Tuesday September 15th, 2009

I know it's roughly the same story every year, but you gotta love the ability of the NFL's Week 1 to smash some of our preseason perceptions to smithereens while simultaneously re-enforcing other premises we held fast to as the season roared to life. Such as:

Maybe the AFC West won't be a season-long coronation of the Chargers after all. San Diego had to fight, scratch and claw its way past the gritty Raiders 24-20 late Monday night, and perhaps all those notions of Norv Turner's team starting the season with a magic number of three to clinch the division was just one of those not-so-clever observations that we all love to make, at least until it starts making us look foolish.

Didn't last year's Chargers, with their 4-8 start and near miraculous December rally to .500 and a division title teach us anything about the value of assumptions in the AFC West? The Chargers may have an overwhelming talent edge, but that won't necessarily translate to a cakewalk in the division.

Any objective observer would have to admit the Chiefs, Broncos and Raiders all exceeded expectations in Week 1, with Kansas City testing Baltimore into the fourth quarter on the road despite missing its starting quarterback, Denver absolutely stealing a last-second win at improved Cincinnati, and Oakland earning San Diego's grudging respect with a 60-minute display of tenacity.

LaDainian Tomlinson has no case. Tomlinson can talk all he wants about still being the NFL's premier running back in his little personal duel with Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, but what Week 1 showed us is that he's not even the best running back on his own team. Did you notice it was Darren Sproles in the game and producing mightily for the Chargers when nut-cutting time arrived in Oakland late Monday night?

Taking a page out of his virtuoso performance in San Diego's playoff win over the Colts last January, Sproles accounted for 34 of the Chargers' 89 yards on their game-winning touchdown drive, including the 5-yard scoring scamper on a brilliantly called draw play with 18 seconds remaining. All told, Sproles produced a whopping 246 all-purpose yards against the Raiders, 180 of which came in his valuable role as the Chargers' return man.

By comparison, Tomlinson had just his 55 yards rushing on 13 carries, with a touchdown on a 1-yard plunge and his first lost fumble since Week 7 of 2006. I predict it won't sit well with L.T., but Norv Turner knew what he was doing playing Sproles when it mattered most. The Raiders had no answer for his speed and elusiveness, and it made the difference between a win and a loss for the Chargers.

Week 1 is the most difficult week on the NFL calendar to predict. Monday night's doubleheader is the perfect reminder of that, as the Bills and Raiders entered play against New England and San Diego with twin 11-game losing streaks against their division rivals -- tying for the longest such active droughts in the league. There was near universal expectation for a pair of blowouts that would send ESPN's ratings plummeting by the third quarter.

Instead we got one of the greatest comebacks of Tom Brady's storied career, and the Chargers-Raiders game featuring four lead changes in the fourth quarter alone. Both games were decided in the final minute.

Let's just all admit it: In Week 1, nobody knows anything.

The Houston Texans still aren't ready to handle the pressure of big expectations. Not only did Gary Kubiak's team lose its home opener at Reliant Stadium, where it was 16-8 the past three seasons, but also it lost to a Jets team starting a rookie quarterback and playing without two defensive cogs due to suspension (linebacker Calvin Pace and defensive end Shaun Ellis).

In just four quarters, the Texans managed to only accentuate the perception that they're a mentally soft team that tends to play its worst when the stakes are the highest. Once the pressure's off, Houston usually takes off, rallying to finish strong after first digging itself a sizable hole. Don't look now, but with a road game at division rival Tennessee looming this week, another slow start appears likely in Houston. Somebody's going to be 0-2 after this one, and I don't think it's going to be Jeff Fisher's Titans.

Don't believe the Jay Cutler hype. There were crowds of folks rushing to the conclusion that Cutler made the Bears instant Super Bowl contenders in the NFC, but why, given that Cutler had a losing record as a starter in his Denver career (17-20), and had never taken the Broncos to the playoffs? We got to see right away Sunday night in Green Bay what Denver fans already knew, namely that Cutler can hurt his team in some games much more than he helps it.

You can't blame Cutler on all four of his interceptions against the Packers, because his receivers did him no favors in some cases. But he also could have had more than four picks if Green Bay's defenders had shown some better hands. Cutler still trusts his gun of a right arm way too much in some cases, and his field awareness was woefully lacking against the Packers.

