On Thursday night, the Philadelphia Eagles took the first step in defense of their Super Bowl championship by defeating the Atlanta Falcons, one of their top challengers in the NFC this season. And Nick Foles didn’t look too bad at quarterback, soothing the souls of Eagles fans who fear the Super Bowl MVP may regress during the extended period – perhaps six weeks – he will replace Carson Wentz.
Now the Eagles will sit back this weekend and watch the NFL’s other teams make their first statements in the 2018 season.
And here are five storylines Timebreaker.com suggests you keep your eye on as we move along through the year.
Do The Patriots Still Have What It Takes?
Until there is reason to believe otherwise, every NFL season will begin with the assumption that the New England Patriots are the team to beat in the AFC.
Since 2001, the Patriots have won 15 division championships, 10 conference championships and five Super Bowls.
They still have Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. And if the Patriots have proven anything throughout the Belichick era, it’s that they are smart enough, certainly instinctive enough, to find the right players to fill the gaps created when players leave or are cast aside.
The most important factors to consider before dismissing the Patriots in 2018 is the relative weakness of the AFC East (another division title), the lack of another apparent AFC powerhouse (the Steelers, Chiefs, Ravens and Texans can’t beat them when it counts) and revenge for last year’s Super Bowl loss.
Gruden and the Raiders
Jon Gruden’s return to Oakland was highly celebrated by a franchise that appears to be running out of time, certainly in terms of how long it will stay at its run-down shell of a stadium before showing up in Las Vegas in 2020.
Gruden will make $100 million over the next 10 years and all he has to do is take the Raiders back to the playoffs for just the second time since 2002 when they lost the Super Bowl to a Tampa Bay team Gruden coached.
Gruden has a big job. Before last season, owner Mark Davis gave quarterback Derek Carr a five-year, $125 million extension. But Carr injured his back in Week 4 and could not take the Raiders to the playoffs for a second straight time because of an under-performing defense. After winning their first two games, Oakland lost four straight and six of their last eight, eventually ending 6-10.
The famous Gruden scowl may be permanently affixed to his face.
The Return of Andrew Luck
The first major disappointment of the 2018 season in Indianapolis came when New England’s offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, reneged in the last minute on his agreement to become its next coach. The Colts eventually countered with Eagles’ offensive coordinator Frank Reich.
But those memories will quickly fade if Luck, one of NFL’s top quarterbacks before missing the 2017 season with a shoulder injury, can return to form. Before the 2016 season, the Colts gave Luck a six-year, $140 million deal [$87 million guaranteed] and he responded by throwing for 4,240 yards and 31 touchdowns with a career-high 63.5 completion percentage.
But the team he returns to is vastly different – only 14 players remain from the 2016 roster. The Colts hope everything else stays the same.
How Many Cousins Does It Take To Win A Super Bowl
There is absolutely no doubt that no player in the NFL will have more pressure on them this season than Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. Remember, the Vikings were good enough with Case Keenum at quarterback to reach the NFC Championship Game before hitting the ditch in a 38-7 loss to the Eagles.
Cousins signed a three-year, $84 million deal with the Vikings after the Washington Redskins decided to move in a new direction. Here’s why: Cousins threw for over 4,000 yards for the third straight season (4,093) along with 27 touchdowns. But the Redskins were only 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the second straight season, the fourth over the last five.
So the Redskins traded for Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith and gave him $94 million over four years instead of re-investing in Cousins.
Do you remember when the Vikings traded five players and six draft picks to Dallas in 1989 for Herschel Walker? Draft picks the Cowboys turned into players like Emmitt Smith, Russell Maryland and Darren Woodson? Do you remember that Walker played only two years for the Vikings and never gained over 1,000 yards?
This Cousins deal could be much worse.
OBJ An MVP?
The New York Giants were historically bad in 2017. Their 3-13 record was their worst since the introduction of the 16-game schedule. And now they are in transition with a new coach [Pat Shurmur] and a new general manager [Dave Gettlemen].
But there is reason to believe the most important role on the 2018 team will be played by Odell Beckham, Jr., who on August 27 signed a five-year, $95 million contract extension with $41 million fully guaranteed with a total of $65 million in guarantees.
The Giants really did not want to give him that money. He has been badly behaved for most of his four-year career, petulant, immature and irresponsible. He has also been injured, missing the last 11 games in 2017 with a fractured ankle.
Still, there may be no greater offensive playmaker in the NFL. Beckham made at least 90 catches, gained 1,300 yards and scored 10 touchdowns in each of his first three professional seasons, becoming the quickest [30 games] to 200 receptions and 3,000 yards in NFL history.
So they paid the man. Now the Giants pray he’s mature enough to appreciate it and lead them back to prominence.