We take a look at some of the top storylines from Week One of the NFL's 2011 season.
Cutler, Bears Make Early Statement Against the Falcons
Now that’s how you bounce back from Wuss-gate. Jay Cutler, last seen making the now-patented Cutler Face from the sidelines in the NFC Championship game loss to Green Bay after an injury, dissected the Falcons defense in a 30–12 rout of Atlanta at Soldier Field. Cutler threw for 312 yards and a pair of scores, one of them a 56-yard screen pass to Matt Forte, in vastly outshining flavor-of-the-month Matt Ryan.
As usual, the Bears defense got in on the act, as Brian Urlacher grabbed a Ryan fumble on one of the Bears’ five sacks and took it 12 yards for a touchdown to cap Chicago’s scoring. Cutler is still Cutler — he threw a pick-six to reality hubby Kroy Biermann to make the score a little more respectable — but only one of these teams looked like a Super Bowl contender, and it wasn’t the trendy Falcons.
“Big confidence booster for us as a football team,” said receiver Roy Williams. “We knew what we can do offensively. We knew what we can do defensively. But to put it together, especially against a good football team in Atlanta, shows what kind of football team we have.”
Colts Look Lost Without Manning
Miss Manning much? The Colts looked utterly helpless without their field general and coach on the field, falling behind 34–0 at halftime to Houston before the Texans emptied the bench and coasted to a 34–7 win. It was Indy’s worst loss since a 27-point loss to Jacksonville in 2006, but this one felt different from your garden variety blowout.
Indy looked like Directional U showing up in Tuscaloosa to absorb a beating and pick up a paycheck. The Colts lured Kerry Collins out of retirement but might want to coax him back into it; Collins fumbled on consecutive first-quarter snaps, setting up Texans touchdowns, and he never looked comfortable against Wade Phillips’ aggressive 3-4 defense. Afterwards, receiver Reggie Wayne tried to encourage his teammates by reminding them that the Texans also beat the Colts in last year’s opener before normalcy returned to both franchises.
“I just told them: ‘We’re going to be all right. It’s a long season and there’s no reason to worry,’” Wayne said. “We were in the same position last year and we still accomplished our goal and that’s taking care of our division.” Sorry, Reggie. Things are different now. With Manning sidelined, the road to the AFC South title now runs through Houston.
Cam Newton Has Historic Debut
Sure, it was the Arizona Cardinals, not exactly the ’85 Bears. But Cam Newton silenced a boatload of doubters with a record-setting performance in his NFL debut. Newton became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for 400-plus yards in his debut, completing 24-of-37 passes for 422 yards and two touchdowns. Alas, the outcome was a 28–21 road loss — this is still the Panthers, after all — but Newton could be the spark that energizes a moribund franchise.
“He was everything everybody didn’t expect him to be,” said Steve Smith, who caught eight of Newton’s passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns, including a 77-yarder. “He was on point, he made some great runs, he made some great reads, made some fantastic throws. He made some throws out there that honestly as a receiver it made it easy to catch them.”
The game’s other ballyhooed rookie, former LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, provided the decisive points for the Cardinals with an 89-yard punt return but was repeatedly victimized by his former college nemesis. “I told you guys from the beginning that he is a great athlete and is definitely going to be one of the greats in this league,” Peterson said. Maybe, maybe not. But he was great on Sunday.
Eagles Living the Dream
The Vince Young-proclaimed Dream Team made Week One a nightmare for the St. Louis Rams in beating them 31–13. Not only did Michael Vick dazzle, scrambling for 98 yards and throwing for two touchdowns despite completing fewer than half of his passes, but the Eagles also turned the Rams sideline into a MASH unit.
Quarterback Sam Bradford and running back Steven Jackson — in other words, the entire Rams offense — left the game with injuries, as did leading returning receiver Danny Amendola, cornerback Ron Bartell and tackle Jason Smith.
But the story of the day was the Philly playmakers, who did what they do. LeSean McCoy rushed for 122 yards and a touchdown, and DeSean Jackson caught six passes for 102 yards and a score. Still, the highest-profile member of the Philly offensive triplets was far from satisfied. “I’m thankful for the victory, don't get me wrong,” Vick said. “I just wish it could have been a little cleaner.” If Vick stays this hungry in pursuit of perfection, he might make Vince Young’s dreams come true.
Ravens Dominate Steelers
On a day when the theme was Never Forget, the Steelers may never forget the colossal beatdown they received at the hands of their bitterest rivals. Baltimore pummeled its AFC North nemesis, forcing seven turnovers and rushing for 170 bruising yards, a staggering number against a Dick LeBeau defense.
Ray Rice ran for 36 yards on his first touch, a sign of things to come on a day when Rice amassed 149 yards rushing and receiving and scored two touchdowns, breaking the hearts of fantasy owners everywhere who held him out against the vaunted Steelers defense.
The Ravens were the team with the dominant defense, as Haloti Ngata forced a fumble and caused an interception, and Ed Reed grabbed two errant Ben Roethlisberger throws. “We got beat into submission,” said a humbled James Farrior. It’s only one game, but it did a lot to erase the sting of last year’s playoff loss to these same Steelers. “That playoff taste? Now it’s over,” Rice said. “They beat us in the playoffs, all right. We got that burden off our shoulders, boom, we’re one up on them.” Only one up, but right now, the Ravens are miles ahead.