Handicapping NFL teams that are slow out of the gate

Two weeks into the season is too soon to panic in the NFL. That is unless, perhaps, you are a fan or backer of the Saints, Patriots, Giants, Ravens, Lions, or any other elite contender that hasn’t looked nearly as elite as expected. Of those teams that stumbled out of the gate the two most interesting by far are New England and New Orleans.

New England Patriots

It’s bad news for a team that relies so heavily on tight ends to lose one as good as Aaron Hernandez for a while — especially when injuries have hit depth at the position hard. Far more panic-inducing in that, though, is that they just lost to the freaking Cardinals. At home. As 13.5-point favorites. Ouch.

The loss exposed some issues — most notably that concerns heading into the season about the offensive line were definitely warranted. The need to panic here, though, is relatively low. The team did nothing right against Arizona. Not a single thing. Despite that, they had a chance to win with a late field goal.

It’s unlikely that the team will be that bad again — Belichick and Brady won’t let them. Even very good teams have bad days — as the Packers proved decisively in the playoffs last year. If they are truly an elite team — and I think they are — then they will bounce back strong.

Of course, if I’m wrong, things could get ugly. Their first game against a team that isn’t a viable playoff contender this year comes when they meet Indianapolis on Nov. 18. Between now and then are seven games against teams that are better than Arizona.

New Orleans Saints

Twice they have been favored — once on the road. Neither time have they come even close to winning — never mind covering the spread. You could argue that both Washington and Carolina have wildly-talented and dynamic young quarterbacks that are a challenge to play against, but that isn’t a good enough excuse for a team that is supposed to be this good.

I should have listened to my gut. I had this lingering sense before the season that the endless drama and distraction of the bounty saga was too much for the team to overcome. I let myself be blinded by the aura of Drew Brees, though. There is no doubt now that the psyche of this team has taken a hit, and that it won’t be easy to shake off.

Next week’s game at home versus Kansas City will be an absolutely crucial gauge of where this team is at. The Saints that most expected — judging by the betting support they had as favorites in their first two — should be able to crush the directionless Chiefs. The team that we have seen in the opening two weeks, though, isn’t likely to make it so easy on itself.

If the Saints stumble in that one and fall to 0-3 then the fat lady will start warming up her vocal cords, and the panic will be warranted. A brutal six-game stretch featuring trips to Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Denver, and home games against Philadelphia, Atlanta and San Diego could be daunting for a team lacking confidence.

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