• Upon further review, I'm convinced the Baltimore Ravens saw this coming. Even if the rest of us didn't. When I made my way to their training camp this summer, I could tell the Ravens were primed and ready to unload on the Pittsburgh Steelers, poised to finally exact some revenge against the division rival that has ended their season in the playoffs two of the past three years. The Ravens and Steelers have played nothing but nail-biters for the past decade or so, but not on Sunday. Not this time. This was complete and unexpected (at least to most of us) domination:
"That's the hurdle we've got to clear, and that's the history we're going to have to overcome,'' Ravens running back Ray Rice told me in early August, addressing Baltimore's Pittsburgh problem. "Maybe when we beat them, we won't just beat them. A win is a win. But if we make a statement, and beat them in a way that they know they were really beaten, I think that leaves a taste.''
Or maybe more accurately, given this smashmouth series, leaves a mark. As in a purple and black bruise. The Ravens needed a win, of course, but they needed the kind of win that exorcised a few demons. They needed to take chances on offense, rather than try to sit on three-point leads, and they needed those chances to pay off in a big way. On defense, they needed to take the ball away from Pittsburgh and frustrate Ben Roethlisberger, which is exactly what Baltimore's team-record-tying seven takeaways (three interceptions and four fumbles recovered) accomplished. Simply put, everything went as planned for the Ravens on this day, and everything went wrong for the Steelers and Roethlisberger, who had three interceptions, two fumbles lost, and absorbed four sacks.
Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, aka the guy who can't beat the Steelers, won a game started by Roethlisberger for the first time in his four-year NFL career, and that's a sizable hurdle cleared. Flacco was at his play-making best right out of the gate, and finished 17 of 29 for 224 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-point Baltimore win that neatly matched the combined winning margins of the past six Steelers-Ravens games.
But if anything, it was Rice who personified Baltimore's intensity and sense of urgency in this game. The fourth-year veteran ran with abandon, like he and his team simply had to have the win. His first 13 touches produced 127 yards combined rushing and receiving, with a touchdown via both routes. Rice finished with 107 yards rushing on 19 carries, and four catches for 42 yards receiving, and he was rarely denied by a Pittsburgh defense that seemed stunned into submission at times.
The AFC North race, of course, is just beginning. These Steelers will be heard from at some point this season. But Baltimore just landed the first blow, and it was a haymaker that Pittsburgh never saw coming. The Ravens did, however, and it was a pounding that Baltimore waited a long time to deliver.
• If the Houston Texans really are on their way to bigger and better things this time, here's how they should react in the aftermath of their 34-7 season-opening demolition of the Peyton Manning-less Colts: With something approaching complete radio silence. No gloating. No big, brash talk. Just a "takin' care of business" approach as they head into Week 2. It's a long season, and I know of no playoff-clinching scenarios that exist in mid-September.
Let's face it, the Texans
Houston has plenty to feel good about after destroying the Colts. The running game didn't even miss the injured Arian Foster or his backup Derrick Ward, (third-teamer Ben Tate rumbled for 116 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries after Ward left with an ankle injury), the passing game was plenty crisp enough (Matt Schaub was 17 of 24 for 220 yards and a touchdown) and the Texans' new-look 3-4 defense under coordinator Wade Phillips produced three sacks, two fumble recoveries and held Indy to 1 of 10 on third and fourth down, with 236 total yards.
But let's not forget that Houston knocked off the Colts in last year's season opener at Reliant, and that huge emotional lift didn't put the Texans over the hump like many of us thought it might. So everyone in Houston would do well to hold their horses. Sunday's win was impressive and multi-faceted. But it does not signal that the Texans have arrived. We've fallen for that line of thinking before and gotten fooled. Let's let this season in Houston breathe a bit, and then take stock at a later date. For the foreseeable future, the Texans need to act like they've been here before -- even if they really haven't.
• As for the Colts, I think it's pretty clear already that the gray-bearded Kerry Collins is not an all-season option at quarterback. Collins needs a completely clean pocket to really do any damage against a defense, and Indy simply can't count on that scenario for more than a fraction of every game. Whenever the Texans pressured Collins, which was often on Sunday, he looked like a shaky, 38-year-old quarterback who spent most of his summer on the couch. Collins lost two fumbles in the red zone in the first half, one of them on a sack and another on a dropped snap. Both were turned into Houston touchdowns.
