After the first weekend’s slate of games, talking heads will analyze their significance, emphatically stating what it means for the rest of the season.
But unless a team suffers a major injury, the opening game often does not indicate how the NFL year will unfold.
The classic example of this tendency occurred during the 2003 season opener between the Bills and Patriots. At the time the game’s result seemed so significant that the Bills were splashed on the ensuing cover of Sports Illustrated.
Bills 31, Patriots 0
Week 1 spin — Former Patriots, QB Drew Bledsoe and S Lawyer Milloy, get their revenge. Bledsoe, traded from the Patriots to the Bills in 2002, had catapulted the Bills back into relevance for the first time since the Jim Kelly era. The wheels had finally come off the Patriots bandwagon particularly because a stubborn Bill Belichick traded Bledsoe within the division and refused to re-sign Milloy.
Season-ending reality — The Patriots cap the regular season by defeating the Bills by the exact inverse of their Week 1 score, 31-0. New England wins Super Bowl XXXVIII. Rodney Harrison capably replaces Milloy at safety for the next five years, and the Bills get rid of Bledsoe after the 2004 season.
Poignant examples from the last several years are listed below. And with new NFL rules mandating less offseason sessions and full-contact practices, teams may come out of the gate rusty, and Week 1 results could have even less correlation to the rest of the season during 2012.
Redskins 28, Giants 14
Week 1 spin — Residing on a boiling hot seat, Tom Coughlin will see his eight-year tenure as Giants head coach come to an end. Giants Eli Manning is not the “elite” quarterback he claimed to be during the offseason as his opposition, journeyman Redskins QB Rex Grossman, outperforms him.
Season-ending reality — After winning Super Bowl XLVI, Coughlin becomes the ninth coach with multiple Super Bowl victories, and Manning proves to be one of the game’s most clutch quarterbacks. The last-place Redskins trade three first-round picks and a second-rounder so they can select RG III at quarterback.
Raiders 23, Broncos 20
Week 1 spin — An atrocious Broncos team will finish in last place again. They not only lost to a rival at home on Monday Night Football, but they also did so in an ugly and listless fashion, allowing five sacks, committing three turnovers and rushing for 38 yards. Raiders QB Jason Campbell played poorly too, but at least he avoided turnovers and let his defense win the game.
Season-ending reality — Riding Tebowmania, the Broncos become one of the NFL’s most compelling teams, winning games late and in dramatic fashion. Behind the No. 1-ranked rushing offense, they win the AFC West and a playoff game. Oakland replaces Campbell for 2011 and beyond with Carson Palmer, who doesn’t manage games — he loses them. Palmer throws for more interceptions than touchdowns and finishes with a 4-6 record in 2011.
Redskins 13, Cowboys 7
Week 1 spin — During a highly touted Sunday Night Football game, QB Donovan McNabb led his new team to a victory against its archrival. Noted QB guru Mike Shanahan won his first game as Redskins coach and would bolster McNabb’s career like he did for QBs Steve Young and John Elway.
Season-ending reality — The Redskins lose seven of their last nine games to finish at 6-10 and miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season. While offering differing and confusing reasons to the media, the Redskins bench McNabb for Grossman and then trade him to the Vikings during the offseason.
Texans 34, Colts 24
Week 1 spin — This game represented a watershed mark for the AFC South. The Texans would make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The aging Colts would lose their stranglehold on the division.
Season-ending reality — The Colts win the AFC South, and their 10-6 record means they have won at least 10 games for the ninth consecutive season — the second longest streak in NFL history. In direct contrast, the Texans miss the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season and finish with a 6-10 record.
Broncos 12, Bengals 7
Week 1 spin — Despite a rocky offseason that included trading away franchise QB Jay Cutler, head coach Josh McDaniels won his debut on the road in dramatic fashion. With 11 seconds to go, Broncos WR Brandon Stokley caught a deflected pass for an 87-yard touchdown. The miraculous play signified a charmed season in Denver. Meanwhile, the same old Bungles snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Season-ending reality — After starting 6-0, the Broncos lose eight of their last 10 games and miss the playoffs. McDaniels lasts less than one more season. The turn-around Bengals are one of the NFL season’s major stories, improving from 4-11-1 in 2009 to the AFC North division winner in 2010.
Jets 20, Dolphins 14
Week 1 spin — During a road game, QB Brett Favre won his Jets debut against the man he replaced, Chad Pennington. With their biggest star since Joe Namath, the Jets would bounce back from their 4-12 record in 2007 and make the playoffs. After finishing an NFL-worst, 1-15, the Dolphins would not be much better under new coach Tony Sparano.
Season-ending reality — The Dolphins win the end-of-the-year rematch in New York with Comeback Player of the Year, Pennington, outdueling a struggling Favre. That completes an amazing worst-to-first renaissance for the Dolphins. They implement the NFL’s hottest 2008 offensive trend — the wildcat — and win the AFC East. Jets HC Eric Mangini is fired, and Favre moves on to the Vikings.
Bears 29, Colts 17
Week 1 spin — This marquee Thursday night match up not only opened the season but also christened the Colts’ new Lucas Oil Stadium. It was also a rematch of the Super Bowl from two seasons prior. With a new running back in tow, Matt Forte, the Bears had regained their 2006 form. During Tony Dungy’s final season, the Colts and QB Peyton Manning had finally come crashing back to earth.
Season-ending reality — The Bears miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season. The Colts struggled early largely because QB Peyton Manning had downplayed the significance of his offseason knee surgery. Once his knee becomes sound, Manning wins his third MVP and leads the Colts to the playoffs for the seventh straight season.
Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills.
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