NEW YORK – Week 1 always offers the first batch of evidence on how teams will perform in a new season, but we’re often left with more questions than answers.
Which results were a sign of things to come? Which were outliers? Does a lopsided affair say more about the winner or the loser? How long should we wait before giving up on a supposed breakout season?
Here are five questions we should have better answers for after the sample size grows in Week 2.
1. Does a healthy Aaron Rodgers still rule the NFC North?
This looked like the NFL’s most fascinating division race entering 2018. The 13-3 Vikings added Kirk Cousins and Sheldon Richardson to an already stacked roster, and the Packers got back Rodgers, who claimed five of six division titles from 2011 to 2016. After a short-lived Week 1 scare, Rodgers avoided disaster and appears likely to play at Lambeau Field this week against Minnesota in the first clash of the NFC North titans.
Aside from a broken collarbone, Mike Zimmer’s defense hasn’t given Rodgers major trouble (1,466 yards, 13 TDs, two INTs, 100.8 rating in six-plus games), but we haven’t seen much of Rodgers against the best iteration of that unit. He threw just four passes (2 of 4, 18 yards) against the Vikings last year before getting hurt, and he’ll likely be limited if he plays on Sunday.
Even if a hampered Rodgers tames Zimmer again, the Vikings’ offense looks more threatening than it has in years, with Cousins flanked by Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs and Dalvin Cook. Minnesota averaged just 19.5 points in two games against Green Bay last season, but expectations will be much higher this week.
With both teams 1-0, Sunday’s winner will take the early edge in the North, with a rematch in Minneapolis coming in Week 12. Gimpy or not, the pressure is on Rodgers to hold serve at home as the Packers try to reclaim the division crown.
2. Is Amari Cooper’s bounce-back year still coming?
Once seemingly on the road to stardom, Cooper’s 2017 swoon was puzzling, and coach Jon Gruden vowed to get the 2015 first-rounder back on track. But Cooper caught just one ball for 9 yards in Monday’s opener, marking his sixth time in 13 outings with fewer than 10 receiving yards (not a typo).
Gruden said Monday’s film disagreed with the box score, not so subtly dumping blame on Derek Carr in the process.
“You look at the film, we had (Cooper) wide open deep,” Gruden said Wednesday. “We didn’t go there. He was open a couple of times, and for whatever reason, we didn’t go that route.”
This week, Cooper draws a Broncos secondary that allowed just seven catches for 105 yards to Seahawks wideouts in the opener. Most of that production (71 yards) came on a pair of double moves that resulted in touchdowns, the kind of designer deep shots that Gruden has said he would dial up for Cooper.
Though he sprung free for a 32-yard touchdown at Denver in the 2016 finale, Cooper managed just three grabs for 18 yards in two games against the Broncos last season. If he produces another dud on Sunday, the questions will only grow louder.
3. Is the Falcons’ defense improved enough to weather key injuries?
Dan Quinn’s defense leapt from 27th in opponents’ scoring (25.4 points per game) in 2016 to eighth (19.7) last year, and its postseason performance over the past two seasons (103 points allowed in five games) has been downright superb, the Super Bowl LI collapse against New England notwithstanding.
But the task is now much tougher with two of the unit’s four Pro Bowlers going on injured reserve. Keanu Neal (torn ACL) is done for the season, and Deion Jones (foot) can’t return until Week 9, leaving gigantic holes up the middle. Two 2017 draft picks, Damontae Kazee and Duke Riley, must plug those holes, but other starters also must step up to lessen the burden.
The Falcons held the Panthers to just 30 total points in two games last season, but those performances will be tougher to repeat Sunday in Atlanta. Carolina offensive coordinator Norv Turner showed in the opener he’s willing to use Cam Newton’s legs (13 carries, 58 yards, one TD), and the speed of Jones and Neal will be missed against Christian McCaffrey (16 touches, 95 yards in Week 1). Until Matt Ryan & Co. work out their red-zone kinks, Quinn’s short-handed defense must pull its weight.
4. Can Matt Nagy and Mitchell Trubisky sustain offense for 60 minutes?
Nagy’s debut as a play-caller rightfully had viewers gushing early Sunday night, as Trubisky and the Bears marched 146 yards for a pair of scores on their first two drives with the help of creative formations and misdirection. But the offense managed just 148 yards on the ensuing eight possessions, failing to record a first down on five of them.
The hot start and cool finish is nothing new for a highly schemed attack that relies heavily on gadgets and tricks. The Chiefs’ offenses under Andy Reid and Nagy were routinely successful early — when offenses typically run their first 15 scripted plays — before regressing near average. From 2013 to 2017, K.C. gained 5.9 yards per play in the first quarter (third best in the NFL) and 5.4 yards per play in all other quarters (14th).
One week of evidence doesn’t mean Nagy’s Bears will follow the same trend, but the rookie head coach must prove he can avoid second-half swoons. He’ll face a Seahawks defense Monday night that typically plays a predictable coverage (Cover-3), music to the ears of an offensive play-caller. Nagy must take advantage not just early but often.
5. Is there a wild-card contender in the AFC East?
Many pegged the AFC East as the NFL’s weakest division entering 2018, with what seemed like little more than flotsam outside of Foxborough. The rebuilding Bills lived down to expectations in Week 1, but the Dolphins and Jets raised eyebrows with convincing victories, and the winner of New York’s Sunday home game against Miami will be a surprising 2-0.
The Jets’ 48-17 win over Detroit was their largest since the end of 2010, and the defense (five picks, 5.1 yards per play allowed) was even more impressive than precocious rookie quarterback Sam Darnold. Between that defense, a strong running game (169 yards on 36 carries in Week 1) and Darnold’s timely playmaking, the Jets might have a reasonable path to wild-card contention.