The world has changed just a bit since the last NFL regular-season Sunday. It was Dec. 29, 2019, and the NFL was looking forward to a postseason that would deliver a Super Bowl victory to the Kansas City Chiefs. Eight months later, the NFL has returned amid a once-in-a-century coronavirus pandemic and a renewed push for social justice in the country.
We chronicled the highlights of the pregame, in-game and postgame action below for the early and late afternoon slates.
A rough start in Tampa Bay
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were doomed last season by a quarterback who couldn't stop committing turnovers. They bid farewell to Jameis Winston, who signed with the New Orleans Saints, and replaced him with Tom Brady. Can you guess what happened when the two teams met Sunday at the Superdome? Brady threw two interceptions, including one that Saints cornerback Janoris Jenkins returned for a touchdown, in a 34-23 loss to the Saints.
Brady did stake the Buccaneers to an early 7-0 lead, courtesy of a one-yard touchdown run, and eventually threw two scoring passes. But he connected with tight end Rob Gronkowski only twice, for 11 yards, and the Buccaneers never regained the lead after Alvin Kamara's 6-yard scoring run early in the second quarter.
Of all the likely NFC contenders, the Buccaneers have perhaps the most potential to improve over time. Brady, Gronkowski and their new teammates are still growing accustomed to one another. But who knows? In what is expected to be a highly competitive NFC South, the Saints have staked themselves to the early advantage.
Welcome to Cincinnati, Joe Burrow
And welcome to a new era, Los Angeles Chargers! Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2020 draft, had his Cincinnati Bengals in position to win or at least tie in regulation. But then he watched as officials nullified a potential winning touchdown pass to receiver A.J. Green, who was called for offensive pass interference. And then Bengals kicker Randy Bullock was wide right on a 31-yard field goal that would have sent the game into overtime.
The Chargers, who have made a habit of losing close games in the fourth quarter in recent years, held on for a 16-13 victory.
Burrow, you speak for all of us ...
Joe Burrow marched the Bengals down to the red zone for a game-tying field goal ...— ESPN (@espn) September 13, 2020
... then his kicker missed the field goal. pic.twitter.com/Emgat7KQT3
A game plan mask?
We should have known that in the age of COVID-19, masks and face coverings would be quickly assimilated into NFL fashion. An early Week 1 favorite was that of Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel, who had this message on his face mask while traveling to Denver for Monday night's game against the Broncos: "Please Give the Ball to Derrick Henry."
Mask Up. Titan Up. 😷 pic.twitter.com/c8zwYQUmfi— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) September 13, 2020
It's unlikely that Vrabel or Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith would have forgotten about running back Henry, who led the NFL with 1,540 yard and 16 rushing touchdowns last season. And the Broncos don't need a reminder of whom they should keep track of Monday night. But in case any of you were wondering ...
A weird flex from Patricia
The Detroit Lions held fourth-quarter leads in six of their losses last season. It happened once again Sunday at Ford Field, where the Chicago Bears scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns to overcome a 17-point deficit and win 27-23.
Afterward, ESPN reporter Michael Rothstein asked Lions coach Matt Patricia a tough but fair question: Does something different need to happen in the fourth quarter from a coaching perspective? Patricia's first instinct, it appears, was to remind the Detroit-area media that he was the Patriots defensive coordinator when Malcolm Butler intercepted Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in the end zone to preserve a victory in Super Bowl XLIX. Patricia didn't mention the play specifically but said: "I think I've got one of the biggest plays in the fourth quarter in the history of the NFL where I think I did a pretty good job. So I don't think it's that."
Since people are asking, here is the exact question & answer from the Matt Patricia coaching question. pic.twitter.com/GYyYKVCIoP— Michael Rothstein (@mikerothstein) September 13, 2020
Patricia went on to say there are "no excuses" and that "we have to do a better job." But if Patricia wants credit for a play that went well in the fourth quarter, shouldn't he also take the blame for a play or plays that went poorly in the fourth quarter? Is coaching ever more important in a game than in the fourth quarter where the score is close?
The Lions are talented, and they could go on to have a strong season. But from an accountability and logic perspective, this wasn't a good start from their head coach.
Rookies showing up
Joe Burrow threw 60 touchdown passes in his final collegiate season at LSU. Naturally, his first NFL touchdown came on the ground (he ran for five last year).
Burrow took off on a delayed quarterback draw, patiently waited for blocking and then dashed 23 yards for a touchdown. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he hit a max speed of 14.87 miles per hour on the run.
Burrow was one of several rookies to score during Sunday's action. That list included Baltimore Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins, Detroit Lions running back D'Andre Swift, Buffalo Bills running back Zack Moss and Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Laviska Shenault Jr.
New uniforms in Week 1
You can say one thing about the Los Angeles Chargers: They always look good.
