A win is a win in the National Football League no matter how it's done. The New Orleans Saints have won in less-than-stellar fashion over the first two weeks and could care less because they're 2-0 and alone at the top in the NFC South.
The Saints will try for the first 3-0 start since opening 13-0 and winning the Super Bowl in 2009 when they host the Arizona Cardinals Sunday at the Superdome.
After they battled back in Week 1 to defeat the defending NFC South-champion Atlanta Falcons, the Saints used a vintage Drew Brees drive in Sunday's 16-14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brees marched New Orleans into scoring position with big completions to Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston, setting up Garrett Hartley's 27-yard field goal as time expired.
Brees has produced 22 regular-season drives in the fourth quarter or overtime for a touchdown or field goal to lead New Orleans to victory from a deficit or tie. He completed 26-of-46 passes for 322 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a score and gave the Bucs a short-lived 14-13 lead. He has passed for more than 300 yards in seven straight games, a mark that sits two short of his NFL-record streak.
New Orleans seems back on track with head coach Sean Payton on the sidelines again and Brees was asked about the Saints' identity after two games.
"You look from last year to this year, each team had to kind of reestablish their identity and that ability to stick together and win football games like this. When you're down and things haven't been going your way, making critical mistakes, you got to prove it to yourself that you can go out there and continue to win football games like this. And there are a lot of games like this in the NFL. We proved a lot to ourselves today. We're 2-0 (with) both wins against a divisional opponent. This is where we imagined ourselves being and, obviously, the matter that we won these two games has been pretty exciting. These are the ones you have to win in order to get to the goals that you set for yourself."
The Saints set out to establish a lot of goals after going 7-9 last season without Payton, who was suspended the entire year for his alleged involvement in a bounty scandal. They are still waiting for that breakout performance, something tight end Jimmy Graham had against Tampa Bay. Graham has only four catches for 45 yards and a score in Week 1, then hauled in 10 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown on Sunday.
Graham reiterated how the Saints haven't played their best football yet.
"We really haven't, we're slowly figuring it out. We're slowly finding the identity of this team and we have a lot of work to do," Graham said. "We know we have a lot of work to do. We can get so much better and we're going to take this film and look at it and assess how we can get better."
One area the Saints can improve is running the football. They had 78 rushing yards versus the Falcons and 75 against the Bucs. The Saints are primarily known for airing it out, but it's nice to have a sound running game to even the field. New Orleans uses a three-headed attack on the ground with leading rusher Pierre Thomas, all-purpose back Sproles and Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. The Saints are 24th in rushing with just 76.5 ypg.
Arizona is slightly better at running the football than New Orleans and prefers to have quarterback Carson Palmer stepping back in the pocket and firing away. Palmer had a strong Arizona debut in a 27-24 loss at St. Louis with 327 yards, two TDs and an interception. He passed for 248 yards with a touchdown and a pick in Sunday's 25-21 win over Detroit.
The Cardinals could easily be 0-2 or undefeated after two weeks. They gutted it out against the Lions, scoring the last 12 points and playing without star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald for most of the fourth quarter because of a left hamstring issue. Fitzgerald tried playing through it and knew something was wrong after drawing a pass interference penalty on cornerback Bill Bentley. Fitzgerald ended with two catches for 33 yards.
"I didn't want to be a liability for my team," Fitzgerald said. "A couple of years back I would've tried to keep going, but Kerry (Taylor) and I have been working together for a year now and I knew he was prepared."
Taylor, who was promoted from the practice squad Saturday, caught three passes for 40 yards and was one of 10 players to catch a pass. Fitzgerald is expected to be ready for the New Orleans game.
Cardinals running back Rashard Mendenhall scored on a one-yard touchdown run with 1:59 on the clock and the play was set up on another pass interference call on Bentley in the end zone.
The win was also the first for Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians.
"It's not always going to be perfect," Arians said. "You've got to learn how to ride the emotions of the game, stay with it. I thought our coaches did a great job with some adjustments in the second half and some young kids really stepped up."
Arizona is in the midst of playing four of its first six games on the road and owns a 14-13 record against the Saints in the regular season. The Saints clobbered the Cardinals, 45-14, in a divisional playoff during 2009.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Don't count on the Saints changing their offensive game plan for Sunday. It will be a wise move to try not to establish a running game because the Cardinals are third in the NFL in stopping the rush, holding two teams so far to an average of 58.0 yards per game.
The Cardinals are allowing 286.0 passing yards per game and Brees averages slightly more than that. Expect Brees to get all of his moving parts in order with wide receiver Marques Colston, Graham and Sproles. Graham and Sproles lead the Saints in receptions with 14 and 12, respectively. Sproles is tough to pick up out of the backfield, so expect to see matchup problems for the Arizona defense.
Payton, though, feels his offense is still a work in progress.
"There's a lot that we have to look at and clean up. Fortunately, it's coming off a win," Payton said. "But again, we are quickly trying to, as best we can, make the corrections and look for that consistency. We will continue to do that. We have a lot to fix. We have a ton of football to play and we have a lot of things that we've got to clean up."
Cardinals leading tackler and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby is a tough player and could be in for a long afternoon. Covering Graham is no easy task for any player and the former basketball player has the size, strength and speed to post up on defenders. Cardinals talented cornerback Patrick Peterson can't do it all in coverage and safeties Yeremiah Bell and Rashad Johnson cannot get beat deep in a loud Superdome. If Cardinals rookie and Louisiana native Tyrann Mathieu thought playing in the SEC was tough, he'll be in for a real treat Sunday.
Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett has confidence in Mathieu.
"That boy is a baller," Dockett said. "You cannot tell him he's not the best at what he does. Any time he steps on the field, it's personal for him."
New Orleans has played well under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and is allowing 196.0 passing yards per game over the first two weeks. For Ryan's sake, the defense hopes Fitzgerald is still nursing that hamstring issue to make it easier in coverage. Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson is nicked up and is hoping to compete Sunday. He was carted off the field after taking a block on a running play.
If the Saints' secondary remains thin, they'll need to attack the line of scrimmage and get to Palmer. Palmer has been sacked five times in two games, one more than the entire New Orleans defense has accumulated. The Saints should know that the Cardinals will try to establish a running game because they are facing the 27th-ranked run defense (124.0 ypg).
Sunday's game is primed for a track meet with both clubs finding it easy to move the chains and score points. The Saints have the edge only because they're playing in front of the home crowd. If Fitzgerald is still bothered by a hamstring problem the Cardinals may suffer. However, they were able to rally past the Lions without Fitzgerald in crunch time. Meanwhile, Brees and Graham are already in mid-season form and will continue to connect Sunday in a close one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 27, Cardinals 21