SEATTLE -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest a wild and eventful Week 2 in the NFL...
• The weirdness was seemingly everywhere Sunday at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots simply don't lose home openers. The Arizona Cardinals are supposed to blink first when they're heavy road underdogs. Kevin Kolb and Tom Brady aren't expected to trade places for the day. And as for Ryan Williams, well, running backs aren't supposed to give the game away with a mind-boggling, last-minute fumble and live to tell.
But Williams and the Cardinals survived somehow, thanks to New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski going all Billy Cundiff on us and missing wide left on the game-winning 42-yard field goal attempt with one second remaining. It was that kind of upside down afternoon in Foxboro, and when it was over, we had the league's most surprising 2-0 team in Arizona and a fresh round of questions to consider about the defending AFC champion Patriots (1-1).
For starters, where was Wes Welker early in the Cardinals' 20-18 win, with New England choosing to start Julian Edelman and wait until late in the first quarter before using its most proven pass catcher? And what impact will the first-quarter ankle injury to tight end Aaron Hernandez make in New England? The Patriots played with very little intensity or effectiveness in his absence, and they spent the rest of the game trying to shake themselves of their lethargy.
So much for the notion that tight end Rob Gronkowski is the key to the Patriots' Brady-led passing game; it looked as if Hernandez was the irreplaceable component on this day. After the game, he was in a walking boot and used crutches to get around, leading you to believe his possible high ankle sprain will not be a short-term injury.
As bad as New England looked, especially in the first half when it could muster just two field goals, give Ken Whisenhunt's undefeated Cardinals plenty of credit for that. Kolb wasn't masterful -- 15 of 27 for 140 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and the game-deciding 5-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter -- but he was efficient and guided Arizona to its first win over the Patriots since September 1991, when the immortal Tom Tupa was flinging 'em for the Cardinals.
I wonder what Oakland's Tommy Kelly thinks of Kolb now? Kolb got the start and the win in relief of the injured John Skelton, doing so in one of the league's toughest road venues. For the foreseeable future, these Cardinals are Kolb's team again, and Arizona's quarterback quandary is a thing of the past.
But the best news in Arizona is the play of the defense. Coordinator Ray Horton's unit gave up 387 yards and 25 first downs to New England, but Cardinals defensive ends Calais Campbell (two sacks) and Darnell Dockett (four tackles) were handfuls for New England to contend with all day, and cornerback Patrick Peterson added an interception and a nifty 17-yard rush from the Wildcat formation. Even Arizona special teams contributed mightily, with linebacker Quentin Groves blocking a Zoltan Mesko punt in the red zone to set up the Cardinals' go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. Groves also had one of Arizona's four sacks.
The Cardinals have now held Seattle to 16 points and New England to 18, and that kind of defense makes up for a lot of mistakes on offense, like when Williams stunningly fumbled deep in his own territory with 1:01 remaining and the Patriots out of timeouts. The Cardinals are living dangerously this season, squeaking out a win last week against the Seahawks in a game that went down to the final play, but they're finding a way to win, even if ugly, and that's all that counts.
• Speaking of inartistic victories, the Eagles picked up another one at home -- against Baltimore -- and now Philadelphia prepares for next week's trip to Arizona and a showdown with its fellow 2-0 starter. I'm not sure how the Eagles are doing it, but it is a bottom-line league. Philadelphia has committed nine turnovers in two weeks, and three of the four Eagles miscues on Sunday came in the red zone, where the price of that kind of error is magnified.
No matter. Philadelphia has a pair of one-point wins over Cleveland and Baltimore, with embattled Eagles quarterback Michael Vick leading game-winning touchdown drives in the fourth quarter of both games. Like Arizona, Philadelphia is unbeaten largely because its defense is getting the job done. Newly acquired middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans has been especially stout, with rookie defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie turning in strong games against a Ravens offense that came in red-hot off its big Monday night win at home against Cincinnati.
Maybe this is what we should expect from Vick this season, a highwire act every week. But No. 7 got hit a ton again on Sunday, and at this rate I can't see him lasting past Week 4 without an injury issue cropping up.
• Sorry, but this replacement ref fiasco has to end. Some of these folks are simply in over their heads. You can say that overall the stand-ins have done a credible job, but some of their work is getting tough to watch. The Ravens-Eagles game was this week's case in point. It was a chippy game that nearly got out of control at times, and the refs did little to establish credibility with the players.
Sloppy is the best way to describe the execution of the officiating, with issues in correctly marking out penalties, turning on microphones to announce penalties and keeping the pace of the game moving along. It took three and a half hours to play this one, and the players are starting to grow frustrated with some of the raggedness. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco called out the replacement refs after the loss in Philly, saying they are impacting the "integrity of the game.''
