid)… The Green Bay Packers will… be counting the days until All-Pro tackle David Bakhtiari returns from the ACL injury he suffered on New Year's Eve. Green Bay couldn't get anything going and Aaron Rodgers was under way too much pressure. Removing him from the game was no slap in the face – it was for his own protection!
- From Ryan Edwardson (@ryanedwardson)… The 1-0 team that I'm least optimistic about is…_ probably the Miami Dolphins. There were Week 1 winners who will finish with a worse record than the Dolphins, but I just want to see more out of Miami's attack. Jaylen Waddle had some very positive moments but I continue to have some reservations about Tua. Okay, that was a tough defense Miami were facing and they won against a division rival on the road. But New England out-gained the Dolphins 393 yards to 259 and but for a late turnover from Xavien Howard, the Pats get the win. Scratching out hard-fought wins can only be done for so long.
I'm flattered that so many people are concerned about my aching feet! We unveiled our new Sky Sports NFL studio on Sunday night and did the whole show standing up. That had fans worried about my back, my feet, my legs! I'm fine, people… but thanks for asking! Just to peel back the curtain just a little bit, we were fine. Will and Shaun were chilling on our famous red sofa just off set and we had two of the biggest TV screens known to man right in front of us… one tuned to the main game and the other to Redzone. I was sat on a swivel chair with a desk and the two big screens in front of me, throwing out serious Bond Villain vibes. The new set up just means we have to hot-foot it into the studio when the American networks go to a break. That should make for fun times if the feed ever suddenly goes down, which can happen every once in a while!