By David McDonnell

Baker was misquoted this week

The NFL season got underway earlier this morning as the Buffalo Bills overcame the current NFL champion LA Rams.

Buffalo, currently the bookies’ favourites to win the Lombardi trophy on the second Sunday in February, lived up to their billing as their quarterback Josh Allen dominated proceedings throughout the second half.

The first quarter began with Bills receiver Gabriel Davies catching a pass unopposed for the opening touchdown of the season.  Rams’ slot receiver Cooper Kupp replied with great dexterity late in the second quarter from a delivery from Matt Stafford at the back of the endzone.

With the sides tied 10-10 apiece, Buffalo came out more energised after the half-time performance by 73-year-old rock legend Ozzy Osbourne at SoFi Stadium. Bills quarterback Josh Allen threw a laser to Isaiah McKenzie, who gathered while diving into the endzone,  before running in himself for a touchdown from five yards. In the final quarter, Allen found Davies once again and Stefon Diggs with deep balls to secure a comfortable 31-10 victory for the visitors.

It is wonderful that Gridiron football is finally back!

This off-season can be accurately described as truly bonkers, with a quarterback carousel the likes of which the National Football League has never seen before. Added to this a number of franchises, feeling on the cusp of contending, have figuratively pushed the boat in free agency, which has resulted in a number of teams, particularly in the AFC, stacked with talent and with it have an expectation of making the Superbowl at State Farm Stadium in Arizona on February 12.

Las Vegas Raiders @ Los Angeles Chargers

Nowhere is this arms race more evident than in the AFC West, who boast arguably four of the top 10 QBs in the NFL. The Los Angeles Chargers host division rivals Los Vegas Raiders in one of the most anticipated match-ups of the opening weekend. 

Quarterback Justin Herbert, a potential MVP candidate, has lit up the Chargers’ offence over the last two years and the franchise added guard  Zion Johnson with their first round draft pick to line up alongside last year’s first round selection Rashawn Slater at left tackle. This should help keep their star quarterback protected.   

However, it is on defence where the Chargers added big-name talent in the off-season with Khalil Mack joining a D-line that already boasts the pass-rushing abilities of Joey Bosa, while Pro Bowl corner-back JC Jackson arrives from the New England to boost a secondary that already includes Pro Bowler Derwin James. 

They face off against the Raiders who themselves have also been prolific in the market during the off-season. The Silver and Black acquired Aaron Rodgers’ favourite receiver at Green Bay in Devontae Adams, who now lines up alongside Derek Carr, his college quarterback at California State University. Adams, one of the best receivers in the game, joins a cast of talented  pass-catchers in tight-end Darren Waller and slot receiver Hunter Renfrow. 

Las Vegas’ also added pass-rushing sack machine Chandler Jones to a defensive front that includes Maxx Crosby, which should provide the franchise with a dynamic pass rush in a division full with QB talent,  including former Superbowl and League MVP Patrick Mahommes at the Kansas City Chiefs and former Superbowl winning quarterback Russell Wilson, who was traded in a blockbuster deal to the Denver Broncos from the Seattle Seahawks. Wilson returns to his former club on Monday Night Football, but I will add more on that story in Monday’s column. 

Cleveland Browns @ Carolina Panthers

An interesting match-up this weekend sees quarterback Baker Mayfield against his former team in the Cleveland Browns. 

Mayfield, the number one overall pick in the 2019 draft, had played with a shoulder injury all last season and was discussing a new contract when his former team traded for QB Deshaun Watson in one of the most controversial trades in the history of the sport. 

Watson, who found out in the off-season that he would not be facing any criminal prosecutions in Texas after been accused on 23 counts of what has been termed “non-violent sexual assault.” The Browns traded for Watson from the Houston Texans and gave him a $230 million guaranteed contract, despite the large number of cases at that time still before the civil court, all of which have since been settled out-of-court. 

It was the story that has dominated the headlines in the sporting environs and podcasts all summer. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said recently Watson had committed “egregious … predatory behaviour,” before hitting him with an 11 game suspension and a $5 million fine. To put this in perspective, Atlanta Falcon wide receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended by Goodell for a full season (17 games) for making online bets on NFL matches. 

The Watson trade, inevitably,  brought with it a lot of criticism and ill-will towards the Cleveland Browns organisation with a few supporters expressing confusion on whether to support the team while he plays.  This trade led to a protracted and acrimonious public split between the Browns and Mayfield, who in turn was recently traded to the Carolina Panthers, where he has since won the starting job. 

Last week it was widely misreported in the US media that Baker had been quoted as saying that he would like to ‘f***-up the Browns’ this weekend. Those words were attributed to Baker during a podcast discussion by NFL reporter Cynthia Frelund from an interview she had with the player.  Predictably, this went down like a lead balloon with many Browns fans, but as they began to turn their ire on their former quarterback, Baker stated adamantly that he didn’t utter the phrase.

As it turned out, he was proved right. The words were then correctly attributed to the interviewer Frelund, who uttered the f-bomb statement in the form of a question to the player and Mayfield held his tongue and didn’t disagree with her. The drama has added to what should be an intriguing contest with, I hope, Baker taking a measure of revenge on his former employers. 

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cincinnati Bengals

Another fixture this Sunday sees two possible Super Bowl contenders vying against each other when the Cincinnati Bengals host their AFC North divisional rivals Pittsburgh Steelers. 

The Bengals were an Arron Donald sack in the last play of the game away from winning the Superbowl last season. They return with a much bolstered offensive-line after their prodigious quarterback Joe Burrow was sacked a league high 51 times last year. By signing right-guard Alex Kappa from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, former Patriot centre Ted Karras and Dallas Cowboys right-tackle La’el Collins to play alongside their exciting left tackle Jonah Williams, they should better protect Burrow from taking so much punishment throughout the season. 

In the battle for supremacy in what has long been established as one of the most physically demanding divisions, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a dominant defence led by the current Defensive Player of the Year in TJ Watt.  

Although they made the play-offs last season, their title credentials were questionable mainly due to poor play from their quarterback, Ben Rothesburger, who retired during the off-season. They have named Mitch Trubisky as Week 1 starting QB but it is likely that Kenny Pickett, the first quarterback off the board in this year’s draft, will come into the starting line as the season plays out.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Dallas Cowboys

The late game on Sunday Night Football sees the most successful quarterback in the history of the NFL, Tom Brady take on the most supported but also the most cheered against team in America: the Dallas Cowboys. 

Both sides met in Week 1 last season with the Dak Prescott led Cowboys upsetting the then Superbowl champions.  I expect the Glazer-owned Bucs to reverse their fortunes this time around.  

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