Not many people predicted the New Orleans Saints, one of the league's powerhouse teams in recent years, would be 0-4 heading into Sunday night's game against the San Diego Chargers. Now the Saints must figure out a way to dig themselves out of the hole.
What makes New Orleans' struggles out of the gate surprising is that it didn't play a truly tough opponent in the first three games. Even after all of the offseason turmoil, those games were winnable, and the Saints let them slip away.
The Chargers reached Week 5 in much better shape. They're a team known for getting off to a slow start but have been able to avoid that this season with three wins in the first four games. Unlike the Saints, they took care of business against overmatched foes.
It should be a terrific Sunday Night Football game given New Orleans' level of desperation. Let's take a look at the key information for the matchup followed by a preview and prediction.
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La.
When: Sunday, Oct. 7 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Listen: KLSD 1360 AM (San Diego) or WWL 870 AM (New Orleans)
Live Stream: NFL Sunday Ticket
Betting Line: Saints -3.5 (Vegas Insider)
Injury Report (via CBS Sports)
Chargers: Nate Kaeding (doubtful, groin) and Shareece Wright (questionable, foot)
Saints: Jonathan Casillas (questionable, neck), David Hawthorne (questionable, hamstring) and Turk McBride (questionable, ankle)
What's At Stake?
The Chargers currently hold the AFC West lead by one game over the Denver Broncos, which is the team's opponent next week. Since Peyton Manning and Co. have to travel east to face the New England Patriots, San Diego would love to see that lead become two games before Week 6.
Denver has a pretty tough schedule for the season's first half before it starts to soften, meaning the Chargers have to build as big of a lead as possible in order to have an edge in the division race. A win over the Saints would be another big step.
For New Orleans, the stakes are pretty obvious. It doesn't want to start 0-5. With every additional loss, the road to the playoffs becomes a lot more treacherous. Beating the Chargers at home would at least give the Saints a chance to turn things around.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Marques Colston
A lingering foot injury slowed Colston for the season's first three games, but he didn't appear restricted en route to nine catches for 153 yards and a touchdown last week. It was the monster performance fantasy owners were waiting to see.
Colston is a terrific fantasy option because he's the No. 1 wideout in one of the league's most dynamic passing attacks. Even during the weeks where he struggled, he was able to score four points. That's still a score owners can survive with.
Drew Brees will continue to look his way early and often, leading to more big games like the one he had last week. The Chargers defense ranks in the middle of the pack against the pass, so Colston should have room to operate.
What They're Saying
Chargers running back Ryan Mathews has fumbled 11 times in 28 career games, a fact that has drawn the ire of the San Diego staff. Head coach Norv Turner said the issue isn't due to a lack of effort, according to Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union-Tribune:
"He understands the importance of taking care of the ball," Turner said. "He's not negligent. I don't think there's anyone that works any harder. He had a bad play in the Atlanta game, and I do believe that we're going to get past that."
Jon Machota of the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports suspended Saints head coach Sean Payton talked about the team during an appearance on Tuesday and still believes the season can get back on track before it's too late:
"I do think that they'll turn this thing around. I think they have the right people in that locker room and the right assistant coaches. Granted, it's a tough challenge, but I just know how that team is made up."
Chargers Key Player: Philip Rivers
Rivers was one of the best quarterbacks in football for a three-season stretch from 2008 to 2010. His QB rating was above 100 each year. He limited mistakes and was on the verge of joining the likes of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in that elite tier.
He's taken a step back over the past season-and-a-quarter, though. The interceptions are up and the touchdowns are down, a trend Rivers must reverse if the Chargers are going to hold on to their early lead in the AFC West.
He should have a field day against a Saints defense that is allowing 277 yards per game through the air and has given up seven touchdown passes in four games. It's time for Rivers to start carrying the offense again.
Saints Key Player: Pierre Thomas
The Saints are a pass-first team, and that's going to remain the case for as long as Brees remains under center. Yet, there's no reason he should be forced to throw nearly 50 times per game given the talent they have at running back.
Thomas leads the team in rushing with just 152 yards through the first month. He's averaging more than five yards per carry, however, which means the veteran should be getting more than a handful of carries per game.
In order for the New Orleans offense to succeed, there needs to be at least some semblance of balance. Thomas, along with Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles, can provide it if given more opportunities to carry the ball.
Saints 31, Chargers 27