An NFC North team emerged from Week 1 with a dominant victory over an NFC South contender from last season, as it was able to overcome a pick-six from its quarterback to comprehensively outplay a serious competitor. In fact, the final score made the game look a lot closer than it actually was, but that's a good thing; it'll just keep people off the bandwagon for that much longer.
Wait — no, take a step back, Bears fans. This one's not for you. It's the Lions, who put up the truly dominant win on Sunday afternoon. How was the Lions' seven-point win a more impressive performance than the 18-point shellacking that the Bears laid on a disappointing Falcons team? And what else do you need to know about a sloppy, entertaining Week 1?
Let's stick with the Lions to start. In a matchup of two teams expected to be on the precipice of the playoffs this season by most observers, the Lions' defense simply stifled the Buccaneers, something the 27-20 final totally obscures. The Bucs got to 20 only through a series of small miracles. After a 76-yard drive by the Lions to start the game, the Buccaneers returned the ensuing kickoff all the way to the Lions' 21-yard line. They gained one yard on four plays before kicking a field goal. Tampa Bay then took a 10-3 lead when Matthew Stafford sailed an out pattern to cornerback Aqib Talib, who returned it for a touchdown. They added a field goal during their two-minute drill to make it 20-13, Lions, and with the game at 27-13 in the fourth quarter, they completed a 59-yard drive against a prevent defense to bring the game within one score.
Otherwise, the Detroit defense was brilliant. The Buccaneers' six other drives before the fourth quarter produced a total of 78 yards, with five three-and-outs and an interception of Josh Freeman. Once garbage time set in during the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers moved the ball effectively against a Lions prevent scheme, but after Lions tackle Gosder Cherilus took an insane personal foul penalty to stop the clock with 1:06 left and a punt awaiting the Buccaneers, Detroit successfully shut down a Freeman drive without much of a sweat.
There wasn't much to criticize about its offense, either. On their first seven drives, the Lions had one end with a three-and-out and had another culminate in that Stafford pick-six. Their other five drives produced an average of 9.6 plays and 76 yards while combining for all 27 of the Lions' points. Outside of his interception, Stafford was brilliant on those seven drives, going 22-of-29 for 295 yards with three touchdowns and no sacks. The Lions took over the game and turned it into their plaything, scoring at will and shutting down the opposing offense until their primary objective went from scoring points to killing clock. They did this against a healthy Buccaneers team1 in Tampa Bay, and they did it without cornerback Alphonso Smith or defensive tackle Nick Fairley, both of whom would have started if healthy. It was a win that looks better and better upon further review.
On the other hand, you can deflate a lot of the air surrounding the Bears' 30-12 win over the Falcons. Chicago outplayed Atlanta and fully deserved the victory, but there's a lot going on to make a simple defeat look like a beatdown.
The game turned on fumbles. There were five of them, and wouldn't you know — Chicago recovered all five. These weren't meaningless fumbles at the end of the game, either. Devin Hester fumbled on his own 25-yard line during the second play from scrimmage and recovered it. Hester then muffed a punt in the second quarter that would have given the Falcons the ball at midfield. After a Falcons drive at the end of the first quarter was ended in Bears territory by a Michael Turner fumble, the Bears broke the game open with a stripsack of Matt Ryan on Atlanta's second drive of the second half. Brian Urlacher picked up the fumble and took it to the house for a 30-6 lead. The only fumble that really came in garbage time was when Jay Cutler dropped one on his own 22-yard line with 5:31 left, and even that would have given the Falcons a faint glimmer of hope.
Contrary to what you might believe, recovering fumbles is not a Lovie Smith trademark. Despite having a reputation for building defenses that swarm the ball in the hopes of recovering fumbles at the end of plays, his defenses don't recover a particularly high percentage of the fumbles. Although there's a lot of fluctuation from year to year because of the small sample size, teams will recover about 50 percent of the fumbles over any significant length of time. One of the few ways in which the 2010 Bears weren't "lucky" was on fumbles. They combined to recover just 24 of the 57 balls that hit that ground, for a recovery rate of just better than 42 percent. The Bears should improve on that figure, but 5-for-5 isn't happening again anytime soon.
