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NFL marks 9/11 anniversary with stirring tributes, entertaining open

NEW YORK -- We'll get to what was great in the first NFL weekend (Cam Newton in a exhilarating loss, the Ravens in a monkey-off-their-backs win) and what certainly was not (Tony Romo in a fourth quarter of doofus proportions and my Super Bowl-pick Falcons flopping at Chicago), but first, and I don't want to overdo the emotion of the day, a few thoughts on the 9/11 tributes.

Normally I think the NFL overdoes some of these "cause'' things, but Sunday, in 13 stadiums around the league, the message was proper and done well. Remember our history, honor those who died and remember what a time of renewal can do in what can be such a divided country. Then play ball.

Ten years ago, there was such a we're-all-in-this-together feeling in the country. I remember going to Kansas City to cover the Giants and Chiefs 12 days after 9/11, being on the field to do a TV appearance before the game and listening to "The Times They Are A-Changin' " by Bob Dylan. I saw Giants and Chiefs fans hold hands before the national anthem, and as I entered the Giants locker room, I saw tears from more than one player, totally washed out after all the emotion.

On NFL Network yesterday, Steve Mariucci, who coached the 49ers to a win over the Jets in Gang Green's first post-9/11 game in the Meadowlands, got emotional talking about the game in the studio. I thought his words were a window into what so many felt after the attacks and conveyed what can be a tiny bit of salve for the country. "That night,'' Mariucci said, "for once in my life it wasn't us against them. We were all on the same team. It was an honor to be in that game.''

When events happen that rock the country, football "has a role to play, a small role,'' Dallas coach Jason Garrett told me this summer in Texas. "It's a unifying role. Rich and poor, liberals and conservatives, love football. We just need to show we're all together.''

On with Week 1. On with what should be a fun season.

***

Eleven headlines for 9/11:

1. That lockout and the weird offseason really hurt the game. Some teams with new coaches struggled (Cleveland, Tennessee), but some teams with established coaches and programs were even worse (Atlanta, Kansas City, Pittsburgh). Maybe the one-sidedness of so many games says something about the lack of cohesion and long period of inactivity through the spring; time will tell. But it's been a pretty entertaining weekend with two games to go. New Orleans-Green Bay Thursday night was the second-highest-rated prime time game since 1999. Amazingly, the rookie who should have been the most skittish with the most pressure on him, Cam Newton, had the best game a first-game rookie quarterback ever had.

2. Peyton Manning might win the MVP of the league without playing. Things will get better for Indianapolis without the invaluable Manning; either that or they'll be in the UFL by mid-October. But the most striking event of Week 1 was how bad the Colts were in falling behind to Houston 34-0 at the half. Indy and the Texans had met 18 times before Sunday, with the Colts winning 16. In none of those games had the Texans exceeded 34 points, but they had that in 30 minutes in this season's opener for both teams.

"It's a marathon, not a sprint,'' coach Jim Caldwell said bravely afterward, but I don't know how anybody can buy that the Colts will contend with Manning possibly out for the year after Thursday neck surgery. More about this later, but the fact that president Bill Polian was watching Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck play at Duke on Saturday is a harbinger of an autumn where the Colts will do due diligence on every quarterback that might come out in the draft next April.

3. The Rams and Chargers got really beat up. St. Louis got run over in a disappointing home opener by Philadelphia, 31-13, and lost top wideout Danny Amendola (dislocated elbow) and running back Steven Jackson (pulled quad); quarterback Sam Bradford is due for an MRI on his hand today after banging it on an oncoming Eagle rusher.

"It's not broken, but they think it's a nerve issue,'' coach Steve Spagnuolo told me. "And with Steven, he's a running back with a quad injury; that's not good. Those are our three most productive offense players. So I'll be praying all night.''

San Diego lost defensive lineman Luis Castillo to a broken leg, and there are suspicions that the league's most accurate kicker, Nate Kaeding, has a torn ACL. Running back Mike Tolbert, who scored three touchdowns in the win over Minnesota, has a sore knee but should be OK.

4. Tony Romo had some help in blowing a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead and losing to the Jets. But the way he played in the last 10 minutes, he can retire the Goat of the Week Award. With the Cowboys ahead by seven with nine minutes left, he foolishly dove for the end zone -- the traffic was way too heavy to think he had a prayer to make it -- and got stripped of the ball, losing it.

With a minute to go and the score tied, only the Lord knows what Romo was looking at. He badly underthrew Dez Bryant, and the interception into the waiting arms of Darrelle Revis led to the winning field goal.

Trying desperately to rally with eight seconds left, Romo wasn't ready for the shotgun snap, which hit him in the chest in a fittingly Keystone Kops moment to basically end it. I've defended Romo for a long time. He has some extended stretches of brilliance, throws a great ball, is accurate enough to be one of the great ones ... but Sunday night has to make the biggest Romo boosters question his judgment. How could he take such a huge risk on a third-and-goal dive that he could not deliver a touchdown on, and to follow that by hand-delivering the interception to Revis -- and the game to the Jets. A total, absolute, utter debacle for Romo.

