All eyes will be on two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks – New Orleans’ DREW BREES and Green Bay’s AARON RODGERS – when the 2011 season kicks off on Thursday night in primetime (NBC, 8:30 PM ET) as the defending Super Bowl champion Packers host the Super Bowl XLIV champion Saints. The game features the past two Super Bowl MVPs. Brees was named the MVP of Super Bowl XLIV in New Orleans’ 31-17 win and Rodgers took home the honor last year in Green Bay’s 31-25 Super Bowl XLV victory.
Quarterbacks throughout the league find themselves in the spotlight as the NFL gets back to football, all hoping to lead their teams to a berth in Super Bowl XLVI on February 5 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
A team-by-team look at the NFC’s projected starting quarterbacks on Kickoff Weekend:
ARIZONA: KEVIN KOLB will make his Cardinals debut on Kickoff Weekend after Arizona acquired him in a trade with Philadelphia. A second-round draft choice (No. 36 overall) by the Eagles in 2007, Kolb made seven career starts with Philadelphia. He is the only quarterback in NFL history to pass for at least 300 yards in each of his first two starts and he has been named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week two times (Week 3, 2009 and Week 6, 2010). Kolb has three 300-yard passing games, including a career-high 391 yards in Week 2, 2009.
ATLANTA: Fourth-year quarterback MATT RYAN was selected to his first Pro Bowl last year and led the Falcons to an NFC-best 13-3 record. His 33 career wins are tied with Pro Football Hall of Famer DAN MARINO for the most wins by a starting quarterback in his first three seasons since 1970. In 2010, Ryan set franchise records with 357 completions and 571 attempts and passed for a career-high 3,705 yards, 28 touchdowns and a 91.0 passer rating. He has a 20-2 record at home, including a 7-1 mark last season.
CAROLINA: Rookie CAM NEWTON will make his NFL debut on Kickoff Weekend. The 2010 Heisman Trophy winner was selected No. 1 overall by the Panthers in the 2011 NFL Draft. Last year, Newton set an SEC record with 4,327 yards of total offense (2,854 passing, 1,473 rushing) and became the first player in conference history with at least 2,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a season. He threw for an SEC-record 30 touchdown passes and rushed for 20 TDs.
CHICAGO: Sixth-year veteran JAY CUTLER will make his third consecutive Kickoff Weekend start for the Bears. Last year, Cutler led the Bears to the NFC North title and an appearance in the NFC Championship Game. He passed for 3,274 yards – the third-highest total in team history – and is the only Bears quarterback to pass for at least 3,000 yards in consecutive seasons (3,666 in 2009). Cutler had 23 touchdown passes in 2010 and joined Pro Football Hall of Famer SID LUCKMAN as the only QBs in franchise history with multiple seasons with at least 20 TD passes (27 in 2009).
DALLAS: Ninth-year veteran TONY ROMO will start at quarterback for the Cowboys and has a career 39-22 (.639) record as the team’s starter. He enters the season with an active streak of 18 consecutive games with a touchdown pass, the longest in franchise history. In his career, Romo has completed 1,326 of 2,070 passes (64.1 percent) for 16,650 yards with 118 touchdowns and 62 interceptions for a 95.5 passer rating, the highest in team annals.
DETROIT: MATTHEW STAFFORD, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2009 NFL Draft, will start on Kickoff Weekend for the third consecutive season. In his first two seasons, Stafford has started 13 games and has passed for 2,802 yards and 19 touchdowns. He is the only quarterback in franchise history to throw at least four touchdown passes in a game twice in his first two years. Stafford had a career-high five touchdown passes in Week 11, 2009 and had a four-touchdown performance last year in Week 8.
GREEN BAY: AARON RODGERS, the MVP of Super Bowl XLV, looks to continue his impressive play for the defending champions. Last year, he led the NFC with a 101.2 passer rating and is the only quarterback in franchise history to post a 100.0+ rating in consecutive seasons (103.2 in 2009). He passed for 3,922 yards in 2010 and his 12,394 yards since becoming the starter in 2008 are the second most by a quarterback in his first three years as a starter (KURT WARNER, 12,612). Rodgers’ career passer rating of 98.4 is the highest mark in NFL history (minimum 1,500 attempts).