I threw this out there the other day
The way Collins played on Sunday -- 16 of 31 for 197 yards and a touchdown -- wasn't an embarrassment. But it wasn't difference-making either, and I can't see him doing enough to convince the Colts to keep running him out there every game for the next four months. Maybe Garrard's phone has already rung, but I think the specter of Favre at some point has to at least cross someone's mind in Indy's front office.
This much is apparent: Reality is finally starting to sink in in Indianapolis. The Colts without Manning are finding out how the rest of the NFL has lived these past 13 years. Being down 34-0 at the half in Houston had to be a cold splash of water for Jim Caldwell and his besieged Colts. Call it a hunch, but I don't think any of the other 31 teams in the league are going to feel the least bit sorry for them.
• Carolina's game at Arizona was one of the few times where you could realistically point to the performance of a single player and make the case that it was of even more importance than the final score. But even in losing 28-21 to the Cardinals, the Panthers have to be thrilled with quarterback Cam Newton's regular season debut.
All I know is Newton must love playing at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, where he and his Auburn teammates won the national championship game over Oregon eight months ago Sunday. Newton's 422 passing yards against the Cardinals shattered Peyton Manning's 1998 first-game rookie record of 302 yards, and he blew past that milestone by the third quarter.
Newton did look like a rookie when he unwisely picked up an excessive celebration penalty after scoring his first career rushing touchdown in the third quarter, going to his knee to celebrate after running it in from one yard out. But overall he played under control for most of the game, and didn't look like he was itching to run at the first sign of trouble in the pocket.
Newton finished 24 of 37 for 422 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception in the loss, and he had Carolina driving for a game-tying score in the game's final two minutes. In fact, Newton got the ball all the way to Arizona's 6-yard line and looked poised to tie the game, but turned it over on downs when he could only pass for four yards on 4th-and-5 with about a minute to go.
In Carolina, the new mantra just might be "In Cam We Trust.''
• We really never know what's coming from the Bears, do we? They're one of the most unpredictable teams in the NFL, and they're capable of both brilliance and bumbling from week to week. But there's nothing to quibble with after Chicago blew out the Falcons 30-12 at Soldier Field.
No one was talking about Jay Cutler and his knee after this one. The Bears were dominant, roughing up a Falcons team that went 13-3 last season and entered this year with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. Cutler looked machine-like in throwing for 312 yards and two touchdowns, the Bears' defensive line sacked Matt Ryan five times, and linebacker Brian Urlacher contributed both an interception and a 12-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown.
Even the Bears' beleaguered offensive line didn't cost Chicago on this day. The Bears allowed three sacks in the first half, but then settled in somewhat and gave up only two more in the second half. Right guard Lance Louis (ankle) left the game in the first half, but Chicago at least has a decent replacement for him in veteran Chris Spencer.
Maybe it won't be a coronation for Green Bay in the NFC North after all.
• I didn't really get a glimpse of the offensive explosiveness the Falcons supposedly added this offseason. Atlanta rookie receiver Julio Jones had a solid five catches for 71 yards in his NFL debut, but his only catch of note, for 32 yards, came when the Falcons already trailed 30-6 in the third quarter. Rookie running back Jacquizz Rodgers touched the ball five times, but produced just 33 yards.
The Falcons won't panic. They lost their opener in overtime at Pittsburgh last season and still went on to win 13 of the last 15 regular season games. But next week's Sunday night home opener against Michael Vick and the Eagles -- speaking of explosive -- just got a little bit bigger for Atlanta.
• So much for the supremacy of the NFC South. The division took a beating in Week 1. Actually, several of them. The Packers took care of the Saints 42-34 Thursday night at Lambeau Field, setting the trend. Then the Falcons were handled by the Bears in Chicago, and Tampa Bay fell at home to the obviously improved Lions, 27-20. If you're scoring at home, that's 0-1 starts for all three NFC South teams that finished with at least 10 victories last season, and all three losses came against clubs from the lightly respected NFC North (Packers, Bears and Lions).
Combined with the Panthers' loss against the Cardinals, and the NFC South came up surprisingly empty in Week 1.
• Can't really poke fun at the Dream Team label being hung on the Eagles so far in 2011. Michael Vick was his play-making self in a 31-13 win at St. Louis (98 yards rushing, 187 yards passing, with two touchdowns), with big contributions on offense from running back LeSean McCoy (137 yards from scrimmage, two touchdowns) and receiver DeSean Jackson (six catches for 102 yards and a touchdown).
