Finally, the NFL season is upon us! The 2021 campaign kicks off Thursday, September 9, with the reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers hosting the Dallas Cowboys in the traditional Thursday night opener.
This is the first of a 272-game regular slate. The remainder of the NFL kicks off its season with 14 games on Sunday, September 12, and another on Monday night, September 13. From there, over 17 weeks, each team will play another 16 regular season games. (Recall that the 2021 schedule consists of 17 regular season games.)
Prior to the official start of the season, we picked out five of our favourite storylines for Week 1, and discussed how they’ll affect Week 1’s games.
The Deshaun Watson situation
The Houston Texans have had a turbulent off-season. The situation in Houston deteriorated quickly following the end of the 2020 season, when the team finished 4-12, but the underlying issues had been there for years.
Prior to the 2020 season, former head coach Bill O’Brien, also the acting General Manager at the time, made the baffling decision to trade Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals, in exchange for a mediocre draft pick haul, and a running who was past his best and coming off of an injury.
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Capitulation came early in the 2020 season. After four games – all Texans losses – O’Brien was fired, and replaced by former Cleveland Browns head coach Romeo Crennel. Crennel saw out the remainder of the 2020 season, at which point journeyman coach David Culley was hired. The decision did not sit well with franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson, who was already disgruntled after the Hopkins trade. Watson requested a trade. The team stood firm, and denied his request.
In the meantime, it was alleged that Watson, for some time, had engaged in acts of sexual misconduct and sexual assault against several female massage therapists. At the time of writing, there are 22 civil lawsuits and 10 criminal complaints pending against him.
With Watson’s future totally up in the air, the Texans were forced to name journeyman signal-caller Tyrod Taylor as their Week 1 starting quarterback against Jacksonville. Taylor has started 47 games in his 10-year NFL career with the Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Chargers. He’s thrown for 9,770 yards, 54 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. He is a serviceable backup and spot starter, but not a quarterback to single-handedly lead a team to victory. Given the state of the remainder oft he Texan’s roster, a Week 1 victory over the division rival Jaguars would be a feat.
Division foes face-off
Interestingly, though all 32 NFL franchises are in action in Week 1, only four teams start the 2021 season with the added pressure of a divisional matchups. Let’s delve deeper into these matchups, from the AFC South and the AFC East.
As previously mentioned, the Texans host the Jaguars in an AFC South matchup at Reliant Stadium. The teams combined for a 5-27 record last season. With a record of 1-15, the Jaguars earned the #1 overall draft pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, while Houston technically earned pick #3 – which, thank to a different disastrous trade by Bill O’Brien, was shipped off to the Miami Dolphins.
So, this is a matchup of two of the three worst teams from 2020, but there is plenty of intrigue around this one.
#1 overall pick quarterback Trevor Lawrence has been handed the keys to the Jacksonville offense. Described as a ‘generational talent’, Lawrence has all the tools to be an elite player for the next decade. Don’t expect an instant impact, however, as he must get used to the speed of the professional game, and to his new teammates. He will face some challenges this season.
For added intrigue, first-year NFL head coach Urban Meyer – a legendary collegiate coach who won three NCAA National Championships with the Florida Gators and Ohio State Buckeyes – makes his debut, in this matchup of two rookie head coaches (more on this later).
The Texans, meanwhile, aren’t expected to pull up any trees either, especially without the on-field talents of DeShaun Watson.
Also on Sunday, fellow Floridians, the Miami Dolphins, face an old nemesis in the New England Patriots in Foxborough. Miami had an impressive 10-win season in 2020, yet missed out on a playoff berth in the ultra-competitive AFC. For 2021, the Dolphins have added a wealth of talent to their young roster.
Head coach Brian Flores and General Manager Chris Grier have done a tremendous job building an exciting roster through the draft capital they’ve acquired. They will be hoping quarterback Tua Tagovailoa can make a big leap in his development in 2021.
Week 1 will provide a stern test, as they travel to Foxborough. The Patriots are led by rookie quarterback Mac Jones, who won the starting job from incumbent Cam Newton late in the preseason. Bill Belichick and his charges are hoping to bounce back after losing the AFC East division title for the first time in 11 years.
