New Orleans rallied for three touchdowns and 23 points in the fourth quarter as it took a 40-33 victory from the visiting Texans. That's the easy summary of this game. A deeper look at this result is telling about where these teams are as they move forward.
For the Saints, this is the closest they have been to their Super Bowl-winning form of the 2009 season since they got slammed with injuries during the 2010 season. Some of this can be explained by Houston's defense, which still isn't exactly a juggernaut (stats from the first two weeks aside). Quarterback Drew Brees(notes) made full use of one weapon after another. All told, five different Saints scored touchdowns, including three on passes by Brees. While the running game wasn't dominant, it was good enough to produce both 100 yards (on 22 carries) and touchdowns runs of 30 and 13 yards.
But the best stretch of Sunday's contest may have been when Brees and wide receiver Lance Moore(notes) turned the game into a private game of catch. The Saints had closed within 26-24 midway through the fourth quarter and got the ball back at midfield after an interception of Houston's Matt Schaub(notes).
On four straight downs and then again on a 2-point conversion, Brees threw to Moore, who was being covered by cornerback Kareem Jackson(notes), Houston's first-round pick in 2010 who looked like anything but a high selection. The undrafted Moore was wide open on play after play as Jackson gave him one free release after another.
"It was just something that Drew recognized right at the moment," said Moore, who finished with nine catches for 88 yards [his two 2-point conversions not included]. "We hadn't been playing much empty-set [five-receiver] stuff all game … we didn't huddle up, so we didn't talk about it. Drew just saw how they were playing me and threw it again and again."
And again and again. This was offensive football in its simplistic fashion, as if Brees knew the Houston defense better than the Texans. This was the same thing the Saints, who did this without wide receiver Marques Colston(notes) on Sunday, did week after week in 2009 as no opponent's lead was safe.
Likewise, this is what the Texans, who should have a clear path to the AFC South title, have done year after year with Schaub at quarterback. Instead of putting this game away early when they had a chance, the Texans let the chance slip away as if they sprayed their hands with WD-40.
On three possessions in the first half, the Texans reached the New Orleans' 4-yard line, and 9 twice before they settled for field goals. Offense is supposed to be Houston's strength. Even without running back Arian Foster(notes), the Texans should have the ability to finish these drives. Moreover, the Texans continually beat the blitzing of New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in the early going.
Sure, it was nice that the Texans were getting points, but there are some games where you have to pound an opponent into submission. Settling for field goals against the Saints when they are on top of their game doesn't work.
Then again, this is the Texans, a team that has the killer instinct of a manatee. Houston might yet win the division this season. It really shouldn't be that hard. But that doesn't make them improved.
On to this week's other winners and losers …
• Give the Tampa Bay Buccaneers credit for a huge win over the Atlanta Falcons. It's the first time the Bucs have beaten the Falcons since Raheem Morris took over as Tampa Bay's head coach in 2009. Three of the four losses to the Falcons in the past two seasons were by less than a touchdown. The fourth game was decided by 10 points. The Falcons may have been 4-0 in that stretch, but not that much really separated these teams. This victory was critical for the Bucs to further gain confidence, particularly after a frustrating loss to Detroit in the opener and a dramatic win at Minnesota. The Bucs never trailed and controlled the game's tempo.
• The 40-yard connection in overtime between quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes) and wide receiver Calvin Johnson(notes) was as basic a schoolyard play as it gets in the face of a blitz, but it was really cool. It also was really smart. In the teeth of a good blitz, Stafford did the one thing that players should always do: throw it to your best guy. Don't overthink it, don't get cute, just fire it to the guy nicknamed Megatron and let him do his thing. Johnson overwhelmed defensive back Cedric Griffin(notes) on the way to setting up the game-winning field goal.
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• Houston may have lost, but fullback/tight end James Casey(notes) was a great story. Casey, who turned 27 on Thursday, had a career-best five catches for 126 yards and the first touchdown of his career. He came into the game with 17 catches for 191 yards after being drafted in 2009. Casey took an unusual path to the NFL. He spent three years in minor league baseball as a closer with the Chicago White Sox's farm team, but couldn't get past the rookie level. He washed out after getting knocked around in the Independent League. Casey went back to college, getting his degree from Rice University, and then got drafted. He doesn't look like a big-time weapon, but he had a heck of a day.
