Week 2 winners/losers: Sean Payton's absence isn't only culprit in Saints' 0-2 start

In falling to 0-2 after a 35-27 loss at Carolina, there is one clear issue plaguing the New Orleans Saints. To quote brilliant politician Marty Huggins, "It's a mess."

From offense to, in particular, the defense, the Saints are missing more than their coach and interim coach. The Saints look like they're playing with only 10 players on each side of the ball. The problems go beyond the loss of Sean Payton, the distraction of the bounty scandal and the Drew Brees contract snafu.

In two games, Brees has thrown four interceptions (he had 14 all of last season) and is averaging only 6.6 yards per pass attempt. He hasn't been that low since the 2003 season when he was still in San Diego. That figure is nearly a full yard below his career average (7.4 yards) and is a testimony to how defensively challenged teams are playing soft zones. Carolina and Washington played disciplined football in the secondary while they waited for the pass rush to get to Brees, forcing him to throw short. This is where the Saints' loss of guard Carl Nicks is a serious problem.

On defense, the team's weaknesses are more pronounced, a carryover from the end of last season, when the defensive unit cost New Orleans a chance to go to the Super Bowl with a horrible playoff performance at San Francisco. Even under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the Saints' defense looks a step-and-a-half slow.

Through two games, the Saints have allowed 75 points, netted only one turnover, forced only four three-and-out possessions (out of 24 opposing possessions) and allowed 12 plays of 20 yards or longer. That final stat includes pass plays of 88 yards in the opener and 66 yards on Sunday.

The 66-yarder to Steve Smith was glaring. It came immediately after New Orleans closed to within 28-20 in the fourth quarter. The Saints even came out for the play with five defensive backs, but somehow let Smith, the Panthers' best receiver, run free down the sideline. That set up Cam Newton's clinching touchdown.

''I was shocked just as much as anybody,'' Newton told reporters afterward. ''Of all of the people on this field to be wide open, you would think Smitty would be the last person.

In New Orleans, it's a mess.

Here are the winners and losers for Week 2:


Congrats to Philadelphia and coach Andy Reid for their 2-0 start, but the Eagles' pair of one-point wins are hardly a thing of beauty. The Eagles, who eked out a 24-23 win over the Baltimore Ravens, have overcome nine turnovers in those two victories and quarterback Michael Vick easily could have three more interceptions. Beyond that, Vick is getting hit consistently, suffering a beating that few players can withstand over the long haul. There are a couple of ways of looking at these games: One is that the Eagles could be dominant if they can get the turnover issue under control. The counter is that Vick may be in danger of becoming a turnover machine if the pass protection doesn't get fixed.

Kudos to New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin for taking issue with Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano after an unnecessary hit on quarterback Eli Manning at the end of the game. Schiano, who is all about discipline the same way that Coughlin is, shouldn't let something stupid like that happen at the end of a game, even one as wild as New York's 41-34 comeback win. The Giants put up 604 yards of offense – Manning with a career-best 510 passing yards – to help overcome three Manning interceptions. That was the second-most total offensive yards in team history. Spectacular stuff. And no matter how Schiano justifies it, that attempt to force a fumble at the end of the game was just wrong.

[Related: Tom Coughlin has harsh words for Greg Schiano]

Lost in the avalanche of stats in the Bucs-Giants game was the work of New York tight end Martellus Bennett (five catches, 72 yards, one touchdown). Bennett has scored in each of the first two games. While he remains a goof when it comes to interviews, he is also taking his craft more seriously after four inconsistent seasons in Dallas. If this continues, Bennett could be the best tight end the Giants have had since Jeremy Shockey.

OK, Houston hasn't had the toughest start to the season with the Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars, but the Texans have done what they are supposed to do, particularly on defense. In two games, the Texans allowed 392 net yards, one touchdown and a time of possession advantage of nearly two-to-one (78:01 for the Texans compared to 41:59 for opponents). Good stuff, but the real challenge comes this week when the Texans face the Broncos and longtime nemesis Peyton Manning.

Great stuff by Miami running back Reggie Bush, who is the only star-caliber player the Dolphins have at this point (although quarterback Ryan Tannehill looks like he's going to be terrific.) Bush finished with 172 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries, getting the Dolphins a critical early win over the Oakland Raiders to help restore some confidence in the offense and coach Joe Philbin.

