Never have I seen a game with such little importance in the playoff picture be billed with such heavy hype.
It’s been billed by some as a potential Super Bowl preview, while others see it as a game with the makings for an offensive shootout. Others still think the defensive minds of Bill Belichick and Gregg Williams will dictate the outcome of the game.
Talk about a logjam of story lines, this one is chock-full of them. Ironically, the Saints will need to go through the only team to finish a season 16-0 if they want to accomplish the same feat.
So let’s break down every section of both teams to get a better idea of what may occur this Monday night, starting with the forgotten boys of this battle:
New England : 16.4 points per game (second ), 187.3 pass yards allowed per game (sixth ), 109.4 rush yards allowed per game (14th )
New Orleans : 20.4 points per game (13th ), 214.9 pass yards allowed per game (15th ), 115.7 rush yards allowed per game (20th )
New England’s defense allows the second-least points in the league, but New Orleans scores the most points in the league.
One would figure that the advantage would clearly lie with New Orleans in this one, and they might be right. The Patriots have only sacked the quarterback 18 times this season, and the Saints’ offensive line has been one of the best in football by only allowing 13 sacks on Drew Brees.
It will be up to New England ’s secondary to keep their receivers blanketed, but we all know how that battle usually works out, especially with a field general at quarterback. A cornerback can’t cover a receiver all day, and the Patriots haven’t generated a legitimate pass rush this season.
The Patriots’ secondary has proven to be no group of slouches, however, intercepting 13 passes this season. With the bevy of talent the Saints have backed up at receiver, I’d expect to see more of the same from Drew Brees—a spread attack that will test the depth of New England ’s secondary.
The Saints' defense, however, is a different story. They rank first in the league with 20 interceptions, and have generated 24 sacks on the quarterback. Though their overall performance hasn’t been as stellar as New England ’s (as noted above), they’ve had a penchant for big plays.
Big plays don’t always win big games, though.
New England ’s defense has been more fundamentally sound all season, and though they’ve still given their fans migraines on third down, they’ve certainly done better about stopping opponents from scoring.
Needless to say, both defenses will be tested in what should be a high-scoring affair.
Advantage: New England
New England : 29 points per game (third), 302.3 pass yards per game ( second), 113.8 rush yards per game (16th )
New Orleans : 36.9 points per game (first), 266.2 pass yards per game (sixth), 154.3 rush yards per game (fifth)
One might be surprised to know that New England has outgained New Orleans through the air by almost 400 yards. The Patriots have also thrown 84 more passes than the Saints.
As the old adage goes, there are as many paths to the top of the mountain as there are people climbing it. These two offenses have achieved very similar success in very different ways. While the Saints have enjoyed their success by spreading the ball around to their plethora of options at receiver and running back, the Patriots have heavily utilized their all-stars in putting up their breathtaking numbers.
Randy Moss and Wes Welker are both having monster seasons, even by their standards; Welker’s league-leading 79 receptions and Moss’ near-1,000 yards put both players on pace to record their best totals in those categories in each of their careers.
Marques Colston has made some sensational snags, and is putting up respectable numbers compared to his other seasons.
The surprise of New Orleans’ offense has been Devery Henderson, who has 521 receiving yards. The Saints have been highly successful spreading the ball around; they have four receivers with over 300 yards on the season, while New England only has three of those.
Moss and Welker account for over 57 percent of New England ’s total receiving yards. The closest any New Orleans tandem comes to that number in the Saints’ aerial attack is 44 percent, by Colston and Henderson.
With all the hype around New Orleans’ passing attack, one might also be surprised to learn that New Orleans’ rushing attack is ranked higher than their aerial assault, and has 40 more rushing yards per game than the Pats. The Saints have also run the ball 40 more times than the Patriots.
New Orleans has outgained New England by 305 yards on the ground , and averages 4.8 yards per rush; New England falls .3 shy of the league average, as they gain 4.0 yards per carry.
Both teams love to utilize receiving options out of the backfield; Reggie Bush has almost as many yards receiving as he has rushing, and Kevin Faulk (not surprisingly) has 60 more receiving yards than rushing yards.
The Saints feature the recently popular two-back system, with Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell both at over 500 yards rushing on the season.
