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NFL Preview - New Orleans (11-0) at Washington (3-8)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - While the NFL world was waiting until the other shoe dropped for the New Orleans Saints, Drew Brees made a statement by shredding the New England Patriots in front of a primetime audience on Monday.
Brees had a 158.3 passer rating in the 38-17 victory, the highest possible mark attainable, by completing 18-of-23 passes for 371 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions against one of the most prestigious teams of this decade. His effort continued the 11-0 Saints' pursuit of perfection, and the team hopes that trend will continue against the Washington Redskins this Sunday from FedEx Field.
Brees was saying all the right things after dismantling the Patriots at the New Orleans Superdome, and mentioned that the latest win doesn't entitle the Saints anything. The league's highest-rated passer and touchdown pass leader knows this week's contest is just as important as the rest of them, and that the Saints can lock up the NFC South and a playoff berth with a win. New Orleans is also in the running for the conference's top overall seed along with Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings, who are off to a sizzling 10-1 start. Favre and Brees have arguably been the best quarterbacks in the NFC.
New Orleans offensive-minded head coach Sean Payton gave praise to defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and his staff for shutting down New England's explosive offense with a banged-up squad. Starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter did not play on Monday, but reserves Mike McKenzie, Malcolm Jenkins and Chris McAlister stepped in and got the job done. New Orleans intercepted all-world quarterback Tom Brady twice and held the Pats to 366 total yards. Brady had passed for 300 yards or more in each of his five most recent games before Monday.
The Saints registered the fourth 11-win season in franchise history and haven't reached that plateau since going 12-4 in 1992. They can extend their winning streak to 12 games by protecting the football and playing another 60 minutes of cohesive football.
Washington will not roll over this weekend, and hopes to give New Orleans its best shot despite not having a legitimate chance on making the playoffs. There's no doubt the Redskins, who are last in the NFC East at 3-8, have played well in their previous two losses to division-rivals Dallas and Philadelphia, but this week's matchup has few signs of promise.
Redskins head coach Jim Zorn wants to get that sour taste out of his mouth that came from a one-point loss in Dallas and remained after a three-point defeat at Philadelphia this past Sunday. Both losses had the Redskins ahead in the fourth quarter.
The Redskins seemed primed for their fourth win of the season until an 11- point swing in the fourth quarter by the Eagles proved otherwise. Defensive coordinator Greg Blache probably popped a few antacids after his unit blew a seemingly-comfortable lead by allowing the Eagles to even the score with a late touchdown and a two-point conversion.
The defense, however, has been the lone bright spot for Washington this season, especially against the pass. The unit will be hard-pressed to repeat its success versus the Saints' most-feared passing offense, but stranger things have happened at this level.
Washington won't finish above .500 and can secure its second consecutive 8-8 finish by winning out. That will be tough to occur, with the Saints, New York Giants, Dallas and San Diego on the remaining five-game schedule. The Redskins at least have a good shot against Oakland on December 13.
The Redskins hold a 15-7 edge in their all-time series with the Saints, and have won each of the past two meetings with New Orleans. Washington was a 29-24 home winner when the clubs faced off in Week 2 of last season, and took a 16-10 road decision in 2006. New Orleans won the previous two matchups, in 2003 and 2002, both at FedEx Field.
Payton is 0-2 against the Redskins, while Zorn is 1-0 against both Payton and the Saints as a head coach.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
The Saints had 480 yards of offense on Monday, while nine of their 11 wins this season have been by double digits. Brees (3,117 passing yards, 27 TD, 9 INT) became only the second player -- along with Brady -- in league history to throw for at least 350 yards, complete 75 percent of his passes, pass for five or more touchdowns and not have an interception. Brees, who had six touchdown passes in a Week 1 win over Detroit, owns eight touchdown strikes to no picks in his last two games. Not only is Brees first in the league in passer rating (112.6) and touchdown passes (27), he is fourth in completion percentage (68.8), fifth in passing yards (3,117) and sixth in yards per game (283.4) through the air. The Saints are 19-1 in games when Brees has a passer rating of 111 or higher. He threw his scoring passes on Monday to five different receivers, as Pierre Thomas, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Darnell Dinkins and Marques Colston each found the end zone. Colston (48 receptions, 808 yards, 7 TD) and Meachem (21 receptions, 7 TD) are tied for the team lead in touchdown catches, while Colston leads the high-powered offense in receptions. Henderson (34 receptions, 2 TD) had three receptions for a season-high 116 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown catch, on Monday. Meachem has a touchdown catch in four straight games and has hauled in five over that span.
