September 23, 2012
It's only Week 3 and desperation time is already at hand for the Kansas City Chiefs and the New Orleans Saints.
The loser of their meeting this Sunday in the Superdome will drop to 0-3 and become a playoff long shot before NFL teams have hit the one-quarter mark on their regular-season schedule.
"You just don't want to keep digging that hole because in the NFL, every team is great each and every week," Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel said. "Is there a sense of urgency about it? Absolutely. We want to get a win, and everybody in this room is working extremely hard to get that done."
The Chiefs are in familiar territory, having started 0-3 last season before finishing 7-9 and out of the playoffs.
The Saints, by contrast, only lost a total of three games during the 2011 season and expected to be in contention for a fourth straight playoff berth this season, even after the NFL's bounty investigation resulted in the suspension of head coach Sean Payton.
"I would have never expected to be 0-2," Saints interim head coach Aaron Kromer said. "We are not used to being 0-and-anything. This is a winning organization. It has been a winning organization and we are going to take it back to that.
"All we can do is worry about this one week," Kromer continued, adding that his instructions to his players after last Sunday's 35-27 loss to Carolina were to "look in the mirror, don't point fingers, and move on."
In case they didn't get the message, small round mirrors were affixed to players' lockers at Saints headquarters this week.
"It's the only answer," said Saints right tackle Zach Strief, an offensive captain. "There's literally a danger in guys pointing fingers and becoming cancers and complaining. I think it can be human nature to say, 'Whose fault is it?' ... and that's poison in a locker room, so the only thing that you can do is look at yourself."
When the Chiefs and Saints look at themselves, they see a mixed bag that gives them cause for hope as well as concern.
Both teams are among the league leaders in offense. The Drew Brees-led Saints rank third, while Cassel's Chiefs rank fifth.
Defense is where the problems lie for both clubs right now.
The Saints are last in yards allowed and tied with the Chiefs for last in points allowed, 75.
Certainly, the oddsmakers see a matchup ripe for a shootout, setting the over/under at 53, higher than any other game this week.
Yet members of both teams would argue that after only two games, the sample size is too small to place so much emphasis on statistics.
In such a short span, a few big plays can skew the numbers for a unit that, if not for a handful of blown assignments or correctable mistakes, could have performed much better, they say.
First-year Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo knows that from his experience as coordinator of the 2007 New York Giants. That team gave up 80 points in its first two games, but wound up winning the Super Bowl against previously unbeaten New England while largely stifling Tom Brady and an offense that set NFL scoring records that season.
Spagnuolo said he blamed himself for much of the poor early-season performance of New Orleans' defense, citing overly aggressive calls he made against two quarterbacks -- Washington's Robert Griffin II and Carolina's Cam Newton -- whose running ability can make blitzes backfire.
But Saints middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said Spagnuolo cannot be blamed entirely for blown assignments or missed tackles on the field.
"I'm not going to let coach Spags take the bullet for us," Lofton said. "It's (up to) us as players to go out there and execute."
The Saints have also expressed hope their scheme will be more effective against more conventional drop-back passers such as Cassel.
Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel, who also runs his team's defense, believes that unit is not as bad as it looks, either, but will nonetheless be challenged to slow down Brees and Co.
"Definitely it is a concern because we haven't done a good job defensively," Crennel said. "We have given up too many big plays and anytime you give up big plays, that's a field position change. That's a momentum change and so we have to try and eliminate those mistakes."
If the Chiefs can turn it around and hand the Saints their second loss in the Superdome -- where they did not lose once last season -- New Orleans is going to continue to be peppered with nagging questions about the extent the bounty scandal may have derailed this season.
Throughout the offseason, the Saints said they were built by Payton to weather the adversity they've dealt with in the months since the NFL announced its bounty findings. The only way to back that up is to win, which they have not done yet. Still, Brees is unwavering in his optimism that the world as the Saints have known it under Payton will not end in 2012.
"We're going to get this thing back on track very quickly," Brees said. "Obviously, (we're) disappointed by the 0-2 start, but there's nothing we can do about it now except learn from our mistakes.
"We know we have the right people in the building -- coaches and players -- and now it's just a matter of pulling it all together and finding our rhythm."