By Mark Travis, Founder, Editor and Featured Columnist
If William Shakespeare, J.K. Rowling and Stephen King came together to write the script for the first NFL game of the 2011 season after a lockout that last 130 days, they wouldn’t have come up with something as compelling as last night’s opener. Pardon the cliche but to be welcomed back to pro football with a game like that felt too good to be true.
With a little help from the schedule makers, NFL fans were treated to a spectacular battle between two of the league’s best quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. The last time these two faced off was in 2008, Rodgers’ first season as a starter in the NFL. The Saints ended up crushing the Packers 51-29 in that game thanks to 323 yards on 20-of-26 passing and four touchdowns for Brees (Despite 248 passing yards and two touchdowns, Rodgers was picked off three times in that game). Back then, Brees wasn’t talked about as one of the top passers in the game and Rodgers hadn’t even dreamed about thinking of the title belt celebration that he would use in the Super Bowl in the year 2011.
Last night, Drew Brees wasn’t any different than he was in 2008. Even though he wasn’t getting the same amount of main stream attention as guys like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, he was every bit as good. After he helped the Saints capture the Super Bowl in 2010, Brees was thrown into the conversation he had deserved to be in for a while. Unlike Brady or Manning, Brees was low in stature, barely breaking the six foot mark, and was often doubted because of his lack of height. Until he defeated Peyton Manning two years ago, he was the underdog. He wasn’t expected to outperform his size. He was kicked to the curb by the Chargers after his right arm was replaced with a part from the Transformers. Now Brees is in any top QB discussion by default and there are plenty of folks who believe that Brees will lead the Saints to their second Super Bowl in three years this season.
Rodgers has been both the underdog and the favorite in his career, which is odd for someone as young as he is. It’s also a bit odd that he was the fan favorite but but the underdog on his own team. As you know, Rodgers was kept on the sidelines for the first three years of his career as Brett Favre played his final seasons in Green Bay. Because of Brett’s decision to retire and unretire multiple times before finally heading back to his farm for good his public image suffered a bit. Rodgers was the talented youngster who deserved a shot and Favre was the scruffy vet who couldn’t let go. The Packers would finally select Rodgers over Favre when they decided not to resign Brett in 2008, giving Rodgers the starting job.
Since then Rodgers has matured into one of the most savvy, accurate and complete quarterbacks in the league. His place at the top of the QB rankings along with Brady, Manning and Brees was solidified last season when he led the Packers to Super Bowl while defeating Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler and Ben Roethlisberger in the process. Even though I was an advocate of Rodgers taking over for Favre a few years ago, I was not expecting him to turn out just as productive, if not more productive, than Brett at the ripe age of 27.
After spending the first part of their careers in the shadows (Favre’s shadow for Rodgers and the shadow of Manning and Brady for Brees), Brees and Rodgers have stepped into the limelight. After watching them battle last night it seemed as Brees v Rodgers is the NFC version of Brady v Manning. Even though Brees (32) is older than Rodgers (27) the two quarterbacks are the two very best in their conference and last night was the first of what might be several games between the two.
Rodgers was on fire last night, fitting passes into tiny lanes and hitting his receivers in between the numbers whether or not they were curling or cutting across the field. Brees was just as good individually but a fumble by Marques Colston on the first drive of the game and an offensive line that kept getting beat by Green Bay’s stout defensive front kept Brees from making his throws.
At half-time Rodgers had a guady stat line of 188 yards on 14-for-15 passing with three touchdowns. Brees would end up with a bigger line because the Saints did a lot more throwing in the second half (419 yards and three touchdowns for Brees; 312 and three touchdowns for Rodgers) but both players were extremely effective and both looked like the best quarterbacks in the league when their respective offenses were on the field. Brees nearly led his team back to tie the game after orchestrating one of the best two minute offenses you will ever see – especially with just one timeout – but Mark Ingram wasn’t able to get the ball into the endzone from the one yard line on the last play of the game.
The Packers won 42-34, starting off their repeat campaign on a good note. While Green Bay must have been pleased with the result, I think the true winner last night were the fans. Not only was football brought back into our lives, but we were welcomed to it with a battle between two of the game’s very best players.