By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts Thursday Night Champion

Ten things we learned from the Green Bay Packers’ 42-34 win over New Orleans that kicked the 2011 season off in high style.

1. It was a dream opening night for the NFL.

Lockout? What lockout? The NFL had already healed whatever wounds were left open from a spring and summer of labor angst, but a football game that felt like a championship battle to kick things off didn’t hurt matters.

These Thursday night games had largely been defensive affairs; the last three years, the winner of the game scored 16, 13 and 14 points. But the Saints and Packers just kept putting up points, both with solid little gainers and big, bold megaplays. They combined to go 17-for-26 on third downs with clutch play-calling and execution. Special teams unleashed big plays, there were very few penalties – even Kid Rock and Jordin Sparks did their part with some professional musical performances pregame.

And of course, as a final touch, the game went down to the honest-to-goodness last play of the game, where Mark Ingram staggered into a stacked line with :00 on the clock to end the Saints’ comeback try. Football is back, folks.

2. It was a dream opening night for the Packers as well.

Bart Starr was teary-eyed on the field, the championship was commemorated, Vince Lombardi’s grandkid was in the coaching booth for New Orleans and the Packers ran up 42 points in a win. Not a bad start.

You also have to love the fact that Rodgers came out in defense of the title with three passing TDs in the first quarter, the first time in an opener in almost 50 years.

The defense didn’t look great (6.5 yards per play against), but sweet Lord, that Green Bay offense is frightening. To put it in perspective, James Jones – who was a pretty good receiver in 2010 and would be a No. 1 in at least a couple of NFL cities – was the Packers’ eighth best offensive option last night behind Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley, James Starks, Ryan Grant and John Kuhn. Oh, and rookie Randall Cobb, who looked like Joshua Cribbs in returns and the quick passing game – just what the Packers need, another weapon.

3. The new kickoff rule had an impact, and changes the game, but maybe not in a bad way.

Yes, there were an awful lot of touchbacks, and there will continue to be. But Darren Sproles and Cobb more or less made a mockery of those bashing the kickoff changes, each ripping off great returns, Cobb’s from eight yards deep in the end zone.

Cris Collinsworth made reference to the league maybe adopting a punt rather than a kickoff after touchdowns, but that seemed like his own private thesis and not something actually in play. Roger Goodell has referred to it as a one-year trial, and we’re one game in – by season’s end, it’ll work itself out (and yes, we did call for it to be rescinded just a couple weeks ago. Sue us).

Eventually, teams are going to have to decide whether they want their guys to give it a shot from eight yards deep or just keep taking it at the 20. While the rule was supposed to reduce the impact of kick returns, maybe it just means the truly great ones will separate from the pack with their extra derring-do. It’ll be a fun thing to watch as the season progresses and coaches see other coaches come up with different approaches – and copy them as needed.

4. Darren Sproles might be the Saints’ best weapon of the Drew Brees Era.

Brees has had some very nice skill players over his time in New Orleans. Marques Colston has been a reliable threat, Jeremy Shockey had his moments, so have Reggie Bush, Lance Moore, Pierre Thomas, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem.

But none of them has what Darren Sproles has. He touched the ball nine times on offense for 84 yards, scored a touchdown on a punt return and almost had another on a kickoff. Watching him bust loose Thursday night, you have to wonder why San Diego didn’t fight a little harder to keep him – he’s impossible to cover and a great return man. If the Chargers don’t get to the playoffs in 2011 and the Saints keep putting up points like they did Thursday, GM A.J. Smith is going to look pretty bad.

5. If your team doesn’t have a great quarterback on the roster, it’s wait until next year time already.

Watching Brees and Rodgers operate Thursday night was pretty much a statement to at least the NFC that if you don’t have a star quarterback you’re basically playing for moral victories. None of the teams in the NFC with second-tier QBs are going to oust both of these guys from the playoffs, not to mention the Falcons (Matt Ryan) or Eagles (Michael Vick). Could the Bucs, Lions, 49ers, Bears or Rams get to the playoffs? Win a game? Sure. But a Super Bowl? Forget it. You’d need a defense to the level of the 2000 Ravens or 2002 Bucs, and there are none of those in the NFC.

