By RALPH VACCHIANO
In 2003, the New England Patriots released popular safety Lawyer Milloy, causing an uproar up in Foxboro, Mass. He promptly signed with the Buffalo Bills, and together they hammered the Pats 31-0 on Opening Day. Tom Brady was picked off four times.
The Patriots looked like their NFL dynasty would never get started. The Bills looked like they had recaptured their glory days.
The Bills finished 6-10 that season. The Patriots finished 14-2 and won the Super Bowl.
The point: Strange things happen on Opening Day.
So it’s always wise to hold off on the overreactions until at least Week 2, when at least the beginnings of pretenders and contenders really take shape. In the first game of the season when nerves are tight, emotions are high, and players are still getting up and back to speed, results sometimes tend to be aberrations. It pays to be cautious when reading the week one tea leaves.
For example, here are five overreactions from the first week of the season that aren’t likely to turn out to be true:
1.“Cam Newton is a Pro Bowler.”
One of the most controversial rookies in years had the best debut for a rookie quarterback since … well, ever, really. Going 24 for 37 for 422 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in a loss to the Arizona Cardinals was remarkable considering the No. 1 overall pick had no offseason, thanks to the lockout, to work with his team.
Here’s a fact, though: Rookie quarterbacks struggle. Newton will struggle. This won’t be an arrow that points directly up and makes him immediately one of the best quarterbacks in the NFC. Even Peyton Manning had some troubles as a rookie, and he was arguably m ore polished than any quarterback who ever entered the league.
So expect flashes of brilliance from Newton, like he displayed on Sunday. But also expect to see more downs than ups.
2.“The Buffalo Bills are a contender.”
Coming off a 4-12 season, even the most optimistic Bills fan couldn’t have expected what happened on Sunday: a 41-7 blowout win in Kansas City. And the Bills did look good, no doubt.
It was also a classic case of a game snowballing out of control, starting with the Chiefs’ fumble on the opening kickoff. Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw four touchdowns, but only 208 yards, so it’s not like the offense lit up the Chiefs. It had more to do with turnovers and the Bills’ defense shutting down the Chiefs.
In other words, it was good, but not great, and in a division with the New England Patriots and New York Jets, they’ll need much more. The Bills are improved, no doubt, but the playoffs are likely still out of reach.
3.“Donovan McNabb is done.”
It’s a hard point to argue after his 7-for-15, 39-yard performance in a loss to the Chargers. One observer said “He looked disinterested,” which is an alarming criticism of a 34-year-old vet who was supposed to be revived by another fresh start.
Don’t completely write off McNabb, though. He’s only two years removed from a good season in Philadelphia and even last year he put up decent numbers in the midst of Washington’s mess. He has some weapons to help him in Minnesota, like Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson, and he definitely has a little bit left in the tank.
There’s no defending his opening-day showing, but you dismiss his chances of a rebound at your own risk.
4.“The Colts can’t win without Peyton Manning.”
They probably can’t, given how much he’s meant to that offense, and the longer he’s out with a neck injury the bleaker their prospects get. But could there have been a worse opening-day situation to through 38-year-old QB Kerry Collins into? On the road in Houston against a team with an explosive offense and good young defense, after signing late in camp and not having much time to learn a complicated offensive scheme?
Collins struggled, fumbled a couple of snaps, and the offense was so inept it put the defense in terrible position. But Collins is a pro with a big arm and he’s surrounded by talented weapons. He’ll get more comfortable as the games go on. The Colts probably won’t win a championship unless Manning returns healthy, but Collins is more than capable of keeping them in the hunt until their savior gets back.
5.“The NFC South has gone from ‘beast’ to ‘least’.”
With the Falcons, Saints and Bucs all with double-digit wins last year they may have been the best or most exciting division in football. This year all four teams are 0-1 and all of a sudden everyone has noticed they fattened their records last season on the terrible NFC West.
Will they have three teams with double-digit wins this year? No. But don’t knock this division, especially with the improved and reloaded Carolina Panthers bringing up the rear. The New Orleans Saints lost their opener in Green Bay to the defending Super Bowl champs on the last play of the game. The Atlanta Falcons lost on the road in Chicago against a tough Bears defense and a team that reached the NFC championship game last year. The Bucs lost to a Detroit Lions team many think will be surprise contenders this year.
All three of those teams have good quarterbacks and an array of offensive weapons. The NFC South may take a small step back, but at least three of their teams will be in the playoff chase right until the end.
By RALPH VACCHIANO