Finally, the 2011 season kicks off tomorrow night with perhaps the most anticipated opening game in recent league history. Super Bowl XLIV Champs New Orleans visit Super Bowl XLV Champs Green Bay at Lambeau Field for the now traditional Thursday Night opener. The Saints and Packers are two of the elite teams in the NFL and a win in this opening game wouldn't just be a statement victory to the league, but would set the tone for perhaps another Super Bowl triumph.
Both teams have a wealth of talent. Both teams have one of the best quarterbacks in the game. Both teams have an impressive array of skill position talent. Both teams are arguably evenly matched. However, in this matchup of the last two Super Bowl winners, New Orleans is at a huge disadvantage... simply because of the Thursday Night occasion. A look at the history of the NFL's Thursday Night opening game show how tough this game will be for the Saints in Green Bay. In fact, it may be the single most difficult game any team faces all season.
Since the NFL decided to have the reigning Super Bowl champion host the opening game of the season in 2004, home teams are undefeated in the Thursday showcase. (In 2002 and 2003, the defending champs were not involved and home teams went 1-1.) Here's the list of those games since 2004 and how the contest has drastically favored the home team...
2004: Patriots 27, Colts 24
2005: Patriots 30, Raiders 20
2006: Steelers 28, Dolphins 17
2007: Colts 41, Saints 10
2008: Giants 16, Redskins 7
2009: Steelers 13, Titans 10
2010: Saints 14, Vikings 9
Home team PPG: 24.14 PPG
Away team PPG: 13.85 PPG
Margin of victory: 10.29 PPG
Home team record: 7-0
The Saints will make a record third appearance in this showcase game, which is quite the feat considering the franchise was rarely ever in primetime until the revival brought on by Sean Payton and Drew Brees. However, their potent offense has been held largely in check. Last year's game against the Vikings saw the Saints only gain 308 yards of offense and score 14 points - down from an average of 372.5 yards per game and 24 points. The offensive performance in their road game at the RCA Dome was even worse - the only TD the Saints scored that night came from a Jason David fumble return. He made up for it though by being burnt to a crisp by Marvin Harrison and Peyton Manning. That 41-10 defeat in Indy was the most lopsided in this game's short history.
Why have road teams struggled so much in the Thursday opener? Part of it surely revolves around the ceremonial aspect involved and the fact that it is different than any other regular season game on the schedule. The night is more a celebration of the NFL and the home team's previous championship than anything else. When that home team drops their championship banner, their players and fans are given some sort of infinite Super Mario star power. I think that's what happened to Marshawn Lynch last year in Seattle's playoff upset in fact. Perhaps a larger factor is that the home team is pretty, pretty, pretty good, too. For a visiting team, it's the toughest atmosphere imaginable to walk into.
If there is one thing working in the Saints' favor, it may be their preparedness. Not only is this New Orleans' third Week 1 Thursday night appearance, but they arguably put in more offseason work than anyone during the lockout. QB Drew Brees even personally funded workouts to prepare his team for another Super Bowl run. Green Bay's offseason on the other hand largely consisted of celebrating their Super Bowl XLV win and this. If that extra offseason work in the late Spring makes a difference at all, it will show up predominantly early in the season.
The atmosphere will be a spectacle in every sense of the word. Hopefully the game isn't bogged down like the last few years and these two offenses will be in top gear from the outset. If any team can break the Thursday night road jinx, it's this Saints team that defied the impossible and brought a championship to New Orleans. If Drew Brees and Sean Payton are indeed on the road back to the Super Bowl in 2011, their first stop in Green Bay presents their toughest test.