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Saints lacking swagger, red-zone efficiency

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

Standing at his University of Phoenix stadium locker long after Sunday's 30-20 upset of the Saints, Cardinals safety Kerry Rhodes(notes) was talking about the "complete game" his team had played for the first time in 2010.

When I reminded him that good fortune had also played a role – twice rookie quarterback Max Hall(notes) fumbled forward and had teammates recover, with one play resulting in a second-quarter touchdown for tackle Levi Brown – Rhodes didn't feel particularly apologetic.

"That's part of the game," he said. "Bounces like that happen. Those guys should know – they got a lot of bounces on the way to winning a championship last year."

Well, so much for the Saints' Super Bowl aura. New Orleans is 3-2, and to be fair, one of those defeats (to the Falcons in Week 3) came after kicker Garrett Hartley(notes) shanked a 29-yard field goal that would have won the game in overtime. Yet there's little doubt that the champs are struggling, especially on offense, and it seems to have more to do with New Orleans' own lack of timing, rhythm and attention to detail than anything the Saints' opponents are throwing at them.

"I feel like it always starts and ends with us," quarterback Drew Brees(notes) said disgustedly as we walked from the visitors' locker room toward the team bus. "We could definitely be playing a lot better. We know what wins and loses games, and to turn the ball over three times, and have it cost you 21 points, that's going to get you beat every single time."

When you have a quarterback like Brees, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, and a head coach like Sean Payton, one of football's most gifted play-callers, the standards are understandably Madden '11-esque. And while everyone is looking for a big-picture explanation – injuries to backs Pierre Thomas(notes) and Reggie Bush(notes); the reality that many opposing coaches tried to figure out ways to defend Payton's scheme over the offseason (Brees summarily rejected that hypothesis, for what it's worth); the dreaded Super Bowl hangover – it's a buildup of little things that's causing the offense to stumble.

Most glaringly, the Saints have been lousy in the red zone. Over the last three games, in 13 trips inside the opponent's 20, New Orleans has scored just four touchdowns. On Tuesday the Saints decided to release 46-year-old kicker John Carney(notes), and to go back to Hartley, after he missed a 29-yard field goal against the Cardinals. More telling are the lengths of the five field goals Carney made during his return: a 25-yarder, a 31-yarder and three 32-yarders. The way the Saints are stalling near the goal line right now, they could use a 66-year-old kicker, as long as he had enough leg to make chip-shot field goals.

As Brees noted, turnovers (nine in their past three games) have also been an issue, and untimely penalties have been a killer, too. In the wake of what Jeff Duncan, who covers the Saints for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, would describe as "one of the worst offensive performances in the Payton/Brees era," this is a team short on swagger and desperately in search of balance, even though Payton assured reporters on Monday that "it's not time for any chair throwing."

I think Payton is probably right – and, more important, his players will inevitably buy into his keep-it-steady approach, given the freshness of last season's title run. Yet the reality is that opponents have no reason to fear the Saints in their current state, and if New Orleans can't get it together enough to defeat the surprising Buccaneers in Tampa this Sunday, the Saints will be a .500 team sitting in third place, wondering where their aura went and how they can get it back.

"Definitely, it's time," Brees said Sunday before leaving the stadium. "We trust the process and our preparation, and if you do things the right way it'll fix itself soon. If we can execute better and cut down on the mistakes, we'll go back to being us."

A few good bounces wouldn't hurt, either.

How big a bounce did the Cardinals get from their victory relative to last week's inquisitive breakdown of the NFL's current pecking order? Consider that a bonus question – here are the others:

1. Baltimore Ravens: Will Jared Gaither(notes) make it back this season – and, if so, will that make Ray Rice's(notes) life a little easier?

2. Pittsburgh Steelers: After facing the black-and-gold, how black-and-blue will Colt McCoy(notes) be?

3. Atlanta Falcons: After that fantastic, game-clinching play he made on Sunday in Cleveland, is third-year defensive end Kroy Biermann(notes) on the verge of becoming a star?

4. New York Jets: Was Vernon Gholston's(notes) whiff on that Brett Favre(notes) spin move his most memorable NFL play?

5. New England Patriots: Why do I get the feeling that Deion Branch(notes) will suddenly look nimble and productive again now that he has been reunited with Tom Brady(notes)?

