No NFL 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 Pittsburgh Steelers, on Sunday.
It’s not fair to fully judge Cleveland’s progress in its opening match. It is tempting, though, considering how the squad 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. They’re 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, 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.”
Meanwhile, quarterbacks get too much attention these days, but the San Francisco 49ers’ visit to the Minnesota Vikings 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 quarterback 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.
A key returnee is quarterback Andrew Luck for the Indianapolis Colts, who welcome the Cincinnati Bengals. A shoulder injury that some claim was misdiagnosed, others say was mishandled, sidelined Luck for all of 2017. When healthy, he is elite, although the squad 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.
The Houston Texans at New England could be a highly revealing matchup for the first round.
Like so many teams, the Texans are hoping to stay away from the injury bug that ruined them last season. Getting back JJ 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 of the NFL.
Mike Vrabel won three Super Bowls as a linebacker and sometime touchdown-catching receiver. He’s taken over a Tennessee 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 running back Derrick Henry to be the workhorse on offense and corner back Malcolm Butler trying to show he deserved to play for the Patriots in their Super Bowl loss to Philadelphia.
They go to the Miami Dolphins, whose 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.