With a full slate of Week 1 action zooming toward us, Marc Sessler dishes on what's hot -- and what's not -- in the NFL:
- We put a pretty face on August. Faraway practices, squelched preseason tilts and clogged-up channels of information were normalized during the weirdest windup to Week 1 in human lore. That tepid song and dance is over, replaced in mere hours by the vision of Patrick Mahomes and his Kansas City Chiefs as they open their title defense against Deshaun Watson's Houston Texans (Thursday at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC). In a typical offseason, we'd point back to their Divisional Round clash -- which saw Houston squander a 24-0 lead -- as reference material. January 12, 2020, though, feels pulled from a distant Jupiter. Besides, the Texans are largely revised on offense with David Johnson in the backfield as one of the return gifts from a radioactive March trade that sent DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals. Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb have taken his place alongside juicy-when-healthy Will Fuller. The Chiefs amazingly return 18 of 22 starters. It would have been 20 had Super Bowl hero Damien Williams and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif not opted out, but this is where fortune smiled on Andy Reid's creation. Instead of being left empty in the backfield, Kansas City has upgraded. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the 32nd overall pick in this year's draft, took about 17 minutes to morph into a cemented starter, with general manager Brett Veach telling NBC Sports' Peter King the rookie is "on pace to have a big year, to be our primary ball-carrier." For those who root on 31 other teams, it's concerning to realize the Chiefs -- who overcame that 24-0 hole by outscoring the Texans 51-7 over the next 40 minutes -- have grown even more dangerous.
- Whether or not the Texans can hang with said juggernaut, Thursday's game represents something more. Mahomes and Watson, both furnished with monstrous long-term deals, will go head-to-head as symbols of the league's future. I discovered football in the late-'80s and still recall the hemming and hawing over Doug Williams, a Black quarterback, leading Washington into Super Bowl XXII against John Elway's Broncos. It was January 1988. Not so long ago in human history, but legendary Sports Illustrated writer Dr. Z observed how the media wrestled with the topic during Super Bowl Week, noting: "At one interview session it wasn't even put as a question. A newsman merely said, 'Black, Doug.' Williams smiled and said what he had been saying all along: '(Coach) Joe Gibbs and (general manager) Bobby Beathard didn't bring me in to be the first Black quarterback in the Super Bowl. They brought me in to be the quarterback (for Washington).' " So much has changed since then -- and so little. Today we can point to injustice on every hillside, stark images of an America still broken. "I've felt very hopeless," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said after last month's shootings in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The players, though, have banded together to listen and make their voices -- more powerful than ever -- rise above the din. Football won't fix America, it won't heal anything on its own. The players, though, have changed the conversation, and I can't think of many better torchbearers to stand before us on Thursday night than Mahomes and Watson.
- Maybe it's the 12-year-old football obsessive in me who spent a thousand Sundays with my dad watching the New York Giants tussle with legendary powers from the NFC East. I've caught a touch of G-Men Fever, and Joe Judge has plenty to do with it. The first-time head coach has tugged hyper-finicky Football Twitter on a journey of the mind. He offended traditionalists by making players and coaches run laps for making mistakes -- "He'll lose the roster by Halloween!" -- before winning over many of the same critics with his dive-into-the-mud-fumble-recovery-with-a-mask-on routine that left his Giants charges giddy and wailing: "Judge! Judge! Judge!" Having a laugh against Mike Tomlin and his fully formed Steelers on Monday Night Football won't come so easy, but Judge scores points as one of the more unusual new faces around:
- I gamble NFL.com has roughly 94 pieces of content centered around Tom Brady's Bucs clashing with Drew Brees and the Saints come Sunday. It's the sexiest tilt of the week on paper, but here's what pulls me in: the imperfections. While Brees and coach Sean Payton could poetry-slam an exacting oral history of the New Orleans playbook while floating on psilocybin, Brady is just weeks into practicing with his new teammates. Maybe the rollout goes swimmingly, but I want to see how Tampa's new quarterback reacts when O.J. Howard runs an off-script buttonhook that leaves Brady whipping the ball to ghosts. The Bucs are widely viewed as a lock to go 13-3 and waltz into the playoffs. I'd much rather see Brady's bunch work through various turmoils, catch fire late and squeeze into January as an underdog prepared to tell one of the better NFL stories in years.
