Tennyson said "’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all," which means he’d have probably thought losing a 23-21 nailbiter (like the Cardinals did on Sunday night) is preferable to losing by two touchdowns in a game that was never close. ‘Tis better to have competed and lost than never have competed at all. Nonsense. Plenty of teams with wins and (competitive) losses had the annual Week 1 tease over the past few days. Maybe it was a decent game against a bad team. Maybe it was one of those days where everything came together (for you) or nothing came together (for your opponent). Either way, expectations and excitement are sky high. Pittsburgh? You deserve to be. Oakland? Go crazy. The following list of seven teams? Check yo’self.
Now, this list isn’t a list of teams that should panic. The worst team of Week 1 — the Los Angeles Rams — doesn’t appear on the list because any rational fan is already in the mourning stage. Same goes for the Redskins, whose fans will likely have ping-ponging hopes all year, as per usual. No, this list is for teams that probably aren’t very good; they just don’t know it yet … but will soon find out.
(USA TODAY Sports Images
Article continues below ...
1. Dallas Cowboys
This is a matter of relativity. The Cowboys are far from the worst-off team in the NFL (or the NFC, or, for that matter, the NFC East). But Big D tops our list because they’re operating under a delusion they’re for real — when, in fact, they just lost a home game to the division favorites (their sixth straight loss at home) and are starting two rookies at key positions with a defense that’s nothing particularly special.
It was a tough home loss to the Giants on Sunday but given the closeness and the fact that Terrance Williams staying in bounds robbed the team of a (long shot) chance of victory, it was considered one of those classic moral victories. ("Maybe we’re for real! The ship won’t sink with Romo gone!") Rookie QB Dak Prescott looked like a veteran, controlling the huddle, looking off receivers, standing tall in the pocket and exhibiting the most intangible of qualities: poise. It’s the anti-Moneyball take: Prescott just looks like an NFL quarterback.
But 25-45 for 227 yards is hardly cause for celebration. The 5.0 yards-per attempt was the lowest for any NFL quarterback until the Rams-49ers eyesore kicked off on Monday night (both Blaine Gabbert and Case Keenum had a lower number). In a week where the median QB rating was 92.1, Prescott was 29th of the 32 starting quarterbacks with a 69.4. Only one other quarterback had a longest completion that was shorter (Prescott’s long was 21 yards, Cam Newton’s was 18). And the biggest uh-oh was on those long passes. That 21-yard completion was the only one Prescott threw in 10 attempts of 15+ yards. He was 1/10 overall in attempting downfield passes and 3/5 for 16 yards in the red zone. (Oft-ignored two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning had three touchdowns inside the 20.)
(USA TODAY Sports Images)
Throw in Ezekiel Elliott’s 20 carries for 51 yards (2.5 ypa) and the rookie duo’s numbers don’t hold up to even the most liberal scrutiny. And lest you think the offensive line didn’t do its job, Prescott stayed clean (he was one of five NFL QBs not to take a sack), and there were holes for Elliott but he failed to hit them. Alfred Morris was better at following his blockers but whatever speed he once had has abandoned him in his fifth season.
Again, this says nothing about the longterm prospects of the Dallas Cowboys. Prescott should improve and the game will slow down for Elliott, but in terms of right now — in 2016 and a division from which a wild-card team is unlikely to emerge — it might be wise to tamp down the enthusiasm.
(USA TODAY SportsImages)
2. Philadelphia Eagles
Again, right now Philly isn’t the worst team in its own division. But Redskins fans, who may have harbored delusions of grandeur 36 hours ago, were quickly humbled by Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Mike Tomlin and the 30,000 or so Steelers fans at FedEx Field on Monday night. Eagles fans, on the other hand, are having visions of a decade-and-a-half of Carson Wentz standing under center, turning the Eagles into the Bengals of the NFC (the most optimistic Eagles fan can’t yet dream of a Super Bowl victory; as complex as the brain is, it can’t fire enough synapses to even consider that elusive utopia). Wentz also passes the Prescott visual test: He looked like an NFL QB.
