NFC North QBs thrive against southern counterparts

Before the season, yours truly was among a host of observers who declared that the NFC South might have the best collection of quarterbacks in the league, particularly with Josh Freeman(notes) on the rise and Cam Newton joining the party. After all, Matt Ryan(notes), Drew Brees(notes) and Freeman combined to lead their teams to a combined 34 victories last season.

Perhaps I would have been wise to look north first. One of the interesting storylines of the first week is that the top three teams from both the NFC South and NFC North went head-to-head. The results weren't close and a big reason was that the quarterbacks from the North were dominant.

Bears QB Jay Cutler greets Falcons QB Matt Ryan after the 30-12 Chicago win.
(AP)

Brees gets some props for his 419-yard performance in Thursday's season opener at Green Bay. However, even Brees had his hiccups and was outplayed by Packers counterpart Aaron Rodgers(notes), whose first-quarter performance was something you'd see from a clinic DVD.

On Sunday, the margin between the quarterbacks was much wider, starting with a strong performance by Jay Cutler(notes), a guy who certainly could use it after the controversy that surrounded him in the NFC championship game last season. Cutler finished 22-of-32 for 312 yards and two TDs. Cutler didn't have any weird mistakes until the fourth quarter, when an interception was returned for a score after the game was out of reach. Most important, he was very good early in the game.

All of that will help put the memory of Cutler standing on the sideline doing nothing in the playoffs against the Packers farther in the rear-view mirror. Nothing makes a bad memory fade faster than good play and, most important, victories.

Cutler did both.

"We know what he can do and that's fine, but perception is out there and he's going to have to deal with it," Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Martz said in August. "To me, I don't think he cares if he gets off to a fast start or not. But if he does, then it's one less thing for people to talk about."

Meanwhile, his much-ballyhooed opponent from Atlanta, Matt Ryan, did little. In fact, he was just plain bad at times. Ryan's interception (by Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher(notes)) in the first quarter was cashed in for Chicago's first touchdown (a 56-yard screen pass to Matt Forte(notes)). Ryan's second turnover, a fumble in the third quarter, was returned 12 yards by Urlacher for a score. That touchdown iced the game for the Bears.

The bigger issue for the Falcons is that Ryan's overall numbers were just as mundane as many of his 2010 outings. Ryan needed 47 throws to compile 319 yards. While rookie wide receiver Julio Jones(notes) was solid with five catches for 71 yards, the Falcons' overall offense continued to sputter. Sure, there was a 53-yard run by running back Michael Turner(notes), but that was after the game had gotten lopsided. The Falcons had only one reception of longer than 30 yards (32 by Jones).

It's early and this is only one game, but this isn't what the Falcons were hoping for when they paid such a high price (two first-round picks, a second and two fourths) for the rights to Jones.

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay got the same downside results that the Bucs often faced a year ago. Freeman, who showed off his extraordinary talent last season, continued his one major problem: He struggles early in games and then comes alive in the fourth quarter.

Through three quarters, Freeman completed 10 of 17 passes for 94 yards and one interception. To that point, the Bucs had produced only two field goals (the one touchdown came on an interception return by cornerback Aqib Talib(notes)). Down two touchdowns, Tampa Bay cut Freeman loose and he completed 18 of 26 for 163 yards and one touchdown (a terrific throw and catch by wide receiver Mike Williams on a fourth-and-3). In all, Tampa Bay had three drives and reached Detroit territory each time.

You have to wonder if the Bucs will eventually find a way to turn Freeman lose early in games. That's exactly what the Lions did with Matthew Stafford(notes), who was the No. 1 pick the same year that Freeman went in the first round. Detroit continued to put the game in Stafford's hands, even when he made mistakes.

For instance, in the first half there was the interception Stafford threw to Talib that put the Lions behind in the first quarter. Later in the first half, Stafford missed a wide-open Calvin Johnson(notes) in the end zone, a throw where Stafford's sometimes wild arm got the best of him. Even when the pressure was amped by the situation, Detroit went to Stafford. Down 10-6 in the second quarter, the Lions faced a fourth-and-2 situation from the Tampa Bay 36-yard line. It's that classic part of the field where the field-goal attempt is a little too long and a punt seems like a waste.

The safe call was a short passing route. Instead, the Lions went for broke. Against a heavy rush, Stafford threw deep to Johnson, getting the ball just over the outstretched arms of Talib for the score. Stafford threw another TD pass just before halftime and then came back to atone for the earlier miss to Johnson in the end zone with a beautiful throw on a fade route.

These three victories over the NFC South could figure huge later in the season.