If the Falcons recover even one of the first three fumbles, the entire complexion of the game changes. The Falcons were forced to throw for most of the second half and faced an excellent Bears pass rush that teed off on Ryan. The Falcons star was sacked five times on Sunday after taking just 23 sacks during the entire 2010 season, and four of those sacks came during the second half, when there was no threat of a run game. Atlanta was also without center Todd McClure, who makes the line calls and adjusts the protections along with Ryan, and right guard Garrett Reynolds was making both his first NFL start and his first NFL appearance since December 2009.
Even the soft stuff went Chicago's way. Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud had two interceptions bounce out of his hands, including one in the end zone. Matt Forte's long catch-and-run for a touchdown saw Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon deliver a particularly menacing nudge 20 yards downfield instead of attempting to wrap Forte with a tackle. Hester's 53-yard screen broke open when a Falcons defender slipped. The Bears did lose two players to injury during the game — but they were guard Lance Louis and wide receiver Roy Williams, arguably their two worst starters.
If you don't believe me, check with the man: The sportsbooks don't believe in Chicago yet, either. Even after their big win, the Bears opened as a seven-point underdog on the road against the Saints in Week 2, a figure that doesn't jibe whatsoever with how the two teams played during the opening week of the season. The Lions, meanwhile, opened up as 7.5-point favorites at home against the Chiefs, who made the playoffs last season (before looking gruesomely bad against the Bills at home this week). The Bears may very well end up being the better of these two teams, but despite the scores of their respective games, the Lions looked like the better team in Week 1.
Baltimore managed to pull off a similar feat on Sunday, as its 35-7 destruction of the Steelers was aided by recovering all four of Pittsburgh's fumbles on the day. The Ravens also picked off Ben Roethlisberger three times and didn't turn the ball over themselves, providing them with an incredible +7 turnover margin for the game. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, there have been only 14 instances of a team recording seven takeaways without turning the ball over themselves. In those 14 previous games, the team with the takeaways was 13-1 and won by an average of 19 points. The only loss came when the Steelers, coincidentally, managed to overcome the 0-9 Buccaneers in 1983 with a 17-point fourth quarter.
You'll note from that list that none of the 28 teams involved in those games repeated the feat during the same season. Let that be a lesson to you: The Ravens aren't about to become the takeaway mavericks of the NFL, and the Steelers won't be giving the ball away like they don't want it for the final 16 weeks of the year. And don't assume that the Ravens have somehow exorcised the Steelers demon with this stomping at home in Week 1. Remember how the Ravens beat the Steelers in Week 4 on the road last year before losing at home against them in Week 13 and giving away a 21-7 lead against them in the playoffs? Do you remember how the Ravens gave away that lead? It was fumble luck; the Ravens gave the Steelers three short fields in the third quarters on an interception and two fumbles, and the Steelers turned those fields into 17 points. (For those of you inclined to believe in momentum, it apparently didn't extend to the Steelers' drives in that quarter that didn't start from inside Ravens territory, since those resulted in punts.) The lesson: Fumbles giveth, fumbles taketh away.
You saw what happened in the Cowboys-Jets game on Sunday night. For the sake of Cowboys fans with heart problems, we don't need to rehash it. What is worth noting, though, is the specific height from which the Cowboys fell. To measure that, we can use the win probability charts created by Brian Burke at his Advanced NFL Stats site. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, it's simple to explain: Given a particular scoreline, field position, down, and distance to go with a certain amount of time left in the game, how often does the team in the lead win?
