By Justin Henry
Cold, Hard Football Facts Beast of the NFC East (@cynicjrh)

For the first time since 1976, the defending Super Bowl Champions lost their first game of the season, while each of their division rivals won their own opener.

On September 12 in the year of our bicentennial, then two-time champion Pittsburgh Steelers were downed by the Oakland Raiders 31-28. Meanwhile, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and the artists futurely known as the Tennessee Titans (that would be the Oilers) all won their opening day battles by margins of no less than 10 points.

By virtue of getting overpowered by the Dallas Cowboys on last week’s Wednesday Kickoff, the New York Giants matched the Steelers dubious honor 36 years later. Cementing that reality was the Philadelphia Eagles’ narrow victory over the Cleveland Browns, and the Washington Redskins upending the New Orleans Saints, at the command of wunderkind Robert Griffin III.

But the football season, as they say, is a marathon not a sprint. The remaining 16 weeks loom large, and it’s but a one-game deficit that the cham-peens reside in the cellar.

On tap for week two: New York takes on an upstart defensive juggernaut, the Eagles face an established defensive juggernaut, Dallas deals with a versatile rookie signal caller, and the Redskins battle a team that they’re 3-3 against since 2005.

1. Giants Need a Pushover; Tampa Bay Isn’t It
It’s been reiterated that New York’s running game was a non-factor in 2011; the worst in the league. This was evident on Thursday night, when Ahmad Bradshaw, save for a 33 yard dash and a touchdown run of 10 yards, averaged just 2.33 yards a carry on the remaining 15 touches. Rookie David Wilson contributed just 4 yards on two carries.

Whatever adjustments the Giants make in their run game may have to be put on hold for a week.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in the midst of an extreme makeover at the hands of new head coach/freelance gunnery sergeant Greg Schiano.

The discipline-minded Schiano took a defense that gave up 156.1 rushing yards a game in 2011 (7 times giving up 180 yards or more), and remolded them into a stonewall that held Cam Newton and company to just 10 net rushing yards on Sunday. With Jonathan Stewart injured, the Panthers made no headway with Newton (5 car/4 yds), DeAngelo Williams (6 car/-1 yards), and new addition Mike Tolbert (1 car/2 yds). Return man Kealoha Pilares led the team with 5 yards on a lone carry.

It’s just one game, of course, but it’s encouraging for the Bucs to go from giving up five yards a carry in 2011 to 0.77 yards per attempt against one the game’s most dangerous ground attacks.

All isn’t lost if Victor Cruz shakes off the stench of his three-drop performance against Dallas last week. Newton did manage to complete 70 percent of his passes for 303 yards on Tampa (albeit with 2 picks to 1 touchdown), which Eli Manning can certainly match.

On the flip side, Tampa Bay’s offense, outside of clutch fourth quarter running from Doug Martin, hasn’t hit its zeitgeist just yet. A possession time of 37:27 allowed Tampa to assert control, but only had 258 yards to show for it. That’s one yard every 8.7 seconds, which has the duality of equaling less offensive aggression, but effective clock management as well.

The Giants had their own clock problems, controlling the ball for just 25:53 against Dallas. The defense simply couldn’t get off the field, due to a pass rush that didn’t finish, and a secondary that couldn’t prevent completions.

The NFL’s defending champs haven’t started 0-2 since 1999, but if the Giants can’t correct their week one inadequacies on 11 days rest against an upstart defense, those Elway-less Broncos will be ancient history.

2. Ravens Embarrass Andy Dalton; is Michael Vick Next?
Four sacks, a pick six, and a lost fumble. That was Andy Dalton’s Monday night in Baltimore. Is Michael Vick due for a similar beating this Sunday in Philadelphia?

After throwing four interceptions against the Cleveland Browns on opening day, and finding himself under a heavy blitz, Vick made mistake after mistake before finally salvaging victory 17-16 with 1:18 to go.

This will be the sixth time since 2010 that Vick has had to play a defense in the NFL’s top ten in least points allowed. He’s 1-4 in the previous outings, and the stats stack up as follows:

 Comp/AttYardsTD PassesINTRatingSackedRushesYardsRushing TD
vs. Green Bay , 9/12/10 (L 27-20)16/2417510101.93111030
at Chicago, 11/28/10 (L 31-26)29/443332194.249440
vs. Green Bay, 1/9/11 (L 21-16)20/362921179.938321
vs. San Francisco, 10/2/11 (L 24-23)30/464162199.528750
at Miami, 12/11/11 (W 26-10)15/302081169.94290

If you follow these trends, and assuming Baltimore is still a “top 10 defense” - which they looked like Monday - then Vick’s in for a day of throwing and taking hits. The Bears, 49ers, and Dolphins all ranked high in run-stopping, necessitating throws, and the Packers in their Super Bowl year were just as adept at producing sacks and forcing turnovers.

Joe Flacco’s no-huddle offense will test the Eagles, who forced Brandon Weeden into many incompletions and interceptions on Sunday, while stacking up Trent Richardson in their most impressive run-stopping performance since 2010 (holding Michael Turner to 45 yards).

