Despite upsetting the Patriots in the playoffs last season, the New York Jets still look up at New England, the way a scrappy younger brother knows he’s not The Man until he can manhandle his big brother in the backyard. Last night was supposed to be the Jets’ moment, the changing of the guard in the AFC East. The Patriots were looking old, they’d lost two games in a row, and Bill Belichick’s defense was statistically the worst in the league. They were ripe for the taking.
Ali/Frazier. Yankees/Red Sox. Michigan/Ohio State. If the NFL has one rivalry in 2011 that belongs in the same breath as these classic feuds, it’s Pittsburgh/Baltimore. The two cities share a fair amount of blue-collar DNA and their respective football teams play a similar brand of Clubber Lang football. I pity the fool who doesn’t come ready to play on Sunday night. As Cris Collinsworth said during the Football Night in America pregame show, “You get the idea they don’t care if they get fined, they don’t care if they get penalized.
Sunday’s NFL games were just the latest example of the sport’s seismic week-to-week swings that enthrall and infuriate devoted face-painting fans. Take last Sunday night’s slaughter, in which New Orleans humiliated Indianapolis, 62-7, and combine that with Dallas’ 34-7 laugher over St. Louis. Now explain how the winless Rams upset the Saints today, 31-21 – without their starting quarterback! – and the Cowboys got torched by the rejuvenated Philadelphia Eagles, 34-7. As the saying goes, on any given Sunday, any team can win.
We knew last night’s NFL game was going to be ugly. Without Peyton Manning – out indefinitely after preseason neck surgery – the Colts have gone from Super Bowl contender to winless cellar-dweller. Sending them to New Orleans to face a motivated Drew Brees and the Saints, who needed a win after losing last week to Tampa Bay, seemed almost cruel. NBC tried to put a positive spin on the matchup, reminding viewers that the two teams squared off just 20 months ago in Super Bowl XLIV.
The NFL might be getting ready to penalize two coaches who nearly came to blows after a contentious postgame handshake in Detroit, but NBC should be sending San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh and the Lions’ Jim Schwartz thank-you gift-baskets. Their YouTube-worthy confrontation gave the Sunday Night Football crew something better to talk about during the Chicago Bears’ 39-10 mauling of the Minnesota Vikings.
After the Green Bay Packers ended the Atlanta Falcons’ last serious scoring opportunity with a fourth-quarter interception, the question of whether the defending Super Bowl champions could go this entire season undefeated suddenly became a topic worth discussing. That the Packers struggled offensively at the outset and fell behind, 14-0, before rallying for 25 straight points only reinforced the notion that this team, which has now won 11 games in a row dating back to last season, is as complete and resilient as they are explosive.
The NFL in 2011 is a quarterback’s paradise. In recent years, the league has tinkered with the rules to make passing easier, and the impact can be seen in the prolific QB performances of the first four weeks, where no lead is safe and a rookie (Carolina’s Cam Newton) is averaging nearly 350 yards passing per game. So what happened last night in Baltimore, where the Ravens ripped the New York Jets, 34-17, was as surprising as it was hideous, as two young quarterbacks – Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez – took turns looking like deer in the headlights.
You could practically hear the huge sigh of relief as the Steelers eked out a three-point victory over the Colts last night. It didn’t emanate only from the Steelers’ sideline or the city of Pittsburgh, but rather, the NBC TV trucks. See, Steelers-Colts once seemed like the ideal, glossy Sunday Night matchup – between two powerhouse teams who’ve represented the AFC in the Super Bowl in five of the last six seasons – but that was before Peyton Manning had neck surgery.
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