The Baltimore Ravens were about to leave the sanctity of their locker room and return to the electricity of M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon when Terrell Suggs(notes), the team's relentless pass rusher and unremitting loudmouth, brought up the elephant in the room.
"It's 21-7," Suggs said, referring to the halftime score against the Pittsburgh Steelers, their AFC North rivals, constant tormentors and 2010 postseason vanquishers. "Well, you know, that's the same score as …"
The elephant was about to get its enormous butt kicked.
"[Expletive] that!" Lewis screamed. "That was last year. Last year was last year. This is the 2011 Ravens. We don't care about the past. Let's play."
And with that the home team charged out of the tunnel and obliterated the memory of last January's seven-point playoff defeat to the Steelers, which came after Baltimore dominated the first half and, yes, carried a 21-7 lead into intermission before imploding.
And the Ravens, in typically non-subtle fashion, obliterated that storyline, storming to a 35-7 victory over the Steelers that sent a resounding message to the rest of the NFL on an emotional opening weekend.
Playing in front of 71,434 fans whose somber pregame mood (a ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks included the playing of "Taps" over the stadium loudspeaker and the unfurling of a giant American flag) turned to fervor once the action commenced, the Ravens proved they could close against the defending AFC champs.
In January's showdown at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, three unconscionable Baltimore turnovers in the third quarter had allowed the Steelers back into the game. On Sunday, the script was flipped and driven into the turf for emphasis.
After Pittsburgh returned the second-half kickoff to its own 24-yard line, Roethlisberger, he of the 6-0 career record against Flacco, turned to hand off to Rashard Mendenhall(notes). Unfortunately for the halfback, the football arrived at roughly the same moment as 330 pounds of trouble – in the form of Ravens Pro Bowl nose tackle Halolti Ngata, who forced and recovered a fumble.
On the next play Flacco hit tight end Ed Dickson(notes) for an 18-yard touchdown, and when holder Sam Koch(notes) took the ensuing PAT snap and executed a smooth fake for a two-point conversion run, it was clear that these weren't your slightly older brother's Ravens.
Following a touchback, Roethlisberger's pass for wideout Mike Wallace(notes) was deflected by Ngata and intercepted by Lewis, and the 2011 Ravens were on their way to the day's most dominant performance, one which included a team-record seven takeaways.
Suggs, who had three sacks and two forced fumbles, didn't make much of an attempt to downplay the significance of the victory, unlike some of his teammates.
"We had a crazy offseason with the CBA [negotiations], the owners and players fighting it out," Suggs said a few hours after Sunday's game. "It was rough on the fans, but that's the one thing they got right – playing this game on opening day. The only thing they got wrong was the time. It should have been in prime time. Because we went out and played."
[Related: NFL's Week 1 winners and losers]
The Ravens had the distinct look of a team that spent eight months fuming about their final act of the 2010 season. So, for that matter, did the Chicago Bears, whose unseemly NFC championship game defeat to the rival Green Bay Packers and the resulting referendum on quarterback Jay Cutler's(notes) toughness sent them into Sunday's opener playing like a team that has been angry ever since.
Aaron Rodgers(notes) and the defending champion Packers made their own emphatic statement on Thursday night in a 42-34 victory over the Saints. Tom Brady(notes) and the Patriots will try to do the same in Miami on Monday night.
[Photos: Images from opening week in the NFL]
Sunday, however, belonged to Baltimore – and specifically Flacco, who completed 17 of 29 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. Given that two-thirds of that terrible trio of third-quarter turnovers in Pittsburgh last January was on Flacco, this was a performance that can help make him whole in the eyes of his fan base, teammates and boss.
After the season Baltimore owner Steve Bisciotti was admitting aloud that he wasn't sure if he had a great quarterback. For what it's worth, the guys in the locker room feel a little more convinced of that now.
"I've never seen Joe so cool and composed in my life, especially against these guys," Suggs said. "It was a big '[expletive] you' to his naysayers. He went and showed the world he's a pretty good player, and he's exactly what we need to achieve greatness. And our offensive line was phenomenal."
