NFL Winners and Losers: Alex Smith takes his game to a different level

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If you didn’t buy into the Kansas City Chiefs as a Super Bowl contender before Sunday, it was probably because of Alex Smith.

But if the Smith we saw on Sunday is what we can expect all season? Might be time to reconsider.

If you’re picking a quarterback to come back from a 24-3 second-half deficit, Smith isn’t the first choice. He might not be in the top 10, 15 or 20 picks, either. He has always been known as a conservative quarterback who is stuck with the game manager label. But there Smith was, calmly chipping away at the San Diego Chargers’ lead, then leading a game-tying drive in the final minute, then running in for a walk-off touchdown to win in overtime.

It was the biggest comeback in team history. And a heck of a statement, too.

The Chiefs looked like they were going to have another early season debacle. Two years ago they were dominated at home in Week 1 by a Tennessee Titans team that went 2-14. Last season the Chiefs started 1-5. This year, without some key players including running back Jamaal Charles and pass rusher Justin Houston, the Chiefs were getting blasted at home by the Chargers. They looked flat and awful. The Chargers led 21-3 at halftime and added a field goal shortly after halftime to take a 21-point lead.

While this Chiefs comeback needed a little bit from everyone — including a lot from Spencer Ware, and his 199 total yards — the best player on the field on Sunday was Smith.

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Smith completed 34 of 48 for 363 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Before Sunday, Smith’s best game might have come in a loss. He was magnificent in a playoff loss at the Indianapolis Colts three seasons ago, the game in which Andrew Luck staged an unbelievable comeback win. But that was a glimpse of what Smith could do at his best. He was probably even better on Sunday. His 34 completions and 48 attempts were career highs. Amazingly, it was the first time Smith threw for more than 309 yards in a game and won, according to Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star.

We all know Smith’s story by now. Despite having physical gifts that led to him being the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft, he’s viewed as a safe quarterback who won’t make many mistakes and is rarely asked to do too much in the Chiefs’ offense. Many people think Smith isn’t capable of doing more, even if asked. It sure looked like he could on Sunday.

And if this is what Smith is capable of, and the Chiefs open things up a little to let him play that way, maybe we’ll have to recalibrate what the Chiefs’ ceiling is this season. If Smith is close to this good, the Chiefs are one of the few teams that could win it all.

Here are the rest of Sunday’s Week 1 winners and losers:

WINNERS

The NFL: The league couldn’t have asked for a better Week 1. It’s possible there has never been a better opening week in the NFL’s history. Just about every game was close and exciting.

The first 13 games of Week 1, going back to Thursday night’s Carolina Panthers-Denver Broncos thriller, had an average 5.4-point margin of victory. That was skewed a bit by the Philadelphia Eagles’ 19-point win over the Cleveland Browns, the only blowout of Week 1. The Eagles’ win was the only game entering Monday night that was decided by double digits. There were four games decided by one point and two games decided by two points.

We had the Chiefs’ record comeback and overtime win, the Oakland Raiders going for 2 and the win, and then watching the New Orleans Saints miss a last-play field goal for the win, the Panthers missing a go-ahead field goal on their final play, the Green Bay Packers holding against the Jacksonville Jaguars on a late fourth-and-1, the Cincinnati Bengals getting a last-minute game-winning field goal, the Seattle Seahawks rallying with gimpy Russell Wilson to score a game-winning touchdown in the last minute against the Miami Dolphins and the Arizona Cardinals missing a potential game-winning field goal in the closing seconds against the New England Patriots.

It was a great day for the NFL. The only problem is trying to come up with an encore next week.

Matthew Stafford: The Detroit Lions started last season so poorly, they became an afterthought by midseason. That’s why so few people realized how good Stafford was in the second half.

Stafford had 19 touchdowns, two interceptions and a 110.1 passer rating in the second half last season. Since it’s Stafford, and he has a history of being a roller coaster at quarterback, we wanted to see an encore before buying into his turnaround being legit.

Now do you believe?

Stafford was really good on Sunday, albeit against a banged-up Indianapolis Colts defense. Stafford hit 31 of 39 passes for 340 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. And when the Lions needed him most, after the Colts scored with 37 seconds left to take a late lead, Stafford completed three passes for 50 yards and got Matt Prater in position for the game-winning field goal.

Stafford has rarely been great during his career. But he was really good in the second half last season, under new offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, and looked even better on Sunday.

Houston Texans: The Colts, Jaguars and Titans lost on Sunday. And the Texans looked pretty darn good, after a slow start.