Nice work by Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck to get the Colts in position for the game-winning, 53-yards field goal at the end against the Minnesota Vikings. However, the time management on the final play left something to be desired. The Colts left eight seconds on the clock by unnecessarily spiking the ball prior to the kick. Maybe they wanted to leave some extra time in case there was a bad snap. But from a kicking standpoint, they were in good hands with Adam Vinatieri, perhaps the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history and a strong candidate to be the second pure kicker to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

[Related: Andrew Luck delivers in first big clutch NFL moment]

Nice win by Cincinnati against cross-state rival Cleveland , but there might be reason for concern. In two games, second-year quarterback Andy Dalton has been sacked 10 times. He was sacked only 24 times in 16 games as a rookie.

[Related: Trent Richardson has first huge NFL performance]


To all of the replacement refs who have some rooting interest in an NFL team, do the league a favor and inform somebody. The embarrassment of the league for having to remove side judge Brian Stropolo, a Saints fan, from the crew working the New Orleans-Carolina game is a simple thing that has to be avoided. Yeah, the league should be checking these guys closer, but a ref should also know better. Incredibly bad judgment by Stropolo.

[Related: Side judge pulled from Saints-Panthers game; he's a New Orleans fan]

While I continue to say that the NFL replacement refs are doing an adequate job, it's clear they blew a couple of calls. At the end of the New England game, a holding penalty against tight end Rob Gronkowski negated a touchdown run by Danny Woodhead. The call was questionable, as coach Bill Belichick indicated when he said: "We scored a touchdown; got it called back. We had a touchdown called back." That was a subtle message to Robert Kraft, one of the owners who is holding the line on ref pay. In the Washington-St. Louis game, the Rams were called for a personal foul for hitting Robert Griffin III on a play where he didn't appear to be completely out of bounds. That penalty helped set up a touchdown.Are calls like that worth the $10 million over 10 years? That's the difference between what the owners are offering and the veteran refs want. In this man's opinion, no.

Speaking of the Arizona-New England, this was a brutal example of game management between the teams. First, Arizona's decision to run Ryan Williams into the line on third-and-13 was bad. The Cardinals would have been better off taking a knee, running down the clock and then punting. Williams, who was emotionally pained after the fumble, got off the hook when the Patriots missed a potential game-winning field goal …

As for Stephen Gostkowski's missed field goal, I don't make it a habit of second-guessing Bill Belichick, but this situation was questionable. With 46 seconds left, the Patriots had enough time to work the ball down the field to make the kick shorter. Even though Gostkowski had hit kicks of 53, 51 and 46 earlier in the game, there is a drastic difference between Gostkowski from inside 40 yards and from 40 yards or longer. Going into that 42-yard kick, Gostkowski had hit 71.7 percent of his kicks from 40 or longer (38 of 53). By contrast, he had hit 90.8 from inside 40 (109 of 120).

[Related: Stephen Gostkowski unable to nail game-winner for Patriots]

Oakland was a big loser Sunday in Miami, but this was an unfair situation. The Raiders were playing on a short week (they played at home Monday) and had to travel across the country to play a 1 p.m. game in one of the hottest places in the NFL in September. This is the kind of scheduling situation that teams have almost zero chance to overcome, even against rebuilding teams such as Miami.

Dear Joe Flacco: Stop looking for interference penalties on every, single passing play of the game. Instead, focus on throwing the ball to the right place all the time, which is something you are capable of doing. Flacco disappeared in the second half of the loss to Philadelphia, completing eight of his final 26 throws. Flacco, who one NFC general manager estimated will get approximately $17 million a year on his next contract, can make big plays at the end. Speaking of Flacco's contract, word is that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who was taken ahead of Flacco in the 2008 NFL draft, will not sign his deal until Flacco's is done. "That's just not the way [Creative Artists Agency] does business," the NFC GM said, referring to agents Tom Condon and Ben Dogra. "They wait. They're very patient."

To all you Dallas Cowboys fans who talked so much trash after the win in New York, how do you explain that performance in Seattle? Especially considering the Cowboys had 10 days to prepare for the Seahawks and a rookie quarterback. As I have said many times, the Cowboys are a mentally weak team.

Washington coach Mike Shanahan has never been a big devotee of special teams play, but after seeing the Redskins get a punt blocked in each of the first two games, it might be worth paying more attention.

Josh Morgan pulled the dumbest play of the week when he was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after throwing the ball at St. Louis cornerback Cortland Finnegan, a guy who has incited plenty of wide receivers over the years. Morgan's stupid penalty – the look on Shanahan's face was priceless – took the Redskins out of reasonable field-goal range to tie the game and force overtime.

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