Sunday, September 16, 2012 Updated: September 17, 9:15 AM ET
Week 2: Giants, others avoid 0-2 hole
By John Clayton ESPN.com
In another crazy day of comebacks and high scoring, the Philadelphia Eagles dodged a bullet and the New York Giants might have saved their season.
Everyone knows teams can recover from 0-2 starts, but the key is not digging that hole. The Giants, who beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 41-34, did not want to be winless knowing they have a Thursday night game coming up against Carolina and a load of injuries. The Buffalo Bills knew 0-2 would have doomed their potential surprise season, but they bounced back with an impressive win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Eagles keep overcoming turnovers and winning. The Seahawks proved they could hold up against a talented Dallas Cowboys team. And, yes, there were more problems with replacement officials.
Here are the key trends of Week 2.
Offense: Eli Manning completed 31 of 51 passes for 510 yards and had three touchdowns in the Giants' incredible 41-34, comeback victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Once again, he proved he's the best fourth-quarter comeback quarterback in the game.
Defense: In the Panthers' 35-27 victory over the New Orleans Saints, safety Charles Godfrey turned the game around in the first quarter after Drew Brees had an 80-yard touchdown drive. Godfrey intercepted a Brees pass and returned it 9 yards for a touchdown that tied the game. He also had 11 tackles and had to involve himself in coverage against Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham.
Special teams: Adam Jones opened the scoring in Cincinnati's 31-24 victory over the Cleveland Browns with an 81-yard punt return on which he made five Browns defenders miss. He also had a 31-yard kickoff return. Overall he had 121 yards on returns.
1. Panthers are new players in NFC South: Asked following Sunday's 35-27 victory over the New Orleans Saints how the Panthers compare to New Orleans, wide receiver Steve Smith said, "Times change." Following up that question, Smith was asked if Carolina is catching up to the Saints as far as offensive weapons go. "To be honest, yeah, yeah, we are," Smith said.
He wasn't trying to brag because the Panthers have to travel to New Orleans later in the season, but the Panthers' offense showed it can compete successfully with the Saints. Three things were apparent Sunday. First, the development of wide receiver Brandon LaFell is upgrading the passing offense. LaFell had six catches for 90 yards, but he changes the way teams defend the Panthers. Normally, opponents play zone and roll a safety over to Smith for double coverage. LaFell and new pickup Louis Murphy have become good enough threats that Smith can't be double-teamed the entire game.
The second development is read-option plays by quarterback Cam Newton. "Play-action," Newton said when asked about what the read-option opens up for the Panthers. Newton said teams have to bring an eighth defender in the tackle box when confronted with the read-option. "That singles up the receivers," Newton said.
The third thing is the importance of having Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams as dual running back threats. In Week 1 against Tampa Bay, Stewart was inactive with an ankle injury and the Panthers had 10 rushing yards on 13 plays. Stewart may not have been 100 percent Sunday, but his 11 carries for 51 yards up the middle opened up the outside runs for Williams, who had 71 yards on 13 carries. Overall, the Panthers overpowered the Saints for 219 rushing yards.
2. Breaking up the Patriots' two-tight end offense: It is believed Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez suffered a high ankle sprain that could sideline him anywhere between four and six weeks. No team runs as many two-tight end sets as the Patriots.
How will they survive? The answer is Wes Welker, who has almost been lost at the beginning of the season. He caught only three passes for 14 yards in the opener and was behind Julian Edelman at the start of New England's 20-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
But with Hernandez out, the Patriots might be forced to use more spread formations involving wide receivers, instead of relying so heavily on two-tight end sets.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Patriots used two tight ends on 20 of 77 plays Sunday and averaged only 3 yards per play. They averaged 5.9 yards in the opener out of that formation.
Welker, who caught five passes for 95 yards Sunday, was politically correct in what he said after the game about what appeared to a temporarily reduced rule. "I never know," Welker said. "I always prepare myself to be ready when my number is called. I just try to go out there and make plays whenever I get an opportunity."
Russell Wilson's steady play helped the Seahawks beat Dallas in convincing fashion.
3. Rise of the NFC West: After being a doormat in recent years, the NFC West is becoming respectable. The Cardinals upset New England. The Seahawks, using rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, dominated Dallas 27-7. The Rams battled the Washington Redskins and came away with a 31-28 victory. In Week 1, the Rams almost upset the Detroit Lions and the 49ers beat the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt was asked if Sunday was a statement game.
"We have been in enough close games over the last year or so," he said. "We are just going to keep working. We came into New England, a road trip, a 1 o'clock East Coast game and we started off with a 13-play drive, something like that, and moved the ball down the field. That shows a lot of progress. We have not been great starters on the road."
The Seahawks saved their season to a certain degree. A loss would have put them at 0-2 with a Monday night home game coming up against Green Bay. Wilson was efficient running the Seahawks' offense, which had a strong day from running back Marshawn Lynch.
Many teams were hoping to bulk up their early-season records against the NFC West and that isn't happening. What was impressive about the Rams' victory was how they kept battling, They did the same last week against the Lions.
4. Historic start for Eagles: The Eagles are the first team since the 1983 Rams to have nine turnovers and still win their first two games. Amazing.