On to this week's other winners and losers …

WINNERS
WINNERS

Panthers WR Steve Smith runs away from the Cardinals' Daryl Washington.
(Getty Images)

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith spent the offseason trying to figure out whether to ask for a trade, push for his release or stay in Carolina. Staying seemed like the last option for the 32-year-old Smith, who is now in his 11th season. He didn't seem interested in a rebuilding project. However, Smith came around and with rookie Cam Newton throwing the ball, Smith looked like the little monster who used to terrify secondaries. He scored two touchdowns against the Cardinals, including a 77-yarder in the first quarter in which he toasted Arizona's defense. Yeah, Smith has had bad moments in his career, including punching teammates, but he made a good decision to stick with an organization that has always stood behind him.

• Speaking of Newton … wow. I mean, wow. Newton was electric in every way you can imagine. From the two touchdown passes to Smith, to the rookie-record 422 passing yards, to his leaping touchdown run, Newton was fabulous. He showed every reason why he was the No. 1 overall pick. And if there is one great subplot, maybe Newton proved that all the offseason training and work that coaches harp on is overrated. Newton did all this after having basically one month to work out with the whole team.

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne(notes)'s stats (seven catches, 106 yards, one touchdown against the Texans) were meaningless in any important way. The Colts were down 34-0 at halftime of a game that was never competitive. However, Wayne deserves whatever he can get this season. He's in a contract year and will likely play most, if not all, of the season without quarterback Peyton Manning(notes). At 32 (he'll be 33 in November), Wayne hopes to finish his career with the Colts, but would like to have at least a little bit of leverage for his final contract.

Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio (as an aside, can a riverside city named Jacksonville have a better name for a coach than Jack Of The River?) came away looking like a genius for one week after his controversial decision to cut starting quarterback David Garrard(notes). Luke McCown(notes) did everything you could have expected of Garrard in completing 17 of 24 passes for 175 yards against the Titans. Yes, this is just one week, so there's a long way to go, but some people were expecting the roof to cave in on Del Rio after cutting his starting quarterback the week before the season for the second time in five seasons.

A big weekend for brothers John and Jim Harbaugh. Start with John, who finally beat Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) (Harbaugh was 0-6 against the Steelers when Roethlisberger played). In fact, the Ravens made Roethlisberger look awful. This was perhaps Roethlisberger's worst game ever as he finished with five turnovers (three interceptions and two fumbles) and should have had another interception on a really poor throw. On the other side of the country, Jim Harbaugh won his debut as an NFL coach with San Francisco beating Seattle. In the process, Jim Harbaugh continued his domination of Pete Carroll from their days at Stanford and USC, respectively. Finally, Harbaugh's former Stanford team, ranked No. 6 by the AP, improved to 2-0 with a dominating win at Duke.

Of course, Jim Harbaugh's current team might not have prevailed if not for return man Ted Ginn Jr.(notes) After Seattle got within 19-17, Ginn returned a kickoff and then a punt for touchdowns in the span of 59 seconds. Pretty impressive stuff for the former first-round pick who Miami gave up on before the 2010 season. Ginn is never going to be much of a receiver because he's too soft, but he now has six touchdown returns as he begins his fifth season.

• The Philadelphia Eagles' upgraded defense may not have looked great on the first play when St. Louis running back Steven Jackson rolled over it for 47 yards and a score. However, after allowing St. Louis only 209 yards passing on 36 attempts for an average of just 5.8 yards per throw, it's clear that the Eagles' coverage scheme is going to be OK.

• All of us. At a certain point, the 9/11 celebrations got to be one big blur, making it hard to distinguish one from another. But watching Presidents Obama and Bush walk together in Pennsylvania with their wives was a touching moment and a reminder that we are better together than apart. Maybe the memorials will resonate beyond the weekend.

• Congrats to Rex Grossman(notes), who won the quarterback "competition" in Washington (at least for now). Grossman threw for 305 yards and led the Redskins to a nice win over the banged up New York Giants. Grossman isn't exactly the prettiest thrower in the league, but he has hung tough through an up-and-down career.


LOSERS
LOSERS

Saints WR Marques Colston fumbles surrounded by Packers defenders.
(Getty Images)

• WWL-TV in New Orleans got it wrong this weekend when it reported that wide receiver Randy Moss(notes) visited the team on Saturday in the aftermath of wide receiver Marques Colston's(notes) broken collarbone (he'll be out at least four weeks). However, WWL is right about one thing: New Orleans is one of the few places where Moss will play. Or as a source close to him said recently: "Randy is waiting for a good team with a good quarterback. If you get the right combination, I think he plays."

• Detroit offensive lineman Gosder Cherilus(notes) obviously let the heat get to his brain near the end of the win over Tampa Bay. With the Lions trying to run out the clock, Cherilus got called for a personal foul that stopped the clock with 1:16 remaining and kept the door open for the Bucs. It was a stupid play by Cherilus, who got an earful from coach Jim Schwartz. Then again …

• Schwartz deserves ribbing for being the latest coach to try that silly "ice the kicker" routine. Schwartz called a timeout just as Tampa Bay's Connor Barth(notes) tried a 44-yard field goal that missed. Barth got to line up again and made the next attempt, but Detroit was called for unsportsmanlike conduct, which allowed Tampa Bay to go for a score again before finally settling for a 31-yard field goal. In all the years of watching coaches use that timeout technique, I can't say I have seen a consistent pattern of success either way. It just seems like coaches pretending they can influence the result.