The Chargers debuted their updated uniforms Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati. They featured bright yellow pants and powder blue socks with white jerseys and helmets. There has never been a time in AFL or NFL history when the Chargers' uniforms could be confused for any other team's.
🚨 NOT A PHOTOSHOP 🚨 pic.twitter.com/Vrb7MkkNXC— Los Angeles Chargers (@Chargers) September 13, 2020
An exciting opening window of games
The NFL's early games had some incredible fourth-quarter drama. Here are some of the highlights:
Cam Newton had a very Cam Newton debut as the New England Patriots' starting quarterback. He led the Pats with 15 rushing attempts and 75 yards, and he scored two touchdowns in a 21-11 victory over the Miami Dolphins. We should all be disabused of the notion that the Patriots would be shy about shifting to an offense based around their new quarterback's running ability.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, accused of tanking by some and of fielding a semi-competitive team by all, upset the Indianapolis Colts, 27-20. Perhaps it was the handful of fans the Jaguars allowed into their home stadium. Or, more likely, it was two interceptions of new Colts quarterback Philip Rivers that put the Jaguars over the top. The Jaguars' Gardner Minshew, meanwhile, completed all but one of his 20 passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns.
Trailing 17-0 in the second quarter at home, the Washington Football Team stormed back to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-17. Not to take anything away from Washington's effort, but Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz played dreadfully after taking the early lead. He threw two interceptions, fumbled twice -- losing once -- and took eight sacks. It also didn't help that the Eagles were playing without right tackle Lane Johnson, and then lost replacement starter Jack Driscoll to injury.
In a wild game at Ford Field, Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky threw three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to lead his team back from a 23-6 deficit. The Bears beat the Detroit Lions 27-23, but it wouldn't have happened if the Lions hadn't, well, Lioned. Detroit rookie running back D'Andre Swift dropped what would have been the winning touchdown pass with six seconds remaining.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a strong response to the team's decision to begin the process of replacing him. Rodgers shredded the Minnesota Vikings defense for 364 passing yards and four touchdowns. The Packers gained more than 500 total yards.
A first look at Brady in Tampa Bay
It's really happening. Tom Brady is going to start for an NFL team other than the New England Patriots. Here's what he looked like this afternoon while warming up for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are set to kick off against the New Orleans Saints.
LFG ‼️ pic.twitter.com/P9tDN4jbhr— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) September 13, 2020
Crowd noise issues
To avoid the awkward quiet of empty stadiums, the NFL worked with NFL Films to curate crowd noise for all 32 home fields. The NFL Films audio crew developed five levels of fan intensity for an on-site operator to mix into the television broadcast, based on the game situation.
The noise itself sounded relatively authentic, but the approach will take some getting used to. In the early Week 1 games, at least, there were moments when the volume of the crowd noise made it difficult to hear the game announcers. That was likely the result of an easily-correctable sound mixing issue.
One other problem will be more difficult to address: the lack of deeply negative reactions to poor play by the home team. The NFL did not provide its audio operators with a "booing" track. There are "a palette of negative reactions," according to NFL vice president of broadcasting Onnie Bose. But from what could be heard Sunday, those reactions were very mild and akin to the noise a crowd makes when officials throw flags on two consecutive plays.
This is not necessarily to advocate for massively negative reactions in Week 1. But in Minnesota, for instance, you could have expected the Vikings to be booed off the field when trailing the Green Bay Packers by 12 points at halftime. That would have been an authentic reaction. We'll see if the NFL moves closer in that direction as the season progresses.
Evans is a go
Tom Brady will have his best wide receiver Sunday, after all.
Mike Evans, listed as doubtful Friday to play against the New Orleans Saints, is active for the game. He had been upgraded to questionable on Saturday. Brady's targets Sunday will be quite different in depth and quality than he enjoyed in his final season with the New England Patriots. In addition to Evans, he'll have fellow receiver Chris Godwin along with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate.
It wasn't too long ago that some of us were questioning whether Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had seen better days as an NFL starter. At some level, his team must have wondered the same thing. In April, the Packers traded up to select quarterback Jordan Love with the No. 26 overall pick of the draft.
Rodgers, however, was not ready to go quietly into the night. His Retribution Tour appears to have started Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. He has led a Packers offense that has scored 22 points and held the ball for 22 minutes, 45 seconds of the first half against the Minnesota Vikings. Along the way, Rodgers has thrown two pinpoint touchdown passes of 24 yards to Davante Adams and 45 yards to Marquez Valdes-Scantling just before halftime. Overall, Rodgers has completed 19 of 28 passes for 201 yards.
He has insisted he was surprised, not angry, when the Packers drafted Love. However he feels about it, his high-level play has been obvious in the first half of Week 1.
Empty stadiums around the league
Only five NFL teams are allowing fans into their home stadiums at the moment, and only one -- the Jacksonville Jaguars -- have a Sunday home game in Week 1. The rest of the teams are using some combination of options provided by the NFL.
