Philadelphia, PA – On a day where remembrance was first and foremost on the minds of virtually all Americans, the team just about everyone forgot heading into the 2011 NFL season was making more than a few prognosticators think again about their forecasts for the coming months.
The Chicago Bears generally haven't been part of the discussion when the topic of NFC contenders is broached, despite credentials that would suggest the 2010 conference runners-up undeniably deserve a mention alongside this year's presumed Fab Four of Green Bay, Philadelphia, Atlanta, New Orleans. The defending NFC North champions proved they too belong in the equation, however, by producing perhaps the most eyebrow-raising result of the Week 1 Sunday schedule, a 30-12 victory over the helium-heavy Falcons that was every bit as convincing as the final score indicated.
Chicago's tried and true defense stopped an Atlanta attack that entered Soldier Field with a newfound big-play reputation dead in its tracks, unleashing a furiously persistent pass rush that sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan five times and induced three turnovers, including a Ryan fumble that was returned for a third-quarter touchdown by veteran lynchpin Brian Urlacher that essentially sealed the win.
The unit kept the reigning NFC South title-holding Falcons out of the end zone the entire afternoon, with Atlanta's lone touchdown coming on an interception by defensive end Kroy Biermann with the game already out of reach.
"They are still carrying us, they're still doing some things out there that are unbelievable," Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said of his team's defense. "I mean, the pressure they give on the quarterback and the way they run to the ball, it's a tough defense to go against."
The Chicago offense certainly had its moments as well, with Cutler (22-of-32, 312 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) by and large outperforming the more highly-regarded Ryan and running back Matt Forte offering another example of why he's one of the game's most overlooked impact players. The fourth-year talent racked up 158 yards from scrimmage in the win, 56 of which came on a nifty catch-and-run for a touchdown late in the first quarter that helped trigger the Bears' surge.
Now, champions are never crowned in a season's first week, and enough conspicuous chinks in the armor -- like a still-shaky offensive line that allowed Cutler to be sacked five times by the Falcons -- continue to be present for those who were skeptical of Chicago's 2010 success carrying over to this year (and guilty as charged here, by the way) to remain not entirely bullish on the Bears. However, Sunday's strong showing is clear proof this is a team that shouldn't be written off, either.
As for the Falcons, winners of a conference-best 13 games a year ago, the hangover from last January's 48-21 home loss to the Packers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs seems to have carried over into the new league year. A winless preseason was followed by Sunday's sloppy display in which Atlanta's obvious offensive mistakes were compounded by poor tackling and several blown assignments on the other side of the ball.
Head coach Mike Smith and his staff are going to need to come up with a remedy soon, especially with a motivated Michael Vick leading a high-powered Philadelphia team into the Georgia Dome this coming weekend.
In recognition of the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on The Pentagon and World Trade Center, this week's awards will have a theme intended to honor all the brave men and women who gave or risked their lives on that tragic and infamous day in American history.
The Never Say Die Award: New York Jets. It's entirely fitting that the team that was representing Manhattan soil in the NFL's 9/11 memorial came through with the gutsiest and ,most inspiring effort of the day. Thoroughly outplayed by the Dallas Cowboys over the first three quarters of Sunday's primetime headliner at the newly-named MetLife Stadium, Gang Green rallied for 17 unanswered points over the final 12 minutes to pull out an improbable 27-24 triumph. Nothing new for Rex Ryan's charges, however. The Jets won five times in either overtime or the final two minutes of regulation during last year's march to the AFC Championship Game.
Rescue Worker Award: Mike Scifres, Chargers. The San Diego punter was forced into an unfamiliar double duty when kicker Nate Kaeding injured his knee on the opening play of Sunday's game against Minnesota, but came through with flying colors. Scifres knocked through all three of his point-after attempts in the Bolts' 24-17 come-from-behind victory, and also drilled a game-tying 40-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
Unsung Hero Award: Vonta Leach, Ravens. The All-Pro fullback and free-agent acquisition immediately earned his stripes with his new team, as Leach's devastating lead blocking helped spring Ray Rice and Ricky Williams loose for a combined 170 rushing yards in Baltimore's authoritative rout of AFC North rival Pittsburgh. The Ravens' ground total was nearly three times of what the Steelers' defense permitted on a per-game basis during last season's march to Super Bowl XLV.