This is where those aforementioned Cowboys fans might want to skip ahead a paragraph. When Felix Jones ran the ball in from a yard out with 14:50 left in the fourth quarter, it gave the Cowboys a 24-10 lead and a win probability of 96 percent. Ninety-six percent! A Jets touchdown brought those odds down a bit, but as Tony Romo took the snap on third-and-goal from the two-yard line with a one-score lead and 9:15 left, the Cowboys were still at 94 percent. And even after the two teams traded turnovers, the Cowboys were still at a win probability of 95 percent during the third-and-long that immediately preceded the game-tying blocked punt. After the Cowboys moved the ball into the red zone on the opening drive, their chances of winning did not dip below 60 percent until the Cowboys punted with 2:16 left. They were at 66 percent when the Jets punted the ball away, but Romo obviously threw that down the drain with his mystifying throw to Darrelle Revis.
Did Romo blow the game? Probably. But we would have suggested the same thing about Mark Sanchez if things had gone slightly differently. Sanchez really hung in well during a tough first half that saw the Cowboys' pass rush barrel down on him, and he made some great throws during the team's comeback. But he fumbled inside Cowboys territory with six minutes left in a one-score game, and it came on a play in which he simply held the ball for too long. After the blocked punt tied up the game, Sanchez took another sack on third-and-long that set up the Cowboys for a game-winning drive, only to get the ball right back. Once Romo decided he wanted to lose the game more, Sanchez threw a would-be pick that went right through a defender's hands. And this all came against a secondary that was down its top three cornerbacks for part of the second half. We remember all this stuff now, but two months from now the Jets' win will get thrown in Sanchez's file as a comeback victory without any of the context or in-between happenings. It's absurd. Sanchez deserves credit for the late drives he's led (the drive against the Texans from last season comes to mind), but giving him a "win" for what he did in the fourth quarter is just a bad use of statistics and assigning credit.
The Cards Are In For Cam
Cam Newton's debut as an NFL quarterback was pretty impressive. He threw for 422 yards — a league record for a debuting quarterback — in a losing effort for the Panthers. We would say that he hit Steve Smith for two touchdowns, but nobody's ever hit Steve Smith and lived to tell the tale. Newton completed nearly 65 percent of his passes while throwing for two touchdowns and running for a third. It took a punt return from rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson to give the Cardinals a 28-21 victory.
It wasn't the best performance by a rookie in league history, though, and there's a simple reason why: The Cardinals' secondary is grotesque. Peterson won the game with his return work, but he was dismal in coverage and got burnt by the crafty Smith repeatedly. The scary thing is that he's probably Arizona's best cornerback on the roster right now, as fellow corner A.J. Jefferson has just three career games to his name. Safety Adrian Wilson is living on borrowed time with a torn bicep, and Kerry Rhodes was caught in coverage on a long Smith touchdown catch up the sideline. If anyone is going to play like last year's Texans this season, it's the Cardinals. And it was no fun being last year's Texans.
Running backs just don't do what Ray Rice just did to the Pittsburgh Steelers. With 107 rushing yards, 42 receiving yards, and two touchdowns, Rice accrued 26 fantasy points against a historically elite run defense. In fact, the Steelers defense held Rice to a combined total of 17 carries for 52 yards during their two regular-season games last year. With his receiving yards factored in, Rice picked up an average of just three fantasy points per game against the Steelers last season. This time, Rice won the battle. He picked up those three fantasy points with a 36-yard run to start the game and just kept going. That's the biggest game we've seen for a running back against the Steelers since Week 16 of the 2009 season, when someone had 30 carries for 141 yards. That someone? Ray Rice.
Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.
Previously from Bill Barnwell:
Grantland's Mega NFL Preview: Part IV
Grantland's Mega NFL Preview: Part III
Grantland's Mega NFL Preview: Part II
Grantland's Mega NFL Preview: Part I
Viva Las Vegas: Apartment Hunting in Sin City
Viva Las Vegas: Sabermetrics in the Wasteland
NFL Free Agency: Winners, Losers, and Who's Left
Flash Over Substance: DeSean Jackson and the Eagles
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