5. I wouldn't go too far in burying Sunday's bad teams. The Manning-less Colts are one thing. But some of the teams we've seen be very good and who haven't had major injuries to sully their seasons --Pittsburgh and Atlanta, for instance -- aren't going 4-12. They had bad Sundays. A Ben Roethlisberger team isn't going to turn it over seven times again this year. The Falcons are going to fix their protection issues. The 2003 Patriots opened with a 31-0 loss at Buffalo, and then won 17 of their final 18, including the Super Bowl. Bury teams at 0-4 or 1-5, not 0-1.

6. Having said that, I do not like what I see out of the Chiefs. Kansas City had a bad summer on the field, never looked in sync on either side of the ball, lost Matt Cassel's best weapon (tight end Tony Moeaki) to a season-ending knee injury, and was powerless to stop the Bills in the worst home-opening defeat, 41-7, in franchise history. Bad signs abound in KC.

7. The kickoff rule probably won't be the debacle everyone thought it'd be. Touchbacks, I'm certain, will be way up on a warm weekend with no bad weather around the country; those are kicker conditions. But as I said Saturday night on NBC's NFL special, a few special-teams coaches I talked to on my camp tour thought the line of demarcation for runbacks might be moved back in the end zone this year.

We saw three returns for touchdowns in the first 14 games, and you saw more players take kicks out from four and five and six yards deep -- and, in the case of Randall Cobb of the Packers, 108 yards for a touchdown Thursday night. If the ball is going to be placed on the 20-yard line after touchbacks, some coaches feel there's a motivation to try to run a kick out if it's five or six yards deep; they think it's worth the risk to try to get the ball beyond the 20-. Plus, I believe when returners choose to take the ball out from five yards deep, we'll be watching and thinking, "Could this be another Cobb return? Another Ted Ginn return? Or will the guy get kayoed at the 14?''

The only way to judge whether the new rule will lead to the decline of Western Civilization is to let it percolate for the season. As Roger Goodell told Bob Costas the other night, if the rule's a debacle, teams can vote to change it next spring.

8. Cam Newton's arm, and his attitude, made him a winner in a loss. "Cam's very disappointed,'' wide receiver Steve Smith said after the Panthers couldn't finish a last-gasp drive and lost to Arizona, 28-21. He shouldn't be, but of course, that's a good sign; the guy's a competitor.

So many wondered if the Panthers were rushing Newton into action too soon, to justify being picked first overall last April. But his 422-yard performance showed that was wrong, as did the words coming out of the Panther locker room. He made the right reads and didn't take off to run at the first sign of pressure. He showed how, in trouble, he could make plays with his arm -- not just his legs.

Maybe being an itinerant has helped Newton. Over the past four falls, he has backed up Tim Tebow at Florida, starred at Blinn (junior) College, taken Auburn to a national championship, and now taken over the Panthers. He's used to change. He's used to adapting, and taking a new team over. Look for offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski to add more plays to the repertoire week by week. Should be an interesting matchup this week. The Super Bowl champs come to Charlotte for the home opener, and Newton's performance gives Panther fans reason to think it might actually be a contest.

9. The Ravens got their revenge on Pittsburgh. Terrell Suggs was a beast (three sacks, two forced fumbles), Bryant McKinnie played a creditable left tackle, Lardarius Webb was terrific in the slot, Ed Reed was his usual opportunistic self with two interceptions (the ball just finds him), and Joe Flacco looked like a very big-time quarterback not afraid of sticking the ball into tight spaces. I'll get to Ray Rice later, but I thought he was one of the big stars of the day. He gives the Ravens the best chance, in the running and passing game, of any back in the league. He might not be Marshall Faulk, but he's a tougher inside runner, and he's the Ravens' one indispensable player. Running for 107 yards on Pittsburgh is no small feat.

10. That was a significant win by the Lions. "We didn't play our best football,'' Matthew Stafford told me after the 27-20 win at Tampa Bay. "When you make mistakes on the road and still win, that's the sign of a good team, especially when you come to a place like this and do it.''

With Stafford cramping up on a sunny day in Tampa with a 102-degree heat index, he still managed to go 24 of 33 for 305 yards, with three touchdowns and an interception. "The best thing we did was finish drives and get sevens instead of settling for threes,'' he said. The Lions could be America's darlings by the end of the month. They host Kansas City Sunday, and then go to Minnesota in Week 3 -- both, obviously, winnable games.

11. Don't sleep on the Bears. As I have, of course. The Bills and Texans were dominant Sunday, but Chicago's foe, Atlanta, makes its performance -- it was 30-6 after three quarters, ended 30-12, and could have been worse -- so impressive. The Falcons got 386 yards, but the swarming Bear defense, led by Brian Urlacher, pestered Matt Ryan all day. And though Jay Cutler got hit too much and was sacked five times, he had enough time to throw for 312 yards and get the Bears in position to score on five of their first seven possessions. "As long as I've been here, the pressure's been on the offensive line,'' said Roberto Garza. "We know that. We accept it. It's up to us to come through and keep Jay clean. We're ready for that challenge.''