• Anyone who knows anything about Saints tight end Jimmy Graham(notes) can't help but cheer for the former University of Miami basketball player who found his way to football and the NFL. If you want to get an idea of what kind of football player he can become, look at the 32-yard catch-and-run he had early in the third quarter against Houston. Graham caught the ball on the run, vaulted one defender and then fought for an additional five yards and nearly carried two defenders to the end zone. Great stuff and an indication of how great Graham could be. Or as Moore put it: "He's definitely a rare talent. You wonder how good he's going to be when he really starts to understand the game."
• Not only did the Saints come through with a nice comeback win over Houston, but they have clearly gotten the best of their decision to trade Reggie Bush(notes) to Miami and sign Darren Sproles(notes) for the same role. As a more decisive and aggressive runner, Sproles is simply a better player – and it's not close. He has scored in each game: a punt return in the opener, a reception in the second game and a 30-yard run on a toss play against Houston. Sproles has rushed eight times for 59 yards and caught 21 passes for 168 yards, better than the respective totals for Bush (28 carries for 80 yards, 11 catches for 71 yards and one touchdown). Of course, a big problem for Bush is that he's not surrounded by the same talent and the Dolphins aren't using him correctly. But at four years for $14 million, Sproles is a huge bargain over Bush, who signed a two-year, $9.5 million deal.
• Speaking of try-hard guys, Buffalo running back Fred Jackson(notes) is a beast. Jackson isn't the fastest, biggest or most athletic guy, but few put more effort into every down than Jackson. During training camp, Jackson was openly concerned that the Bills would give the starting job to C.J. Spiller(notes). That's not happening anytime soon.
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• Baltimore Ravens rookie receiver Torrey Smith(notes) … what more do I need to say? With Lee Evans(notes) hurting, Smith stepped into the role the Ravens weren't sure he could handle (which is why they traded for Evans in training camp). After three touchdowns in the first quarter, Smith may have defined the role.
• You probably couldn't have scripted a worse performance that New England could imagine as quarterback Tom Brady(notes) was intercepted four times. That allowed the Bills to stay in a game they appeared out of contention. Here's the underlying problem for the Patriots: If they can't get a better pass rush and do it soon, they are going to get torched along the way. Coach Bill Belichick took a significant risk at the end of training camp when he cut safety Brandon Meriweather(notes). Not that Meriweather was really all that good, but the Patriots' secondary is awful right now. Take safety Patrick Chung(notes) out (he was inactive Sunday) and you have a group that is downright putrid. The Pats need to get some push up front if their defense is going to be anything more than poor this season.
• I'm at a loss to understand what Miami was trying to do in the final 36 seconds of the game at Cleveland. Down 17-16, the Dolphins were practically handed this game when the Browns suffered two 15-yard penalties (one before and one after the kickoff). That put the Dolphins at the Cleveland 47-yard line. The Dolphins even had a timeout, so they could easily have used the middle of the field to get the 10 or 12 yards they needed for a 50ish-yard field goal attempt by Dan Carpenter(notes), if not more yards to make the attempt even easier. Yet, somehow the Dolphins threw three relatively tough passes before being forced to go for it on fourth down.
• As an aside, Miami quarterback Chad Henne(notes) has made moderate strides this season, but he's still plagued by poor decisions in the fourth quarter. On top of that, he has almost zero touch on passes in the red zone. Henne either rifles passes or his attempts to throw fade routes float all over the field like a Wiffle Ball.
• As much as I'm baffled by the Dolphins, I'm stupefied by the St. Louis Rams. Yeah, they were playing Baltimore, a good defensive team, but getting blown out at home the way they did Sunday is unacceptable for a team with this much talent. Quarterback Sam Bradford(notes) should be making progress, not regressing the way he has this season. The offense and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are new, but this is the early signs of some Alex Smith stuff from San Francisco.
