Opening day has come and gone. The long race towards the playoffs is underway. What were some of the “sit up and take notice” moments from week one?
- Broncos stumble, Chargers on top.
The defending champions were tipped to find this year more difficult than last. Payton Manning had retired, and with a bunch of talented but well-paid veterans on the books Denver was always going to struggle with the salary cap. After several cuts to the roster and an unremarkable rookie draft, a lot of eyes were on how they performed in week 1 against the Chargers. And in truth, it was a lacklustre performance, with the Superbowl victors unable to find the endzone in a 23-9 loss.
The Broncos vaunted defence was solid against the run, allowing San Diego only 28 yards in 27 attempts. But the pass rush was clearly still at summer camp, allowing Philip Rivers to amass 31-21-314, 1 TD and no intercepts. Broncos OLB Von Miller, one of the highest-impact defenders last season, was almost invisible, registering one tackle and no sacks. Manning’s replacement Brock Osweiler was uninspiring; though he passed for 306 yards, his 22 completions for 46 attempts (48%) with no TDs and 1 interception didn’t look like the sort of aerial attack that would lead the Broncos to a second consecutive Superbowl.
A critical moment came with 4:39 left to play in then first half. Chargers were up 10-0 but Osweiler had put together three good pass gains to bring the Broncos to 1st and goal at the Charger’s 3 yard line. Osweiler threw a flat swing pass to Emmanuel Sanders, who was heading for the corner but was hit by S Greg Ducre at the one yard line. Sanders fumbled the ball, San Diego recovered, and Rivers then led a TD-scoring drive to go in to half time 17-0 ahead.
But in terms of eye-catching performances, honours go to two players called Brandon Marshall. For the Broncos, long-standing ILB Marshall notched 14 tackles and one assist, dominating the San Diego run game almost single-handedly. For the Chargers, off-season acquisition, former Jets WR Brandon Marshall, caught 5 for 89 yards and a TD. With Rivers’ WR corps augmented with a player of Marshall’s calibre, the Chargers may well be an aerial threat to be reckoned with this season.
2. Panthers scrape home in New Orleans
With the outstanding dual-threat QB Cam Newton, an impressive defensive lineup and a more-than-capable offensive unit many expected more from Carolina than their 9-8-0 record in 2015. But the record of faltering underachievement seemed to continue into the first game of the 2016 season. The Panthers scraped home 32-31 against the Saints, with New Orleans scoring 4 TDs to Carolina’s 3, racking up 482 offensive yards to the Panther’s 378, and overall looking the more impressive team.
In the end, the difference between the two was a moment of misjudgement from Saints QB Drew Brees. Leading 31-29 in the fourth quarter, New Orleans was first and twenty at their own 34 yard line. After two false start penalties, the O-line was clearly on the back foot and Brees, under pressure, unwisely unloaded in the general direction of WR Tre McBride. ILB Luke Kuechly picked it off and returned in to within spitting distance; although New Orleans only managed a field goal, that was enough to win the game.
The standout performance? Carolina punter Brad Nortman. Five punts, averaging 51 yards, net average 41 yards. In a game as close as this, those 255 punted yards made all the difference.
3. Seahawks do enough
While Denver were the champions last year, most pundits had Seattle as the overall best performers. Could the Seahawks maintain the standard they set in 2015?
The answer, it appear, is “yes”, although it was not always an easy answer against a spirited 49ers unit. But, when you are running a ground-based offence and two players each top 100 yards rushing, it’s hard to see how you are going to lose. And so it turned out for Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls, who together posted 218 rushing yards and steered the Seahawks to a 29-23 victory.
Seattle’s passing game was a lot shakier, with Russell Wilson throwing 33-23-209, with two TDs but 3 interceptions. The 49ers’ Kaepernick was a lot cleaner, with 22-15-156-1-0, but on the 49ers side the focus was still the ground game. Carlos Hyde ran 20 for 76, while veteran Reggie Bush logged 8 for 43. Given that Kaepernick continued to refuse to stand for the National Anthem, and as a result was booed by even the home crowd every time he touched the ball, the decision b y the 49ers to run the football was a wise one, if only from the point of view of public relations. But if 49ers head coach Donte Wilde is to erase the indifferent 6-110 record of last year’s coach Jim Tomsula, he’s going to have to be more enterprising than we saw here.