The Colts are in the market for a quarterback ... and everything else.

On Saturday, Colts president Polian found himself in Durham, N.C., scouting the Stanford-Duke game and keeping an interested eye on Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck. This is what he does on almost every fall Saturday -- scout. And this year, in the wake of the possible season-ending surgery on Manning's neck, that takes on added importance.

Is there any way the Colts could be bad enough to be in the Andrew Luck derby on draft day? Very unlikely, but the team will do its due diligence. And is there any way they'd take a quarterback from the possible pool of well-regarded players -- such as USC's Matt Barkley, Oklahoma's Landry Jones or a still-to-emerge 2011 college star passer? That's more possible.

This is not a new story. Last spring, shortly before the draft, the Colts sent a three-man team, including coach Jim Caldwell, to Fort Worth to work out and get to know TCU quarterback Andy Dalton. Had Dalton been there late in the second round, would the Colts have pulled the trigger on him to be Manning's heir? We'll never know.

Look at Polian's history, however, and you see he loves acquiring franchise quarterbacks. (Duh. Who doesn't?) And check your history. Joe Montana was traded at 36. If traded after the season, Manning would be 36. I am not suggesting Manning will be traded. In fact, I don't see any way it will happen. Regardless of what happens the rest of this year, I don't. But if the Colts finish 2-14 (and that has a snowball's chance in Phoenix of happening), they'd be staring at Luck, one of the best quarterback prospects to come out in years, and an above-average pool of passers. What would Polian and his son, GM Chris Polian, do? Check out Bill Polian's history when confronted with a quarterback need:

1986: Polian's first major decision when promoted to GM of the Buffalo Bills: signing USFL quarterback Jim Kelly.

1995: Polian's second major decision when given the GM job in Carolina (after hiring Dom Capers as coach): drafting Penn State quarterback Kerry Collins.

1998: Polian's second major decision when given the GM job in Indianapolis (after hiring Jim Mora as coach): drafting Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning.

Of course, the Bills had Vince Ferragamo and Bruce Mathison as quarterbacks in 1985, the Panthers were an expansion team that needed a quarterback obviously, and the Colts had Jim Harbaugh in 1997. Harbaugh was a good NFL quarterback, but Polian didn't think he was a franchise player. So none of his teams were in remotely the same position as the 2012 Colts could be in.

***

Manning's fate? I say it's very good.

Neel Anand, an orthopedic spine surgeon in Los Angeles, is very familiar with the surgery Manning had. He told me it would be between three and six months before Manning would be able to perform the sort of athletic acts required by an NFL quarterback. But he said he had little doubt about Manning being able to resume his football career.

I had an interesting email the other day from a reader, John Swain, of Smyrna, Del., about having the same surgery Manning had ... and he had it 20 years ago. "Without getting into a lot of history, I will say I played a lot of sports as a kid and on into college,'' wrote Swain. "I am about 6-3. I have lived with the results of my surgery for 20 years. My results were excellent. I have had 20 extremely good years as a result of this surgery. I had it when I was about 40. Initially, once I recovered, I returned to a fairly active life, going back to pickup basketball games, extensive bike riding and much more. If I were playing at his level, I have NO doubt I would have been able to [come back to play]. This surgery will not impair his ability to drop and read quickly. It will not affect his ability to throw with the same authority (zip on the ball, etc). He will lose maybe two percent of his neck flexibility. If he wants to come back you will NOT see a difference.''

Just another voice for you to consider.

Three other Manning points:

• Tony Dungy had an excellent observation on our Saturday night NFL special on NBC. He said Manning's neck history dates to Oct. 22, 2006, when his neck got wrenched and his helmet ripped off on a hit by two Washington defenders. We showed the highlight on our Saturday show, and Manning, after being hit and crumbling to the ground awkwardly, lay there for a second, and when he rose, he stretched his neck and shook his right arm for a second, as if trying to get the feeling back in it.

"Earlier in the game,'' Dungy told me, "I'm outraged that there was a flag for roughing-the-passer on Dwight Freeney for just grazing the quarterback's helmet. So I'm yelling at the ref [Scott Green], 'Where's the flag! Where's the flag!' And I don't yell much, but I did then. So I didn't notice Peyton calling timeout and being shaken up. Peyton came to the sideline and said to [backup] Jim Sorgi, 'Jim, start warming up.' As the timeout went on, he said to us, 'I can stay in, but we need to run the ball here.' ''

Which the Colts did, settling for a field goal deep in Washington territory.

"Then we sort of forgot about it at halftime, and Peyton seemed fine," said Dungy. "He lit it up in the second half. He was on fire [throwing for 244 yards and three touchdowns]. But that's the year we started cutting back on his throws at practice. I'm not putting two plus two together. I just figure he's getting older and he needs some time off, he's made enough throws. But now, as I look back on it, there's no doubt in my mind that this was the start of his neck problems.''