Suggs was even more complimentary toward new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, who was promoted from secondary coach last January after Greg Mattison left for the University of Michigan.
"That guy Chuckie Pagano, man, he's as smart as he is ruthless," Suggs said. "I guarantee he'll only be our defensive coordinator one year, because he'll be a head coach somewhere next year."
The last time I heard Suggs praise a coach like that, he was talking about Rex Ryan, who was the Ravens' defensive coordinator before he became the Jets' head coach in 2009. I asked him to compare the two coaches' styles.
"Rex's thing is, 'I'm gonna kill you as many times as I can,' " Suggs replied. "Chuck's unorthodox. In terms of his coaching personality, I'd describe it like this: He's like The Joker. You never really expect what he's gonna do, and everything has a motive. He's like, 'I'm just gonna set you up on this call so I can get you later.' "
For example, Suggs said the play late in the first quarter on which he feigned an outside rush before delaying, knifing up the middle and dislodging the ball from Roethlisberger (with Ngata recovering at the Steelers' 37) was the product of Pagano's earlier maneuvering: "It was lag, lag, lag and then BAM. We knew where they were gonna slide, and they definitely weren't expecting that."
[Listen: Jason Cole analyzes the Ravens' defense]
Most telling of all was the way Pagano, and his players, reacted to the one gut-check moment that occurred on Sunday. Four-and-a-half minutes into the second quarter, on third-and-goal from the 11, Roethlisberger connected with Emmanuel Sanders(notes) on a scoring pass that completed a 78-yard drive, cut Baltimore's lead to 14-7 and had everyone in the stadium wondering if the Ravens were about to blow another lead.
As Suggs is aware, "In these games we always play good and tough against them, but they always find some way to make a play, get back in it and get us in the end."
Following Roethlisberger's touchdown, Suggs and his defensive teammates returned to the bench area to find their new coordinator pummeling himself for his passivity.
"It was the one time he questioned himself all day," Suggs said of Pagano. "He called coverage instead of pressure, and when we came to the sidelines he said, 'You know what, guys? [Expletive] me. This one's on me. I'm not doing that anymore. I'm gonna go after him.'
"We said, 'No, that's on us.' It wasn't the call; we just didn't execute."
The Steelers will rightfully rationalize Sunday's blowout by reminding themselves that 15 regular-season games remain, including a Nov. 6 rematch with the Ravens at Heinz Field. Trash will be talked and revenge will be sought, and to Suggs' utter delight, it'll be a standalone, Sunday Night Football extravaganza for all the football world to behold.
"We know we've got to see 'em again," Suggs said. "We know they're gonna try to do to us what we just did to them. But, [expletive] it, we won Round 1. And we'll see 'em in November."
So, was our high estimation of the Falcons really that misguided, or were we all unduly disregarding the Bears – or both? I'll have a much stronger opinion about the former after I spend next Sunday night in Atlanta watching Michael Vick's(notes) return to the Georgia Dome. As for Chicago, I give you the decree of safety Chris Harris: "We are gonna be pretty good. Watch what I tell you." Believe me, I will, after the way they dismantled the Falcons on both sides of the ball. … The best news for Lions fans about Detroit's 27-20 victory over the Bucs in Tampa Bay? Coach Jim Schwartz thinks his team kinda stunk. "We didn't play very well [Sunday]," he told me shortly before flying home. "It'll be a tough film session [Monday]. We've got to serve some humble pie. We made too many mistakes. We shouldn't have put ourselves in those situations [where the outcome was in doubt]. Our expectations are high." Among the positives for the Lions was the savvy, disruptive play of linebacker Stephen Tulloch(notes), a former Titans standout who has a chance to be one of this season's more significant (if barely hyped) free-agent signees. … The impending lockout arguably saved the job of Texans coach Gary Kubiak last January and it's funny how quickly and dramatically hitting the refresh key can alter the NFL landscape: With Peyton Manning(notes) gone for the foreseeable future, a 34-7 thrashing of Kerry Collins(notes) and the Colts in the books and a pair of seemingly underwhelming division foes in Tennessee and Jacksonville, Houston