Some are placing cardboard cutouts in the stands. In Detroit, Fox Sports is experimenting with superimposing virtual fans on their broadcast.
Here are some empty-stadium scenes from around the league.
📍 Levi's Stadium pic.twitter.com/DuomHF9phG— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) September 13, 2020
Poe's got the best view in the house‼️ pic.twitter.com/bLUhP91hHq— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) September 13, 2020
Here's one you don't see every day. (But more often than you might realize.) Detroit Lions linebacker Jamie Collins looked like he wanted to show referee Alex Kemp how a Chicago Bears player had illegally lowered his helmet and made contact with him. In so doing, Collins gently head-butted Kemp's chest. After stumbling backward, Kemp threw his flag and ultimately ejected Collins for making contact with an official.
Those with long memories might not be surprised. When he was a side judge in 2016, Kemp penalized Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas for hugging him after a play. The NFL has been far more liberal than it used to be about ejecting players for reasons of sportsmanship or otherwise. This ejection, however, seemed a bit too aggressive for the situation.
Old faces in new places
The cancellation of the NFL preseason means that Week 1 brought us our first glimpse of players in new uniforms. Most notable was New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton, who scored his team's first touchdown on a four-yard run in the second quarter. Meanwhile, new Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers completed 13 of his first 16 passes -- but also threw an early interception -- in his team's matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
TEDDY TWO GLOVES 🧤 pic.twitter.com/NQsJd7MLhj— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) September 13, 2020
Social justice protests
Six NFL teams remained in the locker room Sunday during the singing of the national anthem, a stark visual reminder of the league's pivot toward social justice issues. Elsewhere, many players and some coaches kneeled, sat on the bench and or raised their fists when on the field for the anthem.
For Week 1, the league directed every home team to play two songs during the pregame: "Lift Ev'ry Voice And Sing" and "The Star Spangled Banner." The league does not require teams to be on the field during the anthem presentation, nor does it prohibit kneeling. Of the 18 teams that kicked off at 1 p.m. ET, these six were in the locker room for "The Star Spangled Banner": Green Bay Packers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets.
Promoting social justice in warm-ups
With the blessing and encouragement of the NFL, players and coaches are promoting messages of social justice during pregame warm-ups. Here's Alex Smith, the veteran backup quarterback of the Washington Football Team. (Also, how about Alex Smith -- who suffered deep complications from the compound leg fracture he suffered in 2018 -- being on the field for warm-ups of any game?)
Some of the messages are more subtle. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick will wear a visor with a "Fritz Pollard" patch. Pollard was the first Black head coach in NFL history.
The NFL instructed every home team this week to emblazon the messages "End Racism" in one end zone and "It Takes All of Us" in the other.
ESPN has a separate page that highlights the sartorial choices of more players and coaches as they arrived at Week 1. Here, Patriots quarterback Cam Newton tries to brighten everyone's day.
Sunshine isn't the only thing brightening things up today at Gillette Stadium (via IconicSaga on Instagram). pic.twitter.com/OkrnAZbwPq— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) September 13, 2020
Amid a season of protocol and policy changes, one part of the NFL's pregame rhythm will remain constant. Ninety minutes before kickoff, each team must release its list of inactive players for the game. But still, there is a change in how the list will be comprised. In 2020, teams will have the option to carry 48 active players, instead of the usual 46, as long as the team includes at least eight offensive linemen among the active group.
Sunday's list of inactives for the early games includes Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson, who has an ankle injury that will prevent him from helping to protect quarterback Carson Wentz from a Washington Football Team pass rush that includes rookie Chase Young. Rookie Jack Driscoll will start in Johnson's place.
Other early game inactives include:
Eagles running back Miles Sanders (hamstring).
What to watch for
Nine games will kick off at 1 p.m. ET. Here is what to look out for:
Cam Newton will make his debut as the New England Patriots' new starting quarterback, at home against the Miami Dolphins. All eyes will be on Newton, but for different reasons. Some want to know whether he has finally returned to health after a broken foot cost him his job with the Carolina Panthers last season. Others want to know what Patriots coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have cooked up for Newton, a player with a far different skill set than predecessor Tom Brady.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are the only home team who will host fans Sunday. The NFL gave teams the option to have fans at games if state and local governments allowed it. The Jaguars will have a reduced capacity of about 17,000 at TIAA Bank Field for their matchup against the Indianapolis Colts. The Detroit Lions, meanwhile, will work with Fox Sports to superimpose virtual fans onto the broadcast of their game against the Chicago Bears.
The Philadelphia Eagles will visit FedEx Field for the first time since the stadium's home team dropped its nickname and became known, for this season anyway, as the Washington Football Team. Washington head coach Ron Rivera is one of three new coaches who will make their debuts in the early games, along with Matt Rhule (Panthers) and Kevin Stefanski (Cleveland Browns).