By Tom Pollin
Cold Hard Football Facts' Black & Blue Beat
What began as disastrous beginnings turned into positive finishes for three of the four NFC North division teams that kicked off their 2012 seasons on Sunday. Since the division realignment in 2002 the NFC North teams started the day 10-5 when opening their seasons at home. That record now sits at 13-6.
The Bears gave Andrew Luck an introduction to football, NFL style in a 41-21 victory at Soldier Field. The Lions survived three first half interceptions by Matthew Stafford to battle back and put away a stubborn St. Louis Rams challenge 27-23. In Minnesota, the Vikings came back from a 9-0 deficit halfway through the first half to beat the Jaguars in overtime 26-23.
The Green Bay Packers were the only division team that couldn’t overcome early problems when the 49ers jumped out to a 10-0 lead at Lambeau Field. The Packers’ fourth quarter comeback attempt fell short in a 30-22 loss.
All four teams defied odds that would have suggested different results of Sunday’s games. As the Packers and Bears prepare to renew unpleasantries next Thursday night at Lambeau Field here are five things to take away from the NFC North’s efforts on opening weekend.
1. All four teams forgot to set their alarms for the opening week of the season and overslept their kickoffs.
The Bears new, Mike Tice-designed offense almost closed to scathing reviews four minutes after its debut. To fans, it felt like either them or the team had taken a time machine journey back to the 2011 season.
The Bears first took possession on their own 16-yard line and started with a Jay Cutler sack for a 12-yard loss, right tackle Gabe Carimi was flagged for a false start, Matt Forte tallied a 3-yard gain and a bad shotgun snap that finished with a Cutler incomplete pass. If that wasn’t enough to send Bears’ fans diving headlong towards their liquor cabinets, Cutler followed up with a pick-6 on the first play of the Bears’ next possession.
The Lions shot from the gate with Matthew Stafford looking like he was ready to show that 2011 was no fluke until, on the 15th play of the Lions’ opening drive, he threw his first of three first half interceptions. Janoris Jenkins stepped in front of tight end Tony Scheffler at the Rams’ goal line and returned the interception to their 34-yard line. Sam Bradford took over and led a drive of his own to put the Rams ahead 3-0 at the end of the first quarter.
The Vikings didn’t get sorted out until the first half of their game was nearly over. Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert put together two long first half drives, a 17-play drive in the first quarter that led to a field goal and an 11-play drive for a second quarter touchdown and a 9-0 lead.
The Packers spotted the 49ers 10-points before Aaron Rodgers was able to develop some rhythm and a consistent attack using the no-huddle offense. By then, against the 49ers’ defense, it was too much to overcome.
2. Looking at statistical trends, the Packers should have registered the division’s only victory this week.
Starting with Jay Cutler’s first season in Chicago, the Bears have a .357 winning percentage when their opponent scores first. Over that same period, the Lions’ winning percentage in that same situation is .250 and the Vikings’ is .200. Despite those records, all three teams overcame early deficits in their games to win on Sunday.
Another trend that was working against the Bears and Lions, going back 5-full seasons from 2007 to 2012, a team that surrenders a pick-6, no matter who is winning at the time or when in the game it occurs, has a 79 percent probability of losing that game.
Jay Cutler finished the Bears horrendous game-opening stretch with his pick-6 and Matthew Stafford’s, with just under two minutes to go in the first half, threw one to put the Rams back ahead in the game. Stafford also had to overcome the additional handicap of being 0-5 in games in which he throws three interceptions.
On the other side of the ledger, over the past three seasons the Packers’ winning percentage is .857 when their opponent scores first. They were riding a 13-game home regular season win streak that stretched back to week six of 2010 and had a 7-0 streak going against the 49ers since the 2000 season.
Despite the numbers in their favor, once Alex Smith hit Randy Moss for a 14-yard touchdown pass to make the score 10-0, the 49ers’ 2011 season No. 2 ranked scoring defense were able to keep the Packers at arm’s length the rest of the game.
3. All four NFC North teams are ready to leave the stodgy “Black and Blue Division” reputation in the dust.
In other words, grandpa’s ditching the family sedan and taking your convertible on a road trip to Las Vegas. Say good-bye to the inheritance kids.
The Packers shook the dust off their wheels years ago and Aaron Rodgers has kept their offense in high gear since taking over the wheel from Brett Favre. Rodgers broke the single-season record with a 122.5 Offensive Passer Rating in 2011.
