Saints may soon have to sound the alarm

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist
Yahoo! Sports

You can't call it a Super Bowl hangover yet. A headache, maybe.

Seven games into the 2010 season, and the 4-3 New Orleans Saints have slipped to third place in the surprisingly competitive NFC South. They're below the Buccaneers, of all teams. And now, the Saints have to prepare to face the Steelers – arguably the best team in the NFL – next week. So a .500 record through the first half of the season is not out of the question.

It's not time to panic, but it's fair to look at the Saints with some concern. After Sunday's shocking 30-17 home loss to the Browns, it's clear the Saints are a shadow of the high impact, explosive, aggressive team that stormed to a Super Bowl win last season. And you don't need to see the game tape to surmise that. A review of the schedule speaks volumes.

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Drew Brees (L) threw four interceptions as the Browns beat the Saints 30-17.
(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Beyond the Cleveland debacle, the Saints suffered a loss to a bad Cardinals team, and squeaked out wins over the Panthers and 49ers (who are a bumbling 2-11 this season) by a combined five points. So, yeah, things are a tad troubling. And that's what makes the Saints this week's biggest loser.

The issues aren't mysterious. Go back and look at the Saints through seven weeks last season. The defense was dropping napalm on every down and cranking out turnovers. Coordinator Gregg Williams was hailed as Albert Einstein. And while the unit hasn't been the overriding problem this year, the turnover margin has. Through seven games, the Saints are minus-5 in that category. History is simple in this regard: teams with negative turnover margins are typically not postseason material.

You can chalk up that negative margin to an offense that is out of whack, and seemingly making a return to the pass-happy 2008 season, when the Saints finished 8-8, last in the NFC South and out of the playoffs. Thanks to injuries to running backs Reggie Bush(notes) and Pierre Thomas(notes), the Saints have lost a great deal of the balance that made them scary down the stretch last year. Now they're on tilt, with Drew Brees(notes) on pace to throw a career high 656 passes. Not a good sign, considering Brees already has 10 interceptions this season (only one fewer than all of last season) and has been forcing the issue at times.

On the bright side, Bush could return fairly soon from his broken leg, likely after the Week 10 bye. And Thomas hasn't been put on injured reserve with his high ankle sprain, which indicates the team thinks he can be a factor by the end of the season. But the Saints don't have the luxury of last season's tissue-thin schedule.

Starting with next week's game against Pittsburgh, at least four remaining opponents could be playoff contenders (including the Seahawks, Ravens and Falcons), while two others come on the road against talented and likely desperate teams (the Bengals and Cowboys). Even the supposed creampuffs like the Buccaneers and Rams have been far better than expected – sort of like the Browns team that just trounced the Saints in the Superdome.

New Orleans isn't spiraling just yet, but the edge could be coming fast. Falling to 4-4 after next week would likely necessitate a 6-2 record the rest of the way to ensure a postseason berth. And considering the catastrophe against Cleveland, that's hardly a guarantee.

On to this week's other losers and winners …


WINNERS
WINNERS
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Tom Brady passed for 159 yards and one touchdown.
(Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

New England Patriots
They're 5-1 and, for the life of me, I can't figure out how they've done it. I've never seen such a publicly maligned team – the Randy Moss(notes) drama, lack of a running game or Tom Brady's(notes) hair – yet successful. I still have my doubts, knowing that three of their past four wins have come by a mere 14 points, and so many key role players have already landed on injured reserve. The next four games will tell us all we need to know, with the Vikings, Steelers, Colts and tougher than expected Browns all coming in that span. If the Patriots go 3-1 in the next four, I'll call them legit Super Bowl contenders.

Atlanta Falcons wideout Roddy White(notes)
It seems insane that many of us thought White was a bust after his first two seasons in the NFL. And while I'd still take Texans receiver Andre Johnson(notes) as the best wideout in football, White is making his case for a debate. With 11 catches, 201 yards and two touchdowns against some talented Bengals cornerbacks, he's dominating almost anyone in front of him. No doubt, the Falcons aren't feeling too bad about last offseason's lucrative contract extension. White is officially elite, All-Pro material.

Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden(notes)
The Broncos were atrocious, but there's no more denying McFadden. He has finally put it together. Oddly enough, I watch him and don't see him as the wickedly fast guy we expected coming out of Arkansas. He looks more like a well-rounded, physical runner with good speed. However you want to define him, at least you can say this: one of Al Davis' highly paid picks is finally earning his paycheck.

Cleveland Browns linebacker David Bowens(notes)
It's not often you'll see a converted defensive end intercept two passes for touchdowns in a game. And I'm not sure there has been a bigger upset this season than the one Bowens and the Browns pulled off against New Orleans on the road. I'm still not buying Rob Ryan as a potential head coaching candidate, but he called a good game Sunday. The Saints made critical errors that killed rhythm all day, and rarely had a chance to set up the downfield passing game.

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Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall had four interceptions with one for a TD.
(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Washington Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall(notes)
Love him or hate him, Hall still has the talent to do eye-popping things on the field, and his four interceptions against the Bears tied him for the all-time single game record. His 92-yard pick for a touchdown was the eventual game-winner for Washington. Hall now has five interceptions this season, one short of the career high he set in the 2005 season. Amazingly, he also has 57 tackles in seven games, 13 short of his career high.

Pittsburgh Steelers
They caught a huge break with the Ben Roethlisberger(notes) goal-line fumble that was given back to the Steelers. But this was a costly win, with defensive end Aaron Smith(notes) likely lost for the season with torn triceps. Smith is a hugely underrated part of this defense, and his absence hurts against the run. Once again, the Steelers will look at backup Ziggy Hood(notes) and hope he can justify the 2009 first-round pick that was spent to grab him.

Tennessee Titans wideout Kenny Britt(notes)
Well, that's one way to respond to a benching. Britt got planted on the sideline for his alleged part in a bar fight Friday night. Britt responded with a spectacular 225 receiving yards and three touchdowns, essentially beating the Eagles single-handedly. Britt has been in and out of coach Jeff Fisher's doghouse since being selected in the first round in 2009, but Britt's talent and size are undeniable. At his best, he's a wicked complement to Chris Johnson.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman(notes)
Even at 4-2, the Bucs are a long way from being a good team. That said, people can stop sleeping on Freeman. He's not just a big arm and a bundle of athleticism. Watch the Buccaneers' game-winning drive against St. Louis in the final seconds – Freeman was in total command. The guy is a leader, too. He's going to be a big-time player.

Buffalo Bills
Yeah, they lost to the Ravens, and there isn't a lot to cheer about in a winless season. But at least quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) is entertaining. You can see why they cut Trent Edwards(notes) outright. Fitzpatrick is a legitimate starter. It's too bad we're finding this out six years into his career. Then again, this franchise should be happy to have any good quarterback it can get its hands on. At the very least, perhaps Fitzpatrick gives the Bills the capital to invest next season's high draft pick elsewhere.

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Ray Lewis strips the ball from Bills tight end Shawn Nelson during overtime.
(AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Baltimore Ravens
Getting 34 points dropped on you by the Bills isn't anything to be proud of, particularly when your cornerbacks looked about as bad as they have all season long. The pressure up front wasn't really there, either. No doubt, this team is still a work in progress. But the Ravens got an officiating break and gutted it out to keep pace with Pittsburgh. That's all that matters in October.

Carolina Panthers wideout David Gettis(notes)
The sixth-round pick from Baylor finished with eight catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns in the win over the 49ers, and dropped what likely could have been another score, too. But what was striking is that in one game, Gettis blew away anything former second-round pick Dwayne Jarrett(notes) did in three-plus seasons. His route-running was superb. Gettis didn't look like a guy who will be a one-game fluke. If that's the case, it's a sizeable silver lining.

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson
There were a few players who had a big week for the Chiefs, including running back Thomas Jones(notes), but Johnson's resurgence in Kansas City is huge. A year ago he was benched and looked like overpaid dead weight, destined to be jettisoned in the offseason. But Johnson has finally found a comfort zone under defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, and is playing some of his best football in several seasons. His interception for a touchdown late in the third quarter against the Jaguars was a backbreaker. He's a big reason why the Chiefs are so tough defensively.