"Just thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach as far as how many times we turned the ball over in two games," quarterback Michael Vick said. "We just have to do a better job of holding into the football. I have to do a better job with my decision-making and everything will work itself out."
Vick had two interceptions and lost a fumble. He has six interceptions for the season. Still, the Eagles came from behind last week to beat the Browns 17-16, and did the same Sunday to beat the Baltimore Ravens 24-23.
"The turnovers are the things that get you," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "We were lucky that we accumulated some [takeaways] on the defensive side. You can't do that. We all know that turnovers, penalties and field position are crucial to winning football games. We have to eliminate that and get better."
To make it easier for Vick, Reid called more running plays. The Eagles had 41 runs compared to 34 times they dropped back to pass. That set up play-action pass opportunities. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Vick was 7-for-7 for 150 yards and a touchdown on play-action. In Week 1 he was 7-for-15 and had two interceptions on play-action.
5. Officiating credibility: Sunday morning started with ESPN's Chris Mortensen reporting the NFL pulled replacement side judge Brian Stropolo from the Saints-Panthers game because Stropolo's Facebook page made him look like a Saints fan. How that slipped past the league was embarrassing. It also slipped by the league that an official in the Arizona-Seattle game last week was paid by the Seahawks for three years to officiate Seahawks practices.
Although Week 1 was respectable for replacement officials, Week 2 created more controversies.
St. Louis Rams fans booed on a play in which Rams running back Steven Jackson looked as though he had a touchdown, but Jackson was penalized 15 yards for spiking the football, turning a touchdown opportunity into a field goal. Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen ripped officials for calling him for a personal foul on a play in which he barely made contact. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco blasted the officiating by saying players now have no idea what is holding and what isn't. The Dallas-Seattle crew blew a non-call in which Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate lit up Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee with a block that caused Lee to go to the sideline with an injury. It should have been an illegal blindside block. Bucs wide receiver Vincent Jackson had a no-call on a helmet hit to him.
Time of game is becoming a problem. The 13 Sunday afternoon games averaged 3 hours, 13 minutes, a little less than 10 minutes longer than in normal years. There was only one game played in less than three hours. Because I had such low expectations of the replacement officials, I gave them a C grade in Week 1. In Week 2, I had more questions and gave them a D. Now there's reason to wonder about their backgrounds.
No wonder the Oakland Raiders gave up 200 passing yards and 35 points to rookie Ryan Tannehill and the Miami Dolphins. When the Raiders put cornerback Ron Bartell on injured reserve, they had five completely new cornerbacks on the roster. Pat Lee and Shawntae Spencer started. They had combined salaries of $2.245 million. The combined salaries of the other three corners is $1.905 million. A good third corner gets $4 million. As incredible as it was to see the New York Giants bounce back from a 14-point deficit to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it may be hard for them to play Thursday against the Carolina Panthers. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw (back), wide receiver Domenik Hixon (concussion) and tackle David Diehl (knee) are banged up and might not be healthy for the trip to Carolina. Greg Schiano's Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have some issues in the second halves of games. In a Week 1 win over the Panthers, quarterback Josh Freeman, who was 12-of-14 in the first half, completed only four passes for 16 yards in the second. Against the Giants on Sunday, the Bucs' defense gave up 327 second-half yards and 28 points. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt used cornerback Patrick Peterson on a Wildcat play that resulted in a 17-yard rush. He also had an interception on defense. He continues to amaze his teammates with his skills. "He's a special talent," Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb said. "Larry Fitzgerald is the one that says it all the time -- he's a once-in-a-decade type of player." Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has struggled catching the ball. He dropped passes in the opening win over the Giants. You have to think his courage in rushing back from a lacerated spleen isn't necessarily helping the team. How about tight end Dante Rosario filling in for Antonio Gates and catching three touchdowns for the Chargers? One of the reasons the Cardinals upset the Patriots is because Cardinals coaches made it easier for Kolb to execute the offense. Kolb completed 15 of 27 passes for 140 yards and one touchdown. ESPN Stats & Information went inside the numbers: 22 of his 27 passes traveled 10 or fewer yards. He had 13 of his 15 completions on passes that went 10 or fewer yards. Andrew Luck outdueled Christian Ponder and the Minnesota Vikings 23-20, which fits the scenario in which the Colts could win four or five home games against teams with inexperienced quarterbacks. The Colts host Ponder, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and rookies Tannehill and Brandon Weeden this year. Five wins at home could set up a six- or seven-win season for the Colts. Luck completed 20 of 31 passes for 224 yards and had a 107.5 quarterback rating. The Chiefs have to be concerned. They have been blown out by Atlanta and Buffalo. The Chiefs know their early-season schedule is tough, but if they don't turn it around, they could be 0-5. They have games coming up against the Saints, Chargers and Ravens. So much for the improvements in the Jets' offense. In their 27-10 loss to the Steelers, Mark Sanchez completed only six passes to wide receivers. He was 10-of-27 in the game. The Redskins are worried defensive end Adam Carriker may have a serious knee injury. Coach Mike Shanahan said Carriker's knee doesn't look good. Also, linebacker Brian Orakpo has a sore pectoral.