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The Five Must-Watch Matchups for NFL Week 1

Jon Gruden takes on the present (also known as “Sean McVay”), while the new class of rookie quarterbacks battles with the past. What will the opening weekend of games teach us?

Jon Gruden and Kyle Shanahan Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s nothing quite like Week 1. It’s where eight months of overanalysis goes to die. Last season’s Week 1 taught us that Jared Goff is good and that Sean McVay is a god, two things we never thought possible. It’s also when we learned that Alex Smith had somehow morphed into a deep passer. Week 1 is when you learn that everything you thought all spring and summer is wrong. With that in mind, here are our five matchups to watch this weekend.

Jon Gruden vs. Modernity (or, Sean McVay)

There is something a little too on the nose about Jon Gruden opening up his second Raiders tenure, 20 years after he started his first, against the Rams, who are at the peak of the cutting-edge NFL. Few teams are more modern than Sean McVay’s, and L.A.’s playbook is already being widely studied by NFL coaches looking for an edge.

Meanwhile, Gruden has joked about taking the sport back to 1998 and dismissing the concept of analytics. Raiders fans took Gruden seriously but not literally, while the broader football world took him literally but not seriously. On Monday, we’ll find out what Gruden’s schemes look like, and they will face the ultimate stress-test when they’re matched up side-by-side with some of the freshest schemes in the game. McVay is a Gruden disciple; he’s raved about Gruden’s mentorship, starting with his first coaching job in 2008 with Tampa Bay. But the game moves so quickly now that McVay might have to mentor Gruden if the Raiders coach wants to have any hope of running plays that matter.

It’s not as if Gruden stopped watching football when he left Tampa Bay 10 years ago. He has kept his eye on the game while working at ESPN—prepping for the games he’s covering, analyzing tape, and meeting with the top quarterbacks for each draft class as part of “Gruden’s QB Camp,” among other things. But the sport has reinvented itself perhaps a dozen times over the past decade. Bill Belichick and Andy Reid were around when Gruden was with the Bucs, but they’ve both constantly morphed their schemes to match the times with roaring success, while most others have struggled to keep up. With the rise of technology and more open-minded coaches introducing new concepts weekly, football is defined by constant change more than it ever has been before. We’ll find out Monday how Gruden fits into the innovation cycle. If he tries to run the schemes he ran in 2008, it will be the equivalent of Apple trying to repackage the iPod and sell it to teens now. I genuinely have no idea what the Raiders will look like, and there’s something thrilling about that—at least for a few quarters.

Despite Gruden’s comments dismissing anayltics, Gruden told Bleacher Report that he does, in fact, embrace them. He talked about how much time he used to spend charting opposing teams’ tendencies: “I used to do it by hand. Now, Pro Football Focus does it all for you.” It sure does, Jon.

The game—and the pressure on Gruden—changed dramatically last week when the Raiders traded Khalil Mack, the team’s best player, to the Chicago Bears for a package of picks. The entire saga was a mess. The cherry on top was Gruden inexplicably saying he was not a part of the decision to also send a second-round pick to Chicago in the deal. Gruden’s comments only confused the situation more, but the trade led to another intriguing Week 1 matchup ...

Khalil Mack vs. Aaron Rodgers

It is remarkable how quickly one move can change a franchise’s attitude. Early in the preseason, there was some nice buzz that the Bears could be contenders for eight or nine wins if everything broke right. Then last weekend happened. Now, the Bears have Mack, one of the most dominant defensive players in the league, and they’ve turned into a swaggering band, calling out the Packers offensive line. I know those five guys can’t block Khalil Mack,” Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks told reporters. “You know, I really feel like this: They have to put their offensive line together however they do it and put their best product out on the field, but I don’t think their best product can block Khalil Mack.” As ESPN put it, the Bears went from “afterthought to semiannual menace for the Packers.”

Sunday night’s game will be our first look at Mack vs. Aaron Rodgers as divisional rivals. They both just signed new mega-contracts, so it’s something like football’s version of the Phil Mickelson–Tiger Woods one-on-one matchup later this year: two incredibly rich guys just going at it. However, Sunday’s game will not be a handy guide to what all Mack-Rodgers matchups will look like going forward. Mack will likely not play much since he missed all of training camp and has been a Bear for just a week. Chicago defensive coordinator Vic Fangio mentioned Aaron Donald’s 2017 debut for the Rams after a lengthy holdout as a guide to how he’ll use Mack this weekend. Donald played just 48 snaps.

