Of Saints and winners

Updated: October 13, 2005, 1:33 PM ET
By Michael Smith | ESPN.com

THE SOUTH WILL RISE
Jim Haslett
Jim Haslett and the Saints had plenty to celebrate following Sunday's win.

The Panthers are the magazine cover boys, a popular pick to get to Super Bowl XL. The Falcons were in the conference title game a year ago, so a lot of folks have them penciled in for Detroit in February, too. But after Sunday, how can anyone be sure either will even make it out of the NFC South? It looks like anybody's division.

Already, the best story in the league is the Saints. As a native New Orleanian, it's amazing to me how the team's "fan" base is growing because of the Katrina catastrophe. The Saints have grown up, too. They have had the talent; finally, they seem to have a team.

Individually they matched up with most clubs, but that was precisely the problem the past several years -- New Orleans was a group of individuals. The Saints came together the last month of last season, and Katrina and its equally disastrous aftermath seem to have brought them closer. They've rallied around the cause of playing for the people of the Gulf states. Out of their adverse circumstances (the devastation in New Orleans has forced them to call San Antonio, Texas, home) they may have pulled the very ingredients they've long missed -- chemistry and cohesion.

New Orleans won a thriller at Carolina on Sunday, 23-20, on John Carney's field goal in the final seconds. The Saints prevailed, in large part, because Aaron Brooks didn't make the kind of play that gives coaches heart attacks. Brooks completed 18-of-24 passes for 192 yards without an interception; he lost a fumble in the third quarter, but it didn't cost them the game. In the past, it might have.

The Saints have found a true identity on offense: Give it to Deuce McAllister and let him run behind that big offensive line. As for Brooks, if he isn't forced to make the big play, he's less likely to make a big mistake.

And speaking of mistakes, it may be one to underestimate Tampa Bay, as well. Rookie Carnell Williams (148 yards) gives coach Jon Gruden another playmaker on offense, and the Bucs' defense, though an aging unit, showed in shutting down Minnesota that it could still carry a club. They have a good nucleus in Tampa, and if the defensive holds up, Gruden's ability to create and exploit mismatches will produce points.

Atlanta and Carolina still have to be considered the favorites in the South. But New Orleans and Tampa Bay are going to have their say in how this division plays out.

PASSING THOUGHTS
This is supposed to be a passing league, but teams are passing on the aerial circus act.

Look at how little winning quarterbacks threw the ball Sunday. J.P. Losman threw 28 passes in winning his first career start. Trent Green threw 26. Drew Bledsoe and Aaron Brooks threw 24 each. Eli Manning threw 23, Tim Rattay 16 and Ben Roethlisberger a mere 11.

The team Roethlisberger defeated in the opener, Tennessee, plans to copy the Steelers' offensive philosophy of running when it wants to and throwing when it must. Titans coach Jeff Fisher points out that five teams had 500 rushing attempts in 2004: Atlanta, New England, the New York Jets, San Diego and Pittsburgh, which ran it more than 600 times. All made the playoffs.

So Tennessee made the move to get Travis Henry and pair him with Chris Brown. Fisher didn't hire Norm Chow to make Steve McNair an MVP again. No, the Titans are turning back the clock to 1999.

Sure, clubs are running more multiple-receiver sets, and teams like Oakland and Detroit made bold offseason moves (Randy Moss, Mike Williams) to upgrade already stacked receiving corps, but don't be fooled. The Raiders' other big acquisition was LaMont Jordan, and the Lions are going to ride running back Kevin Jones more than the right arm of Joey Harrington. Arizona has a good trio of receivers and signed Kurt Warner, but notice the Cardinals used a second-round pick on running back J.J. Arrington.

Of all QBs in Week 1, only Tom Brady and Marc Bulger passed for 300 yards (before Sunday night's game). The rules may favor the pass, but coaches still seem to prefer the run.


SAINTS ALIVE


Showing emotions
It has become a common practice to assign transcendent definition to all sports, but especially to football. Sunday's matchup of NFC South rivals New Orleans and Carolina, though, might have actually deserved such status. Given the week-long acknowledgement by Saints players that they felt additional pressure to provide some small degree of escape for their displaced fans and to create a semblance of normalcy for themselves, this was regarded as more than just another season opener.

FRONT AND CENTER


Minnesota mess
The problem with the Vikings right now is that they didn't give center Matt Birk the guarantee [for next year] so he would play this year. Instead, they put him on injured reserve. The offensive line is completely out of sync. While a lot of people talk about the tackle position, it is the center that coordinates the entire O-line. With five turnovers, Minnesota just couldn't hold on to the football. Daunte Culpepper looked like a deer in headlights.



TALKING POINTS
Ground Chuck revisited
Willie Parker (161 yards) showed his performance in last year's regular-season finale at Buffalo (102 yards) wasn't a fluke. The kid averaged 5.8 yards per carry last year, and you could see why the Steelers didn't want to part with him despite trade overtures last year and the presence of Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley.

It was evident on his 11-yard touchdown run that Parker has it all: Vision, quickness, power, toughness. Talk about tough. How in the world is Bill Cowher going to sit Parker when Bettis and/or Staley return, when Parker has the most big-play potential of the three?

Re-joining the elite
The next time you try to jam seven or eight receivers into your top-five discussion, make sure not to forget Carolina's Steve Smith. He caught eight for 138 against the Saints, and he had several other big-time catches that were either ruled incomplete or nullified.

When you go back to what he did in 2003 and last year before he got hurt, you might have to make room for Smith on the level of the Torry Holts, Joe Horns and Chad Johnsons. He's that nice.

