Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we run down the winners and losers in Week 2 of the NFL preseason. The games don't count, but the perceptions sure do ...
LOSER: The Eagles' Super Bowl hopes -- If you're scoring at home, it's two preseason games, 12 snaps of playing time and two big injury scares for Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick. At this rate, Andy Reid is ready to lobby for the 18-game regular season and an end to meaningless August.
Vick has repeatedly said this offseason that he needs to do whatever's necessary to stay healthy and avoid damaging contact, but he just can't manage it. The bruising shot to the ribs he absorbed Monday night in New England was yet another case of trying to make something happen on a play that would have been better off aborted. Vick talks a good game when it comes to changing his playing style, but that's it. Count on this: We won't see No. 7 under center again until Sept. 9 in Cleveland.
WINNER: Nick Foles -- Thanks in part to Vick's early exits the past two weeks, the Eagles have had plenty of time to assess the play of their third-round pick, Foles, and they have to love what they're seeing. The rookie quarterback has seized the inside track over the injured Mike Kafka and veteran Trent Edwards for the backup job -- which is kind of critical in Philly, see above -- and his 24 of 38 passing for 361 yards, four touchdowns and one interception has been the highlight of the Eagles' preseason. Philadelphia somehow always finds a way to fill that No. 2 role with a keeper.
LOSER: Veteran quarterbacks named Matt -- With the trend in the NFL being to play highly drafted quarterbacks right now, you can't be surprised the Dolphins named rookie Ryan Tannehill their starter and the Titans threw the keys to second-year man Jake Locker, whether they looked great in Week 2 and won the job outright or not. That's just the way it's done in the league these days. But those predictable moves made losers out of Matt Moore in Miami and Matt Hasselbeck in Tennessee, at least for now. We may see both again at some point in 2012, but the Matts will be merely fallback plans to begin the season.
WINNER: The Falcons' Week 1 chances -- Atlanta's opener at Kansas City is looking more winnable all the time. Not only might the Chiefs be missing two injured defensive starters in cornerback Brandon Flowers (foot) and safety Kendrick Lewis (shoulder), but also Monday brought word of Pro Bowl linebacker Tamba Hali's one-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Hali's 12 sacks were second in the AFC last season, and the Chiefs will be forced to replace him with the considerably less dangerous Andy Studebaker. We're not sure where Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan wears his Luck of the Irish four-leaf clover, but it's working.
LOSER: Shawne Merriman's return to relevancy in Buffalo -- When I made my visit to Bills camp in late July, new Buffalo defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt raved about how good Merriman looked, and how he couldn't wait to turn him loose as a situational pass rusher off the edge as a defensive end in the 4-3 scheme. Guess not. Merriman's release Monday certainly had something to do with the $4 million salary he was due this year, but it's starting to look like he'll never recapture the form that helped him total nearly 40 sacks in his first three NFL seasons in San Diego. (Sorry, no easy "Lights Out'' reference forthcoming here.)
WINNER: Chris Johnson and his game-changing speed -- The Titans' franchise running back looked fast again the other night in a win at Tampa Bay, and once you see him accelerate like that into the end zone, you're forced to wonder where that extra gear has been the past two years. Johnson was his old 2008-09 self on a couple of pretty, 14-yard, first-half touchdown runs, making it look like he had a force-field around him that Bucs defenders couldn't penetrate. They say speed never slumps, but something was missing from CJ's game that just made a comeback.
LOSER: The Giants' preferred methods of locker room camaraderie -- The occasional dunk in the cold tub for cornerback Prince Amukamara? OK, boys will be boys. We get it. But eight such trips to the tub last year for the team's 2011 first-round pick? That's a hazy line being drawn between locker room horseplay and potential hazing. At what point might Amukamara have stopped feeling the "love'' that was being directed at him by his larger, stronger teammates? Ease up, guys. You're usually the more responsible of New York's two NFL teams. There's a Giants way to do things, just as the Mara family has always required. And come to think of it, you can't spell Amukamara without M-A-R-A, so watch yourselves.
WINNER: 2011's embattled rookie quarterbacks -- Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder took their share of poundings as rookies, physically and otherwise. But they're both answering their critics quite forcefully this preseason, with strong showings and some much improved pocket presence and field awareness. Gabbert looked sharp in a road win over the Saints in Week 2, and Ponder was equally impressive in a home rout of Buffalo. It's still early in these year-two stories, but the kids are all right.
LOSER: The Jets' new-look offense -- A lousy three field goals in two games is all New York has scored. The Wayne Hunter debacle continues at right tackle. The Mark Sanchez-Tim Tebow quarterback combination absorbed seven sacks and produced just 128 yards passing in the uninspired loss to the Giants. And so far, Tony Sparano's plan to return a physical presence to the Jets' running game has been all tough-guy talk, amounting to nothing. New York got stuffed in short yardage against the Giants and averaged a paltry 2.7 yards per play. And you can't blame Brian Schottenheimer for any of it, Jets fans.
WINNER: Kirk Cousins' future marketability -- That's the way you do it, Kirker. You roll up those big numbers playing against the third-teamers in preseason, and before you know it, the Arizona Cardinals or Miami Dolphins are giving up decent draft picks for you in trade, with a nice new contract to boot. Now the question is: Can Mike Shanahan hang onto his job in Washington long enough to eventually make his controversial fourth-round pick of Cousins pay off?
LOSER: Terrell Owens' roster chances in Seattle -- Not only did Owens drop a perfectly thrown bomb from Matt Flynn that would have produced a 46-yard touchdown for the Seahawks on the road at Denver, but also Seattle's attempts to get Owens the ball seemed to throw Flynn a bit off his game. And we've seen that movie before. Haven't we, Jeff Garcia, Donovan McNabb, Tony Romo and Carson Palmer? Flynn chucked five passes in Owens' direction and went 0 for 5 on those attempts. Could it be that Pete Carroll has already seen enough of T.O.?
WINNER: The Colts' rookie pass-catchers -- I know we're all focused on the rookie quarterback in Indy, and Mr. Luck impressed us for a second consecutive week with his resiliency in Sunday night's narrow loss at Pittsburgh. But the Colts have something good building as well in terms of their rookie corps of tight ends and receivers.
The group of tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, and receivers Griff Whalen, T.Y. Hilton, LaVon Brazill, and Jabin Sambrano combined to catch 14 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers, and those totals could have been higher if Hilton hadn't let a Luck pass bounce off his hands for an interception. All that youth and potential surrounding him even seems to have rejuvenated Reggie Wayne's game. The veteran Colts receiver had six catches for 74 yards in Pittsburgh, leading Indy in both categories.
LOSER: The credibility of NFL owners in Texas -- Both Houston's Bob McNair and Dallas' Jerry Jones in the past few days have expressed a lack of concern with the performance of the replacement refs, proving they did indeed get the league memo and are on board with the what-me-worry mantra being espoused by everyone from Roger Goodell on down. McNair said we have always had bad calls in the game and they're any not more prevalent this preseason, and Jones said he's OK with whatever calls may come, as long as they're evenly bad for both sides. Dress it up any way you'd like, Bob and Jerry, but it's still lipstick on a pig.
WINNER: Brandon Carr -- The Dallas cornerback has looked like a stud in Cowboys camp from reporting day on, and his two interceptions of San Diego's Philip Rivers Saturday night underlines how much he adds to a secondary that had no one to count on in crunch time last season. There were those around the league who expressed surprise at how aggressively Dallas moved on Carr early in free agency, not to mention the five-year, $50.1 million deal the Cowboys awarded him. But it seems like money well spent at the moment, and a case of targeting the right kind of free agent: the young and still improving variety.