AFC favorites start season right

Opening week in the NFL is about as meaningful as a first date. It's usually pretty exciting, but in the end, it really isn't a big deal.

That said, let's be clear about this: The big guns didn't fire blanks in Week 1.


The Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers all flexed their playoff muscle against pretty stiff opposition, and tonight, the Ravens get a chance to follow suit in Cincinnati.

Will the Big Four become the AFC's Final Four in January? Too early to tell, but the indications are there.


In a 41-10 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Thursday, the Colts' defense was playing at playoff caliber, and Peyton Manning was in his own zone. There was little to find fault with in the Colts' win.

Randy Moss, meanwhile, sent a shiver through the rest of the NFL when he pulled down nine passes for 183 yards and a nifty 51-yard touchdown catch from Tom Brady in East Rutherford, N.J. He turned a tight AFC East series into a rout as the Patriots dismantled the New York Jets, 38-14.

Moss missed most of training camp with hamstring issues, but at 30, that's not a bad thing. What Patriots coach Bill Belichick had to like was the protection his offensive line gave Brady (297 passing yards, three touchdowns) and the big-play capability. If the Patriots improve on that, they will be frightening.

The Chargers were stymied early against the Bears' defense, but their best players (LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates) eventually made big plays to send Chicago home with a 14-3 loss.

The Bears were headed back to more controversy about quarterback Rex Grossman, who threw his first interception of the season and appeared overmatched by the Chargers' defense.

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Jamal Lewis got to turn the page when he left Baltimore, but he's in a much worse place with the woebegone Cleveland Browns. He ran for just 35 yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers and lost a fumble in his Browns debut, looking a lot like the ineffective tailback he was for the Ravens last year. Once the Browns fall behind -- and they're going to be down a lot this season -- he's useless to the offense because he can't catch.

How would you like to be a Browns fan? Romeo Crennel benched quarterback Charlie Frye in the first half and Derek Anderson wasn't any better in the pitiful 34-7 loss. If Brady Quinn doesn't start next week at home against the Bengals, there might be a fan boycott. The season is one week old and the Browns are finished already. Maybe Crennel, too.


When you're a former top-three pick at quarterback and get badly outplayed by a second-year guy from Alabama State, you know the end is near. Joey Harrington, Atlanta's answer to the Michael Vick disaster, threw for two touchdowns -- for Minnesota -- in his Falcons debut. Harrington's interceptions were returned 54 yards (defensive tackle Kevin Williams) and 14 yards (cornerback Antoine Winfield) in a 24-3 loss to the Vikings. Tarvaris Jackson threw for 163 yards and one touchdown. Falcons fans are already asking, "Will this season never end?"

Mario Williams, the defensive end selected first in the 2006 draft ahead of Reggie Bush, is slowly quieting his critics. He had a modest rookie season for the Texans but opened Year 2 with a two-sack performance and a 38-yard touchdown return of a fumble. Not coincidentally, the Texans appear to be making strides on defense. Twenty-two months after they gave up 211 rushing yards to the Chiefs' Larry Johnson, the Texans held him to 43 yards in a 20-3 lashing of Kansas City.

The Packers stole one from the Eagles in Green Bay. Or maybe it was a giveaway. The Eagles mishandled two punt returns that gave the Packers 10 points in a 16-13 win. Greg Lewis and J.R. Reed were the culprits. While Lewis' fumble turned into a Green Bay touchdown, Reed's set up Mason Crosby's game-winning 42-yard field goal. Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb (15-for-33 for 184 yards) did not look very sharp in the loss. But it's always easy to read too much into a season-opening loss.

Even though they gained almost 300 yards more than the Bills, the Broncos were fortunate to get out of Buffalo with a 15-14 win. Quarterback Jay Cutler engineered an end-of-game drive that set up Jason Elam's winning 42-yard field goal. Cutler, who threw for 304 yards, threw three straight completions to Javon Walker, the third with 14 seconds left. Rather than spike the ball to stop the clock, the Broncos (out of timeouts) hustled the field-goal team on and Elam made the kick with at least one second to spare.

The Jaguars could be in trouble. David Garrard, who replaced recently released Byron Leftwich as starting quarterback, played OK in a 13-10 home loss to the Titans. But Jacksonville's previously stout run defense was shredded by Tennessee's Chris Brown for 175 yards (and 282 overall). Garrard needs the defense to play well and he needs a running game that can produce more than 72 rushing yards.

It was a bad day in the kicking neighborhood. Jacksonville kicker Josh Scobee slipped in pre-game warmups, injured his right leg and couldn't attempt anything more than chip shots. The Jaguars eschewed what would have been about a 37-yard field-goal attempt early in the second half -- trailing by 13-10 -- to run a fourth-and-10 play that failed abysmally.


Cleveland kept punter Dave Zastudil out of yesterday's game with a back ailment. On the Browns' first series, emergency punter Paul Ernster muffed a snap and then got off a 15-yard kick. The Browns drew four flags on the play -- two holds, an illegal formation and man downfield. Bad omen.

Maybe there is something to playing at least a preseason game or two. The Rams sat running back Steven Jackson through the exhibition season, like the Chargers did with Tomlinson. Was Jackson ready for Carolina's defense? He ran for just 58 yards and lost fumbles on consecutive carries in a 27-13 loss at home. Maybe next week.

Steelers rookie coach Mike Tomlin should send someone in the league office a thank-you note for that soft-as-a-pillow September schedule. The Steelers ought to be 4-0 after getting the Browns, Bills, 49ers and Cardinals.