After Manning led the Broncos to a 31-19 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on opening night, the expectations are now through the stratosphere. Of course, Manning was the man of the hour for Denver. He was 19-of-26 for 253 yards and two touchdowns.
But it was another new Bronco, cornerback Tracy Porter, who sealed the game late in the fourth quarter when he baited Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger into a pick-six. The play was eerily similar to Super Bowl XLIV when Porter returned a Manning interception (funny considering it's now his Denver teammate) for a score to seal a Saints championship.
With the win, any doubts anybody had concerning Manning’s health have to disappear now. Manning took a few clean hits from Dick LeBeau’s defense on Sunday night, and each and every time he got up off the turf, surgically fused neck still intact.
The neck proved to be fine against the Steelers, as did Manning’s arm strength. Manning looked very crisp on throws outside the numbers to the likes of Brandon Stokley and Eric Decker, quite the contrary to those offseason reports that speculated that Manning couldn’t throw to his right with any real power.
Manning proved against Pittsburgh that he’s healthy and still has a lot of quality throws left in his laser-rocket arm. That means the Broncos can now be penciled in along with the likes of the aforementioned Steelers, Texans, Ravens and Patriots as teams to beat in the AFC.
You have to assume that Denver’s offense will only improve as Manning becomes more acclimated with his backs and receivers in the passing game throughout the season. If the defense can do its part, then at the very least, the Broncos are a lock to repeat as AFC West champions.
As for the Steelers, despite the loss, rumors of their demise may have been greatly exaggerated. Sure, the new Mile High has turned into a personal house of horrors for LeBeau and Pittsburgh lately. But considering how the Steelers played without David DeCastro, James Harrison, Ryan Clark and Rashard Mendenhall, they showed signs that they’ll be just fine this season.
Roethlisberger had a strong game with new offensive coordinator Todd Haley calling the plays. If that marriage ends up working out, then the Steelers could go pretty far in 2012.
Perhaps the Steelers and Broncos will end up meeting again in the playoffs. Here’s hoping they do, because when these two teams get together, they’ve proven that fans are usually in for quite the barnburner.
Griffin III wows in rookie debut
The Washington Redskins’ brain trust duo of Bruce Allen and Mike Shanahan basically gave up the farm during the offseason to move up and select Robert Griffin III in the draft. For at least one week, it looks like surrendering said farm was definitely the right move.
In what has to be considered an upset by NFL standards, RGIII and the ‘Skins marched into the Superdome and bested Drew Brees and the Sean Payton-less Saints in a 40-32 shootout. Simply put, Griffin III was superb in his NFL debut.
He was 19-of-26 for 320 yards and two touchdowns, in addition to rushing for 42 yards. This is exactly the kind of performance Washington bargained for when they banked their future on the Heisman Trophy winner out of Baylor.
Griffin already shows great pocket presence in the face of the blitz, as evidence when he delivered an 88-yard touchdown strike to fellow new Redskin Pierre Garcon while getting creamed by a New Orleans defender in the first quarter. And Griffin can also keep plays alive with his legs, which will certainly help when he’s running away from NFC East defenders like DeMarcus Ware, Jason Babin and Justin Tuck this season.
It’s only one game, but Shanahan may have found the franchise quarterback he desperately needed in DC.
As for the Saints, some will likely question whether not having Payton (who’s serving his year-long “Bountygate” suspension) on the sidelines cost New Orleans against the Redskins. It’s tough to jump to that conclusion.
Brees and Co. just fell a bit short against a Redskins team that looks very much improved. Now if the Saints suffer a few more uncharacteristic home losses down the road, then we can start to question what impact that losing Peyton for a season will have on New Orleans.
Not as good of a start for the other rookie quarterbacks
While Griffin III dazzled in his NFL debut, the other four rookie starters at quarterback didn’t fare as well on Sunday.
Brandon Weeden, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill all lost their opening game. And none of them played particularly inspiring football in the process, either. The best of the losing quartet was probably Seattle’s Wilson. He threw for 153 yards and a touchdown as the Seahawks roared back to take the lead against the Cardinals in the second half.
Ultimately, Kevin Kolb led the Cardinals to a comeback win, but not before Wilson came oh so close to directing a game-winning drive in the desert (with the benefit, of course, of a fourth timeout). As for Weeden, Luck and Tannehill, they combined for one touchdown and 10 interceptions.
Needless to say, these rookies are going to go through their fair share of growing pains before we can truly tell how they’re going to fare as NFL quarterbacks.
Sanchez, Jets take flight on offense
I guess the New York Jets really were waiting until the regular season began to break out their offensive attack.
After not scoring a touchdown with the first-team offense during the entire preseason, Mark Sanchez and the Jets set a franchise record for most points scored on opening day (48) in a blowout win over division rival Buffalo on Sunday.
When Jets head coach Rex Ryan declared during the offseason that he felt like this was his best team he’s coached in New York yet, many felt that was simply more white noise from Ryan, given how the Jets were coming off a disastrous 8-8 campaign in 2011.
But maybe Ryan is on to something here, because New York played a complete game against Buffalo. Gang Green scored a touchdown in all three phases of the game, highlighted by Sanchez and company’s offensive explosion.
Sanchez tossed three touchdowns, two of which ended up in the hands of rookie wide receiver Stephen Hill; he broke out with 89 receiving yards in his first NFL game.
Certainly, Jets fans will be happy about Sanchez’s solid performance. But it’s one thing to light it up against the listless Bills, and it’s another to do it on the road against the Steelers, who the Jets play next week.