He's still a mixed bag at this point in his development as a quarterback, not a savior. I'm not saying Kyle Orton's cautious style of play would have definitely won that game at Green Bay, but I am saying Cutler's mistake-filled performance definitely helped the Bears lose it.

They are no gimmes in Arizona. In the past two seasons under Ken Whisenhunt, the Cardinals have gone 14-4 at home and 9-3 in the NFC West, convincing some that those two pillars of dominance afforded them a clear-cut advantage over the rest of the division for the foreseeable future.

But that argument took a hit Sunday when San Francisco laid a 20-16 defeat on the Cardinals in Glendale, puncturing Arizona's air of invincibility at home and in the NFC West. And given the Cardinals don't host another division opponent until a Week 10 visit from Seattle, that's a perception they won't be able to pump back up right away.

The Dolphins play the smart-ball that Tony Sparano demands. We have crafted an image of the Dolphins as a heady and resourceful team that knows how to take care of the football and doesn't beat itself. Miami turned the ball over just 13 times last season, tying an NFL record for fewest in a regular season. So naturally the Fish go out and cough it up four times in their 19-7 loss at Atlanta in Week 1 (three fumbles and one interception), proving, as Titans head coach Jeff Fisher likes to say, that you can't escrow any previous success in the NFL. You've got to prove everything anew each and every year.

I've made this point before, but Miami has a much tougher schedule this time around than it did in its Cinderella season of 2008, and that's why improving on its surprising 11-5 record of last year seems out of the question. With a Monday nighter at home against the Colts and a trip to San Diego waiting in Week 3, the Dolphins could be staring at a deflating 0-3 start if they don't start reverting to last season's form on the turnover front.

It's actually way past time to put to rest the idea that the Steelers are a great running team. The truth is they're not even a good one. Pittsburgh's 105.6 rushing yards per game ranked a middling 23rd last season, and the Steelers won that sixth Super Bowl ring on the strength of Ben Roethlisberger's right arm and their defense.

So why were we all that shocked last Thursday night when the Steelers beat Tennessee 13-10 in overtime despite running for just 36 yards on 23 carries (1.6 average) with one first down on the ground? It's Roethlisberger's team now, and he might have plenty more games this season where it's necessary for him to complete 33 of 43 for 363 yards for Pittsburgh to win.

Familiarity isn't breeding success just yet in Washington. The notion that Jason Campbell would be markedly better this season because he's finally getting the chance to play in the same offense for a second consecutive season got a lot of play this summer. How's that one going so far? Not so good, if you're a Redskins fan.

Campbell looked a lot like Campbell in that 23-17, not-as-close-as-it-sounds loss to the Giants opening day. He was good in spots, and a bit shaky in spots, but never really put Washington into position to win the game. I wish I could say the Redskins can put this Genie back into the bottle in regards to Campbell and their obvious lack of confidence in him, but I just don't see it happening.

• Other quick-hit perceptions that got either disproved or re-enforced in Week 1 include:

-- The Lions defense, with all those veteran leaders now on hand, is noticeably improved. Not against the Saints in the Superdome on Sunday. Any way you cut it, giving up 45 points, 515 yards of offense, and 28 first downs is not a step forward.

-- The Dallas passing game is going to miss Terrell Owens' big-play ability. Not yet. The Cowboys were a veritable big play depot against the Bucs, with scoring passes of 42, 66 and 80 yards from Tony Romo to three Dallas receivers.

-- San Francisco quarterback Shaun Hill beat out Alex Smith and retained his starting job because all he does is win games. Can't really quibble with that premise after the 49ers upset at Arizona. Hill is now 8-3 when he opens a game for San Francisco since arriving in 2007. That's roughly the same amount of wins owned by all other 49ers quarterbacks combined since Jeff Garcia left town.

-- The Packers re-built offensive line, with its goal of getting bigger and more physically imposing, will be a big plus for Green Bay. It wasn't Sunday night against the faster, quicker Bears defensive front. New right tackle Allen Barbre got beat like a mule off the edge by Chicago defensive ends Adewale Ogunleye and Mark Anderson. There's no way the Packers' Super Bowl hopes can survive if quarterback Aaron Rodgers is getting sacked four times a game, and hit six more. Green Bay has to get that issue fixed right now.