• Just to clarify: Polian told me Manning was fine at the end of last season, with no recurrence of the neck problems that caused his first surgery after the 2009 season. Polian said this latest flareup, leading to the May 23 procedure, stemmed from an injury suffered at an informal offseason workout in the spring at North Central High in Indianapolis. Just FYI.

• The last time Manning didn't start a game for Indianapolis, Tony Mandarich was blocking for Jim Harbaugh with the Colts, and John Randle sacked Harbaugh twice.

***

Rice is nice, but he plays rough.

When I visited Ravens camp in late July, there was a different feeling about Ray Rice entering his fourth year. For the last couple of years, it was Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and then Joe Flacco, and then anybody else on offense; that was the pecking order of franchise players once Jonathan Ogden left. Rice was creeping into the picture last year. This year, in relative importance with club officials, it seemed like Rice was on a level with the top defensive players. That's how highly he was regarded. And on the first weekend of the season, there were other players who played very well, including a couple who are teammates of Rice. But I thought Rice did something I simply would not see with these Pittsburgh Steelers -- physically impose his will on them on a few running plays. Last season, Pittsburgh was superb against the run, only twice allowing teams to exceed 100 yards (the Jets had 106, New England 103). On Sunday, Rice had 107, and the Ravens totaled 170. Only once in the last three years had a team run for so many on Pittsburgh.

The difference in this game was the Ravens didn't have Willis McGahee anymore, and Rice is now working as the short-yardage and goal-line back. Even though Ricky Williams got 12 carries Sunday, eight came in the fourth quarter, with Rice on the shelf to save further wear and tear. Rice was the every-down back when it counted, and it counted early: He started the game with a 36-yard sprint around left end and never stopped producing for three quarters.

"I'm a complete running back now,'' Rice said from the Ravens' locker room after the rout of Pittsburgh. "Before, I'd come out on goal-line and short-yardage. Now I am more of a complete back. When I get low and have to run with power, it's hard for guys to get under me and drive through me because I get so low.''

Rice did something interesting late in the game. He got involved in a shoving match with Troy Polamalu that turned Pittsburgh/Baltimore ugly. Eight or 10 players got involved, and hair was pulled (Polamalu's), a couple of kicks were given (hard to tell whom) and mayhem lasted for 20 or 25 seconds. When the game was over, Rice made a beeline for Polamalu to apologize for his role in the brawl. "I look up to you as a player,'' Rice told him.

"We have to look out for each other in this game,'' Rice said. "I know this is a heated rivalry and these games get so physical, but at the end of the day we respect them, and even though it gets heated, I don't get upset about things like that. It's football.''

That's a good guy to build a team around, particularly with defensive cornerstones like Lewis and Reed near the end of their careers.

***

Coming Tuesday: The surprising Bills, plus a fan who just might inspire you.

1. Green Bay (1-0). Read my short piece in the magazine this coming week, and see how Aaron Rodgers will try to make 12 skill players happy. On an all-for-one team, I like his chances.

2. Baltimore (1-0). I have a feeling I'll be considering Terrell Suggs one day for Canton -- one of several Ravens we'll have to pass judgment on.

3. New England (0-0). Haven't won a Super Bowl in seven seasons. Proverbial window's closing.

4. Chicago (1-0). Don't see how a team can be more impressive than the Bears were Sunday, and they'll give the Pack a run if they can keep Jay Cutler relatively clean.

5. Philadelphia (1-0). LeSean McCoy in St. Louis: 15 carries for 122 yards. Just the tonic to keep the pressure off Mike Vick.

6. Houston (1-0). A quantum jump for the perennially disappointing men of Bob McNair. But it looks like they can play a little defense.

7. Detroit (1-0). I agree with Matthew Stafford: Good teams win games on the road when they make mistakes. That was Detroit Sunday in Tampa.

8. New York Jets (1-0). Love the way they play for 60 minutes. Didn't love the way they played for 45 against the Cowboys.

9. Buffalo (1-0). As Bill Parcells says, "I go by what I see.'' And the Bills handled Kansas City, on the road, in all phases.

10. Atlanta (0-1). See number 9.

11. San Diego (1-0). Another kick return for touchdown against the Chargers ... 15 seconds into the season, for crying out loud. This special teams thing is like a fungus. The Chargers can't stop it from growing.

12. New Orleans (0-1). Still bullish on the Saints. But that defense has to find some answers.

13. Pittsburgh (0-1). A wise Chinese philosopher once said: "Give the Steelers a mulligan. No way they're that bad. They'll never turn it over again seven times in a game in the next 10 years.''

14. Washington (1-0). They beat a battered New York Giants team, but two good signs: They didn't get overrun by a good running game, and Rex Grossman was a star.

15. Tampa Bay (0-1). I've got to believe that defensive front is better than it showed Sunday. If it isn't, Tampa's going to have to score 30 a game to make the playoffs.

"The whole thing about ghosts and demons and monkeys, that stuff is not real to us. This was a football game.''

-- Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, after the Ravens exorcised something or other in their rout of the Steelers in Baltimore.

"It felt good to know I could go out there and play lights out.''

-- Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, after going 14 of 32 and rushing for 98 yards in the decisive victory at St. Louis.