A few other final observations from the first Sunday of the NFL's post-lockout phase:
Most impressive team: Baltimore. Boy, did the Ravens ever make a statement in their 35-7 manhandling of the defending AFC champion Steelers. An unbelievably sharp and focused Baltimore outfit pushed a disappointingly unprepared Pittsburgh team around in every facet imaginable, with quarterback Joe Flacco tossing three touchdown passes to complement the Ravens' punishing ground game and the defense forcing an astounding seven turnovers. Five of them (3 interceptions, 2 fumbles) were committed by Ben Roethlisberger, who entered the contest having beaten Baltimore in six consecutive starts under center.
Most surprising outcome: Buffalo's 41-7 victory at Kansas City. While no one should be shocked over the Chiefs' obvious regression compared to last year's unforeseen playoff run, losing by 34 points to a team coming off a four-win campaign at a home venue where the Chiefs dominated in 2010 was completely unexpected. A most encouraging beginning for the rebuilding Bills, who lost their first eight outings under Chan Gailey a season ago.
Cam Newton's not an icon just yet, but the electrifying rookie was surely entertaining during a record-setting pro debut. The 2011 No. 1 overall draft choice, thought to be behind in his development as a pure passer, turned every head in the building at Arizona's University of Phoenix Stadium by throwing for 422 yards and connecting with veteran wideout Steve Smith for two long touchdowns in his first regular-season game as the Carolina Panthers' field general. Newton's yardage total was the highest ever for a quarterback in his initial time out, and tied Detroit's Matt Stafford (2009) for the most by a rookie in league history, though it still wasn't enough to prevent the Panthers from sustaining a 28-21 loss to the Cardinals.
Incidentally, Newton's first career regular-season start produced nearly 400 passing yards more than Donovan McNabb totaled in his 156th. The declining veteran had a brutal introductory performance as a Minnesota Viking on Sunday, mustering an anemic 39 yards while completing just 7-of-15 attempts.
Sunday's other rookie signal-caller turned in a positive debut as well, with Cincinnati youngster Andy Dalton hitting on 10-of-15 throws for 81 yards and a touchdown to help the Bengals to a 27-17 road win at fellow AFC North member Cleveland. The effort was a little bittersweet for the 23-year-old, however, as Dalton did not play the entire second half after injuring his right wrist.
From the "Who needs ya" department: Five days after releasing regular quarterback David Garrard, the Jacksonville Jaguars came through with a 16-14 triumph over AFC South foe Tennessee behind an admirably sharp display from Luke McCown in the journeyman's first NFL start since 2007. The 30-year-old, who entered the game with a 1-6 career mark as a starter, threw for 175 yards on 17-of-24 passing and was not intercepted.
From the "We need ya" department: Indianapolis' first game without Peyton Manning at the controls of the offense since 1997 turned out to be predictably disastrous, with the Kerry Collins-led group mustering an un-Colts-like 236 total yards and a 1-for-9 success rate on third downs in the team's non- competitive 34-7 defeat at Houston.
Deja Vu: San Diego's 2010 season was sabotaged by ineptitude in the special- teams area, which prompted the team's luring of highly-credentialed coach Rich Bisaccia away from the Buccaneers over the winter. So naturally, the remodeled group gives up a 103-yard kickoff return touchdown to Minnesota's Percy Harvin in Sunday's decision over the Vikings.
Quote of the Week: While listening to Sirius NFL Radio's outstanding Tailgate Show while driving for my Sunday morning coffee, got a good chuckle after hearing host Adam Schein refer to the Seattle-San Francisco game as the Seahawks opening up the "Tarvaris Jackson Error" in reference to the maligned quarterback's first go-around with his new team. As it turned out, Jackson wasn't entirely bad in Seattle's 33-17 loss to the 49ers. The ex-Viking threw a pair of second-half touchdown passes to orchestrate a Seahawks' comeback attempt while playing behind perhaps the league's worst offensive line that surrendered five sacks on Sunday.
Tell Me Why: Pittsburgh didn't have a home game on Opening Weekend? While the NFL's league-wide pregame ceremony commemorating the September 11 attacks was both poignant and overall well crafted, not holding a game in the Steel City -- some 65 miles from the crash site of United Flight 93 on that fateful day -- was a huge oversight on the part of Commissioner Goodell and the home office.