- It's been a rough offseason for Aaron Rodgers. IT'S BEEN A ROUGH OFFSEASON FOR EVERYONE. Still, we're 40-plus days removed from the Packers passer telling our friend Kyle Brandt that his time in Green Bay is likely nearing an end. Not so fast, with Rodgers reportedly soaring at camp while heir apparent Jordan Love battled "accuracy issues" and struggled "to even provide a glimpse (as to) why the Packers traded up to draft him in the first round," according to The Athletic's Matt Schneidman. Rodgers doesn't strike me as someone who lacks for motivation. Instead, he appears activated by a million slings and arrows, internal wars and remembered slights. The presence of a first-round quarterback, handpicked by the head coach, was the sideshow we didn't predict. It feels too early, too on the nose, with Rodgers still roaming as a demigod. He operated below his peak in recent years, but 2020 feels like the right time for Rodgers to fling naysayers (this typist included) aside as he steers a weapons-depleted offense into Minnesota to pull off another signature, one-man-band act against the Vikings on Sunday.
- I've always wondered what it would feel like to awaken from a coma in the middle of an NFL campaign. Maybe this is it. Stripped of the preseason, we now vault from sleepy camp reports into a full slate of Sunday chaos. On-field action will be paired with the sounds of children crashing through the house while sparring verbally over birthright privileges to that Pokémon card with the sparkly glitter stuff. It's gonna be different, it's gonna be funky. For many, life still feels entirely out of order. Maybe that's where the games come in: A dash of normalcy; almost like a memory. A harking back to days of crowding taverns, filling stadiums and hugging sweaty strangers when our teams prevail. This time around, we take what we can get.
- A chilly reminder for those of us who (logically, I'd argue) predicted a drying up of big-money deals due to the salary cap potentially plummeting from $198.2 million in 2020 to a Corona-tinged $175 million in 2021. Such a drop would leave playoff-hopeful teams in New Orleans and Philadelphia an ominous $60 million-plus in the red, per Over The Cap. Still, the devil-may-care Saints attempted an eleventh-hour push to land Jadeveon Clowney and reportedly sit poised to extend Alvin Kamara. The Cardinals handed new star wideout DeAndre Hopkins a two-year contract extension worth $54.5 million in new loot, making him the highest-paid non-quarterback in league history, while the Rams reset the market for defensive backs with this week's huge deal for Jalen Ramsey. I sided with the crowd who expected clubs to gingerly scan the horizon before throwing greenbacks around, but the bigger reality is this: NFL teams are masterminds at finessing the cap in a way that escapes the mathematical prowess of most sportswriters. Besides, the deal for Hopkins was imminent. The bigger question is whether that money will look smart in an offense set to unleash steady four-wideout looks while feeding a zillion screens to Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds. Hopkins is a strong candidate to see his gaudy numbers from Houston diminish in Arizona.
- Mitch Trubisky sits in rough position as Chicago's starter-for-now under center. Where does the mind go the very minute Mitch flings one of his patented off-target lobs 14 feet over Allen Robinson's head? It goes to Nick Foles, the one-time Super Bowl MVP whom general manager Ryan Pace is paying $21 million guaranteed over the next two-plus seasons. It was Pace who flipped a fourth-rounder to Jacksonville to secure Foles before declining Trubisky's fifth-year option. Bears brass talk about Mitch's "progression, leadership and overall performance throughout camp," but it's fair to question what Bears brass tell anyone about Trubisky. The setup is largely gross.
- Do I think the Browns will improve upon the disastrous soup we witnessed a year ago? Yes, but it won't come quick -- and it won't come Sunday against the Ravens. I cringe seeing Browns fans point to last year's 40-25 dirty bomb dropped on Baltimore in Week 4. Total outlier. Cleveland coaxed Lamar Jackson into a pair of interceptions and pounced on a rare fumble by Ravens runner Mark Ingram. The turnovers made Baltimore look human in an eerie foreshadowing of the team's January meltdown against Derrick Henry and the Titans. I don't predict much carryover this weekend. With Baker Mayfield still learning his third offense in as many seasons, the decided advantage goes to the club with a time-tested head coach in John Harbaugh, two of the AFC's most creative coordinators in Greg Roman and Don "Wink" Martindale, and a legion of veteran stars lodged in familiar schemes. It's as unfriendly a matchup as one could devise for the starting-over-again Browns.
- Whatever happens in that game, I will overreact. You will overreact. Talking heads from Flatbush to Walla Walla will lose minds based on the tiny sample size known as Week 1. It happens every year. We warn ourselves not to rise too high or tumble into the depths based around one game. But then it happens: One terrible start by a hyped-up young quarterback, one junky team pulling a fluky upset or one typically stout defense looking more like a flock of sixth-graders hooked up to laughing gas. Week 2 invariably evens out the angst, but groupthink and the limited nature of human consciousness dictate we stroll down this dummy's path every single time.