Calvin Johnson makes a touchdown catch over Aqib Talib.
(Getty Images)

Staying with the Detroit-Tampa Bay game for one last comment, Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib deserves more than his fair share of ripping for his performance. Sure, Talib had an interception return for a score in the first half, a play that included a penalty for excessive celebration. But the rest of the game was a disaster for Talib, who looked out of shape following a training camp where he was limited in participation because of a hamstring problem. Talib was twice beaten for touchdowns, including a deep throw to Calvin Johnson where Talib was two steps away from the wideout. Not good for a guy who got a big reprieve from the Bucs and the NFL following his offseason problems.

Not a good day for Tennessee running back Chris Johnson, who gained only 24 yards on nine carries. Yeah, he didn't have any training camp to get ready. However, if you're going to hold out for a new contract and get it, you better be ready to perform. In a two-point, season-opening loss, more was expected of Johnson.

All you fantasy owners who took a flyer on Danny Amendola(notes). Sorry, bad break. That said, watch Brandon Gibson(notes), who ended up with three catches for 50 yards. Folks around the Rams said that Gibson had a great training camp and figures to be the better deep threat over the possession-oriented Amendola.

• Rams second-year quarterback Sam Bradford(notes) had a rough day between losing to the Eagles, getting a fumble returned for a score, getting hurt and losing Amendola. Not a good way to start.

Give Cincinnati Bengals veteran backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski(notes) credit for a nice quick-snap play on the touchdown pass he threw to rookie A.J. Green(notes). However, Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden(notes) had to be better prepared for that call. Haden played well most of the game, but that was a huge gaffe.

THE SUNDAY 10
THE SUNDAY 10

(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)

Loved: Watching Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen(notes) play because he is all-out all the time. He is also one of the great athletes to play defensive end in the NFL, right there with the likes of Jason Taylor(notes). Allen showed that off when he nabbed the fifth interception of his career on a pass by San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers(notes). Allen was actually running with Chargers running back Ryan Mathews(notes) on an arrow route out of the backfield (a running back's version of a takeoff). Yes, the ball was underthrown, but Allen looked like a coverage linebacker on the play.

Collins

Loathed: The fact that now-Colts quarterback Kerry Collins(notes) surpassed Joe Montana for the No. 10 spot on the list of most career passing yards. Not that I have some deep man crush on Montana; it's simply that Collins is just a journeyman who happened to survive for so long. There is nothing truly memorable about Collins' career.

Loved: The honest analysis of Fox commentator and former coach Jim Mora Jr. Mora may be a bit cliché-ridden, but he can explain the X's and O's of the game in very easy to understand ways and comes up with some funny stuff along the way. After San Diego scored the go-ahead touchdown in the second half, Mora criticized Minnesota for chasing down San Diego's Philip Rivers and allowing running back Mike Tolbert(notes) to get behind the coverage. It was a stupid play by the Vikings and Mora made that clear by noting that Rivers runs a "6.5 40." Yeah, that's hyperbole, but it was a great, succinct way to make the point.

Loathed: I don't understand the Super Bowl loser hangover trend that's going on. Sure, the mental edge issue makes some sense, but the fact this happened to the Steelers when playing against archrival Baltimore is nonsensical.

Loved: The Bud Light "Goal Line Experience" commercial. I don't know what it is because I have already seen that commercial roughly 46 times in the past three days, but it still cracks me up.

Loathed: I can't stand silly mistakes, such as the two offside penalties that Minnesota defensive tackle Letroy Guion(notes) got on the same drive in the fourth quarter during the loss to San Diego. Dude, the football is all of about three feet from you, pay attention.

Loved: The fact that the NFL tied a record for the most kickoff returns for touchdowns on the opening weekend after the much-hated "touchback" rule took effect. Eventually, the rule is going to have a huge impact, but at least for one weekend, returners seemed to beat the system. Then again, there was a lot of horrendous tackling out there.

Loathed: Watching quarterback Donovan McNabb(notes) struggle so much at the end of his career. McNabb is now playing with his third team in three seasons and what once might have been a Hall-of-Fame career is starting to fade quickly. McNabb had only 39 passing yards on Sunday and increasingly looked out of synch.

Loved: Finally seeing Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) playing a clean game against the Steelers. After having a turnover in each of the first eight games he played against them, Flacco finally got through a contest without an obvious mistake.

Loathed: Seeing Mark Sanchez(notes) in so many commercials. He's a good kid and a decent player right now, but seeing him on anything more than a local ad doesn't make sense, even if he plays in New York.

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