INSIDE THE NFL
by: Don Banks
FOXBORO, Mass. — Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we thankfully rediscover other storylines in the NFL beyond Camera-gate in New England …
• It’s only Week 2, but it feels like it’s getting late if you’re one of the unlucky few who are 0-2.
Nowhere can the sense of disappointment and dread be greater than in New Orleans, where a Saints team that was the odds-on favorite to represent the conference in the Super Bowl is winless and hopelessly out of sync.
New Orleans was no fluke participant in last season’s NFC title game, but so far there has been no evidence that the Saints’ 2006 magic carpet ride has carried over. Their offense needed almost seven quarters to produce a touchdown this season, and a defense that was expected to be good enough — if far from great — has been torched for 41 points by the Colts and 31 more by the offensively-challenged Bucs.
And the Saints had 10 days to prepare for Tampa Bay, which trounced Sean Payton’s club 31-14 on Sunday, in a game that didn’t feel even that close.
Amidst the sky-is-falling mentality that likely began creeping in on New Orleans by early in the third quarter, let me offer an encouraging sentiment: Don’t lose heart, Saints fans. Your team is too good to sustain the kind of play you’ve seen this September.
A few quick points to buck up the non-believers in the Crescent City:
• After two road games to start the season (at Colts, at Bucs), the schedule is about to turn friendly. Not a lot friendly, but friendly. New Orleans plays three of its next four games at the Superdome, and has a bye week in there as well. It plays just one road game between now and Oct. 28.
True, drawing Tennessee and Carolina in their next two games doesn’t register as a piece of cake for the Saints, but both are home where the Saints should feed off their crowd and get their fast-track offense running again. If New Orleans can take care of business in those games, they’re back to .500 before a tough Week 6 trip to Seattle and a softer assignment against Atlanta at home in Week 7.
• The Saints aren’t buried in one of the NFL’s weaker divisions. Carolina and Tampa Bay are 1-1, and Atlanta is winless. The Panthers are still a puzzle, falling 34-21 at home Sunday against surprising Houston, in a game Carolina led 14-0 early. The Saints have time to steady themselves without fear of anyone running away and hiding in the NFC South.
• As bad as the Saints have looked, there were a few silver linings to cling to on Sunday. Statistics are usually for losers, but the Saints did out-gain Tampa Bay 343 yards to 330, held a significant edge in time of possession (33:08-26:52), and had a 19-14 advantage in first downs.
The most troubling trend in New Orleans is easy to spot. Once again, despite their efforts to concentrate on it in the offseason and preseason, the Saints defense is getting gouged by big plays, mostly in the secondary.
Last year the Saints gave up 14 touchdowns of 20 or more yards, the most of any team that made the playoffs. It didn’t sink them until the NFC title game at Chicago, but it obviously hasn’t been fixed, either. The Colts gashed New Orleans for three long touchdown passes (all against cornerback Jason David), and the Bucs wisely crafted a game plan to attack the same weak link.
Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia completed three passes of at least 41 yards, including a 69-yard touchdown pass to Joey Galloway, who also caught a 41-yard bomb and scored on a 24-yard reception. Ike Hilliard also hauled in a 41-yard pass from Garcia, who rounded out his day with a 33-yard completion to tight end Alex Smith. Those five Garcia completions accounted for 208 of his 243 yards passing (10-for-16, with two touchdowns).
The good news, and there’s not much of it in New Orleans about now, is that it’s early. Not all 0-2’s are created equal. The one the Saints have crafted is survivable. But the long climb back best start next week at home against the Titans. Any further delay in launching their Super Bowl Express could indeed be fatal.