$.01--The Saints versus Rams was poised to be an epic rematch of last year’s controversial NFC Championship game. Drawing marquee billing in the late afternoon national window, the prospect of New Orleans going for cathartic revenge in the home of their vanquishers sure felt worthy of the hype. 

Alas, it didn’t play out that way. In fact, the way it played out, the Saints will need a lot of good fortune to even try and get another rematch in the postseason. 

The Rams won 27-9 after their offense woke up late against a demoralized Saints team. Why were the visitors from New Orleans down in the dumps? Two very valid reasons from very different perspectives, it turns out. 

The first one is frustration over being the fire hydrant to the officiating dog once again. Just as the officials completely botched the NFC Championship game with the missed pass interference call, they cost the Saints six points in this contest as well with inexcusable ineptitude. An 84-yard Cam Jordan fumble return for a TD was negated because an official erroneously blew the play dead for looking at something -- and misinterpreting it -- which wasn’t even his responsibility on the play. 

The referee ruled the play an incomplete pass and not a fumble, but he was not the one who blew the initial whistle. The officials are instructed to let the action play out. It’s a point repeatedly stressed to them in their training. That did not happen here. Instead of Jordan celebrating a TD and giving the Saints a 10-3 lead, they had to get a little lucky to even keep the ball at their own 13 following the clean recovery. 

That drive ultimately ended with Alvin Kamara getting stuffed short on 4th-and-1. The Rams subsequently kicked a field goal to take a 6-3 lead into the half when they should have been trailing 10-3 and playing catchup at the end of the half. 

New Orleans’ own comeback was made much more difficult by the other negative perspective. Drew Brees left the game after whacking his throwing hand on Rams DT Aaron Donald’s hand. Brees went to the sideline in obvious discomfort. He meekly attempted to pick up a ball at the bench but immediately dropped it dejectedly

The Saints have given no indication yet on the severity of the injury, but there are real fears it is a significant one. That’s the word Brees himself used with ESPN’s Josina Anderson when asked about the injury: significant. 

If Brees is out for any significant time, the Saints are in very real peril. Teddy Bridgewater is currently regarded as one of the NFL’s better backups, but he sure didn’t play that way against the Rams. Taysom Hill is a fun story and versatile weapon, but it’s hard to see him operating Sean Payton’s offense full-time. Let’s hope we don’t have to find out...

$.02-- A series of close finishes kept pulses racing around the country. None were in the sexier games on the schedule, but that’s why the NFL is an Any Given Sunday league. 

We’ll start off in Detroit, where the Lions remain unbeaten after surviving the Chargers, 13-10. Los Angeles was driving late in the 4th for what seemed like an inevitable game-winning score behind Philip Rivers. Then Darius Slay, having one of the worst games of his Pro Bowl career, made a fantastic interception in the end zone to preserve the win. The Detroit offense slogged out a first down and ended the game in victory formation. 

This was not a well-played game. Lions PK Matt Prater missed an extra point and a field goal, both somewhat influenced by bad snaps. Chargers punter Ty Long, pressed into duty as the kicker because of injury, missed field goals at the end of consecutive second-half drives. On another drive, the Chargers had two TDs wiped out via penalty and then fumbled at the goal line. A picture-perfect Matthew Stafford-to-Kenny Golladay strike gave the Lions the comeback win, adding to Stafford’s total as the most 4th quarter comeback drives this decade. 

A few minutes later in Houston, the Texans/Jaguars contest was decided by millimeters. Having done nothing well except fumbling all day, Jaguars rookie QB Gardner Minshew authored a great scoring drive to pull the margin to 13-12 with 30 seconds to go. Rather than kick the extra point and go for the tie, Jaguars coach Doug Marrone went for the win. Leonard Fournette spun off his first would-be tackler, lunged to the goal line and was within a whisker when Texans safety Justin Reid smacked into him and held the line. 

The review was inconclusive. Had it been called a success on the field, that would have stood too. It’s a crazy way to end such an important game in the AFC South. Houston claws up to 1-1 and the Jaguars drop to 0-2.

