The 2011 NFL season kicks off tonight as the Green Bay Packers play host to the New Orleans Saints. The past two Super Bowl winners will get things going around 7:40 CT after Lady Antebellum, Kid Rock and Maroon 5 perform as part of the NFL Kickoff celebration, or something like that. But I digress, back to football. Here are five keys to the game that will decide which one of these two NFC contenders will start the year 1-0, and which will be looking for the first win in Week 2.
Battle of the blitz
No one was better in 2010 at passing against a blitz than Aaron Rodgers, and he will need to be just as good Thursday night. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has no problem blitzing from all directions and, with the way the Packers offensive line played in the preseason, this could be a major problem for the Packers. Rodgers will have to be on his toes and looking for his underneath routes, tight ends will need to block well in the backfield, and, simply put, the offensive line will need to step up.
On the other end, Dom Capers is sure to bring an assortment of blitz packages against the Saints’ high-powered passing attack. Drew Brees is just as good as Rodgers at getting the ball out of his hand, and a pair of pass-catching, check down running backs in rookie Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas means the Packers will need to get to Brees quickly.
Whoever gets more pressure on their opponent could walk away with a win.
The health of Mike Neal
ESPN.com continued their position power rankings today by ranking the top quarterbacks in the NFL. Previous position rankings had Greg Jennings as the sixth best wideout, Clay Matthews the second best pass rusher and fourth best linebacker, Jermichael Finley the fourth best tight end, Mike McCarthy the fourth best head coach, Charles Woodson the third best cornerback and Tramon Williams the seventh best cornerback.
Today’s rankings had Aaron Rodgers ranked the fourth best quarterback, which is debatable to say the least.
Unsurprisingly, New England’s Tom Brady received six of the eight first place votes (78 “points”) while Colts’ quarterback Peyton Manning picked up the other two first place votes, finishing in second place with 72 points.
Drew Brees finished in third place with 62 points with Rodgers finishing with 59 points in fourth place.
None of the eight voters ranked Rodgers lower than fifth, with NFC North blogger Kevin Siefert ranking him second, in front of Manning and Brees. Rodgers also picked up four fourth place votes and two third place votes.
It’s hard to argue that Rodgers is better than Brady or Manning at this point, as their storied careers make them Hall of Fame-worthy and their respective teams are still yearly contender.
The debate comes up, however, when comparing Rodgers to Brees at this point. No knock on Brees, but at this point I’ll take Rodgers over him 10 times out of ten.
It’s no secret that New Orleans likes to throw the ball, as Brees threw 658 times last season, second only to Manning. That offensive style helped Brees pass for 4,620 yards and 33 touchdown passes in 2010, the latter of which led the league. There’s no denying Brees is a top five quarterback, but two stats set Rodgers apart in this debate.
With so many talented players in each league, it is a foregone conclusion that stars will be left off the Pro Bowl roster every year. After all, only three or four players from 16 teams can be selected for each position, meaning more than a handful of players inevitably will be “snubbed.”
Most times arguments can be made for and against players making or making the team, and the discussion in Green Bay is no different.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers posted a fantastic season in 2010 and have the Packers one home win against the Chicago Bears away from sealing up the No. 6 seed in the NFC. However, his season was only good enough in the eyes of the voters to warrant a first alternate selection for the Pro Bowl, meaning his name will only be called if someone at his position drops out or is playing in the Super Bowl.
In Rodgers’ case, his slow start and absence in two games down the stretch probably hurt him the most. Touted by many as ready to take the jump from great to elite, Rodgers’ numbers through eight weeks looked more like the former. With the team sitting at 5-3, Rodgers had passed for 12 touchdowns, nine interceptions, and an average of 251 yards per game.
The New Orleans Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts Sunday in Super Bowl XLIV, finishing off a memorable season that included many highs, a few lows, and ultimately the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The Saints won 31-17, in a game that was supposed to feature much more scoring than it actually did. As it is every year, there were plays that both defined and changed the game. This was seen even more clearly by the gutsy play-calling of Sean Payton, so here are the top five plays that defined the Saints’ victory over the Colts.
