Influenza viruses exhibit large, strain-dependent differences in pathogenicity in mammalian hosts. Although the characteristics of severe disease, including uncontrolled viral replication, infection of the lower airway, and highly inflammatory cytokine responses have been extensively documented, the specific virulence mechanisms that distinguish highly pathogenic strains remain elusive. In this study, we focused on the early events in influenza infection, measuring the growth rate of three strains of varying pathogenicity in the mouse airway epithelium and simultaneously examining the global host transcriptional response over the first 24 hours. Although all strains replicated equally rapidly over the first viral life-cycle, their growth rates in both lung and tracheal tissue strongly diverged at later times, resulting in nearly 10-fold differences in viral load by 24 hours following infection. We identified separate networks of genes in both the lung and tracheal tissues whose rapid up-regulation at early time points by specific strains correlated with a reduced viral replication rate of those strains. The set of early-induced genes in the lung that led to viral growth restriction is enriched for both NF-κB binding site motifs and members of the TREM1 and IL-17 signaling pathways, suggesting that rapid, NF-κB -mediated activation of these pathways may contribute to control of viral replication. Because influenza infection extending into the lung generally results in severe disease, early activation of these pathways may be one factor distinguishing high- and low-pathogenicity strains.