The Wright time
Listen. I've been so patient with Kyle Boller you'd think I was on the Ravens' payroll. I love to point out that he's the third-youngest starting quarterback in the league. And while I feel bad that Boller got hurt, in the long run it may have been the best thing for the Ravens.

Head coach Brian Billick pointed out this offseason that the Ravens played one game last year with Chris McAlister, Todd Heap, Jamal Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, and Deion Sanders all in uniform. And while as a team Baltimore isn't old, Ray Lewis isn't getting any younger. The Ravens can't keep figuring they'll get another shot "next year." If they feel they've got championship talent, then Anthony Wright needs to be the quarterback, regardless of the status of Boller's injury.

The Ravens' offense just looks different with Wright at the helm. It looks like ... an offense. Yes, Wright threw two interceptions, one of which Cato June returned for a TD, but overall he performed better than Boller. Boller is the QB of the future, for certain, but this is about the present, and Wright is the better, more poised player right now. Boller is still being developed. There really is no QB controversy. There is urgency, and that means Wright should have to play himself out of the job.

THE RUNDOWN
• Miami 34, Denver 10
  Fins' O-line: 151 rushing yards, no sacks allowed.

• Buffalo 22, Houston 7
  Bills are perfect (8-0) when McGahee gains 100.

• New Orleans 23, Carolina 20
  Who isn't a Saints fan these days?

• Cincinnati 27, Cleveland 13
  There will be better days, Romeo.

• Washington 9, Chicago 7
  Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

• Jacksonville 26, Seattle 14
  Jimmy Smith: Two TDs, 130 yards, 130 years old.

• Pittsburgh 34, Tennessee 7
  Big Ben: Perfect rating, perfect in regular season.

• Kansas City 27, N.Y. Jets 7
  Chiefs aren't that good. Jets aren't that bad.

• Tampa Bay 24, Minnesota 13
  The new Caddy (148 yards) runs nicely.

• N.Y. Giants 42, Arizona 19
  Denny Green's patience has to be wearing thin.

• Detroit 17, Green Bay 3
  Young Lions coming of age?

• San Francisco 28, St. Louis 25
  Mike Nolan and Nick Saban get Week 1 wins.

• Dallas 28, San Diego 24
  If Drew Bledsoe keeps playing like that ...

• Indianapolis 24, Baltimore 7
  A near shutout? By the Colts? It is a new year.

ONE TO GO
Eagles at Falcons (9 ET, ABC)
The defending NFC champion Eagles look to put a tumultuous offseason behind them as they travel to Atlanta to face the Falcons in a rematch of last season's NFC championship game.

WR Terrell Owens is always the headline, but no Week 1 game provides a better quarterback showdown than that of Michael Vick vs. Donovan McNabb. The defensive unit that is able to best contain the opposing signal-caller will put its team in great position to begin the 2005 season undefeated.

Complete Coverage

SUNDAY'S PLAYMAKERS
Passers
M. Bulger, Stl: 34-56, 362 yds, 2 TDs
C. Palmer, Cin: 26-34, 280 yds, 2 TDs
T. Dilfer, Cle: 26-43, 278 yds, TD
Receivers
L. Fitzgerald, Ari: 13 rec, 155 yds, TD
S. Smith, Car: 8 rec, 138 yds, TD
S. Smith, Jac: 7 rec, 130 yds, 2 TDs
Rushers
W. Parker, Pit: 22 att, 161 yds, TD
C. Williams, Tam: 27 att, 148 yds, TD
R. Johnson, Cin: 26 att, 126 yds, TD

• Week 1 leaders
OUCH, BABE
Javon Walker, WR, Packers
Suffered possible ACL tear vs. Lions and could miss the rest of the season.
Kyle Boller, QB, Ravens
Left game vs. Colts with a right ankle injury suffered when he was sacked by Larry Triplett.
Patrick Ramsey, QB, Redskins
Left game vs. Bears in second quarter after being hit on the neck during a sack by Lance Briggs.
Kris Jenkins, DT, Panthers
Left game vs. New Orleans with right knee sprain on Carolina's first defensive possession.
Ernie Conwell, TE, Saints
Suffered concussion and possible displacement of jaw vs. Panthers after he was drilled on an incomplete pass.

• Week 1 infirmary report
WEEK 2 SCHEDULE
Sunday, Sept. 18
Detroit at Chicago, 1 p.m.
Baltimore at Tennessee, 1 p.m.
Pittsburgh at Houston, 1 p.m.
Buffalo at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Jacksonville at Indianapolis, 1 p.m.
Minnesota at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
New England at Carolina, 1 p.m.
San Francisco at Philadelphia, 1 p.m.
Atlanta at Seattle, 4:05 p.m.
St. Louis at Arizona, 4:05 p.m.
Miami at N.Y. Jets, 4:15 p.m.
Cleveland at Green Bay, 4:15 p.m.
San Diego at Denver, 4:15 p.m.
Kansas City at Oakland, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Monday, Sept. 19
N.Y. Giants vs. New Orleans, 7:30 p.m. (ABC)
  (at East Rutherford, N.J.)
Washington at Dallas, 9 p.m. (ABC)

• Complete schedule

Michael Smith

NFL Senior Writer
Michael Smith joined ESPN in July 2004 as a National Football League senior writer for ESPN.com, covering league news and major events such as the NFL Draft, NFL Playoffs and the Super Bowl, and continues to write breaking news stories. He is also a correspondent for E:60, ESPN's first multi-themed prime-time newsmagazine program, which debuted October 2007.