Seattle Seahawks wideout Mike Williams
Sometimes a guy becomes a No. 1 receiver because there simply isn't anyone else around to catch the ball. And when the season started, that's how I looked at Williams' position atop the depth chart in Seattle. But after seeing him put up another 11 catches against the Cardinals – and some impressive ones at that – I'm realizing that he's the real deal. Clearly he's working hard and has gotten himself together mentally. Now the big question: if he continues to play like this, does he count as a plus for former Lions general manager Matt Millen?


LOSERS
LOSERS
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Broncos players look on in the final minutes of the team's 59-14 loss.
(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Denver Broncos
I'm not sure how you can put it delicately: The Broncos looked awful in the 59-14 loss to Oakland. No team has been more embarrassed this season. That's a tough word to use, but how else can you explain getting blown apart on your own field, and by a team that hasn't exactly put it together this year? This wasn't the Jets or Steelers. Allowing 328 rushing yards? At home? This one will linger. Count on it.

San Francisco 49ers
Barring a miracle, I can't see Mike Singletary surviving this season. It is getting brutal, with Alex Smith going down with a shoulder injury in a loss to a bad Carolina team. With next week's game in London against Denver, San Francisco could be 1-7 heading into the bye week. But don't expect a firing in the off week. And by the way, Singletary is right … the NFC West title is still within reach for his team. But it's not going to happen.

Miami Dolphins
See the officiating entry below. They got jobbed out of a win. But hey, at least quarterback Chad Henne(notes) put up another fairly impressive game (257 passing yards, TD pass). Mmmmm … nah, even that doesn't make up for getting robbed.

Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby (58) lands on the ball fumbled by Ben Roethlisberger. but because it was unclear who recovered, Pittsburgh kept the ball and kicked the game-winning field goal on the next play.
(AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

• Officiating
Two officiating errors essentially decided the games between Pittsburgh-Miami and Baltimore-Buffalo. The Ravens benefitted on an overtime play where Bills tight end Shawn Nelson(notes) appeared to be stopped with forward progress, but officials allowed the play to continue long enough for Ray Lewis(notes) to rip the ball away for a fumble. The resulting turnover led to the Ravens kicking a winning field goal in overtime. The Steelers also escaped against Miami, thanks to a Roethlisberger fumble at the goal line that was given to Pittsburgh. The officials had whistled Roethlisberger down and didn't take the time to see who recovered the fumble, and no television replay clearly revealed it, either. In 10 years, I've never seen something like that. Shameful.

Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler(notes)
We know one thing about Cutler's track record: when the Bears quarterback is bad, he's terrible. His turnovers seem to come in a landslide, and the loss to Washington was no different – four interceptions and a fumble. Granted, the fumble should have been ruled a touchdown for the Bears, but Cutler was just plain bad. After a promising start, Cutler's last three games have looked fairly mediocre. Not a good sign for the Bears.

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb(notes)
Coach Andy Reid will change quarterbacks with the slightest breeze. Kolb didn't have DeSean Jackson(notes) against a very good Titans team, but you knew Kolb's mediocre day would cost him. His margin for error is basically nothing. Cue Michael Vick(notes) after next week's bye.

St. Louis Rams wideouts
Yes, Mark Clayton(notes) went down and there are some young and developing players. But the Rams have to address getting a reliable veteran for quarterback Sam Bradford(notes). I look at what Derrick Mason(notes) and Todd Heap(notes) are to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco(notes). The Rams lack a few seasoned possession guys. Danny Amendola(notes) will get there, but when he's forced into being the top guy, this offense will go through droughts.

Cincinnati Bengals defense
Remember when many of us thought this would be a top end unit? Um, yeah. Scratch that. The pass rush is terrible, with six sacks in six games (only one better than league-worst Tampa Bay) and that is killing the back end of this unit. It doesn't look like it'll get better without overhauling the scheme and designing for constant pressure, a la the Jets. And even then, I'm not sure the Bengals have the athletes on the edges to get it done.

