The 2017 National Football League (NFL) season kicked off Thursday, Sept. 7. The season started with a bang, as the Kansas City Chiefs pulled off an exciting upset over the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, with a final score of 42-27. While the rest of the opening week wasn’t as exciting, there were still many important moments and narratives beginning to take shape.
The NFL vs. Zeke
It seems Roger Goodell and the NFL front office have a new target for confusing and controversial punishments. After Tom Brady finished his deflate-gate suspension season by winning his fifth Super Bowl ring, the NFL turned its attention to Dallas Cowboys superstar running-back Ezekiel Elliott.
Elliott was accused of sexual assault while at a party in his final semester at The Ohio State University in 2016. The Columbus Police investigation ended after just a few months and no charges were filed, the investigators citing “a lack of evidence.” The NFL continued to investigate the incident for an entire year, and by the summer of 2017, slapped Elliott with a six-game suspension for off-field conduct violations.
After appeals, multiple hearings and seemingly endless discussions, Elliott’s suspension went from six games to it seems no games this season. Elliott was able to lead his Cowboys to a 19-3 win over the division rival New York Giants on Sunday. Elliott had 24 carries for 104 yards, while his teammate, quarterback Dak Prescott, was arguably the most impressive Cowboy of the game. Prescott completed 61 percent of his passes for 268 yards and a single touchdown and is beginning to look like the leader of this Cowboys team, which is posed to be one of the best teams in the NFL this year. He is also starting to establish himself as one of the rare special talents at his position in the league.
As for the “G-men” Giants, their offense seemed to be lost on Sunday, possibly due to the absence of superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr., and possibly due to the inability to run the ball, as the team as a whole had only 35 rushing yards. The Giants’ defense looked as stout as they did last year, especially up-front defensively, getting five total tackles in the backfield. B.J. Goodson was a standout for the defense, with 18 tackles.
TWO Top-Tier AFC Clashes
The Kansas City Chiefs’ substantial upset over the Patriots was a huge game for the NFL and specifically the American Football Conference (AFC) standings. The Chiefs proved they are a top team in the conference and in the league on both sides of the football. There was another AFC matchup that featured two teams likely to be at the top of their respective divisions and make a splash in the playoffs. The Oakland (soon to be Las Vegas) Raiders beat the Tennessee Titans with a final score of 26-16 in Nashville Sunday. No one questions the legitimacy of the Raiders, quarterbacked by Derek Carr who had an MVP-caliber season in 2016 before a season-ending injury just before the playoffs. Carr was rewarded with a huge offseason payday, becoming another “highest paid player in the history of the NFL” for a while before getting topped by Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford only weeks later. Carr continued to roll week one, completing 69 percent of his passes for 262 yards and two touchdowns for the win.
Don’t sleep on Music City, though. The Tennessee Titans have the components to be atop the AFC South Division by the end of the year and can possibly make it deep in the conference. It all depends on how far their quarterback, Marcus Mariota, takes them. The Tennessee front office has given him all the pieces a quarterback would need to succeed, including a diverse, athletic receiving corps in veteran Eric Decker, stretch-Armstrong Rishard Matthews and the fifth-overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft, rookie Corey Davis from Western Michigan.
These weapons combined with a dependable tight-end in Delanie Walker, a tough, talented offensive line, great run support from veteran running back DeMarco Murray and Heisman trophy winner Derrick Henry mean it’s all on the shoulders of Mariota, who looked the part on Sunday. Completing 61 percent of his passes with some beautiful deep-balls for 256 yards, using his legs for 26 more and a rushing touchdown, Mariota is close to the level necessary for Tennessee to make the jump, and they may end up being the AFC’s dark horse contender by the later weeks of the season.
The NFL’s Youth Revolution
Every year techniques and technology get better, and scouting and recruitment are more refined. Athletes are forced to improve. This year was no exception, as there were several standout inexperienced players from week one.
Jaylon Smith, the Cowboys’ second-round pick in 2016 who spent all of 2016 injured, played his first regular season game Sunday against the Giants and recorded seven tackles and looked fast attacking the football.
Two rookies clashed as the Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Cleveland to face the Browns. 2017 second-round pick DeShone Kizer seemed to be the most hopeful quarterback the Browns have had since Brandon Weeden. He completed 66 percent of his passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns with one interception, while TJ Watt, 2017 first-round pick and rookie linebacker for the Steelers, finished his first game against Kizer with seven tackles, two sacks and Kizer’s only interception. Kizer may have been a spark of hope for the struggling Browns, but Watt’s Steelers ended the day with a 21-18 victory.
The Detroit Lions’ 2017 third-round pick, wide receiver Kenny Golladay was a preseason sensation after a two-touchdown performance in week one of the preseason against the Indianapolis Colts. After somewhat disappearing the rest of the preseason, Golladay bounced back in a big way Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, catching four passes for 69 yards and two touchdowns, including a diving 45-yard touchdown highlight catch. These were only two of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford’s four touchdowns of the day as the Detroit Lions beat the Arizona Cardinals 35-23.
The top two picks of the 2016 NFL draft, quarterbacks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, respectively had underachieving rookie campaigns but both came out improved and ready to play Sunday. Each threw for at least 300 yards and a touchdown and brought week one wins for their respective teams. Goff’s Los Angeles Rams shredded the Indianapolis Colts 46-9, and Wentz’s Philadelphia Eagles pulled out a 30-17 victory over the division rival Washington Redskins.
Three rookie running backs took the NFL by storm in week one. Kareem Hunt, the Chiefs’ 2017 third-round pick, was given an opportunity to start week one after teammate and Kansas City’s 2016 rushing leader Spencer Ware went down with a season-ending injury. After fumbling his first touch, Hunt lit up the defending champion Patriots with a historic debut, finishing Thursday night with 246 combined yards and three combined touchdowns.
Minnesota Vikings’ 2017 second-round pick running back Dalvin Cook also had a historic debut, rushing for 127 yards, the most ever by a Viking running back in his first game, and helped lead his team to a convincing 29-19 victory over the New Orleans Saints.
Leonard Fournette, the first running back taken in the 2017 NFL draft at number four overall, had an impressive debut for the Jacksonville Jaguars, with 100 rushing yards and a single rushing touchdown.
Fournette wasn’t the only young Jacksonville Jaguar standout in a big 29-7 win over the division rival Houston Texans. The Jasksonville defense was the more productive unit in the win, with second-year fourth-round pick Yannick Ngakoue continuing his impressive start to his career by posting a week-one statline with two quarterback sack-fumbles, one of which he recovered. The other was recovered by Jacksonville’s 2016 first-round pick, defensive end Dexter Fowler Jr. who was also injured his entire rookie campaign. Fowler’s fumble recovery was taken all the way back for a defensive touchdown. He also had a sack to his credit. Fellow second-year player for Jacksonville, linebacker Myles Jack, had an impressive week one, finishing the win with 14 tackles, leading his team.
Courtesy of Sports Illustrated by John W. McDonough.