By Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff
A terrific Monday night match-up is at hand between the 10-0 Saints and 7-3 Patriots. But, despite all the hype, this is actually one of the two games the Patriots could most afford to lose along with the Carolina game, given that they’re against NFC opponents. But the reality for the Patriots is, after the loss to the Colts and with some still tough matchups on the horizon such as in Miami and in Houston, they can’t “afford” to lose any games. They may, but each one risks the coveted bye and #2 seed position once the playoffs come. So, they do in fact “need” this game and it would probably do a lot for the team’s confidence to get it as this will be the toughest opponent they’ll see the rest of this regular season.
For the Saints, they pretty much have the division sewn up. But home field advantage throughout the playoffs is still in question and they lack a “signature” win that could come at the expense of the still-feared Patriots. The Saints offense is as good as advertised and as good as the Patriots have seen in the Bill Belichick years. The Saints defense, while decent, is really pretty much middle-of-the-pack. The task for both teams, just slow down the opponent’s offense a bit and outscore them. While usually what is popularly thought to occur in NFL games never comes to pass when they actually get between the lines, this may be one time it lives up to the expectations. With these two offenses, expect a shootout and a lot of scoring and fun Monday night.
Brees is in the conversation with the Patriots’ Tom Brady and Colts’ Peyton Manning as the best quarterback in the NFL. Originally a second round choice of the San Diego Chargers, Brees has really developed into a top talent. Now 30 years old, there were questions about Brees’ size when he came into the NFL as he stands only 6 feet tall and isn’t the biggest guy in the world physically either. While in college Brees brought Purdue to their first Rose Bowl in 2001 in over three decades. Now with the Saints, Brees is leading the franchise to heights they’ve never known before including the 2006 NFC Championship Game and now a 10-0 record here in 2009. He has an excellent 22 to 9 TD/INT ratio and is very good moving around the pocket and throws well on the run. Brees owns a 2-0 record in his career as a starter against the Patriots and Bill Belichick, having beaten them with the Chargers back in 2002 and 2005. Still, despite his success against the Patriots this year will be only the third year in his eight years as a starting quarterback he’ll lead a team to the post-season. His career post-season record so far is 1-2.
RBs Reggie Bush (#25) Pierre Thomas (#23) and Mike Bell (#21):
Once upon a time, Bush was one of the most explosive, electrifying and dangerous (to defenses) player to ever sprint across the college football landscape. Now he is part of the Saints triumvirate of running backs they trot out, each with different skills, strengths and weaknesses. Bush can still be a breakaway threat and is a very, very good pass catcher but the fact is he is not an every down back, has averaged a pedestrian 3.9 per carry for his career (though 5.0 this year) and is not quite as explosive as he used to be after major knee injury. He is more like the Saints version of Kevin Faulk and gets about 10 touches per game. Here is one thing to keep an eye on, Bush will put the ball on the ground with 16 fumbles in his career and more than 1 every 50 times he touches it.
Pierre Thomas may be the best of the three backs. He went undrafted out of Illinois, that was a serious oversight. The truth is Thomas was a NFL talent in college but for whatever reason always rotated early in his career with other backs who were good college backs, but not the talent Thomas was. His senior year Rashard Mendenhall, now with the Steelers, took carries from him. There was some thought he could play fullback when he came into the league, but he is slimmed down and showing very good elusiveness as a tailback these days. Thomas is averaging an electric 5.6 per carry and leads the Saints in rushing. He is the best all-around back on the team as he can do a little of everything, run wide, run inside with power, get out in space and even catch some passes.
Mike Bell is probably the most powerful back of the three and the best pure inside runner. Like Thomas, Bell went undrafted but has proven to be a very productive NFL player. Bell runs with good power and you’ll see him in short yardage and also he is good at killing the clock when the Saints have the lead, which they have had a lot this year. He isn’t much of a pass catcher, with only 2 on the season, but the Saints don’t really call on him to do that. Bell may be a bit of a fumbler as well with 4 in 320 career touches or once every 80 touches or so.
WR Marques Colston (#12):
Colston was an absolute steal of a 7th round draft choice in 2006 and Patriots fans are about to discover how good this guy really is. He is somewhat similar to Randy Moss in that, while probably not quite as fast, he is big at 6’4″ 225 lbs. and presents huge match up problems for most cornerbacks in the NFL. He is simply tall enough to snatch balls thrown high and has good leaping ability and he is strong enough to physically shield off defenders and get to balls that way. He has fantastic hands as well. Given the other speed receivers and excellent tight ends the Saints have, its difficult to just focus on Colston and that is going to make dealing with him a very tall chore for the Patriots on Monday.
DE Will Smith (#91):
Smith is an underrated defensive end with 45 sacks in his 6 NFL seasons and 8.5 so far this year. He faced the Patriots once before in 2005 and had a sack and a half as well as a forced fumble in a 24-17 Saints loss in Foxboro. The Patriots generally do a good job on good pass rushers, but Smith is definitely a player they’ll have to account for and who shows up in both the passing and running game. He plays with emotion as well and fires up his teammates.
CB Randall Gay (#20):
Patriots fans will remember Gay as the undrafted free agent who ended up starting as a rookie in 2004, including in a winning Super Bowl effort. Two injury plagued years were followed up with a solid campaign for the Pats in 2007 that ultimately landed Gay in the Super Bowl again. He left following that season for the mega-contract he is now playing with for the Saints. A Louisiana native and LSU grad who won a National Championship there is playing at home and playing well now for the undefeated Saints. Last year he started 13 of the 14 games he played for the Saints, but this year he has only started 3 of the 10 Saints game, though he has started the last two. Gay is a solid player who can be beat and occasionally is, but also makes some plays, is solid against the run and is a good overall player. As the Patriots well know.
Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams:
One of the more encouraging aspects of this game that suggests the Patriots could win this game is Williams. Beyond the mediocre statistical ranking in both yards allowed and points allowed, the Saints defense is coordinated by Williams, a coach the Patriots often have dominated over the years. When he was head coach of the Buffalo Bills between 2001 and 2003, the Patriots went 5-1 against him. When he moved on to coordinate the Washington Redskins defense, the Patriots lit him up and his defense for 52 points in 2007 and it was lucky the number was that low. They have gone 6-1 against his defenses during the Bill Belichick era averaging more than 30 points per game in their victories. Given that the Saints only have an average defense anyway this year and given the proficiency of the Patriots offense overall and particularly against Williams in the past, it seems reasonable to conclude the Patriots will score somewhere in the mid-30’s to low 40’s in this game and if they can slow down the Saints offense at all, they’ll win.