The biggest takeaway from Week 1 is not the Seattle Seahawks’ dominance to start their title defense or the Dallas Cowboys’ possible spiral downward into oblivion or even that upsets by the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills reveal how little we know about a regular season before it even begins.
It’s this: The football gods are real.
Don’t believe in them? Ask D.J. Swearinger and the Houston Texans’ safety will tell you about how they tripped Robert Griffin III. Yes, you read that right. Swearinger believes Griffin didn’t get his feet tangled with those of center Kory Lichtensteiger by accident. Karma made it happen. And karma made the football pop out for a fumble as Griffin was trying to hand it to Alfred Morris. And karma directed the ball into the arms of J.J. Watt.
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At least that’s how Swearinger saw it because, one play prior to that turnover, he was flagged for one of the most questionable roughing-the-passer calls in NFL history. The penalty, which was called because Swearinger supposedly led with his helmet, gave the Redskins first-and-goal from the 7-yard line and a chance to tie the game. One snap later, the Texans had the ball and a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
"Like I always say, the ball don’t lie," Swearinger told FOX Sports by phone a few hours after the Texans wrapped up a 17-6 victory, their first win in 357 days. "I thought it was a bad call. You put it on the refs, and they make a bad call, and the next play happened for a reason because of that call. But it is what it is, and we have to deal with it. If they make a call, we have to play the next play and we did a great job of playing the next play and J.J. made a big play."
Swearinger has been the target of criticism because of a few (legal) hits he’s made that have knocked players out of action. He’s the one who went low on former Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller last preseason, resulting in a knee injury that still has Keller on the free-agent market. He’s also the one who gave Wes Welker a concussion this preseason with a hit Peyton Manning didn’t appreciate very much. Swearinger said his reputation might have played into the call from the officials.
But Swearinger is also a pretty darned good player, as he showed on Sunday with his first career sack and a huge forced fumble late in the game. That turnover had nothing to do with karma. It was pure hustle.
Swearinger and his fellow defensive backs got confused because the Redskins showed a different formation than the Texans expected. Tight end Niles Paul was Swearinger’s responsibility, and by the time Swearinger realized that was the case, Paul was streaking past him. Paul had a 48-yard gain to the Texans’ 9-yard line before Swearinger caught him, lunged and knocked the ball out.
What seemed like a touchdown to set up a game-tying two-point conversion was nothing more than another key turnover for Houston.
"I finished the play off," Swearinger said. "I knew he was going to have the ball out because he thought he was gone. My thought was to go for the strip. I was just trying to lay out and go for it. I think it was the key play in the game. We turned it around. They were going into scoring range, and we turned it around."
They’ve also turned around their losing streak, thanks to some hustle, some outstanding play from guys like Swearinger, Watt and DeAndre Hopkins (76-yard touchdown) and even some help from the football gods.
"It feels great. Coach O.B. (Bill O’Brien) said, ‘This is what it feels like to win,’" Swearinger said. "It was big, a big win for us, and we’re just ready to play the Raiders."
A BONUS FOR BRYANT
Matt Bryant’s game check for Sunday was $161,764.71.
That’s not a bad haul, though the Atlanta Falcons kicker apparently could’ve taken home even more.
After hitting a 51-yard field goal to send the game against the New Orleans Saints into overtime and then a 52-yarder to win it less than two minutes into the extra period, Bryant received hugs, handshakes, thanks and one lucrative offer.
"One guy said he’d give me his paycheck," Bryant told FOX Sports, though he declined to name the player. "But no. It’s my job. I just have to go out there and do the best I can with it."
Bryant has done just fine. He now has 17 game-winning field goals in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter or in overtime, which is the second-most among active kickers (Adam Vinatieri, 24). Despite this being Bryant’s 13th NFL season, Sunday marked the first time he’s had multiple field goals of 50-plus yards in the same game, and both of them were huge kicks.
Like most kickers, Bryant said he tries to approach every kick the same way mentally and physically, whether it’s an extra point or a long kick to tie or win a game.
"I heard a great quote one time that pressure is what you feel when you’re not prepared," he said. "I have to remind myself I’ve been preparing for this since I was 7 years old, so I just have to go out there and do it again."
He did just that – twice – on kicks that were from nearly the identical spot on the field.
"The 51 wasn’t directly on the hash, but it was right there with it," he said, "so you remind yourself, ‘You know what, you just made this. Go ahead and make it again. Just repeat your motions, repeat your kick and you’ll be good.’"
Bryant was good. And so were the Falcons. After a shockingly subpar season, they came back three times on Sunday on the strength of Matt Ryan’s franchise-record 448 yards. This season certainly has begun in more promising fashion.
THE BILLS BELIEVE
In talking to Bills officials during training camp, it was clear they believed the success of their team hinged on EJ Manuel.
OK, so the team is relying on its quarterback. Duh, right? Well, usually that means a club needs its quarterback to have a huge season, to read everything quickly, to spread the ball around, to carry the offense and do everything the cornerstone of a franchise is supposed to do.
But that’s not the case with Manuel. The Bills came into this season not expecting him to do too much. They wanted him to play smart and to just make a few key throws each week while the running game carries the load for the offense. That’s precisely what happened in Sunday’s stunning overtime win over the Chicago Bears when Manuel completed 16 of 22 passes for 173 yards while C.J. Spiller, Anthony Dixon and Fred Jackson combined for 174 yards on the ground.
Manuel gave a speech to the team on Saturday night, though Jackson said there were multiple veterans who talked all week about the need to block out talk of Manuel’s short leash, an alleged rift between coach Doug Marrone and the front office and the impending sale of the team.
