Friday September 9th, 2011

The Colts need backup QB Kerry Collins to quickly settle in if they're going to have any hope this season. (Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE)

The 2011 NFL season got off to a rip-roarin', defense-optional start Thursday night in Green Bay, where the Packers held on for dear life to claim a 42-34 win over the Saints.

It was a delicious appetizer for the full Week 1 slate, which features 13 games on Sunday and two more on Monday night. Some storylines worth following this weekend as the NFL kicks it into high gear:

Can Kerry Collins replace Peyton Manning?

That's like asking if it was wise to trade in your Xbox 360 for an Atari. You have fond memories of the Atari and it would be kind of neat to have one again, but it's nowhere near the quality of the Xbox.

Collins brings some of the things to the table that Manning does. He's an experienced veteran with a great locker-room presence and top-notch ability to manage a game. But you've heard of "system quarterbacks," right? The Colts are a quarterback system -- everything they do offensively is contingent on Manning.

Or at least, it was. Collins probably won't have the same freedoms (at least, not right away) that Manning did to audible and call plays on his own. The Colts, though, need Collins to quickly settle in if they're going to have any hope this season.

Baltimore's O-line vs. Pittsburgh's attacking D

The Steelers visit the Ravens early Sunday in a game rife with AFC North title implications. Who gets the early jump in the division may come down to how well Baltimore's revamped offensive line holds Pittsburgh's defense in check.

The Ravens have yet to even see their line in action -- left tackle Bryant McKinnie didn't sign until late in the preseason, while center Matt Birk and right guard Marshal Yanda missed substantial time to injury. Yet, somehow, they'll have to come together and run at peak efficiency against Pittsburgh's pressuring defense.

The last time these two teams met, in Week 13 of the 2010 season, Pittsburgh stole the division away from Baltimore when Troy Polamalu forced a fumble on a sack of Joe Flacco.

 Rookie QBs in the spotlight

Just about everyone is intrigued to see how Cam Newton responds in his first Panthers start, at Arizona.

But he's not the only rookie going under center Sunday: Andy Dalton, taken 34 picks after Newton in April's draft, will lead the Bengals into Cleveland. And we're just an injury away from seeing Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, Colin Kaepernick or Blaine Gabbert.

Newton and Dalton will lead the 2011 QB class into the league, though, and both face winnable games to open the season. Can either climb the NFL's steep learning curve and shine in Week 1?

Are the Lions and Bucs for real?

Last year, Detroit helped keep Tampa Bay out of the playoffs -- thereby helping eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay in -- by knocking off the Bucs in Week 15. This year, both teams have postseason aspirations.

The Lions became an offseason media darling this summer, with the majority of prognosticators pegging them as the league's up-and-coming team for 2011. Much of their possible success will depend on Matthew Stafford's ability to stay healthy, something he's yet to do in two previous NFL seasons.

In fact, it was third-stringer Drew Stanton that led Detroit to its 2010 win in Tampa. The Bucs will see the full array of Lions' offensive weapons Sunday ... not to mention that intimidating defensive front.

Double Monday-Nighters

One of the Week 1 treats that the league has given us in recent years is a Monday night doubleheader. That tradition is alive and well in 2011, with New England and Miami meeting early Monday, and Oakland visiting Denver late. Each game carries its fair share of intrigue.

The Patriots looked like world-beaters during the preseason and are one of the heavy favorites to come out of the AFC this year. Miami could shake things up right out of the gate and restore some confidence among the Dolphins faithful -- especially if Chad Henne hangs with Tom Brady and Reggie Bush shines.

Oakland, meanwhile, rolled to a 6-0 record against its AFC West foes last season but still managed just an 8-8 mark overall. The Raiders would love to continue that perfect intra-divisional roll, but Kyle Orton and the host Broncos would love to start new coach John Fox off with a W.

Remembering 9/11

Some of the Week 1 fervor will be tempered Sunday, as the NFL pays tribute to all those we lost 10 years ago on 9/11. The Redskins host the Giants at 4:15 p.m. ET in an emotionally charged affair, then the Jets take the national spotlight Sunday night against the Cowboys in New York. The atmospheres in both D.C. and New York will be trying for players and fans alike -- football will feel rightfully unimportant when everything is put in perspective.

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