No problem with Vick being excited at how he played. And stats are never everything. But competing 44 percent of one's throws isn't exactly playing lights out. Vick, though, had a very good, impactful game.

"It's incredibly humbling which, obviously, we needed at this point. It'll be interesting to see how we persevere. This is a big step towards humility.''

-- Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu, after the Steelers' worst loss in 14 years. Strange quote. The Steelers needed to be humbled? Not sure that's a very good sign for them.

"I want the country of Sept. 12th again, when everybody came together. We said we'd never forget and now we can live up to it."

-- Jon Bon Jovi, New Jersey resident, to Larry Neumeister of the Associated Press, on this solemn occasion of the 10th anniversary of the towers going down.

Offensive Players of the Week

Cam Newton, QB, Carolina. In a loss, the Panthers won. With the best opening day by a quarterback in NFL history, Newton completed 24 of 37 for 422 yards (422!), two touchdowns and one interception. I didn't see much of the game, only the highlights, but Newton's competitiveness, his arm and his legs showed up at Arizona.

Down 7-0 early, Newton's 77- and 26-yard touchdown strikes to Steve Smith gave Carolina the lead. When the Cards tied it up, Newton bowled over from the 1 for another Panther lead. Think of the low expectations we all had of Newton. He was a downright star Sunday.

Rex Grossman, QB, Washington. The under-the-radar, terminally underappreciated Grossman -- rightfully so -- managed the game perfectly for the Redskins in a 28-14 win over the Giants. He completed 21 of 34 for 305 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions and a 110.5 passer rating. There's a reason father and son Shanahan picked Grossman over John Beck, because they loved Beck. And it's because Grossman had such a good summer. He continued that Sunday.

Defensive Players of the Week

Brian Urlacher, LB, Chicago. In the last three or four years, some have tried to put Urlacher out to pasture. Not dominant. Piles on too many downed runners instead of making big plays himself.

How do you spell "pshaw"? Ridiculous. And he showed that Sunday in a 30-12 stunner over the Falcons. His parallel-to-the-ground, diving interception, his 12-yard fumble return for a touchdown, his team-high 10 tackles ... just a tremendous sideline-to-sideline performance for a team that loudly pronounced it's still going to be a very big factor in the NFC playoff race.

Mario Williams, OLB, Houston. Since being drafted No. 1 in 2006, Williams and his Texans had gone 2-8 against the Colts with Manning at quarterback. The rout Sunday was obviously helped by the switch to Collins, but Williams' two sacks and a forced fumble were helped markedly by the fact that Williams could pin his ears back against Collins instead of being matadored over and over by Manning. Williams was in the backfield as much as the Texans hoped he'd be when they moved him to linebacker.

Ryan Kerrigan, OLB, Washington. Good game, rook. And great point by NBC's Alex Flanagan, who said Kerrigan never scored in his starry career at Purdue, but he did get an interception and touchdown in his first pro game. Early in the third quarter of a 14-14 game, Kerrigan evaded a lunging cut block by Giants right tackle Kareem McKenzie, leaped and intercepted an Eli Manning pass. He returned it nine yards for the decisive touchdown in a 28-14 Washington win.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Ted Ginn, WR/KR/PR, San Francisco. Hard to be a more valuable special-teamer than Ginn was in the 49ers' season-opening win over Seattle. When the Seahawks got to within 19-17, Ginn returned a kickoff 102 yards, and later a punt 55 yards, both for touchdowns, to make the difference in a 33-17 win.

Randall Cobb, WR/KR/PR, Green Bay. We all know the story by now -- he wasn't supposed to return a kickoff past five yards deep in the end zone, and he returned a kickoff eight yards deep, and he went 108 yards with it. "Thank God he couldn't hear what was being said into our headsets,'' coach Mike McCarthy said afterward. For the game, he had 175 all-purpose yards in his NFL debut: 135 on kick returns, five on a punt return, and 35 on two receptions. Nice start.

Coach of the Week

Chan Gailey, head coach, Buffalo. A year ago, the Bills lost in overtime to Kansas City. What a difference a season makes. The Bills dominated from the start, abusing Matt Cassel with some new defensive parts and pounding the Chiefs through the air and on the ground, and Gailey returned to the place where he was fired two years ago to embarrass the Chiefs and put early heat on the coach who decided he was expendable, Todd Haley.

Goat of the Week

Tony Romo, QB, Dallas. See above. I don't want to kill a guy I like twice in one column.

Noted New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has to be polishing up his drawing board this morning, figuring out what to draw on it. In the Saints' last two games, the defense has been awful. Against one struggling offensive team (Seattle, in the playoffs last year) and one superior one (Green Bay, on Thursday), here's how the Saints' defense fared in eight quarters combined:

Defensive points allowed: 76Touchdowns allowed: 10QB line: 49-of-70 (.700), 7 TD, 1 Int., 122.6 ratingYards allowed: 814

With Manning missing his first game after 13 straight years starting, it falls to the next man on the list to break the Brett Favre consecutive quarterback starts record. Next on the list: brother Eli, who started his 111th straight game (including playoffs) Sunday afternoon at Washington. Favre is at 321, including playoffs. So Eli has 211 straight starts to go. Assuming no playoff games are played by Manning (a faulty assumption, but I'm not going to guess at it), calculating when Eli would pass Favre shows just how amazing the Favre streak is.

