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Reviewing how last year’s breakout teams looked after week 1

The San Francisco 49ers were the breakout team of the 2011 season, going from 6-10 in 2010 to 13-3 last year. The Cincinnati Bengals were the surprise team of the AFC, jumping from four to nine wins and earning a playoff berth. The Houston Texans, Detroit Lions, and Denver Broncos all made the playoffs after notching four more wins in 2011 than they had in 2010. But could you have known after just one week that those teams were on track for such breakout seasons? Let’s review.

San Francisco 49ers 33, Seattle 17

The 49ers were Super Bowl contenders as long as Ginn was returning punts.

This was an odd game, and Jason McIntyre explains why:

San Francisco had just 12 first downs and 209 yards … but still beat the Seahawks by 16 points. The real reason the 49ers won was because Ted Ginn ran a punt and kickoff back for touchdowns in a span of 59 seconds. But offensively, Frank Gore averaged 2.7 ypc and Alex Smith threw for just 124 yards. San Francisco had the ball for 31 minutes and mustered only 12 first downs. As bad as the 49ers looked offensively, the defense did sack T-Jack five times and generate three turnovers. But if the 49ers couldn’t move the ball against a mediocre Seahawks defense … what will they be able to do against the Cowboys, which annihilated the Jets’ offensive line Sunday night? The 49ers have opened as 3-point dogs against Dallas next weekend … I humbly suggest loading up on Romo in that one. No word if San Fran will be without Michael Crabtree.

The 49ers offense wasn’t impressive, but San Francisco’s defense and special teams were dominant. That formula proved to work all season, although few expected it to work against teams better than Seattle. At the time Seattle was considered one of the worst teams in the league (they were a 14-point underdog in Pittsburgh the following week), which made the victory look even less impressive. After week one, Jason Lisk unveiled his Week 1 Power rankings, placing NFL teams into seven tiers. The 49ers were placed in Tier 6 with the comment “When you need two returns by Ted Ginn to put away the Seahawks, you are not good.” ESPN’s power rankings placed San Francisco at #22.

Cincinnati 27, Cleveland 17
This was an ugly game that caught almost nobody’s attention. The big stories of the game were the officiating and the performance of Bruce Gradkowski, who came and led Cincinnati to a win after Andy Dalton was injured. Many in Cleveland blamed the referees, as the Browns were flagged for 11 penalties, compared to just three for Cincinnati. And on the game’s pivotal play — a 41-yard touchdown to A.J. Green — the Browns were still in their defensive huddle at the start of the play, and later argued that the quick snap wasn’t a legal play. The Bengals defense was excellent, shutting down Peyton Hillis and Colt McCoy, but many thought that was simply a product of the schedule. Suffice it to say, no one was boarding the Bengals’ bandwagon after week one. Lisk placed Cincinnati in Tier 5: “Still not sold here, especially if Bruce Gradkowski is QB. Haden shut down Green until the play where he was uncovered at the snap, and Benson’s numbers boosted by a late TD run.” ESPN ranked the Bengals 30th… and the Browns 32nd. The Bengals would lose in Denver and in San Francisco the next two weeks, dropping to 1-2.

Houston 34, Indianapolis 7
The story of this game was more about the play of the Peyton Manning-less Colts of Indianapolis. This game was over almost as soon as it started. Here was Nick Scurfield’s (of the Houston Texans’ blog) halftime report:

We’re at halftime of the Texans’ preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts at Reliant Stadium. The Colts will receive to start the third quarter.

