NFL Preview - New England (7-3) at New Orleans (10-0)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The NFL's two best offenses figure to dazzle and delight fans at the Louisiana Superdome on Monday night, as the New Orleans Saints put their unbeaten record on the line against the New England Patriots in a possible Super Bowl preview.
The Saints, who moved to 10-0 for the first time in their history with a 38-7 rout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday, carry the NFL's No. 1 attack (420.5 yards per game) into Monday's contest.
An offense led by quarterback Drew Brees, who entered Week 12 as the league leader in touchdown passes with 22, is scoring at a league-best 36.9 point-per game clip and is also tops in the NFL in touchdowns scored (48) and rushing touchdowns (18).
The Saints are on pace to score 590 points before 2009 draws to a close, which would better the current mark of 589, set just two seasons ago by none other than the New England Patriots.
And though this group of Patriots hasn't lit up the scoreboard at the same rate that the '07 team did during its 16-0 regular season, New England will present an offense on Monday night that compares favorably to its NFC counterpart.
The Patriots rank second in NFL total offense (416.1 yards per game), fewer than five yards per game less than the Saints, and has averaged 37.2 points over its past five outings.
Signal-caller Tom Brady, who has rounded back into form after a serious injury ended his 2008 season in Week 1, has gone over 300 passing yards in each of his past five games, and has tossed 14 touchdowns passes to just four interceptions over that span.
In last week's 31-14 win over the New York Jets, which kept Bill Belichick's squad two games ahead of the posse in the AFC East, Brady was 28-of-41 for 310 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions, and more than half of the four- time Pro Bowler's completions went to one player.
As the Jets concentrated on trying to stop Randy Moss, Brady connected with Wes Welker for 15 completions covering 192 yards in the contest. Despite missing two games due to injury earlier this season, Welker assumed the league lead in receptions (79) with the career-best performance.
The main danger for Brady and the New England offense on Monday night is the quality of the defense it will be facing.
The Saints entered Week 12 ranked No. 1 in the NFL in opponents' completion percentage (53.2), takeaways (29), defensive touchdowns (7), interceptions (20) and interception returns for TDs (5).
New Orleans' defensive effort, guided by first-year coordinator Gregg Williams, has been led by opportunistic safety Darren Sharper. Sharper, who returned to the lineup last week after being sidelined for one game by a knee problem, leads the league in interception return yards (317) and interception returns for touchdowns (3).
The Saints further bolstered the secondary by re-signing cornerback Mike McKenzie earlier this week. McKenzie, who appeared in 63 games as a Saint from 2004 to 2008, was inked just a week after the team signed veteran ex-Baltimore Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister.
New England has a 8-3 lead in its all-time series against New Orleans, and was a 24-17 home winner when the teams last met, in 2005. The Patriots were 30-27 winners when they last played the Saints at the Superdome, in 1998, and are 4-0 in series road games all-time. The Saints have lost three straight to the Patriots since a 31-17 road win during the 1995 season.
New England is 5-2 all-time at the Superdome, including a win over the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, and with the losses coming in Super Bowls XXXI (vs. Green Bay) and XX (vs. Chicago).
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is 3-0 in his career against the Saints, including a win while at the helm of the Cleveland Browns in 1993. New Orleans' Sean Payton will be meeting both Belichick and the Patriots for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Brady (3049 passing yards, 20 TD, 6 INT) has been outstanding of late, finding both Moss (63 receptions, 8 TD) and Welker (79 receptions, 4 TD) with frequency and leading an offense that has become increasingly difficult to slow. Though Moss was held to just five catches for 34 yards against the Jets last week, he also scored his seventh touchdown in four weeks on a four-yard catch in the first quarter, and is now just 75 yards shy of his 10th career 1,000-yard season, and third straight with the Patriots. Welker has been a wonder as well, averaging more than 10 receptions and well over 100 yards per game over his last six outings. Running back Kevin Faulk (29 receptions, 1 TD, 192 rushing yards) and wideout Julian Edelman (26 receptions, 1 TD) have also been involved in the passing game in recent weeks. In the backfield, Laurence Maroney (455 rushing yards, 6 TD) has taken advantage of injuries to Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris over the past month-plus, scoring a touchdown in each of his last five games. Maroney posted season-highs with 22 carries and two touchdowns last week, amassing 77 yards on the ground against the Jets. Morris (knee) is questionable to return after missing the last five games. The New England offensive line has allowed a modest 14 sacks on the year, including two last week.
