The Associated Press
Saturday, September 8, 2018
TOM WITHERS CLEVELAND BROWNS VS. STEELERS For the Browns, winning the season opener over Pittsburgh could bring closure.
The end of a 17-game losing streak. The first opening-week victory since 2004. More relief from the haunting memories of an 0-16 season. A new beginning for a franchise and fan base that has suffered far too long.
Rarely has a first game felt so important.
"Whew," Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon said as he considered the multilayered impact of beating the Steelers. "That's the equivalent of making the playoffs here, almost a Super Bowl win. It's something we've been wanting for a long time."
It's been five years since Gordon played in an opener, and his return after being sidelined for years by personal demons may best symbolize Cleveland's rebirth. The Browns say they're back.
When they take the field at FirstEnergy Stadium to face their hated rival, the Browns will have 31 new players - including new quarterback Tyrod Taylor and Pro Bowl wide receiver Jarvis Landry - on a roster demolished over the past few months by general manager John Dorsey. He was the mastermind of a similar rebuilding project in Kansas City, and he's in the early stages of pushing Cleveland back to relevance. The Browns, so accustomed to drama, seem to be coming together. The Steelers, one of the NFL's standards of consistency, aren't themselves.
Pittsburgh will likely be without star running back Le'Veon Bell, holding out in a contract dispute that triggered teammates to turn on him this week.
"Honestly, it's a little selfish," said centre Maurkice Pouncey. "I'm kind of [ticked] right now. It sucks that he's not here. We'll move on as a team."
Bell returned from a lengthy absence last season in time to play in the opener at Cleveland, but he was mostly ineffective in Pittsburgh's 21-18 win.
The Browns were without dynamic defensive end Myles Garrett that day because of injury, and the second-year defensive end is positive he would have made a difference in the outcome.
Garrett's healthy and the 2017 No. 1 overall pick knows what a win for the Browns could bring. "It'd be an eye opener for the rest of the league," he said.
DAVE CAMPBELL MINNEAPOLIS VIKINGS VS. 49ERS When Kyle Shanahan took over as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers last year, his top priority was acquiring the type of quarterback he could try to help mould into the star this franchise of Joe Montana and Steve Young has lacked for so long.
Before the 49ers got Jimmy Garoppolo, Shanahan and general manager John Lynch had their eyes on Kirk Cousins.
Shanahan was the offensive co-ordinator for Cousins in the fourth-round draft pick's first two years in the NFL with Washington, which used the franchise tag in consecutive off-seasons to delay free agency when the two sides failed to reach a long-term contract agreement. Eventually, Cousins was going to be available.
"I thought we'd have a very good chance," Shanahan said, adding: "I think we fell into another alternative option that was pretty darn good."
Last year, the 49ers swung a trade at the deadline with New England for Garoppolo. They won the last five games, all after Garoppolo took over as the starter, to create a groundswell of confidence they're back on track as a contender .
Cousins took an US$84-million fully guaranteed contract from Minnesota , where the 49ers will open the season on Sunday and Shanahan will surely share a warm pregame greeting with his former pupil.
"Much of the way that I play the position to this day is a result of the way that he taught me as a young player," Cousins said.
Stuck behind Robert Griffin III his first two years, Cousins developed so well with Washington that he ultimately moved ahead of the second overall pick in the 2012 draft.
Mike Shanahan, Kyle's father, was the head coach until his firing after the 2013 season. His successor Jay Gruden had no choice but to stick with Cousins.
"He's the guy who gave them a chance to win for about four years," Shanahan said. "So I was really happy for him doing that, and I'm even more happy that he's out of there doing it for someone else. I just hope it's not on Sunday." MICHAEL MAROT INDIANAPOLIS COLTS VS. BENGALS When Andrew Luck gazes over Cincinnati's defence Sunday, he'll see some of the league's top pass rushers.
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins often gets the interior push. Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap and Carl Lawson routinely bring the outside pressure.
So with Luck making his first start in more than 20 months, the Cincinnati Bengals hope to make life miserable as the Colts quarterback reacclimatizes himself to regular-season life in the NFL.
"My biggest concern, they have a really good front seven," Luck said. "It's always a tough defence. Geno Atkins is a heck of a player, Dunlap on the edge, got guys that can cover. So it's always a challenge."
Circumstances could make this season opener even more challenging for Indy.
Long-time left tackle Anthony Castonzo missed the entire preseason with a hamstring injury and was limited in practice earlier this week. Denzelle Good, who appeared to be the favourite at right tackle, hasn't played since hurting his left knee in the third preseason game.
Then, there's rookie left guard Quenton Nelson, the No. 6 pick. He's likely to draw the assignment on Atkins, and there's no assurance second-year running back Marlon Mack will return from a hamstring injury that has kept him off the field since the preseason opener. If Mack can't play, rookies Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines may be asked to help protect Luck, one of the league's highest-paid players.
No, it's not an ideal start for a quarterback who missed the 2017 season while recovering from surgery on his throwing shoulder.
But the Colts may not have a choice.