6. Indianapolis Colts: If Peyton Manning(notes) is Maxwell Smart and Jimmy Irsay is Chief, does that make Bill Belichick Mr. Big?

7. Tennessee Titans: Why was it considered blasphemous when Terrell Owens(notes) celebrated on the Cowboys star a decade ago but no biggie when Chris Johnson did the same on Sunday?

8. Washington Redskins: Is LaRon Landry(notes) finally living up to his potential?

9. New Orleans Saints: Are they the only team in NFL history for whom every single wideout wears a number in the teens – and am I the only human on earth who cares?

10. Chicago Bears: Has a victorious NFL quarterback ever looked as atrocious as Todd Collins(notes) did in Carolina on Sunday?

11. Green Bay Packers: How insanely dependent upon Clay Matthews(notes) is the Pack's defense, and how happy will Chad Henne(notes) be if the linebacker's hamstring sidelines him on Sunday?

12. Philadelphia Eagles: How tough – and tough to tackle – is LeSean McCoy(notes)?

13. New York Giants: How good is Hakeem Nicks(notes) – and how humorless is his head coach?

14. Houston Texans: When opposing teams pass, are they destined to fail?

15. Kansas City Chiefs: Is Romeo Crennel an early frontrunner for assistant coach of the year?

16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Who was more bothered by Micheal Spurlock's(notes) pivotal sideline catch in Cincinnati last Sunday – Bengals safety Chris Crocker(notes) or Lions receiver Calvin Johnson(notes)?

17. Cincinnati Bengals: If these guys don't get it together, could Marvin Lewis and Carson Palmer(notes) be gone after this season?

18. Minnesota Vikings: Is Cedric Griffin(notes) one of the unluckiest NFL players in recent memory?

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Jones-Drew injured his wrist in the 4th quarter.
(Kevin Hoffman/US Presswire)

19. Jacksonville Jaguars: If Maurice Jones-Drew's(notes) wrist X-rays hadn't come back negative, would Jack Del Rio have needed chest X-rays?

20. Dallas Cowboys: Is it fair to assume that tackle Marc Colombo will not follow Hall of Fame halfback Emmitt Smith as a "Dancing with the Stars" contestant?

21. Miami Dolphins: Now that he's not in charge of the team's football operations, is Bill Parcells sabotaging them in a passive-aggressive manner?

22. Detroit Lions: When the head coach has to answer postgame questions about running up the score, is it fair to say things are looking up in Motown?

23. Denver Broncos: Since they can't run, where will Kyle Orton(notes) hide against Rex Ryan's defense this Sunday?

24. Arizona Cardinals: When Max Hall completed a second-quarter pass to fellow rookie Max Komar(notes) last Sunday, why did I suddenly start thinking about White Castle?

25. San Diego Chargers: How awesome is the new, take-no-crap demeanor of Norv Turner – and could his players please summon a similar degree of surly defiance?

26. Seattle Seahawks: Now that Nike has announced plans to make dramatic changes to NFL uniforms once it becomes the league's official supplier in 2012, don't you get the feeling that the 'Hawks will start to resemble their winged neighbors to the south?

27. St. Louis Rams: If I'd told you in August that the Rams would be consumed with the loss of wideout Mark Clayton(notes) after a 38-point defeat at Detroit, would you have thought I was loopier than former Rams tackle Kyle Turley(notes) after a 2003 concussion against the Lions?

28. Oakland Raiders: Was Tyvon Branch(notes) channeling Cliff Branch on that 64-yard touchdown return that clinched Sunday's victory over the Chargers?

29. Cleveland Browns: Is something wrong with Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas(notes) – and, if so, what are the chances that facing the Steelers Sunday make things a lot worse?

30. San Francisco 49ers: In light of its Favre investigation, will the NFL soon be making inquiries about inappropriate and shocking texts sent by owner Jed York?

31. Carolina Panthers: Will John Fox give Tony Pike(notes) a try at quarterback – and at this point, does it even matter?

32. Buffalo Bills: Is linebacker Reggie Torbor(notes) a better motivational speaker than Chan Gailey – and a better deal-maker than Buddy Nix?