Couldn't agree more, Joe. It's time for the NFL to get a deal with the original refs and remove this storyline from the league's landscape.
• For the longest time on Sunday, it looked like last season's Super Bowl teams were going down to galling homefield defeats at the hands of sun-belt teams, but unlike the Patriots, the Giants refused to lose, rallying to put up 25 fourth-quarter points and beat Tampa Bay 41-34.
Eli Manning's day was interesting. His three first-half interceptions nearly doomed New York, with all three leading to Bucs touchdowns. But Manning, as he often does, saved his best for last, bringing the Giants back in the fourth quarter and winding up with a staggering 510 yards passing and three touchdowns. And yes, that was a career high in terms of yardage.
Manning got huge days from both Hakeem Nicks (10 catches for 199 yards and a touchdown) and Victor Cruz (11 for 179 yards and a touchdown), with Cruz bouncing back superbly from his three-drop showing in the opening-week loss to Dallas. Cruz had an 80-yard touchdown catch on Sunday, already his fifth career score of at least 70 yards in the past two seasons.
The Giants won the game, but they're losing the war of attrition. Already out are cornerback Prince Amukamara and linebacker Keith Rivers. On Sunday, running back Ahmad Bradshaw (neck), right offensive tackle David Diehl (knee), and receiver Domenik Hixon (concussion) were forced to the sideline and lost for the game.
• As thrilling as the Bucs-Giants game was, maybe the best theatre came after it, when the head coaches, Tom Coughlin and Greg Schiano, had an animated discussion at midfield -- hours before the "Handshake Bowl'' in San Francisco, with the Lions' Jim Schwartz and the 49ers' Jim Harbaugh renewing hostilities. Coughlin and Schiano nearly stole their thunder.
Coughlin didn't like how aggressive the Bucs defense was on the game's final kneel-down play, with Manning getting bowled over by someone, and he made sure to let Schiano know his displeasure.
"I don't think you do that,'' a still-annoyed Coughlin said in his postgame press conference. "I don't think you jeopardize the offensive line, I don't think you jeopardize the quarterback.''
Especially after he throws for 510 yards and wins you the game.
• Ronde Barber was the defensive hero for Tampa Bay last week, but he looked every bit his 37 years on that game-tying 80-yard bomb to Giants receiver Cruz in the fourth quarter. Cruz blew past Barber like the Bucs' elder statesman was a lamp post.
Until the fourth quarter, the return of the Bucs defense looked like one of the biggest stories of this young NFL season. But then a Manning changed all that.
• We'll never be able to fully quantify the impact of Sean Payton's absence in New Orleans. But clearly something vital is missing for the 0-2 Saints, who are just one loss away from tying their 2011 total of regular season defeats. I loved the hiring of ex-Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator in New Orleans, but he has had no answers so far for the Saints.
It's important to remember Spagnuolo was under heavy criticism in his first season in New York in 2007, when the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants started 0-2. But that bit of five-year-old history isn't going to make up for the disarray New Orleans is showing on defense. In their past three meaningful games, the Saints are 0-3, having given up 36 points to San Francisco in the NFC divisional round playoffs, 40 to Washington last week at home, and 35 to the run-heavy Panthers (219 rushing yards) on Sunday.
If there's any good news in Saints-land, it's that next week game is home against winless Kansas City (0-2). The Chiefs can only throw quarterback Matt Cassel at New Orleans, after the Saints just endured this year's rookie QB sensation in Washington's Robert Griffin III, and last year's rookie QB sensation in Carolina's Cam Newton.
• Not sure why the Jets went to all the trouble of trading for Tim Tebow if they weren't going to use him much in a game like Sunday's at Pittsburgh. With quarterback Mark Sanchez struggling after New York opened the game with two scoring drives on its first two possessions, and running back Shonn Greene leaving the game after taking a shot to the head late in the first half, the time seemed right for Tebow to have a much bigger role in at least the team's running game in the second half.
But after opening the third quarter with a momentum-creating 22-yard rush, Tebow was essentially invisible from there on out, and the Jets lost 27-10 in lackluster fashion. Through two games, and no fault of his own, New York's biggest offseason move qualifies so far as much ado about nothing.