The Eagles' star-filled secondary did the job nicely against Sam Bradford and the Rams, and Philadelphia rushed for a whopping 237 yards against a Rams team that came out breathing fire and raced to an early 7-0 lead on the strength of Steven Jackson's 47-yard scoring burst. Philly took that first punch, and then out-scored St. Louis 31-6 the rest of the way.
Now Vick and Co. get to stay on the road for a date at his old stomping grounds of Atlanta next Sunday night. That might get some coverage this week, huh?
• Not only did the Rams get humbled by Philadelphia in their opener, but also ,physically pummeled in the process. During the course of its 31-13 loss to the Eagles, St. Louis lost quarterback Sam Bradford (finger), running back Steven Jackson (quadriceps), right tackle Jason Smith (ankle), receiver Danny Amendola (left elbow dislocation) and cornerback Ron Bartell (stinger). In addition, new safety Quintin Mikell had cramping issues.
That's a lot of talent taken off the field, and for St. Louis, the injury developments are far more serious to contend with than the somewhat expected loss to the powerful Eagles. Especially since Bradford got banged up pretty good throughout the game, and eventually had to come out and miss the first regular season snaps of his two-year career. If the Rams lose many of those injured starters for long, the NFC West race might have an entirely unexpected early plot twist.
• Unlike the Falcons and Rams, the Lions did nothing to tamp down all the playoff buzz that surrounded them in the preseason. Their 27-20 win at Tampa Bay really wasn't as close as it sounds. Here's what I liked best about Detroit's effort: For a young team that's still maturing, the Lions didn't get tight once they fell behind 10-3 in the first quarter. They just collected themselves and went on to score 24 of the game's next 27 points, effectively taking the Bucs' crowd out of the game. The Lions had 431 yards of offense, and 25 first downs, with 36:25 of possession time.
Matthew Stafford was mostly superb for Detroit, with his surgically repaired throwing shoulder posing no issues whatsoever. Stafford threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns, becoming the first Lions quarterback to crack 300 yards in a season opener since Bobby Layne (there's that name again) in 1953. Stafford must have scared the living daylights out of head coach Jim Schwartz when he came limping off the field after a third-quarter touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson, but, alas, it was just a case of cramping in the 90-degree Florida heat.
And don't look now, Lions fans, but the humbled Kansas City Chiefs are headed to Ford Field for next Sunday's home opener. Can you say 2-0, Detroit?
• Anybody notice how long Calvin Johnson held the ball aloft for all the world -- most importantly the game officials -- to see after his 1-yard, third-quarter touchdown catch? Seemed like about 10 seconds by my count.
Can you blame him? It was last year in Week 1 that Johnson lost a potential game-winning touchdown catch at Chicago when it was ruled he didn't possess and control the ball long enough. You remember the call.
• Did anybody come up smaller on Sunday than the AFC West defending champion Chiefs? (Yes, I see those hands, Cleveland Browns fans). Todd Haley's team looks to be lost right now, and you can't like the looks of where this 2011 season might be headed in K.C. The Chiefs' 41-7 loss to visiting Buffalo was the most one-sided opener in team history, and the club's worst home loss in 35 years.
Buffalo looks improved, but there's no way the Bills should be able to waltz into Arrowhead and come away with a 34-point victory, with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing four touchdown passes. Buffalo did whatever it wanted against Kansas City, with 364 total yards of offense, including 163 yards rushing against the Chiefs once-stout run defense.
It has been a bad summer already for Kansas City -- see Jonathan Baldwin-Thomas Jones fight; Tony Moeaki injury -- and it just got considerably worse.
• I'm not entirely sure who starts at quarterback in Jacksonville makes a huge difference, because when the Jaguars win, they always seem to play the same kind of low-scoring, ground-dominated game that we saw Sunday in their 16-14 conquest of Tennessee.
Either way, you can't fault Jack Del Rio's controversial call to cut Garrard last week and start Luke McCown against the Titans. McCown hasn't played much since 2007 or so, but he looked polished and professional in completing 17 of 24 passes, with no interceptions. It helped, of course, that he wasn't asked to win the game with his right arm. Jacksonville ran 47 times for 163 yards, with Maurice Jones-Drew grinding out 97 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries.
The Titans got more out of their new starting quarterback -- Matt Hasselbeck threw for two touchdowns and 263 yards -- but way less out of their Pro Bowl running back. Tennessee's Chris Johnson, fresh off his contract holdout, made only a marginal impact with nine rushes for 24 yards, and six catches for 25 more.