The Arizona Cardinals are 2-0. The New Orleans Saints are 0-2.
Just like everyone expected two weeks into the NFL season.
OK, maybe not. But that’s how the standings read after Arizona’s stunning 20-18 upset at New England and the continuation of a disastrous 2012 for the Saints with a 35-27 loss at Carolina.
Of all the early NFL surprises, the Cardinals and Saints are arguably the biggest. Arizona’s quarterbacking situation was unsettled well before the franchise’s offseason dalliance with Peyton Manning — and it remains so. But while Kevin Kolb hasn’t reminded anyone of Kurt Warner since stepping in last week for the injured John Skelton, his flaws are being covered by a dominating defense.
That standing was cemented Sunday by an outstanding road effort against one of the NFL’s top offenses. Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton challenged his line beforehand. And the group led by star ends Calais Campbell (10 tackles, two sacks, three quarterback hurries) and Darnell Docket (four tackles, one pass defended) delivered.
The result: Horton didn’t have to call blitzes to affect Tom Brady. The Patriots quarterback was sacked four times and intercepted once while running an offense whose dynamic changed when tight end Aaron Hernandez suffered a first-quarter ankle injury.
The Patriots still would have won had Stephen Gostkowski connected on a 42-yard field goal attempt with five seconds remaining. New England, though, was forced to rely on four earlier Gostkowski field goals when drives stalled.
“A good defense holds teams to three (points) instead of seven,” Campbell said afterward.
The Saints are on the opposite end of that spectrum. After getting charred at home for 40 points by Washington and its rookie quarterback (Robert Griffin III) in Week 1, the defensive woes continued against the Panthers in Week 2.
While some growing pains were expected in the adjustment to a new system under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the problems run much deeper. The Saints have no quality pass-rushers in their front four, which was the key to the success Spagnuolo previously enjoyed with the New York Giants. And blitzing to try to compensate is placing too much strain on a so-so secondary. And let’s not forget a run defense that couldn’t stop the read-option as Carolina churned out 219 yards on the ground.
The Saints have an offense good enough to get them back on the winning track starting with next Sunday’s home game against hapless Kansas City (0-2). But with the defensive woes adding to the fallout from the offseason bounty scandal, New Orleans looks like it will become the latest host Super Bowl city whose franchise fails to reach the championship game.
Some other unexpected early developments through Week 2:
• It wasn’t long ago that Tennessee’s Chris Johnson was talking about a 2,500-yard rushing season. At the rate he’s going, Johnson will be lucky to hit 200 for the 2012 campaign. Johnson’s 17-yard outing in Sunday’s 38-10 road loss to San Diego wasn’t much better than his four-yard stinker in Week 1 vs. New England. The struggles stem from a combination of subpar blocking (especially the interior offensive line), Johnson not being assertive enough hitting the hole and Tennessee offensive coordinator Chris Palmer still being unable to spring a player who signed to a six-year, $55.6 million contract less than 13 months ago.
• Even for a team known for its secrecy, Wes Welker’s early-season role with the New England Patriots is truly mysterious. It was one thing when Welker didn’t see much action in Week 1 against Tennessee as the Patriots used a run-heavy approach. But until Hernandez got injured, Welker’s snaps against Arizona were being taken by Julian Edelman. If Hernandez is forced to miss extensive playing time as expected, Welker will regain a key role in New England’s offense (he had five catches for a team-high 95 yards against the Cardinals). Why he didn’t maintain it after averaging 100-plus catches the past five seasons makes no sense.
• With all the hype surrounding Tim Tebow, he sure hasn’t played a whole lot on offense for the New York Jets. The Jets used Tebow for only 12 snaps during Week 1 because the Jets were in the process of blowing out Buffalo and there was no need to reveal the secret formations the team has designed for him. The Jets could have used some of that chicanery in Sunday’s 27-10 loss at Pittsburgh. Tebow’s first offensive action came in the third quarter and he promptly rushed for 22 yards. Makes you wonder if Tebow could have duplicated his magic from last season’s playoff victory against the Steelers if given more of a chance.
Here’s a look at all 14 of Sunday’s games:
San Francisco, 27, Detroit 19: So much media attention was paid to all of San Francisco’s new offensive toys — Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, Brandon Jacobs, and rookies LaMichael James and A.J. Jenkins — an eight-year mainstay slipped under the radar entering the season. Running back Frank Gore is San Francisco’s most valuable offensive player through the first two games. Gore followed a 112-yard, one-touchdown display in Green Bay with an 89-yard, one-score act vs. the Lions on Sunday night. Now healthy, Gore actually looks faster at age 29 than last season when he rushed for 1,211 yards. Watching kicker Jason Hanson miss a Lions field goal at Candlestick Park invoked memories of when Eddie Murray did the same for Detroit in the closing seconds of a 24-23 divisional-round loss to the 49ers on Dec. 31, 1983.
St. Louis 31, Washington 28: Wide receiver Josh Morgan wasn’t the only member of the Redskins guilty of bad decision-making in the final moments of Sunday’s loss. Morgan lost his cool and drew a 15-yard penalty when throwing the football at Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan following a completion. However, Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan then lost his mind when having Billy Cundiff attempt a 62-yard field goal rather than giving dynamic rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III the chance to make a play on fourth-and-16 from the Rams’ 44-yard line. I give Griffin better odds to generate a big play than Cundiff making a career-long field goal. Danny Amendola (15 catches for 160 yards) helped Rams quarterback Sam Bradford enjoy his most impressive outing since his 2010 rookie season.
