*A super finish in the Superdome, and a confident win in the Coliseum. The season-opening "Monday Night Football" doubleheader had it all. *
- Result aside, this was Deshaun Watson's game. The Texans quarterback was battered and bruised by a ferocious Saints defensive front (more on that later), entering the medical tent twice in the first half with an apparent back injury and receiving treatment from a Texans staffer throughout the second half. Despite the hits he took, Watson grew more poised as the game wore on. His connection with DeAndre Hopkins was in midseason form (8 rec, 111 yards, 2 TDs), most notably on Houston's last-ditch drive.
"We knew we weren't out of the game," Hopkins said later of Houston's late six-point deficit. "We knew it was just a couple of plays, especially with a quarterback like Deshaun."
The QB with five fourth-quarter comebacks to his name last season, Watson "drove" the Texans 75 yards in just two plays and 13 seconds to steal the lead with under a minute to go. Houston had not scored since early in the third quarter, but with time running out, Watson uncorked his two best balls of the night to pull the Texans ahead -- a 38-yard strike to Hopkins on the sideline and a picture-perfect deep score to Kenny Stills, whom Houston acquired in a trade just days ago. All this with an unsettled back and an unsettled line. If not for the comeback king on the other sideline, Watson would have been hailed as Monday night's hero. Hell, he still is.
- The Saints keep marching on, doing the same things that took them within a no-call of the Super Bowl. Alvin Kamara, playing his first game without Mark Ingram in New Orleans, was as slippery as ever, racking up 169 total yards on 20 touches. His new backfield mate, Latavius Murray, was used sparingly. Despite the presence of tight end Jared Cook, Michael Thomas was Drew Brees' top target once again (10 rec, 123 yards). Brees, 40 years young, posted the 116th 300-yard passing game of his career, launching just six of his 43 attempts more than 15 yards through the air. The Saints signal-caller saved his best for last, marching New Orleans into field-goal range in three pass plays with 37 seconds on the clock and just one timeout at his disposal. None of the plays went out of bounds, but thanks to two spikes and a timeout with two seconds left, Wil Lutz was afforded the opportunity to knock in his career-long game-winner. It was the game-sealing drive under pressure that one expects from a future first-ballot Hall of Famer in Brees, and a sign that this year in New Orleans might different than the last. This time, Brees and the Saints finished.
- Houston invested heavily in protecting Watson when it sent first-round picks (plural) to Miami for a franchise left tackle in Laremy Tunsil (and Stills). Did the investment pay off in his first week on the job? Depends. Tunsil was as advertised on Watson's blind side, but he couldn't patch wounds along an offensive line without its starting left guard and playing for the very first time in a game, preseason or regular season. Watson was under furious pressure all night, often from up the middle, and took six sacks and 11 QB hits, escaping even more due to his preternatural elusiveness. Houston led the league in sacks allowed last season with 62. One game into 2019, the Texans are well on the way to exceeding that number. With time and practice will come better communication along the refurbished front, but that was not the case on Monday evening.
- Have you guys seen J.J. Watt? I could've sworn Jadeveon Clowney was the one who was no longer on the Texans. In his first game without Clowney across from him on Houston's defensive line, Watt did not show up on the stat sheet. No tackles, no sacks, no QB hits, no nothing -- the first time in his 105-game career Watt has enjoyed an oh-fer, per NFL Research. He forced one holding call on right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, but other than that, Ramczyk and the Saints' top-five offensive line handled Watt and Houston's pass rush. Brees was sacked just once, which compared to his quarterbacking compatriot across the sideline was clean living. Without Clowney in the Texans' front seven, Houston will need to look to other names to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, assuming Watt is playing like the three-time Defensive Player of the Year that he is. When he's not, like on Monday night, Clowney's absence will be magnified.
