By BARRY WILNER
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Saturday, September 7, 2019
No team has drawn more attention, positive and negative, heading into the NFL's 100th season than the Cleveland Browns.
The Raiders are close for drama in their final year in Oakland, but Baker Mayfield and crew take the headline honours.
Beginning Sunday when they play host to Tennessee, we'll find out if the new and improved Browns are exactly that, and a playoff contender. Or if they will do what the Browns nearly always have done since returning to the NFL in 1999, and disappoint the Dawg Pound.
"I'm very excited to see what we can do, what we're capable of doing out there," Mayfield said.
"Nobody has done anything yet, so I'd say everyone is starting the same: square one. I'd say it's pretty hard to live up to any hype if you're listening to the outside.
None of that really matters. We've got a bunch of guys who have bought in to what's going on in this building and the standards that we're setting. So to us that's all that matters."
The Titans have been a contender the past three years, going 9-7 each season and making the playoffs once. Their defence ought to be stout and figures to get tested by Mayfield throwing to Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, plus Nick Chubb running the ball.
"Definitely starting the season with a great challenge," Titans cornerback Logan Ryan said.
"They're great players. We know that. We're going to do what we always do and prepare for them.
Study all their routes, study everything they do ... and go out there and challenge them. That's the nature of this game. That's how you make a living in this game, is going and covering good guys every week, and those are some good guys."
The centennial season began Thursday night in Chicago with the Green Bay Packers' 10-3 victory over the Bears. Aaron Rodgers hit Jimmy Graham in the second quarter for the only touchdown.
The Packers lead the NFL's longest rivalry 98-95-6. Green Bay has won 16 of the past 19 regularseason meetings, and Rodgers is 17-5.
PITTSBURGH AT NEW ENGLAND The Patriots have been playing down the fact they weren't chosen for the opener of the NFL's 100th season despite their latest Lombardi Trophy. But their coaching staff finds little items to push the players' buttons and Tom Brady is as strong a motivator to teammates as anyone in the league.
New England does have some major question marks at receiver and tight end, and on the defensive line. But somehow those things tend to work out. Pittsburgh lost two of its biggest stars in receiver Antonio Brown, now in Oakland, and running back Le'Veon Bell (Jets). But many in the Steel City are seeing that as eliminating huge distractions.
ATLANTA AT MINNESOTA Two coaches, Dan Quinn with the Falcons, Mike Zimmer with the Vikings, who need quick starts and solid seasons to enhance their job security. For Quinn, a defensive guru as a co-ordinator, getting that unit more stingy is a must. A healthy group will help - injuries ravaged the Atlanta defence last year. The Falcons also went with offensive linemen Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary in the first round of the draft.
That line faces a solid defence in Minnesota, which ranked fourth in yards allowed and ninth in points allowed last year. But the Vikings also have blocking concerns on offence.
LOS ANGELES RAMS AT CAROLINA Potent throughout 2018 and into the playoffs, the Rams could do little with the ball in the Super Bowl. That memory has to burn coach Sean McVay and, especially, quarterback Jared Goff, who didn't look ready for the big-game spotlight. If running back Todd Gurley isn't hampered by seemingly chronic knee issues, this is still among the most dangerous offences in football. The Rams face a Panthers team plagued by uncertainty in many areas. Not a problem is Carolina's versatile running back Christian McCaffrey, who would truly impress if he can have a huge game against two-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and the Rams' solid defence.
HOUSTON AT NEW ORLEANS, MONDAY NIGHT After all those moves recently, the Texans have a new look that might solve two of their biggest issues from 2018: Can they protect Deshaun Watson, and who will be the wideout opposite sensational DeAndre Hopkins? Houston traded for left tackle Laremy Tunsil and receiver Kenny Stills. Of course, the Texans also sent Jadeveon Clowney to Seattle when they couldn't reach a contract solution with the pass rusher. This prime-time matchup is the first opportunity for the Saints to step on the field for a real game since, as they would say in the Big Easy, "Dey wuz robbed" in the NFC title game. New Orleans might have the most talent in the league, led by the incomparable Drew Brees.
KANSAS CITY AT JACKSONVILLE Then again, at least on offence, the motherlode is in Kansas City, led by 2018 MVP Patrick Mahomes. For Mahomes to match last season - 50 TDs passing, 113.8 rating, off-the-charts creativity - might be expecting a bit much. Or maybe expecting too little. For the Jaguars, it's about reversing their direction after falling from AFC title game losers to 5-11. Getting running back Leonard Fournette straightened out would help, and new quarterback Nick Foles has an enviable track record in the toughest spots.
WASHINGTON AT PHILADELPHIA As long as quarterback Carson Wentz is on the field, the Eagles should fly. Coach Doug Pederson's offence doesn't have many big names - tight end Zach Ertz and centre Jason Kelce are outstanding - but it runs so efficiently with Wentz that Philly ranks among the NFL's elite. The defence has some questions, however, particularly in the front seven.
But Washington isn't likely to test that unit given all the upheaval in the capital city. Not having star left tackle Trent Williams really hurts.
DENVER AT OAKLAND, MONDAY NIGHT A traditional rivalry game, too, with roots back to the American Football League. The sight of Jon Gruden rocking out to Metallica makes one wonder if the Raiders coach will have his troops Seek and Destroy the Broncos in the prime-time doubleheader nightcap. Gruden certainly has more weapons at his disposal; of course, he dispersed some of his top players a year ago in his return to the sideline. New Denver pivot Joe Flacco and long-time defensive co-ordinator Vic Fangio, in his first gig as a head man, would prefer to make the Raiders Fade to Black.
BUFFALO AT NEW YORK JETS The chasers. New England is being awarded its 11th successive AFC East title by default. Not by these two teams, but if they are realistic, the Jets and Bills recognize they are competing for a wild-card spot with a successful year. So this becomes a key opener, with both clubs expecting huge improvement from their second-year quarterbacks, Sam Darnold in New York, Josh Allen in Buffalo.
SAN FRANCISCO AT TAMPA BAY A couple of relatively unproven but highly paid quarterbacks on teams whose defences also must step up. Jimmy Garoppolo should get the chance against the Bucs' leaky defence, and the same could be true for Jameis Winston against the Niners. Of most intrigue is coach Bruce Arians's return from a one-year hiatus. You can bet Winston will be prepared well by the quarterback whisperer.
Nick Chubb is poised for a big season running the ball to complement the Browns' recently upgraded pass attack.
PATRICK SMITH/GETTY IMAGES