Who holds the edge this week? Let's break it down and see where the value lies.
This is perhaps the biggest head-scratcher line on the board this week. The offseason line had the Saints -4. There was a slight over-reaction last week as the look-ahead number was -3. The Saints re-opened as field goal favorites, but I must be missing something here. Money has actually come in on New Orleans, moving it off the key number of 3 (odds from SBRforum).
Last season, the Saints had a one-dimensional team and simply outscored everyone on route to a big season and an easy playoff berth. After one month, that formula hasn't worked this year.
The strange thing is that the books have these teams rated evenly, with the obligatory three points added for a very good home field advantage. More perplexing is "smart money" moving this line in favor of New Orleans.
Maybe it's just me, but I don't see anything to justify the spread or the line move. Perhaps, people are excited about the Saints offense after what they saw last week. Maybe people aren't buying into the Chargers yet and this is nothing more than a fade of that. Either way, I don't agree on both fronts.
Balance or One-Dimensional?
Whether you like the Chargers or not, you must admit they are far more balanced than the Saints. If Drew Brees and company were firing on all cylinders and putting up video game numbers, I could understand staying away from this game. But that hasn't been the case this year. They are good offensively, but not great (yet).
San Diego isn't about to strike fear into anyone with their defense, but they aren't playing at the same disgraceful level of last season either. They've managed to improve on third down (a huge liability last year) and hold opponents to reasonable drive success. They still have a ways to go before we completely buy in, but it's encouraging to know that they've made some offenses look bad.
The question is: What can they do against an offense like New Orleans?
They had trouble lining up and stopping Matt Ryan and company, so I do think the Saints will get their points. The issue is whether the Saints can put up enough to compensate for their defense?
Lesser of Two-Evils
At this point in the season we have to start asking ourselves what do we trust? The jury is still out on the Chargers offense, but there's very little doubt that the Saints defense is bad.
New Orleans will have to decide what kind of approach they want to take. Coach Spags must be pulling his hair out because he can't get any pass rush from his front four (6 sacks on the season). Without this, the corners are getting exposed and left on an island far too many times.
What compounds the problem is their inability to slow anybody on the ground. When they faced teams like the Panthers and Chiefs, their front seven were getting blown off the line of scrimmage. Running backs were shooting open gaps without getting touched until they reached the defensive backs.
Against the Packers, they knew that they'd be focusing on the pass. Against the Chargers, they'll have to hedge their bets and stay disciplined against the pass and the run. I have no choice but to trust a healthy Chargers offense against a defense that can't get out of its own way.
Mismatch Alert: Chargers Offense vs Saints Defense
Jackie Battle might be listed ahead of Ryan Matthews on the depth chart, but Matthews is going to get his touches one way or another. He needs to be on the field if they hope to have any kind of legitimate balance on game day.
Even with a running game in flux, the option is there to keep New Orleans on their heels. Antonio Gates is slower than in previous seasons, but he can still take advantage of linebackers and safeties with his physicality and route-running. On the outside, things haven't clicked with Robert Meachem yet, but let's just go ahead and assume he's motivated for this game. Along with Malcolm Floyd and Eddie Royal, this receiving group can feast on schematic mismatches and broken coverages all day.
Protection wise, Phillip Rivers is going to have more than enough time to find his weapons; and I expect them to control the clock keeping Brees off the field as long as possible. Against a tougher defense, I might have reason for concern, but I don't see how they'll be stopped with any regularity this week.
Lastly, I know it might be hard to believe, but San Diego is doing a much better job on special teams this year. Many people think of this as an afterthought and only give it attention once things start going wrong, but through four games the Chargers have a +6.48 yard net advantage with their average starting field position. The Saints are -4.67 (Football Outsiders).
It's still very early in the season, but 11 extra yards of starting field position per series is something San Diego hasn't had in a very long time.
I have the Saints graded as two point favorites here and that's after a generous bump up for Drew Brees and their offense. Now I have the option of taking San Diego over a field goal. I'll go ahead and take that.
The Chargers have two options to win on Sundays: offense and/or defense. With the Saints, everything depends on Brees (without Sean Payton). Until I see a reason to take New Orleans seriously, I have no problem fading them.
NFL Pick: SD +4.