In the two meetings in 2020, each team earned victory at home – the Patriots winning a Week 1 matchup 21-11 and the Dolphins triumphing 22-12 in a Week 15 rematch at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami. That the aggregate score over the two contests was 33-33 shows the current parity between these franchises.
Saints v Packers in Jacksonville
While the Jaguars are in Texas, their home stadium will play host to the New Orleans Saints, who’ve been temporarily displaced from their home, the Mercedes-Benz SuperDome, due to the effects of Hurricane Ida in New Orleans.
Anchored by Hall of Fame calibre quarterbacks, the Saints and the Packers have arguably been the best two franchises in the NFC over the last decade, with 13 division titles, two Super Bowls and 18 playoff appearances combined since 2009.
For 15 years, the Saints were an NFC powerhouse under the leadership of head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. However, the latter has now retired from the NFL, leaving the Saints with a Hall of Fame-sized hole at the most important position on offense.
Former #1 overall pick Jameis Winston beat out the Swiss Army knife that is Taysom Hill to earn the starting spot for the 2021 season. However, it will be interesting to see how long the leash is if Winston struggles. With a plethora of offensive weapons – running back Alvin Kamara chief among them, while wide receiver Michael Thomas recovers from injury – and a top-five scoring defense, the Saints are primed for another playoff run if Winston delivers.
However, this opening game promises to be a tough assignment, with reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers lining up against them. Rodgers had a dramatic offseason of his own, publicly and repeatedly demanding a trade out of Green Bay, due to disagreements with the front office. However, the 37-year-old finally relented, and committed to the team for the upcoming season. The Packers are no doubt ready to contend in the NFC once again.
Rookies make NFL debuts
In the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, five quarterbacks were selected – three are slated to take command of their team’s offense on opening weekend. We’ve already mentioned the Patriots’ Mac Jones and Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence. The third trigger-man set to debut is the New York Jets’ Zach Wilson.
Wilson, the #2 overall pick in the NFL Draft, is tasked with turning round the fortunes of a forlorn Jets franchise. The Jets have had just one winning season in the past decade – and even then they failed to make the playoffs.
Other offensive talents expected to shine throughout the year include Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts, the wide receiver trio of Ja’Marr Chase (Bengals), Jaylen Waddle (Dolphins) and Devonta Smith (Eagles) and Pittsburgh Steelers’ running back Najee Harris.
Defensively, the top playmakers include Dallas Cowboys’ linebacker Micah Parsons, the highly drafted cornerback duo of Jaycee Horn (Carolina Panthers) and Patrick Surtain II (Denver Broncos), and a class of six first round defensive ends. Look for this group to make an immediate impact.
Outside of the first round, Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive lineman Milton Williams has been receiving rave reviews, and Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Trey Smith is earning first team reps. Meanwhile, in New England, there’s a good chance that Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson sees a heavy workload as a rookie.
First-year head coaches do battle
It’s extremely rare for rookie head coaches to square off in Week 1 of an NFL season. It’s only happened five times in the league’s history. The most recent instance was in 2014, when Bill O’Brien’s Texans beat Jay Gruden’s Washington Redskins.
This season we’ll get two such matchups: when the Atlanta Falcons host the Philadelphia Eagles at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as well as the aforementioned Jaguars-Texans tilt at Reliant Stadium in Week 1.
Despite recent Super Bowl appearances, the Falcons and the Eagles are now both rebuilding. Atlanta lost out to the New England Patriots in the 2016 showpiece. Incredibly, it’s barely been three years since the Eagles 41-33 victory over those same Patriots.
Former Tennessee Titans Offensive Coordinator Arthur Smith is hoping to return the Falcons offense to 2016 form by replicating the success he had with Derrick Henry, Ryan Tannehill and AJ Brown in Tennessee. However, the Falcons will have to do so without standout wide receiver Julio Jones, who made the reverse journey to the Titans via trade.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, hired former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni. The Eagles are hoping that he is the man to stabilize and turn the around the team after a turbulent couple of years, which ended with 2016’s #2 overall pick, Carson Wentz, once an MVP candidate, being traded to the Indianapolis Colts this offseason.
The intrigue in these matchups lies in whether the rosters have already bought into the rookie head coaches’ philosophies and styles, or if these new coaches are still works in progress.
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