• It's not like he's the first receiver Cortland Finnegan ever baited into a stupid penalty, but that was a killer 15-yard flag Joshua Morgan drew at the end of the Redskins' 31-28 loss in St. Louis. With Washington in range for a game-tying Billy Cundiff field goal try of 46 or 47 yards, Morgan lost his cool and threw the ball at Finnegan after making a seven-yard catch on 3rd-and-8 from the Rams 36. Instead of 4th-and-1 at the 29, the personal foul call pushed the Redskins back to the 44, and Cundiff's 62-yard attempt was way short.
The vibe in Washington has been upbeat ever since Robert Griffin III got to town, but Morgan's destructive gaffe was like taking a page from the old Redskins playbook. And unsurprising, it helped contribute significantly to a defeat.
• Injured Buffalo running back Fred Jackson is going to hear his share of Wally Pipp jokes this week, but at least the Bills know they're OK with C.J. Spiller carrying the rushing load. Spiller had another monster game in Buffalo's much-needed win over Kansas City, racking up 123 yards and two touchdowns on just 15 carries (8.2 average). Last week against the Jets, Spiller went for 169 yards and a touchdown on a mere 14 carries (12.1 average).
Do the math. Spiller has 29 carries for 292 yards this season, good for 10.06 yards per carry. That will work.
• The Titans' Chris Johnson continues to astound. For all the wrong reasons. Tennessee's once-great running back touched the ball 10 times in a 38-10 loss at San Diego, producing just 28 yards, with a long gain of 12. In other words, Johnson spent most of the game either running in place or losing yardage. Has any star NFL running back ever been so good and then so ineffective in a shorter span? Some guys hit the wall quickly, but Johnson might have set a land speed record in that dubious department.
• Week 2 was considerably more productive for the league's five rookie starting quarterbacks. In Week 1, only Griffin won his debut. But on Sunday, Miami's Ryan Tannehill, Seattle's Russell Wilson and Indianapolis' Andrew Luck all picked up victory No. 1, while Cleveland's Brandon Weeden played light years better in his team's 34-27 loss at Cincinnati. With Griffin losing in St. Louis, the Fab Five's combined won-loss record is a respectable 4-6.
• I thought the Raiders always drafted for speed? How is it that this Oakland team looks rather slow, especially on defense, where Miami's Reggie Bush ran away from the Raiders all game long? Bush finished with 172 yards rushing, 25 receiving, and on his two long touchdown runs (23 and 65 yards), he either broke tackles or just left the Oakland defenders in his dust.
• Even in defeat Sunday, Cleveland gave its fans at least a glimpse of the future in the 34-27 loss at Cincinnati, and it was pretty impressive. First-round Browns running back Trent Richardson rumbled for 109 yards rushing on 19 carries, and added 36 more receiving yards. He scored twice, once in spectacular fashion on a 23-yard catch and run, breaking at least three tackles along the way.
Cleveland first-round quarterback Brandon Weeden also rebounded from his embarrassing Week 1 performance, completing 26 of 37 passes for 322 yards and a pair of touchdown passes. Weeden looked as ready to play Sunday as he looked shaky in last week's home loss to Philadelphia. The Browns are 0-2 for the sixth time in seven years, but at least there's hope after Sunday's developments.
• The Texans (2-0) handled their business in the season's opening two weeks, beating teams in Miami and Jacksonville that they should beat. But now the Houston schedule is about to get tougher, with a trip to Denver looming next week, and then dates at the Jets (Week 5), and home against both Green Bay (Week 6) and Baltimore (Week 7) to come.
We can't yet measure the Texans' strength against the likes of the Dolphins and Jaguars, but that Houston defense is going to be good against anyone. Jacksonville had a franchise-low 117 yards of offense against the Texans, with Jags quarterback Blaine Gabbert completing just seven passes for 53 yards before leaving the game with a leg injury in the second half.
• NBC can't be happy the highly anticipated Week 3 rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game -- New England at Baltimore, next Sunday night -- lost a little luster in Week 2. Both teams lost a nail-biter.
Not that we won't watch or anything. It's still Tom Brady versus Joe Flacco, with neither team in the mood to drop to 1-2 after winning in Week 1.
• Not quite sure why Jay Cutler's sideline demeanor Thursday night in Green Bay was a surprise to anyone. Cutler has never been a warm and fuzzy type, and his bad mood might have had something to do with wearing Packers linebacker Clay Matthews like an appendage all night. Chicago has bigger issues to contend with than Cutler's whiny and at times petulant behavior. Like an offense line that looks sieve-like once again, and that Matt Forte ankle injury.
• Did I hear this right: It was fake mustache day in both Jacksonville (in honor of new owner Shad Kahn) and St. Louis (a tip of the hat to new Rams head coach Jeff Fisher)? Who says the NFL has no new ideas in the push to get people out of their homes and into the stadiums around the league?