That would be Week 4 in 2024.

Randall Cobb's nickname inside the Packer locker room is Corn.

I've been on some short flights before, but how's this for the 66-miles-as-the-crow-flies puddle jump from Chicago to Milwaukee last Tuesday:

7: Minutes from the time we got above 10,000 feet and could use laptops to the time we were on our final descent and had to turn off all electronic devices.

27: Minutes from takeoff to landing.

For those who would ask (I might be one of them if I hadn't flown myself and knew my itinerary), "Why'd you fly from Chicago to Milwaukee?'' the answer is that I flew from Boston to Milwaukee, with a plane change in Chicago. Normally I might just get a rental car in Chicago and drive up, but I was able to use the time at O'Hare to finish my Tuesday column.

I was in Milwaukee Tuesday afternoon to speak to students at Marquette. Afterward, I drove two hours to Green Bay, directly to an NBC planning dinner at the Brett Favre Steakhouse. I got off the highway, took a right on Holmgren Way, drove a mile or so to Brett Favre Pass (just before intersecting with Lombardi Avenue), took a right on Brett Favre Pass, and pulled into the parking lot at the steakhouse. Had I driven further on Brett Favre Pass, I'd have come to Tony Canadeo Run. From there, I'd have been able to take a left onto Reggie White Way, or I could have driven another block and dead-ended at Bart Starr Drive.

Rumor has it Green Bay's a football town.

So when Hurricane Irene was headed up the East Coast, ESPN's Adam Schefter, who lives right in the path of the storm on Long Island, thought he should pack up the family -- wife, two kids, dogs -- and drive west. He found a Hampton Inn in Hershey, Pa., that would take dogs. Oh, Schefter has dogs all right. Five of them: four Labradoodles, one Wheaton Terrior, all between 25 and 90 pounds. So into the family SUV went this modern-day National Lampoon Vacation trip, with nine living beings and Schefter as Chevy Chase.

"Other than the grandmother tied to the roof, it was exactly the same trip,'' Schefter said.

They made the four-hour drive to Hershey Saturday morning, and when the power was lost in his town, they decided to stay a couple of extra days. Through Wednesday. "We had seven living beings sleeping on the bed at one point,'' said Schefter. And housekeeping? Never happened. They made the bed themselves and just exchanged towels with the maid. Too much mayhem in the room to clear out and let cleaning happen.

The power on Long Island was still out when they decided to drive back home -- saying they were getting on each other's nerves might be understating it. On the way home, his son, wife and Schefter all traveled with a dog on the lap. "Driving four hours with a dog on your lap -- that's a lot of fun,'' said Schefter. And when they got home ... surprise! A foot of water in the basement.

"Let's just say I was pretty happy to get back to work,'' Schefter said.

"Cromartie Island is sinking.''

-- @PriscoCBS, Pete Prisco of CBS Sportsline, after cornerback Antonio Cromartie of the Jets allowed his second touchdown reception of the night, a tug-of-war he lost with Dallas wide receiver Miles Austin.

"Thank God! My brother @tpolamalu will retire a Steeler! That's the way it should be! Thank God!"

-- @RealRClark25, Ryan Clark, the running mate of Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu, who signed a contract through the 2014 season Saturday afternoon at the Pittsburgh airport, before the Steelers left for Baltimore.

"People so wishy washy, you either on the train or you not. Our team has each other back thru the good and the bad that's why we'll be great!''

-- @mark_ingram28, the rookie running back of the Saints, after the opening loss to the Packers. Evidently, he doesn't want bandwagon-jumpers.

"Moon lit sky, free I lay. These words kiss thoughts and walk miles for you. We own the night.''

-- @ArianFoster, the Houston running back, who is a poet and writer when not rehabbing a bad hamstring and trying to run over foes. He wrote that at 11:14 p.m. Central Time Tuesday.

"Sad to see how rusty these elite QBs are after the lockout. It's going to be a few weeks before everyone gets on the same page.''

-- @ericwinston, the Houston right tackle, after watching the two sides Thursday night run up and down the field on each other -- 84 passes thrown, no interceptions.

