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Morning After: Jets flying high

Only two weeks into the season and already the NFL is all but impossible to handicap. Prime example: Last Monday night, we sat in Charlotte, N.C., convinced that we were watching two franchises headed in distinctly opposite directions. The wounded Carolina Panthers, who lost big-play wide receiver Steve Smith (broken fibula) in that prime time contest and would see tailback Stephen Davis undergo arthroscopic knee surgery just four days later, looked gawdawful. On the flip side, the Green Bay Packers appeared to be a legitimate power team.

So what happened on Sunday? OK, of course, you all know. But a little self-flagellation is in order here. The limpin' and gimpin' Panthers went onto the road, to Arrowhead Stadium, where visitors never win, and won by 11. Green Bay staged its home opener at Lambeau Field, against the arch rival Chicago Bears, who they had defeated in 18 of the last 20 matchups, and got shellacked by 11 points. Go figure. Little wonder that Art Schlichter went near-crazy, and broke as well, gambling on this league. Anyone who actually tries to make a living by wagering on the NFL has to be berserk. Or soon will be, given the start to the 2004 campaign, where very little seems obvious after two weeks.

There were three teams -- the Packers, Steelers and Jets -- we felt we had underestimated after seeing their season-opening games, either first person or on videotape. Oh, well, after this Sunday, maybe one out of three isn't bad. You may recall that, in training camp, we assessed the Jets as more competitive than we had been led to believe. Honest. Don't believe it, go back and wade through the voluminous Len Pasquarelli archives. Granted, we reported that New York wouldn't be a playoff team, just a club capable of making some noise. And now, two weeks into the NFL marathon, we are starting to think the noise might be commensurate with the decibel level of, well, some jets taking off from any of the three New York-area airports.

Consider, if you will, the state of the once-proud AFC East. After the Patriots, who might run out their winning streak to about 30 games the way they are playing, the Jets are arguably the best team in the division. Buffalo can't score. Miami can't collectively walk and chew gum at the same time.

Who does that leave? Hey, rev up the engines, Herm Edwards. For the first time in 11 seasons, the Jets are 2-0, victors on Sunday over San Diego, which reverted to being the Chargers again. The Jets' schedule, to put it mildly, is kind. A bye next week, then games at Miami (Oct. 3), home against Buffalo (Oct. 10) and San Francisco (Oct. 17). Suddenly, the Jets could be 5-0 going into an Oct. 24 showdown at New England. OK, so maybe we've inhaled too many jet fumes, but it could happen.

The offense, as long as Chad Pennington is perpendicular, moves the ball. Signing guard Pete Kendall after he was released by Arizona was not only a terrific move but also rounded out a pretty nice unit. Curtis Martin, the ageless tailback, refuses to eyeball the calendar. New defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson has implemented an aggressive style and is getting solid play from unexpected places, like rookie safety Erik Coleman, who has two interceptions in two games.

So, laugh if you will, but the Jets have a shot of being not so bad. And, since New York has a bye upcoming, we won't be embarrassed by them for at least two weekends.

Last laugh?
That other New York franchise, the one where players apparently aren't on-time for club meetings even when they are five minutes early (sort of), may have proven that there is nothing like a little chaos to get things going in the right direction. We are forever grateful to clever Giants coach Tom Coughlin and his team for luring Washington brass into the little-used ruse in which you try to convince an opponent that dissension runs rampant in the ranks (wink and, uh, double-wink).

At least the Giants victory keeps the Redskins and sainted Joe Gibbs from going 16-0. Last week, one of the hosts of the popular ESPN-produced show dubbed something like Pardon the Insult suggested on local D.C. television that yours truly was "stupid" for predicting the reincarnation of Gibbs would not succeed. Chances are pretty good that, at some point in the future, said host (who also gloated that he planned to assail yours truly in the FedEx Field press box with his analysis but, um, didn't), will get a chance to rub my nose in it big-time. But for one week -- thanks to Coughlin, and Kurt Warner, who won his first start since the 2001 NFC championship game -- hey, we ain't so dumb after all.

The Washington offense, the part of the team run by Gibbs (defensive coordinator Gregg Williams functions pretty much with autonomy, as did Richie Petitbon back in the glory days), struggled mightily. Quarterbacks Mark Brunell and Patrick Ramsey tossed four interceptions. Tailback Clinton Portis was held to just 69 yards by the Giants' mutineers.

In the event no one else is keeping tabs, Portis has now averaged a pretty pedestrian 2.6 yards per carry since his scintillating 64-yard scamper the first time he touched the ball in a Redskins uniform. This is a guy who averaged 5.5 yards in two seasons with the Denver offense.