Arizona Cardinals running back Beanie Wells(notes)
Yes, the quarterback situation is killing the running backs. But be honest, how many times has Wells popped out when you've watched him this year? He hasn't had overwhelming burst, he's not factoring into the passing game, and the notion that he's a "physical runner" is bunk. Even with a bad quarterback, a gifted running back can succeed. See Frank Gore(notes) in San Francisco, or for that matter, even McFadden in Oakland.

San Diego Chargers
It was an impressive fourth-quarter rally for a depleted team, but too little, too late against the Patriots. You get the feeling that's going to be the theme for the entire season. Too often the Chargers are getting pushed into situations where they are one-dimensional on offense and stale on defense. Remember when Ryan Mathews(notes) was going to be an explosive 300-touch guy? I think he's got the goods, but he's averaging just over nine carries a game this year. Definitely not what general manager A.J. Smith envisioned when he traded up in the draft to get him.


THE SUNDAY 10
THE SUNDAY 10

(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)

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Hines Ward caught seven passes for 131 yards and one touchdown.
(AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

Loved: The ducking, spinning, twisting 21-yard touchdown catch and run by Pittsburgh's Hines Ward(notes). He had been limited this season by the Steelers' revolving quarterback situation, but has clicked back into his groove with Ben Roethlisberger back in the lineup.

Loathed: Watching Bears guard Chris Williams get destroyed by Albert Haynesworth(notes) on a first-quarter sack. Haynesworth bull-rushed Williams and caused the guard to fall backward and pancake Cutler in the pocket. It was one of the most embarrassing sacks of the season.

Loved: Seeing Ravens safety Ed Reed(notes) back on the field and making plays after spending six weeks on the physically unable to perform list. He forced a first-quarter fumble against Buffalo (recovered by the Bills) and later had an interception and 40-yard return. He wasted no time showing why Baltimore got exponentially better on defense.

Loathed: Watching the Redskins' Anthony Armstrong(notes) and Chris Cooley(notes) drop a pair of perfect passes from Donovan McNabb(notes) in the first quarter against Chicago. Armstrong's drop was horrendous, on what likely would have been a touchdown. Washington continues to make offensive mistakes it can't afford.

Loved: Everything about Chiefs rookie Dexter McCluster(notes). The more I watch him, the more his playmaking ability reminds me of Jamaal Charles(notes). With exciting tight end Tony Moeaki(notes), ageless wonder Thomas Jones and the enigmatic Dwayne Bowe(notes), this offense became dynamic pretty quickly.

Loathed: The Sunday morning news that Tampa Bay tight end Jerramy Stevens(notes) was arrested Saturday night on serious drug charges. Going back to his career at the University of Washington, there have been few players who have wasted more talent and more chances in football.

Browns punter Reggie Hodges (2) rushes for 68 yards on a fake punt.
(AP Photo/Bill Haber)

Loved: The 68-yard pickup on a fake by Cleveland punter Reggie Hodges(notes) in the second quarter against New Orleans, helping to build a stunning 20-3 halftime lead for the Browns. You have to love Cleveland being aggressive and creative against the Saints. Amazingly, the Browns don't look like a pushover anymore.

Loathed: The Bengals facing a third-and-goal situation from the 2-yard line against Atlanta in the first quarter, and mustering an incompletion from Carson Palmer(notes). If the Bengals can't punch it in from the 2 against the Falcons, I don't know how they expect to compete in the AFC North.

Loved: The insane toe-dragging sideline catch by Ravens wideout Derrick Mason late in the second quarter against Buffalo, helping to move Baltimore into position for a touchdown against the Bills. Quietly, Mason has been a 1,000-yard wideout in eight of the last nine years, and has a chance to crack 12,000 career receiving yards this season.

Loathed: The 37-yard reception by Philadelphia's Riley Cooper(notes) in the second quarter against Tennessee, which featured Titans safety Chris Hope(notes) inexplicably standing flat-footed and waiting for what should have been an easy jump ball interception. Hope is too good a player to have Cooper beat him on effort, but that's exactly what happened.