Okay, so that wasn’t the best batch of early Sunday games in NFL history, but it’s football, and it’s back … so I’m not complaining. Actually, my only complaint is that I’m having trouble providing context for the eight games that just finished.
The thing about Week 1 is, with every game, it’s tough to know if you’re seeing the start of a trend or an aberration that just happens to be taking place at the starting line. The last thing I want to do is overreact to what just took place, because that happens every year following Week 1. But the alternative? Not writing anything at all, and that’s no fun either. So allow me to present the one significant theme that we can take away from the early games: the National Football League is still unpredictable and laced with (pardon the oxymoron) extreme parity.
Every year, about half of the previous year’s playoff teams change. We all make conservative season predictions because it’s almost impossible to imagine that about half of last season’s division winners won’t return to the top. But the reality is that elite teams have short shelf lives in this league, and a handful of “good” teams will suck in 2011.
We were reminded of that this afternoon, with four division winners getting crushed in their openers.
2010 AFC North champ Pittsburgh was beat 35-7 by the Ravens.
2010 AFC South champ Indianapolis was defeated 34-7 by the Texans.
2010 AFC West champ Kansas City was embarrassed by the Bills in a 41-7 loss.
2010 NFC South champ Atlanta fell 30-12 to the Bears.
Not-so-quick math: 140-33.
None of them scored more than one touchdown, and all gave up at least 30 points. The quartet turned the ball over 15 times and registered just three takeaways.
In Houston … the Colts were supposed to lose with Peyton Manning out and Kerry Collins in, but they weren’t supposed to lose like that. The Texans were without their rushing champion tailback and were playing their first game after a rushed transition to the 3-4, and they still dominated Indy in every aspect of the game.
Colts fans would love to blame the Manning injury, because Collins did not look prepared to start a game in that offense, but they would’ve lost this game with or without No. 18. The Texans are the clear favorite in the AFC South, regardless of who’s at quarterback for Indianapolis.
In Baltimore … the Ravens finally beat their hated rivals with Ben Roethlisberger in the lineup. It’s a big win for Joe Flacco, who had never defeated Big Ben in six tries. But the performance came out of nowhere. The Steelers barely made changes in the offseason after going to the Super Bowl last year, while Baltimore was a mess after losing Josh Wilson, Dawan Landry, Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, Jared Gaither, Kelly Gregg and Chris Chester in the offseason. The offensive line was a disaster in the preseason, but the remarkably flat Steelers got to Flacco for just one sack while failing to force a single turnover.
But what was really eye-opening is what the Ravems were able to do on the ground. There’s no doubt that the interior offensive line is stellar in Baltimore, but Ray Rice has been terrible against Pittsburgh historically. In fact, there aren’t many running backs who haven’t. Pittsburgh allowed 62.8 yards per game on the ground in 2010, which was tops in the league by a ridiculously large margin. The longest run Pittsburgh’s defense gave up all last season: 24 yards. Rice gashed them for 36 on the first play of the 2011 campaign. Was this a fluke, or are the old Steelers finally ready to fade into the periphery for a while?
In Chicago … the Falcons struggled to protect Matt Ryan against a stellar Bears pass rush and the offense made some uncharacteristic mistakes in a dud of a 2011 debut for the official GLS Super Bowl favorite. The Bears aren’t a weak opponent, but I was expecting more explosiveness from a team that made strong efforts to add weapons in the offseason. The Falcons failed to get into a rhythm on either side of the ball. On the bright side, Atlanta lost to a good team in its 2010 opener and still went on to win 13 games and earn the top seed in the NFC.
In Kansas City … the Bills pulled off the upset of the week (and made us look good) by pummeling the Chiefs. In the process, KC lost young stud safety Eric Berry to a knee injury. I’m starting to wonder if this team is cursed — Tony Moeaki is out for the year, Matt Cassel is hampered by a rib injury and now Berry could be out awhile. How do you lose by 34 points to a really bad Bills team in your home opener? Complete disaster.
Next week, each team will obviously have a chance to respond and set the record straight. It should be do-able. Pittsburgh gets to host Seattle, Indy draws a weak Cleveland team, Kansas City’s in Detroit and Atlanta at least gets to go home for a prime-time matchup with the tough Eagles. I don’t want to draw wild conclusions about any of the four letdown squads from the 1:00 games until I’ve had a chance to see what they can do to atone for such abominations.
The only elite team that didn’t disappoint this afternoon: Philadelphia. More on the Dream Team’s debut later on.