If Vick can’t navigate the perilous Ravens D early, and if LeSean McCoy struggles to make any headway, it’s going to be a long day for the Birds in midnight green.

3. Irresistible Cowboys, Meet Immovable Seahawks
Welcome back, DeMarco Murray.

If not for a fractured right ankle against the Giants on December 11, Murray’s power running may have been a difference-maker in the NFC East championship game between the Cowboys and eventual champion Giants.

After all, Murray did run wild over New York on Wednesday for 131 yards, including a 48 yard dash, in the Cowboys 24-17 opening night win. As noted earlier, the Cowboys defense did their part in hemming in the Giants’ anemic running game, save for a few quality charges by Ahmad Bradshaw.

This time around, Dallas must contend with Seattle, who held Arizona’s two running backs, Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams, to 23 yards on 15 carries, plus a lost fumble from Williams.

Both teams only allowed 10 rushing touchdowns apiece in 2011, although teams rushed more against Seattle (473 attempts to 385). The Seahawks held foes to 3.8 yards a carry last year, with Dallas holding strong with a respectable 4.1 average.

Both Murray and Marshawn Lynch had strong games in their matchup on November 6 last year (Dallas won 23-13). Murray ran for 139 yards on 22 carries, while Lynch scored a touchdown on 23/135.

The only difference this year is that Seattle has Russell Wilson instead of Tarvaris Jackson, who chucked three interceptions in what was an otherwise even match on paper.

With Wilson as the X Factor this time around (the recipient of Bill Simmons’ latest sports-related hard-on), he’ll need the balance that New York lacked in week one to out-duel Tony Romo. He’ll also need Braylon Edwards to not be his old stone-handed self, which I understand Victor Cruz does a killer impression of (laughter).

4. Can RGIII Keep it Up?

Before they start carving Robert Griffin III’s Hall of Fame bust (sponsored by Subway!), let’s remember that one game does not a career make. Otherwise, Timmy Smith would be situated in Canton between Marcus Allen and Earl Campbell, and their busts would have to be re-chiseled with quizzical expressions.

For a quick reference, here are four recent first-round quarterbacks that started out of the gate, and how they looked between game one and two of their respective careers.

Matthew Stafford
9/13/09, at New Orleans: 16/37, 205 yards, 0 TD, 3 INT (Rating: 27.4) (Lost 45-27)
9/20/09, vs. Minnesota: 18/30, 152 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT (Rating: 56.5) (Lost 27-13)

Mark Sanchez
9/13/09, at Houston: 18/31, 272 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT (Rating: 84.3) (Won 24-7)
9/20/09, vs. New England: 14/22, 163 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT (Rating: 101.1) (Won 16-9)

Sam Bradford
9/12/10, vs. Arizona: 32/55, 253 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT (Rating: 53.1) (Lost 17-13)
9/19/10, at Oakland: 14/25, 167 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT (Rating: 86.6) (Lost 16-14)

Cam Newton
9/11/11, at Arizona: 24/37, 422 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT (Rating: 110.4) (Lost 28-21)
9/18/11, vs. Green Bay: 28/46, 432 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT (Rating: 72.0) (Lost 30-23)

Robert Griffin III
9/9/12, at New Orleans: 19/26, 320 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT (Rating: 139.9) (Won 40-32)
9/16/12, at St. Louis: ?

Of the first four quarterbacks, Sanchez was the only non-number one pick, as the Jets traded up to the fifth spot in 2009 after Brett Favre’s second retirement. Thus, it makes sense that only Sanchez had early success (the Jets nearly made it to Super Bowl XLIV that year).

In every case but Newton, each quarterback played considerably better in week two, perhaps with opening day jitters quelled. Newton had the misfortune of playing against the reigning Super Bowl champions in his second outing, and still took it to their defense save for the picks.

Griffin is facing a Rams team this week that looked surprisingly sharp against the wild card Lions in week one, only to lose on a brilliant game-winning drive by Stafford. RGIII took advantage of a muddled and confused Saints defense, and could do the same to a Rams D that was completely lost on Stafford’s winning strike.

5. Mini Power Rankings
1. Washington (1-0)
Have started the season 3-1 three times since realignment (2003, 2008, 2011), and missed the playoffs each year. Is Robert Griffin III’s dynamic play the constant that’s needed to finally make Daniel Snyder a winner?

2. Dallas (1-0)
Averaged 11.31 points in the second halves of games last season, but begin 2012 on the right foot with 17 on the champs. Tony Romo has to navigate a Seahawks defense that had 22 interceptions and 4 pick-sixes a year ago.

3. Philadelphia (1-0)
The Eagles are 4-9 in their home opener under Andy Reid, with two of them coming after their appearance in Super Bowl XXIX. Last home opener win was a 2008 flaying of the hapless Rams, 38-3, in DeSean Jackson’s debut.

4. New York (0-1)
Last time New York started a season 0-2, they ended up winning Super Bowl XLII. Giants have not lost to the Buccaneers since 2003, when Tampa Bay was defending champions, and Jim Fassel was in his final days as coach.