Brock Osweiler was good, though not great. He was helped out by rookie receiver Will Fuller, the team’s first-round pick who will be a dangerous playmaker alongside DeAndre Hopkins. Fuller had 107 yards and a touchdown. Hopkins was great too, with a phenomenal touchdown catch. New running back Lamar Miller kept the offense on schedule with 106 yards on 28 carries.

And the defense pounded Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. They sacked Cutler five times. That came with J.J. Watt looking very normal in his return from back surgery. Watt had no tackles and one assist. The Texans didn’t even really need him. Keep an eye on these guys. They’re the favorites in the AFC South until further notice. And they might be capable of even more than that.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dirk Koetter: Days like Sunday are why the Buccaneers fired Lovie Smith.

Was firing Smith fair? Maybe not. But the Buccaneers were in danger of losing offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to a head-coaching job elsewhere. The team saw how well he worked with quarterback Jameis Winston last season. So Smith was out and after some interviews, and Koetter got a promotion to head coach.

Winston could end up having a huge breakout this season, helped by being in Koetter’s offense for a second season. Winston threw four touchdowns, to four different receivers, in a 31-24 win at the Atlanta Falcons. Although the Bucs had to hang on a bit at the end, it was an impressive victory against a division rival.

And at the end, the players gave Koetter a Gatorade bath for his first career NFL win. The Bucs seemed to make the right choice at coach.

LOSERS

Kenny Stills: It doesn’t get much worse than Stills’ drop. He was all alone downfield and Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill delivered what should have been a touchdown pass. And Stills dropped it.

What will haunt Stills for a while is that his Dolphins lost 12-10 on a last-minute touchdown by the Seattle Seahawks. Ouch.

Buffalo Bills’ offense: Last year, the Bills’ offense was good. It was actually a mediocre defense that kept Buffalo out of the playoffs.

The defense was much better in Week 1, giving up just one long touchdown and a couple field goals to the Baltimore Ravens. And the offense was nowhere to be found.

The Bills had 160 yards on Sunday. The 2000 Ravens didn’t line up against these Bills via time travel; this was just the ordinary old 2016 Ravens. Tyrod Taylor was 15-of-22 for just 111 yards, and 33 of those yards came on one nice escape and pass downfield to Charles Clay. It was an awful offensive performance.

Things don’t get easier for the Bills’ offense the next few weeks. They play the Jets on Thursday night, then the Cardinals and get the Patriots and Rams on the road after that. The offense better figure some things out fast.

More dumb NFL celebration rules: I’m glad the Raiders won, or else all the great things we saw in Week 1 would have been overshadowed a bit by an awful penalty that the NFL should be ashamed of.

Receiver Michael Crabtree made a great catch on a gutsy 2-point conversion attempt to give the Raiders a lead with 47 seconds left. He should be excited about that. Anyone would be. And Crabtree threw the ball in the air. It was a normal reaction.

And that was a 15-yard penalty, enforced on the kickoff.

This is stupid. Crabtree wasn’t showing anyone up or doing anything crazy. He had a spontaneous moment of excitement after making a great play to give his team the lead. That’s what football should be about. Thankfully it didn’t matter to the final outcome because the Saints missed a long field goal at the end. But can we do away with these nonsensical penalties?

Whatever is going on with the Colts around Andrew Luck: Luck threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns, no interceptions, led his team on a huge comeback and gave the Colts the lead on a touchdown pass with 37 seconds left.

And the Colts lost.

It’s not like the Colts can ask Luck to do more. They didn’t have a running game against the Lions. Luck had the team’s longest rush at 11 yards; no running back gained more than 9 on any play. The Colts are banged up on defense, but that doesn’t explain everything. That was a bad performance on Sunday. The defense will get better once it gets some guys healthy, but it won’t get that much better.

The Colts have deficiencies. They also have a very good quarterback who put to rest questions about his play last season with a wonderful performance against the Lions. But Luck needs help. He couldn’t have done any more on Sunday.

The Jaguars’ fourth-and-1 play call: The Jacksonville Jaguars had a great chance at a “Hey-we’ve-arrived!”-type upset, and were driving late against the Green Bay Packers with the chance to win. Then on fourth-and-1, the Jaguars made a call they’d like to have back.

Jacksonville called a quick screen to Allen Hurns. It never had a chance. Micah Hyde sniffed it out and closed out fast on blocker Allen Robinson. Cornerback Damarious Randall had a clear lane to Hurns and forced him back inside toward the pursuit. Hurns had no chance. The Jaguars have some good offensive talent, and it seemed they could have come up with something better there.

It was not a great call, and a huge opportunity lost for the Jaguars.

Podcast: The unstoppable Patriots, plus the rest of Week 1


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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!