"We will do everything we can do to neutralize the pass rush - no matter what five guys are up front," new coach Frank Reich said. "And that will be No. 1 on the pass game agenda each week: How do you protect the passer?" The Bengals have other concerns after losing eight straight in Indy. They're expecting to face a crowd eager to welcome back Luck and capable of making enough noise to slow down the pass rushers.
KYLE HIGHTOWER FOXBOROUGH, MASS.
PATRIOTS VS. TEXANS Injuries prevented the Texans from finding out exactly what their team could have been last season.
Star defensive end J.J. Watt, linebacker Whitney Mercilus and quarterback Deshaun Watson were among 21 Houston players who spent time on injured reserve during the 2017 campaign. The season predictably imploded, ending with six straight losses.
But before the avalanche of injuries, the Texans gave the eventual AFC champion New England Patriots all they could handle during a Week 3 visit to Gillette Stadium.
Now healed and with a retooled defence, the Texans return to New England on Sunday, hoping to put their misfortunes in the past as they open the 2018 season.
That is particularly true in the case of Watt, who has had parts of the past two seasons derailed by injuries.
He played just three games in 2016 before being sidelined with a herniated disc. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year then appeared in five games last season before having his year ended by a fractured left tibia.
Meanwhile, the Patriots begin yet another season as the favourite in a conference they have dominated for nearly two decades thanks to Tom Brady. He's now 41, but has yet to show any signs of diminished capacity coming off an MVP season.
He'll have a new-look receiving corps following the off-season departures of Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks, as well as the four-game suspension of Julian Edelman for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancers.
Although he's already secured his place in the Hall of Fame and may possibly end his career as the most accomplished quarterback in league history, Brady reiterated this week in the final instalment of his Facebook Watch series Tom vs Time that he wants to play five more seasons.
"I think I can do it," he said. "It'll be a challenge for me. I don't think it's going to be easy. It's going to be hard to do. I think it's going to be very hard to do.
But I think I can do it." STEVEN WINE MIAMI DOLPHINS VS. TITANS It's easy to wonder which quarterback will make the biggest impact between the Titans and Dolphins.
Ryan Tannehill? Marcus Mariota? Luke Falk?
Yes, Falk, a fourth-string rookie who won't even play, has altered preparations by both teams. Miami signed him last week after he was released by Tennessee on cutdown day, and the Dolphins are sure to pick his brain about the Titans' scheme under rookie coach Mike Vrabel.
All of which lends another layer of unpredictability to the season opener.
Here are things to know about two teams who didn't excite preseason prognosticators.
Ryan Tannehill returns after missing the Dolphins' past 20 games, and says he'll be ready rather than rusty. He's coming off reconstructive knee surgery that wiped out his entire 2017 season, and says he never doubted he would be ready for the 2018 opener. "I always felt confident that this would be where we ended up," he said. "It's finally here and I'm ready to go."
While Tannehill has never played in the postseason, counterpart Marcus Mariota is trying to become the first quarterback to lead the Titans to the playoffs in back-to-back years since Steve McNair in 2002-03.
That will require proving wrong the oddsmakers who predict Tennessee will win eight games. Miami, led by third-year coach Adam Gase, is widely projected to repeat last year's 6-10 record.
While Falk will be able to provide the Dolphins some insight into Sunday's matchup, Vrabel says it could have been worse.
The Titans' new coach wanted to install the entire offence during training camp, but offensive co-ordinator Matt LaFleur - mindful the team would have to waive some players - talked him out of it.
"He wanted to hold some stuff," Vrabel said. "I said, 'Okay, I'll defer to you on this one.' As it turns out, he was kind of right. There'll be some things that I'm sure Luke can give them. But then again, I am glad that Matt was adamant about holding some stuff until cutdown day. I think he had been burned by some of that stuff in the past." BRETT MARTEL NEW ORLEANS Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan remembers all too well the last time New Orleans entered a season with a lot of hype.
The Saints seemed like a good bet to make the playoffs for a fifth time in six seasons back in 2014.
Instead, they stumbled to a 7-9 record in what became the first of three straight frustrating, sub-.500 campaigns before they won the NFC South last season.
"Everyone's going to talk about potential. Everyone's going to talk about, 'on paper,' how good we look," said Jordan, an All-Pro in 2017 with a careerhigh 13 sacks. "We've been here before. We've seen this a couple years ago, when we looked great on paper. Paper doesn't play Sunday."
The schedule seemingly sets the Saints up to win a season opener for the first time since 2013 this Sunday, when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
New Orleans has nearly all key players back from a squad that came within a "Minnesota Miracle" of advancing to the NFC title game. Now the Saints are eager to move on from the 61-yard Vikings touchdown they gave up on their last play of last season.
The Bucs, by contrast, are coming off a five-win campaign that extended their decade-long playoff drought and must play without starting quarterback Jameis Winston, who is serving a three-game suspension.
Oddsmakers have made the Saints one of the most heavily favoured NFL teams - by more than a touchdown - in Week 1.
"We recognize what kind of a football team New Orleans has," Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter said.
"We're going to go out there and do everything we can to give it to them on Sunday."
And why not? The last time these teams met, in their 2017 regular season finale, the Bucs won in an upset.
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