already appears to have control of the AFC South. … If you've got time to digest this thorough and carefully crafted Washington Post article by my old Sacramento Union colleague Mike Wise (we're still here, they're all gone), you'll have a new appreciation for 'Skins owner Daniel Snyder's emotional investment in coach Mike Shanahan. And after Washington's impressive 28-14 victory over the Giants on Sunday, you should have a sense of how much more competitive and versed in the specifics of the scheme the Redskins should be in Year 2 of the coach's system. … The Dream Team rolled to a 31-13 victory over the Rams in an effort that featured strong performances from three offensive players who are in line to get big raises. Two of those Eagles are obvious: Wideout DeSean Jackson(notes) and halfback LeSean McCoy(notes) have both outperformed their rookie contracts. The third, newly installed right tackle Todd Herremans(notes), is due to make $1.9 million in 2011, which one source says would rank him 33rd among NFL tackles. Given that the former starting left guard is now protecting Vick's blind side, it would behoove the Eagles to work out an extension with "The Toddfather" well before his current deal expires following the 2013 season. … Two years ago, the Bengals suffered a stunning opening-game defeat to the Broncos on Brandon Stokley's(notes) 87-yard touchdown catch off a tipped pass with 11 seconds remaining. On Sunday, they won the Battle of Ohio when backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski(notes) caught the Browns' defenders in a huddle and quick-snapped them into submission, hitting wide-open rookie A.J. Green(notes) for a 41-yard touchdown. I don't know if that means the Bengals will manage to have a surprisingly good season in the wake of Carson Palmer's(notes) faux retirement, but at least no one can call them cursed, at least for a little while. … Cam Newton came up a few feet short of sending the Panthers into overtime against the Cardinals, but the No. 1 overall pick had one of the more emphatic debuts in recent memory, throwing for 422 yards (tying the highest-ever total by a rookie quarterback) and two touchdowns, running for another score and, most important, looking composed and commanding against the blitz. If he keeps this up, or anything close to it, Panthers fans may thank Andrew Luck for having stayed in school. And by the way, after Cards rookie Patrick Peterson's(notes) game-winning, 89-yard punt return, it appears Larry Fitzgerald's(notes) draft-day excitement was justified. … Finally, here's a shout out to the weekend's least gracious winner. Hint: It's the handsome chap who's off to a 12-2 start.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. Why major league baseball players seem to incur such ridiculous injuries. I was reminded of this a couple of days ago when San Francisco Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt was lost for the season after cutting his right hand separating frozen burger patties with a knife. That joins a long list of absurd ailments that includes Wade Boggs' strained back (sustained while taking off cowboy boots), Glenallen Hill's foot, knee and elbow lacerations (fell down stairs after being awakened by scary dream about spiders), Chris Coghlan's torn meniscus (landed awkwardly while throwing shaving-cream pie in face of Marlins teammate), Adam Eaton's stomach wound (stabbed himself while attempting to open DVD package with paring knife), Joel Zumaya's strained forearm (from playing too much Guitar Hero), Bob Stanley's nerve-damaged pitching hand (fell down stairs while taking out garbage), Sammy Sosa's back strain (from sneezing) and Brett Barbarie's visual impairment (got chili-pepper juice on hands while making nachos, put contact lenses in, removed and threw away lenses while screaming in agony). Meanwhile, the Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson played Sunday with a torn biceps tendon. Gee, which sport's athletes do I respect more? 2)
