Around the NFC North, Week 1: Packers’ Division Foes Impress Early On
Here’s how the NFC North fared in Week 1 of the NFL season:
All summer we heard how the Bears were destined for collapse in the 2011. Publications and respected sports writers from across the country picked Chicago to hover somewhere around or below .500 and willingly hand over their division crown to the Packers.
There were boat load of reasons, both legitimate and phony.
The offensive line can’t protect the quarterback. Jay Cutler lost the locker room’s respect after the NFC Championship game loss. The defensive stars are aging. Their luck will run out.
Then actual football was played, and the Bears put the majority of those worries to bed. Remember, this is the team that won the NFC North last season and hosted the conference’s title game. It was only one week, but they made idiots out of a lot of people who buried them this season before a single down of meaningful football was played.
The Bears beat up on the Atlanta Falcons, who went 13-3 last season and was the NFC’s No. 1 seed going into the playoffs, to the tune of 30-13. The “aging” defense smothered quarterback Matt Ryan, sacking him five times and forcing two Ryan turnovers—one on an interception from Brian Urlacher and the other a fumble as Ryan was under duress. Urlacher returned that fumble for a touchdown that put the Bears up 30-6 in the second half.
The Bears defense playing well wasn’t a surprise, even if the Falcons have a potentially explosive offense. Chicago’s defensive unit was the backbone of their 2010 team. It was the offense that caught most off guard.
Cutler threw for over 300 yards and had two scores. Matt Forte had 158 total yards, including 90 receiving. Roy Williams, Johnny Knox, and Devin Hester all had moments where they made explosive plays.
It was a complete team effort from the Bears, and they’ll be a tough bunch to beat no matter who they play if they can put together performances like they did in Week 1. Only the Ravens beat down of the Steelers looks like a more impressive win over a team that has playoff aspirations. If you’re still in hibernation about the 2011 Chicago Bears, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.
Week 2 opponent: at New Orleans Saints (0-1)
The Lions were on the opposite end of the offseason talk spectrum, as most picked Detroit to be a NFC playoff darkhorse. They did nothing on Sunday to make those think otherwise, winning on the road in Tampa Bay against a 10-win Buccaneers team from a year ago.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford looked sharp, completing 24 passes for 305 yards and three touchdowns while fighting off cramps in the second half. Calvin Johnson (88 yards, 2 TDs), Nate Burleson (60 yards) and Brandon Pettigrew (57 yards) look like a really good trio of targets for Stafford to find at any level of the defense. And the defensive line was as good as advertised, even without first-round pick Nick Fairley. That group helped keep the Buccaneers running game to just 56 total yards and continually collapsed the pocket on quarterback Josh Freeman.
Detroit has some holes, especially in the secondary. But they can throw things at you from both an offensive and defensive standpoint that not many teams in the NFL can. I’m not yet convinced the Lions are ready to snatch a playoff spot this season, but GM Martin Mayhew has a really solid collection of young talent at important positions in Detroit. If they don’t make in 2011, they’ll do it soon. Mark it down.
Week 2 opponent: Kansas City Chiefs (0-1)
The Packers and Saints gave the NFL and its viewers one of the more thrilling season-openers Thursday night. How often do you really get to see six passing touchdowns, almost 900 total yards, 76 combined points, a 72-yard punt return, a108-yard kickoff return and a goal line stand to win the game all in the same 60 minutes? It’s was as exciting a start as the NFL could have asked for.
The Packers were razor sharp on offense early on, scoring touchdowns on their first three possessions in securing a 21-7 advantage after 15 minutes. Aaron Rodgers performed surgery on the Saints secondary, slicing and dicing the unit for 188 yards and three touchdowns in the first quarter. I’ve never seen an offense look better in the opening 15 minutes of a football season, and this came, as Rodgers pounded home after the game, without any offseason workouts.
Drew Brees and the Saints were in catchup mode the rest of the way, and they almost accomplished it on their final possession. Down by eight with less than a minute to go, Brees methodically marched the Saints down the field. A questionable pass interference call in the end zone gave New Orleans one untimed down to score a touchdown, but the Packers’ defense, led by Clay Matthews and Mor
gan Burnett, stopped rookie Mark Ingram short of the goal line. The Packers had held on, 42-34, in dramatic fashion.
The Packers’ defense had its’ moments in the game, but Brees mostly had his way in tallying over 400 yards passing. That could potentially be a concern moving forward. The other side of the ball has no such worries. Rodgers looked like he picked up right where he left off in the 2010 playoffs, completing 27 passes for 315 yards and three scores with no turnovers.
Most pundits gave the Packers a punching chance to repeat as Super Bowl champions in 2011, and they looked the part in their opener. The offense looks like it has all the tools and depth necessary to be one of the NFL’s very best. The defense, which was
No. 2 in scoring in 2010, will find its way eventually, and getting Brees off the opposing sidelines will certainly help. And despite giving up a touchdown on special teams, Randall Cobb gives the Packers the kind of returning weapon they’ve lacked since the days of Roell Preston and Desmond Howard.
While the NFC North is so clearly improved from top to bottom, the Packers look like the class of the division. Still, it’s far too early to crown them as champions.
Week 2 opponent: at Carolina Panthers (0-1)
Vikings (0-1, lost to San Diego Chargers, 24-17)
You have to give the Vikings a certain amount of credit. Despite an anemic passing game that produced just 39 yards from quarterback Donovan McNabb, the Vikings led the heavily-favored Chargers by 10 at halftime and had a chance to tie the game in the fourth quarter.
Their defense held up considerably better than most expected, especially in the secondary. Chris Cook and Antonie Winfield
played well on the outside, holding tall, physical receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd to just five catches and 71 yards combined. Minnesota also ran the ball well, racking up 156 yards on only 26 carries.
In the end, however, the Vikings bend-but-don’t-break defense began to shatter, and Minnesota’s offense had no answers. 187 yards just won’t cut it, but their offense is lacking in playmakers. Outside of Adrian Peterson, who can make explosive plays? Percy Harvin isn’t a typical No. 1 receiver and defenses can key on him in the secondary with no Sidney Rice to worry about. And for those who thought the tight end position would play a big part in the Vikings offense, Visanthe Shiancoe and Kyle Rudolph combined for zero catches—despite offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave having two tight ends on the field for the majority of the game.
The Vikings will be fine on the defensive side of the ball, but it’s the offense that will keep this team from being a playoff contender. The blame isn’t solely on McNabb’s shoulders for the way the offense played on Sunday, but if those performances continue, the Vikings might have to consider handing the keys over Christian Ponder.
Week 2 opponent: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-1)
Buckle your safety belts, folks. This division is going to be a wild ride in 2011.——————
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2