No doubt about NFC inferiority

The Baltimore Sun

As if we needed further proof that the NFC is second-rate again this season, Week 2 removed any lingering doubts.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, just 4-12 a year ago, not only beat the New Orleans Saints yesterday, but blew out the team that reached the NFC championship game last season, 31-14.

The Detroit Lions outlasted the Minnesota Vikings in overtime, 20-17, in a nine-turnover nightmare in which both teams missed field goals that would've won the game.

The St. Louis Rams punched out 392 yards in total offense to San Francisco's 186, but the 49ers won this NFC West matchup, 17-16, when the Rams gave away 10 points with fumbles.

Then there was the Arizona Cardinals' unsightly 23-20 victory over Seattle, accomplished when Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck ran into running back Shaun Alexander on a botched handoff. The Cardinals recovered the fumble to set up a game-winning field goal.

Week 2 was filled with deliciously close games. Going into last night, five were decided by three points or less, and eight by seven or less.

But several of these games were lost more than they were won. And several were decided with the kicking game.

None was more prominent, perhaps, than the Denver Broncos' 23-20 overtime win against the Oakland Raiders. With journeyman Josh McCown at quarterback, the Raiders came back from a 17-3 halftime deficit to forge a 20-20 tie.

Oakland had the first shot to win in overtime. Sebastian Janikowski boomed a 52-yard field goal that seemingly won the game. But Denver coach Mike Shanahan had called for a timeout a split second before the kick, and it was waved off.

After the timeout, Janikowski doinked his next 52-yarder off the top of the left upright. Denver went on to win on Jason Elam's 23-yard field goal.

At Detroit, Lions kicker Jason Hansen (48 yards) and Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell (52 yards) missed potential game-winners.

If this is parity, maybe we need to rethink the concept.

Around the league

So far, the Saints are the league's biggest disappointment. It's one thing to be hammered by Peyton Manning and the Colts, but it's something else to get drubbed by the Bucs. Tampa Bay led 28-0, thanks to a pair of big-play touchdown passes from Jeff Garcia to Joey Galloway, and coasted home. That's 72 points the Saints have given up already. They may survive their 0-2 start, though, because they play in the NFC South, probably the NFL's weakest division.

It looks as if the Steelers are going to present the Ravens' biggest threat in the AFC North, rather than the Bengals, who are having a hard time getting out of their own way on defense already. The Steelers sacked quarterback J.P. Losman four times and smothered the Bills in a 26-3 rout. Willie Parker rushed for 126 yards and Ben Roethlisberger passed for 242. Buffalo might be an easy opponent, but if you're Pittsburgh, that's what you're supposed to do in these games -- dominate.

The Rams are off to a difficult 0-2 start. They lost Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Pace for the season to injury last week and gave away yesterday's game to the 49ers with two fumbles. Wide receiver Torry Holt's fumble into the end zone killed a chance for a 20-7 Rams' lead. The fumble that will be remembered more was Dante Hall's muff of a punt in the fourth quarter. It set up Joe Nedney's go-ahead, 40-yard field goal with 3:23 left. Not that 49ers coach Mike Nolan didn't show some grit. He called a fourth-and-one run at the St. Louis 43, and Frank Gore broke it for a touchdown.

At this rate, Joey Harrington won't last long as the Falcons' quarterback. He was sacked seven times by the Jaguars in an ugly 13-7 loss, for a total of 13 times in two weeks. Former Raven Chris Redman, Harrington's backup, is not very mobile, either. The offensive line couldn't spring Warrick Dunn against the Jaguars, who gave up 282 rushing yards in their opener.

Meanwhile, Matt Schaub, who was traded by the Falcons in the offseason, led the Texans to a 2-0 start by beating up on the Panthers, 34-21. The Texans spotted Carolina a 14-0 lead on two Steve Smith touchdown catches, then scored 34 straight points to win going away. Schaub passed for 227 yards and two TDs while the man he replaced, David Carr, stood on the Panthers' sideline as Jake Delhomme's backup.

The Titans acquired five former Colts in the offseason, but it wasn't enough to knock off the defending Super Bowl champs. The Colts drained four minutes off the clock with a 22-20 lead and held Titans quarterback Vince Young in check during the remaining minute. The Colts aren't showing any defensive deficiencies like they did a year ago, when Tennessee pulled a December upset with a 60-yard field goal by Rob Bironas.

The Lions lost quarterback Jon Kitna (concussion) for about half their game against Minnesota, even though the league has a mandate that any player suffering a concussion is not allowed to return to the game. At least the rule lasted a week.

The most remarkable game of the day was Cleveland's 51-45 triumph over the Bengals. Carson Palmer threw for 401 yards and six touchdowns for the Bengals. Derek Anderson, who had never won an NFL start, ripped Cincinnati for 328 yards and five touchdowns. Neither team played defense -- they combined for 96 points and 1,085 yards. But when you can't win with 45 points, you're in trouble.

There were six upsets in the NFL yesterday, going by point spreads. The one that might have the worst repercussions was the Giants' 35-13 loss to the visiting Packers. The Giants were so desperate they played Eli Manning at quarterback with a separated shoulder. Somehow, it doesn't seem like the wise thing to do. Manning apparently didn't suffer any further damage, but he also didn't get the win.

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