Patriots-Saints: The Battle of the Bayou Preview
ESPN Monday Night Football, 8:30 EST
Broadcasting team: Ron Jaworski, Mike Tirico, John Gruden, and Suzy Kolber (sideline reporter)
Week 12 of the 2009 NFL Season has been one of the best for the league that always seems to leave its fans wanting more, but without a doubt the Monday Night Football match-up between the undefeated New Orleans Saints (10-0, the best start in franchise history) and the New England Patriots (7-3) is the cherry on top.
The Super Dome will be rocking as the “New Kids on the Block” (Saints) will take on the “Old Heads” (Patriots) to see who will be “King of the Hill” on the NFL’s playground.
After many had thought they had seen the precursor to the NFL playoffs in “Super Bowl XLIII 1/2” where the undefeated Indianapolis Colts led by MVP-candidate Peyton Manning came back to post an amazing 35-34 win over the Patriots, no one thought there could be a better game.
Well, I am not sure if the game that people are calling, “The Battle of the Bayou” or Super Bowl XLIII 3/4 will live-up to the inordinate amount of hype generated, but you have to admit this is a fascinating match-up that will have the nation’s attention. Sure, a match-up of the undefeated Saints versus the undefeated Colts probably would have created more buzz, but this pairing is just as good, in my opinion.
Even though these two teams’ histories are vastly different—the Saints have never been to the Super Bowl while the Patriots have been to seven Super Bowls, producing three wins all this decade—there is a mutual amount of respect on both sides of the field as two of Bill Parcells’ former disciples will square-off.
Both teams have an embarrassment of offensive weapons and defensively they both can provide pressure that often leads to capitalizing on turnovers and taking them to the house.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who throws compliments to upcoming opponents like manhole covers, recently said of the Saints, “I don’t think there’s any better team in football than the New Orleans Saints. They have no weaknesses that I can see.”
Of the upcoming Monday Night Football showdown, Saints QB Drew Brees (218-320, 2746 yards, 22 TDs and 9 INTs) said, “It’s going to take our best game to beat the Patriots. We know the type of team they are. We know the type of team they’ve been for the last decade. They’re a dynasty. Obviously, that’s one of the organizations we try to emulate. We’re trying to be a contender year-in and year-out and we’ve got to take advantage of these opportunities.”
New Orleans head coach Sean Payton was just as complimentary when talking about the Patriots saying, “We know it’s a good team that we’re playing this week. New England has been a successful franchise and is one of those organizations that has found the right formula. When you play a team like this, you observe from afar the things that they are able to do and how that relates to winning games.”
Any talk of this Monday night thriller has to start and end with the two quarterbacks leading their teams and as an old beer commercial used to say, “It doesn’t get any better than this."
In the year of the quarterback around the NFL, probably the only passers playing better at this point in the season are Manning and Vikings' QB Brett Favre, but that is saying something as both those veterans are shooting for their fourth NFL MVP award.
Payton, in talking about Brady and Brees, said, “Both of these quarterbacks are accurate."
The currently undefeated head coach added, “They’re good decision-makers and can decide quickly where they want to go with the ball based on the looks they’re getting. Those are certainly traits you see with both of them.”
Brees is second in the NFL with a 105.8 passer rating while Patriots QB Tom Brady is not far behind with a rating of 100.4, which is good enough for fifth in the NFL. In the touchdowns department, Brees also has a slight lead as he leads the league with 22 touchdown passes with Brady again not being far behind 20 (ranks fourth in the NFL in this category).
Like any great heavyweight fight, now that the pleasantries have been dispensed by both sides, let’s break this game down.
First off, fans should expect a ton of scoring as this is a match-up of the NFL’s No. 1 and 2 offenses—the Saints average a league leading 420.5 yards per game and the Patriots are next with an average of 416.1 ypg, which is first in the AFC—playing on the Super Dome’s fast track.
The Saints have redefined the term “high-octane” this season with an incredible 369 points scored through 10 games including producing over 40 points four times.
Many are comparing New Orleans to 500+ point plus scoring squads such as the 1999 St. Louis Rams (529 points scored and Super Bowl champs), 1998 Minnesota Vikings (556 points scored and a record of 15-1), and lastly the 2007 New Patriots (NFL record 589 points score and 16-0 AFC Champs) who will have several members from that offense still playing for them on Monday.
For the Saints offensively, Brees spreads the ball around to former Pro Bowl receiver Marques Colston (44 receptions for 687 yards, 15.6 ypc, and 6 TDs), scatback Reggie Bush, breakout player of the year candidate WR Robert Meachem, RB Pierre Thomas, speedster WR Devrey Henderson and many others (hard to believe former NY Giants’ Pro Bowl TE Jeremy Shockey is an afterthought on the Saints roster).
