The opening act to Week 1's "Monday Night Football" doubleheader features a pair of division champions from last season facing off with the Houston Texans coming to the Big Easy to take on the New Orleans Saints.
The Texans took the AFC South with an 11-5 record. They finished a game ahead of division rival Indianapolis and hosted the Colts in the Wild Card Round. Indianapolis got the last laugh, as the visitors jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter and went on to win 21-7.
The Saints enter this season with one unequivocal goal: the Super Bowl. The bitterness of the suspicious no-call of pass interference against the Rams in the eventual NFC Championship Game loss lingered for months. Most of the components from last season's squad have come back with the determination to go all the way. Is it an omen that Super Bowl LIV will be played at the same site (Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida) of the Saints' only Super Bowl victory?
Houston at New Orleans
Kickoff: Monday, Sept. 9 at 7:10 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Saints offense thrive without Mark Ingram?
After spending the first eight years of his NFL career in New Orleans, Ingram left for Baltimore in free agency. Last season, he had the second-most rushing yards (645) and rushing touchdowns (six) for the Saints. From 2014 -17, he led the team in both categories.
The first four games of last season provide a possible glimpse of how this offense might look without Ingram. In the first two games, the Saints managed only 43 and 62 yards on the ground. They were held under 65 rushing yards in just two other games after he returned in Week 5. For the season, New Orleans averaged 126.6 rushing yards per game, which was seventh in the NFL.
Scoring-wise, the Saints had three rushing touchdowns in their first four games. Ingram alone had two in his first game (Week 5) after serving the suspension. He will not be easily replaced but head coach Sean Payton still has Alvin Kamara as his top backfield option and the team signed former Vikings Latavius Murray in free agency.
Murray has averaged 4.1 yards per carry in his five NFL seasons and also has been effective as a receiver out of the backfield (128 career receptions, 6.9 ypr) as both a Viking (2017-18) and Raider (2014-16).
2. How much will the loss of Lamar Miller hurt the Texans' running attack?
Miller's 2019 season ended before it started as he tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee in the team's third preseason game. Miller's absence leaves a void in Houston's backfield. He led the team in both carries (210) and rushing yards (973) last season, and tied quarterback Deshaun Watson for the most rushing touchdowns (five). He also added 25 receptions for 163 yards and another score.
With Miller sidelined and backup Alfred Blue now in Jacksonville, the Texans' backfield will look completely different this season. There are five running backs on the active roster. Three of them — Taiwan Jones, Buddy Howell and Cullen Gillaspia (listed as a FB on roster) — did not record any offensive statistics in the NFL last season. The top two guys atop the depth chart are also newcomers.
Carlos Hyde, playing for his fourth different team in three seasons, accumulated 571 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 172 carries last week. Houston acquired him via a trade with Kansas City when final roster cuts were being made over Labor Day weekend. This was after the team got Duke Johnson in a trade with Cleveland on Aug. 9. Johnson is known more his pass-catching ability (47 rec., 429 yds., 3 TDs in 2018), but he has averaged 4.3 yards per carry over his four-year career.
How the carries will be distributed between Hyde and Johnson (and others) remains to be seen, but the Texans may be catching a break in that New Orleans might not have the same suffocating rushing defense it fielded last season. The Saints were missing multiple members of their front seven during mid-week practices.
Four linebackers (William Compton, Matthew Dayes, Colton Jumper and Josh Martin) have already been placed on injured reserve. Alex Anzalone and Craig Robertson, both of whom saw action in all 16 regular-season games in 2018, were limited in practices. Defensive end Mario Edwards sat out some practice sessions. Most of these guys were all part of the unit that gave up 80.2 rushing yards per game last season, second only to the Bears (80.0) in that department.
3. How will the new arrivals on defense in Houston be able to contribute in this game?
The offensive backfield will not have the only fresh faces for Houston. Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin have the unenviable duty of picking up the defensive slack left by the trade of Jadeveon Clowney to Seattle. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil is Watson's new blindside protector after coming over from Miami. Can these players, who are still getting used to their new surroundings, teammates and playbooks, fit effectively in the Texans' game plans?
Houston is a decided underdog for logical reasons. The Texans will have several newly acquired players on the field. They will be missing their leading rusher from last season and a guy who contributed nine sacks. Houston has lost three of its four most recent season openers, including two that were at home. Heading into a notoriously raucous venue, in prime time, and filled with fans still smoldering from how the 2018 season ended for their team, that looks like a recipe for an ambush.
The Saints have stumbled out of the gate the past five seasons. They have dropped their season opener every year since 2014. They have lost their first home game in each of the last four seasons. In 2014 and '17, they started 0-2. In 2015 and '16, they lost their first three games. Can they break that string of struggles to start the campaign with a victory? It seems like this season, the Saints will start with a definitive bang.
Prediction: Saints 37, Texans 17
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.