Even though the Redskins have the top pass defense in the league, surrendering an average of 170.4 passing yards a game, they'll be in for a big surprise if the preparation is not there. New Orleans is bound to have a mediocre outing sometime this season, and Washington hopes that this will be the week. The Eagles threw for only 258 yards last Sunday, but were able to tie the game with running plays when Donovan McNabb had trouble finding an open receiver. Starting cornerback DeAngelo Hall (43 tackles, 4 INT) missed the Eagles game because of a knee problem and is listed as doubtful for Sunday. Justin Tryon (21 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) filled in and managed to record three tackles and an interception, the first of his young career. Tryon, Carlos Rogers (24 tackles) and Fred Smoot (15 tackles) better study plenty of film this week, otherwise all three will get embarrassed by the Saints' high-voltage offense. Safeties Reed Doughty (68 tackles, 1 sack) and LaRon Landry (55 tackles) hope their reputations as big hitters make the New Orleans wideouts think twice about coming across the middle.
While the Saints are first in total yards and points and fourth in passing this season, their ground game has improved. They are fifth in the NFL with an average of 150.5 rushing yards per game, thanks to a cohesive offensive line which allowed just one sack on Monday and three total over the past four weeks. With multi-purpose back Reggie Bush (277 rushing yards, 5 TD) nursing a knee injury and listed as questionable for Sunday, Thomas (648 rushing yards, 7 total TD) will once again carry the load. Thomas is tied for the team lead in touchdowns with five rushing and two receiving, but hasn't ran for one in each of the past three weeks. New Orleans had 113 yards on the ground against the Patriots, and Thomas has carried the ball 11 times or more in each of the last five weeks. Mike Bell (564 rushing yards, 4 TD) is second on the team in rushing yards, but first with 128 carries. He chipped in 13 touches for 50 yards on Monday. Washington is tough against the pass, but its run defense will have trouble stopping whomever comes out of the backfield for New Orleans. The Redskins could possibly have three backs to watch for this weekend.
Redskins linebacker and leading tackler London Fletcher (102 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) recorded a game-high 12 stops in Philadelphia and had one of two Washington sacks. Fletcher is run-stopping machine and plays tough inside, but the Saints will make him work in coverage with hopes of tiring out the tackling star. Defensive end and sack master Andre Carter (46 tackles, 9 sacks) had the other sack of McNabb Sunday. The Redskins need Carter to apply the pressure on Brees before he locks in on scorching the defensive backfield, something he has done too many times to opponents this season. Carter owns eight sacks in the last seven games. Linebacker Brian Orakpo (37 tackles, 7 sacks) is second on the team and leads all NFL rookies in sacks, while veteran tackle Albert Haynesworth (27 tackles, 3 sacks) is third on the team in that category. The newcomer and run-stuffing specialist has missed the last two weeks because of an ankle injury and is questionable for Sunday. Tackle Cornelius Griffin (25 tackles, 2 sacks) and end Phillip Daniels (11 tackles) get a chance to face the Saints' tough offensive line. If Haynesworth is again out, Griffin is Washington's only hope this week in containing the run.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
Quarterback Jason Campbell (2,357 passing yards, 12 TD, 11 INT) had a strong start to Sunday's game in Philadelphia, producing a rushing touchdown and a scoring strike to Santana Moss, but the Washington offense sputtered in the final quarter of play. Campbell ended with a pair of touchdown passes and two interceptions, giving him 11 picks on the season and three in his last two games. Campbell has recorded a rating of 100 or higher just twice this season, but brings a 2-0 career mark against New Orleans into this matchup. The Redskins are 20th in passing offense this season, averaging 206.8 yards through the air, and will have to get the attack going right off the bat. The Saints already know Washington has a banged-up backfield coming into the game, so Moss (44 receptions, 3 TD) will probably be Campbell's main target once again, even with defenders keying in on that connection. With tight end Chris Cooley already done for the year, slot receiver Antwaan Randle El (36 receptions) has yet to fill the role of secondary option behind deep threat Moss. Instead, second-year wideout Devin Thomas (16 receptions, 1 TD) has made contributions in each of his last four games. He is also a strong return man for Zorn, while Malcolm Kelly (12 receptions) and tight end Fred Davis (27 receptions, 2 TD) are other options in the offense.