Here are more observations about Week 1....

• As it turns out, Richard Seymour was definitely worth waiting for in Oakland. The ex-Patriots defensive lineman was a force at times against the Chargers Monday night, and just his presence in the lineup seemed to give the Raiders defense a much-needed dose of attitude, physicality and a bit of that old Oakland swagger. And his two sacks didn't hurt a bit.

• It's beyond belief that Leodis McKelvin can actually defend his decision to bring that game-changing kickoff out of the Buffalo end zone at New England, claiming he didn't know exactly where he was in relation to the goal line. With the game on the line, it's his job to know. It's also inexcusable that having not taken a knee in the end zone, he kept fighting for a meaningless extra yard once he had been wrapped up by Patriots defenders who had but one goal in mind: To stand him up and strip him of the ball.

"I chose to bring it out because that's me, no matter what it is,'' McKelvin was quoted as saying. "If I had that choice, probably 100 times, I'd do it again.''

That's just you, huh, Leodis? Perfect. One guy single-handedly ruins the winning effort put forth by his other 45 teammates in what would have been a huge upset, and all he can say for himself is it's about his individuality. You want to be an individual, go play golf or tennis, where it's all on you, win or lose. In football, it's not all about you. And when the game was in his hands, McKelvin dropped the ball in so many different ways.

• The Patriots pulled it out, and so all is well in the end, I guess. But in the first game of the post-Pioli, post-McDaniels, post-Bruschi, post-Vrabel, post-Harrison, post-Seymour era in New England, I wouldn't say things went smoothly. Would you?

• From my vantage point, JaMarcus Russell still looks just good enough to get you beat.

• Some mind-numbingly questionable calls in the Monday night double dip. The Louis Murphy touchdown catch being overturned by replay in Oakland, the Vince Wilfork quarterback hit in New England, and the Adalius Thomas quarterback wrap-up-and-sling job against the Bills were all dubious in my book. But I did love those creamsicle-colored AFL referee throwbacks.

Seriously, Murphy did everything but count three Mississippi's out loud after catching that ball, and I, as well as all three announcers in the Monday Night Football booth, thought there wasn't a chance in the world it would be reversed by replay. The naked eye told you he had it long enough, and sometimes you've got to stop splitting these hairs on what constitutes a catch. It's the old John Madden line about if three guys in a bar all think it's a catch, it's a catch.

As for the two roughing the passer calls against Wilfork and Thomas, for me both of them fall under the heading of how the over-protection instincts of the league towards quarterbacks has become a case of good intentions gone overboard. True, Thomas brought some level of violence to his sack of Trent Edwards, but, and this is critical, it looked worse than it actually was because Thomas let up slightly just before he finished slinging the Bills quarterback to the turf. It's football, folks. Hitting the quarterback hard has to be a part of the game.

• Speaking of the 50th anniversary AFL uniforms that were on display Monday night, a shaky Tom Brady in the first half looked more like Tony Eason in the Pats old unis. I kept thinking he'd play better if he had the Flying Elvis logos back on his helmet.

• Did you notice it took a guy named Brett to save the Packers once again the other night at Lambeau? If receiver Brett Swain doesn't stay home and do his job on that inexplicable fake punt call by the Bears in the fourth quarter, tackling Garrett Wolfe after a four-yard gain, Wolfe would have rumbled for a huge first down.

• Speaking of Favre, I did applaud him for getting with the program in Minnesota and being content to hand off to Adrian Peterson in the Vikings win at Cleveland. But seriously, why pay a guy $12 million for throwing for 110 yards and managing the game? Couldn't Sage Rosenfels be doing that for a heck of a lot less money and fanfare?

• There was precious little buzz generated by the draft's three first-round running backs in Week 1. Denver's Knowshon Moreno gained 19 yards on eight carries in a win at Cincinnati. Indy's Donald Brown had 33 yards rushing on 11 attempts. And Arizona's Beanie Wells gained just 29 yards on seven runs.

Maybe the breakouts are coming in Week 2.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.