So at times it seems there is no stopping New Orleans. They have outscored opponents 369-204 so far this season and an amazing 18 players have scored touchdowns this season.
Every week seems to be a track meet for the Saints whether home or away even though at times they have sputtered out of the gate a couple of times—average winning margin of 16.5 points. The closest any team has come to beating them were the St. Louis Rams, who lost 28-23, but it wasn’t even as close as the score would indicate.
The Saints offense hasn’t been the team’s only story for 2009 as new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has returned some teeth to a defense that allowed 393 points (24.6/g) in 2008. Williams' aggressive unit has generated seven touchdowns and produced a league-high 29 takeaways including 20 INTs.
The Saints defense starts upfront with pass rushers DE Will Smith (8.5 sacks) and DE Charles Grant providing pressure on quarterbacks that has helped MLB Jonathan Vilma, safety Darren Sharper (seven interceptions, returning three for touchdowns), CB Tracy Porter, and others make the most of their turnover opportunities—Saints are third in the NFL with a +10 turnover ratio.
However, even though the Saints have been stellar at getting turnovers, some teams have been able to move the ball on them at times this season—allowed 204 points (20.4/g), which ranks them 15th in the NFL.
Also, injuries could be a factor for the Saints’ defense as Porter is listed as “doubtful” with CB Randall Gay (hamstring), CB Jabari Greer (groin), DE Bobby McCray (knee/back), and Vilma (knee) listed as “questionable” for the game.
Not to be outdone, the Patriots’ offense is also one of the NFL’s best at passing the football this season. The Pats’ offense is also dangerous and the scary part is that QB Tom Brady (261-393, 3049 yards, 20 TDs, and six INTs) seems to have finally put his devastating 2008 knee injury behind—remember his NFL record six TD performance in the a 59-0 blowout of Tennessee Titans in week six?
Brady will also spread the ball around, but watch for his big play threat WR Randy Moss (63 receptions for 925 yards, 14.7 YPC, and eight TDs with a long of 71 yards), his multi-purpose chain mover RB Kevin Faulk (39 rushes for 192 yards and 29 catches for 252 yards w/ one TD) and his security blanket WR Wes Welker (79 catches for 854 yards, 10.8 ypc, and four TDs plus coming off a career-high 15-catch performance last week) to be much involved in the Patriots game plan.
Last week against the Jets, Welker and Moss combined for 20 catches in a 31-14 win which gave the pair 142 combined receptions through 10 games to surpass an NFL record that was set earlier in the day by Colts Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark.
If the Patriots are smart, they will try to establish their running game (Faulk, Laurence Maroney, and Sammy Morris) against the Saints fast defensive line to wear them down.
The Saints are getting DT Sedrick Ellis back from a knee sprain, but controlling the clock will be key for the Patriots to take the air out of the ball to keep Brees’ offensive weaponry on the sidelines. The Patriots’ offensive line also will need to step up too in this game as, at times this season, the unit has struggled with speed rushers.
On defense, the Patriots—ranked third in the AFC with 296.7 points allowed per game—are no slouches in the turnover department either as they lead the AFC with a +12 ratio.
But they will surely need to have big games from improving FS Brandon McGowan (good cover guy TEs), cover corner Leigh Bodden (five INTs including three last week against the Jets), and pass rusher Tully Banta-Cain (five sacks) to keep Brees foot off the gas.
There is no doubt the Patriots still have some playmakers on the defensive side, but you have to wonder if the defections of DL Richard Seymour (traded to the Raiders), SS Rodney Harrison (retirement to NBC), LB Tedy Bruschi (retirement to ESPN) and others have caused their unit to be questioned.
We all know head coach Belichick had questions of the unit in their much-publicized week nine’s loss in Indy. Protecting a slim six-point lead, the three-time Super Bowl winning head coach chose to go for it on fourth down deep in his own territory rather than punt and let his defense have a chance at stopping Peyton Manning and Colts offense.
As the whole world knows, the Patriots did not convert the infamous play and now many people around NFL circles are wondering if their defense is championship caliber.
LV’s Pick: These two teams have met 11 times with the Patriots holding a dominating 8-3 edge including winning their last three meetings. The last time was in November of 2005 as the Patriots won 24-17 in Foxborough.
As many are predicting, I believe this game will be a high scoring affair. But in the end, I believe the team that can establish the run and limit turnovers will be the winner.
Lately, the Saints have been a little careless with the football and the Patriots have a strong veteran group that knows how to capitalize on mistakes and win close games. Plus the Pats are 5-0 all-time at Superdome including a Super Bowl win.
Also with the Colts staying undefeated this week, the chances are pretty strong that the Saints will lose—there have never been two 11-0 teams in NFL history.
New England wins late as Brady hits Moss for a game-winning touchdown, 31-28.
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)