Then came an even odder twist of fate at the end of a Bears/Broncos matchup that I’m still trying to figure out, 

  1. If it was really good defenses or really bad offenses, and 

  2. Why the hell I watched so much of it

The Broncos scored a TD to close the Bears lead to 13-12 with just 37 seconds left. Denver coach Vic Fangio elected to go for the win over his old team and lined up for the 2-pt. conversion. But they were guilty of delay of game, pushing them back. So the Broncos elected to kick...and Brandon McManus shanked it wide. D’oh.

Unfortunately for the Bears, Buster Skrine was (obviously on replay) offsides. Fangio went for the kill and succeeded when Joe Flacco found Emmanuel Sanders. 

At this point the Broncos led 14-13 with just over 30 seconds left and facing Mitchell Trubisky, who has thrown for exactly 90 yards to that point. A very questionable roughing the passer call on Bradley Chubb gave the Bears some life, and Trubisky’s best throw of the season put them in business. A skin-of-the-teeth timeout gave rookie kicker Eddy Piniero a shot at a game-winning 53-yard attempt. 

Bears kickers have been notoriously shaky in recent times. That includes an effort by Piniero in the preseason that missed wide left by at least 25 yards. So what happens? Boom. Piniero calmly nailed it. Game over, Bears win 16-14. 

That’s why we watch the games, folks!

$.03--The Miami Dolphins are doing everything they can to join the 2008 Detroit Lions and 2017 Cleveland Browns in the land of 0-16. The fact they’re deliberately trying to join them should be reason enough for the NFL to step in and stop the madness. 

What is happening in Miami is gross incompetence at an ownership and management level. Their path -- dumping all the good players and fielding a team of has-been vets and never-will-be youngsters -- is not professional, period. It’s one thing to be bad at your job and wind up there (hello Matt Millen!). It’s another to do it on purpose, and that’s what’s happening in Miami under owner Stephen Ross, GM Chris Grier and their obvious plan to tank in 2019...and perhaps beyond. 

It’s not fair to the other teams in the league when one team is purposely tanking, not in a sport where so few games are played. The Buffalo Bills will get a bonus win on their schedule because they’re fortunate enough to play the Dolphins twice. That extra win could secure them a Wild Card berth ahead of a team like the Chargers, Steelers or Titans, teams without the built-in advantage of having a tanker in their division. That’s patently unfair, and it should absolutely piss off the fans of the other teams. 

I suffered through the Ted Stepien era when he owned the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1980s. He was so bad and so strident in fielding a bad team that the NBA forcibly intervened and stopped the madness. He was forced to sell the team and the league gave the Cavs an extra first-round pick just out of pity for competitive balance. Stepien is the reason the NBA adopted the rule of not allowing a team to trade first-round picks in consecutive seasons. 

The ball is in Roger Goodell and the NFL’s court to do the same with Miami. Not just Dolphins fans, but fans of the entire NFL, deserve it. 

$.04--Week 2 kicked off with a disaster of a game in Charlotte between the Panthers and the Buccaneers. Bad weather forced the broadcast crew to have just two cameras available in the first half, a dreary start to a game delayed by lightning.

Befitting the dismal weather, the game itself was sloppy and largely unentertaining. That’s especially true for Carolina fans. Tampa Bay’s swift defense stymied the Panthers on 4th-and-short three times, including a game-sealing tackle on Christian McCaffrey just outside the goal line on a bizarrely conceived fake “Philly special” that didn’t fool CB Vernon Hargreaves at all. 

The lack of faith by the Panthers and coach Ron Rivera in Cam Newton deserves longer scrutiny. Carolina did not score a TD in the 20-14 loss, and Newton’s uneven play was a big reason why. The big QB with the exotically regrettable fashion sense completed less than half of his 51 passes and appeared to seriously labor to but velocity on the ball. The threat of Newton running is about as potent these days as wet bread. He’s not close to being the same dynamic force he was earlier in his career, and the Panthers are not built to win without that old Cam. 

After the game, Newton waxed philosophically about his body and his future. Fans can’t help but think of Andrew Luck’s shocking early retirement and if the 30-year-old Newton could follow the same path. He’s taking a licking and right now Newton is barely ticking. 

$.05--The Buffalo Bills are the best team in the state of New York. The Bills completed their sweep of the denizens of MetLife Stadium by doubling up the dilapidated Giants, 28-14. 

That follows their Week 1 triumph over the Jets in the same stadium. The scripts to Buffalo’s victory were quite similar, and it’s the kind of football they are built to succeed at by coach Sean McDermott. Buffalo is tough, tenacious, deeper than you (and I) might think and capable of being very difficult to play against. 