5. The Colts’ fourth-down goal line stand
While this play might seem as more of a defining moment for the Colts, it also set up the rest of the game for the Saints. Trailing 10-3 and knowing his team was going to have to put big points on the board to defeat Peyton Manning, Sean Payton opted to go for it on fourth and one from the Colts’ one-yard line.
Pierre Thomas ran off right tackle but was stuffed before he could find the endzone and the play resulted in a turnover on downs. But the play-call showed that Payton was not going to play scared against the Colts and that, in order to win the game, gutsy decisions needed to take place.
It should also be noted that the Saints then held the Colts to a three-and-out, and then ended up putting three points on the board anyways before halftime.
4. Lance Moore’s 2-point conversion being overturned
In a call I personally disagreed with, Lance Moore’s catch in the endzone was overturned to give the Colts a 24-17 lead in the fourth quarter instead of a 22-17 lead, where a touchdown would have beat them. The call was originally an incomplete pass after a Colts’ defender inadvertently knocked the ball loose from a fully-extended Moore.
Regardless of if the call was right or not, the play changed the feel of the game where the Saints knew the best the Colts could do was tie the game up instead of winning it. It ended up not mattering as the Colts would not score the rest of the game, but who knows if Manning would have taken a shot down field had he known he could have won the game with a touchdown? The score changing from a five-point lead to a seven-point lead was crucial.
3. Garrett Hartley’s three-for-three field goal performance
What a fitting number for Garrett Hartley’s career night to come in at. After being the goat in a loss to the lowly Tampa Bay Bucs, in which Hartley missed a potential game-winning field goal, he showed up big time in the Super Bowl and connected on all three of his field goal attempts.
In what seemed to be the playoffs from hell for kickers this postseason, Hartley showed poise and composure as he knocked all three field goals right down the pipe to keep the Saints in the game early.
He hit from 44, 46, and 47 yards out on the game’s biggest stage, including a last second field goal at the end of the first half. The conditions were less than ideal on the field after rain had hit Miami hard over the week, making his performance even more impressive.
2. Tracy Porter’s interception return for a touchdown
In what most people will decide was their defining moment that ultimately sealed the deal for the Saints, Tracy Porter came up with another huge interception that gave the Saints a two-touchdown lead with less than four minutes to play. Two weeks earlier, Porter intercepted Brett Favre at the end of regulation to force overtime against the Vikings.
Guarding Reggie Wayne was tough enough, but Porter read the route and stepped right in front of the Manning pass, and then returned it 74 yards for the score.
Just as ESPN puts in the sidebars, “it was over when…” Porter intercepted the pass. He will forever go down in Saints’ history as the best closer New Orleans has ever had.
1. The onside kick to start the second half
This play will forever be known in New Orleans as “the onside kick”. To open the second half, the Saints noticed that Indianapolis was playing more than 10 yards off the ball, making an onside kick a possibility. Thomas Morestead then preceded to pooch the ball perfectly and Hank Baskett failed to come up with it. The Saints would come out with the ball after one of the longest piles ever, and then ended the drive with a touchdown.
The call from Sean Payton has to be considered one of the gutsiest calls in Super Bowl history. If the Saints do not come up with the ball, Peyton Manning has a four-point lead and 40 yards standing between him and the endzone. Game. Over.
Instead, the Saints changed the momentum of the game with the first ever successful onside kick in the Super Bowl prior to the fourth quarter. Porter might have finished off the game for the Saints, but this play will define the Saints for years to come.
*Bonus*: Drew Brees fighting back tears while holding his son after the game
If you turned the TV off after the game and missed this, go back and watch Brees holding his son after the game and fighting back tears. If you don’t like him or are indifferent to him, there’s no way you can root against Drew Brees in any fashion. It was “heartwarming”, “lump in your throat”, “chills all over”, whatever cliche you want to use. It was all those things and so much more, and I couldn’t be happier for Brees and his family.
