By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The New Orleans Saints performed just fine in their first outing without Sean Payton on the sidelines, but the embattled team may face a more difficult challenge when it heads to Gillette Stadium to take on the 2011 AFC champion New England Patriots in a preseason showdown between projected powerhouses.
Payton will serve the entire 2012 campaign on suspension as punishment for the Saints' highly publicized bounty scandal, and the innovative head coach wasn't present for his club's matchup with Arizona in Sunday's Hall of Fame Game. New Orleans didn't miss much of a beat with interim head coach Joe Vitt in charge, however, as the defending NFC South champs downed the Cardinals by a 17-10 score in the official lid-lifter of this year's NFL preseason schedule.
Quarterback Drew Brees looked to be in midseason form in his brief stint running the first-team offense. The 2011 NFL Offensive Player of the Year led the Saints to a touchdown on his only series, completing 4-of-5 passes for 41 yards on the drive.
Backup Chase Daniel got most of the reps for New Orleans in the victory and also acquitted himself well, throwing for 203 yards on 15-of-20 passing with one touchdown and one interception. The fourth-year pro hooked up with undrafted rookie running back Travaris Cadet, who recorded game-highs of eight catches and 80 receiving yards, for a four-yard score late in the first half that gave the Saints a 17-7 lead.
Veteran Courtney Roby, vying for a roster spot as a reserve wide receiver, finished with four catches for 54 yards on the night. The career special- teamer may have another good chance to state his case in this one, with competitors Adrian Arrington (knee) and rookie Nick Toon (foot) expected to sit out a second straight game.
A New Orleans defense now under the direction of ex-Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo also impressed in Canton, generating three sacks and two interceptions while holding the Cardinals to 301 total yards.
The unit may face a sterner test this week from Tom Brady and New England's explosive offense, provided the Patriots decide to have their top weapons take the field in their 2012 opener. Brady did not play in the Pats' first preseason game of last year, while star tight end Rob Gronkowski is a candidate to be held out as well as a precaution after undergoing ankle surgery shortly after the team's loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI.
Considering the current state of New England's offensive line, it would be no surprise if head coach Bill Belichick elects to sit Brady this time as well. Perennial All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins is still recovering from a torn ACL he sustained in the Super Bowl, while right guard Brian Waters has yet to report to camp and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back) is presently on the physically unable to perform list.
The group took another hit when free-agent addition Robert Gallery, the top backup at both guard spots, abruptly announced his retirement on Saturday.
While Brady's status is uncertain, young quarterback Ryan Mallett is sure to receive plenty of playing time on Thursday as the talented 2011 draft choice tries to unseat current No. 2 Brian Hoyer on the New England depth chart.
Whomever is under center will be slinging passes at a New Orleans defense that definitely won't have cornerback Jabari Greer (groin surgery) and possibly fellow starter Patrick Robinson, who missed the Hall of Fame Game with a shoulder problem. And the Saints will of course be without middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, also suspended for the entire season for his involvement in the bounty program, though there were unconfirmed reports this week that the NFL is considering reducing his penalty to eight games.
Brees will likely get in a little more work in this encounter with a Patriots defense that could have two highly-touted rookies in the starting lineup, end Chandler Jones and strongside linebacker Dont'a Hightower. New England orchestrated trades to move up in the first round and snare both promising players in this past draft.
New England has a 5-4 advantage in its overall preseason series with New Orleans, with the Patriots breaking the tie with a 27-24 triumph in Foxborough back in 2010.
08/08 13:57:01 ET
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