1. I think this is what I liked about Week 1:

a. Fantastic tribute, not too over the top, for the eight early games. DeNiro was good, the taps emotional, the field-length flags appropriate, and the anthems good. (I heard three.)

b. Good to see new life from John Kasay Thursday night. He had his first non-Carolina field goals in the NFL since 1994, kicking two for the Saints.

c. Fantastic add by Phil Simms on the initial touchdown Sunday in Baltimore, saying Ravens coach John Harbaugh texted Joe Flacco and told him on tight coverage, don't be afraid to try to stick the ball in there. That's precisely what Flacco did early in the first quarter of the opener against Pittsburgh.

d. It took Mario Williams exactly six minutes to begin to prove Wade Phillips right. He got around Dallas Clark from the standup outside linebacker position and nailed Kerry Collins.

e. It took Chris Long eight minutes. More credit to Long. His was of Michael Vick.

f. Ben Tate, Houston, 24 carries for 116 yards. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

g. Bruce Gradkowski was more than a clipboard-holder in Cleveland. His on-target 41-yard touchdown pass to rookie A.J. Green, the first in Green's career, was the winner in Cincinnati's 27-17 upset of Cleveland.

h. No matter how we try to marginalize Cedric Benson, he keeps coming back and playing well: 125 more rushing yards Sunday.

i. Jag Mike Thomas is a tough little receiver. Physical, too. Just doesn't drop the ball.

j. Philip Rivers had it when he needed it.

k. As did Mark Sanchez. That was a weird game in the Meadowlands, but the thing I like about the Sanchize (26 of 44, 335 yards) is he doesn't let four or five bad series carry over to late in the game, when he knows he has to be good.

2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 1:

a. Well, Michael Irvin sure gets the shiny-silver-suit award for Week 1.

b. Sidney Rice, inactive (shoulder). Just leads to more thought that Rice is not going to be as durable as needed to be one of the highest-paid skill players in football.

c. Gotta catch that ball, Andre Johnson, and not let it slip through the hands for an Indy pick.

d. Still waiting for the Eagles to touch Steven Jackson on that long first-quarter touchdown run.

e. You too, Tennessee D, on the Maurice Jones-Drew touchdown run.

f. So much for the great story of the Baylor firefighter going in the first round to Philadelphia: Guard Danny Watkins, who just lost the starting right guard job, was a healthy inactive for the Eagles.

g. Horsecrap Journalism of the Week Award: To FOX, for taking my quote from Tony Dungy about Lee Roy Selmon and putting it on the screen of the Lions-Bucs telecast without sourcing.

h. In the last two drafts, the Bucs picked four defensive linemen in the first two rounds: Gerald McCoy, Brian Price, Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers. Combined, they had five tackles, no sacks, no quarterback pressures on Sunday. Yikes.

i. In fact, the Bucs had no sacks and no pressures ... against a Detroit offensive line that isn't in the league's upper echelon. That's a bad sign for a team that will live or die on its young defensive stalwarts.

j. Kerry Collins. I know it's not all his fault, but he looked his age in Houston.

3. I think before we move too far away from Thursday night's game, I have to give a nod to New Orleans wide receiver Marques Colston. I know he fumbled on the Saints' first series, leading to a short field and an easy second touchdown for the Packers. But late in the fourth quarter, with the Saints down eight and driving to try to tie it up with no timeouts left in the last minute, he did something pretty brave, and smart.

Drew Brees threw him a 23-yard post, and Colston made a diving catch with 31 seconds left. The dive fractured his collarbone. If he lay on the turf with, say, 27 seconds left, the officials would have called for an automatic 10-second runoff because the Saints had no timeouts left. Then the Saints ran to the line, Colston knowing his collarbone was broken, and he lined up because there wasn't time to get off the field, and Brees threw a short pass to Darren Sproles, and then Colston had to get back to the line again for Brees to spike the ball. Tick, tick, tick. Finally, with three seconds left, Colston was able to get off the field. Now he's out for at least a month. Those are the kinds of sequences you remember about a player. At least I will.

4. I think the one thing to know about the new deal between the NFL and ESPN that interests me a lot is that the deal includes no playoff games, with an asterisk. If in any way ESPN telecasts a playoff game -- either because the playoffs are expanded sometime between 2014 and 2021, or because the league hands them a playoff game from the existing inventory -- the network will pay what I'm told is a huge premium price.

5. I think it's admirable for the Steelers to have given Troy Polamalu a contract extension through the 2014 season, with three new years totaling about $30 million to tack onto the end of this year's deal. But what worries me is Pittsburgh has the oldest starting defense in football since the turn of the century, and this contract pushes their 2012 cap -- as of today, with the full knowledge that it can change by cutting players whose 2012 deals would be onerous on the cap -- to more than $20 million over the projected 2012 spending limit. This was a good deal for Polamalu, and if he plays like he has for most of his career, it will be money well spent. But I have my doubts that a man who has thrown his body around the way he has will still be great in 2012, never mind '13 or '14.

6. I think the underrated player of the day has to be Mike Scifres, the San Diego punter, who subbed for the injured Nate Kaeding against Minnesota and boomed a 40-yard field goal to the back of the net that would have been good from 55. He hadn't kicked a field goal against a rush since placekicking for Western Illinois against Western Kentucky in the 2002 NCAA Division I-AA football playoffs. And his holder, Eric Weddle, wasn't the usual holder either; Scifres holds for Kaeding. "So today was the first day Eric held in a game, and the first day I kicked in a game in the NFL,'' he said after the game. "I was a little nervous, and now, driving home, I still find it hard to believe I did it, honestly. I'm kind of shocked. But it comes back to you: swing easy, just try to make solid contact, don't try to hit it too hard.''