New York Giants 41, Tampa Bay 34: The most exciting game in Week 2 ended on a sour note when Bucs head coach Greg Schiano had his defense crash into New York’s offensive line on an Eli Manning kneel-down. While one can understand Schiano’s desire to force a turnover, potentially injuring an opponent on the long-shot chance of causing a turnover — especially a franchise quarterback like Manning — is a sportsmanship violation that other NFL coaches shun. The Bucs wouldn’t have needed to resort to such a cheap tactic had they managed to stop Manning while he was shredding their defense for 510 passing yards as New York overcame a 14-point third-quarter deficit.
Seattle 27, Dallas 7: How can a franchise that looked so good in a Week 1 upset of the New York Giants lay such an egg against the Seahawks? Oh, that’s right: It’s the Cowboys, who continue to show the maddening lack of week-to-week consistency that has marred their past four seasons. Dallas entered as a three-point favorite but was outplayed from the get-go, starting when Felix Jones lost a fumble on the opening kickoff that led to Seattle’s first score.
Pittsburgh 27, New York Jets 10: With safety Troy Polamalu and outside linebacker James Harrison both out for the Steelers, Mark Sanchez should have completed more than 10 of his 27 pass attempts. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did a better job taking advantage of the absence of Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, hitting on 24 of his 31 throws for 275 yards and two touchdowns. New York will continue its quest to establish an offensive identity next Sunday at Miami.
Philadelphia 24, Baltimore 23: Despite nine combined turnovers on offense, the Eagles are 2-0 thanks to a defense that bears no resemblance to the sorry unit Philadelphia fielded at this time last season in Juan Castillo’s first year as coordinator. The second-half pass defense was especially stingy on Sunday as Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco completed just eight of his final 25 attempts for 140 yards with an interception. Ex-Houston middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans continued to make a huge impact with seven tackles, an interception, a 13-yard sack, a quarterback hurry and a pass defended. One potential defensive worry: Nnamdi Asomugha isn’t playing close to the same level when he was a shutdown cornerback in Oakland.
Indianapolis 23, Minnesota 20: Andrew Luck orchestrated the first game-winning drive of his NFL career to set up Adam Vinatieri’s 53-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining. But the Vikings left Indianapolis with further reason to feel good about their own young quarterback. Christian Ponder, who led a comeback victory over Jacksonville in Week 1, navigated two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to tie the score at 20-20. If Ponder had played as well in the first half, the Vikings wouldn’t have needed his late heroics. Ponder lost a second-quarter fumble and the Vikings had to settle for field goals on their first two drives, including one that reached the Indianapolis 11-yard line.
San Diego 38, Tennessee 10: Offensive struggles are overshadowing Tennessee’s defensive issues. Covering tight ends has proven particularly problematic. One week after allowing New England’s Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to catch a combined 12 passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns, the Titans surrendered three scores Sunday to Antonio Gates fill-in Dante Rosario. Even reserve rookie tight end Ladarius Green got in the act with a 31-yard grab.
Cincinnati 34, Cleveland 27: The absence of suspended Browns cornerback Joe Haden was felt with the slump in Cleveland’s defensive play from Week 1’s showing against Philadelphia. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton rebounded from the beating he took last Monday night against Baltimore by shredding the Browns for 318 yards and three touchdowns on 24-of-31 passing. On the bright side for Cleveland, quarterback Brandon Weeden and running back Trent Richardson were much more productive than in their rookie debuts. That still wasn’t enough to keep the Browns from maintaining their customary spot in the AFC North basement.
Houston 27, Jacksonville 7: Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is the NFL’s Sultan of Swat. Watt batted down two more passes this week and spearheaded a defense that limited the Jaguars to their lowest offensive output (117 yards) in franchise history. Watt had a team-high five tackles, 1.5 sacks, three quarterback pressures and a fumble recovery. It’s a toss-up right now between Watt and Green Bay outside linebacker Clay Matthews for early front-runner status as NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Miami 35, Oakland 13: After all that Dolphins first-year head coach Joe Philbin has gone through in 2012, he deserved a feel-good moment like what happened after his first NFL win. Philbin was given the game ball by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and the two proceeded to dance in a jubilant locker room — something that hadn’t happened following a winless preseason and Week 1 blowout loss to Houston. Philbin, though, later became emotional when talking to the media about how his entire family attended Sunday’s game. Philbin is still trying to heal from the January death of his 21-year-old son Michael, who drowned in a Wisconsin river. Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman deserve credit for taking some of the heat off rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill by establishing a strong running game with Reggie Bush, who gashed Oakland for 172 yards and two touchdowns.
Buffalo 35, Kansas City 17: The big runs continue for C.J. Spiller, whose 123-yard, two-touchdown performance compensated for the absence of injured running back Fred Jackson (knee). Kansas City also started last season 0-2 and was actually outscored by a larger margin (89-10, as opposed to 75-41 this season). The difference is the expectations surrounding the 2012 Chiefs after last season’s 3-2 finish are much higher.
Carolina 35, New Orleans 27: The best under-the-radar development for Carolina is the emergence of Brandon LaFell as a solid complement to star wide receiver Steve Smith. A 2010 third-round draft pick, LaFell followed a solid outing against Tampa Bay in Week 1 with an even better showing against New Orleans. He caught six passes for 90 yards and gained 25 yards on an end-around.
Arizona 20, New England 18: Nobody breathed a bigger sigh of relief after Gostkowski’s missed field goal than Cardinals running back Ryan Williams. His fumble with 1:01 remaining put New England in position for the kick that went wide left. The Cardinals want to field a two-headed rushing attack of Williams and Beanie Wells, but the former has now lost two fumbles in his first two NFL games.