The Patriots, due to injury, have relied less on their running game than in the past (which is saying a lot). Laurence Maroney is the teams leading rusher with 455 yards and six touchdown runs.
Due to more flexibility, and also the crowd noise in the Superdome , I have to give the advantage to the Saints. They’ve done more, albeit against less talent, than New England has, and have done it consistently through this season.
Advantage: New Orleans
Bill Belichick: 145-89, 15-4 in the playoffs
Sean Payton: 35-23, 1-1 in the playoffs
Although this isn’t a playoff game, I think it’s important to note the playoff records of these coaches. Bill Belichick has far more experience than Sean Payton when it comes to big games (though that didn’t seem to bother Colts’ first-year coach Jim Caldwell in Week 10). With this being a potential Super Bowl matchup, the pressure is on for both teams.
Payton is held in high regard as an offensive wizard. He uses smoke and mirrors, trickery, and a wide variety of tools to create an offense that works like magic.
Belichick, on the other hand, is revered as a (evil) genius. His defensive schemes have remained effective throughout his tenure as head coach, and his players often reflect his own mentality—wily individuals with a knack for making the smart play, reading and reacting.
If offensive mastermind Sean Payton can out-think Belichick’s defensive genius, it could be a long day for the Patriots’ defense.
Belichick is rarely outsmarted by an opposing coach, though. He is definitely more big-game-tested than his opponent. I’d say the pressure is on Payton to produce a game plan effective enough to defeat the Patriots.
Advantage: New England
Tom Brady: 66.4 completion percentage, 3,049 yards, 20 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, 100.4 quarterback rating
Drew Brees: 68.1 completion percentage, 2,746 yards, 22 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 105.8 quarterback rating
Matchups between two of football’s elite quarterbacks don’t happen very often, especially in non-conference games. This game has promise to be a shootout, as mentioned before.
I can’t really say it much better than Gil Brandt already did , but maybe I can shed more light on this epic discussion.
Although these two quarterbacks are incredibly comparable this season, statistically speaking, their styles are almost black-and-white different.
Brees has had his success carving up defenses by utilizing his multiple threats at receiver. His athleticism and ability to spread the ball around have been key to New Orleans’ change of fortunes this season.
Brady has done what any quarterback would: make use of his most lethal weapons. His presence in the pocket has made up for his lack of athleticism, as he has an innate ability to feel the pressure and to evade it.
The defenses of both teams will have their hands full, trying to confuse two quarterbacks who have seen virtually everything. Brady has good days and bad days against blitz-heavy defenses like the Saints. The Patriots, on the other hand , are masters of disguising their coverages and blitzers , showing blitz to make a quarterback think he has no time in the pocket, or faking a three-man rush and bringing the heat.
Since these two quarterbacks are so evenly matched, in the end , I give the advantage to the quarterback who doesn’t have to deal with crowd noise. Brady has played well in the Superdome in the past, though, so don’t be surprised if both quarterbacks have a great game.
Advantage: New Orleans
The Saints know they will be getting the best New England has to offer; the Patriots have a huge chip on their shoulder and a big point to prove after the crushing loss to the Colts, the “other” biggest game of the year.
Plus, they have a chance to deliver a crushing loss to the currently-undefeated Saints, and do to them what the Giants waited until the Super Bowl to do to New England in 2007.
Bill Belichick loves to turn off the opposing team’s biggest playmaker . With that being Drew Brees, who is having an MVP season, it will be no small feat to simply shut him down.
To shut him down isn’t necessarily to shut down the entire New Orleans’ offense, though; as stated above, the Saints have been even more successful running the ball than passing. Shutting down Drew Brees forces the Saints to become one-dimensional, though, and the Patriots have been highly successful against the run.
I think time of possession could play a huge factor in this game; either quarterback will have a field day in the second half if the opposing defense is tuckered out from too much time on the field.
In the end , I believe this game will come down to the final possession. Call me a homer if you want, but I’m going with New England in this game.
Brady and Belichick have a ton of experience in big games, and the fact that they haven’t gotten it done in those big games this season is just more indication to me that they’ll get it done this time around. They’re due to have that big game where their execution is near-perfect and where they hang on for the full 60 minutes of football.
I can make one safe assumption: whichever team wins, they'll start with "New."