No team wants to distance itself from last season — or even the previous year — more than the Cleveland Browns.
They get a chance to prove all of those offseason maneuvers paid off when they host their archrivals, the Steelers, on Sunday.
No, it’s not fair to fully judge Cleveland’s progress in the opener. It is tempting, though, considering how the roster has been revamped and the enthusiasm has been ramped up.
“Honestly, I would rather not look back,” says Browns coach Hue Jackson, and why would he with a 1-31 record in charge? “I just feel really good about this group. We have to get ourselves ready to play. It is a big-time game this week. This is against the best team in our division. It is a huge game.”
It also doesn’t hurt the Browns that Pittsburgh has been missing one of its best players, star running back and holdout Le’Veon Bell.
Still, as Jackson notes, the Steelers have been the cream of the AFC North for a long time, while the Browns have been the downtrodden.
Regardless of Bell’s status — James Conner is the backup — the Steelers have a dynamic offense thanks to receiver Antonio Brown, perhaps the NFL’s best player; quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, still a force in his 15th pro season; and a talented offensive line.
“If we start off with James, I think we’ll be fine either way,” guard Ramon Foster says. “He’s a guy that’s made strides. He’s made us confident in him. So he gets the start, we roll with him. No disrespect to (Bell), we’ve got to move. This is a moving train.”
The season opened Thursday night when the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles got past the Atlanta Falcons 18-12 in a sloppy, penalty-filled game.
Jay Ajayi scored his second touchdown on an 11-yard run with 2:19 remaining, and the Eagles withstood a two-minute drive by Matt Ryan and the Falcons, with Julio Jones failing to come down with Ryan’s high pass on the final play from the 5-yard line.
The game was marred by penalties, dropped passes, missed assignments and weak quarterbacking. Foles threw for 117 yards and an interception, and Ryan completed less than 50 percent of his passes. Neither threw for a touchdown.
San Francisco at Minnesota
Yes, quarterbacks get too much attention these days. Still, this is one game where they have to be the focal point.
The Vikings spent about the entire budget of the state of Minnesota on Kirk Cousins after he played two seasons under the franchise tag in Washington. So while the return of rookie sensation (until he hurt his knee) Dalvin Cook to the backfield is quite intriguing, most eyes will be on how Cousins fares with far more talent around him.
San Francisco was in QB purgatory a year ago, then pulled off an October deal for Jimmy Garoppolo. The youngster who hasn’t lost in seven career starts, got a huge contract, too. He’ll face one of the NFL’s toughest defenses in this one.
New York Jets at Detroit, Monday night
OK, excuse us if, one more time, we concentrate on the quarterback. This one is Sam Darnold , the only member of the five first-round passers in this year’s draft who will get a start. He has poise, lots of arm talent and the ability to escape trouble.
Of course, he’s also a J-E-T-S QB; the last true franchise guy they had was Joe Namath.
“I know that just because I got named the starter doesn’t mean we won the game Monday night,” the Southern Cal product says. “It’s awesome and I’m really happy to be the starting quarterback, but I also know that I’ve got to go out there and do my job.”
He’ll try to do it against new Lions coach Matt Patricia’s defensive acumen. Patricia comes from New England, so the pedigree is impressive.
Los Angeles Rams at Oakland, Monday night
Another 2018 newcomer — actually a returning megastar — is Raiders coach Jon Gruden. Enticed out of the ESPN broadcast booth, given full reign in Oakland along with major money, Gruden already has flexed his power by trading the Raiders’ best player, pass rusher supreme Khalil Mack .
That probably won’t temper the rabid Black Hole for the opener. What might is a Rams club with perhaps the most talented roster in the NFL, led by DT Aaron Donald and RB Todd Gurley.
Cincinnati at Indianapolis
Another key returnee (and, yeah, a QB) is Andrew Luck for the Colts. A shoulder injury that some claim was misdiagnosed, others say was mishandled, sidelined him for all of 2017. When healthy, he is elite, although the roster under new coach Frank Reich appears anything but.
Cincinnati brought back Marvin Lewis, the second-longest tenured coach in the NFL, and also re-signed its top two defenders, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. They’ll try to wreak havoc on Luck.
Tennessee at Miami
Mike Vrabel won three Super Bowls as a linebacker and sometime TD-catching receiver. He takes over a Titans squad that made the playoffs and upset Kansas City last winter, and seeks to build on such success in the rugged AFC South. Look for RB Derrick Henry to be the workhorse on offense and CB Malcolm Butler trying to show he deserved to play for the Patriots in their Super Bowl loss to Philadelphia.