The plan of attack in beating the Giants was smart. Run the ball, take care of the ball, don’t let Saquon Barkley beat them and dare Eli Manning and a cadre of backup WRs to try and do just that. Check, check, mostly check and checkmate. 

Barkley gained 55 of his 135 total yards on the Giants’ first possession, an impressive TD drive to put the home team up 7-0. The next time the G-men achieved a first down, they were behind 21-7. 

Josh Allen, a player I’ve consistently pilloried for his inaccurate passing going back to well before he was considered a first-round prospect, made some nice throws. He had one unspeakable miss that I saw, but by and large, Allen is making the throws he’s asked to make in Brian Daboll’s offense. New slot WR Cole Beasley is a perfect fit, expertly complementing speedy John Brown. Allen is smart enough to identify the right read more often than not. It’s impressive progress that needs to be recognized.

Frank Gore, now in his 77th NFL (technically 15th) season, continues to thumb his nose at Father Time. He’s one of the best ever at getting four yards out of a two-yard gain, and he keeps doing it. Exciting rookie BR Devin Singletary scored his first TD in this one, too. 

We haven’t seen what’s left of the Jets play in Week 2 yet, but it sure seems like the Bills are the only AFC East team poised to make Bill Belichick and the Patriots sweat a little in 2019. 

$.06--Adam Vinatieri has had an amazing career spanning over 20 seasons as one of the most consistently reliable, clutch kickers in NFL history. That career appears to be coming to an abrupt end for the legendary Colts kicker. 

Vinatieri missed two extra points in Indianapolis’ 19-17 win over the Tennessee Titans. He missed one last week, plus two missed field goals, in the Week 1 overtime loss to the Chargers. Father time has finally caught up with Vinatieri, the NFL’s all-time leading scorer (2,604) and leader in made field goals (583). 

Vinatieri is 46. Take it from me as I write this two days before my 47th birthday: when it finally goes, it can go fast. To his credit, the all-time great appears to recognize it is gone. Vinatieri told Stephen Holder of The Athletic that he would see him on Monday. That’s normally an off day for players, and Holder reminded Vinatieri of that fact. The kicker responded he knew, but you’ll hear from me anyway. 

That sure sounds like an imminent retirement. Vinatieri will not be easy to replace, even in his lessened state of late. There is a kicking problem plaguing the NFL right now, and there aren’t nearly enough quality legs to fill the shoes needed by several teams. For the Colts, the psychological impact of losing another legend within a month of Andrew Luck walking away cannot be easy to process for the players or a management team that has constructed a team ready to challenge for AFC supremacy in 2019. It won’t be easy without Vinatieri.

$.07--Officiating continues to be a major problem. Several games were plagued by terrible judgment calls. Two in particular (aside from the ones mentioned already) stand out: a hit by Pittsburgh’s Bud Dupree on Seahawks QB Russell Wilson, and an offensive pass interference call on Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook.

This call against Cook (No. 33) effectively cost the Vikings a win. 

Note that the offensive pass interference was not called on the field. Nor should it have been. Cook is trying to get off the line against a jam here. That’s not OPI, that’s defensive holding. Wretched call against Minnesota. Just for good measure he got held later in the play, too. 

The hit from Dupree is an inexplicable miss by the officiating crew. We’ve seen love taps on Aaron Rodgers get multiple flags thrown, but somehow a late hit directly to Wilson’s helmet in plain view of everyone doesn’t draw a single one?!?

The No. 1 job of the officials is to ensure player safety within the structure of the rules. They failed miserably here. 

I often sympathize with the officials. The jobs they are asked to do over 125 times per Sunday are difficult, and every decision is bound to make half the fans observers upset. I can live with blown judgment calls. They happen. The officials are human. But when they screw up fundamental mechanics of the game, they deserve the scrutiny and the scorn. 

$.08--NFL quickies

--Congrats to Titans OL David Quessenberry for catching a TD pass in the loss to the Colts. Quessenberry’s career was derailed for some years by cancer. He fought, he overcame, and on Sunday he got to celebrate a big man TD. Awesome!

--Pete Carroll picked up his 100th victory as the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks on his 68th birthday. Congrats to Carroll, who still looks like he’s 47. It wasn’t easy to get to 100 in their 28-26 win over the Steelers in Pittsburgh. 