2. That Ted Ginn Jr. has never seen the classic video of former Dolphins coach Cam Cameron addressing riled-up season-ticket holders after Miami took Ginn (and not Brady Quinn(notes)) with the ninth overall pick of the 2007 draft – and that the blessed footage ("Dolphin Fans Love Ginn Jr.") no longer seems to exist in cyberspace. Let's start with the first matter: After Ginn, now a 49ers receiver, rocked Candlestick Park more sensationally than the Beatles in 1966 – with San Francisco clinging to a two-point lead over the Seattle Seahawks with four minutes remaining in Jim Harbaugh's NFL head coaching debut, he returned a kickoff and punt for touchdowns 59 seconds apart – I was happy for the guy. After all, he has been a punching bag for fans and teammates alike since his controversial selection, and it wasn't his fault the Dolphins' front office liked him more than virtually anyone else did five years ago. When I got Ginn on the phone after Sunday's game, I naturally asked him about the Cameron video, which began with the ultra-cheesy admonition to a taunting fan, "Hey we need that thumb to go this direction" and degenerated into multiple assurances that "Ted Ginn and his family will make you proud" (over chants of "Brady, Brady). As my editors and regular readers can attest, I've linked to this clip at every opportunity over the years), and most Dolphin fans I know can recite it almost word for word. Not Ginn, however. "No, I haven't seen it," he told me. "I don't know what video you mean. But I'll definitely go look for it now that you've brought it up and check it out." Um, I'm afraid I have some bad news, for Ginn and his entire family: It's out of circulation. I'm no Web whiz, but it appears that the YouTube video in question is no longer available because "the uploader has closed (his/her) account." How can this be? It's a travesty – and a tragedy. Please, someone, help me recover this lost classic and allow me to share it once more with the world. And, most important, to let Ginn in on the joke, regardless of whether he actually finds it funny.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Going into the Seahawks' final preseason game – against the Oakland Raiders, the team that employed him as head coach from the fifth game of the 2008 season through the end of the 2010 campaign – Seattle assistant head coach/offensive line coach Tom Cable told reporters than it was "ultimatum week" for his unit. It was tough talk from a man frequently portrayed as an expert in his craft and a martyred mentor who got the boot after guiding the Raiders to their first non-losing season in eight years. Discerning football minds, however, should have rolled their eyes, and there's even more cause for skepticism after the Seahawks allowed five sacks in Sunday's 33-17 defeat to the Niners while generating just 64 rushing yards on 22 carries (and 38 yards on 17 carries by running backs).
That a Cable-coached line would be leaky is not a surprise: Over the past five years, as a line coach (with the Falcons in '06 and the Raiders in '07-'08) and a head coach, Cable's teams have allowed 47, 41, 39, 49 and 44 sacks, respectively. That's 220 sacks over five years, an average of 44, which is far higher than the NFL average over that time. Even Cable's claim to fame as an assistant – that the '06 Falcons led the NFL in rushing under his tutelage – is misleading. Atlanta's 2,939 rushing yards that year included 1,039 by quarterback Michael Vick, who was often scrambling for his survival when he was taking one of his 47 sacks. It's telling that, under Cable in 2009, Oakland had an absolutely abysmal offense; it wasn't until current Raiders coach Hue Jackson arrived as offensive coordinator last season and took over play-calling duties that things got much better, as they more than doubled their '09 point total. Throw in the off-the-field embarrassments Cable brought to the franchise, and it's easy to see why owner Al Davis chose to get rid of him last January. When Seattle coach Pete Carroll quickly secured Cable's services, it was hailed as a shrewd move. We'll see how long that perception lasts. Seattle, which ranked in the middle of the NFL last year with 35 sacks allowed, is on pace to surrender 80 in 2011, even with a far more mobile quarterback.
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Just landed in San Diego … please tell me a missed extra point didn't cause us to have this game tied!!!"
– Text Saturday afternoon from Vikings kicker (and fellow Cal alum) Ryan Longwell(notes), as Colorado was kicking a late field goal to force overtime against the Golden Bears.
– Text two minutes later from Longwell after I answered in the affirmative (Cal, which had three of its first six PAT attempts blocked this season, pulled out a 36-33 victory).
Text Sunday evening from Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber(notes), new owner of the NFL's longest active consecutive-starts streak (184), after I told him he was "the new Brett Favre(notes)."
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