7. I think there will be a female NFL official by 2014. My guess is 2013. Not a referee, but a field official at one of the other six positions. The league is scouting the small handful of female officials at the major-college level this year, and it's not the first year a search has been conducted.

8. I think it's been a long time -- maybe ever -- since I've seen fans as imaginative as the three I met on the sidelines in Green Bay the other night.

9. I think the oddest story angle of Week 1 had to be this: On a day Kerry Collins got pulverized and was almost wholly ineffective, he had 197 passing yards and passed Joe Montana into 10th place on the all-time passing-yards list, with 40,638.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. Great new logo and uniforms, Winnipeg Jets. Love this logo.

b. Sidney Crosby, on the chance his post-concussion syndrome might end his career: "It's a pretty slight one. I wouldn't bet on that.'' Let's hope he's right.

c. I love quirky little stats like this one: Last Monday and Tuesday, the White Sox and Twins played three times at Target Field. Chicago won all three. I'd be hard-pressed to figure three straight games this year in which the starting pitching was as dominant. Chicago's Phillip Humber, Zach Stewart and Jake Peavy put this pitching line together over the three games:

d. If Armageddon ever happens, I hope it's not during the two weeks of the U.S. Open. Not sure the New York Times could find space for it, what with all the tennis.

e. Love watching Panda's at-bats.

f. Sorry. I liked the Maryland uniforms. They look like the state flag. Thought they were fun.

g. Liked Maryland's. Loved both Michigan's (with the great block "M" on the front and the stripes on the shoulders) and Notre Dame's. And if you want me to start watching college football again (NO!!! Too many other things to follow!), show me a few more of those Notre Dame-Michigan games, with three touchdowns in the last 75 seconds, and Denard Robinson accounting for 446 yards of offense -- 400, seemingly, in the last few minutes. Wow.

h. Beernerdness: Yes, I had the Spotted Cow in Wisconsin. Good summer beer. Light and a little cloudy-yellow. You could probably drink a lot of them and be relatively unaffected. Problem was, I had it at the end of a very long day in Green Bay last Wednesday (at the incomparable Nicky's Lionhead), and barely made it through one. Too tired. But I approve.

i. Coffeenerdness: I tried the Alterra Coffee in the Milwaukee Airport, as many of you suggested. I've had it before and liked it OK, but there was some different taste to it that I couldn't quite figure out. This time I could: licorice. And licorice in the espresso -- uh, no.

j. Coffeenerdness II: What a good coffee town Appleton, Wisc., is. In a two-block stretch of downtown on College Avenue (I once had night-before-the-game dinner with Bears linebacker Ron Rivera in an Italian place on this street), there are local espresso places -- the trendy and modern Copper Rock, the homey and filled-with-locals Brewed Awakenings -- and if those aren't good enough for you, there's a Starbucks on the corner. I can't imagine there's a better downtown coffee experience in a medium-sized, middle America city.

k. And thanks to Ira Freehof and his wonderful Comfort Diner on 45th Street in Manhattan for giving me a great place to write Sunday morning -- and some pretty good oatmeal pancakes.

l. Interesting 15-second experience in my Manhattan hotel Saturday. Got stuck in an elevator, sort of, with Bob Lanier. You know, the Hall of Fame basketball player. I was on the elevator, it stopped at Lanier's floor, he got on, doors closed ... and nothing. For 15, 20 seconds. Then I opened the doors by pressing the door open button, let them close again, and finally we got down to the lobby.

He told me his favorite stuck-in-an-elevator story, then we were off. But before we left, I did manage to look down at his feet. I'd always been amazed as a kid to read that Bob Lanier had size-22 feet. And though I didn't measure (wouldn't that have been an interesting sight?), they sure looked like big shoes to me.

m. Great story about the dedication of kids in flood-ravaged Vermont to even GET to to school with so many washed out roads.

New England 37, Miami 20. I understand many of you Fin fans are upset with me picking New England to put up 37 on the Miami D. (You guys are pretty active Tweeters.) Some of that comes from New England averaging 39.8 per game on its last four trips to south Florida. Some, too, about the Pats' penchant for forcing turnovers. Tony Sparano knows it.

"They were plus 28 in turnovers last year and they won a ton of games," the Miami coach said Saturday, "so the importance is that when you turn it over against this team, at least in the past --and every year is a new year -- but when you turn it over against them in the past, they would turn it back over into about 63 percent scoring, which is one of the best in the league. They had 31 possessions and turned them into 19 scores.'' Be warned.

Oakland 21, Denver 20. Bad news for Jason Campbell: no Kevin Boss (knee) in what should have been his Raider debut. Campbell needs his tight end, and the Raiders have big plans for Boss in Hue Jackson's offense. For Denver to take advantage of that absence, the Broncos will have to fly around Campbell with a newly credible pass-rush (Elvis Dumervil, rookie Von Miller). That's why it'll be so close. But Oakland's run game will win out, I believe. If you stay awake until 1:20 or so Tuesday morning in the East, you'll get to see this second game of tonight's ESPN doubleheader. I'll be TiVoing, thanks.

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