The Dolphins’ season could depend on how much Frank Gore has left as a ball carrier. Gore is closing in on fourth place on the career rushing list, seemingly Hall of Fame credentials.
Washington at Arizona
Like Patricia and to a lesser extent Vrabel, new Cardinals coach Steve Wilks made his reputation as a defensive coordinator with Carolina. One thing for sure, he will have the Cardinals playing a more physical style than in recent seasons. On offense, he gets back fantasy football go-to David Johnson at running back.
With the Cousins years over, Alex Smith was acquired and will make few mistakes at quarterback. He doesn’t have a ton to work with, unless recently signed Adrian Peterson still excels. Don’t bet against Peterson.
Jacksonville at New York Giants
Giants owner John Mara calls what happened to his club last season “a perfect storm.” New York tried to right the ship by hiring Pat Shurmur as coach and Dave Gettleman as general manager. If the Giants are healthy and second overall draft pick Saquon Barkley is the second coming of LT — LaDainian Tomlinson, not Lawrence Taylor — this could be a dangerous team.
The first test is massive. After being 10 minutes from making the Super Bowl, the Jags are among the AFC favorites. Even spicier: Tom Coughlin, who led the Giants to two titles as coach and now oversees Jacksonville’s football operations, returns to the Meadowlands.
Chicago at Green Bay
Talk about adding some spice, that’s exactly what Mack will do for the Monsters of the Midway. It might not happen Sunday night at Lambeau Field; let the standout defender get into football shape first.
Chicago hired Chiefs offensive guru Matt Nagy as coach, but it’s Mack and the D that likely will carry the Bears.
No question who will carry the Packers. Aaron Rodgers returns from his shoulder woes that derailed the 2017 season. Of primary interest could be his hookups with tight end Jimmy Graham, who needs to return to elite status after several down years.
Houston at New England
What could be a highly revealing matchup for the first weekend of the schedule.
Like so many teams, the Texans are hoping to stay away from the injury bug that ruined them last season. Getting back J.J. Watt, probably the best defensive player the NFL has seen in the past half-dozen years, and Whitney Mercilus is huge. So is having Deshaun Watson at quarterback after his sensational rookie performances before wrecking his knee.
More than ever, the spotlight in New England will be on defensive improvement. Unless age catches up to him — and he plans to play until he is 45 — Tom Brady at 41 remains the Michael Jordan/Wayne Gretzky of football.
Tampa Bay at New Orleans
The Saints are looking pretty jazzy after strong drafts and personnel moves helped them nearly make the NFC title game last season. They had both top rookie award winners in RB Alvin Kamara and CB Marshon Lattimore, while Drew Brees probably will be setting more passing records at age 39.
It’s hard to say the same about a Buccaneers squad that will have starting quarterback Jameis Winston suspended for three games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Tampa Bay was very active in bulking up its defense, a must in the NFC South going against Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton.
Kansas City at Los Angeles Chargers
A lot of love is being sent the Chargers’ way in their second season playing in a soccer stadium. Rightfully so given their strengths in the pass rush and with a balanced offense. Remember, they lost their first four games before winding up 9-7 and barely out of the postseason.
Not so much love outside of Arrowhead Stadium is being tossed at the Chiefs, so a road win against the presumptive AFC West favorite would provide a massive boost. Coach Andy Reid has a way of winning with most any level of talent — at least in the regular season.
Dallas at Carolina
The big questions in Big D:
—How much will having Zeke Elliott in the backfield all season make a difference?
—Can Dak Prescott replicate his great rookie year with Elliott behind him?
—Who will catch the ball with Jason Witten and Dez Bryant gone?
—Other than a solid pass rush, what does Dallas have on defense?
There are fewer queries in Carolina, though repeating 11-5 in the NFC South won’t likely get a division crown. Watch for RB Christian McCaffrey to truly break out.
Seattle at Denver
Yeah, the teams that fought it out for the 2013 NFL crown now have that also-ran look. Roster makeovers are greatly to blame.
Seattle’s once-masterful defense is in rebuild mode, while other than the superb Russell Wilson throwing to the superb Doug Baldwin, it’s hard to find much on offense to get excited about.
Denver brought in Case Keenum after he quarterbacked Minnesota to the NFC championship game in his first real shot at being the starter. It’s the Orange Crush defense, however, that will need to sway games for the Broncos.
Buffalo at Baltimore
Sorry, but we’ll finish with more quarterback stuff.
This could have been a glimpse of two April first-rounders, Buffalo’s Josh Allen against Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson. Both will ride the bench, though, and at least in the Bills’ case it’s understandable. Coach Sean McDermott probably didn’t want Allen making a debut against the Ravens’ aggressive and powerful defense.
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