• You get the feeling that maybe, just maybe, we saw the NFL's real dream team here Thursday night? The Green Bay Packers certainly couldn't have scripted their 2011 opener -- the night they got to unfurl their Super Bowl title banner -- much better than the way this one played out. Especially on offense, which as everyone knows is the key to championships these days in the NFL. To wit:
-- The Packers' 42 points were the most Green Bay has scored in an opener since 1919, the first game in this storied franchise's history. That one, a 53-0 shutout against the Menominee North End Athletic Club was not televised on NBC or called by Al Michaels, as best we can tell.
-- Aaron Rodgers and the powerful Packers' offense was razor sharp for most of the game, producing four touchdowns on their five meaningful first-half drives, with 276 yards and 16 first downs in the opening 30 minutes. Green Bay was only up 28-17 at the half, but it felt like more because the Saints defense couldn't stop the Packers and one of New Orleans' two touchdowns came via special teams on a scintillating 72-yard Darren Sproles punt return.
-- Green Bay unveiled a breathtaking new offensive weapon in spectacular fashion. Rookie receiver-return man Randall Cobb caught a 32-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, then followed that up with an NFL-record-tying 108-yard kickoff return that fully announced his playmaking skills. And to think the champs found Cobb sitting there waiting for them at the bottom of the second round (the 64th overall pick).
-- The Packers defense certainly gave up its share of ground -- the Saints finished with 477 yards of offense and 27 first downs -- but stiffened and made the plays that counted in a game Green Bay never trailed. Few were bigger than the pair of stops the Packers turned in with New Orleans facing a third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 from the Green Bay 7, with the Saints trailing 35-27 and less than four minutes remaining in the third quarter. The game ended on another defensive high note for Green Bay, with linebacker Clay Matthews and safety Morgan Burnett combining to stuff Saints rookie running back Mark Ingram from the 1-yard line with no time remaining, preserving the Packers' victory. In three key red zone possessions in the second half, the Saints scored just three points.
I know, I know, it's only Week 1. Let's not coronate anyone after just one of the NFL's 256 regular-season games have been played. But Green Bay just put on an impressive opening display of offense, defense and special teams, and what else is involved in playing winning football at an elite level? The Packers hit the ground running like champions this season, and they look every bit as improved as advertised. That can't give the rest of the league much comfort as 2011 continues.
• So much for the theory the Saints would have an edge Thursday night because quarterback Drew Brees organized his team's players-only practices during the lockout, while the Packers chose instead to do their work individually or in small groups.
It was kind of a non-story anyway, because most of the teams that got organized were doing it partly as a show of solidarity, perhaps gaining more in terms of public relations than on the football front. But if this game was a referendum on the lockout workout issue, you can't say the Packers suffered for their lack of activity. And, who knows, maybe the Saints played far better against Green Bay than they would have without the well-attended workouts.
Rodgers was clearly miffed by the offseason workouts issue. He brought it up three times in his postgame news conference, all unbidden, and all in sarcastic fashion.
"It was a good start for us,'' Rodgers said of his team's 42-point showing. "I've just got to ask myself, 'What would have happened if we had offseason workouts? Could we have started any faster and scored more points tonight?' ''
I can't blame Rodgers for his sensitivity to the issue. Some of the questions about it were used against him as some sort of measuring stick of his leadership within the Packers locker room. I think it was a more a case of Rodgers knowing his team well, and knowing what it did and didn't need to do during the lockout. There was no right and wrong in the matter, and Rodgers' 27-of-35 passing, for 312 yards and three touchdowns (132.1 rating) kind of proved his point.
• I get it that New Orleans drafted Heisman winning running back Mark Ingram in the first round and he enters the league with the reputation for running with power. But Saints head coach Sean Payton deserves a second guess after predictably running Ingram up the middle from the 1-yard line on the game's final play. The Packers swarmed him and denied the Saints any chance to go for a two-point conversion and send the game into overtime.
Actually, Payton's call wasn't all that predictable for him, given his reputation for being one of the most imaginative and daring play-callers in the league. This time, however, he played it safe, and wound up sorry.
"I thought as hot as Drew (Brees) was, they might put it into his hands,'' Rodgers said, of the game's final controversial call. "I'm glad they ran it.''
Ingram had already been stopped on a third-and-1 play from the Packers 7 late in the third quarter, so it's not as if he had momentum in the short-yardage game before the final play. Anything but an up-the-gut dive play might have made Green Bay's defense pause just long enough to allow the Saints a real chance to score.
"When we look at the film, we are going to kick ourselves in the butt a couple times with the turnovers and not converting on short-yardage plays,'' said Ingram, who finished his first NFL game with team highs of 40 yards rushing and 13 carries (3.1 average). "I think that hurt us. You have to get a yard on the goal line to win the game. I have to get a yard.''