As stated earlier, the Saints played Monday's game without starting cornerbacks Porter (44 tackles, 3 INT) and Greer (37 tackles, 2 INT), but were able to get by despite competing against Brady and his excellent receivers. The Saints got two interceptions from newcomer McKenzie (3 tackles, 1 INT) and stud safety Darren Sharper (46 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 8 INT). Sharper has 57 interceptions and nine returns for touchdowns since 2000, the most in the NFL. Sharper's eight picks this season have accounted for 355 yards in returns, ranking him second on the NFL single-season list behind the 358 yards by Baltimore Ravens All-Pro safety Ed Reed in 2004. New Orleans is 18th against the pass this season, allowing 217.5 yards per game, and got a solid game last week from Malcolm Jenkins (25 tackles, 1 INT), who posted eight tackles and a pass defensed versus New England. With Porter and Greer questionable and fellow corner Randall Gay (21 tackles, 1 INT) doubtful for Sunday's game, Jenkins will have to step up against Moss, Devin Thomas and Kelly. Strong safety Roman Harper (79 tackles, 1.5 sacks) leads the defense in tackles.
The Washington offensive line has been able to protect Campbell lately, as evidenced by only one sack the group has allowed in each of the past two games. But the Redskins' rushing offense has fallen to 25th in the NFL, posting 127.9 yards per game on the ground this season. Starting running back Clinton Portis (494 rushing yards, 1 TD) has missed the last three games because of a concussion and is expected to miss Sunday's as well. Portis is slated to visit with a concussion specialist in Pittsburgh next Monday, and has not played or practiced with the team since he suffered his injury in a loss to Atlanta on November 8. According to the former Miami Hurricanes star, blurry vision was the only symptom he's still experiencing. Backup Ladell Betts (210 rushing yards, 2 TD) is done for the season with a knee injury, leaving backfield duties to Rock Cartwright (173 rushing yards). He had 38 yards on 15 carries against a tough Philadelphia squad, but hasn't reached the end zone this season.
New Orleans allowed 122 yards on the ground Monday night and is 20th against the rush this season, allowing 116.3 yards per contest. Patriots running back Laurence Maroney ran for 64 yards and two scores because the Saints played so well in pass defense. The team proved it by inserting worthy reserves to slow down Brady. who was sacked twice. Campbell is more mobile than Brady, but tends to hang around in the pocket instead of throwing the ball away. Saints defensive ends Will Smith (32 tackles, 10 sacks, 1 INT) and Charles Grant (30 tackles, 4.5 sacks) didn't get to Brady, but created plenty of pressure to force the three-time Super Bowl champion to make some mistakes. Campbell isn't as cerebral as Brady, so Smith and Grant will have their ears pinned back with hopes of taking him out of his rhythm. Star linebacker Jonathan Vilma (77 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Harper led New Orleans with nine tackles apiece on Monday, while Vilma is second behind Harper in total stops. With Portis and Betts banged up, Saints linebackers Scott Shanle (57 tackles, 2 INT) and Scott Fujita (38 tackles, 1 sack) should have an easier afternoon.
The fantasy options in this matchup between the Saints and Redskins are more lopsided than an elephant and an ant sitting on opposite ends of a see-saw. While the Redskins have few starting options in Cartwright, Devin Thomas, Davis and Moss, New Orleans has a plethora of point-makers. If an owner is desperate for a quarterback, give Campbell a nod since he played well in a rough environment in Philadelphia last week, throwing two touchdown passes and adding a running score.
Brees and anyone who lines up at the line of scrimmage for New Orleans are solid choices for this week. Colston, Henderson, Meachem, Pierre Thomas and a healthy Bush are all wise picks for fantasy owners. Check on Bush's status Sunday morning before inserting him into the lineup, though. Despite the heroics of Sharper this season, the New Orleans defense is a stretch, since the game is on the road in a rough setting. Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey (40 receptions, 3 TD) hasn't scored since Week 6, but is worthy of a starting nod.
There's a lot of uncertainty going on right now in Washington, and Zorn's future is at the center of attention. With New Orleans pegged as the favorite to win Sunday's game and send the Redskins to their third straight loss, the head coach could get a head start on updating his resume'. This won't be a typical New Orleans explosion, with Washington hoping to serve up an upset special. But with guys like Brees, it doesn't matter that the Redskins have won 10 of the past 13 meetings in this series, because the cream usually rises to the top.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 24, Redskins 17
12/03 19:19:56 ET