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NFL Preview - New Orleans (10-3) at Baltimore (9-4)



By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - While the New Orleans Saints' offense is rounding into the form that made the team Super Bowl champions a season ago, the Baltimore Ravens are just happy to have walked away with a win last time out despite blowing another fourth-quarter lead.

New Orleans and Baltimore, a pair of second-place teams facing one-game deficits in the standings over their respective divisions coming down the stretch, now try to move closer to a playoff spot this Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

The 10-3 Saints carry a six-game winning streak into this contest and are one game back of the first-place Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South. The Ravens, at 9-4, trail the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers by a game as well and have won three of four and five of their last seven outings.

Both clubs face multiple scenarios this weekend in which they can clinch a playoff spot.

For New Orleans, there are three ways it can punch its ticket to the postseason, and all three involve a victory and a Tampa Bay Buccaneers loss or tie. If those two results become true, the Saints then need a loss or tie by the New York Giants, the Chicago Bears or the Green Bay Packers.

Baltimore, meanwhile, will be scoreboard-watching Sunday's Indianapolis- Jacksonville matchup, as the Ravens need to win and the Colts to lose or tie. If that happens, the Ravens are in if the Miami Dolphins lose or tie and the Kansas City Chiefs suffered a defeat as well.

The Ravens also could have gotten in with just a Colts loss or tie if the Chargers had lost or tied the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday, but San Diego posted a convincing victory in that one.

Of bigger concern for Baltimore is the current state of the New Orleans offense, as the Saints have put up at least 30 points in five straight games. New Orleans led the NFL in scoring last season and is ranked sixth this year with an average of 25.4 points per game.

The Saints got three touchdown passes from quarterback Drew Brees in last Sunday's 31-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams. Two of those went to wide receiver Marques Colston, while cornerback Malcolm Jenkins notched a pair of interceptions, one he took back 96 yards for a touchdown right before the half for a 21-6 advantage.

"We'd like to keep that going. It was a matter of getting into a rhythm lately," said Brees. "We had those injuries early on. We're just trying to get guys in and for everybody to find their role. When you look at our tight end group and our four wide receivers and our stable of running backs, we can just do a lot with our personnel groupings."

After getting running back Reggie Bush back from a leg injury on Thanksgiving, fellow back Pierre Thomas returned from a nine-game absence due to a sprained left ankle on Sunday.

New Orleans is playing its next two on the road and will next visit Atlanta for a big Monday night showdown in Week 16.

The Saints will first try to solve a Ravens club that has won eight of its last nine at home and is coming off a thrilling 34-28 overtime victory at Houston on Monday night.

After blowing leads of 21-0 and 28-7 and allowing the game-tying score and two- point conversion with 21 seconds left in regulation, Baltimore cornerback Josh Wilson picked off a pass in overtime and raced 12 yards for the winning score.

It was a sigh of relief for the Ravens, who have blown fourth-quarter leads in all four of their setbacks this season, including a 13-10 defeat to the Steelers two weekends ago.

"I think finding a way to win in overtime is big for us," said Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh. "We haven't done that at times. This football team has lost a lot of close games by some crazy situations."

Ravens rookie receiver David Reed set a club record when he took the opening kickoff of the second half 103 yards for a score versus the Texans.

SERIES HISTORY

The Ravens are 3-1 all-time against the Saints, including a 35-22 win when the teams last met, at the Louisiana Superdome in 2006. New Orleans won the previous meeting, a 37-25 affair in Baltimore in 2002. The Ravens scored home wins over the Saints in 1996 and 1999.

New Orleans head coach Sean Payton is 0-1 in his career against the Ravens, while Harbaugh will be meeting both Payton and the Saints for the first time as a head man.

WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL

The Saints are rolling on offense, and both Brees and Colston have been at the front of the surge. Brees (3855 passing yards, 28 TD, 18 INT), who also connected with wide receiver Lance Moore for a touchdown pass last Sunday, has 14 scoring throws over his club's current win streak and is just 145 passing yards shy of joining the Colts' Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks in league history with five straight 4,000-yard seasons. Leading receiver Colston (76 receptions, 921 yards, 7 TD), meanwhile, went his first six games without a touchdown catch, but has five over his last four games. Colston, Moore (54 receptions, 7 TD) and Bush all had five receptions versus the Rams, while Thomas made four catches and had a club-high 12 rushes for 39 yards. New Orleans, which ranks just 22nd in rushing at 101.1 yards per game, also got 39 yards on nine carries from Bush and a team-leading 47 yards on seven carries by Chris Ivory (683 rushing yards, 5 TD), who leads all NFL rookies in rushing yards.

