Kansas City Chiefs (0-2) at New Orleans Saints (0-2)
1. The loser will be in dire straits (so says history)
If these teams don't have a sense of urgency about them, something is wrong. Considered playoff contenders by many prognosticators before the season, the Chiefs and Saints come into Sunday's game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome as two of the league's six winless teams after two weeks.
The Chiefs lost at home to Atlanta, 40-24, then got laid out in Buffalo, 35-17 (it was once 35-3) by a Bills team that gave up 48 points to the Jets in its opener. The Saints also lost their home opener, 40-32, to rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and the Redskins, before coming up short in Carolina, 35-27, against the NFC South rival Panthers.
This is a must-win game for both teams. While it might sound silly to say that in only the third week of the season, the loser will be in a hole so deep that extrication will be difficult.
Over the previous 10 years (2002-2011), a total of 54 teams started their seasons 0-3. Of that number, 48 (88.9 percent) went on to finish with losing records. Five teams (the '03 Bengals, '06 Titans, '08 Texans, '09 Panthers and '09 Titans) finished 8-8; the '04 Bills were the only team to have a winning record; and no team -- zero, zip, nada -- qualified for the playoffs.
"The guys are down, but they are not out," Saints interim head coach/offensive line coach Aaron Kromer said at his press conference this week. "They are going to rebound in this situation. We are not thinking about the playoffs or other things. We are thinking about winning this week."
Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel couldn't have said it better.
2. One quarterback is still a work in progress
Matt Cassel first emerged on the NFL radar in 2008, when Patriots starter Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opening game against Kansas City and Cassel, then New England's backup, was thrust into action. A seventh-round draft pick in 2005 who never started a game in college (he backed up Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at USC) and had played sparingly in his first three NFL seasons, Cassel performed surprisingly well in Brady's stead. He completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns with only 11 interceptions. Although the Patriots won 10 of Cassel's 15 starts and finished 11-5, they fell short of the playoffs.
A star was born -- much like when Brady, a sixth-round pick and former backup, took over for the injured Drew Bledsoe early in the 2001 season -- or so it seemed. Because of Cassel's performance and the uncertainty of Brady's return from a serious knee injury, the Patriots put the franchise tag on Cassel, who had been scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, and gave him a one-year contract for $14 million (the largest one-year deal for an offensive player in NFL history) on Feb. 5, 2009.
Meanwhile, former Patriots executive Scott Pioli, who became Kansas City's general manager after the '08 season, coveted Cassel. Twenty-three days later, the Chiefs acquired Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel for the 34th overall pick in the 2009 draft.
While expectations have been high in Kansas City, Cassel hasn't quite proven himself to be the Brady of the Midwest. Although he had an outstanding 2010 season, throwing for more than 3,000 yards and 27 touchdowns while leading the Chiefs to a 10-6 record and their first playoff appearance since '06, Cassel's resume before and after that season has been simply mediocre. Coming off a broken hand that forced him to miss the final seven games last year, Cassel had three TD passes and three interceptions in Kansas City's first two games.
3. The New Orleans defense is in a state of flux
The Saints focused a lot of attention in the offseason on improving a defense that ranked 24th overall, 30th against the pass and 29th in opponents' average gain per rush in 2011.
First, they hired ex-Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo as their new coordinator. Then they brought in veteran players who had played for other teams. The Saints added defensive tackle Broderick Bunkley and linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne -- all of whom started the first two games.
The early results have been troubling. New Orleans has allowed 75 points and 922 yards -- the most in the league. And there's no telling when Jonathan Vilma, the soul of the Saints defense, will be back on the field. Although his bounty suspension was overturned temporarily by an appeals panel, he still is on the physically unable to perform list after having three knee procedures since last November.
The Saints weren't able to establish much of a pass rush with just their four defensive linemen in the first two games, meaning Spagnuolo might need to start dialing up blitzes in order to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
There still is reason to hope the defense will turn it around. When Spags was defensive coordinator of the Giants in 2007, New York gave up 80 points in its first two games, but wound up with a 10-6 regular season record and went on to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
The inside linebacker has been the linchpin of the Kansas City defense since the Chiefs drafted him out of Texas with the 15th overall pick in 2005. He was named first-team All-Pro and selected to his first Pro Bowl last season, when he made 131 tackles.
What's the mindset of the team heading into Sunday's game?
