Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
If the football season is a process of discovery and evolution, then it's safe to say the Saints are further along than the Patriots right now.
Saints head coach Sean Payton has his team playing smart and patient football. His guys are protecting the ball. They can annihilate teams with points or they can win slow, methodical boxing matches. They have a 5-0 record. Their offense is ranked third with 2,025 yards. Drew Brees has 1,722 yards and he's in command of a blistering offense with an arsenal of weapons. And also, their defense is lean, mean, nasty and awesome.
To combat this attack, the Patriots have three important charms in their back pocket. First, they've got cornerback Aqib Talib lurking in the defensive backfield and he's a beast. Second, they have home-field advantage. Lastly, they rarely lose twice in a row (though it has happened in the last two seasons).
Still though, even with those three tips of the hat, it doesn't feel right to give New England the edge heading into this game. For me, it's a question of chemistry. I don't see it from the Patriots right now. At times, they look like strangers out there. To beat a team like the Saints, it'll take a band of brothers.
That brotherly element just isn't there yet.
The Patriots have spent the first five games of the season winning ugly, losing ugly, scotch-taping their holes and compensating for injured players. They've been trying to discover themselves without having any real understanding of who's going to be healthy and when they're going to be ready to go. Dropped balls have been a problem. The running game has been inconsistent. Frustration has mounted.
I see the Patriots losing a tight contest here, but I see them walking away from this with their heads held high. I see progress finally shining through. I see Brady getting his mojo back. I see his receivers catching some fire and building some consistency. I see heroes beginning to rise.
Heck, Rob Gronkowski might even play. That would amazing and uplifting. If he plays, this game will be a learning experience. For the fans, it'll be a chance to see what this team will eventually look like. For the players, it'll be a their first chance to feel what it's like to be complete, to be whole.
A loss would sting now, but it's this type of learning experience which pays off in the playoffs.