Yesterday’s NFL slate was full of surprises. The Bills are a complete mess after making a return to the playoffs only a year ago, Ryan Fitzmagic shocked the Saints and the entire league with an MVP performance and Adrian Peterson made a triumphant return to the NFL for the Redskins. However, the biggest surprise of NFL Sunday came from perennial bottom dwellers, the Cleveland Browns and the Chicago Bears who both got off to strong starts to their respective seasons. Okay, I know what you’re thinking, one lost and one tied but while the results weren’t there, there’s plenty of reason for optimism for both of these tortured franchises, beginning with the Cleveland Browns.
Coming off the worst two season stretch in NFL history that saw them accumulate a 1-31 record, this game had big implications for a franchise that had lost it’s last 13 openers. New players littered the field for the Browns who’re coming off one of the greatest Hard Knocks performances ever, led by new signal caller Tyrod Taylor who was acquired from Buffalo this offseason.
While he started slow, Taylor showed exactly why John Dorsey surrendered a third round pick for the veteran, as he finished with 197 yards and a touchdown through the air while also leading the Browns in rushing with 77 yards on eight carries that was highlighted by a gutsy 24-yard touchdown run. Taylor proved he belongs as the starter for now, even with rookie Baker Mayfield lurking, but outside of Tyrod, there were plenty of other bright spots.
The Browns defense, led by Hard Knocks fan favorite defensive coordinator Gregg Williams caused all sorts of problems for Ben Roethlisberger as he coughed up two fumbles and threw three interceptions over the course of the game. Standouts included second-year phenom Myles Garrett who picked up two sacks and five solo tackles as well as new blue-chip cornerback Denzel Ward who had quite the debut with six tackles and two first-half interceptions. And despite allowing Steelers shoe-in running back James Connor to run wild for 135 yards and two touchdowns, the Browns can take a lot from this defensive performance and build upon it as they head to face another explosive offense in New Orleans next week.
Finally, you have to commend the grit this team showed in such a tough game. There were countless moments you expected them to “Browns” it up and lose the game, and despite kicker Zane Gonzalez having his potential game-winning field goal blocked as the overtime period expired you have to credit the team for even being in that situation. I’m not gonna jump the gun, but I think this game proved to be a changing of the guard in Cleveland. They showed just how talented and deadly this young roster can be if put to proper use and funny enough this is their best start since 2004. There’s an obvious learning curve that this team will go through this season, but yesterday was the first test of that ringer and the Cleveland Browns came out with flying colors, as well as a 21-21 tie in hand.
Now on to the Chicago Bears. Listen, I know they lost in one of the biggest chokes in recent NFL history, but everything prior to the late fourth quarter has to excite the hell out of Bears fans. Matt Nagy, in his head coaching debut was seemingly pushing all the right buttons, making Mitch Trubisky look like a seasoned pro as they marched down the field on their first drive to take an easy 7-0 lead. Their two running back attack with Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen was unstoppable for most of the game as both backs combined through the air for 41 yards and 107 yards on the ground as they ripped up the vulnerable Packers defense over four quarters. Finally, Trubisky’s new number one wide receiver Allen Robinson showcased his potential as he led the team in receiving with 61 yards and showcased his downfield potential when he reached over the back of Packers cornerback Kevin King for a 33-yard completion on the Bears first drive.
We also need to discuss the Bears defense, and by defense I mean Khalil Mack. The new addition from the Oakland Raiders showed he could be worth as many as 10 first round picks with the level of play he showed last night at Lambeau Field. Mack recorded two sacks, including an emphatic strip sack of Packers backup Deshone Kizer just as they had entered the Red Zone as Mack proved he was worth every penny to the Bears, their fans, and former head coach Jon Gruden especially. However, his best play, one of the best I’ve ever seen from a defensive linemen was a 27-yard interception return for a touchdown to put the Bears up 20-0, to silent dismay of Lambeau Field. The rest of the defense showed immense promise, as new rookie Roquan Smith recorded a sack on his first play from scrimmage, Akiem Hicks picked up two tackles for loss that included a sack on Aaron Rodgers despite being triple-teamed and last year’s breakout safety Adrian Amos continued his strong play with six solo tackles while keeping the Packer’s rushing attack in check.
These highlights seem like silver linings with what happened in the fourth quarter, it’s sad to say but it’s true, but now the hard part comes. The Bears now need to use this adversity and move past it if they want to take the next step and act on this promise they showcased last night. This will definitely be difficult as nothing after blowing a 20-point lead is, but if I’m a betting man, I’d say the Monsters of the Midway are working their way back to the big time.