Trying to get this snowball going in the other direction. The last two weeks have not been good for us. We've played some pretty good teams, but we haven't played good ourselves. We have to, I don't want to say do something different, but we have to play a lot better. And we can. We have confidence in ourselves, speaking defensively, and we just have to make it happen.
The Saints also are 0-2. You aren't expecting them to be feeling sorry for you guys, are you?
Oh, no, not at all. They're not going to be feeling sorry for us. They need to get their first win of the season just like us. It's going to be a dogfight and we're looking forward to a heck of a matchup. A lot of people aren't going to favor us, which is cool, but at the end of the day it's going to come down to the players on the field to get the job done.
What unique challenges do Drew Brees and the Saints offense present?
Oh, man, they're pretty balanced. They can run the ball and pass the ball; that's what makes them really good. They have so many weapons, all these guys they can get the ball to. Whatever game plan they want to run, they can do. They can spread you out or keep you in the box and play "21" personnel (two backs, one tight end) and just run the ball.
You have played for four different head coaches in Kansas City: Dick Vermeil, Herm Edwards, Todd Haley and Romeo Crennel. How would you describe each one?
Vermeil was a passionate, old-school coach. I didn't get to know him that well; I was only with him for one year. Herm is an energetic, passionate, players' type coach. Todd was a little different, more like (Bill) Parcells, tried to be more of a disciplinary, lay-the-hammer-down type coach. His intentions were always good, don't get me wrong, but he did it in his own way. I love Romeo, I'll tell you that. Romeo is a guy that you want to play for. He's a players' coach, a guy that's easy to talk to. He can just sit back and talk (with you) about on-the-field or off-the-field type of things. He expects you to play at a high level -- he will voice that opinion -- but at the same time he's going to let you have a little freedom to say, hey, I'm going to treat you like a man.
Chiefs fans are among the most passionate in the NFL. What's it like from a player's perspective to come to Arrowhead Stadium on game day and see that sea of red in the parking lots?
I don't think there's any other feeling like it. It's a feeling of smelling barbecue, seeing everybody out, even in the cold. Riding up to the stadium, everybody's waving. Especially when the defense gets out there on the field, it's loud. You can't hear anything, you can't make any checks. It's like a college atmosphere. It's definitely the 12th man at Arrowhead. It's got to be one of the loudest places in the NFL. It has to.
You made your first Pro Bowl last year, in your seventh season. How overdue was that honor?
The Pro Bowl is hard to make. Being on a winning team helps a lot, and of course you have to have good stats. They always say you make it the year after you were supposed to make it. I had a really good year and went to the playoffs (in 2010). I thought I was going to make it then; I was an alternate. Then I made it the next year. Not that I didn't have a good year (last season), but I had about the same year the year before.
There were several games in Week 2 where both teams got chippy. Do you think players are trying to get away with things they wouldn't normally try with regular officials?
In a general sense, maybe. The structure is a little different. It's not chaos out there, but it's not as organized or structured as the regular NFL officials. I've seen stuff they've messed up a lot, but they haven't really messed up in our games yet, so we'll see.
Without a lot of fanfare, Saints quarterback Drew Brees has moved into position to break an NFL record that has stood for more than half a century. Hall of Fame QB Johnny Unitas owns the mark for most consecutive games throwing a touchdown pass. Brees is within two games of equaling that standard and three games from breaking it. Here is how their statistics compare during their respective streaks.
The Saints are treading in uncharted waters. Head coach Sean Payton is suspended for the season (he's in Dallas, coaching his son's sixth grade football team), and general manager Mickey Loomis (six games) and interim coach Joe Vitt (four) both have time left to serve on their suspensions.
But they still have Brees, the most prodigious passer in recent seasons, and a deep arsenal of offensive weapons. Brees and Co. will always keep the Saints competitive.
"I look at the players and the personnel, and they are running the same plays," Crennel told New Orleans reporters this week on a conference call. "Drew is still the quarterback and he gets rid of the ball. You know the guys that he likes, and he likes the playmakers in (Darren) Sproles and (Jimmy) Graham. You know the ball is going to those guys."
In a game between two teams who are struggling on offense, the best quarterback will be the deciding factor. On Sunday in New Orleans, Brees will be that guy.
Saints 31, Chiefs 17Last week: 49ers 27, Lions 21Season record: 2-0