Roman Harper's interception clinched a 23-17 win for the Saints over the Falcons. (Bill Haber/AP)
Defense won the New Orleans Saints a football game.
Go ahead: Take a moment, rub the sleep out of your eyes and check that sentence again. Still true.
Last season, the Saints allowed more yards (7,042) than any team in NFL history. In Week 1 of 2013, they denied the potent Falcons' offense -- which, granted, currently includes a hobbled Roddy White -- on a 1st-and-goal situation in the game's final minute to preserve a victory.
Atlanta trailed 23-17 with 3:12 left when it opened a drive that took its offense all the way to the Saints' 7. There, New Orleans stood tall, forcing two incompletions; limiting a White catch to a four-yard gain; and, on fourth down, locking up a crucial victory via a Roman Harper interception in the end zone.
"[The defense] did an exceptional job all day long," Drew Brees said. "They put pressure on the quarterback all day long and put them in some difficult situations."
The significance of such a performance in Rob Ryan's first game as the Saints' defensive coordinator and Sean Payton's first regular-season game back from suspension will not be lost. Payton opened the game by winning the toss and deferring to the second half, putting his defense to the test early. Ten minutes into the first quarter, he then opted to go for it on 4th-and-1 from his own 47.
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The Saints failed to pick up that first down, but the defense limited Atlanta to a field goal. The Falcons led 10-0 at that point, with 1:28 to go in the opening stanza. They would score just one TD the rest of the way.
"The guys up front did a great job today," linebacker Curtis Lofton told the Saints' website. "We got pressure on the quarterback, but it goes hand in hand. The secondary and linebackers had great coverage, which leads to sacks. That’s how we play as a defense."
Who else starred -- or bombed -- in Week 1?
First Down: Andrew Luck.
Scoff, if you must, about the Colts needing a late drive and subsequent defensive stand to hold off the lowly Raiders at home. A win is a win, and this one came with Luck again showing off his penchant for delivering in the clutch.
Down three in the fourth quarter following a Sebastian Janikowski field goal, Luck and the Colts embarked on an 11-play drive that ate up nearly six minutes and ended with Luck scrambling for a 19-yard touchdown. The Colts' D then delivered one final stop, securing the fifth fourth-quarter comeback win of Luck's career.
"We know it's tough to get wins in the NFL, obviously you don't want to go down to the wire every game," Luck said. "Something that this team has is some fortitude, some backbone and we managed to eek it out again."
Luck came through with seven game-winning drives late in games last season, as the Colts posted a remarkable 9-1 record in contests decided by 10 points or fewer. He and his team picked up right where they left off ... even if Luck would prefer a little less drama from time to time.
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Fourth Down: C.J. Spiller.
This was not quite the start Spiller had in mind. The Bills' No. 1 running back looked sharp during the preseason, appearing to be a terrific fit for Doug Marrone's new, up-tempo offense.
He may still prove to be just that, but a 17-carry, 41-yard showing against New England hardly counts as Spiller bursting out of the blocks. The fourth-year back fumbled on his second carry of the game, setting up a Tom Brady-to-Julian Edelman touchdown. Spiller also finished Sunday afternoon with 26 yards less on the ground than backup Fred Jackson.
Buffalo needs more out of its star. Spiller should deliver an improved effort going forward, but Week 1 was one to be forgotten.
First Down: Anquan Boldin.
You'll forgive Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome if he felt a little sick to his stomach Sunday. Newsome, in a tight salary cap spot, opted to trade Boldin and his $6 million contract to San Francisco in March. The veteran receiver paid immediate dividends for the 49ers, torching the Packers for 13 catches, 208 yards and a touchdown in a 34-28 win.
The performance was Boldin's best, yardage-wise, since his NFL debut on Sept. 7, 2003, when he went off for 10 catches and 217 yards against Detroit as a member of the Arizona Cardinals. (Joey Harrington and Charles Rogers -- remember them? -- connected for two TDs in that game, a 42-24 Detroit victory).
With Green Bay unable to cover Boldin, San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick stayed in the pocket, throwing 39 passes to just seven runs. He finished with more than 400 yards through the air, with more than half coming via Boldin.
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Fourth Down: The Pittsburgh Steelers.
Um ... yuck.
The Steelers talked all summer about how motivated they were to bounce back from last season's 8-8 finish. They then turned in a showing more befitting a 4-12 team in their opener.
