BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 11: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is hit by defender Jarret Johnson #95 of the Baltimore Ravens after releasing the ball during second half of the season opener at M&T Bank Stadium on September 11, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
We knew one thing heading into Week 1 of the 2011 NFL season: expect the unexpected. That's exactly what happened on Sunday as the Bengals, supposedly the NFL's doormat, opened with a double-digit victory while two Super Bowl contenders, the Steelers and Falcons, looked anything but.
The best thing about the NFL's opening weekend is that every team's fan base can legitimately claim they have a chance. Take the Panthers and Bengals, for example. Both those teams found themselves at the bottom of the various NFL power rankings over the last week as two of the league's worst teams.
On Sunday, they showed why we might have been wrong. The Panthers lost but have a lot more hope as QB Cam Newton went for 400-plus, and the Bengals surprised the Browns with a double-digit victory.
It works on the other side, too. How many people predicted the Falcons would be in the Super Bowl? How about the Steelers? Quite a few, but on Sunday both those teams looked like they were coming off two-win seasons.
That's why the NFL's great and opening weekend is evidence of that.
With that said, here are 13 things to remember about the first Sunday in the 2011 season.
The Ravens punch the Steelers in the mouth. Did anyone see this coming? 35-7? I certainly didn't as I wrote earlier this week: "As long as that Steelers defense is there, they're competing for a Super Bowl." You'll have to go back to November 2007 since we've seen a game between these two teams that wasn't within 10 points. The Steelers had won six of the last eight games and this one looked primed for another 13-10 finish. Baltimore's defense is elite but at some point we need to start recognizing that QB Joe Flacco is really good and perhaps the best in that 2008 draft class, even better than QB Matt Ryan.
Were we wrong on the Bears? I was one of those people who, despite Chicago making it to the NFC Championship game last year, figured they were in for a long year. The defense was great so they would be competitive but it was QB Jay Cutler I didn't believe in, along with that offensive line. I had Chicago pegged for 6-7 wins. However, that was before they met the defending NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons and cruised to a 30-12 victory last Sunday. Cutler was efficient, RB Matt Forte played like he's the team's MVP and even WR Roy Williams, the one who couldn't get it going in the preseason, contributing with 55 yards. So, was this Atlanta simply not being as good as we thought they were? Or is this a case of most media outlets underestimating the Bears?
The Bengals, not the Browns, may be 2011's surprise team. It's just one game so I try not to overreact (good luck with that) but it was supposed to be the Browns beating the Bengals en route to a Cinderella season. Apparently not. The Bengals topped the Browns, 27-17, and it's not like they were pretty doing it. QB Andy Dalton went down -- yes, expect more Carson Palmer talk this week -- and Bruce Gradkowski came in. Rookie WR A.J. Green had just one catch, but it was a big one. RB Cedric Benson, only days removed from a week in jail, racked up 121 yards on the ground. The Bengals upcoming schedule -- at Denver, San Francisco and Buffalo at home -- really makes you wonder who the surprise team will be in 2011.
Holy crap. Peyton Manning meant more than we realized the Colts. I mean...34-0 in the first half against the Texans? Was this really what Manning covered up for the Colts? They looked completely lost in every phase of the game. Our Colts blog, Stampede Blue, says while the offense was miserable, this was mostly a defensive failure, the part of the team Manning (supposedly) didn't affect. Maybe what Mel Kiper said last April was correct -- that the Colts might be the worst team in the league without Manning. They sure looked like it on Sunday.
You can't stop Luke McCown, you can only hope to contain him. McCown, who was named the Jaguars starting quarterback five days ago after the team released QB David Garrard, played relatively mistake-free in a Week 1 victory over the Titans. His final numbers weren't gaudy -- he didn't even throw a touchdown pass -- but the Jags didn't need him to be a hero. He didn't screw it up and that was enough to win. The Titans have their own issues -- WR Kenny Britt ended with 136 yards -- but this team is run through Chris Johnson and just nine carries in a game won't cut it.