But (and this can’t be stated enough) he was playing against the Cleveland Browns — a team that’ll be in the mix for a No. 1 pick, with an offense that had the worst time of possession in the entire league. It would have been bad if Wentz hadn’t defeated Cleveland. And though his numbers were great, he didn’t exactly end the game emphatically. Just when that Cleveland defense should have been getting exhausted and the game was Philly’s to put away, Wentz’s offense punted three straight times in the 3rd and 4th quarters.
So why isn’t Philly at No. 1? They’re 1-0, after all, and the most confident fans are already booking hotel rooms in Canton for 21 years from now. This is a team that’s begging for a reality check. It’s because the Eagles entered the season in rebuilding mode — one game is enough to excite, but not to suddenly assume a rookie quarterback is going to take a flawed team very far. The team has two first-round draft picks next year, so for the Philadelphia Eagles, whatever happens this year is icing on a cake that’s yet to be baked.
3. Miami Dolphins
Another moral victory that will result in two different perspectives on the season to come. If you look at the watered-down, plastic-cupped South Beach mixed drink half-empty, you’d say Miami blew three separate opportunities to upset the NFC playoff staple Seattle Seahawks on the road. If you see it half-full, you’d say Miami blew three separate opportunities to upset the NFC playoff staple Seattle Seahawks on the road. Whatever your view of that cocktail, however, you should be drinking it, then ordering another.
Miami’s best chance of doing anything this year was to get a jump on the Patriots while Tom Brady was out for the first quarter of the season. Instead, Miami, and the rest of the AFC East, got 11 hours into the season before finding themselves in their usual position — staring up at Bill Belichick’s team. When the Pats give an opportunity, you have to take advantage. Miami was close, but you know what they say: Being ever-so-close only counts in horseshoes and Jeff Fisher’s bids to go .500.
4. New Orleans Saints
Stop me if you’ve seen this movie before: The Saints, led by a Drew Brees offense that should easily clear 4,000 passing yards and finish in the top three of the NFL, spends the entire season getting into shootouts thanks to a defense that makes the Colts’ units of Peyton’s heyday seem like the ’85 Bears. Like any season in New Orleans, the difference between 10-6 and 6-10 is going to be a dropped ball, broken tackle or a Mark Ingram game with a 1.3 ypc.
5. New York Jets
The Jets deserve an asterisk because their fans are so beaten down by reality that expectations are always kept at a minimum. Last year’s 10-6 record (missing out on the playoffs thanks to a tiebreaker) gave fans a rare reason to be excited, and that continued Sunday when the team had at least three opportunities to put away perennial playoff contender Cincinnati. What resulted was, other than the lack of grabby Joe Namath and dropping of the ball due to posterior-related collision, the most Jets thing ever. Whatever flicker of hope was sparked during training camp was quickly rubbed out like a chatty mob foot soldier. A last-second field goal loss, a full game behind New England and schedule that leaves them as the only AFC East team not to play Garoppolo. There’s always the Mets.
6. Indianapolis Colts
Any immediate concern about Andrew Luck and his 2015 season — one of the worst in football — was erased when the five-year vet (can you believe it?) was back to the Luck we all know, minus the neckbeard, going 31/49 for 385 yards, 4 TD and 0 INT. And if that wasn’t enough, he struggled early, watching his team get to a quick deficit and then turning around to dominate the second half. This time around, though, Luck’s magic ended a bit too soon as the team’s first lead, which came with 37 seconds remaining, left too much time for the Lions to get into position for the game-winning field goal. Also — shock of shocks — relying on a 33-year-old Frank Gore already looks like it’s backfired.
7. Denver Broncos
Congrats, you knocked Cam Newton in the head like it was an unsanctioned Rocky-Drago fight in the U.S.S.R. You went three-and-out when there was the chance to put the game away. That 1-0 would have been an 0-1 if Graham Gano could make a field goal at altitude like literally every other kicker. Among the teams that started 1-0 last year: Tennessee (finished 3-13 overall), Dallas (4-12), Miami (6-10), San Diego (4-12), San Francisco (5-11) and St. Louis (like you have to ask). Read what you want into Denver’s win, but this has the feel of a game we’ll view as an upset come Halloween, not the baby steps of a quarterback ready to win a division.