Grantland Week 1 Review
Quote:An NFC North team emerged from Week 1 with a dominant victory over an NFC South contender from last season, as it was able to overcome a pick-six from its quarterback to comprehensively outplay a serious competitor. In fact, the final score made the game look a lot closer than it actually was, but that's a good thing; it'll just keep people off the bandwagon for that much longer.
Wait — no, take a step back, Bears fans. This one's not for you. It's the Lions, who put up the truly dominant win on Sunday afternoon. How was the Lions' seven-point win a more impressive performance than the 18-point shellacking that the Bears laid on a disappointing Falcons team? And what else do you need to know about a sloppy, entertaining Week 1?
Let's stick with the Lions to start. In a matchup of two teams expected to be on the precipice of the playoffs this season by most observers, the Lions' defense simply stifled the Buccaneers, something the 27-20 final totally obscures. The Bucs got to 20 only through a series of small miracles. After a 76-yard drive by the Lions to start the game, the Buccaneers returned the ensuing kickoff all the way to the Lions' 21-yard line. They gained one yard on four plays before kicking a field goal. Tampa Bay then took a 10-3 lead when Matthew Stafford sailed an out pattern to cornerback Aqib Talib, who returned it for a touchdown. They added a field goal during their two-minute drill to make it 20-13, Lions, and with the game at 27-13 in the fourth quarter, they completed a 59-yard drive against a prevent defense to bring the game within one score.
Otherwise, the Detroit defense was brilliant. The Buccaneers' six other drives before the fourth quarter produced a total of 78 yards, with five three-and-outs and an interception of Josh Freeman. Once garbage time set in during the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers moved the ball effectively against a Lions prevent scheme, but after Lions tackle Gosder Cherilus took an insane personal foul penalty to stop the clock with 1:06 left and a punt awaiting the Buccaneers, Detroit successfully shut down a Freeman drive without much of a sweat.
There wasn't much to criticize about its offense, either. On their first seven drives, the Lions had one end with a three-and-out and had another culminate in that Stafford pick-six. Their other five drives produced an average of 9.6 plays and 76 yards while combining for all 27 of the Lions' points. Outside of his interception, Stafford was brilliant on those seven drives, going 22-of-29 for 295 yards with three touchdowns and no sacks. The Lions took over the game and turned it into their plaything, scoring at will and shutting down the opposing offense until their primary objective went from scoring points to killing clock. They did this against a healthy Buccaneers team1 in Tampa Bay, and they did it without cornerback Alphonso Smith or defensive tackle Nick Fairley, both of whom would have started if healthy. It was a win that looks better and better upon further review.
On the other hand, you can deflate a lot of the air surrounding the Bears' 30-12 win over the Falcons. Chicago outplayed Atlanta and fully deserved the victory, but there's a lot going on to make a simple defeat look like a beatdown.
The game turned on fumbles. There were five of them, and wouldn't you know — Chicago recovered all five. These weren't meaningless fumbles at the end of the game, either. Devin Hester fumbled on his own 25-yard line during the second play from scrimmage and recovered it. Hester then muffed a punt in the second quarter that would have given the Falcons the ball at midfield. After a Falcons drive at the end of the first quarter was ended in Bears territory by a Michael Turner fumble, the Bears broke the game open with a stripsack of Matt Ryan on Atlanta's second drive of the second half. Brian Urlacher picked up the fumble and took it to the house for a 30-6 lead. The only fumble that really came in garbage time was when Jay Cutler dropped one on his own 22-yard line with 5:31 left, and even that would have given the Falcons a faint glimmer of hope.
Contrary to what you might believe, recovering fumbles is not a Lovie Smith trademark. Despite having a reputation for building defenses that swarm the ball in the hopes of recovering fumbles at the end of plays, his defenses don't recover a particularly high percentage of the fumbles. Although there's a lot of fluctuation from year to year because of the small sample size, teams will recover about 50 percent of the fumbles over any significant length of time. One of the few ways in which the 2010 Bears weren't "lucky" was on fumbles. They combined to recover just 24 of the 57 balls that hit that ground, for a recovery rate of just better than 42 percent. The Bears should improve on that figure, but 5-for-5 isn't happening again anytime soon.
If the Falcons recover even one of the first three fumbles, the entire complexion of the game changes. The Falcons were forced to throw for most of the second half and faced an excellent Bears pass rush that teed off on Ryan. The Falcons star was sacked five times on Sunday after taking just 23 sacks during the entire 2010 season, and four of those sacks came during the second half, when there was no threat of a run game. Atlanta was also without center Todd McClure, who makes the line calls and adjusts the protections along with Ryan, and right guard Garrett Reynolds was making both his first NFL start and his first NFL appearance since December 2009.
Even the soft stuff went Chicago's way. Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud had two interceptions bounce out of his hands, including one in the end zone. Matt Forte's long catch-and-run for a touchdown saw Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon deliver a particularly menacing nudge 20 yards downfield instead of attempting to wrap Forte with a tackle. Hester's 53-yard screen broke open when a Falcons defender slipped. The Bears did lose two players to injury during the game — but they were guard Lance Louis and wide receiver Roy Williams, arguably their two worst starters.
If you don't believe me, check with the man: The sportsbooks don't believe in Chicago yet, either. Even after their big win, the Bears opened as a seven-point underdog on the road against the Saints in Week 2, a figure that doesn't jibe whatsoever with how the two teams played during the opening week of the season. The Lions, meanwhile, opened up as 7.5-point favorites at home against the Chiefs, who made the playoffs last season (before looking gruesomely bad against the Bills at home this week). The Bears may very well end up being the better of these two teams, but despite the scores of their respective games, the Lions looked like the better team in Week 1.