Oh, well, enough of this gloating. It is, as demonstrated by Giants resident rabble rouser and erstwhile defensive end Michael Strahan, a tad unbecoming. And, in Strahan's case, a little contrived. It's Strahan, after all, who has most fomented unrest among his mates. He fails to understand that, with management endorsing Coughlin's martinet bent, he won't win this battle. But he did help win a game on Sunday and then proclaimed that a win was just what the doctor ordered. Like he really wanted Coach Tommy the Terrible to notch a victory amid such a week of turmoil.

By the way, word is that Coughlin had turned all the clocks in the building ahead, so players would be on time.

Monday night spotlight
At the end of the Cleveland-Dallas game on Sunday, wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson played a little defensive back for the Cowboys, and actually knocked down the Browns' last-play "Hail Mary" attempt. But we're betting we won't see too much of Randy Moss of Minnesota or Philadelphia's Terrell Owens in their respective teams' secondaries on Monday night. So, puh-leeze, enough of these contrived story lines about the matchup between the two great receivers. Moss isn't going to be covering Owens. And Owens isn't going to be "mannin' up" on Moss, either.


It's the corners, Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard for the Eagles and the Vikings' Antoine Winfield and Brian Williams, who figure to be smack in the middle of the Monday night spotlight. None of the four is very big and so we're apt to see a lot of high tosses turned into completions.

Look for Vikes' defensive coordinator Ted Cotrell to work more outside the box in trying to contain Owens. His Eagles counterpart, blitz-happy Jim Johnson, doesn't really do too much special planning for individual wideouts. His answer to stopping Moss is to apply more pressure on Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper, and to force him to unload the ball quicker than he might like.

When so much hype surrounds two players, as it does with Moss and Owens for Monday night, it's usually someone else who steals the show. To be sure, the two great wideouts will make some plays, but the outcome will be determined by somebody else. Our guess: Someone on defense, like perhaps Eagles end Jevon Kearse, will author the game-altering play of the night.

Bounce back week
A dose of resilience was one of the overriding themes of the weekend action. Did anyone honestly expect the Panthers, minus two key players, to demonstrate the kind of grit displayed in their impressive victory? Kudos to coach John Fox for keeping his team focused and not allowing the depleted Panthers to feel sorry for themselves. Was there any way, after what transpired last week, to figure the Giants would respond so well to their self-inflicted wounds? After being dominated in the first half, coach Tony Dungy's Indianapolis Colts fired back at the Tennessee Titans with superb halftime adjustments and 28 points.


So here's hoping that another resilient soul, New Orleans quarterback Aaron Brooks, uses his stirring Sunday comeback as a springboard. His critics may not realize that Brooks had 11 fourth-quarter comebacks the past three seasons. But the rally on Sunday, culminated by a touchdown pass to Donte' Stallworth, might be precisely what Brooks and the Saints need to get things righted.

A loss to San Francisco, which played well behind No. 2 quarterback Ken Dorsey, would have been disastrous. New Orleans, with tailback Deuce McAllister nursing a bum ankle, isn't out of the woods yet. But the jesters who suggested the Saints players had evacuated the city for good as Hurricane Ivan approached, might not have the last laugh. There is still a lot wrong with the underachieving Saints, but Sunday might serve as a catalyst.

Time for some offense
You've got to feel for the Buffalo defense, a unit that has surrendered 26 points in two games, and lost both because the Bills offense could generate only 20 points. Rookie coach Mike Mularkey and his staff, which have gone to the extreme to play things close to the vest in an effort to salvage Drew Bledsoe's flagging career, might have to open things up and take their chances. Buffalo is playing not to lose, instead of playing to win, and the results have not been promising.

Punts
The league likes to pitch itself as entertainment but, unfortunately, too many of its players are buying into that analogy and behaving like prima donnas. A couple of tailbacks who had huge fumbles, the Packers' Ahman Green and Quentin Griffin of Denver, gave the media the Marcel Marceau treatment on Sunday. ... You believe that old song about how one is the loneliest number? Try zero. Oakland wide receiver Jerry Rice had zero catches on Sunday, snapping his record streak at 274 regular-season games with at least one reception. And Cleveland quarterback Jeff Garcia, the toast of Lake Erie just a week ago, managed a 0.0 passer rating in Sunday's loss at Dallas. ... Jacksonville rookie wide receiver Ernest Wilford, a fourth-round pick from Virginia Tech, has just two catches for 19 yards in two games. But both receptions have been game-winning scores. ... The seven takeaways generated by the Giants defense on Sunday was the most by the unit since 1986. ... Oh, well, Emmitt Smith quickly came back to earth, with just 31 yards on 13 rushes. ... The $1 million condo that Saints coach Jim Haslett owns in Pensacola was all but totaled by Hurricane Ivan. ... Seattle rookie strong safety Michael Boulware, the second-round pick who played linebacker in college, continues to make a nice transition into the secondary. For the second straight week, Boulware had a late-game interception to quell a rally by the Seahawks' opponent.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.