--Holding, No. 72. Sorry, having flashbacks to the Bears/Broncos game, where that exact phrase was announced 6 times. Four of those were on Denver LT Garrett Bolles, and he got away with at least that many more, too. 

--The Bengals played well in Week 1, nearly pulling off the upset in Seattle. It might have been a fluke. San Francisco pasted the Bengals 41-17 in Cincinnati’s home opener. They were guilty of a hold on the opening kickoff, Andy Dalton got sacked on the first play and fumbled on the second. That was all I needed to see. 

--New England has a plus-73 point differential in two games. They have not allowed a touchdown yet. I don’t care who they are playing, that’s impressive. 

$.09--College/Draft quickies

--Great job by Georgia to recognize Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson by wearing pink to honor his late wife, Wendy, who lost her battle with breast cancer. Fans wore pink and even painted out “remember Wendy” on their backs to show respect. Well done, Bulldogs. Oh yeah, they dominated the visiting Red Wolves--a decent Sun Belt team--by a score of 55-0. At least they showed respect for the foe. More of this, please...

--Rough day for the umpire in the Ohio State romp over Indiana. Early in the game, his left ear got sliced on a play. Blood covered his shoulder and he had to leave the contest temporarily. Taped up and back, he tackled Buckeyes RB J.K. Dobbins just before halftime on a play that could have resulted in more Ohio State points. Granted it was 30-10 already, but the official had a very tough afternoon in Bloomington.

--Even rougher day for Georgia Tech football coach Geoff Collins. His team lost to The Citadel, but only after his timeout negated this game-winning play:

--Congrats to Eastern Michigan and coach Chris Creighton. For the third year in a row, Creighton’s Eagles knocked off a Big Ten team. They beat Illinois, 34-31. Somehow the Illini continue to pay Lovie Smith to coach their embarrassment of a football program. Perhaps they should hire Creighton…

--I’ll have a draft observations piece later this week, but color me very impressed with South Carolina DT Javon Kinlaw. His performance against Alabama definitely caught my attention. 

--Nice to see the undefeated Virginia Cavaliers enter the rankings. They passed a test in beating Florida State to move to 3-0. I know, I know; Florida State ain’t Florida State anymore. But that was still a game Virginia loses most years. We’ll see if they can give Notre Dame a game in two weeks, a game in South Bend I will catch in person. 

$.10--Friday night is high school football night, and my family got treated to something special. Our high school team, Zeeland East, made big news here in West Michigan even though our beloved Chix lost to Grand Rapids Central Catholic, 35-17.

Our kicker is Paige Westra. She’s a sophomore and she’s a good one...

Westra nailed her first career field goal attempt, a 30-yarder that was nearly perfect and with plenty of leg. She also converted both of her extra point attempts, including one where Westra had to hold for a count because of an imperfect snap. 

When Westra made the field goal, the stadium went nuts. That includes the visiting side, who realized the significance of the situation. It’s still very much a novelty for a female kicker at any level, and to have one for a strong program--the Chix made the state semifinals last year with four current college football players--is quite an eye-opener for a lot of folks. 

My 11-year-old daughter certainly noticed. I suspect a lot of other young ladies in the crowd, and around West MI, took note too. I watched the Chix players on the sideline and how they treated Westra. It’s not correct to say she’s “one of the guys”, but she’s obviously respected and liked by the young men on the team. Westra fits in with the team. She was involved in the huddles and the celebrations. Teammates talked to her and it didn’t look awkward. 

I know some of the players. I know more many of their parents. Her ability is a source of pride but not novelty, not after the celebrated field goal. When she misses, and it will invariably happen, I strongly believe the reaction will be the same as if Westra was named Paul and not Paige.

My son is part of the (proudly undefeated!) 8th grade team and he and his teammates are all pretty nonchalant about the varsity having a female kicker. “She’s really good”, was Layne’s comment when we talked about it before the season. It didn’t strike him as being this momentous feat. I got that impression from his friends and their coaches, too. 

That is the ultimate way for a female kicker to eventually crack the sky after breaking through the barriers of BCS-level football and maybe even the NFL. She will need to prove herself in pressure situations and have it be about the performance and not the gender. I’m proud to be part of a community that is helping prove that.