1. Brees the MVP as Saints Win Super Bowl XLIV
After starting just 3-for-6 and his team trailing 10-0, Drew Brees regrouped to lead the Saints to a 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. The real game-changer occurred when cornerback Tracy Porter intercepted Peyton Manning and returned it to put the Saints up two touchdowns with just four minutes to go, but Brees put the Saints up for good by connecting with Jeremy Shockey early in the fourth quarter. It was the storybook ending for Brees, who led the Saints to the franchise’s first Super Bowl. He finished the game 32-for-39 and threw for 288 yards and two touchdowns. After the game, Brees had one of the more memorable images in recent history, holding his son and fighting back tears.
2. Dwight Freeney Active for Super Bowl XLIV
Outside of the Manning-Brees storyline, the biggest headline entering the Super Bowl was the injury status of defensive end Dwight Freeney. The media played it out bigger that it probably was, but Freeney worked hard all week rehabbing and was able to play in the game. He had a relatively large impact despite the outcome, finishing with a sack, a quarterback hit, and a tackle. Brees had his way all game, but let’s not put the blame on Freeney. He used a combination of bull-rushing and his patented spin move to apply pressure and didn’t seem hindered by the ankle.
3. Seahawks LT Jones retiring after 13 seasons?
Per his own Twitter page, Seahawks left ackle Walter Jones is retiring after 13 seasons in the league. Sources also say Jones is quite the jokester, so this comment should be taken with a grain of salt. If it’s true, it’s a huge loss for the Seahawks as Jones has been one of the better tackles in the game during his career. The future Hall of Famer started every game, made nine Pro Bowls, and was a four-time All Pro. Injuries to his knee and back have hampered him over the last couple of seasons, so it might be time for him to hang the cleats up for good.
4. Kobe Bryant (ankle) questionable for Monday
Officially Bryant is questionable because of his ankle, but he is also dealing with multiple injuries and, as badly as he wants to play, sitting out until after the All Star break might be his best bet. The Lakers are in good shape out West and are four and a half games up on the Nuggets, so a break seems like the best bet here. With Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Ron Artest and Derek Fisher available, the Lakers are hardly in a desperation situation without Bryant, and it’s more important that he’s healthy in June.
5. No timetable for Brandon Roy’s return
The Blazers continue to receive bad news with their All Star Brandon Roy, as he still does not know when he will be able to return from a hamstring injury that has already cost him 2+ weeks. The Blazers have been hit hard by the injury bug already and are just 4-6 without Roy, but like Byrant his health will be more important down the stretch. Portland is currently sitting in the eighth spot in the West and are fading fast, but Andre Miller, Jerred Bayless, and Steve Blake have been manning the backcourt relatively well. The All Star break should do him some good.
6. Billups out Saturday with sprained ankle
After a 39-point barrage in a win against the Lakers, Chauncey Billups missed the Nuggets’ next game because of a sprained ankle. This news is old, but the real story here is that Ty Lawson continued his stellar play in the starting lineup with 25 points and four rebounds in a loss to the Jazz. The leadership isn’t there without Billups and he is playing some of the best basketball of his career, but Lawson has averaged 17 points and six assists in eight games as a starter. If it weren’t for Billups, Lawson would be in the running for Rookie of the Year. The Nuggets clearly have their point guard of the future.
7. Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith lead 2010 HOF Class
In a no-brainer selection, Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith were elected to the Hall of Fame this week. Arguably the best at both of their positions, this was more of a “when” than an “if”. Ricky Jackson, Russ Grimm, and John Randle were also elected and were all worthy candidates. Interesting eliminations included Cris Carter, Tim Brown, and Roger Craig, but their days should come soon enough.
8. Erik Bedard officially returns to Seattle
The Mariners continued their excellent free agency run when they signed Erik Bedard to a one-year, $1.5 million deal. It was great value for Seattle, and incentives could improve the contract to $8 million, so the team will get to gauge Bedard’s performance before they decide on a 2011 mutual option. Bedard has been battling injuries all off-season but his prognosis looks good for the beginning of the 2010 season. He will man the back-end of the rotation in Seattle and could potentially be a steal if he stays healthy. If being the key word there.