CHARLOTTE, N.C. Thanks to his teammates' perseverance, Steve Smith got to be a part of "Winning Monday."
Coach John Fox cuts short the film session and lets players leave early the day after victories. When the Panthers suspended Smith for the first two games after sucker-punching teammate Ken Lucas in training camp, the prospect of anything less than a full day on the job following those games seemed remote.
But after Sunday's 20-17 win over Chicago, the Panthers are 2-0, full of confidence and eager to welcome their dynamic and sometimes troubled star receiver back to a team that senses it can do something special this season.
"Some of these things make you better, make you stronger," Fox said. "I think the type of guys we have in that locker room, I think an unfortunate incident is made into a positive. I think the fact that we were able to win two games without him makes us all better, him included."
Smith did not speak to reporters Monday, but his teammates seemed excited to add a three-time Pro Bowl pick to a unit that beat San Diego and Chicago with dramatic fourth-quarter comebacks.
"For us to go out there and do what we are doing these past two weeks, that just gives us more confidence," said rookie running back Jonathan Stewart, who scored the winning touchdown against the Bears. "And of course when Steve gets here, he's going to be fired up."
CHARGERS: Coach Norv Turner said outside linebacker Shawne Merriman was scheduled to have surgery Monday on two torn ligaments in his left knee. Merriman played in the opening loss to Carolina, then opted for surgery on the ligaments that were discovered to have been torn during a preseason exam.
Safety Clinton Hart had surgery on a broken bone his left hand, but said he should be able to play Monday night against the Jets.
Star running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who has no touchdowns in two games, said he'd "be very surprised if I have to deal with this toe injury for another three weeks. Heck, I don't think I'll have to deal with it another couple weeks. So."
VIKINGS: Receiver Sidney Rice has a sprained posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Rice was injured Sunday against Indianapolis when he went up for a jump ball on the sideline and landed awkwardly on the knee. He says he will receive treatment all week and is "hopeful" he can play this weekend against Carolina.
He woke up with plenty of discomfort Monday morning and said, "hopefully when the swelling goes down, some of the pain will, too."
The injury means both starting receivers for the Vikings are banged up. Bernard Berrian struggled with a toe injury in the preseason and limped through the locker room on Monday without talking to reporters.
Rice says he's "glad it's this. It could have been a lot worse."
SEAHAWKS: Logan Payne is going on injured reserve because of a torn knee ligament, and Seneca Wallace is out up to a month with a calf injury. They become the fifth and sixth Seahawks wide receivers injured this season. Payne is the third lost for the season, and second in the last week.
Payne started Sunday's overtime loss to San Francisco, but he was hit on his right knee as he planted his leg on his only catch in the first quarter. Coach Mike Holmgren said the 2007 practice squad player has an injury to his medial collateral ligament.
Wallace was a big part of Sunday's game plan as an emergency fill-in receiver. Then the backup quarterback pulled his calf muscle during pregame warmups.
Holmgren says the team will be looking to sign or possibly trade for more receivers before next Sunday's game against the also winless St. Louis Rams.
"We have to go looking for some people. That's the No. 1 order of the day," Holmgren said before heading into a personnel meeting with team executives.
He said adding former Seahawk Koren Robinson, currently unsigned, remains a possibility. Cornerback Kelly Jennings has a broken rib but will play against the Rams.
PATRIOTS: New England re-signed fullback Kyle Eckel and released tight end Stephen Spach.
The Patriots also re-signed defensive back Mark Dillard from the practice squad and released punter Tom Malone from that group.
Eckel had been released by the Patriots on Aug. 26 after playing 12 NFL games, all last season with New England. He rushed 33 times for 90 yards and two touchdowns.
Spach was released by the Patriots for the second time in two weeks. They first cut him on Sept. 1 then re-signed him on Sept. 4. He played in the first two games this season and did not catch a pass.
BROWNS: Just two games old, a season of lofty expectations has taken an unexpected turn downward.
One day after their first appearance on prime-time TV in five years ended with a 10-6 loss in hurricane-leftover winds to the dreaded Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns were insisting their 0-2 start is not insurmountable.
"It's no hole," defensive tackle Shaun Smith said. "The Giants started out 0-2 and won the Super Bowl. We're that caliber-type of team."
The Browns haven't looked it so far. In home losses to Dallas and Pittsburgh the Steelers' 10th straight win in the series Cleveland has been undisciplined, disorganized and inconsistent.
Pro Bowl wide receiver Braylon Edwards has become the poster child for the Browns' early season woes. In two games, Edwards has dropped at least five passes and last week he made news off the field when he was given a speeding ticket for driving 120 mph.
Adding to their troubles, the Browns have likely lost defensive end Robaire Smith for the season with an injured Achilles' tendon.
"He is not in the best of shape," Crennel said. "For a big man, an Achilles is a tough thing to deal with."
The Browns were already playing without two key defensive players. Outside linebacker Antwan Peek is out for the season with a knee injury, and safety Sean Jones will be sidelined for several more weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery last week. On top of that, cornerback Daven Holly was lost to a season-ending knee injury he suffered during practice in May.
SAINTS: Sean Payton and Drew Brees agreed that what ailed the Saints most in their first loss of the season was not New Orleans' battered, patchwork defense.