Teams without a quarterback in today’s NFL are like small-market teams in baseball – they’re just hoping to stay in contention, sell a few hot dogs and share in the profits. But they have no shot at a title.

6. Score one for CHFF’s Scott Kacsmar; Aaron Rodgers and the Packers played front-runner again.

If you read our lead story Thursday, a long and thoughtful piece by “Captain Comeback” Scott Kacsmar, you know that Rodgers has played from ahead more than just about any QB in the league since taking over the Packers. It was the same story Thursday night. Green Bay got out to a big lead and looked in complete command, just as they did in the Super Bowl vs. Pittsburgh, but just like that game couldn’t close the deal.

You can’t blame Rodgers – and our piece wasn’t knocking Rodgers, just pointing out what he hasn’t achieved alongside the stuff he has – but it’s interesting to see Green Bay following a familiar pattern.

7. In the end, it was all about the red zone.

The stat sheet was nearly identical and extremely impressive for both sides. But there was one key difference: Green Bay was 4-for-4 in the red zone, New Orleans was 1-for-5. Ball game.

It didn’t help that all of Sean Payton’s decisions seemed to go the wrong way. He went for it on fourth down deep in Packer territory instead of kicking a field goal to cut it to five in the second half, and failed. Then, with the game on the line, he called that ugly plunge by Ingram. We hate to second-guess, but maybe your veteran (Pierre Thomas) would have been a better call there.

Also, two key clock-related mistakes made life harder than it had to be for the Saints. They called their second timeout in the fourth quarter with the Packers facing 2nd-and-1 and lining up for a run play. Then, down 15 with less than 3:00 to play, they got a first down at the Green Bay five. Rather than quickly spike it, they took almost 30 seconds, then failed to score before getting in on second down. They weren’t worried about downs at that point; a spike was the play. If they had that time on the potential game-tying drive, they might have had two more shots at the end zone.

8. Clete Blakeman is the new Ed Hochuli.

If you were casting a movie about the NFL and needed a ref character, you’d probably seriously consider naming him “Clete Blakeman.” Thursday night’s head ref, getting the big opening night call in only his second year, doesn’t quite have Hochuli’s classic burly biceps,, but he’s pretty well put together and has the same sense of command that ol’ No. 85 in stripes has. Blakeman even signals first down as a lefty like Hochuli does. All hail the Cleve Blakeman Era.

Speaking of the refs, you also got a sense from this game that the reviewing of every touchdown is a good idea if executed right. Instead of delaying the game and costing the coaches a challenge, it’s quickly assessed upstairs and play can continue. There were no challenges last night, no obvious delays and nothing except a few Coors Light ads to distract you from the action. If all the games were as well run as that one, no football fan would ever have reason to hurl a bottle of Schnapps at an official.

9. New Orleans’ defense doesn’t look improved. At all.

Last time we saw the Saints, they were whiffing 249 separate times trying to tackle Marshawn Lynch and allowing 41 points to Seattle in the playoffs.

That was pretty much the Saints defense we saw Thursday night, missing tackles, letting Rodgers do whatever he wanted and losing the fight up front. There are a lot of new names in the front seven – four different starters, by our count – but new isn’t always better. Don’t let last year’s No. 4 rank in yards allowed fool you, the Saints’ defense got a lot of rest, didn’t play as many snaps as most, and was not particularly good play-to-play. This year’s version appears no different.

10. Mike McCarthy is a top-five coach.

This might seem obvious, but it took a Super Bowl win to really spotlight how sharp McCarthy is. Of  the five Super Bowl-winning coaches in the league (Mike Tomlin, Belichick, Sean Payton, Tom Coughlin), he probably gets the least credit. This is due in part to the Packers’ inconsistency over his tenure, and in part to his low-key demeanor and forgettable face. If McCarthy passed you on the street in a gym suit, you wouldn’t look twice.

But like Belichick, McCarthy is a sharp student of the game, and he was able to change Brett Favre for the better while grooming Rodgers to replace him. He’s not as fiery as Payton, but he has put out some extremely potent Packer offenses with two different quarterbacks – not an easy task.

Just keeping a job for a sixth season is validation enough; only Andy Reid, Belichick, Payton, Coughlin, Marvin Lewis, Jack Del Rio and Lovie Smith have been in place as long or longer.