Williams, the Saints' defensive coordinator, has a major challenge on his hands both because of the strength of the Patriots attack and the battered state of his own defense. Cornerback Tracy Porter (knee) remains out, former Patriots CB Randall Gay (hamstring) is questionable after being hurt against the Buccaneers last week, and corner Jabari Greer (groin) has missed the last two weeks but is expected to play. The injury situation could put extra pressure on the undoubtedly rusty McKenzie and McAlister, with both expected to be active on Monday, as well as safeties Sharper (40 tackles, 7 INT) and Roman Harper (68 tackles, 1.5 sacks). The Saints pass rush, led by ends Will Smith (28 tackles, 8.5 sacks) and Charles Grant (28 tackles, 4.5 sacks), will seek to pressure Brady and make life easier for its secondary. The Saints' defensive Achilles' heel has been its run defense, which ranks just 20th in the league (115.7 yards per game) and allowed 119 yards on the ground to the Buccaneers last week. The good news on that front is that former first-round defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis (15 tackles, 1 sack), who has missed four games with a knee injury, could return Monday. Ellis could join a run-stopping group that has been led by linebackers Jonathan Vilma (68 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Scott Shanle (54 tackles, 2 INT), along with surprising DT Anthony Hargrove (29 tackles, 3 sacks).
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
After playing the weak defenses of the Rams and Buccaneers over the past two weeks, Brees (2746 passing yards, 22 TD, 9 INT) and the New Orleans offense will face a decided step-up in challenge on Monday. Brees, an NFL offensive player of the year candidate, has had to put the ball in the air fewer than 30 times in each of the team's past two wins, but has been a relatively crisp 37- of-55 for 410 yards, five touchdowns, and two INTs over that span. Wideouts Marques Colston (44 receptions, 6 TD) and Robert Meachem (16 receptions, 6 TD) were both heavily involved in the win over the Bucs, with Colston's five catches for 74 yards leading the team and Meachem making both of his grabs count for touchdowns. Also making an impact was tight end David Thomas (16 receptions, 1 TD), the ex-Patriot who will be facing his former team for the first time on Monday. Thomas, who has posted his best two receiving days of the year over the past two games and taken a lot of the attention away from Jeremy Shockey (39 receptions, 3 TD), caught four balls for 66 yards and a touchdown in Tampa. Wideout Devery Henderson (31 receptions, 1 TD) should also be part of the gameplan on Monday after logging just one catch against the Bucs. In the backfield, the Saints have used Reggie Bush (277 rushing yards, 29 receptions, 6 TD), Pierre Thomas (584 rushing yards, 17 receptions, 6 TD), and Mike Bell (514 rushing yards, 4 TD) almost interchangeably in recent weeks. With Bush nursing a knee injury last Sunday, Thomas and Bell combined for 24 carries, 167 yards and two touchdowns (both by Bell) in the victory. Brees has been sacked just 13 times all year.
It figures to be all hands on deck for the Patriots secondary on Monday night, which means cornerbacks Leigh Bodden (37 tackles, 5 INT), Jonathan Wilhite (24 tackles, 1 INT), and Darius Butler (20 tackles, 2 INT) should also see plenty of activity, as will safeties Brandon Meriweather (49 tackles, 3 INT) and Brandon McGowan (63 tackles). Bodden was among the stars of last week's win over the Jets, intercepting rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez three times. Meriweather also posted an INT in the contest, and outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain (33 tackles, 5 sacks) led the pass rush with two sacks and a forced fumble. After surrendering just 136 passing yards in the game, New England improved to sixth in NFL passing defense (187.3 yards per game). The team is 14th in the league against the run (109.4 yards per game), with nose tackle Vince Wilfork (30 tackles) and end Ty Warren (37 tackles, 1 sack) leading the charge up front, and inside linebackers Jerod Mayo (45 tackles, 1 sack) and Gary Guyton (56 tackles) cleaning up much of the mess behind them. Wilfork and Warren combined for 11 tackles against the Jets last week, while Mayo and Guyton posted six stops each.
It's probably safe to say that this contest will settle a great number of contests all over fantasy nation, and there's little reason to hold back in using any of the Patriots or Saints principles, with the exception of both defenses, which need to take a seat here if possible.
The Patriots' main group of Brady, Moss, and Welker, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski will all contribute, and unless there are clear indications that Sammy Morris will return this week and be a factor, Maroney is a solid play as well.
On the New Orleans side, Brees, Colston and Shockey should all get plenty of work, and though they're a bit riskier, Bush, Pierre Thomas and Meachem are worthwhile starts as well. Bell and tight end David Thomas come off big weeks in Tampa Bay, but neither is likely to replicate their total against a quality New England team.
Although they're well aware of the challenge that the New England Patriots present, it is highly possible that the Saints will experience something of an adjustment period on Monday night. After playing the hapless likes of the Rams and Buccaneers the past two weeks, the notion of suddenly defending Brady, Moss, and Welker could offer a little shock to the New Orleans system, and how quickly the Saints adjust will determine whether the team can move to 11-0. The guess here is that the game of catch-up will be too unusual, and too challenging for New Orleans to withstand, and that New England - which needs this game more - will keep its foot on the gas in a way that the team couldn't in Indianapolis a couple of weeks back.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 31, Saints 23
11/27 13:02:30 ET