"We can’t listen to the outside noise. The only guys we need to rely on are the ones in this locker room, and that’s what we tried to focus on," Jackson said. "It was something we were all aware of. It was something we all kind of just put to bed and said we can’t focus on that."
Credit Jackson, who has spent seven losing seasons in Buffalo, with the big play of the game – a 38-yard run off the left side that ended with a brutal stiff arm of Bears safety Chris Conte. It was arguably the best stiff arm of Week 1, with the Baltimore Ravens’ Steve Smith fending off Cincinnati Bengals corner Adam Jones entering the conversation as well.
"You see the safety and you figure out what you can do to get past him," Jackson said matter-of-factly. "He came in high and I knew I had the chance to stiff arm him and I was able to make the play."
For one week, they’re believing in Buffalo. And they’re believing in their quarterback, who they say has been more comfortable stepping into a leadership role since he returned to work in the spring.
"I’ve always believed in him," Jackson said. "He’s a guy that wants and relishes that role. He shows up every day and prepares hard. Anytime you get a guy like that as your quarterback, you’re going to follow him and do whatever you can to succeed."
FIVE QUICK THOUGHTS
1. The play that turned the Philadelphia Eagles’ comeback victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday was a testament to how vital tempo is these days. As soon as Eagles center Jason Kelce realized Darren Sproles had come up a yard short on a reception on third-and-9, he raced back to the line and alerted his teammates to line up. Kelce knows who his coach is. He and the rest of the offense surely knew Chip Kelly wouldn’t even blink when faced with the decision of whether or not to go for it. Kelly barked for a quick snap and got it. It was a simple draw up the middle, and Sproles raced 49 yards for a touchdown against a rattled Jaguars defense. It was the start of 34 unanswered points in the second half for Philly. That one play and the awareness of everyone involved to run it was the difference in a game the Jaguars controlled for the first two quarters.
2. Shaun Hill didn’t look pleased when St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher pulled him from the game with an apparent calf injury. Hill also didn’t sound pleased after the game when he deferred all questions about his absence to Fisher. The Rams threw all of their support behind Hill after Sam Bradford was lost for the season with a torn ACL, though that didn’t seem to last very long. At this point, Hill provides the best shot at contending this year. If there’s any friction after Sunday, it needs to be neutralized immediately. Trading for a quarterback right now (Mark Sanchez would be the obvious candidate) just doesn’t seem feasible.
3. Bill Belichick’s methods are certainly unique, but whatever he knew or thought before the New England Patriots traded guard Logan Mankins is a mystery. OK so the Patriots wanted Mankins to take a pay cut. But when he resisted, the Patriots should’ve just considered their bluff to have been called. To trade away arguably one of the top guards in the game (even if his play has slipped a bit) and then go with a rotation at offensive line the way the Pats did on Sunday smacks of not having a plan.
4. Elsewhere in moves that were head scratchers when they first happened and only seem more baffling after Week 1, how could the Cowboys let DeMarcus Ware walk? Ware was credited with 1 1/2 sacks of the Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck in the Denver Broncos’ win on Sunday night and seems just as likely to create havoc on the edges for offenses this year as he has in the past. If the Broncos can get Von Miller going and have those two coming off either edge, it could be as devastating an attack as, well, as Peyton Manning faced from the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl seven months ago.
5. This spring, Pittsburgh Steelers GM Kevin Colbert told me in an interview the team’s roster was relying upon the growth of the team’s recent draft picks. Those players, as opposed to big-time free agent acquisitions, would determine the success of the team this season. On Sunday, the Steelers got solid performances from running back LeVeon Bell (197 total yards and a touchdown) and three defensive players who had sacks in Jarvis Jones, Jason Worilds and Cameron Heyward. Cornerback Cortez Allen, who received a new five-year contract on Saturday, also played a nice game. If these performances continue, and the Steelers get that growth from players who hadn’t yet reached their potential coming into the season, Colbert’s plan will work to perfection.
TEN EVEN QUICKER THOUGHTS
Derek Carr: It wasn’t the prettiest of NFL debuts, but it wasn’t even close to the ugliest, either. That’s a tough defense he faced, and he didn’t melt under pressure.
Allen Hurns: The Jaguars’ undrafted wide receiver had 14 catches for 232 yards and a touchdown in the preseason. He had four receptions for 110 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday’s loss to the Eagles. Word out of Jacksonville is his early success isn’t a fluke.
Dashon Goldson: Chances the Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety slept Sunday night after dropping an interception that would’ve set up a game-tying field goal or game-winning touchdown?
Jamaal Charles: Only seven touches for the guy to whom the Kansas City Chiefs gave a raise. Doesn’t add up.
Derek Anderson: You want your backup quarterback to steal a game here or there. He did that Sunday for the Carolina Panthers. Kudos to him for an outstanding fake on his touchdown pass to Greg Olsen that froze all three Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebackers.
Cowboys defense: A second-half shutout. Something to build on? Eh.
Tyler Eifert: The dislocated elbow suffered by the Cincinnati Bengals tight end looked gruesome, but the picture that truly matters is the MRI that’s coming. The ligament damage will determine the length of his recovery.
Sports Authority Field: Here’s hoping the Broncos get the playing surface fixed soon. Players were sliding all over the place, and the Colts’ Reggie Wayne having a scary slip in the third quarter should’ve been enough for the Broncos to realize their own players are at risk as well.
Leg pads: The league made a big deal before last season about how any player who wasn’t wearing pads and didn’t have his knees covered would be pulled from the game until he complied. There were plenty of players who were clear violators on Sunday yet they were allowed to stay in, so that’s obviously not a point of emphasis anymore.
Seahawks CBs: That’s an important position for them, and they’ve lost a few to injuries. One player they could add soon is veteran Terrell Thomas, who was with them in camp.