The Saints had their chances late, but Brees knows they let this game get away from them a little at a time. "I think the biggest stat for us that's disappointing is our red-zone efficiency,'' said Brees, who threw for 419 yards and three touchdowns. "We were 1-of-5, scoring touchdowns, in the red zone. You've got to cash in there when you're down there against this team. It's tough when you do make it all the way down there and you aren't able to punch it in. It's kind of mano e mano at that point, and they bowed up and stopped us at the end.''
With some help from timid Payton play-calling, that is.
• Thursday night's game could have been subtitled "A Star is Born,'' because that's how much "wow'' factor Cobb adds to the Packers' offense. The acceleration he showed on his 32-yard second-quarter touchdown reception was eye-opening, but the former Kentucky Wildcat simply blew folks away with his team-record 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Cobb exploded into the open field after appearing to be all but stopped by Saints tacklers, giving Green Bay its first kickoff return for a touchdown since Allen Rossum took one 92 yards in 2000.
"It was amazing,'' said Cobb, of his NFL debut. "The feeling of being at Lambeau Field and coming off a Super Bowl, I was just doing anything I could do to contribute and I was trying to make the most of my opportunities tonight.''
Mission accomplished. The second-round pick is a huge addition to the Green Bay arsenal. I'm not sure how much veteran Packers receiver James Jones is even going to get on the field if Cobb stays healthy and productive. Until tonight, no rookie NFL history had ever had a scoring reception and a kickoff return for a touchdown in his team's season opener.
"You've got to be excited about Randall,'' Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "He's shown that from the first day of training camp, his ability. When other players talk about a player having a chance to be special, he's one of those guys. He's very raw, but he's picking up our system, and he knows what to do when he gets the football in his hands and how to get open. He's a gifted young man with a lot of good football in front of him.''
• While we're on the topic of Cobb, his decision to bring the ball out of the end zone from eight yards deep might end up being a more popular call than many expect this year in the NFL. The new kickoff rules aren't going to make kickoffs extinct as some have theorized. They're just going to force teams to gamble more if they want to try to make big plays in the return game. You can't roll the dice every time, but Cobb showed in the very first game of the season that long returns can still happen, even if eight of the 12 kickoffs on this night went for touchbacks (one kickoff was an onside attempt by the Saints).
• It wasn't all gloom and doom for the Saints, of course. They did get instant validation that the signing of Darren Sproles to replace the departed Reggie Bush was a masterstroke. And then some.
Sproles produced 204 total yards the first eight times he touched the ball, and finished the game with 250 total yards on 13 touches (seven catches for 75 yards, two rushes for 7 yards, two punt returns for 92 yards, and two kickoff returns for 76 yards). Sproles' 72-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter got New Orleans back to within 21-17, and he's clearly more a multifaceted weapon than Bush.
"He's electric,'' said Payton, of his new running back-returner. "He changed (the game) for us. He gave us some momentum with the punt return and he's one of those guys that makes great decisions in space.''
The two most popular words in New Orleans Thursday night? Reggie who?
• Cobb was the big revelation for the Packers in this game, but don't overlook how well second-year running back James Starks performed. He led the Packers with 57 yards on 12 carries, with a powerful, tackle-busting 17-yard touchdown run in the second quarter (his first career regular-season score). Ryan Grant started the game and finished with 40 yards on nine carries, but the Green Bay veteran seemed like an afterthought in the Packers' offense after Starks carried the mail on that late second-quarter scoring drive.
Look for Starks to get the big carries at the game's key moments from here on out. He has looked better and faster than Grant all preseason, and now the Packers have seen him produce when the games count.
• The Packers' defense got its pride hurt at times, giving up three touchdowns, two field goals, 27 first downs and 477 yards. But I wouldn't expect the feeling to linger, because after all, it was Brees and the Saints. They've done that to a lot of quality defenses.
"It's not what you envision,'' linebacker Clay Matthews said. "Obviously you'd rather have a blowout. But it represents everything that we preach, just finishing games and them coming down to the very last play. It's fantastic to get the stop we needed and get off the field (at the end). But that's too many points allowed. We take pride in how many points we give up, and that's too many. There's no excuse for that. But we made the plays when we needed to and came away with the victory.''
• The results continue to indicate that being the home team in the NFL's kickoff game is a clear-cut advantage. Home teams don't win 90 percent of the time in the NFL, but they do in this 10-year-old series. The visiting 49ers beat the Giants in 2002's opener, but since then, the home teams are 9-0. The last eight of those were won by the defending Super Bowl champions, after the league made that a reward of sorts and gave this game to the champs every year starting in 2004.