• With all due respect to Dr. Mark Adickes, who appeared on Fox's pregame show, his "advice" to Peyton Manning(notes) that he retire is borderline irresponsible. Adickes is a former offensive lineman who played six years in the NFL and another in the USFL. He is well-educated, getting his medical degree from Harvard. On Sunday, he was asked by the Fox crew what he would tell Manning if he was Manning's physician: "My career ended with a back injury. I was blocking a guy in training camp and felt a sharp pain in my back, legs go numb, I didn't even think about football. My legs were weak for a year. All I thought about was playing with my kids. If I'm his doctor, I would tell him to retire." Sorry, but unless you have actually evaluated Manning, you shouldn't speculate about his medical future. Adickes' opinion is counter to at least two other doctors who said that many football players have gone on to play more after the type of surgery Manning went through. In those cases, however, those doctors have qualified their remarks by saying they had not examined Manning directly, so there could be mitigating circumstances.
• The love affair that many coaches now have with going for it on fourth down is getting out of control. In the closing minutes of Chiefs-Chargers, San Diego went for a fourth-and-1 that wasn't too advisable since the Chargers had a chance to pin the Chiefs in the final two minutes. However, the worst call might have been by Buffalo to go on fourth-and-14 in the first half against New England. It didn't matter in the long run and the Bills didn't lose a lot of yardage, but they had a better chance of either making the field goal (about a 52-yarder) or pinning the Patriots inside the 10. Either would have been better options.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: The execution at the end of the game by Buffalo to make sure that New England didn't get the ball back and its players didn't lose their cool as the Patriots tried to force a fumble on the final possession. The Bills easily could have lost their tempers and given the Pats another chance. (All of that said, punter/holder Brian Moorman's(notes) move to jump into kicker Rian Lindell's(notes) arms is backward on how celebrations are supposed to go. Another reason why punters need to be banned.)
Loathed: The "celebration" penalty that was called against Cleveland tight end Ben Watson when he fell to the ground after wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi(notes) with 43 seconds remaining. Technically, it's the right call as Watson left his feet and went to the ground. However, you could see that Watson just fell. The penalty didn't cost Cleveland (see above with the Dolphins' end-game antics), but it easily could have.
[ Photos: Monsoon conditions in Carolina ]
Loved: I think the Deion Sanders commercials for DirecTV are very funny. I at least smile at every single one of them. However, I really want to know how much Deion had to get paid to dress up like a football fairy? Then again, Deion will probably need every dime of it for his divorce settlement after his absurd divorce filing from wife, Pilar.
Loathed: By throwback standards, New Orleans' duds aren't hideous and they aren't drastically different than the current uniforms. However, that shade of dirty, mustardy gold screams early '70s so loud that I can hear Hot Butter's version of "Popcorn" ringing in my ears.
Loved: Watching Jay Cutler(notes) throw. He has a wonderful arm, throwing both hard and pretty (anyone who ever watched Jeff George throw knows exactly what I'm talking about). However, if Cutler continues to progressively throw off his back foot the way he does, his arm is likely to fall off because of stress. Yeah, that's an overstatement, but Cutler's mechanics are seriously at risk.
Loathed: The San Francisco-Cincinnati game. If I was a Bengals season-ticket holder, I would demand a refund. I would sue the Bengals for fraud over the stadium the city built for them. I'm sure that somewhere in the contract it says that the Bengals were supposed to provide a "professional" product. The Bengals averaged less than five yards per pass attempt and converted only one of 10 third-downs. This is ridiculous.
Loved: The line from my editor Sunday afternoon as he watched too much of the Arizona-Seattle game. "Any game involving two NFC West teams should automatically be put on Versus." Can't get to the point much faster than that.
Loathed: OK, "loathed" is a little strong, but if you're going to leap into the crowd the way Buffalo tight end Scott Chandler(notes) did after his 3-yard touchdown catch, you have to do better than choose the 3-foot part of the wall to go over. Dude, you're 6-foot-7, you have to have the hops for the higher wall.
Loved: The early interior pass rush Houston showed from the combination of veteran Antonio Smith and rookie J.J. Watt(notes). While Houston wore down over the span of the game, particularly as the Texans' problems with man coverage were exposed, there are signs that Houston will have something to work later in the season.
Loathed: How Kansas City wasted two timeouts with approximately six minutes left in the game and topped that off with a 15-yard penalty on tight end Leonard Pope(notes) for excessive celebration after a touchdown. That cost the Chiefs a chance to make their loss to San Diego at least a little more interesting.
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