Emotional wins by Saints, 49ers lift heavy hearts


September 12, 2005|By KEN MURRAY

THE NEW ORLEANS Saints made the journey from grief to relief yesterday. Though their tragedy did not carry the same magnitude, the San Francisco 49ers made a similar trip.

Opening day was a salve for the Saints and 49ers, but a thorny problem for the Denver Broncos, New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings, among others.

Who wasn't warmed just a little by the Saints' 23-20 win over the Panthers in front of a classy Carolina crowd that included some 350 evacuees from New Orleans, relocated to Charlotte in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

The vagabond Saints have to play next week's "home" game at the Meadowlands against the New York Giants. They will likely play at least half their home schedule at San Antonio's Alamodome, and, if the NFL has its way, several games at LSU's Tiger Stadium.

They know they aren't getting any breaks this season - not even from the league. But when quarterback Aaron Brooks drove the Saints 49 yards to a game-winning 47-yard field goal by John Carney, New Orleans' team of destiny was king for a day.

Somewhere, maybe it helped.

San Francisco, meanwhile, struggled to a humiliating 2-14 record last season. Then reserve offensive lineman Thomas Herrion collapsed in the locker room after a preseason game and died from what later was diagnosed as heart disease, and the 49ers were dealing with their own grief.

Following the "any given Sunday" script, the 49ers took a 19-point lead against the visiting St. Louis Rams and held on for a 28-25 victory when cornerback Mike Adams stole quarterback Marc Bulger's 56th pass of the game from Isaac Bruce with 52 seconds left.

It made the head coaching debut of Mike Nolan, a former Ravens defensive coordinator, a success, and helped serve a greater purpose.

In the wake of the tragedies these two teams suffered, football can be a healthy diversion and in some instances even promote healing. At least that much may have come out of yesterday.

Thumbs up

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger: Big Ben had a dreadful preseason, but when it counted, he showed some of the flashes that made him the rookie sensation of 2004. He completed nine of 11 throws for 218 yards, two touchdowns and a perfect passer rating of 158.3.

Granted, 11 passes - against 41 rushes - is not exactly a full-fledged passing attack. But this is how coach Bill Cowher wants to protect Roethlisberger and let him grow into the job. Get used to it.

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson: A playmaker at Texas, Johnson slipped to No. 15 in April's draft. In Week 1, he bedeviled the New York Jets' offense with his speed and quickness, making nine tackles and forcing one fumble.

In the Chiefs' 27-7 dominating win, he was the most visible sign that Kansas City's search for a legitimate defense may be over.

Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban: His revitalization of the Dolphins took on instant credibility when they walloped the Broncos, 34-10. Saban's Dolphins aren't going to challenge the New England Patriots yet, but give them time. Bill Belichick will be hearing footsteps before too long.

Thumbs down

Jets quarterback Chad Pennington: Now the questions really begin. Is Pennington's surgically repaired shoulder healthy? Can he grasp Mike Heimerdinger's offense soon enough to matter?

Pennington played abysmally in the Jets' loss at Kansas City. He was charged with six fumbles, although one was a bad shotgun snap, and lost two. He had bad luck, too, when Laveranues Coles dropped a certain touchdown pass. But there was no zip in his throws and no inspiration in his offense. It bears watching.

Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper: A year ago, he had the second-best quarterback season in the NFL with 39 touchdown passes, even while feuding with Randy Moss.

Moss is gone, and Culpepper is none the better. He was intercepted three times and lost two fumbles in a 24-13 loss at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The desultory performance by a team many thought was the best in the tepid NFC North throws the division up for grabs. It easily looks like the worst division in the league.

Denver coach Mike Shanahan: Forget that he hasn't won a playoff game since John Elway was his quarterback. Shanahan's decision-making would get almost any other coach fired. For starters, he imported four defensive linemen in the offseason from the Cleveland Browns, a team that couldn't stop the run a year ago. He spent a third-round draft pick on troubled running back Maurice Clarett, then waived him at the first cut.

Then on opening day, Shanahan's team gave a totally flat, ineffective effort in Miami. Sooner or later, he has to be accountable for his actions, too.

Denver quarterback Jake Plummer: Another Shanahan decision that hasn't worked out. Plummer missed his first six passes in Miami and finished 22-for-48 with two interceptions.

More indicative of the Broncos' offensive problems, though, was this figure: They were just 1-for-12 on third down. That won't beat too many teams.

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