Top 20 Games of 2011

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Game 5: Saints at Packers Week 1

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The league has been holding the NFL Kickoff game on Thursday night for the last 10 years. It provides an early look at football that actually matters three days before the season’s first Sunday.

Some of the games have been simply outstanding, like the first such affair, a 16-13 Niners win in New York. Two years later, the Colts and Patriots played a thriller, with NFL Network analyst Willie McGinest sacking Peyton Manning on the second-to-last play, ultimately forcing Indy kicker Mike Vanderjagt to attempt a field goal from 48 yards out to tie (he missed). And last year’s instant classic -- Green Bay’s 42-34 win over New Orleans, our No. 5 game of 2011 -- certainly didn’t disappoint.

Of course, some of the kickoff games have disappointed. Big time. The Colts slaughtered the Saints 41-10 in 2007, and the Giants took down the Redskins in a less-than-spectacular 16-7 affair the following September.  

But the annual kickoff game has become more than just a season opener, with some interesting patterns developing around the event. For example, no defending Super Bowl champion has ever lost the kickoff game. This is no small run, mind you: Those teams, including last year’s Green Bay Packers, have gone a staggering 8-0. Meanwhile, only three losers of this game have gone on to make the playoffs (with the 2011 New Orleans Saints being one of them).

But another notable trend emerged from last year’s game. One that would set an ominous tone throughout the entire landscape of pro football.

No one was going to play pass defense ... all ... year ... long.

Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees absolutely tore it up on this night, a night filled with constant scoring and long, inspired marches right down the field. The Packers and Saints combined for 11 drives of 40-plus yards, with eight  -- EIGHT! -- travelling at least 70. What makes the last number even more impressive is that doesn’t even include each team’s return touchdown. Thank you, Darren Sproles and Randall Cobb (more on this below).

All season long, defensive players complained about the rigidity of helmet-to-helmet-contact infractions, as well as penalties for “launching into a defenseless opponent.” These rules -- while inarguably increasing player safety -- effectively neutered safety play around the league.

Look no further than a breakdown of the numbers of both Rodgers and Brees in this Thursday-night shootout. Rodgers completed seven of his eight passes over the middle for 100 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, Brees went 13-for-19 for 243 yards (yes, two hundred forty-three) and a touchdown over the middle alone. Basically, what was once the hardest place to throw the football became easy pickins in 2011.

The efficient play of QBs like Rodgers and Brees, as well as the lockout limiting the cohesiveness of NFL secondaries, certainly contributed to these aerial acrobatics, too. But still, the kickoff game provided us with a template for the entire 2011 season: Defenses everywhere would stink -- save select NFL cities like Pittsburgh and Baltimore -- while quarterback play would be off the charts.

Rodgers kicked off his 45-touchdown, six-interception campaign by guiding Green Bay to an inspiring 21-7 first-quarter lead. In that opening period, the Packers ran 21 plays for 202 yards and scored every time they had the ball.

New Orleans clawed back into the game, though every time Sean Payton’s group would close the gap, the Packers would extend it. Sproles’ punt-return touchdown was answered by a Packers’ touchdown drive, making the score 28-17. A 55-yard Saints march to start the third quarter resulted in a John Kasay field goal, but then Cobb took the ensuing kick to the house. Make it 35-20, Pack.

Early in the fourth, Rodgers toyed with Saints DBs, going 6-for-6 on a drive that ended with a typical John Kuhn run: a three-foot plunge. But then Brees got hot. Real hot.

On the penultimate Saints drive, Brees burned Dom Capers’ defense over and over, taking New Orleans 76 yards down the field to close the gap to 42-34. After a Packers punt, Brees was at it again, consistently beating the Green Bay secondary -- particularly on a perfectly delivered ball to Marques Colston for a 23-yard gain. A couple plays later, the Saints had the ball at the Packers’ 9-yard line with three ticks left.

Sproles was briefly open in the end zone on the next play, but got mugged by A.J. Hawk before Brees’ pass found its target. The defensive pass interference left one final untimed down to settle this deal.

Mark Ingram would get the call. That’s all he got. Green Bay stuffed him. Finally, a defense showed up, and one of the best games of 2011 was in the books.

Can’t-miss play 1: Darren Sproles was supposed to be the poor man’s Reggie Bush in New Orleans. Say what?! All Sproles did in his debut season with the Saints was set an NFL record with 2,696 all-purpose yards. Seventy-two of them came on this second-quarter punt return.

Can’t-miss play 2: How about Randall “Tex” Cobb seeing Sproles’ 72-yard punt-return touchdown ... and raising him 36 yards with a 108-yard kick-return score in the third quarter, tying the NFL record.

Same ol’ situation: You want to see a sick throw? Take a close look at Brees’ laser down the seam to Colston on the game’s final drive. The 23-yard completion put the Saints in the red zone to at least give them a shot to tie the game.

Head scratcher: Watching the final play again a year after the fact, the play call remains questionable. Because of a pass interference call on Hawk, the Saints received an untimed down from the 1-yard line. But giving the ball to virtually untested Mark Ingram up the middle seemed (and still seems) dicey. Here’s what the Total Access guys had to say about the play immediately after the game.

Best player on the field: Picking between Rodgers and Brees is almost impossible. The two combined for 731 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions. To see how they compared with other quarterbacks throughout the history of the Thursday-night opener, check out the infographic below, courtesy of STATS, LLC.

Record breaker: Cobb accomplished an unusual feat, becoming the first player born in the 1990s to play in a regular season game. Do you feel old yet? For accounting purposes, Cobb came into this world on August 22, 1990. Wow.

Why this game is No. 5: Saints-Packers was a water-on-your-face-when-you’re-hung-over wakeup call to the NFL season. This game was the perfect antidote to a long, lockout-marred offseason -- and thus, the perfect opener. It was like kicking off Appetite for Destruction with “Welcome to the Jungle,” or the opening scene in Terminator.  This is the way all NFL seasons should kick off, with a thriller decided on a do-or-die play from the 1-yard line.

Why not higher?: It sure would have been nice if someone could play some ball on defense in this game. Neither the Saints nor the Packers competed at even a “D” level on that side of the ball. Other than that, we have zero complaints about the 2011 Kickoff game.

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