-- Jeremy Bergman
- For the first time in what felt like the longest time, the Raiders found themselves able to make the storyline about actually playing football. Following a win of the coin toss, Jon Gruden wanted the ball to start Monday's game. And his offense -- yes, his Antonio Brown-less offense -- responded marvelously with Derek Carr performing as phenomenally as he ever has. Carr was perfect in Oakland's opening salvo, going 5-for-5 for 58 yards, including an 8-yard score to Tyrell Williams -- the team's No. 1 receiver for three days running now. It was the start the Raiders wanted -- and perhaps needed. And that held true from the first emphatic drive to the final seconds that ticked away with a grinning Gruden embracing the front row of the Black Hole in the glow of a 24-16 win. As much as anyone, the onus was on Carr and he responded to the challenge and sparkled (22-of-26 for 259 yards, one TD, 121.0 rating). Williams (six catches, 105 yards, TD) likewise proved he can be a top target. And for the Gruden-helmed franchise, it was a sigh of relief and a fist pump for an exciting win. They triumphed despite the distractions, scrutiny and fallout from the Brown roller coaster going off the rails and likely more impressive, though it won't garner the same attention, they carried on despite cornerback Gareon Conleybeing immobilized and removed from the game. This was exactly what the Raiders needed.
- Two debuts. One underwhelming loss. Vic Fangio's first game as a head coach and Joe Flacco's initial outing as the Broncos' starting quarterback were equally flat and unfulfilling. Flacco was immobile and erratic with his throws, often coming up short as he tried to navigate a Broncos offense that was shut out in the first half and held out of the end zone until Flacco found Emmanuel Sanders in the fourth quarter to make the game feel closer than it really had for the majority of the night. At the end of the night, Flacco's stat line looks fine -- 21-of-31 for 268 yards, the TD and no picks. But that didn't tell the story. There was little fire until it was too late. Fangio's debut was as puzzling as it was disappointing. All the excitement and anticipation to see how fearsome a Fangio-coached defense with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb was for naught in a listless premiere. There were no sacks. There were no QB hits. Chubb looked out of place dropping back in coverage. The Broncos tallied no takeaways. The question was whether Flacco could provide a solution for a long lackluster offense. Instead, both sides of the ball are now cause for concern in Denver.
- At the forefront of the Raiders' first-round rookie trio, from the outset, was running back Josh Jacobs. Oakland established the run and balance on offense, feeding the ball to Jacobs even if it wasn't racking up yards. At least it was keeping the Broncos guessing. On the night, Jacobs scored twice and proved to be a workhorse (he had 23 carries for 85 yards with only three carries going to other backs). Following the game, Jacobs told NFL Network's MJ Acosta he was disappointed in himself because he left a lot of big runs on the table. After his debut, it's hardly difficult to prognosticate a lot of big runs are left ahead. Jacobs' first-round brethren -- defensive end Clelin Ferrell and safety Johnathan Abram -- likewise made their presence felt. Ferrell helped quell thoughts of a Broncos rally with a fourth-quarter sack that led to a questionable Fangio decision to kick a field goal and keep a two-score deficit at two scores. His debut included three tackles, a tackle for a loss and a batted pass, while Abram (five tackles) established himself as the dangerous presence in centerfield most believed he could be. In their first chance, the rookies responded, provided further glimpses of hope for an illuminated Silver and Black future and, above all else, contributed to a winning debut.
- A pass rush has arrived in Oakland. In the aftermath of a turbulent offseason the Raiders are mindful of moving on from, it almost seems like an afterthought that one of the prevailing problems for Oakland has been providing its defense with a pass rush. Though the Broncos themselves deserve some credit for their offensive woes on Monday night, the Raiders defense was stingy and impressive in allowing only one touchdown (which didn't come until the fourth quarter). Vontaze Burfict burst through for a sack early in the second quarter, only to have it negated by an illegal contact call. Four plays later, Benson Mayowa notched the Raiders' first sack of 2019 after a dismal 2018 in which they mustered 13 -- dead last by a mile in the NFL. Naturally, Mayowa added another sack to become the first Raider to have multiple sacks in a game since Khalil Mack late in the 2017 season. Ferrell added another and the Raiders' three sacks were every bit as much a cause for notice as the Broncos finishing with none was a cause for concern. Last season came and went without the Raiders tallying more than two sacks in a game, and they started with three to begin 2019. The days of a punchless Raiders pass rush are steadily dwindling.
*-- Grant Gordon *