"We all thought we were going to seal the deal," Brees said, recalling the Saints' 24-15 fourth quarter lead at Washington. "We had two opportunities there, just third-down conversions that we should make and we didn't, therefore giving them the ball back and they turned around and scored after both of those."
Washington's offense piled up 455 yards, highlighted by a 67-yard reception by Santana Moss for the winning score with 3:29 to go. But the Saints' defense, relying on reserves because key players such as safety Roman Harper, cornerback Randall Gay and linebacker Scott Fujita were injured, still made key third-down stops to hold Washington without a touchdown in the first half.
RAMS: Rookie wide receiver Keenan Burton underwent an MRI exam on Monday for what the team believes is torn knee cartilage.
Burton, a fourth-round pick, had no catches as a reserve in Sunday's 41-13 loss to the Giants. Coach Scott Linehan said the injury may require arthroscopic surgery that could sideline Burton for a few weeks. He said Burton was hurt on a punt play during the opener, the knee began to swell during the practice week and it was drained of fluid Saturday.
The Rams are hoping to get more playing time for fellow rookie Donnie Avery, a second-round pick this year who has been hampered by a knee injury. Avery also played but had no catches against the Giants.
STEELERS: Monsoon rains, snowstorms, high winds, the muck and mire, even the remnants of two hurricanes the elements simply don't stop the Steelers, who always seem to play well enough to win in the worst of weather.
Confronted with wind gusts of more than 50 mph, rain that slanted sideways and a hostile Cleveland crowd, the Steelers accomplished Sunday night what they almost always do in foul-weather situations.
They fed the ball to their running back, asked Ben Roethlisberger to make enough plays to keep drives going, and relied on their defense to control the tempo in a 10-6 victory that began shaping the AFC North race only two games into the season.
The reigning division champion Steelers (2-0) already lead the Browns (0-2) and Bengals (0-2) by two games, and idle Baltimore by a half-game. The Browns are winless despite playing their first two games at home, and the Bengals so far have been ... well, the Bengals.
"They have to catch up to us," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "Everybody picked Cleveland as the team to beat.... We are the division champs from last year."
That the elements proved to be as much an opponent as the Browns probably shouldn't be a surprise the Steelers have played tons of bad-weather games on the shores of Lake Erie over the years. Even if none before was played as the remnants of a hurricane whipped the area.
"We weathered the storm," Ward said after making his third TD catch in two weeks.
Don't they always?
DOLPHINS: When the Dolphins' plane landed early Monday after another humbling trip, coach Tony Sparano didn't go home. He went directly to the team complex to watch videotape of the latest loss.
He reviewed the game film three times.
"I just wanted to be able to be exact to my players when they walk through the door today," Sparano said. "We need to fix the things that we didn't do well, and we will do that."
Sparano said one thing won't change: The starting quarterback is Chad Pennington, who went 10-for-20 for 112 yards Sunday.
Pennington's backup, rookie Chad Henne, directed Miami to its lone touchdown in the Dolphins' 31-10 drubbing at Arizona. Henne guided an 18-play, 89-yard drive in the fourth quarter that ended with Ronnie Brown's 1-yard scoring run on fourth down.
"There was an opportunity to learn a little bit about Henne in that kind of situation," Sparano admitted.
RAVENS: The Ravens need to take advantage of their unexpected mini-vacation this week, because the rest of their season just got a whole lot tougher.
After learning that Hurricane Ike forced Baltimore's game against the Houston Texans to be postponed until Nov. 9, coach John Harbaugh gave the players Sunday, Monday and Tuesday off.
"We're disappointed that we didn't get a chance to play," Harbaugh said, "but we understand the decision that the league made and we're looking forward to playing (Houston) down the road."
The unplanned break in the schedule means the Ravens now must play 15 straight weeks, including a wicked stretch that features five road games in a 29-day span.
Instead of lamenting his team's plight, Harbaugh welcomed the challenge.
"To be honest with you, we're looking forward to it," he insisted. Then with a straight face, Harbaugh added, "That will be something we will take on with relish and attack it with enthusiasm unknown to mankind."
BUCCANEERS: Jon Gruden isn't second-guessing his decision to bench Jeff Garcia and make Brian Griese the team's starting quarterback.
The Bucs beat the Atlanta Falcons 24-9 in Griese's first start for Tampa Bay in three years, and Gruden said Monday he'll stick with the veteran this week at Chicago.
"He warrants being a starting quarterback in this league, period," Gruden said. "With that said, we don't anticipate any changes at that position."
Griese completed 18 of 31 passes for 160 yards, one touchdown and one interception against the Falcons, helping Tampa Bay (1-1) rebound from a season-opening loss to New Orleans that cost Garcia his job.
Garcia led the Bucs to the NFC South title last season. But he struggled in the opener after sitting out most of training camp and the preseason with a strained right calf, failing to hit open receivers and throwing an interception that stopped a potential winning drive.
Griese looked rusty on some throws, too, however Gruden responded: "Nobody is perfect."
"I thought he did a nice job, really. We had the one turnover late in the game. He managed the offense. He made some great decisions in the running game. We won the football game," the coach said. "I thought he was solid. I thought he played pretty good."