34-0: The score, in favor of the Texans
259-72: Total yards, in favor of the Texans
159-30: Passing yards, in favor of the Texans
100-41: Rushing yards, in favor of the Texans
19:39-10:21: Time of possession, in favor of the Texans
0: Times in history the Texans have had a bigger halftime lead
2: Turnovers forced by the Texans in the first quarter
19: First downs for the Texans
5: First downs for the Colts
1: Drive for the Colts that netted more than 13 yards
5: Consecutive scoring drives for the Texans to close the half
101.6: Passer rating for Texans QB Matt Schaub (12-of-16)
65.3: Passer rating for Colts QB Kerry Collins (6-of-11)
11: Carries for Texans RB Derrick Ward
10: Carries for Texans RB Ben Tate
1: Touchdown apiece for Ward and Tate
89: Receiving yards for Texans WR Andre Johnson on 6 catches
4: Yardage on Johnson’s second-quarter TD catch
79: Yardage on Texans WR Jacoby Jones’ punt return TD
4: Career kick return TDs for Jones, a new team record
1: Sacks for Texans LB Mario Williams and DE Antonio Smith
1: Fumble recoveries by Texans DE J.J. Watt and DT Shaun Cody
5: Touchbacks on kickoffs by Texans P Brett Hartmann, a new team record

The Texans’ dominant defense and impressive running game were on full display in this game, but again, the level of competition was the key question. Lisk placed them in Tier 3, or roughly Team #10, commenting: “Look like the clear class of the AFC South after Jacksonville and Tennessee played patty cake and they dominated Indianapolis.” ESPN also put them at #10, although they already had the Texans at #11 before the season.

Detroit 27, Tampa Bay 20
Detroit was a pre-season media darling entering the season, and lived up to expectations in week one. Matthew Stafford went 24/33 for 305 yards with 3 TDs and 1 interception.. Here was Footballguys’ game 1 recap on Stafford:

Stafford put up some unreal stats in the pre-season, and many wondered if he was going to able to keep the same pace in the regular season. It’s safe to say that that Stafford is for real and he’s going to be a dangerous fantasy QB this season. He maintained his poise, even after throwing a pick-six early in the game. The interception was a tipped pass to Will Heller that was picked off and returned for a TD. However, Stafford stayed focused and led his team back to the end zone three times. His first TD pass to Calvin Johnson was a beautiful rainbow over two defenders into Megatron’s waiting arms. Johnson strolled into the end zone for an easy score. His second TD pass was on a roll out to the right side, where he was able to thread the needle between three defenders to find Tony Scheffler for the TD. For the third TD, Stafford went back to Megatron on a jump ball near the side of the end zone. Stafford threw the ball high enough where only Johnson could come down with it and his favorite target did not disappoint. Perhaps the best news for fantasy owners though was Stafford’s willingness to stay in the pocket and work his receivers rather than take off running and risk serious injury. If Stafford can maintain this poise throughout the season, he could become one of the top fantasy QBs in the league.

Detroit went up 27-13 midway through the third quarter and the game never got very close after that, although Tampa Bay put up some numbers in garbage time. Stafford and Calvin Johnson had monster years in 2011, and those watching in week 1 got a great preview. Lisk placed Detroit in Tier 3 (9th place), and added: “Far more impressive performance on the road at Tampa than the final score indicates. Pettigrew dropped TD on third down in red zone and a tipped interception return for Tampa Bay kept it closer, but Lions dominated most of this game. Nick Fairley hasn’t even lined up next to Suh yet. Legitimate playoff contender.” ESPN ranked Detroit 12th.

Oakland 23, Denver 20

A summary of Tim Tebow's week one.

Sebastian Janikowski kicked a 63-yard field goal at the end of the first half to increase Oakland’s lead to 16-3. Denver scored a late 4th-quarter touchdown to cut the lead to 23-20, but never saw the ball again. The Broncos running game was horrible, with Knowshon Moreno rushing 8 times for 22 yards and Willis McGahee running 4 times for 3 yards. After week 1, Denver ranked last in rushing yards; I have no idea how they finished the year with the most rushing yards in the league. Kyle Orton threw 46 times for 304 yards, signaling the 2011 Broncos as a pass-happy team.

Lisk placed Denver in Tier 5: “The line struggled in the opener, so of course the fans booed for the third string QB all game. (Orton didn’t play his best, and had a couple of notable bad plays, but a lot was on the line play). The defense had its flaws, but looks to be much improved. Closer to 7-9 than the disaster that was last season, once the new staff gets more time in.” ESPN was more harsh, placing the Broncos at 28.

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