Making matters worse: Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, veteran linebacker Larry Foote and running back LaRod Stephens-Howling all suffered season-ending injuries in the 16-9 loss to Tennessee, a game in which the Steelers did not score any offensive points until there was just 1:23 left on the clock.
"Unacceptable performance," head coach Mike Tomlin said. "I won’t accept it. This team better not accept it. We’ve got some work to do."
First Down: Jared Cook.
Late in the first quarter of St. Louis' 27-24 win over Arizona, Cook broke free deep off a pass from Sam Bradford and appeared headed for the end zone. Instead, Cardinals rookie Tyrann Mathieu caught him at about the 5-yard-line and punched the ball from his arms, resulting in a fumble and touchback.
Rather than sulk about that play, Cook responded with arguably the best game of his career. Showing the chemistry with Bradford that St. Louis dreamed of when it signed the talented tight end, Cook caught seven balls for a game-high 141 yards.
Included in those numbers was a clutch TD, which pulled the Rams within 24-21 in the fourth quarter; and a key late catch to set up a game-winning field goal.
Fourth Down: Lavonte David and Rey Maualuga.
Two boneheaded penalties. Two losses.
Maualuga was flagged for a personal foul just as his team had stopped Chicago on a 3rd-and-6 -- a stand that should have given the Bengals the ball, down three with about a minute left in Chicago. Shortly thereafter, David helped the Jets get in position for a game-winning field goal, unnecessarily shoving New York QB Geno Smith after he had stepped out of bounds.
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First Down: Justin Houston.
Welcome to the NFL, Luke Joeckel.
The No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft -- taken one spot after the Chiefs selected OT Eric Fisher -- received a painful indoctrination into rookie life, as Houston schooled him en route to three sacks and five tackles.
Nary a soul on the Jaguars' offense did much of anything Sunday, so it's hard to pin the blame on just one person. Houston, though, dominated this matchup on the edge, and in the process moved 30 percent of the way toward equaling his 2012 sack total of 10. Houston was a Pro Bowler last season for the Chiefs, despite their 2-14 record, and he's well on his way to a repeat.
Fourth Down: The Browns' offense.
A lot of folks jumped on the Browns' bandwagon this preseason, thanks to the arrival of coordinators Norv Turner (offense) and Ray Horton (defense). QB Brandon Weeden seemed much more comfortable, too, in new coach Rob Chudzinski's offense, at least in early preseason showings vs. St. Louis and Detroit.
Chalk up Week 1 as a massive letdown. The Browns mustered a mere 10 points against Miami, with Weeden struggling to a dismal 48.4 QB rating. He was responsible for three interceptions, though two hit off the hands of his receivers.
Perhaps most disappointing of all: Trent Richardson, who struggled with some injury issues in the summer, saw just 15 touches and was held to 47 yards rushing.
First Down: Reggie Bush and Joique Bell.
On a 3rd-and-7 midway through the third quarter Sunday, Lions QB Matthew Stafford dropped back and tossed a simple middle screen to Reggie Bush. And Bush took off.
Detroit's new running back was never touched on his way to the end zone for a 77-yard TD. Bush almost had two more scores -- he actually was given touchdowns on a pair of run plays, only to have both overturned on replay. Backup Joique Bell, carrying the load behind Bush with disappointing third-stringer Mikel Leshoure a healthy scratch, cleaned up after Bush on both occasions. Bell found the end zone twice and added 67 yards of his own receiving.
All told, Bush and Bell combined for 283 yards in Detroit's 34-24 win over Minnesota. That's 172 more than Adrian Peterson accumulated.
ROSENBERG: Bush already feeling at home with Lions
Fourth Down: The Panthers' chance to make a statement.
The Seahawks entered Sunday banged-up, down several key contributors on defense. And the Carolina front seven made life miserable for Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch for most of the afternoon, using constant pressure to cover up question marks in the secondary.
But a 7-3 Carolina lead dissipated into a 12-7 deficit when Wilson found Jermaine Kearse for an acrobatic 43-yard touchdown five minutes into the fourth quarter. Cam Newton and the Panthers' offense was unable to respond. The Newton-led attack mustered all of 253 yards Sunday, its lone score coming on a Newton-to-Steve Smith TD pass in the second quarter.
Carolina has started 2-8 each of the past two seasons, then turned it on late after falling from the playoff race. The goal in 2013 was to get off to a much stronger start. It misfired on a glorious chance to do just that on Sunday.