If Sanchez can have a similar performance at Heinz Field, then the groans for Tim Tebow will become that much quieter.
Ryan and the Falcons also take flight
This is a pivotal season for the Falcons, and particularly Ryan, who needs to be a more effective passer if the Falcons are to contend in the NFC South with the likes of Drew Brees’ Saints and Cam Newton’s Panthers. Against Romeo Crennel’s defense, Ryan looked up to the task.
Ryan looked particularly good when he threw to his new go-to stud receiver in Julio Jones. In his second year, Jones looks poised to explode this season. He certainly did against Kansas City, catching six passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns.
With Jones and Roddy White flanked on opposite sides, Ryan arguably has the league’s best receiving tandem at his disposal. If he utilizes these two talented players properly like he did on Sunday, then the Falcons could be ready to take the next step in the progression of the franchise.
Eagles continue to look lackluster
New season, same old underachieving Eagles so far. Despite the prognostications from a few analysts (including Michael Vick himself) of greatness, the Eagles certainly didn’t look like Super Bowl contenders against the lowly Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
Vick and the Eagles struggled mightily against rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden and the Browns. The end result was the so-called Dream Team coming back in the final minute to squeak out a 17-16 win over the Browns.
Let’s not get confused here. It’s not like the Browns were this juggernaut that Andy Reid’s team courageously overcame. It just turns out that the Browns play a more anemic brand of football than the Eagles do, that’s the only reason Philly somehow escaped Cleveland with a win.
Vick was underwhelming under center, throwing two touchdowns and four picks. Not to be outdone, Weeden was even worse, going 12-of-35 for 118 yards, no touchdowns and four picks.
Something tells me Mike Holmgren may already be regretting banking his team’s future on Weeden. I’m sure Colt McCoy could’ve put up the numbers Weeden did, and Holmgren didn’t even have to waste a first-round draft pick on him.
Meanwhile, if Vick and the Eagles are going to get anywhere close to the Super Bowl, they’re going to have to play tons better than they did against Cleveland. If not, then it could very well be another nightmare season for this Dream Team.
Balanced Patriots team to beat in AFC
One thing is clear, though: Brady’s Patriots had no problems knocking out the Titans.
Behind a balanced offensive attack (hello, Stevan Ridley) and an improved defense (hello, Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower), the Patriots knocked out Jake Locker and the Titans, winning 34-13. Brady suffered a bloodied nose after being knocked to the turf by the Titans’ Kamerion Wimbley in the second quarter.
But it didn’t prove to be a problem for Brady (other than the fact that he sported a big ugly bandage across the bridge of his nose). The veteran quarterback utilized his plethora of offensive weapons (Ridley, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez all reached pay dirt) to pace New England’s offense to another productive day at the offense.
Brady’s counterpart, Jake Locker, didn’t fare as well. He was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury making a tackle on an interception that was eventually overturned. Locker had a tough time trying to overcome New England’s improved defense.
The Pats’ two first-round draft picks in Jones and Hightower made their presence felt on that side of the ball. On one particular play in the second quarter, Jones strip-sacked Locker, whose fumble was scooped up by Hightower for a touchdown.
With the emergence of Jones and Hightower on defense and Ridley (125 rushing yards and a touchdown) on offense to complement Brady’s high-powered passing attack, the Patriots are arguably the most balanced team in the AFC, if not the entire NFL.
Barring any major injuries, it will be very shocking if New England doesn’t get back to the Super Bowl this season.
49ers defense impressive against Packers
On a field where Green Bay usually scores at will, San Francisco limited the Pack to 324 yards offense and two touchdowns. With all 11 starters back and star players on all three levels, San Francisco’s defense is going to be stout all season long. If Alex Smith can hook up with new 49er Randy Moss more often, then Jim Harbaugh’s team could very well be on its way to at least another NFC Championship Game appearance.
On the other side, suddenly the Packers have lost two straight at Lambeau after going unscathed there during the entire 2011 regular season. All we heard all offseason was how much Green Bay was going to be improved on the defensive side of the ball.
That didn’t stop the 49ers from racking up nearly 400 yards and three touchdowns on offense. Until I see further improvement from Green Bay’s defense, I’m not going to be so eager to label the Packers as the team to beat in the NFC.
Peterson is a one-of-a-kind running back
Not only did Peterson return to the field a mere eight months after tearing his ACL (which is crazy enough), he ran for 84 yards and two scores in leading his Vikings to an overtime win over a game Blaine Gabbert and Jacksonville.
Of course, Peterson’s incredible recovery from such a devastating knee injury can be partially attributed to the miracle that is modern medicine. To me, though, most of the credit goes to the workout warrior that is Peterson.
I doubt very many athletes could recover from a torn ACL in such a short amount of time the way AP did. In an era where running-back-by-committee is all the rage, let’s appreciate the kind of workhorse back that Peterson truly is.
He may very well be the last elite every-down running back we see in a very long time.
Newton, Stafford and Manning struggle in 2012 debuts
Newton threw for 300 yards and a touchdown, but his Panthers fell to the Bucs, 16-10. Stafford’s Lions overcame the Rams despite three bad interceptions from the former top overall draft pick out of Georgia. And the Super Bowl XLVI MVP Manning was outplayed by his quarterback counterpart Tony Romo as the Cowboys bested the Giants, 24-17, last week.
One bad week likely won’t stop any of these elite passers from having great seasons. So what’s the point of this?
It’s that, even for elite quarterbacks like Newton, Stafford and Manning, what they did in 2011 is irrelevant. It’s a new season, and after one week, it already looks like we’re in for another wild ride in the NFL.