(Reuters) - With regular referees back in place after a months-long lockout, the focus in the National Football League (NFL) returns to the players with the pressure growing after shaky starts for a number of top teams.
The Green Bay Packers were on the wrong end of a contentious ruling by replacement referees that cost them a win in Monday’s primetime game at the Seattle Seahawks and could prove crucial in the final calculations for playoff positions.
But the Packers (1-2) will need to move on from the bitter loss as they cannot afford another setback when they host Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, surprisingly 0-3, at Lambeau Field on Sunday.
Somewhat overlooked in the furor over the performance of the replacement referees was that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked eight times in the first half of Monday’s game with his offensive line struggling to protect him.
The Packers have been trying to focus on regrouping and analyzing their own mistakes from Seattle rather than stewing on the refereeing debacle.
“As a man, I think it’s more important that you stand up in a situation like this and point your finger at yourself first, and let the opinions fall where they may,” Rodgers said.
Nonetheless there have been strong opinions expressed by some angry players in Green Bay this week and head coach Mike McCarthy is not afraid to make use of the sense of injustice.
“I love emotion. Emotion is the engine that makes this thing go. I‘m for any kind of emotion, as long as it’s channeled properly, you can talk about chips on your shoulder, whatever it is,” said McCarthy. “The only emotion that I don’t care about is self-pity. We’re not the victim.”
The Saints bear some grudges against officialdom too and were expected to be weakened this season given the absence of suspended head coach Sean Payton, but no one expected them to be winless heading into Week Four.
The bounty scandal has certainly had a disruptive effect on the Saints, who three seasons ago won the Super Bowl and were hoping for a place in this year’s championship game as it will be played at their home stadium.
While their defense has struggled again, the Saints offense has yet to truly fire on all cylinders, as quarterback Brees acknowledged.
“It is not just one thing here and there, it’s everybody’s ability just to do things a little bit better ... it just hasn’t been as crisp as it normally is and we’re getting on top of that,” he said.
Brees has had a touchdown pass in 46 consecutive games and on Sunday he can equal the record of Pro Football Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas, who made 47 with the Baltimore Colts between 1956 and 1960.
While the Saints and Packers look to get their campaigns back on track, the NFL’s three remaining unbeaten teams - the Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans - look to keep their perfect 3-0 records intact.
The Cardinals, who have won 10 of their last 12 games dating back to last season, will be confident of extending their fast start at home to the Miami Dolphins, who could be without key running back Reggie Bush.
Atlanta have looked extremely solid in all phases of the game but the Falcons will be up against mobile Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton who is looking to rebound from a couple of below-par displays.
The Texans host the Tennessee Titans in a game which features two of the NFL’s top running backs with Houston’s in-form Arian Foster and the Titans’ struggling Chris Johnson.
The San Francisco 49ers look to rebound from their surprise loss to the Minnesota Vikings with a win at the New York Jets who have lost key cornerback Darrelle Revis for the season.
Sunday’s primetime game features an NFC East divisional clash between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles - both teams are 2-1 and New York’s pass rush will look to pressure Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.
The weekend closes with Monday’s game between two of the NFL’s most storied franchises when the Dallas Cowboys host the Chicago Bears.
Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frank Pingue