MINNESOTA: Six-time Pro Bowl quarterback DONOVAN MC NABB will make his Vikings debut on Kickoff Weekend. The 13-year veteran has a career 97-57-1 record (.629) as a starting quarterback and has guided his teams to five NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl (XXXIX with Philadelphia). Last year with Washington, McNabb passed for 3,377 yards, his eighth career 3,000-yard season and fourth in a row. His interception percentage of 2.20 (5,218 attempts, 115 interceptions) is the fourth-best mark in NFL history (minimum 1,500 attempts).
NEW ORLEANS: Pro Bowl quarterback DREW BREES topped the NFL last year with a 68.1 completion percentage and led the NFC in yards (4,620), touchdowns (33), completions (448) and attempts (658). Since joining the Saints in 2006, his 22,918 passing yards are the most by a quarterback in any five-year span in NFL history. He has passed for at least 4,000 yards in each of the past five years – the top five passing totals in club annals – and is one of only two QBs in NFL history (PEYTON MANNING) with at least five consecutive 4,000-yard seasons. Brees’ 448 completions marked his league-record third 400-completion season.
NEW YORK GIANTS: Entering his eighth season, ELI MANNING has started a team-record 103 consecutive games at QB. He passed for 4,002 yards last year and is the only quarterback in franchise history with consecutive 4,000-yard seasons (4,021 in 2009). Manning, who threw a career-high 31 touchdowns in 2010, is the only Giant to pass for at least 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in six seasons in a row. He ranks second in club annals with 1,932 completions, 3,332 attempts and 22,646 yards. This will be the seventh consecutive Kickoff Weekend start for Manning.
PHILADELPHIA: Last season, MICHAEL VICK earned AP Comeback Player of the Year honors as he led the Eagles to the NFC East title. Selected to start at quarterback for the NFC Pro Bowl team, Vick became the second player in NFL history (Pro Football Hall of Famer STEVE YOUNG) to have at least 3,000 passing yards (3,018), 500 rushing yards (676) and a 100.0+ passer rating (100.2) in a season. In Week 10, Vick became the first player in league annals to have at least 300 passing yards (333), 50 rushing yards (80), four touchdown passes (4) and two rushing TDs (2) in a single game.
ST. LOUIS: SAM BRADFORD, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2010 NFL Draft, will start on Kickoff Weekend for the second consecutive year. The AP Offensive Rookie of the Year guided the Rams to seven wins last season and set NFL rookie records with 590 attempts and 354 completions. Bradford passed for 3,512 yards and became the second quarterback in league history (PEYTON MANNING) with at least 3,500 passing yards as a rookie. His 18 touchdown passes tied for the fifth-most by a rookie QB.
SAN FRANCISCO: Seventh-year quarterback ALEX SMITH, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2005 NFL Draft, has started 50 games in his career, including 10 in each of the past two seasons. Last year, Smith ranked second in the NFL with a 118.8 passer rating in the red zone, completing 30 of 42 passes (71.4 percent) for 177 yards with nine touchdowns and no interceptions. In his career as a starter, Smith has posted a passer rating of at least 96.0 in a game 10 times and the 49ers are a perfect 10-0 in those contests.
SEATTLE: Sixth-year veteran TARVARIS JACKSON makes his Seahawks debut on Kickoff Weekend. A second-round selection (No. 64 overall) by Minnesota in the 2006 NFL Draft, Jackson has started 20 games in his career. He has completed 354 of 603 passes (58.7 percent) for 3,984 yards with 24 touchdowns and has rushed for 535 yards and four TDs. Jackson was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week in Week 15, 2008 when he threw a career-high four touchdown passes and posted a 135.5 passer rating.
TAMPA BAY: Last year, JOSH FREEMAN led the Buccaneers to 10 wins, becoming the first quarterback under the age of 23 to win at least 10 games since 2004 (BEN ROETHLISBERGER). Seven of Freeman’s 13 career victories have been fourth-quarter comeback or OT wins. Freeman had a career-best 95.9 passer rating in 2010, the sixth-highest mark in the NFL. His 3,451 passing yards last year were the fourth-most in team history and he joined BRAD JOHNSON as the only Bucs to pass for at least 3,000 yards, 20 TDs (25) and fewer than 10 interceptions (6) in a season.
WASHINGTON: Ninth-year veteran REX GROSSMAN, who was a first-round pick (No. 22 overall) by Chicago in the 2003 NFL Draft, has started 34 games in his career, including three with the Redskins last season. In those three starts in 2010 with Washington, he recorded two 300-yard games. In 2006, Grossman passed for a career-high 3,193 yards and 23 touchdowns as he led the Bears to a 13-3 record and an appearance in Super Bowl XLI.