What can I say about my Chiefs? 41-7 to the Bills. Tough day to be a Chiefs fan (and, full disclosure, I am a Chiefs fan). The worst season opener in franchise history. Jamal Charles ran the ball twice in the second half. Three turnovers gave the Bills possession in Chiefs territory. The opening sequence was fumble the opening kickoff, pass interference penalty and then Eric Berry was injured. Can you start any worse than that? Now, that's not to say we're forgetting about the Bills or discounting what they did. Chan Gailey brought them in knowing exactly how to stop what the Chiefs do best. They were just better at everything. Look at the box scores from last year and you'll see the Bills aren't a team that gets blown out all the time. A few bounces in the right direction and they win several more games last year. So far, those bounces are going their way in 2011.
Quarterbacks are the story once again as Eagles beat the Rams. Anytime the Eagles play, QB Michael Vick is going to be the lead story. He struggled passing the ball but still had a good game rushing the ball for 98 yards -- that's precisely why Vick is so dangerous. When most quarterbacks complete 14-of-32 passes, it's a horrendous day but Vick can make up for it with his feet. Now the other side of the coin is QB Sam Bradford. All that matters with him is that his injured finger checks out on the MRI this week. For now, the Rams just lost the game. If Bradford has any lingering affects, this game goes from bad to devastating. Luckily, it doesn't appear to be headed that way.
Through one game, the Lions are for real. There are basically two ways to look at the Lions. First, you're the type that sees this young talent and knows it's only a matter of time, probably this year, that they put it all together and make a playoff run. Second, you're the type that has been around for a while and shows some pessimism with the Lions, saying you'll believe they're in the playoffs when you see it. I tend to be the former, believing their time is now, and they helped my argument on Sunday by beating the Bucs, 27-20. I think most people realize QB Matthew Stafford is turning into a solid player but, when he's healthy, he's a step above just "solid". He's not elite but you can tell the early signs say he's on his way there.
I won't say much about QB Cam Newton because everyone's already said it. You hear that noise? It's a thousand sports reporters back-tracking on Newton. He had the greatest season opener for any quarterback in history, at least statistically. His team lost to the Cardinals, 28-21, but he eclipsed 400 yards passing and looked like a 10-year veteran at times back there, willing to take hits. Just an impressive performance from him. Not to be forgotten, QB Kevin Kolb put up over 300 yards and completed nearly 70 percent of his passes. Too bad Cam overshadowed his day.
The Chargers pick up where they left off. Last time we saw the Chargers, QB Philip Rivers and that offense was among the league's elite but their special teams and frequent injuries held them back on a fairly consistent basis. That's pretty much the story on Sunday as San Diego came away with a seven point victory over the Vikings. Rivers was awesome, per usual: 33-of-48 passes completed, 335 yards and two touchdowns. The injuries were a problem: DE Luis Castillo and K Nate Keading are expected to be lost for the season. Special teams were a problem: WR Percy Harvin took a kick back for six. The difference is that the Chargers got a victory and now sit atop the AFC West, a familiar position for them before the Chiefs swept through in 2010. I'd be remiss if I didn't move on from this game without saying QB Donovan McNabb throwing for 39 yards in an NFL game is completely ridiculous.
Ted Ginn for a fifth rounder is already worth it. The Dolphins traded Ginn to the 49ers for a fifth round pick in April 2010 and, if he wasn't worth it last year, he is now. He returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns on Sunday against the Seahawks, turning a nail-biter into a blowout. Oh, and Ginn took a pay cut just last week.
As predicted, QB Rex Grossman looks sharp as the Redskins cruise over the Giants. Just as I predicted, Grossman blows up for 300-plus yards in an efficient day that includes a pair of touchdown passes. The Redskins defense looked sharp, as I predicted, and beat the Giants, 28-14 -- a score I predicted. I knew the Redskins would be great in Week 1. How come the rest of you didn't? (Note: This may or may not be true. You decide.)
The Jets were great in the comeback but Tony Romo and the Cowboys blew it. The Jets deserve some accolades for their 14-point fourth quarterback comeback against the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football. The Cowboys owned that game until the fourth quarter when the Jets offense, defense and special teams turned it on giving New York a victory with less than a minute remaining. That said, the Cowboys totally blew this one. If Tony Romo doesn't fumble inside the five, the Cowboys get a field goal, at worst, which may have won the game. If Tony Romo doesn't throw a pick with only a few minutes remaining, this game might go to overtime. If P Mat McBriar doesn't get his punt blocked, the Cowboys might win the game. Credit the Jets for the comeback but the Cowboys totally blew this.