What we will get is the first glimpse of Mack in Fangio’s defense, even if it’s on a limited snap count. The Bears’ front seven will be ferocious, and they get to debut against one of the best improvisers in the sport in Rodgers. The ultimate chess match should come when these two teams play in December, by which Mack will be fully integrated, but this should still be fun as hell.

Rookie Quarterbacks vs. Time

It is stunning how much the leaguewide quarterback picture has changed in a year. Kansas City, San Francisco, Cleveland, Arizona, Washington, Denver, and Minnesota will all start non-rookies who weren’t in their starting plans this time last year. But nothing will give the league a shot in the arm quite like the current rookie quarterback class, and this is the first week we’ll get to see at least one of its members in action: Sam Darnold, for the Jets on Monday night against the Lions. Darnold is perhaps the most NFL-ready rookie, but there’s a case that all of them are ready to play. Baker Mayfield looked competent in the preseason, but playing him is a long-term strategy for the rebuilding Browns, who have a competent veteran in Tyrod Taylor starting. Josh Allen is backing up Nathan Peterman. Josh Rosen is backing up Sam Bradford, who is talented but a placeholder for a Cardinals team that doesn’t seem to be headed anywhere. For Cleveland, Buffalo, and Arizona, every game, perhaps every offensive snap, will be a chance to wonder when the rookies should get in the game—and all three will probably start a contest this season. In Baltimore, Lamar Jackson has the biggest obstacle in the short-term: to replace an entrenched starter in Joe Flacco on a team with its eyes on the playoffs. But here’s a counterpoint: It’s Joe Flacco. Start them all now!

The Chargers vs. Whoever Cursed Them

I am less interested in finding out the individual updates about Chargers players’ injuries and more interested in getting to the root of the problem: the terrible curse clearly put upon their franchise by some sort of mummy. It’s been a running joke—as much as injuries can be—that the Chargers typically lead the league in big injuries. This year they’ll be without cornerback Jason Verrett and tight end Hunter Henry, two good players expected to help bolster their case as Super Bowl sleeper. And now, this week comes the news that Joey Bosa, the Chargers’ best player, might not be available for the opener, according to the team, due to an oddly lingering foot issue. Los Angeles is going against the Chiefs, who have as many weapons as any team in the league but also will start a quarterback embarking on his first full season as a starter. In other words: It’s the perfect game for Joey Bosa.

Now, it would be easy to theorize about some sort of curse that sprung up when the Chargers abandoned San Diego for a soccer stadium that’s not even in Los Angeles, but the counterargument is that they were cursed in San Diego too. There is something oddly charming about the way the Chargers lose. They have assembled some of the best talent in the NFL in the last 20 years: Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson, Bosa, Keenan Allen, Antonio Gates, Junior Seau. And yet they lose because of all the little variables: injuries, missed field goals, strange, nearly impossible comebacks by other teams. They are the official team of Murphy’s Law.

Sean Payton vs. Dirk Koetter, for Some Reason

I never knew I wanted a Sean Payton–Dirk Koetter feud until we got it last season. What makes this especially exciting is that both sides deny there is a feud, even though there’s some nice video evidence from two separate occasions last year. Exhibit A:

And B:

Koetter said that his relationship with Payton is “one of respect.” Payton addressed the midfield handshake confrontation this week, saying, “It was nothing specific.” He also characterized Koetter as a good friend. Hang on, what?

That confrontation isn’t close to some of the best ever—Jim Harbaugh vs. Jim Schwartz and Jim Harbaugh vs. Pete Carroll come to mind in the modern era—but it’s the best one we currently have. There is something so positively “NFL” about all of this: two coaches clearly mad at each other for some reason, on camera, in front of millions of people, and yet in press conferences they act like (1) it never happened, (2) if it did, it wasn’t actually about anything in particular, and (3) they are friends. I cannot wait to see what happens on Sunday.

This is not going to be a particularly good game. Ryan Fitzpatrick will start against a very good New Orleans team, and there’s not a whole lot of evidence that Tampa Bay’s defense, ranked 32nd in the NFL last year by DVOA, has improved enough to stop the Saints’ loaded offense, which will feature heavy doses of Alvin Kamara as Mark Ingram serves a suspension. The only thing to watch here is the strangest feud in football—one that both sides say doesn’t exist.