The Ravens rank fourth in the league in points (17.6) and 10th in yards allowed per game (319.8), but struggled against Houston's passing attack on Monday. The Texans' Matt Schaub, who had to attempt 62 passes due to his team's big hole, completed three touchdown strikes while getting picked off twice. Cornerback Chris Carr (49 tackles, 2 INT) had the other pick for Baltimore, while Wilson (37 tackles, 3 INT) and safety Dawan Landry (88 tackles, 1 sack) led the way with seven tackles each. Defensive end Cory Redding (31 tackles, 3 sacks) and linebacker Terrell Suggs (59 tackles, 10 sacks) each had a sack against Houston, with Suggs moving to within two sacks of his career high set during his 2003 rookie season. One great matchup to watch will be Brees against Ravens linebacker and defensive leader Ray Lewis (117 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT), who has two interceptions in three career games versus New Orleans. Landry, meanwhile, had a career-high two interceptions when the Ravens last battled the Saints, including a 12-yard pick-six.

WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL

The Ravens, who are averaging 22.6 points per game, exploded for 21 points in the first half on Monday. After running back Willis McGahee (288 rushing yards, 5 TD) pounded in a one-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter, quarterback Joe Flacco (3223 passing yards, 21 TD, 8 INT) completed a pair of touchdown passes to Derrick Mason, including a 26-yarder with under two minutes to play in the half. Flacco completed 22 of his 33 pass attempts for 235 yards and shook off getting sacked five times, upping his season total to 32 that's just four off his career high. Mason (53 receptions, 6 TD), meanwhile, ended with six catches for 78 yards and became the seventh player in league history to notch at least 50 receptions in 11 straight seasons. Fellow wideout Anquan Boldin (59 receptions, 7 TD) added three catches in the win. Though it was McGahee who found the end zone, running back Ray Rice (898 rushing yards, 57 receptions, 3 TD) needs to be watched at all times. The versatile back had 19 carries for just 54 yards on Monday, but led the club with eight catches for another 66 yards. Tight end Todd Heap (37 receptions, 5 TD) did not play versus the Texans due to pulled hamstring and is questionable to return this week.

While the Saints' offense gets most of the spotlight, the defense has been holding up its end of the bargain as well. New Orleans ranks fifth in scoring (18.5 ppg) defense and sixth in total defense (308.6 ypg), and Jenkins' long pick-six showed flashes of last year's unit that was so good at converting turnovers into points. Pressure was key versus Rams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford a week ago, as New Orleans got three sacks and also forced a fumble from St. Louis running back Steven Jackson that was recovered by cornerback Jabari Greer (53 tackles, 2 INT). Linebacker Jonathan Vilma (88 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT) led the way with eight tackles and safety Roman Harper (81 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) added seven. Both also finished with a sack, as did defensive end Jeff Charleston (22 tackles, 2 sacks). Second-year pro Jenkins (59 tackles, 1 sack) recorded his first two picks of the season, moving into a tie with Greer for the team lead. New Orleans' secondary will need to keep its eye on Rice, and outside linebackers Scott Shanle (65 tackles) and Danny Clark (46 tackles) may need to prevent the Baltimore back from breaking a big one off the corners.

FANTASY FOCUS

While the Saints' offense is on fire, only Brees and Colston are really must- starts because the ball is spread out so much. Bush is probably the running back with the biggest upside because he is involved in the passing game, but Moore and wide receivers Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson are all risks due to being inconsistent targets. The Saints' defense is a middle-of-the-road option and kicker Garrett Hartley should draw his fair share of chances to put up points.

For the Ravens, make sure Rice is in your lineup, as he should have a big game against the Saints' defense. Of course, there is the risk that McGahee steals the touchdowns in close, but Rice's PPR value is too big to ignore. Mason has been Flacco's main target as of late, making the talented Boldin a risk. The defense may struggle in this one.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Both the Saints and Ravens need a victory this week to avoid falling behind in their respective division races with the regular season winding down. Both should be highly motivated and Baltimore will get a slight boost from playing at home. However, the Ravens have already struggled against one talented pass attack and now must deal with the rolling Saints. Like Schaub was last week, Brees might just be too much for the Ravens defense to handle.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 27, Ravens 20

12/17 11:06:11 ET

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