Last season, Matthew Stafford joined the elite level of NFL passers when he teamed up with Calvin Johnson to become one of the most dangerous quarterback/receiver tandems in the league. Stafford had a rough first half against the Rams but still managed to throw for 355-yards, 1 touchdown and his 7.1 Real Passing Yards per Attempt average would have had him ranked No. 7 in the NFL last season.
Once the Bears’ opening game jitters wore off against the Colts, Jay Cutler led the team to their highest point total since week four of 2009 when the Bears beat the Lions 48-24. Cutler passed for 333-yards, an 8.5 Real Yards per Pass Attempt average and a 98.9 Offensive Passer Rating.
Cutler also took advantage of the upgrades that new general manager Phil Emery made to the offense in the offseason. Brandon Marshall made an immediate impact in the passing game with 9-catches for 119-yards and 1-touchdown. Rookie Alshon Jeffery picked up his first NFL receiving touchdown when he split the middle of the Colts’ defense for a 42-yard reception in the fourth quarter.
Out of all four division quarterbacks though, Christian Ponder gets the recognition for the most impressive showing of the day. Overall, he passed for 270-yards, a 9.2-Real Passing Yards per Attempt average and a 105.5 Offensive Passer Rating.
The numbers are impressive but so is what he accomplished when the Jaguars retook the lead 23-20 with only 20-seconds left in the game. After the kickoff, the Vikings took over on their own 31-yard line. Ponder completed a 26-yard pass to Devin Aromashodu and followed with a 6-yard completion to tight end Kyle Rudolph. With 4-seconds remaining he had rapidly moved the ball into position for Blair Walsh to kick a 55-yard field goal to send the game into overtime.
Ponder followed that fourth quarter performance in overtime by driving the Vikings into range for another field goal to take a 26-23 lead. Under the new overtime rules the Jaguars had one more chance with the ball but went four-and-out to give the Vikings the win.
4. It seems that knee injuries aren’t what they used to be.
Under no circumstances should Adrian Peterson have been in uniform Sunday, let alone on the field. Peterson tore the anterior cruciate AND medial collateral ligaments in his left knee in week 16 against the Redskins last season.
As for the Vikings’ plan to “ease” him back into a normal workload this season, they held him back to only 17 of the team’s 29 carries against the Jaguars. Peterson used those carries to gain 84-yards for a 4.94-yards per carry average and two touchdowns.
If his knee held up to the workload he was given against the Jaguars there’s no reason to believe he can’t continue to carry the load for the Vikings all season.
As for Matt Forte, his 2011 season was over after he suffered an MCL sprain. Forte did participate all through training camp and started his 2012 season by rushing 16-times for 80-yards and two touchdowns. Forte added 3 catches for 40-yards to that total to give him 120-yards from scrimmage for the day.
If Peterson and Forte continue to put up these kinds of numbers through the rest of September and into October every running back in the NFL is going to want a knee injury of their own.
5. Everyone’s only played one game; don’t read too much into it.
The Bears’ offense looked NFL quality once they shook the bugs out of it at the start, but the opponent was the Indianapolis Colts. The Lions and Vikings showed team character by hanging tough and winning their games on Sunday but they were playing the Rams and the Jaguars. Those three teams managed a total of nine victories in 2011.
In the meantime the Packers were banging heads (oops, strike that; don’t need a personal foul and $10,000 fine for helmet to helmet contact). In the meantime, the Packers were doing battle with the team that took the Giants to overtime in the 2011 NFC Championship Game.
The only thing that game proved is that, in a game between two playoff caliber teams, the 49ers won. Frequently a different story is getting told in December than in September so the Packers' loss doesn't mean much right now.
A number of questions about the teams in the NFC North began to find their answers today. The Bears’ offensive line, after a rough start, protected Cutler so well that he could have phoned Mike Martz to tell him how much fun he was having before delivering strikes to his receivers. Can they continue at that level of performance or will the Packers expose them for what they are on Thursday night?
The Vikings found out that Christian Ponder has poise. Can he begin to deliver the consistency they need?
The Lions found out that, even though they were 10-6 and a playoff team in 2011, they don’t get the luxury of taking anyone lightly. Do they have what it takes to raise their game next week against the 49ers?
The Packers found out that just signing running back Cedric Benson doesn’t mean you automatically have a run game. Can they get more than 18-yards in 9 attempts from him or will Rodgers have to do everything himself this season?
Now that the season is finally in full swing these questions and others that arise will be getting quick answers starting when the Bears visit the Packers in Lambeau Field on Thursday night.
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